. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

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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On Passivity: Not otherwise specified

Slowly, I aspirate from myself the choking wave of obligations that the 2009-2010 term induced:  never have I had a time of such incessant institutional demand, and as I breathe through the final tsunami of papers, my mind volleys, “How did it get to be this way?” and “I still don’t know how to live.” I don’t know how to fix it or even to fake fix it. Then, a few minutes ago, as if on some mysterious cue, an old Jewish New Yorker wearing a Mets cap and jeans that hang loosely off him walks in the cafe door and intones, “Oi am still in juniah high school when I am neah a beautiful woman, Oi am seventy-noine but insoide I am nointeen” over and over, at first loud, then louder. Save me from the inutility of a time when all I have left for contact with the world is a loud voice that even the wind doesn’t want.  Apostrophe’s poetic tradition is grand, but to be forced into an apostrophic life is a bitch.

At least blogging is . . . quiet.

I turn to the New York Times article on “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” usually known by its acronym Ednos. Ednos describes eating disorders that invent non-normative forms. They’re far more disordered than the conventional ones that at least imitate a known symptom cluster. When it came out, the Times description of disorganized eating induced me to gather up some thinking I’d been doing around my Ordinariness seminar about the place of passivity in ordinary subjectivity.  I’ve been trying to write this post since January, dig?

In the seminar passivity emerged as a register for describing the myriad ways in which the aesthetic represents subjects delegating their agency to a form or norm of being in the world, a delegation that induces the kind of state I’ve been gathering up here under the umbrella of “non-sovereign subjectivity.”  Zizek calls this kind of delegation interpassivity. It is a beautiful concept, but it could be much more beautiful.  As so compulsively often, he uses it to describe how persons refuse to become genuinely politically rational.  Interpassivity describes the relation of disavowal in which one hands off one’s affect to a media form or other persons, thus producing room for disowning and managing one’s own intensities.  His point is that much of what passes for interactivity is really interpassivity. Continue reading

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 (III)

The days were long and the weeks were short during the term that has ended, the rhythms of which extend like a membrane across the late weeks’ email exchanges and hastily arranged furtive-seeming encounters with student beings suddenly stunned and muddled in the face of writing something now.  In the middle of all that I left to give a talk, and talked with my hosts about another scene of the university ordinary that I find baffling:collegiality. On this trip I asked a former colleague to tell me how she maintains such grace when the relation of structural to affective dynamics so often induces a mess involving lots of disavowal of aggression and vulnerability. She said that there’s no helping it, collegial mistrust is structural, and therefore so are abreaction and dysfunction. But I swear it isn’t:  only inequality is structural. The rest is an ineducation for which we are constantly paying intuition.

The day I returned, though, the fog lifted for a minute.  My friend Sarah Schulman visited town to do a reading and promote her two new books.  Her confidence in her truths thrusts me back into myself constantly, as I tend to think of multiple explanations for problems for which she has found genuinely beautiful clarities. I have only been in the same bodily space as Sarah four times in the last two decades: but each time has had an impact because she moves me, she too is constantly knocking her head against the wall of her objects so that they might move a little and she too always seems a little surprised that the optimistic returns leave her bruised and frayed. But she enjoys her victories.  She is not afraid of the return, more afraid of not having the encounter than of having it. Me too. And yet, there is the question of resilience.

I can’t remember what we talked about at dinner, except that I felt like I was the child learning moral lessons and she the impatient teacher calling a thing a thing and telling my noise of “what if” speculative pleasure to shut the fuck up. She didn’t really do that, but as things unfolded my sense grew that my capacities are also defenses. As we were leaving, she asked me what I wanted out of life, and I said, at the moment I am trying to learn how to write.  She said, do you have 20 minutes?  I could teach you to write in 20 minutes.  I started laughing, but she was serious.  So we sat in the car outside The Knickerbocker Hotel and she taught me how to write.  Here is a picture of what she drew.

sarah s

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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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My posts take forever to write, because they are trying to–my fingers want to type “to survive a genre,” but I meant to say “to invent one,” and that says it all about where I live. But the long duration also comes from the ways that a “post” is a mnemonic genre of its own, a recording of an instance in the pursuit of a problem. What would I need to understand to shift around this thing? Post-making enables me to track a point in my response to x, and how I thought to maintain fidelity to the pressure it incites. I am grateful to my readers for their bibliography and apercus, too: it might not seem that I’m responding sometimes, but it takes awhile to reorganize myself around a new complex thought.

My encounter with problems and the scene of writing provokes sometimes a zone of scarily quiet being in the world. But there is always a soundtrack–at the moment some loud person in a cafe who believes that her addressee is all that exists and to whom the rest of us are apparently failed trompe-l’oeil. (“I’m on a water and ice diet,” she told her friend, who’d dared to put milk in her coffee.) Today also, Pierre Boulez; Fred Anderson; and the new screechy P. J. Harvey collaboration. Also, this phrase cluster: I almost got out, I can’t believe I got out; I’m not sure whether I was trying to get in or get out. Amidst all of this Continue reading


It is pouring with rain here right now.  Outside of the window of my library study thunder and lightning soften and expand the knot of the visible world, which recedes to a background behind the rain’s thick glass.  After awhile the university fades out, the possibility of which fading is one of the privileges of working at a university.

I am trying to write something other than this entry today, but something interferes with my surround of the material. The paper, called “Matter of Flatness,” is an early go at one of the scenes Detachment Theory will address, as it details how to think about non-sovereign personhood in some of its varieties of being unraveled.

The essay in question focuses on the emergence of a flat acting aesthetic among cinematically mediated queers.  It involves articulating flat affect as an effect of some combination of:

bad acting (low production values); casualized emotion; underperformed response; aspirational social belonging through performances of avant-garde detachment (Warhol), Punk-style refusal (Lipstick Traces), Goth nihilism, and bohemian coolness (Gen-X); nineties-style views of dissociation/PTSD; event-related affect management; and the attenuation that comes from living as a subject organized by longing and crisis amidst other scenes of longing and crisis that avail no traction or potential for rest in their normative terms of implicit belonging.

By the end of that list you almost forget the topic:  flatness. The point is that this animated mutedness forces a different approach to apprehending a person and an artwork.  Knowing what it isn’t doesn’t tell you what it is, though.  Gathering up all the forces necessary for explaining the scene right in front of you takes a lot of work, and the scene almost can’t bear the weight of what animates it.  Of course, psychoanalytically speaking, that’s what makes it a scene.

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