. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Don’t Ask (Combover 4)

“Why do you keep washing his face, he’s not dirty, he’s hungry.”


What appears to be a daughter flings this dirt at what appears to be her mother, and for the millionth time, it sounds like: but it’s an empirical question, a queer question, I say to myself, what the relation actually is. It’s as though their sheer look-alikeness established the right to bicker mercilessly and in public–in this case, the airport gate waiting area. There’s a tenderness in all of it, too, though, and pride in ownership, with a worn-out kindness that the company perhaps shouldn’t have registered seeing. But I looked up. The older than me woman, thick with cake makeup so maybe not, tilts toward me and says, “Why do I do things like that? You should write about people like me,” and I said, “What would you want people to know?” and the younger woman says, deeply, “Don’t ask!” and we all laugh because Don’t Ask is always tragicomic.

Don’t Ask echoes Katie Stewart’s anecdote about someone saying I could write a book. “People are always saying to me “I could write a book,” she writes:

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Crossover/Combover: A performance piece (Approach 3: from ASA 2010)

(This is a very lightly revised version of the paper I tried to deliver at the American Studies Association conference as a performance piece that also riffed on the talks just given around me:  a complete failure as a performance.  Chronologically it was written after the previous two combover pieces were written, and so represents a development of the idea I’ve been serializing here.)

Amitava [Kumar] originally called this panel “The Message Chain.” Its idea was to ask some scholars who see themselves as writers, how, for them, a particular space becomes a “locale” for writing, an event that requires not just attention and consideration but a decision to write outside of the usual academic idiom or medium. This was to be a panel about crossing over, not into death, but toward a bigger life for writing. A spatial impact becomes-event in this view when it induces a communicative actionwriting, teaching, and performing–you know, the kinds of things that our careers are made from, although few of us would admit to having the career as our ambition. But that is because ambition is one of the obscene affects of capitalist culture. It’s hard not to think about it, though, when someone asks you to talk about “crossover” writing: when you’re crossing over it’s because your ambition isn’t hiding in a repetition but in sincerity, in the desire to do something for an audience whose relation to reading is unprofessional or outside of the norms our professions perform.

It would not be too strong to say that the capitalist subject is distinguished by its education in judging ambition.

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Combover (Approach 2)

Us living as we do, upside down…

Another try: I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet).  Sometimes the difficulty of managing this lability produces the self-image of an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy. The latter is best exemplified by the iconic image of the combover subject. The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the need for ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions as though it were in fact a solid structure. Even a philosophical skeptic like Cavell, at home with the failure of language to be adequate to its situation and its desire, finds satisfaction in style; and even a depressive realist like me, who sees her failure to be idealizable as confirmation of her good sense, takes comfort in encountering a version of herself that will not be delighted by surprise but by being the recognizable thing she has come to trust.

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Combover (Approach 1)

I sat in at another conference recently, hearing lots of promising work, including a paper by Leo Bersani called “Illegitimacy” that pursues his current project, to understand what the Cartesian attempt to elevate thought over bodies, attachments, appetites, and sociality itself has wrought and what new social relations might be developed alternatively and in proximity to it. He has three models on offer these days for not reproducing the kinds of compensatory fantasy that allow one to feel autonomous, adequate to oneself, and separate/superior to the [enigmatic] other: one, a radically negative abandonment of the normative world, a project of becoming unnamable, illegitimate, and nonviable (he associates this with Edelman’s No Future); two, a sweet Bollasian affective sociality that focuses on effecting attachment in a way that does not require a full revelation of being; three, the Socratic model of impersonal narcissism that Bersani developed from Homos to Intimacies, involving the lover’s loving not just his own likeness seen in the lover (the Greek anteros  or “backlove”) but also loving in the beloved a virtual form of universal individuation that at once gives the lover narcissistic satisfaction but also, motivated by love, induces the lover to foster the beloved’s becoming more like himself.

These three models for sidestepping the bubble of ego inflation do not cohere:  they invoke different models of an alternative formalism that might be found in relationality. But all of them counter in specific ways what Leo calls normative personhood’s murderous drives to eliminate alterity.  In a fine theorist, non-coherence is never a failure, but an expression of an experimentality I love: the feeling out of a problem in real time, even in the mode of a propositional definiteness, is what makes theory intimate, when it is. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve called such liveness to the whole body work of conceptual transformation the “pincers movement”:  one theory-driven claw forward, another claw lagging, such that movement keeps happening across a field made from scratches that don’t add up quite to an even plane. 

But being me, I would foreground non-coherence as a principle of being rather than a cumulative effect of serial finitude:  I never thought that the subject ought to be seen as in one state.

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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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After Eve, in honor of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

On February 25, 2010, a small symposium gathered at Duke University to honor Eve Sedgwick.  There were four formal speakers—me, Tyler Curtain, Maurice Wallace, and Robyn Wiegman—and then many other testifiers and memorialists.  We were all listeners.  It was a moving and interesting night. As there were no plans by the event sponsors to publish the talks, the participants thought they’d like some record of their part in it to be part of a publicly held history not only of Eve, but of many overlapping affectional and discourse worlds.  We decided to publish them here and put out the word.  After the jump, After Eve…

after eve

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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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My posts take forever to write, because they are trying to–my fingers want to type “to survive a genre,” but I meant to say “to invent one,” and that says it all about where I live. But the long duration also comes from the ways that a “post” is a mnemonic genre of its own, a recording of an instance in the pursuit of a problem. What would I need to understand to shift around this thing? Post-making enables me to track a point in my response to x, and how I thought to maintain fidelity to the pressure it incites. I am grateful to my readers for their bibliography and apercus, too: it might not seem that I’m responding sometimes, but it takes awhile to reorganize myself around a new complex thought.

My encounter with problems and the scene of writing provokes sometimes a zone of scarily quiet being in the world. But there is always a soundtrack–at the moment some loud person in a cafe who believes that her addressee is all that exists and to whom the rest of us are apparently failed trompe-l’oeil. (“I’m on a water and ice diet,” she told her friend, who’d dared to put milk in her coffee.) Today also, Pierre Boulez; Fred Anderson; and the new screechy P. J. Harvey collaboration. Also, this phrase cluster: I almost got out, I can’t believe I got out; I’m not sure whether I was trying to get in or get out. Amidst all of this Continue reading

Unworlding II

The rain was still torrential when I left the library to make my way to  the far northwest side of Chicago:  through the windscreen the traffic was in a slow chaos, cars shuddering from the beating wind and barely moving forward, the flooding streets outlining once again the urban infrastructure crumbling in real time. Potholes, puddles, and spray pounced out into sight as if the out there were a video game full of menacing threats to survival and not also ordinary life.

In the middle of all that a well-placed Shell station on Hollywood was processing a lot of traffic.  In the back right hand corner of the pumping area, though, a man stood just watching the cars. His gray and white cardigan and black cargo pants were becoming just dark with rain. He was tall, no longer young.  He seemed to have no relation to a car or the cars or to becoming soaked.  He was standing there just looking without watching.  It was easier to suss out what wasn’t happening than what was. I wanted to get out of the car and ask him something but couldn’t figure out the mechanics. Or the ethics.

Then things cleared up and moved on and so did the hard day of wondering about those scenarios of the ordinary that are predictable by now and yet feel immoveable too because their accumulation–as data, as exempla, as anecdote–does not lead to clarity, let alone transformation via something made live when the phenomenon turns trope. Continue reading