. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Secrecy, a Hoard (med.L. secretia, a royal treasury)

Read a great and useful piece on secrecy: Shersow and Michaelson, Is Nothing Secret? Does “secret” in the title mean deliberately to dogwhistle “sacred,” and what does that suggest? Or does it point more to that other great pronouncement of ethical failure, “Have you no shame?”, a near-rhetorical question that accuses someone else of losing moral discipline or withdrawing from a commitment to normative ethical views and acts. Have you no x? You should have x. If this is a rhetorical question, you don’t even deserve to have heard it.

The shamelessness of political antinormativity: terrorism, now, has become defined as a commitment to hoard knowledge from the state of any political views and intentions. For pro-HUAC politicians the shame was secreting communist affiliations and for people like Joseph Welch (who famously accused McCarthy of shamelessness) it was McCarthy’s embodiment of the state’s equation of democratic freedom with citizen transparency. The fear of the citizen’s opacity rubbed up against the ideology of individual sovereignty. Absent somebody’s discipline by a sense of duty, somebody‘s shame was supposed to relax the contradictions, one way or another. I learned the word “dogwhistle” from Amanda Macdonald, by the way. In Australia, it refers to a connotation that’s inexplicit in an utterance but seeks to confirm solidarity with a specific kind of ideologically-defined ear/subject/being/population.

I also learned from the learned essay something I ought to have known, and shame on me. The etymology of privilege is “law of the private”–privus lege–by which we can understand here less the modern sense of privacy (the law legitimating possession of that which can be called personal) than the traditional sense (the law legitimating the sovereignty that derives from ownership). The law of the private, or privilege, points to the sovereign rights of any individual, but historically that individual was the Pope, who had ecclesiastical privilege. But knowing this history puts a new penumbra around accusations of privilege, for now they can be understood as accusations that someone or some institution has asserted a private law that self-benefits or benefits a class. It reminds that the property word title organizes a sense of an actual entitlement.

Secrecy, hoard, trust, title–this reminds me of Aristotle’s always startling revelation of how often the terms of ethical discourse derive from the economic. Maybe that’s why I’m as suspicious of ethical as of capital logics of value: I don’t trust most self-privileged guarantees of good intentionality or the normativity of most forms of reciprocity.

Meanwhile, to secret the loss of your commitment to normative ethics, to not tell the world that you have withdrawn from the normative agreement that x behavior will denote y moral state, practice, or commitment, is to assert a privacy that the state/your interlocutor can’t bear, these days. The body politic is petit objet a, and has to be beaten for it.

It’s one thing when people hoard transparency from each other: usually it is a betrayal of trust to violate the intimate’s promise to be transparent enough. These departures into opacity are inevitable, though, and anyway much secreting of alterity can actually come from motives of care, to protect the big picture of love from malign variations of mood. But that doesn’t mean that exposure will not be an event: it’s always an event to discover the alterity of the lover that was always and will always be there, and is there right now.

But the politics of who gets to secret the secrets–this is what Kim Scheppele wrote about a decade ago, and what Michaelson and Shersow are thinking about. In “The Epistemology of State Emotion” I argued that the state defends its own opacity from accusations of antinomianism by claiming that the terrorist practices of secreted secrecy force the state into mimetic overdrive. Here’s the view of The New York Times.
Michaelson and Shersow’s real aim is to explain secrecy in terms of Derridean-inflected genre theory, and to approach the Constitutional history that made the Patriot Act seem legal. Of course it should have been called the superfluous, supernumerary state secret act, since it legalized already legal suspensions of due process. Bush/Cheney were angry that they had to ask permission to do what they wanted, claiming that speed of execution in an era of rational paranoia is a priority over the boring business of supervision. But perhaps one ought to save the word “supernumerary” for its best phrase partner, “nipple.”

Here’s a bit of what Michaelson and Shersow have to say:

In any case, a secret evidently can—or must—be shared by more than one; and yet, to remain faithful in any sense to its own concept, it cannot be shared by every one. . . . In those cases that are called, in English, “open secrets,” and in French, “les secrets de Polichinelle,” only the sharing of the secret is secret, not the secret itself; and even such sharing remains always suspended just this side of a necessary limit which it may always encounter in, for example, the voice of a child proclaiming an emperor’s nakedness. Are these problems of number and limit (as such phrases and examples seem perhaps to indicate) the source of the faintly comic note that seems to play, as we shall see, around the whole idea of the secret, even in its most serious (and secretive) political form? We will also suggest that this question of the secret is a kind of ghostly double of the question of democracy itself, to which it remains inescapably linked by exigencies at once practical and theoretical. Democracy and the secret pose a sort of double problem whose two sides can be denoted in French by the single phrase plus un (cf. Derrida, Politics 101). How many can share a secret? The secret replies, so to speak: this many, but no more. And how many [End Page 125] can join in a democracy?

This passage calls up Jodi Dean/Zizek’s argument too: that democracy produces an evidentiary crisis. Who has the information that organizes life? The enmeshing of “openness” with democracy, equality and freedom requires suspicion on all sides, and a play between the sovereignty and injustice of kept secrets, open secrets, fetishes of transparency on all sides, and a suspicion that things are never equal, which they aren’t. Intellectuals can fetishize the circulation of knowledge, as though knowing all equals an even playing field. But rather than be cyncial about it, let’s turn to Ranciere’s work, where democracy is a desire and a process of opening and claiming that refuses the norm/law of class privilege, and it’s not the same thing as openness or equality, which is a measure in a moment. Secrecy might be anti-democratic, a treasury or hoard of value, but transparency is a fantasy horizon that does not guarantee or constitute democracy. We know that and yet the impotence of the truth and the seduction of the wish remains, that a sense of openness equals openness of access to power, resources, and indeed privilege, with all the unimpeded mobility of impact its etymology suggests.

Below I’m starting a new genre for riffing, for keeping suggestive connections alive. Interruption is my stylistic ethics: to self-interrupt, to force openings in my own habit of self-tracking and self-regard, to be idiomatically non-monogamous, as you would predict. Adultery, fantasy, philandering, swerve (I read an article today about adultery, where the commentators kept saying “she got her swerve, he got his”).

Side effects: Secrecy may dissolve or engender solidarity, paranoia, and love. Its genre is the stage whisper. Secrecy may induce constant surprise at leakage. Be prepared, ask your doctor. It can perform coercive binding, as when, after information is “shared,” the speaker says, “You mustn’t say a word about this,” as though by listening you had already consented to pretend not to have heard or been changed by the event of the dirt. It may induce pervasive skepticism about the meaning of gifts and of love. It may make one long for stupefied and stupefying defenses against any assurance at all. See extimacy. See also political depression. Unimaginative and thrilling inversions can develop, too, as in: retaliatory acts of openness, disloyalty to that open secret which shields privilege from experiencing its own fragility, compulsive uncaring frankness, or gossip (the sublation of once-hoarded information to pseudo and then actual performative authorlessness). Hearing commentary on you that open with phrases like “people say” may lead to an adrenalin rush, the sensation of being tipped over, and generalized hate or love, depending. People who are cruelly made to discover that they have been out of the loop, discourse fellowship, or sentimental holding chamber of insiderness may go crazy on you: do not open up the treasury while driving a vehicle. Secrecy may cause more hoarding, more secrecy, more informational auto-poesis or lying. It may cause diarrheas of deniability, falsely innocent assertions of not having known, not having been on the inside, and not having had a will to the death of the other from whom x was kept and who could not therefore understand or shape the condition of their lives. Refusals to protect the secrecy of the open secret dissolve the assurance of others, and may create a will to saturate all sensual fields not in kind but with acts of reason or pseudo-openness that really amount to an ungiving turned-away back. Sinthomo-epistemology may induce vomiting. I thought some of this during a meeting at school a few weeks ago. Why bother going to the gym when I’m getting so much exercise rolling my eyes while keeping my face straight? Composure uses up glucose. Writing keeps me from flying off into the air from all that fluttering.



The Pathetic Imperative

Yesterday while driving to MLA to meet a friend whose family is slowly being worn to a nub–car accidents, drug abuse, suicide, and “natural causes” mark the meanwhile during which she’s gotten tenure, become a Buddhist, found and left lovers, considered getting another Ph.D, or writing three books, or changing jobs or buying more flats (in other words, her head’s full of noise even as her mouth sounds so clear)–a commercial came on the radio selling conscience and commitment towards foster kids.

In an age of increasing fear that new generations will fare worse than the ones that begat them, foster kids and certain populations of adoptee (bad luck if you’re born in Romania and good luck if you’re born in India) are not only being shunned as resources for family-making by the infertile but marked as populations so damaged from the get-go, so incapable of giving or receiving love, that it’s not worth cultivating individuals who hail from them. The exceptions are striking, as this segment on Romanian adoption from “Unconditional Love” attests: but the exceptions, the kids without devastating attachment disorder, can never really shake the seconds mark invisibly lasered on their foreheads. The brutal ease with which these humans are written off as unworthy of optimism slays me.

I’ve been reading lots about this problem of impaired attachment: that’s one of the research lines this blog will be tracking. A great assessment of the state of the neuropsychoanalytic literature can be found in recent work on “The Children of Duplessis,” orphans who were named mentally ill and institutionalized by the Canadian government in league with the Catholic Church (see bibliography below). Articulating neuropsychology and attachment theory, some contemporary work on these children is in its own way heartbreaking, as it tries gamely to show that not all subjects of trauma are traumatized by it, and that what happens in life can work dynamically, alleviatingly, with what didn’t happen during the child’s first 3-5 years (appropriate and reliable levels of stimulation and comfort whose absence can fundamentally change for the worse the capacities and responsivity managed by the hyppocampus and the amygdala). The plasticity of the brain works for and against the capacity to develop attachments as life goes on; the plasticity of the brain isn’t infinite, but expressed in changes to patterning, and as we know, personality is pattern, a cluster of habits, that is very hard to change and very hard to want to change.

So maybe not all traumatic events produce trauma for their addressees; perhaps all traumatized subjects don’t manifest the encounter the same way; perhaps it’s just a small percentage whose depression not just won’t but can’t respond to treatment. I can’t help but think that the widespread fear of a hardwired mental unhealth that can’t be undone, interfered with, managed, or turned toward flourishing is a symptom of some deeper knowledge people have about how uncapacious and maladaptive the world is to everyone, not just those who can’t perform the normative imperatives to produce and reproduce. I like using words like flourishing and capaciousness as a metric for what the conditions of social life ought to provide, because they seem so irrelevant to the tightening gyre that replaces the liberal/capitalist promise of building a good life with tinnily optimistic instructions for making, holding onto, and surviving the loss of a fragile one.

The commercial hit me so hard that I can’t remember it. Young kids with optimistic voices edited together in increasing density and speed said that they were foster kids (also called “waiting kids” in the literature) to whom no one has a primary commitment, that they had love to give and needs to receive it. The commercial ended with all of the young voices saying the phrase “Please don’t give up on us” with emphasis on the please and the pleading and with increased intensity that mimed, performed, and communicated anxiety.

Please don’t give up on us pleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’tgiveuponuspleasedon’t…

The commercial reminded me of a belated response I had to Don’t Leave Me This Way, a great AIDS anthology I bought in the mid-1990s, one of the best ones next to Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. At some point last summer I picked it up to browse and find out what I hadn’t yet learned and suddenly re-felt the anthem’s powerful disco realism about all the queer lives wasted, deemed incompetent and unworthy of intimacy and the good life, and then I started missing some individuals and the whole lot of the lost, and then, weeping, realized that the lyrics were the child’s lament about the adult world’s impaired attachments: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love, don’tleavemethisway…

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Children of Duplessis CBC Archive

Wikipedia Entry on Duplessis Orphans

Perry et al, “Seven Institutionalized Children and their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: the Children of Duplessis.” Psychiatry 69 (4) 2006: 283-301.

Low and Eth, Commentary on “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis.” In Psychiatry 69 (4) (Winter 2006): 314-321.



George Kress, of Winder GA

The Minneapolis Airport today was stacked so deep with returning travelers that the security lines backed up across the walkway into the connecting building. I left my people at the curb in a rush with barely a kiss, though we were hours early: it was lucky, too, that I’d been anxious. In front of me an older white couple–a very large man and a smaller woman, random gray hair and a henna flip–were joking about the weather in Minnesota. I asked where they were from and we were off. It was one of those real conversations where so much gets said but it’s all in the shadow of the threat of a break should any of us stumble into the wrong tone. After the pressure to keep it going lifts it’s hard to remember what the event was, apart from the dodged bullets.

An encounter like this is an opening, but what kind? Does it eat its tail or does it matter, diluting what would otherwise be a future aversion to that kind of stranger? Once someone I met on an airplane googled me a decade later to say that he was still praying for me. Another time I got an email years later from a woman whose depression I helped lift by talking about class and loneliness and being educated out, then recommending Carolyn Steedman. On the way to Australia last year, I was adopted by an anesthesiologist from Sidney named Ian, a tiny man. He was a competitive ballroom dancer whose heart had just been broken by a golddigger, and who thought he might die from it–he’d even consulted cardiologists about it. He was traveling to competitions rather than dying–that’s what he said. He had invited me to be his guest in the Admiral’s Club because I helped him to find our gate. While there I got an email from a friend whose husband had just dumped her and she was in a heap: I reported this to him and told him I thought about love for a living, and out came the story about his broken heart and his friends not understanding how he could love this woman with all her aliveness, and I could give him that, patience with his need to be near her life drive, and with the difficulty of detaching from his optimism, compromised as its object might be. He had been a widower; she made him feel effective. Eventually she started internet dating on the sly. I always fancy that a remembered encounter might rezone the imaginary a bit. On the other hand there’s that post-adrenalin amnesia.

Minnesota led to Colorado Springs which led to Atlanta, which isn’t as good as Colorado Springs (but it was great because “the snow comes down hard and the next day it’s gone”). Snow and ice led to global warming (“they” have “agendas” to create crisis); faux global warming crisis led to faux health crises like Alzheimer’s (there were always “loonies,” what’s the big deal?). I sort of concurred, musing that the rhetoric of crisis is often used to describe long-term conditions. But I mentioned that as usual the poor would suffer from it all much worse , and talked about Jim’s cancer, the incredible labor and expense of it all, and how haunted I am at every minute imagining what would have happened if he were poor and/or alone, as surely I and so many are and will be.

At that point the conversation became more possible. Health care in Atlanta is in crisis for the poor: recently only one hospital was left to take care of the uninsured, and almost went out of business. It’s losing 11 million dollars a month. The state stepped in, now there’s equal opportunity immiseration for the institutions. The wife suggests that meanwhile, the poor keep not buying insurance. Me: well, why blame the poor for not buying insurance they can’t afford? Why should the rich live longer than the poor? She says, “Exactly.” He says “That’s the way it’s always been,” but before I could jump in to say that the endurance of injustice isn’t a good argument for it, he said: “I went to two tours in ‘Nam and I tell my kids, don’t talk to me about the poor till you’ve lived with them, lived on a half a cup of rice and some beans for three days.” I have to admit that he seemed to grow taller to me as he told this story–but we were turning a corner, and I was bending to get my bags too.

We talk about global misery, Asia and the Southern Hemispheres. He moves onto politics. “I tell my friends, get used to it, Hillary’s going to be the next president, Madam President, and that’s the way it should be because look at the difference between Bill and Bush, when Bill was in office we all made money and Bush is bankrupting us all.” He said, “the way I see it, the middle class pays for everything. With a Republican, we give all our money to the rich; with a Democrat, we give all our money to the poor. And a rich man never opened a door for me.” I laughed in delight and said I’d tell that to my students when I was trying to teach them about class, and later he gave me his card so I could quote him by name: George Kress, of Winder GA.

At some point, because this is all a blur, I asked if he had a problem with Hillary (since I do, politically) and he said, I don’t have a problem with women taking charge, and his wife grins, play pushes at him, and says, that’s right you don’t, because you took care of your brothers and sisters and you learned some things, and I said, what did you learn? “My father died when I was 14,” he said. His father cut aluminum sheet for walls and roofs and put George to work when he was six years old: “six years old with cut legs and crawling into places the men couldn’t go, it’s not right.” And “I told my children what do you want, to be down there sweating or using your heads?” And his wife says, “We have five college graduates.” I said, so you didn’t build the business for your kids to take over? George: “Hell, no!”



Faceless book

Today I introduced Facebook to someone older than me and had a long conversation about what the point of networking amongst “friends” is. The person was so skeptical because to her stranger and distance-shaped intimacies are diminished forms of real intimacy. To her, real intimacy is a relation that requires the fortitude and porousness of a serious, emotionally-laden, accretion of mutual experience. Her intimacies are spaces of permission not only for recognition but for the right to be seriously inconvenient, to demand, and to need. It presumes face to faceness, but even more profoundly, flesh to fleshness. But on Facebook one can always skim, or not log in.

My version of this distinction is different of course, and sees more overlap than difference among types of attachment. The stretched-out intimacies are important and really matter, but they are more shaped by the phantasmatic dimension of recognition and reciprocity–it is easier to hide inattention, disagreement, disparity, aversion. On the other hand it’s easier to focus on what’s great in that genre of intimacy and to let the other stuff not matter. There’s less likely collateral damage in mediated or stranger intimacies. While the more conventional kinds of intimacy foreground the immediate and the demanding, are more atmospheric and singular, enable others’ memories to have the ethical density of knowledge about one that is truer than what one carries around, and involve many more opportunities for losing one’s bearings. The latter takes off from a Cavellian thought about love–love as returning to the scene of coordinating lives, synchronizing being–but synchrony can be spread more capaciously and meaningfully amongst a variety of attachments. Still, I think all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life.

Thinking about yesterday’s reciprocity entry, I said to her that one point of Facebook is to inhabit the social as a place of play, of having a light impact, of being ordinary, of being acknowledged, of echoing and noodling, where the bar for reciprocity is so low that anyone could perform it by clicking. It’s a place where clicking is a sign that someone has paid attention and where dropping a line can build toward making a life. You know someone has imagined you today, checked in. You’re not an isolate. Trying to accommodate to my positive explanation, she said, I guess it’s like when churches organize prayer circles for impaired strangers, sending out love into the spirit world–it can’t hurt, but is it deep? Me: people value different evidence of having had an impact and of mattering to the world they’re imagining belonging to, and who can say what’s deep from outside of the transference? But I realized that I may be incoherent about this, and of course this problem, of figuring out how to talk about ways of being that are simultaneously openings and defenses, is central to this project. When people talk about modes of belonging they talk about desire but less so about defense.

I sense that Facebook is about calibrating the difficulty of knowing the importance of the ordinary event. People are trying there to eventalize the mood, the inclination, the thing that just happened–the episodic nature of existence. So and so is in a mood right now. So and so likes this kind of thing right now; and just went here and there. This is how they felt about it. It’s not in the idiom of the great encounter or the great passion, it’s the lightness and play of the poke. There’s always a potential but not a demand for more.

Here is how so and so has shown up to life. Can you show up too, for a sec?

How can the “episodic now” become an event? Little mediated worlds produced by kinetic reciprocity enable accretion to become event without the drama of a disturbance. The disturbance is the exception. And that’s what makes stranger intimacy a relief from the other kind, which tips you over.