. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


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.



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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Looking for Mr. (W)Right

Column 2 in a series; see below.

This is how love starts: a crush. Your body intensifies, gaining and losing confidence in the presence of a person, an image, an idea, or a thing: in a crush, you have a feeling that you feel compelled to keep having. The pressure disorganizes you, opens you up to reverie, anxiety, defense, risk. You are forced into frenzies of adjustment; you feel tilted forward. Sometimes that’s enough: being mentally with your crush is all you want. Sometimes you try to repeat being near the thing that stimulates the intensities. Later, you notice the collateral damage: what you have had to put up with to have that feeling. Sometimes it’s too much, sometimes it’s not that hard to endure. What’s really hard to endure, though, is facing up to ambivalence.

In love plots and politics, popular culture has a terrible track record dealing with ambivalence. This is another thing the Jeremiah Wright story reveals. The media focuses on the negative side: aversion, disappointment. It doesn’t focus on the pull: this part of the person is great, the other not so much. It’s as though it’s idealization or nothing. Politics becomes chick flick. Ambivalence, then, is seen as evidence of failure, not as what it is: evidence of desire, attachment, longing, not just for a better world but for assurance that it’s worth staying attached to the political itself. The simple crush on having that feeling again translates politically into wanting to re-experience the feeling that made you optimistic.

Grant Farred calls this “fidelity to the political”; Antonio Gramsci called it “optimism of the will.” To give up caring, after all, is to stop resisting what’s clearly outrageous, unjust, not fair, wrong. It’s giving in to political depression. To stay close to that desire, though, one might shift to a softer optimism–I think that’s the usual thing. Just as people close their eyes when they kiss, so too there’s an impulse to close one’s eyes during the political season just to protect their optimism for a less bad politics, maybe even a good politics, enabling the chance for change that would be fundamental yet not traumatic. Change without loss; revolution without risk. We know better, because in any desire, political or otherwise, there’s always risk and the possibility of loss (of comfort, privilege, or knowing how to live). The fantasy of change that would produce flourishing without loss is a deep logic of the crush that can turn into love.

I’m writing this now for obvious reasons. In this season the cynic and the critic provide choruses of shame against my nervous system’s interest in caring about what happens in the political, in wanting something from it. Whenever Hillary Clinton opens her mouth sarcastically to demean political hope I am filled with rage, and my mouth spills out excessively with expletives. Without a desire for the political there is no democracy.

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