Crossover/Combover: A Performance Piece


Illustration by Salvador Bartolozzi. Via.

by Lauren Berlant

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.

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 action—writing, 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.

What is a good, or healthy, ambition? When is a lack of ambition a sign of moral balance or political resistance; and when is detachment from ambition’s arc a sign of depression or downheartedness, the fatalism of a felt placelessness in the world? Isn’t the whole alibi of “the good life” that stands as the object of imaginable capitalist futurity a way of normalizing ambition into a vague neutrality? The pedagogy of judgment around good and bad aspiration and the tactics of object/scene/lifestyle pursuit turn ambition into an open secret, under the membrane of which desires are exposed to public judgment and the judgment of conscience about whether a person or institution’s fidelity to a certain arc of action is really about what it says it is or overinvested in proving itself. We would prefer that the career seem like a good kind of side-effect, not an organizing principle of action; we would prefer that the career be a mere market-organic consequence of making knowledge. I hope that question “what do I want to clarify, to change?” that I ask when I write is the same thing as “what is my ambition?” but the register the latter question opens up is a scary one about desire about which few people are reliable reporters.

At this moment of crisis in the value of a university education, at this historical conjuncture, work cast as crossover usually decides to assume the stance of direct action, through peppy, unjargoned, and normatively-framed storytelling into which the good writer translates material that another way of writing would have obscured. The “public intellectual” seems legitimated by the clarity of aim,  the embrace by the market, and or the seductions of polemic. The itch to do this is an economic, institutional and ethical pressure on the academic who communicates for a living, and who is now forced to plead not only for the value of the thing she does but also of the kind of thing she does.

As long as the state sees its mission as guarding and funding privatized wealth, its preference for the mode of production over the modes of interpretation will prevail, and no brilliant number crunching about how we interpreters are really not expensive will neutralize the other truth, which is that we are, in the long run, not the best servants for expanding the field of capital. For many of us, the difficult work of producing barely-read interpretation was already half-located in the haunted echo chamber of why bother, what’s the point, and what’s the value? (The other half was in the quiet room that collects the times when ideas had an impact that felt like an opening.) Now, added to that, we face the question of what would best make the case that archival and interpretive labor is instrumental for institutions and states, and not the trace of an earlier era’s idea that the soul’s self-development had something to do with cultivating exegetical capacity and historical knowledge.

Michael Hardt has recently argued that we should anchor our funding claims in the fact that we make good immaterial laborers! Anything that does not serve to sustain the next phase of capitalist optimism will be deemed properly a threat and extraneous. This is what crisis means. In a prosperous mood capitalist culture can absorb lots of benign variation, but that is not the mood of the moment. My point today is that it’s not enough to make good arguments to sustain the system. We have to debate our ambitions and not to presume that crafting the broadest crossover or the most normative plea is the best defense.

Just as a crisis to the security and sovereignty of a democratic polis ought to produce more democracy, not less, so too I want the crisis in the value of interpretation to induce more commitment to describing the world and inducing displacements through the new associations that scholarship can induce. (I’m in solidarity with Latour’s dream of “associology” here; and remembering Spivak’s “descriptive/transformative.”)

In my own work I have been cultivating an experimental critical practice that would like to turn interpretive synthesis into a kind of writing without sacrifice of any kinds of knowledge or voice. Indeed, I was included on this panel not because of my books, but because I have been pursuing this ambition on my blog—it’s also the method of the blog, to take encounters as metaproblems about how to narrate in relation to knowledge. I call this object of analysis and case production its scene. Amitava asked us to think about a scene that induces writing about a place, and what it means to write from a locale in order to move the meaning of it somewhere. Scene brings many resonances to this panel: the urban, the institutional, the affective, the bodily, the familial, the ethno-communal, the national and transnational; the political. I want to add: the academic.

Like all genres, the scene is a suspension bridge, defined not by events but by wobbly atmospheres in proximity to a disturbance. So, if a scene appears as a shift within the ongoing, the happening becomes-event in its prehension, what we’ve grasped without understanding it–not in facts or narratives that come to stand as facts, the story about x. In the psychoanalytic sense, as in “primal scene,” subjects become conscious of their nonsovereignty in an encounter with a threatening situation and get stuck in the affective atmosphere. That is what then constitutes the context for the becoming-event, the perturbing data that never quite makes it to knowledge. The scene in this affective sense shares a lot with the scene of the crime, too, as the yellow tape of the latter denotes a situation of causality and action in excess to the materiality of the known act and the objects left there to become the event, since what constitutes evidence is something only ever determined later and that meanwhile leaves a suspicious atmosphere (suspicion is what makes noir realist). Contemporary cities, picking up on the 60s vernacular of the scene that gets made, tap into this uncanniness. During the late capitalist era urban lifeworlds have been famously sustained by an experience economy made from a small set of scenes (the neighborhood-in-transition, the festival-as-event, the creative industries) that promise to afford one’s sensorium a scene of moderate excitement in proximity to what’s uncontrollable in urbanity’s risky spaces of anonymity, where vast differences in wealth produce unpredicted convergences when the appetites are opened up and tapped into.

My ambition has not been to detail the everyday as a social scientist or cultural studies journalist, though (studying other people’s scenes), but rather to make scenes for encountering the ordinary of the historical present in the gestural, the aleatory, the lateral move, the half thought, the compulsively hypervigilant observation, and above all fantasy, the ambitious fantasy of being able to continue to make sense in the places that test the senses and overdetermine the object relations that make a world material for its inhabitants. The scene’s claim on me as an analyst is to make a genre that will hold it, which is why I work on realism, which for me is the same as genre, e.g. the mode by which something becomes manifest in its factishness (Latour’s word merging the fact and the fetishistic investments in it). I typed “mode,” but the more clarifying point is that all mediating modes are moods, and a mood is one of the primary historical genres, the affective trace that violates the self-evidence of the contemporary; it’s a in politico-somatic event, tracking into the scene the unfinished business of other times, it makes present the contingency and non-sovereignty of activity that is also intending, ambitiously, to keep things together, not too easy when so much around you is giving out.

All of this is a performance of the crisis of the reproduction of life that used just to shape what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “the undercommons” but which now penetrates everything touched by the collective encounter with the global crisis in finance capital. There is a lot to say about this crisis and its implication for what we do for a living: the crisis throws into audible relief many fugitive ambitions. Here are a few other ambitions to be retheorized.

The state: Zizek’s great analysis of end time discourse points to “four horsemen of this coming apocalypse: the worldwide ecological crisis; imbalances within the economic system; the biogenetic revolution; and exploding social divisions and ruptures.” These scenes, he argues, must be stripped of fantasies and subjected to a new communist necessity. To do this he believes that people must withdraw from the state and from populism and make infrastructures for the shared “substance” out of which the sustainable social may be grown.

Katie Stewart and I have been calling this situation The New Ordinary. My part of this is to point to the difficult materiality of transition across fantasies of ongoingness (see the forthcoming Cruel Optimism). Amidst all of the fraying among which people live now, and facing the depletion of fantasy amidst the stressed out and unraveling conditions of labor, environmental disaster, crumbling material and social infrastructure, people do not end but live on.

How do they do that once they have lost the anchors for life-extensive fantasy, becoming archaic to ways the capitalist/domestic everyday was sold as movement toward an ideal? Is this collective archaism the source of the resurgence of the American paranoid style? Is conservative paranoia both about the state and the poor as equal threats to freedom a revelation that can be directed away from the constriction of the social imaginary? In the contemporary U.S. the state’s security function and its resource-distribution function imply clashing conceptualizations of democracy: the appearance of that contradiction as the public confronts its class antagonism in relation to economic and patriotic fairness does not actually prophecy the end of a statist imaginary but the end of a phase of contradiction about what states should provide, to whom, and whether the economic problem of the state can be resutured to the project of democracy in an expansive, and not defensive way. We need to make more capacious fantasies for this kind of transition. I once wrote “Nations provoke fantasy.” The correlation is “fantasy induces infrastructure.”

On top of all this is the crisis of the university. All over the world education is suddenly deemed too expensive for the state to bear reproducing: and in the university, only the potentially profitable arts and disciplines, like economics, continue to magnetize the desperate hope for generating a new labor revolution for the expansion of value or at least the maintenance of the system that there is now.

The crisis of the university is the crisis of publicness, of whether there is a general public worth investing in. What does it mean for a person or a population to be deemed a bad public investment? This has been the central question for the disposition of wealth in liberal societies since the Enlightenment. The crisis of the contemporary university is whether it is really an edu-factory, a genuine privilege, or a space for experimentation, and not just information transmission. In my view the interpretive arts have to take on the claims for experimental thought, for generating new combinations and ecologies of relation. Research is not a mode of production but a mode of experimentation: but to believe this must be to rethink our pedagogies, our idioms, and our own genres to induce the atmosphere that respects that.

What is the relation between choosing a crossover genre and choosing a project of inducing experimentality in the interpretive arts and sciences? What is the relation between discourses providing clarity and truth and a focus on the problem and the enigma of the problem? How do we respond to the explanatory demand and the justification for expertise about matters that are all themselves, by being hard, only properly the subjects of experimentation? What can thinking things (re)make? Are we holding on to the 19th century discrimination between the people who theorize and the people remanded to the body? But more importantly, who gets to try and fail? Experimentality requires learning from failure, as any scientist knows: an experimenter has to risk failing. We know we are in a general crisis when there is no cushion for failure, except for the very privileged. For the rest is the public spectacle of confronting how thoroughly the good life was fantasy, not realism. So the crisis of the present is to rebuild the respect for, which is to say to make cushions for, the experimentality that imbues action with optimism for the worlds built by it. That cushion is not just psychic. It actually matters to people’s lives if the system has no give for them, and that’s just as true to the life of thought.

Speaking of failing, the ASA cancelled the grad student session, Plan B, a session on what to do when there is no world to hold economically and institutionally the people who have gone into debt teaching and thinking with us. To not meet on the failure to maintain fidelity to the people with whom we work is one instance of what I call the combover. We all know what a combover is; we are its subjects, having styled our own hair to conceal our flaws. A combover subject looks in the mirror, just so: he stills the world. In that stilling he becomes a still life encountered at its perfect angle, and by keeping the world out and neutralizing the inconvenience of other people he performs a mock realism with respect to himself on which he can not only build pride but make a foundation for getting through the day, the stress of life.

Without a look at the combover that sustains fantasies, especially of graduate education, at this and every session, our optimism for worldmaking through scholarship is an act of violence against the people on whom universities depend, including ourselves. There is no plan B, why have a session about it? No doubt it would be an unsatisfying meeting: but satisfaction now would be obscene. It would have been better to admit that our only available cushion, amidst an economy in which there are not enough jobs to justify the narrow model of investment that incites people into paying the huge fees to become the future managers of America, will come from venting and brainstorming our way through and making transitional holding environments for entertaining the sensed, but not yet articulated, thoughts that could become ambitious plans into which we could collectively tap to continue these vital and vitalizing scenes of absorption, curiosity, experimental mediation, and wild, productive—even when failed–conversation.

Piece crossposted with Supervalent Thought