. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy

Yesterday Corey Robin wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Erotic Professor,” and in it he positively mentions a piece of mine called “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy.” Quite a few people have written me to find it:  here it is.  I don’t especially think that Corey, whom I respect deeply, has fully captured the problem of clarifying what it means to be professionally responsible in the scene of attachment that can grow from close collaboration between people working together in institutions, especially when the attachments grow from projects of knowledge where talking things through might change not just ideas, but forms of life.  I could go on about this–but I basically agree with his critique of the self-regard of people who think their own responses and attachments to students are and should be indexical for all transferential relations.  What strikes me is both that attachment styles vary a lot (some students want to be known as biographical persons; some want close intellectual work not to include information about their lifeworld; some want intellectual work to be less close and more casual, and so on.). But the ambition to have a personally saturating mutual intimacy between feminist/queer students and teachers is what my 1997 article argues against, anyway, as it considers how the couple form model of teacher-student relation reproduces inequality under current conditions of precarity.

I would write about the institutional and economic contingencies of the historical present differently now.  For another time.  Meanwhile, the two pdfs below are from xeroxes made 21 years apart, which I find funny.

Berlant feminism institutions intimacy

Berlant new xerox of feminism and the institutions of intimacy



Trump, or Political Emotions

I wrote this column in case anyone’s going to be teaching the election this fall.
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Trump, or Political Emotions

Dear America, if I read one more article about the Danger of Political Emotions in an election season, I might take my own life.  If I do that and fail, will the state bring me up on charges the way it’s considering to do for Chelsea Manning, whose recent suicide attempt might be prosecuted?[1]  If Obama has an ounce of decency in him he’ll make that possibility quietly go away.

If x had an ounce of decency, x would deliver justice.  Such bad math, so emotional.  But politics is always emotional.  It is a scene where structural antagonisms—genuinely conflicting interests sustaining regimes of power and value—are described in rhetoric that intensifies the fantasy of vulnerable and possible worlds.

Here is the thesis of this piece, which is about the contemporary United States.  People would like to feel free. They would like the world to have a generous cushion for all their aggression and inclination. They would like there to be a general plane of okayness governing social relations.  It is hard for some to see that the “generous cushion for aggression” might conflict with the “general plane of okayness.”

When I listen to Donald Trump, I think he’s not wrong about some things, especially the awful neoliberal-Clintonian trade deals and bank deregulation that sold out the working class in the US because of a muddled idea that any wealth at all is a general social benefit.  But Donald Trump is our current best exhibit of two other pretty solid truths about politics, thinking, and feeling.

One is: A Good Account of a Problem Predicts Absolutely Nothing About the Value of a Solution.

I am a professor.  I have read three decades of essays that set up problems beautifully and then fall apart in the what is to be done section.  Sanders and Trump inflamed their audiences with searing critiques of Capitalism’s unfairness. Then what? Then Trump’s response to what he has genuinely seen is, analytically speaking, word salad. Trump is sound and fury and garble. Yet—and this is key—the noise in his message increases the apparent value of what’s clear about it. The ways he’s right seem more powerful, somehow, in relief against the ways he’s blabbing. Plus, apart from rebooting capitalism, nobody in mainstream politics is that visionary about what to do, because everyone has to be patriotic toward capitalism, since that’s come to stand for freedom.

Two: the second thing about Trump is that Trump is free.

You watch him calculating, yet not seeming to care about the consequences of what he says, and you listen to his supporters enjoying the feel of his freedom. See the brilliant interviews on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, where RNC conventioneers say, over and over: We’re for Trump because he’s not politically correct, PC has harmed America, and you think, people feel so unfree.[2]

Let’s sit with that.

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I went back 2 the violent room for the time being

Prince was at the cusp of my unclenching. I’ll never be able to tell the story as long as people are still alive but I won’t tell a cover story either. I mean, I won’t intentionally tell a cover story, but all stories are cover stories: you can’t say everything, even if you would. But if you are not free all the way through you can still build from a space where your freedom’s not entirely crushed. Comedians call it commitment to the joke. Where the lung’s even a little unencumbered, possession and dispossession are just bad memories.

So for the moment, let’s say it’s been seven hours and thirteen days, divided by your weight in dog years, say. Frankness stands in for facts. Thunder sounds out what the lightening speaks. I was driven to tell you something simple. Forgive me if I go astray. Continue reading



Time Out

For the last 24 hours I’ve been unscheduled. I had taken a gig in Amsterdam scheduled right after the term so I could interrupt my habits of working, working out, professing, sleeping a little & waking up, opening the window so that the cat could smell the world and then sitting down at the desk with my habitual combo of detox tea and coffee, because who am I if not balanced, before I extend myself to become unbalanced. The great thing about writing is that it is flat even when it’s other things too.

I never take vacations, and days off are rare failures to be very off at all, as I narrate here yearly if I manage actually to try–it just occurs to me now that my drive to keep my infinitives unsplit (so that your verbs will be strong, I tell my students) has something to do with my drive to hold myself together too, as an action figure of a cool figuration otherwise than to be/not to be but feeling out attachment heuristically. With all this work, I am a slow reviser: I have been ahead of many curves, but now some curves are ahead of me and it doesn’t matter, I hope, because a curve’s curve requires lots of leaning one way by many people before it becomes a thing that’s banking as a stability and not just a longing for solidity at the end of some road, like a home. Continue reading



The Game (7)

The Hundreds: Method 2x

The game is a form of life coming into being, extension, and activity, the blinking open at the start of the day and the beyond to anything that was explained.  If I run out of gas but not out of love, if you let a piece go without completion, if the session isn’t finished but definitively over, if the delicious coffee could only wake us forever, if we could come forth as “I” with the other objects, if we would take in that all things don’t happen for a reason, if the flat voice were other than contract or trauma. If we could be the person we would go out with again, if we could hoist our accusations against ourselves, if I could stop motion sugar and labor power, if we could feel the chance touch with soft eyes and no ducking, if you can bear the arbitrary, if they can bear the common structure, or vomit, or accident, if we could take the hard hit that it’s all brevity and struggle, if the form of life turned toward a way of life, sidestepping this event and that one’s tough but only seeming infinity. Sometimes things have to be forced.

(Lee Edelman, Juliana Spahr, Keston Sutherland, Katie Stewart, Lynn Hejinian, Fred Moten, Joshua Clover, Lacan, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Harryette Mullen, Catherine Malabou)



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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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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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 (IV)

1.  Uncanny Hollows

Not at home in a discipline, I have my own, daily trading sleep for the hope that some time before the day starts might be spent on some thing besides immediate production. During the school year, though, class prep eats virtually all of that time, as even familiar material feels underprocessed in the scene of ongoing teaching.

This year the precarious time between sleep and performance has become an uncanny hollow.  My study is a study in clutter and windows. Usually, I ease into its quiet distributions like a coat thrown onto a chair. But now, the space is fraught. Cries start hurtling through the walls at around 6 and punch the day out randomly but regularly. The sadness hurts my heart–I want to say literally–and starts me hiving off into reveries, just so I can breathe. At first I assumed that the sounds were breakthrough dreaming, a thing I get when I am in sleep arrears.  But then I realized that the beats came from an external source–Lorraine, the woman living above me, unraveling from Alzheimer’s.

Isn’t dementia always precocious?

Her guardian tells me that Lorraine is like a baby now, but unteachable:  laughing and cooing when she isn’t howling or sleeping, with nothing but an emotional present to live in, no memory, no affect management, just variation between the high notes and the low according to impulse.  She hates transitions.  As the day is full of them, it’s not good.  She’s an exposed nerve registering the minor and ephemeral variations that, for people not in dementia, add up to nothing, or sometimes, a mood.  If I’m going to work at home there is no place to turn that is free from the noise of her personality shifting around. I could say the same thing for myself, though. My literal eavesdropping forces me to italicize as though there is no writing but a pushy kind to convey that pressure on my sternum.

This howling has provided the soundtrack for A Teaching all the way through, and its streaming right now makes me lose my focus and confuses me about what I should be listening to, my noise or hers. For example, I can’t access the affect that made me want to write about the two teaching films I have seen in the last month–Daniels’ Precious and Cantet’s Entre les Murs (The Class).  My notes tell me that these two neocolonial films seemed worth commenting on v. education as a desirous and antagonistic scene of multiple sovereignty-dissolving encounters. I wanted to think aloud about the breaking and remaking of schooled subjects into subjects who deserve to be precious.

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