. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


For example

I noticed, over the last few months, as my mother was dying, that I had taken pictures that seemed very specific. Now I am looking at the archive, as one appraises a drying hand after a manicure.

My mother died of femininity.  I told her that I would say this about her. She had said, “Will you write a book about me?”  and I asked if she wanted me to. She said “Yes. I want you to say that I left the world a better place because I had you!” I said I thought that this was a bad idea: people would think it an excuse to write about me.  She said, “Can you think of another topic?”  I offered this phrase about femininity, and explained why.  My brother-in-law thought that it would be better to say that my mother died from vanity rather than from femininity. I can see why he would prefer that story; it’s interesting to see how a label shifts the implication.

In her late teens she took up smoking, because it was sold as a weight-reduction aid.  When she died she had aggressive stage 4 lung cancer.  In her teens she started wearing high heels, to enhance the back arch and ass-to-calves posture whose strut transforms the whole body to a sexual tableau, shifting between teetering and stillness. Later, she had an abortion and on the way out tripped down the stairs in those heels, hurting her back permanently.  Decades later, selling dresses at Bloomingdale’s, she was forced to carry, by her estimate, 500 lbs. of clothes each day. Shop girls, you know, are forced to dress like their customers. They have to do this to show that they understand the appropriate universe of taste, even while working like mules in that same universe, carrying to their ladies stacks of hanging things and having to reorganize what their ladies left behind on the dressing room floor. She liked this job, because she liked being known as having good taste.

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Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?

I’m converting a cafeteria to a café—Valois just got wi-fi and I wanted to be in a capacious space, light with big tables and no soundtrack. It’s empty, almost, mid-afternoon. A few old people are sitting around schmoozing as they will, and we look after each other’s tables when we need bathroom breaks or a refill. After a few hours a father and son come and sit two tables up. The father, young, instructs his son relentlessly: on how to use a laptop, how to play a game, how to sit, how to be quiet, and how to eat without smacking his mouth. I am working with my head down trying to drown out the noise. Then at one point I hear him say to his son, why do you want to give up on your dream, why do you want to give up on your dream of being a football player? Kid: I want to draw cartoons. Father: you also want to be in the NFL, why do you want to give up on your dream? Kid: I want to draw cartoons, I have lots of stories to tell. Father: tell me, why do you want to give up on your dream?

A piece of paper falls off the table. It has boxes drawn on it and word balloons. The figures they’re attached to look better than stick, but there’s a not lot of detail. His father says, Don’t you see, when you’re 35 and you’ve been in the Super Bowl, you’ll have the skills of a 35 year old man, not a 9 year old boy, and when you’re 35 and a cartoonist, you’ll have the skills of a 9 year old boy?

They call it a skill set, the father says.

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Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012 Authors: Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

These are our questions for the MLA roundtable.  Section one takes up genealogies of affect theory; section two takes up the problem of affect in the historical present; section three takes up a variety of concerns about queer theory, sexuality, racialization, specific cases and archives, and modes of orientation that are in proximity to whatever we might call affect but in different idioms.  You can download them here.  mla roundtable 2011

745. Affecting Affect Theory is scheduled to take place at 1:45+3:00 p.m. on 08-JAN-12 in 615, WSCC; Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place (Pike St. and 8th Ave.)

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Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012

Authors:  Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

I. Genealogies of Affect Theory 

1.  How do we think about the different trajectories of affect theory now, especially as the Deleuzian/Massumian project/idiom has become so important to its critical circulation?  How do we think the proximity of public feelings, minor affects, psychoanalysis, Sedgwickian syncretism (Buddhism, Tomkins, Klein), and affective labor’s version of affect-as-immateriality in relation to the Spinozan tradition?  How to keep the event of affect open to maintaining the multiplicity of traditions, trajectories, tendencies, and critical tactics? Is spanning all traditions important to ways we think about addressing future problems?

2. Affect vs/alongside mood, feeling, emotion etc. What are the stakes of synthesizing these different ways of talking to our about states of the sensorium?

3.  Cavell (a great affect theorist who is not often included in the genealogies of affect theory) says that professional philosophy has been emancipated from an obligation to be therapeutic, but that it should be haunted by that very emancipation.  What about the critical work we do: what about questions of theory and utility, of reparativity, of failure?

4. In response to thoughts about genealogies and the increasing institutionalization of Deleuzian affect studies, I would like to take the chance to think in some detail about genealogies for public feelings/feel tank type affect studies. The Cavell thing got me thinking about other possibly overlooked figures. Continue reading



The Whole Ethic of Sleepless Evidence

#2 in the series.

I spent most of the summer reading the kind of fierce poetry that moves fearlessly into barely inhabitable breathing space three beats beyond the object that was supposed to anchor attention.  A poetics of associology whose noise world sits me down in disbelief at the rare freedom of other people’s minds. Not because attention gets things right (any more than attachment guarantees love), and not because there’s always in operation productive energy that can never be tamed but because—in these poems, and for me–revolt requires curiosity, a tipping over on a verge.

I can’t remember how I heard of  C. D. Wright; this book written from within incarcerated space seems to have migrated onto my desk from a lateral impulse I must have had once. People who liked this also liked. It’s been in a pile of revealed intention that I’ve been reading up and down.

iphone 2011 july 107

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit is one version of the commons: C.D. Wright includes it as a kind of acid irony.  After all, the next line, si bleu, si calme, isn’t available as realism to the incarcerated–or the manumitted for now who swerve around aggressively while looking down at their feet, or anyone with a stomach overfull of the indigestible. I read this book and my brain clicked around over it all summer: glory hole, dream hole, peephole. Continue reading



The Failure to Fail to Thrive is Life

I.  Kathryne Lindberg

Awhile ago a student killed himself and all I could do was take his parents to dinner—it was a nice dinner. Later a friend offed himself and all I could do was take his “next of kin” to lunch and to miss him. Then over a year ago, a lovely, lost while alive ex-student whose people I don’t know killed herself and all I could do was to email mutual friends and protect the loved ones who don’t know me from me for fear of a stranger’s extending a wound, which isn’t worth it.  Then my friend seems to have left her car a shell on a bridge with the keys still in it. She vaporized, although her daily friends reported that in recent sightings she was exuberant. A bipolar friend of mine calls us academics all extroverted introverts. Exuberant was the name of my first blog, which was a failure. In sum: a mood is neither anchor nor plot. (. . .)

II.  The Nervous System

Supervalent Thought has been, among other things, a project that tries to reintroduce dissociation as a mix of psychoanalytic, formal, affective, and performative modalities of detachment from the scene and sense of expressive continuity between outsides and insides, spaces that, like public and private, are effects rather than causes, differentially produced, and existing in projected perceptions of origin and event.  I wanted no longer to presume some naturalized feedback loop between inside and outside, as has been endemic to affect theory, missing the spray of things. Continue reading



Being Alive

Contact.  I just saw the most anorexic woman I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.  She was walking in 90 degree heat in full Gaga:  white face, red lip, yellow blonde streaks all beautifully blown out yet so sprayed that it barely touched the face it surrounded. Her face looked like an @. She was crossing the street wearing a yellow cape, black skirt, and black opaque tights over legs that could not possibly be thinner. The platform shoe gait was ungraceful, but it was haughty, and my first thought was competitive, as in, when I was anorexic I still could pass, people said, for a manic New York Jew: whereas this person really did look as though if she’d had to dodge a bike too sharply she would have snapped in two.

At Banff a group of us who liked each other turned out to have in our backgrounds the overlap of Oberlin and eating disorder, and I got the impression that the back is not too far a ground from the front for some of us. The curse of recidivism attaches to predators and eating disorders.  The revelation of that form of fort/da appeared in this group of people otherwise professionally linked when someone commented that another of us who had just walked by was surely bulimic, and the assurance with which she said this made me ask how she knew, and it was interesting.  She saw semi-circles around mouths and eyes. We were all eating at the time, which seemed to be proof of something, although it was proof of nothing.

I thought of all the things I know about the “deepest problems of modern life” that “flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life,” and I thought about another kind of impact I’d been amassing as I continue to think about contact as the intensification of the encounter with non-sovereignty, so of course this series twist happened without quite being a project.  All summer I have been taking pictures of phrases that hit me and induced reveries and reorientations that made me both stupid and more alive. Continue reading



In the Air (1)

The fantasy of a common sense, a sense of a capacity or of something affectively general at the core of democracy, is not necessarily sentimental. But the drive to create a more capacious democratic sensorium so often tips into intimacy’s sentimental vernacular that its placeholder status as conceptual magnet, not origin or experience, is very hard to discipline–and the drive to discipline it is the source of so much social theory. The local occasion of this post is the Theatre Oobleck production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. The  play, riffing on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, was classic Oobleck:  noisy, vital, and entirely intentional.  There wasn’t a supervalent moment in it, which was an achievement of sorts, since it is about love and fucking and freedom and  lyric poetry and death, and how they shape profound scenes of self-encounter that reveal enigmas of suffering and impaired autonomy at the heart of ordinary intimacy. But it was unsatisfying, because it aimed to be too satisfying: the writing overdramatized every emotion, including disbelief, as though to color within the lines must amount to blackening an entire page. In this it was exemplary of so much aesthetic and theoretical work that works over the emotions, attempting to drown out the affects and to claim that when we are authentic we feel one known thing at a time.

The problem of writing about this play is that any substantive discussion of it will make it more wonderful than any minute of seeing it. This is what critical engagement does: it adds value through staging interest that’s been magnetized to a form. It converts the event of form into a situation. In reading with a thing a transitional environment emerges that changes what attention can attend to. The encounter makes change prehensible, resonating toward a leavening sense of a concept whose potentiality is virtually affirmed even if the encounter itself fails to have much afterlife. But what I am trying to do is to think about the downsides of potentiality modes when they are tethered to a simplifying desire for emotions already normatively held in common to provide a foundation for (aesthetic or political) transformation.

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Contact

Remember the time I told you about the day I took a vacation from work during which time I watched a movie I needed to watch for work about a man who was taking an extended vacation from work as a way of life but who was redeemed from lifelessness by a woman who embodied a younger generation’s practice of diffused ambition, so that a baffling heterosexual tendency could be saved for another day and the confrontation with not understanding the lover, oneself, labor, or what “a life” is could be delayed and preserved in a sweet promise not to give up on sick dogs and to hang around for whatever potential whiff of relief might emanate from anywhere?

Maybe mumblecore is right, that all life needs is a “whatever” at the points where it seems impossible—a gesture of optimism that can’t bear a lot, but that can indicate an otherwise that could become the something stacked right above the nothing.  Life, friends, is gestural. We must not say so.  A gesture is the performance of contact that makes a conjuncture of the abstract and the immediate.  Contact is a potential anchor, a movement that makes a moment stick or become passable, sometimes shaped toward the possible. Those haps can be a mere flicker or can build into atmospheres and environments for affective, imaginative, and politically collective activity, whether or not we pay attention to them. In the next few posts I’m going to engage some different ways of mediating contact’s gestural structuration of affect, its presentation of an opportunity to encounter the affective event. The aim is to brainstorm some extensions of the “structure of feeling” concept toward different aspects of the sensus communis that will undergird my next two books. Continue reading



I don’t know if I could do nothing and be that cool with everything

I experimented with taking a day off. It was likely to be a failure, because it had to be an experiment, as I have no habits of leaving the desk, only habits of clawing a path back to it, which is odd because I never leave it, except when I am forced to by my job or my career, which are also what force me back, or there’s a movie to watch, but even then, if it’s at home, the “desk” comes with me like a friend, resting on the arm of the couch so I can turn to it anxiously when I hit a moment of not understanding.  Even at the gym, I work on the elliptical. I am on a plane now.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s coffee is shaking slow-mo and the people are acting as though they’re dissociating but his face is too wide, square, fat, or flat for me to cathect, which is a mimetic response.

I had begun to address my life with a flat voice. It was bad: usually I can get by with my drive to remain tethered to the potentially good event while meanwhile the infrastructure stumbles along. The causes of this sudden synthesis toward a dark plateau were, anyway, so overdetermined as to induce an affective semicolon.  The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.

Two new big classes and a paper deadline and a vast job search and the students spilling out all late into December because we ask them to be intellectuals but give them no time to do it, inculcating in the upcoming professional class a fatigue autoerotics along with a shamed and confused awareness that these labor conditions allow only tumbling down a hill and then revising it later to look like a plan, when it was only doing what you could do at the time (my epitaph) in an act of blind hope.  A cab driver today told me about all of the men he knows who beat women.  I can’t remember why, it was like a dream. We talked of how hard it is to unlearn habits of intimate violence–not just to others but to oneself–since assuming a gender requires violence and shame and competence anxieties that never leave, and people can exhaust (fade or inflate) after a while of showing up for the audition. I promise that next year will be different: I won’t try to finish a book. I will be rolling around in a beginning that has already started. Meanwhile I felt I could crack into permanent consistency, although I don’t know what that would mean, if I didn’t take a day off. Continue reading



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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