. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Unworlding II

The rain was still torrential when I left the library to make my way to  the far northwest side of Chicago:  through the windscreen the traffic was in a slow chaos, cars shuddering from the beating wind and barely moving forward, the flooding streets outlining once again the urban infrastructure crumbling in real time. Potholes, puddles, and spray pounced out into sight as if the out there were a video game full of menacing threats to survival and not also ordinary life.

In the middle of all that a well-placed Shell station on Hollywood was processing a lot of traffic.  In the back right hand corner of the pumping area, though, a man stood just watching the cars. His gray and white cardigan and black cargo pants were becoming just dark with rain. He was tall, no longer young.  He seemed to have no relation to a car or the cars or to becoming soaked.  He was standing there just looking without watching.  It was easier to suss out what wasn’t happening than what was. I wanted to get out of the car and ask him something but couldn’t figure out the mechanics. Or the ethics.

Then things cleared up and moved on and so did the hard day of wondering about those scenarios of the ordinary that are predictable by now and yet feel immoveable too because their accumulation–as data, as exempla, as anecdote–does not lead to clarity, let alone transformation via something made live when the phenomenon turns trope. Continue reading



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 (II)?

1.  I was by myself when I fell, but I wasn’t alone. (Slogan for UK Telecare)

I have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of things, which requires some reporting on concepts, some associative building on them, and an emotional weather report about a case that feels exemplary of this historical moment in the U.S. but whose exemplarity is constituted partly by the form of its enigma.

The problem with writing across different, incommensurate, and oblique archives is striking the right tone of reportage:  dispassionate, passionate, comic-absurd, comic-slapstick, stentorian, melodramatic . . . No tone feels right ethically, which says something about tone itself, which is that it provides an affective epistemology of its own, holding the object just so, so that we can walk around it.  Tone is to voice as atmosphere is to the environment phenomenologists call a world.  In this case, though, to strike the “right” tone would be to risk homogenizing the incommensurate and describing the obscure so well that speculation looks like evidence construction. What follows is speculative, and I am a worm in an apple.

The question was about detaching. We were thinking about the intention to die.  We were thinking about a particular case of the intention to die, that of suicide.  There are other intentions related to risky addictive modes of physically self-undermining behavior that might also be characterized as part of the set of practices associated with intending to die (and writing in these tiny sixteenth notes makes me sound like a David Foster Wallace character, which scares me a little), but I think risky self-medicating behavior is as likely to be evidence of the drive to stay in proximity to life, to feeling, and to being present as it is to being dissociated and leaning toward the ultimate detachment. But one can’t tell from the outside whether a given form of self-interruption moves toward life or its dissipation, for a little perturbation can mount a grand defense: a shift in the tonalities of dissociation can pretend to be a shift from absence or numbness to presence, while being actually a shift between dissociative modes.

My wonderful student Anil told me lots about this before he killed himself a few years ago.  (He was my first adult-life personal encounter with this series.) According to him, his warmth and presence intellectually, pedagogically, and intimately were just as detached as were his depressive recessions from life; according to him, each style of attachment-defense provided pleasure and armor of its own sort.  I think he thought he would go on forever like this, living from a distance that often felt like too-closeness.  But what he had no language for, and what I have some research language for developing now, is why those attachment-defenses might not have kept him in life, despite seeming both enervating and animating.

Here are the keywords:  “affect regulation,” “ego depletion,” and “resiliency.”

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Do You Intend to Die? (I)

Oh oh oh oh oh.

***

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?

****

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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On Potentiality, #1

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

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