. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Do You Intend to Die? (I)

Oh oh oh oh oh.

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It’s time for financial crisis suicide watch, motivated for me neither by schadenfreude nor easy (narcissistic or empathic) identification. Nor is it a return of the pathological public sphere in which the public measures itself as life against traumas too proximate to block. It’s about punctuating crisis time and the leakage of the recent past and near future into an elongated present in which people lose confidence, and become very quiet waiting to see how things turn out next, and next, and next.  People wander around in a heightened attentiveness to what’s out of control, gathering up happenings and seeing how they unfold, how to adjust. These dramas of adjustment, well, I’m enacting one now, aren’t I?

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It is hard to appreciate the dead.  I obsessed over the short obituaries for the 9-11 dead, even though my eyes kept draining down the page as I tried to focus and remember something. I may teach them next year: the students will end with them, and begin the course reading their ancestor, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  No book in history is read less well than The KeyThe Key is unbearable.

You begin quickly to want Stowe to shut up and stop moralizing. The Key is a defensive book, which explains some of its difficulty: because white people didn’t believe Stowe about something (that slaves had souls, or that slaves were tortured so systematically and extremely).  So she had to name names, places, times, clothes, houses, streets, smells, signs, sources. Lots of the record was already public, lots word of mouth: but the facts of all white people’s white supremacy could not be taken in by the people who were benefiting from feeling distant from their immediacy.

Ordinary, not very powerful, whites needed defenses against the ethical bleed that happens when they discover that their saturation in the details of the now, the reproduction of life in the present, does not tell the whole story about enjoyment and inequality. People love inequality, really, the perpetuation of privilege by some system over there. Adam Phillips even argues that people on the sour end of inequality are attached to it too, in that they like knowing where they are in a pecking order. Bob Altemeyer makes a similar claim. But few would avow this, because it would make them seem like bad people.

Stowe catalogues the damage to life that few whites honored–slave courage that didn’t produce events that kept producing events, African survival that was a wonder but had not yet added up to interfering with all of the kinds of white profit that slavery generated. Yet when I assign The Key no one remembers a thing that they read. It’s an amnesia machine. Students remember an atmosphere, and they bring their numbness to class.

Why am I talking about this?

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Ich bin, aber ich habe mich nicht

Of course that could be the ghost title of anything anyone writes.

All summer I’ve been failing to finish a post about David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? and Adam Phillips and Leo Bersani’s Intimacies:  I’m finding it hard. There’s a lot to say. This is part one. My focus is on their attempts to imagine sexuality as something other than a reenactment of shame or the death drive; their desires to remind sexuality theorists that realism about sexuality requires more than tracking tragicomic scenes of loss, belatedness, risk, shame, grief, and paranoiac misrecognition.

Bersani writes from psychoanalysis and Halperin writes here against it: but they advance a similar claim, that sexualized attachment is possible precisely because lovers are incoherent. Objects of desire/attachment can only partially be adequate to our needs for them to be perfectly in synch with us, given our out-of-synchness with ourselves, their enigmaticness to themselves, etc. But this does not doom desire or attachment. The very structures mourned as shame/loss are also scenes of vitalized self-extension and animated optimism. The impossibility of sexual self-governance produces affectional, political, and cognitive creativity. Lean on me; feel the stress and release in our mutual propping; now what? These are sweet theories that try to put lipstick on the pig of ambivalence.

Their question is whether we can rehardwire our relation to partiality, to process, and to the brittle contingencies of being with desire; whether we can cultivate a sexual way or attachment style that isn’t organized by the macho-paranoid-aggressive mode that tries to control being sexual, e.g. out of control. Which is to say that Bersani and Halperin are producing accounts of mediation and ideology without really providing an account of how mediation and ideology work:  nonetheless, in engendering a new sexual realism both provide prospects for rehabituating the sensorium.  They offer a different aim for personality, a personality organized by, reliable to, and identified with the delicacy of the process of staying proximate to and working with the objects of desire with which we make the theatre of our self-extension in the world.  Affect, gesture, and episode rule over emotion, melodrama, and narrative.

To summarize, briefly: Bersani works toward a transvaluation of narcissism

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On Potentiality, #1

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

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Looking for Mr. (W)Right

Column 2 in a series; see below.

This is how love starts: a crush. Your body intensifies, gaining and losing confidence in the presence of a person, an image, an idea, or a thing: in a crush, you have a feeling that you feel compelled to keep having. The pressure disorganizes you, opens you up to reverie, anxiety, defense, risk. You are forced into frenzies of adjustment; you feel tilted forward. Sometimes that’s enough: being mentally with your crush is all you want. Sometimes you try to repeat being near the thing that stimulates the intensities. Later, you notice the collateral damage: what you have had to put up with to have that feeling. Sometimes it’s too much, sometimes it’s not that hard to endure. What’s really hard to endure, though, is facing up to ambivalence.

In love plots and politics, popular culture has a terrible track record dealing with ambivalence. This is another thing the Jeremiah Wright story reveals. The media focuses on the negative side: aversion, disappointment. It doesn’t focus on the pull: this part of the person is great, the other not so much. It’s as though it’s idealization or nothing. Politics becomes chick flick. Ambivalence, then, is seen as evidence of failure, not as what it is: evidence of desire, attachment, longing, not just for a better world but for assurance that it’s worth staying attached to the political itself. The simple crush on having that feeling again translates politically into wanting to re-experience the feeling that made you optimistic.

Grant Farred calls this “fidelity to the political”; Antonio Gramsci called it “optimism of the will.” To give up caring, after all, is to stop resisting what’s clearly outrageous, unjust, not fair, wrong. It’s giving in to political depression. To stay close to that desire, though, one might shift to a softer optimism–I think that’s the usual thing. Just as people close their eyes when they kiss, so too there’s an impulse to close one’s eyes during the political season just to protect their optimism for a less bad politics, maybe even a good politics, enabling the chance for change that would be fundamental yet not traumatic. Change without loss; revolution without risk. We know better, because in any desire, political or otherwise, there’s always risk and the possibility of loss (of comfort, privilege, or knowing how to live). The fantasy of change that would produce flourishing without loss is a deep logic of the crush that can turn into love.

I’m writing this now for obvious reasons. In this season the cynic and the critic provide choruses of shame against my nervous system’s interest in caring about what happens in the political, in wanting something from it. Whenever Hillary Clinton opens her mouth sarcastically to demean political hope I am filled with rage, and my mouth spills out excessively with expletives. Without a desire for the political there is no democracy.

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Other people’s optimism
May 6, 2008, 4:19 pm
Filed under: affect, Belonging, emotion, Love, Ordinariness, Politics, writing | Tags: , , , ,

(Column 1 in a series; the Long version; experiment in political journalism; see “Credibility and Incredibility” below)

Sometime in fading recent memory, it seems that we were debating about “hope.” Has hope’s moment passed? How did the Yes We Can moment come to feel so long ago, a shadow second before all the bowling and cake and bitterness? Can you even remember the beginning of this sentence? If you’re thinking, as you read this, “Oh, “Yes We Can” was so February!” that’s because political time moves with the rising and falling intensities of scandal and speculation.

But it’s also because other people’s optimism is so often felt as a threat. Optimism? I’m serious. Get me out of here! We are taught to respect our own pain, and to respond compassionately to that of others. We have a word for taking pleasure in other people’s pain: schadenfreude. But there’s no word for the anxiety that arises from other people’s optimism.

Why is that? Did Hillary Clinton’s deflationary anti-aesthetics–as in Mario Cuomo’s “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”–burst the hope bubble? (Apparently not.) Was her disrespect for the mereness of “just words” actually effective in its dismissal of desire for the political? Did the skies open up not with hope, but with shame? Was it an accident that the appearance of organized collective inspiration suddenly got widely equated with the threat of fascism and the shallowness of rock star celebrity?

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