. . . . . . . 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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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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Today I ran without music. When I run this way my head boils out, matter shooting everywhere like water on hot oil. Phrases reach me and mostly move away before I can trap and extend them into actual thoughts. Bracketed matter calls for its due.  Anger nudges wonder aside and has its own road rage. Connections appear and fade and I get excited and amnesiac. I mourn people and wonder how so and so is doing. I think about sex (but then I always stumble). I move between flat apprehension and hooking up well enough with the thought that I can sometimes get back home in time and make some notes.

The hardest thing is to brainstorm with oneself. Brainstorming is the skill I use in classrooms to get everyone in counterpoint, if not in sync, but it’s different to coordinate minds that work at different speeds in order to make some material commonly held. Brainstorming is my genre of jouissance in collegiality and friendship too, the work of staying in the conversation in real time that takes place when everyone’s alive enough to focus and then unfocus– to riff. The work of tracking oneself, though, when the ordinary compartmentalization breaks down enough to interrupt a habit of mind, requires a different rhythm of and skill for attentiveness. This general thought is the magnetizing rod for all of the non-sovereign unraveled, deflated, erupted, dispersed, and recessive material that will become Detachment Theory.

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Do You Intend to Die (IV)?

I know that only some of the writing on this blog is accessible and useful.  Research is like that, sometimes providing big clarities that open things up memorably, sometimes stacking more material between you and having a minimal handle on a problem. This is the last note for this series, because I have other writing to do, and other problems of approach and address to layer into this detachment project, still very much in its nascence. Explanation does not dissolve what’s incomprehensible about a thing.  At least for me, writing makes a vestibular system, a scene around which to move to get the contours of what’s hard about a thing.  Maybe a given instance achieves genuinely transformative recontextualization, and the problem looks significantly different after the analysis; usually it just outlines the body.

I’ve been thinking about aspects of this series seriously since last summer, when I heard a story that just blew me away.  But a friend told me emphatically that it didn’t belong on this blog, and instead should find a home in an autobiography that I have no plans to write. 

Now it is possible to fold it in. Because of intensifications in the crisis ordinary that have happened in the meanwhile, it now appears propped up among many cases, at the same time as I mean for its airing here to transform the taxonomy within which those cases have gained some clarity in the past few posts. Continue reading

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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Do You Intend to Die? (I)

Oh oh oh oh oh.


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?


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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