. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


From my mouth to your ear…

The inevitable Sex and the City post, belatedly. I forgot about the film the minute after I saw it, but if you write a book called The Female Complaint people ask you all the time whether you saw the latest chick flick, and whether something other than the predictably condescending thing can be said about it. Here’s what I wrote the night I saw it, raw. More on Intimacies soon.

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Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ new book Intimacies opens with this hilarious sentence: “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex” (1). This is the funniest thing I have ever read.

The difference between Intimacies and Sex and the City is that the women in the film are not in psychoanalysis. But, as they are not having sex with each other, they can simulate the freedom to talk about sex where it isn’t. It’s a good thing that they have each other, too, as they are incapable of talking about sex with their lovers. But ladies, this is a problem.

If any of these women had ever even walked by feminism on the sidewalk they would have learned that one of the points of sexual liberation was to put your mouth where your mouth is. Sex talk was to be part of sex, part of sex pedagogy, part of allowing fantasy and desire to produce creativity and improvisation in the now of the event. Sexual liberation culture gave skills and permission for not just resorting to reenacting the default expectation out of fear that sex talk would make sex disappear.

But in this cinematic romantic world, the reigning fantasy is that sex and love ought to go without saying. Love objects are supposed to be like purchased objects, which in this film give instant radiant satisfaction and harbor no enigmas. But where love is concerned, the problem is that lovers are not objects, but subjects. Discussion is a fall from grace. Discussion is a sign that something is off. It puts you in the room with what’s too achingly human.

These women are so frightened of what’s uncontrollable and uncomfortable about sex that, rather than to talk well about it to lovers, they prefer to laugh and complain to each other about it. At one point, they even have to use the word “coloring” for “sex,” ostensibly to protect a little girl from hearing that it’s not about fantasy and play after all–but really, of course, to protect themselves from the embarrassing fact that they desire romance to corral sex into being something simple. Here’s Carrie’s description of Big’s sexual prowess, I kid you not: “he colors outside of the lines.”

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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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