Sitting On an Airplane, a Mule
Photograph by Nico Cavallotto
by Lauren Berlant
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.
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.
Thank god I didn’t bring candy onto the plane. The minute I step onto English soil I want licorice and it never ends. I am so very self-disciplined that it never ever ends. This time I walked into my hotel to see a huge bowl of Jelly Bellies, each individually cased in a wrapper with the logo on it. I knew a woman during the 1990s who supported herself for two years writing the official biography of the Jelly Belly. It was not then called a corporate or a commodity history, but a biography, but I don’t believe there was a chapter about the brilliance of individual wrapping for inducing an appreciation of the singularity of the bean, or its serial variations. She told me that Ronald Reagan was the key figure in the Jelly Belly’s global prominence as ordinary pleasure and corporate gift: the neoliberal elite’s first global snack. I flooded intensely with production tableaux when I saw the obscene bowl, and avalanched under various factory scenarios of bean wrapping (by robots? by people?) , seeing unfold in front of me the soon-sickening slapstick of Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate line and then the destruction of the world that went into making come true the dream of the excessive logo. The wrapping unwraps the world and the unwrapping brings everything down to this bean, then that, and you can’t see a thing. I realized then that I knew not where cellophane came from. It turns out to be rayon’s relative, and not, as I first thought, iceberg lettuce’s neighbor. Did you know that “lettuce” comes from the same root as lactose, not cellulose? And that it contains an opiate-like substance? Many people experience this lettuce-like sensation as boredom, the opposite of the bean’s little spike.
#3. was meant to be a demonstration of #s 1 and 2, if that’s not obvious.
Meanwhile my head flashes on my own paragraphs to move around—reorganizes, synthesizes components, pulls thought like worms out through pores whose existence had been unknown, toward routes whose shape is yet obscure, and I don’t care so long as the work makes prehension of the contours of the impossible both more possible and richer.and therefore available for more significant eruption. One must refuse the intractable’s demand to experience pre-defeat. This isn’t therapy because the point is to make an experiment out of thought, to loosen up the tight knot of what’s been satisfying, even if it means risking being not understood and irritating and, all too often, feminized. (If a girl experiments it’s a failure to do something; if a boy does it’s called courage and vision—all too often). I can’t really tell the story of the non-encounters that produced this observation, but they had nothing to do with me personally. I just saw them not happen, over and over, during the conference I just attended, when suddenly I broke into fantasies of leaving the profession forever. This probably has something to do with my mood, but that mood probably had to do something with the candy.
Keston Sutherland gave a great paper about how what gets translated as congealed, solid labor in Marx really refers to gelatin made from the not-discarded body parts of animals, in some under-elaborated analogy to the worker’s body-in-parts that circulates through Capital and is visible in its destruction of life in I Love Lucy’s comic bit. He also cries in supermarkets, it turns out. What is it that gets scraped out from the insides of bones and called a delicacy? Why would anyone think to eat the inside of a bone, except out of sheer poverty? It’s so wide I can’t get around it. My old husband told me how to survive the cold. Stop resisting and the drama becomes a memory and suddenly you’re somewhere else. But how often does that gate open? It doesn’t just open by will.
Work is where I show up with everything I’ve got. A month ago i dreamed about the start of school, and in the dream students passed out to everyone who passed by their kiosk marijuana bouquets that had gone slightly yellow and to seed. The affect was lovely even though I noted that the power of the gesture was diminished by the fading of the plant, and just today while reading in prison a pop up thought said, oh it’s about the good enough reciprocity between students and teachers, the aesthetic object that’s placeholding within the transaction that would allow consciousness to be alive and remediated and loosened up as we are all asked to do if we are learning. If we can bear to let in this fact: that all of our objects are stand -ins. This is the scholarly imperative. It’s all a stand in. There’s nothing behind it. The thing, the object, is a cluster of forces whose reliable appearance makes the world proximate and attachable to, and the attempt to think those relations as an it is a way of changing a lot through changing our proximity to the thing the lot makes, the way its density anchors us and makes us want to move it somewhere. And our own gestures, whose sweep we find in the world and sometimes (if we remediate for a living) turn into concepts (steady, now), they’re what make it possible for other people to learn and things to seem different, because the object can become stronger and different only on the condition that you see in it movement– suspended, alive, and in a space absorbing the thought that included all you know. We just passed the Appalachian mnts. We just passed on lox and grapes. The lady wants me to turn off my phone. Sprint valley. 3594. New city. 5500. Local time st origin 5. No more nuts. At density the plane is shaking. 3601. Suddenly signs of the interstates flash on the screen, as though the plane has made a category error. The road is not a runway. I hope.
This was the summer of putting closure on Cruel Optimism and the cinema of precarity, the digging, scraping cracking and caulking cinema of getting by, Then many new cushions were purchased, and by accident they were all red. Adam Phillips said at this conference that satisfaction is always an image first that preexperiences the later event, but that satisfaction is so threatening as a prospect we would rather destroy the object/prospect than deal with the the complexities of potentially infinite being-with it. I thought that giving too much to the image as object was off, that satisfaction is sensed before it is sensed in a thing, and thus the thing’s distortion of the sense’s infinite spreading without limit has to be disappointed when it lands on the stand-in that is never after all the star or God (as in tragedy—isn’t what Othello learns that he’s a placeholder, not the star or God?), because, I guess, it might be unbearable for some to see the sometimes fact that the sea looks like oil paint covered by lint, from a certain distance, where we close our eyes to hold it and finish it without, I’m afraid, it being the entire story.
Piece crossposted with Supervalent Thought