. . . . . . . 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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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



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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Sitting on an airplane, a Mule

1.  I am reading other people’s work during a long travel corseting.  Much of it is interesting and plausible:  I try, it tries. I feel dull toward it, pickled.

Most of the writing we do is actually a performance of stuckness.  It is a record of where we got stuck on a question for long enough to do some research and write out the whole knot until the original passion and curiosity that made us want to try to say something about something got so detailed, buried, encrypted, and diluted that the energetic and risk-taking impulse became sealed and delivered in the form of a defense against thinking any more about it. Along the way, something might have happened to the scene the question stood for:  or not.

2.  I never fall out of love, but run out of gas.  That’s what I mean by thinking as a transformation within stuckness. All the noise of research and explanation gets created to materialize the thickness of an interest; the noise circles around its object and barely, usually, congeals the force to move it anywhere, although sometimes it does. The thought is never finished—in Deleuzean terms, the problem-event that governs the situation is in potential–but what I’m talking about in the finishing is something else, the movement within stuckness between making an opening and defending against so much of that which spikes out from the openings one makes until the thing has to be relinquished and moved into the world. Continue reading



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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