. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


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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Combover (Approach 1)

I sat in at another conference recently, hearing lots of promising work, including a paper by Leo Bersani called “Illegitimacy” that pursues his current project, to understand what the Cartesian attempt to elevate thought over bodies, attachments, appetites, and sociality itself has wrought and what new social relations might be developed alternatively and in proximity to it. He has three models on offer these days for not reproducing the kinds of compensatory fantasy that allow one to feel autonomous, adequate to oneself, and separate/superior to the [enigmatic] other: one, a radically negative abandonment of the normative world, a project of becoming unnamable, illegitimate, and nonviable (he associates this with Edelman’s No Future); two, a sweet Bollasian affective sociality that focuses on effecting attachment in a way that does not require a full revelation of being; three, the Socratic model of impersonal narcissism that Bersani developed from Homos to Intimacies, involving the lover’s loving not just his own likeness seen in the lover (the Greek anteros  or “backlove”) but also loving in the beloved a virtual form of universal individuation that at once gives the lover narcissistic satisfaction but also, motivated by love, induces the lover to foster the beloved’s becoming more like himself.

These three models for sidestepping the bubble of ego inflation do not cohere:  they invoke different models of an alternative formalism that might be found in relationality. But all of them counter in specific ways what Leo calls normative personhood’s murderous drives to eliminate alterity.  In a fine theorist, non-coherence is never a failure, but an expression of an experimentality I love: the feeling out of a problem in real time, even in the mode of a propositional definiteness, is what makes theory intimate, when it is. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve called such liveness to the whole body work of conceptual transformation the “pincers movement”:  one theory-driven claw forward, another claw lagging, such that movement keeps happening across a field made from scratches that don’t add up quite to an even plane. 

But being me, I would foreground non-coherence as a principle of being rather than a cumulative effect of serial finitude:  I never thought that the subject ought to be seen as in one state.

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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 (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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