. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Under My Thumb (Passivity 3)

You find yourself untethered.  Your lover/children have just left and you’re alone.  Your pet/partner has died.  School is over.  You’re on vacation. You’re wandering around streets, a mall, your flat.  You are trying to stay awake in a cafe. You are in the limo on the way to the airport in a strange city. The calories you eat are absentminded, yet there’s a faint arousal or hunger.

Under my thumb
Her eyes are just kept to herself

Your head is staging a conversation with someone who has insulted you. You’re saying that you don’t care.  In your head your voice is smooth and warm.  In the fantasy the insulter is moved that you act as though they still deserve attachment, engagement, and idealizaton, and you do love x about them, so it is not false, but the extra kick you receive in seeming not to let the insult get to you makes the fact of it inflate into something impressive, like courage. Then you listen to the stream of self-policing that accompanies you on your walk, and you imagine confessing, look, I finally have a secret to confess!

My mind flashes to my father as these scenarios collect. I think of my colleague who recites the emails in which she was told that she has no right, no standing to critique what her male colleague loves. I think of another colleague’s monologue about how women who don’t have SHIT can still at least beat men with arguments, and I thank god that I don’t leak out my wishes as facts. But here I am, humbled. Anger induces us all to write in whatever idiom we can pick off.

I am continuing here the discussion of passivity’s promiscuity of form introduced in the last few posts.

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“We are starving, how about a potato?” (Passivity 2)

The number of things you can not pay attention to now is diminishing. Pluming beneath the visible water draws out attention the way an earthquake makes the ordinary sway not just before your eyes but in the surround, ungrounding and expanding the senses.  The sheer increase in accurate metaphors for marking disintegration is one way to track it: the sticky surface of the metaphor-that-works helps to keep in focus the expanding archive of the splintered, the broken, the frayed and the fraying stressed out structure of involvement. Language can hold things loosely clustered together in a kind of technical way and one can navigate the present by playing pick-up-sticks with the accumulated phrases.

First, the surging number of  natural disasters and atmospheric tendencies induced the sense that the weather, after all, might be industry’s fault: and this problem looked like it had a remedy, too, if only the stentorian paralysis of the political world would be interrupted by a rush of sovereign courage; or if only the administrative branch could sneakily make regulations according to a realism that it’s difficult for lawmakers to admit in its revelation of how bad the lived real had been allowed to get.

Then the crumbling physical infrastructure of the built environment from Bhopal and Chernoble and Three Mile Island seemed linked to the massive proliferation of potholes, sinkholes, train wrecks, exploding pipes, and collapsing bridges across the industrial world. In these the present became increasingly apparent in the serial shock of always yet one more crisis of a connectivity dream so extensively realized that its upkeep seemed unnecessary and could, in any case, be deferred.  After the era of expanding public works, the public infrastructures came affectively to resemble  bodies whose health seemed solid and could be taken for granted. You know the internal monologue: I was healthy until I got sick, my mouth was fine until I awoke with that toothache, if only there had been a convincing sign, I would have dodged x disaster–but no, I had the bad luck not to have things go my way, and it’s my own damn fault, but really, things don’t always happen, and worrying about this thing too was just too much on top of everything else.

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A Teaching (II)

1.  I have been teaching this term two courses that I meant to be identical but at different levels of intensity and abstraction, but my intentions (I typed intensions, which is more correct, since my intentions have stretched) (and I told my students that there are no asides in the classroom) (which is the same thing as saying there is no no in the unconscious) have little to do with what has happened, absolute divergence. As I described in the last post, teaching classes is for me like writing: if, in advance, I overprepare, then become blank and excited before I set out the prospective shape of things, and if, during the time of extension, I find it all absorbing and difficult, and if, afterwards, I can’t exactly remember what happened, not even the affect, and if I have to excavate the encounter as though it involves material from a therapeutic hour, that’s when I know that something has happened.

2.  John Forrester claims that the analysand can only lie, as all the story she has is noise that fills the space of what she knows but cannot know yet, or bear to know. That is true about teaching, too. It is impossible to know who one is as a teacher. The relation between what one intended and what one did–even if one’s own sense of things were to govern the evaluation of efficacy–can’t be determined solipsistically, not only because we teach other people as singularities and as groups, not only because teaching them is so very different than reaching them, not only because the feedback loops are so varied and out of synch (when they’re not out of commission altogether), but also because the relation between information transmission and all of the other activities within the scene of teaching is mostly unconscious, seat of the pants, in the normative ether, and atmospheric, rather than eventilized. I cannot imagine myself as a student encountering myself as a teacher.
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A Teaching (I)

1.  So many scholars read anxiously, with a hope not to learn, not to be discomposed by learning. They fish in indexes looking for confirmation of not being trumped, they skim the surface hoping that no phrase catches them.  The aversion to an event to which one nonetheless comes–like the vague sadism that Adam Phillips describes as a quality of intellectuals who come to the world hoping once again to be disappointed–is a frustrating part of being in this world.  I am not invulnerable to this, but when I feel it I force myself to interrupt the desire to not have an encounter that is so often part of encountering’s activity. (See Lingis for a read of how this desire to protect an aversion to a potentially transformative encounter can be part of a rhythm of belonging.)

2.  I read for my classes for days, and then make intense notes to provide infrastructures for the session (that become destroyed invariably by an aside or an intervention that creates unexpected folds in thought).  But in the last hours of class prep, my teaching notes appear to me to be writing that came from the middle of a dream.  Toward the shifted explanation of what was I reaching? The work of reattaching to an elaborate pedagogical intention that I had yesterday turns out to be a lot like reentering a transferential relationship after a break.  A friend used to tell me that class prep was rote for him, a skimming over material. Sometimes reading feels like skimming, that Barthesian “abrasion” on the surface of the text.  I tell my students that it takes me decades, sometimes, to enable myself to let in a new thought, to let it reorganize fully the way I encounter a problem.  In the meanwhile, it’s managing being in the overpresence of a problem and yet at the kind of distance to which Primo Levi refers when he describes someone’s gaze at him as the deadly quiet staring of beings looking at each other through the wall of an aquarium.

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You sowed a baby and you reaped a bomb.

I’ve been re-re-re-reading Christopher Bollas’s short essay on moods: it is a complicated thing to take in because of the delicacy with which it calculates what a mood does.

A mood is not a sustained orientation toward the world, but an affective episode: being a curmudgeon is different than being in a curmudgeonly mood.  At the same time, Bollas points out, the concept provokes spatial metaphors. Just as one goes to sleep, one gets into moods; and just as one wakes up and can reflect on sleep, one can get some distance on a mood.  A mood is thereby an affective impasse, a theatre of self-alteration that comes from “within” but with which one does not have to feel entirely identified.  Why am I in such a ______ mood?

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It is pouring with rain here right now.  Outside of the window of my library study thunder and lightning soften and expand the knot of the visible world, which recedes to a background behind the rain’s thick glass.  After awhile the university fades out, the possibility of which fading is one of the privileges of working at a university.

I am trying to write something other than this entry today, but something interferes with my surround of the material. The paper, called “Matter of Flatness,” is an early go at one of the scenes Detachment Theory will address, as it details how to think about non-sovereign personhood in some of its varieties of being unraveled.

The essay in question focuses on the emergence of a flat acting aesthetic among cinematically mediated queers.  It involves articulating flat affect as an effect of some combination of:

bad acting (low production values); casualized emotion; underperformed response; aspirational social belonging through performances of avant-garde detachment (Warhol), Punk-style refusal (Lipstick Traces), Goth nihilism, and bohemian coolness (Gen-X); nineties-style views of dissociation/PTSD; event-related affect management; and the attenuation that comes from living as a subject organized by longing and crisis amidst other scenes of longing and crisis that avail no traction or potential for rest in their normative terms of implicit belonging.

By the end of that list you almost forget the topic:  flatness. The point is that this animated mutedness forces a different approach to apprehending a person and an artwork.  Knowing what it isn’t doesn’t tell you what it is, though.  Gathering up all the forces necessary for explaining the scene right in front of you takes a lot of work, and the scene almost can’t bear the weight of what animates it.  Of course, psychoanalytically speaking, that’s what makes it a scene.

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Do You Intend to Die (III)?

1.  The Campaign Against Living Miserably

Every day digs me deeper into the bumpy surface of this situation. Today, just for fun, I was reading a wonderful Open Democracy post on the women of Greenham Common and then the post turned suddenly from a discussion of women’s emancipated political agency to a discussion of the global suicide epidemic among young men.  The interviewee, an activist called Jane Powell, is now working in Manchester UK with a project called–heartbreakingly, really–“the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).” Sit there with that for a bit.

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Do you intend to die (II)?

1.  I was by myself when I fell, but I wasn’t alone. (Slogan for UK Telecare)

I have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of things, which requires some reporting on concepts, some associative building on them, and an emotional weather report about a case that feels exemplary of this historical moment in the U.S. but whose exemplarity is constituted partly by the form of its enigma.

The problem with writing across different, incommensurate, and oblique archives is striking the right tone of reportage:  dispassionate, passionate, comic-absurd, comic-slapstick, stentorian, melodramatic . . . No tone feels right ethically, which says something about tone itself, which is that it provides an affective epistemology of its own, holding the object just so, so that we can walk around it.  Tone is to voice as atmosphere is to the environment phenomenologists call a world.  In this case, though, to strike the “right” tone would be to risk homogenizing the incommensurate and describing the obscure so well that speculation looks like evidence construction. What follows is speculative, and I am a worm in an apple.

The question was about detaching. We were thinking about the intention to die.  We were thinking about a particular case of the intention to die, that of suicide.  There are other intentions related to risky addictive modes of physically self-undermining behavior that might also be characterized as part of the set of practices associated with intending to die (and writing in these tiny sixteenth notes makes me sound like a David Foster Wallace character, which scares me a little), but I think risky self-medicating behavior is as likely to be evidence of the drive to stay in proximity to life, to feeling, and to being present as it is to being dissociated and leaning toward the ultimate detachment. But one can’t tell from the outside whether a given form of self-interruption moves toward life or its dissipation, for a little perturbation can mount a grand defense: a shift in the tonalities of dissociation can pretend to be a shift from absence or numbness to presence, while being actually a shift between dissociative modes.

My wonderful student Anil told me lots about this before he killed himself a few years ago.  (He was my first adult-life personal encounter with this series.) According to him, his warmth and presence intellectually, pedagogically, and intimately were just as detached as were his depressive recessions from life; according to him, each style of attachment-defense provided pleasure and armor of its own sort.  I think he thought he would go on forever like this, living from a distance that often felt like too-closeness.  But what he had no language for, and what I have some research language for developing now, is why those attachment-defenses might not have kept him in life, despite seeming both enervating and animating.

Here are the keywords:  “affect regulation,” “ego depletion,” and “resiliency.”

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Political Happiness–or Cruel Optimism?

This responds to a slew of emails and links I’ve received warning of left wing stupidity and complacence in the wake of Obama’s election. It revises and summarizes some previous thought in re the political season that I’ve been working through on this blog.  I’m posting it during an interval in the Brussels airport.


Dear Friends, Please do not allow your political optimism about Obama’s election to make you stupid! Here’s how to stay sharp and smart…

If mainstream politics significantly shapes your mood, this week has been a blow to normalcy.  For the moment, Obama is the President of our emotional Infrastructure as well as the economic and physical ones. As a result, if you’re like me, you have been inundated by condescending and vitalizing exhortations not to become naive or stupid where political happiness also is.

This bolus of anxiety expresses the fear that political happiness will lead to a flatlined complacent brain, diminished political judgment, and the revelation of your bad taste. The claim that anxiety makes you smart makes me laugh. But solidaristically, not condescendingly.

We’ve all been in bad love affairs before, where our attachments made us stupid. Once you attach to an object, after all, you become aware that the object isn’t in your control. Suddenly the prospect of having the object and losing the object, of getting more and less than you want from it, rule you. You become aware that the intensity of your attachment is not unconditional, even as you demand unconditional fidelity from the other person. When the pulses that brought you to the person subside you ask, “What did I want when I wanted that?” Then your affect and intelligence shift around, trying to make new sense of things. If the object is a political figure, perhaps you start circulating screeds to your friends, reminding them not to be stupid where there is desire.

But these efforts to manage the anxiety of political attachment and of optimism about it are actually oversimple about how (political) emotion can work. I don’t have the space here to make the long argument. Here’s a bit of it. Attachments are intrinsically optimistic. The event of attachment does not make us stupid but releases a slew of smart but often overwhelming thoughts about how complicated attachment is.

We are ambivalent about what we want, for lots of reasons. Attachment reveals our dependency on something, our need for reciprocity and recognition, and the place of fantasy in managing life. One strategy of managing this is sometimes to pretend that our feelings aren’t mixed. Then when the world disappoints us we can say that we were true while the other was false. Another way to manage this is to claim that we are complex while the other people are disappointing, limited, and deserving of critique and complaint. But presuming a self-interested distinction between complexity and simplicity where attachment is concerned itself performs a fantasy that there are unmixed feelings and that people are ever simple. Even your grandmother wasn’t that simple, trust me. But you knew that. You just wanted someone to be simple so that you could reliably rest in proximity to the scene of the love.

So can we think about political emotion differently, and be less afraid of optimism? The process of managing the ambivalent feelings that come from active political commitment is fundamentally optimistic, and no one needs to be protected against that. Optimism is what keeps you in the scene as it veers between being joyful, stressful, and tedious. Indeed, David Graeber argues that solidarity amounts to a comic commitment to practicing expressing political desire and finding pleasure and sustenance in disagreement, along with all the other political emotions (such as, boredom, aversion, outrage, betrayal). Not that there’s anything wrong with a rigorous fear of one’s own stupidity–after all, fear can be a teacher of sorts. But let’s not equate a sense of happiness with shallowness and emotional darkness with truth and profundity.

Oh yes, about Obama, the neoliberal, gay-marriage compromised, “market guy…” Here’s what makes me politically happy about the event of Obama. He is the first mainstream politician in decades who loves the political process. He does not confuse “Washington” with politics. His organization’s practice of training other organizers demonstrates his commitment to producing skills for political world-building beyond his campaign.

In this way the event of Obama has already massively advanced the skills for democracy in the United States. In other ways he seems committed to constraining and even undermining what that might entail concretely. Protesting and appreciating, though, are some of what we do to maintain the optimism of any attachment. They keep you bound to the (political) scene, to the cognitive and affective difficulties of remaining critically present to desire.