. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Don’t Ask (Combover 4)


“Why do you keep washing his face, he’s not dirty, he’s hungry.”

 

What appears to be a daughter flings this dirt at what appears to be her mother, and for the millionth time, it sounds like: but it’s an empirical question, a queer question, I say to myself, what the relation actually is. It’s as though their sheer look-alikeness established the right to bicker mercilessly and in public–in this case, the airport gate waiting area. There’s a tenderness in all of it, too, though, and pride in ownership, with a worn-out kindness that the company perhaps shouldn’t have registered seeing. But I looked up. The older than me woman, thick with cake makeup so maybe not, tilts toward me and says, “Why do I do things like that? You should write about people like me,” and I said, “What would you want people to know?” and the younger woman says, deeply, “Don’t ask!” and we all laugh because Don’t Ask is always tragicomic.

Don’t Ask echoes Katie Stewart’s anecdote about someone saying I could write a book. “People are always saying to me “I could write a book,” she writes:

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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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Combover (Approach 2)

Us living as we do, upside down…

Another try: I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet).  Sometimes the difficulty of managing this lability produces the self-image of an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy. The latter is best exemplified by the iconic image of the combover subject. The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

Who isn’t the combover subject? No-one. The combover subject literalizes the need for ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions as though it were in fact a solid structure. Even a philosophical skeptic like Cavell, at home with the failure of language to be adequate to its situation and its desire, finds satisfaction in style; and even a depressive realist like me, who sees her failure to be idealizable as confirmation of her good sense, takes comfort in encountering a version of herself that will not be delighted by surprise but by being the recognizable thing she has come to trust.

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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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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? (I)

Oh oh oh oh oh.

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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?

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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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Political Happiness–or Cruel Optimism?

This responds to a slew of emails and links I’ve received warning of left wing stupidity and complacence in the wake of Obama’s election. It revises and summarizes some previous thought in re the political season that I’ve been working through on this blog.  I’m posting it during an interval in the Brussels airport.

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Dear Friends, Please do not allow your political optimism about Obama’s election to make you stupid! Here’s how to stay sharp and smart…

If mainstream politics significantly shapes your mood, this week has been a blow to normalcy.  For the moment, Obama is the President of our emotional Infrastructure as well as the economic and physical ones. As a result, if you’re like me, you have been inundated by condescending and vitalizing exhortations not to become naive or stupid where political happiness also is.

This bolus of anxiety expresses the fear that political happiness will lead to a flatlined complacent brain, diminished political judgment, and the revelation of your bad taste. The claim that anxiety makes you smart makes me laugh. But solidaristically, not condescendingly.

We’ve all been in bad love affairs before, where our attachments made us stupid. Once you attach to an object, after all, you become aware that the object isn’t in your control. Suddenly the prospect of having the object and losing the object, of getting more and less than you want from it, rule you. You become aware that the intensity of your attachment is not unconditional, even as you demand unconditional fidelity from the other person. When the pulses that brought you to the person subside you ask, “What did I want when I wanted that?” Then your affect and intelligence shift around, trying to make new sense of things. If the object is a political figure, perhaps you start circulating screeds to your friends, reminding them not to be stupid where there is desire.

But these efforts to manage the anxiety of political attachment and of optimism about it are actually oversimple about how (political) emotion can work. I don’t have the space here to make the long argument. Here’s a bit of it. Attachments are intrinsically optimistic. The event of attachment does not make us stupid but releases a slew of smart but often overwhelming thoughts about how complicated attachment is.

We are ambivalent about what we want, for lots of reasons. Attachment reveals our dependency on something, our need for reciprocity and recognition, and the place of fantasy in managing life. One strategy of managing this is sometimes to pretend that our feelings aren’t mixed. Then when the world disappoints us we can say that we were true while the other was false. Another way to manage this is to claim that we are complex while the other people are disappointing, limited, and deserving of critique and complaint. But presuming a self-interested distinction between complexity and simplicity where attachment is concerned itself performs a fantasy that there are unmixed feelings and that people are ever simple. Even your grandmother wasn’t that simple, trust me. But you knew that. You just wanted someone to be simple so that you could reliably rest in proximity to the scene of the love.

So can we think about political emotion differently, and be less afraid of optimism? The process of managing the ambivalent feelings that come from active political commitment is fundamentally optimistic, and no one needs to be protected against that. Optimism is what keeps you in the scene as it veers between being joyful, stressful, and tedious. Indeed, David Graeber argues that solidarity amounts to a comic commitment to practicing expressing political desire and finding pleasure and sustenance in disagreement, along with all the other political emotions (such as, boredom, aversion, outrage, betrayal). Not that there’s anything wrong with a rigorous fear of one’s own stupidity–after all, fear can be a teacher of sorts. But let’s not equate a sense of happiness with shallowness and emotional darkness with truth and profundity.

Oh yes, about Obama, the neoliberal, gay-marriage compromised, “market guy…” Here’s what makes me politically happy about the event of Obama. He is the first mainstream politician in decades who loves the political process. He does not confuse “Washington” with politics. His organization’s practice of training other organizers demonstrates his commitment to producing skills for political world-building beyond his campaign.

In this way the event of Obama has already massively advanced the skills for democracy in the United States. In other ways he seems committed to constraining and even undermining what that might entail concretely. Protesting and appreciating, though, are some of what we do to maintain the optimism of any attachment. They keep you bound to the (political) scene, to the cognitive and affective difficulties of remaining critically present to desire.



Marry, Hang the Idiots….
October 31, 2008, 10:53 am
Filed under: Attachment, Belonging, Love, Politics, psychoanalysis, queerness, sexuality, supervalent_thought, writing | Tags:

I tried but failed to complete a challenge made a few days ago by Jaime Hovey to write something about Proposition 8 and the problem/desire of gay marriage, even though I’m neither enthusiastic about marriage as a political project or foundation for the good life; nor enjoy writing useless polemics only to be read by progressives who are as ambivalent as I am about bracketing the whole feminist/queer critique of marriage as moral aspiration and property right, let alone the routing of GLBTQ politics to appeals for normalizing statuses;nor enjoy writing something in haste when I am trying to learn to write beautifully, or at least more effectively.   But as my friend Kay Sera says, “Whatever.”

In any case, I am not about to cede civil rights to heterosexuals just because they have a sexual pattern that they like.  It’s a sexual pattern, not a way of life!  A way of life is a much richer and more complex thing than a sexual pattern.  That’s really all I’d like to say.

A way of life involves the cultivation of everyday habits, habits of reproducing life (work, care), of paying attention, of inattention, of intensities of focus that are serious and frivolous.  A way of life involves managing the habituated way you show up and the way you check out of relations you are having. A way of life is a thick space of connection, habit, aversion, demand, deference, and pragmatism, enriched by fantasies of what makes it worth maintaining, only some of which you can bear to own while others are more secreted.

A sexual object choice comparatively is a flat empirical episode that endures or not, that repeats or not, that explains you, or not.  What do I know about you when I know your sexual pattern?   When Alfred Adler invented the term “lifestyle” in 1929, he was talking about such patterning, the patterning that constitutes personality, not the normatively and morally saturated theatre of appearances that is now over-shaping the political in California. Continue reading



Sarah Palin, Female Complainer
September 17, 2008, 1:55 am
Filed under: Belonging, emotion, Mood, optimism, Politics

BTW, my readers have been writing me asking for a Sarah Palin post, and then this AM Sara Ahmed wrote me with news that Pop Feminist worked with The Female Complaint in her Palin post, so for now I’ll let that stand in.  I do admit to being frustrated that Saturday Night Live reduced the campaign season’s “gender” issues to which woman is fuckable and which isn’t, as though the macho rhetoric assessing each candidate’s cojones weren’t waving in everyone’s face, male or female.  I’d say that this election needs to be fixed, but . . .

I did have a thought about the affect in the presidential election this morning, though, and here it is: in response to the Washington Post’s observation that Obama is uncomfortable with performing Clintonesque sentimentality of the “I feel your pain” variety, I thought, that’s right, Obama’s more like “I feel your hope.”  Does the difference matter?

I think so.  Obama is detaching from the liberal tradition of claiming that our wounds are what make us alike and what make us obligated to aid  each other. Obama’s saying that it’s hope that makes us alike, especially the hope for politics to advance the world toward deserving our optimism for it.

For many of his supporters, Obama produces something like the return of limbs to life that frostbite survivors feel first as pain and then as a thrill that the numbness has finally ended. Except during catastrophes, whole generations and populations in the US have felt excluded from political desire that’s attached to realism and to ordinary life. They think of politics as an arena of elite power-brokering that has no interest in helping to solve the problems of living faced by ordinary people. Most U.S. people have stopped voting, or never started. They’re checked out of active participation in the body politic.

Obama’s rhetoric of “hope” is vitalizing to so many because it calls out the desire for a politics dedicated to fomenting interdependency, solidarity, communality. In this Obama’s rhetoric has sentimental overtones that are just as intense as anything of Bill Clinton’s.  Obama feels your hope for a community of general belonging; he felt it before you could bear to risk feeling it; he asked for you to take up the political as a calling, to risk making collective life a collective project, and not something just delegated to politicians.

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