. . . . . . . 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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Credibility and Incredibility

My recent work is about resistance to change, but tracks optimism, I think, because its persistence points to a glitch in the subject’s commitment to repeat that cluster of habits she recognizes as “her” personality. A glitch, as I say in my newest chapter, is an interruption amidst a transition. Ever since that Nation episode (see entry below) I’ve been torn, torn, torn. Do I want to write more like that? I’ve had an offer to do more. So part of my brain has been phrasing whatever I think in the idiom of the memorable, the pithy, and the visceral. I am having terrible polemicist envy.

If I were to do the journalism, I would want to be thinking about recasting what the good life might come to mean in the face of the bad life facing us down, the shocking, ordinary overpresence of violence in and toward bodies politic, and the increasing scarcity of nature-as-resource. I would want to be imagining how to produce a pragmatic world for an imaginary that sustains a better image of social reciprocity, a version of the kinship of care without the xenophobia of so much easily imagined belonging. And to produce a greater attachment to the kind of economic justice that would make the rich poorer, and the poor more secure.

All of that’s not yet in my vernacular skill set, however. Work is always in regress before it’s in progress. But, in that register, I can say something uncynical about political affectivity–that is, about normativity and its others, about how viscera are trained, bodies calibrated, vigilance honed, mixed feelings managed, toward remaining fluid in and making sense of a world that is both crumbling and enduring, full of obstacles and lubricants, as people make ways to live on in it.

I may follow this with versions of two columns that might or might not end up there.

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Against Sexual Scandal

If I were an actual public intellectual, here’s an op-ed I would write. I don’t know actually how to write this kind of thing, it’s more pop-ed than op-ed since it popped out of me when I woke up at 5 this morning. Advice, emendation, commentary are very welcome, and I appreciate it especially if you comment here rather than via email, because then it really is world-building.

Shockingly, a slightly altered version of this post is now up at The Nation. Also, a critical read of it has been posted at Pandagon. I left a response there.

Against Sexual Scandal

Whatever happens to Elliot Spitzer as a result of the revelations about prostitution the force of this story is not, once again, why big men do stupid sexual things, or why Type A’s get tired of being so good and have to become bad just to attain some balance.

The story is also not about how righteous moralists always have a dark secret they’re creating noise to distract us from paying attention to. It is not really, either, a good opportunity for dancing in the streets because one more powerful person has come tumbling down—after all, some powerful people are better than others, and when the person falls from the mighty naughty force of their appetites nothing about power is changed at all, quite the contrary. The law, the family, marriage—exit polls suggest that all of these will be the winner here, after being horribly maligned by a bad man who forgot his oaths to honor them.

Instead, what stories like this really do is to damage the reputation of sex. Whenever there’s a sex scandal, I feel sorry for sex. I felt sorry for sex during the Larry Craig brouhaha last summer. What if he liked being married and procreating and giving anonymous head? What if that was his sexual preference? What if he was not really gay, as he claims, but had sexual desires that seemed incoherent from a normative perspective? Some of the response to Craig was like the response to moralists like Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and now Spitzer—moralists deserve to suffer the same force of negative judgment they wielded on others. Shame on us? Shame on you, ha ha! But lots of the response was sheer homophobia. And all of it was sheer erotophobia.

Erotophobia, fear of sex, tinged toward hatred of sex. Public sexual scandals revel in the hatred of sex. Disgust at the appetites. The strangeness of sex, the ordinary out-of-controlness of sex acts and sex drives that we all experience (if we’re having it). Actually, usually, sex is not a threat to very much. But it feels like a threat to something, which is why so many people stop having it.

So when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I’m doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other “appropriate” drives (to eat, for example). Then there’s one’s fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else’s pleasure, in a way that one doesn’t want.

Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink, or the taxi comes.

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Writing Light

And how hard it is to do. I tried, in the last post, to say something about secrecy.

I don’t even care about secrecy, usually, because the scenario of exposing what’s unjustly censored has always seemed overdramatic to me, a distraction: all communication amounts to a defense, a performance of knowledge management that approximates some parts of reaching out to a thing while bracketing out others; and when information is hoarded to consolidate power, often the fact of the hoarding is overemphasized (Lies and Lying Liars, etc.) relative to the substance that was hoarded in power’s treasury (see etymology in the last post).

Think about the word “disclosure.” In the event of the revelation of the secret it just feels big because it reveals that control over history and the present has already been stolen from you (or the body politic), and thus the revelation delivers a quadruple shock (we discover and are forced to adjust to the news that we have not known a particular thing, nor known how to read the world, after all).

But I’d read an article that had excited me, and I wanted to report on how reading a thing had opened me up to a cluster of associations and bridging energies to do with my older work on the new state realism that embraces coping with terrorist secrecy by copying it and papers I’m going to write this spring countering some traditions of everyday life theorizing about encountering the present. The event of the secret, its meaning and force, is, paradoxically, how it’s shared. That was the animating revelation for me. Continue reading



Secrecy, a Hoard (med.L. secretia, a royal treasury)

Read a great and useful piece on secrecy: Shersow and Michaelson, Is Nothing Secret? Does “secret” in the title mean deliberately to dogwhistle “sacred,” and what does that suggest? Or does it point more to that other great pronouncement of ethical failure, “Have you no shame?”, a near-rhetorical question that accuses someone else of losing moral discipline or withdrawing from a commitment to normative ethical views and acts. Have you no x? You should have x. If this is a rhetorical question, you don’t even deserve to have heard it.

The shamelessness of political antinormativity: terrorism, now, has become defined as a commitment to hoard knowledge from the state of any political views and intentions. For pro-HUAC politicians the shame was secreting communist affiliations and for people like Joseph Welch (who famously accused McCarthy of shamelessness) it was McCarthy’s embodiment of the state’s equation of democratic freedom with citizen transparency. The fear of the citizen’s opacity rubbed up against the ideology of individual sovereignty. Absent somebody’s discipline by a sense of duty, somebody‘s shame was supposed to relax the contradictions, one way or another. I learned the word “dogwhistle” from Amanda Macdonald, by the way. In Australia, it refers to a connotation that’s inexplicit in an utterance but seeks to confirm solidarity with a specific kind of ideologically-defined ear/subject/being/population.

I also learned from the learned essay something I ought to have known, and shame on me. The etymology of privilege is “law of the private”–privus lege–by which we can understand here less the modern sense of privacy (the law legitimating possession of that which can be called personal) than the traditional sense (the law legitimating the sovereignty that derives from ownership). The law of the private, or privilege, points to the sovereign rights of any individual, but historically that individual was the Pope, who had ecclesiastical privilege. But knowing this history puts a new penumbra around accusations of privilege, for now they can be understood as accusations that someone or some institution has asserted a private law that self-benefits or benefits a class. It reminds that the property word title organizes a sense of an actual entitlement.

Secrecy, hoard, trust, title–this reminds me of Aristotle’s always startling revelation of how often the terms of ethical discourse derive from the economic. Maybe that’s why I’m as suspicious of ethical as of capital logics of value: I don’t trust most self-privileged guarantees of good intentionality or the normativity of most forms of reciprocity.

Meanwhile, to secret the loss of your commitment to normative ethics, to not tell the world that you have withdrawn from the normative agreement that x behavior will denote y moral state, practice, or commitment, is to assert a privacy that the state/your interlocutor can’t bear, these days. The body politic is petit objet a, and has to be beaten for it.

It’s one thing when people hoard transparency from each other: usually it is a betrayal of trust to violate the intimate’s promise to be transparent enough. These departures into opacity are inevitable, though, and anyway much secreting of alterity can actually come from motives of care, to protect the big picture of love from malign variations of mood. But that doesn’t mean that exposure will not be an event: it’s always an event to discover the alterity of the lover that was always and will always be there, and is there right now.

But the politics of who gets to secret the secrets–this is what Kim Scheppele wrote about a decade ago, and what Michaelson and Shersow are thinking about. In “The Epistemology of State Emotion” I argued that the state defends its own opacity from accusations of antinomianism by claiming that the terrorist practices of secreted secrecy force the state into mimetic overdrive. Here’s the view of The New York Times.
Michaelson and Shersow’s real aim is to explain secrecy in terms of Derridean-inflected genre theory, and to approach the Constitutional history that made the Patriot Act seem legal. Of course it should have been called the superfluous, supernumerary state secret act, since it legalized already legal suspensions of due process. Bush/Cheney were angry that they had to ask permission to do what they wanted, claiming that speed of execution in an era of rational paranoia is a priority over the boring business of supervision. But perhaps one ought to save the word “supernumerary” for its best phrase partner, “nipple.”

Here’s a bit of what Michaelson and Shersow have to say:

In any case, a secret evidently can—or must—be shared by more than one; and yet, to remain faithful in any sense to its own concept, it cannot be shared by every one. . . . In those cases that are called, in English, “open secrets,” and in French, “les secrets de Polichinelle,” only the sharing of the secret is secret, not the secret itself; and even such sharing remains always suspended just this side of a necessary limit which it may always encounter in, for example, the voice of a child proclaiming an emperor’s nakedness. Are these problems of number and limit (as such phrases and examples seem perhaps to indicate) the source of the faintly comic note that seems to play, as we shall see, around the whole idea of the secret, even in its most serious (and secretive) political form? We will also suggest that this question of the secret is a kind of ghostly double of the question of democracy itself, to which it remains inescapably linked by exigencies at once practical and theoretical. Democracy and the secret pose a sort of double problem whose two sides can be denoted in French by the single phrase plus un (cf. Derrida, Politics 101). How many can share a secret? The secret replies, so to speak: this many, but no more. And how many [End Page 125] can join in a democracy?

This passage calls up Jodi Dean/Zizek’s argument too: that democracy produces an evidentiary crisis. Who has the information that organizes life? The enmeshing of “openness” with democracy, equality and freedom requires suspicion on all sides, and a play between the sovereignty and injustice of kept secrets, open secrets, fetishes of transparency on all sides, and a suspicion that things are never equal, which they aren’t. Intellectuals can fetishize the circulation of knowledge, as though knowing all equals an even playing field. But rather than be cyncial about it, let’s turn to Ranciere’s work, where democracy is a desire and a process of opening and claiming that refuses the norm/law of class privilege, and it’s not the same thing as openness or equality, which is a measure in a moment. Secrecy might be anti-democratic, a treasury or hoard of value, but transparency is a fantasy horizon that does not guarantee or constitute democracy. We know that and yet the impotence of the truth and the seduction of the wish remains, that a sense of openness equals openness of access to power, resources, and indeed privilege, with all the unimpeded mobility of impact its etymology suggests.

Below I’m starting a new genre for riffing, for keeping suggestive connections alive. Interruption is my stylistic ethics: to self-interrupt, to force openings in my own habit of self-tracking and self-regard, to be idiomatically non-monogamous, as you would predict. Adultery, fantasy, philandering, swerve (I read an article today about adultery, where the commentators kept saying “she got her swerve, he got his”).

Side effects: Secrecy may dissolve or engender solidarity, paranoia, and love. Its genre is the stage whisper. Secrecy may induce constant surprise at leakage. Be prepared, ask your doctor. It can perform coercive binding, as when, after information is “shared,” the speaker says, “You mustn’t say a word about this,” as though by listening you had already consented to pretend not to have heard or been changed by the event of the dirt. It may induce pervasive skepticism about the meaning of gifts and of love. It may make one long for stupefied and stupefying defenses against any assurance at all. See extimacy. See also political depression. Unimaginative and thrilling inversions can develop, too, as in: retaliatory acts of openness, disloyalty to that open secret which shields privilege from experiencing its own fragility, compulsive uncaring frankness, or gossip (the sublation of once-hoarded information to pseudo and then actual performative authorlessness). Hearing commentary on you that open with phrases like “people say” may lead to an adrenalin rush, the sensation of being tipped over, and generalized hate or love, depending. People who are cruelly made to discover that they have been out of the loop, discourse fellowship, or sentimental holding chamber of insiderness may go crazy on you: do not open up the treasury while driving a vehicle. Secrecy may cause more hoarding, more secrecy, more informational auto-poesis or lying. It may cause diarrheas of deniability, falsely innocent assertions of not having known, not having been on the inside, and not having had a will to the death of the other from whom x was kept and who could not therefore understand or shape the condition of their lives. Refusals to protect the secrecy of the open secret dissolve the assurance of others, and may create a will to saturate all sensual fields not in kind but with acts of reason or pseudo-openness that really amount to an ungiving turned-away back. Sinthomo-epistemology may induce vomiting. I thought some of this during a meeting at school a few weeks ago. Why bother going to the gym when I’m getting so much exercise rolling my eyes while keeping my face straight? Composure uses up glucose. Writing keeps me from flying off into the air from all that fluttering.



Dissolving into…

My friend Katie wrote me that she was struck by the relation of optimism to humor in this blog. After yesterday I’d say to the humors, as I was steamy, then, with optimism drain–blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, acidic energy generated by my frustrated desire to have a whole thought amidst institutional avalanches of need, demand, passive aggression, aggression, and obligation. Some things just won’t just flake away through inattention.

But mainly, I was so bollixed up by all I wanted and failed to say in the last entry that I hadn’t even gotten to say what I’d been thinking about that very thing: that is, humor, laughter, the comic, and their relation to the psychoanalytic and political interests of this project’s aim to understand problems of detaching from normative, durable, reliable forms of life. Laughter is a form of dissolution that would seem to indicate an attachment to a situation that generates pleasure. But not always, maybe not even usually.

Here’s a start toward another research thread. Even a suggestion of the comic puts me in a good mood. Thanks, Katie! (Katie even thinks that maybe these should be called The Optimism Papers, although that wouldn’t predict, say, the chapter on torture. On the other hand, torturing is the state’s ridiculous optimism about controlling the real, isn’t it? And yet, there are questions of tone: the structure and affect of optimism aren’t identical, and being precise about those divergences matters.)

All throughout writing The Female Complaint comedy haunted me, comedy as a subordinated subculture’s or overwhelmed individual’s lubricant for being in the room with and figuring out how to survive what’s presently overwhelming about the real. But I could only talk about the comic as an intensity, an extremity on the other side of melodramatic heightening, as in the Dorothy Parker chapter: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” This couplet cracks me up. But even Parker claims that comedy isn’t a weapon, but a failing shield. It’s hard for me not to feel all mixed up around Parker’s humor, sensing the fear and defense that radiates in the atmosphere of her sharp observation. But sometimes comedy is just a cigar, or whatever: delight, unmixed relief to be stretching out without a sense of wearing out.

People dissolve into laughter and into tears, among other things, I’d been thinking: the dissolution of bodily composure was always part of this research (Losing It and Unraveling were other early handles for this project) . Last Thursday I realized that Detachment Theory had to start with thinking about laughing. Maybe that would be the chapter on Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Ellman’s Doctors and Nurses. But there’s so much in the archive for this book that could be about comedies of dissolution that are not merely Rabelaisian inversion.

In the Affect Publics reading group this week we read Bergson’s Laughter and Baudelaire’s “The Essence of Laughter.” Neither of these attended enough to ambivalent laughter, because I’m most interested in the knot that undoes someone’s sense of formal control in an enduring way, not just as an involuntary pulse. But Bergson’s interest in adjustment as the scene or situation of laughter seems a perfect referent for that part of this project. He writes that inelasticity and inflexibility on display produce laughter, as the subject being laughed at can’t adjust to his situation: he talks about the comic spectacle of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” Bergson’s sense that the comic is produced by inelasticity where we would expect or even need to see adaptation works well with John Limon‘s great prediction: “the appeal of comedy may be traced to its imposition of geometrical perfectionism on compounded liminality.” Limon ends up talking about queer precision.

As I was reading I kept thinking about dissolving into tears/laughter, where the bodily fact one always faces in laughter involves watching someone live through this, exerting control and letting go, tipping over and getting back up. When getting back up happens, I mean.

Dissolving can take on so many forms of bodily action: for example, bending over in laughter. I knew a woman once who was so stiff that her laughter looked like a threat to her bodily integrity: we were all actually scared when she laughed, we wanted it to go away, because we were afraid that in the aftermath she would just be broken, a stick dissolved into splinters.

She was a teacher of ours. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had two depressive teachers like this, whose laughter wasn’t a relief but a release of something the person really could not contain but could not survive the release of. The other one would shake side to side like a possessed metronome. Both were high composure, high WASP, very controlling women: one suicide, one now debilitated, mentally alive when she is, but not pedagogically, professionally, or personally too functional. She can laugh at ducks, and occasionally at talks.



The Pathetic Imperative

Yesterday while driving to MLA to meet a friend whose family is slowly being worn to a nub–car accidents, drug abuse, suicide, and “natural causes” mark the meanwhile during which she’s gotten tenure, become a Buddhist, found and left lovers, considered getting another Ph.D, or writing three books, or changing jobs or buying more flats (in other words, her head’s full of noise even as her mouth sounds so clear)–a commercial came on the radio selling conscience and commitment towards foster kids.

In an age of increasing fear that new generations will fare worse than the ones that begat them, foster kids and certain populations of adoptee (bad luck if you’re born in Romania and good luck if you’re born in India) are not only being shunned as resources for family-making by the infertile but marked as populations so damaged from the get-go, so incapable of giving or receiving love, that it’s not worth cultivating individuals who hail from them. The exceptions are striking, as this segment on Romanian adoption from “Unconditional Love” attests: but the exceptions, the kids without devastating attachment disorder, can never really shake the seconds mark invisibly lasered on their foreheads. The brutal ease with which these humans are written off as unworthy of optimism slays me.

I’ve been reading lots about this problem of impaired attachment: that’s one of the research lines this blog will be tracking. A great assessment of the state of the neuropsychoanalytic literature can be found in recent work on “The Children of Duplessis,” orphans who were named mentally ill and institutionalized by the Canadian government in league with the Catholic Church (see bibliography below). Articulating neuropsychology and attachment theory, some contemporary work on these children is in its own way heartbreaking, as it tries gamely to show that not all subjects of trauma are traumatized by it, and that what happens in life can work dynamically, alleviatingly, with what didn’t happen during the child’s first 3-5 years (appropriate and reliable levels of stimulation and comfort whose absence can fundamentally change for the worse the capacities and responsivity managed by the hyppocampus and the amygdala). The plasticity of the brain works for and against the capacity to develop attachments as life goes on; the plasticity of the brain isn’t infinite, but expressed in changes to patterning, and as we know, personality is pattern, a cluster of habits, that is very hard to change and very hard to want to change.

So maybe not all traumatic events produce trauma for their addressees; perhaps all traumatized subjects don’t manifest the encounter the same way; perhaps it’s just a small percentage whose depression not just won’t but can’t respond to treatment. I can’t help but think that the widespread fear of a hardwired mental unhealth that can’t be undone, interfered with, managed, or turned toward flourishing is a symptom of some deeper knowledge people have about how uncapacious and maladaptive the world is to everyone, not just those who can’t perform the normative imperatives to produce and reproduce. I like using words like flourishing and capaciousness as a metric for what the conditions of social life ought to provide, because they seem so irrelevant to the tightening gyre that replaces the liberal/capitalist promise of building a good life with tinnily optimistic instructions for making, holding onto, and surviving the loss of a fragile one.

The commercial hit me so hard that I can’t remember it. Young kids with optimistic voices edited together in increasing density and speed said that they were foster kids (also called “waiting kids” in the literature) to whom no one has a primary commitment, that they had love to give and needs to receive it. The commercial ended with all of the young voices saying the phrase “Please don’t give up on us” with emphasis on the please and the pleading and with increased intensity that mimed, performed, and communicated anxiety.

Please don’t give up on us pleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’t…

The commercial reminded me of a belated response I had to Don’t Leave Me This Way, a great AIDS anthology I bought in the mid-1990s, one of the best ones next to Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. At some point last summer I picked it up to browse and find out what I hadn’t yet learned and suddenly re-felt the anthem’s powerful disco realism about all the queer lives wasted, deemed incompetent and unworthy of intimacy and the good life, and then I started missing some individuals and the whole lot of the lost, and then, weeping, realized that the lyrics were the child’s lament about the adult world’s impaired attachments: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love, don’tleavemethisway…

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Children of Duplessis CBC Archive

Wikipedia Entry on Duplessis Orphans

Perry et al, “Seven Institutionalized Children and their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: the Children of Duplessis.” Psychiatry 69 (4) 2006: 283-301.

Low and Eth, Commentary on “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis.” In Psychiatry 69 (4) (Winter 2006): 314-321.