. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


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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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 (II)

1.  I have been teaching this term two courses that I meant to be identical but at different levels of intensity and abstraction, but my intentions (I typed intensions, which is more correct, since my intentions have stretched) (and I told my students that there are no asides in the classroom) (which is the same thing as saying there is no no in the unconscious) have little to do with what has happened, absolute divergence. As I described in the last post, teaching classes is for me like writing: if, in advance, I overprepare, then become blank and excited before I set out the prospective shape of things, and if, during the time of extension, I find it all absorbing and difficult, and if, afterwards, I can’t exactly remember what happened, not even the affect, and if I have to excavate the encounter as though it involves material from a therapeutic hour, that’s when I know that something has happened.

2.  John Forrester claims that the analysand can only lie, as all the story she has is noise that fills the space of what she knows but cannot know yet, or bear to know. That is true about teaching, too. It is impossible to know who one is as a teacher. The relation between what one intended and what one did–even if one’s own sense of things were to govern the evaluation of efficacy–can’t be determined solipsistically, not only because we teach other people as singularities and as groups, not only because teaching them is so very different than reaching them, not only because the feedback loops are so varied and out of synch (when they’re not out of commission altogether), but also because the relation between information transmission and all of the other activities within the scene of teaching is mostly unconscious, seat of the pants, in the normative ether, and atmospheric, rather than eventilized. I cannot imagine myself as a student encountering myself as a teacher.
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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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