Photograph by Jakub Kriz (detail)
by Lauren Berlant
Today I ran without music. When I run this way my head boils out, matter shooting everywhere like water on hot oil. Phrases reach me and mostly move away before I can trap and extend them into actual thoughts. Bracketed matter calls for its due. Anger nudges wonder aside and has its own road rage. Connections appear and fade and I get excited and amnesiac. I mourn people and wonder how so and so is doing. I think about sex (but then I always stumble). I move between flat apprehension and hooking up well enough with the thought that I can sometimes get back home in time and make some notes.
The hardest thing is to brainstorm with oneself. Brainstorming is the skill I use in classrooms to get everyone in counterpoint, if not in sync, but it’s different to coordinate minds that work at different speeds in order to make some material commonly held. Brainstorming is my genre of jouissance in collegiality and friendship too, the work of staying in the conversation in real time that takes place when everyone’s alive enough to focus and then unfocus– to riff. The work of tracking oneself, though, when the ordinary compartmentalization breaks down enough to interrupt a habit of mind, requires a different rhythm of and skill for attentiveness. This general thought is the magnetizing rod for all of the non-sovereign unraveled, deflated, erupted, dispersed, and recessive material that will become Detachment Theory.
Someone encountering me mid-brainstorm might suggest cultivating a practice of mindfulness. That practice suggests a spreading out of focus toward a gentler absorptive apprehension, a calmness with what’s in front of an inner sense that lets in the world around it. Or we could turn to Bollas’s phrase, “evenly hovering attention,” to describe the best way to take in what’s spinning around. Someone else might suggest that this intense burst of material is really about working through a blockage. I have always resisted the deliberateness of the concept of “working through” and think of it with greater derision than it deserves. The concept of working through is too attached to a formal notion of event. So, no doubt my resistance to “working through” is an attachment to an event that I am protecting from being important. But…
But the kind of free dissociation I began by describing is like dream material that appears like fireflies at the wrong time of day. When the brain breaks out into ten songs at once it’s as though I’m going on someone else’s joyride. It’s like when your brain can’t shut up when you’re trying to sleep. Only going running with my brain, I’m not trying to sleep, or trying to organize anything, just trying to witness and remember the matter of dehiscence.
I began wondering about this: if this material is made up of the neural offshoots that make dreams, are these affective memories? Sometimes it sure seems like that. But what would saying that entail methodologically for thinking about non-sovereign ideation? I crawl around my archive.
I love psychoanalysis, but I don’t fetishize narrative memory. Thinking about the symptom as sublimated or masked memory is more interesting; and more still are the uncanny performances that enact memorial affect without memorial content. I love phenomenology but I don’t believe that the senses are mainly the past’s mystic writing pad (see Bergson, Matter and Memory). They are also making happenings that have not yet taken form as events. That’s my queer theory commitment speaking, too, which trains me always to see form as a placeholder that might partly express a promiscuous or incoherent desire or a desire whose scene has not yet been built. Sometimes memoryis doing some work, what Heather Love and Carolyn Steedman would think of as the sexual past’s unfinished business emerging in the present of an identity that negotiates life as the shadow of delegated, tangled desire. But that’s just one vector. Each of these sentences must entail some future reading.
Now that I think of it, I actually wrote a book about memory: The Anatomy of National Fantasy sees nationality as an effect of what the law does to develop mnemotechnologies, technologies of memory that people are trained to take in intimately for forming what feel like fundamental attachments, and what happens when official memory comes into contact with what develops in the everyday through other kinds of being-structuring identification. With its official prosthetic memories, the nation can only aspire to saturate the scene of collective sociality that it never fully controls (props to Allison Landsberg). But the kinds of commitment one builds with intimates–friends, neighbors, strangers–are not only about the was, the will have been, or the disciplines of ideology. They’re also surprising, not just sublimating. All focus presumes an unfocus for which we need to develop peripheral vision: or peripheral attention.
I do not much dwell in memory. I don’t remember fun times in the past to assure myself that life has been worth it, and I don’t try to learn from the crap times to become a better person. I very rarely hold grudges. I don’t act ethically because eventually the present will be a memory of which I want to be proud. I don’t believe that a backward glance produces better wisdom than trying to capture what’s around me; nor that the pedagogy of the past provides a prophylactic against impulsive or the usual stupidity. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s a bog. Usually memory takes the form of a question I’m holding open, a question that humbles me. I have never been nostalgic for what’s fading, faded, lost just because it once had an impact. Memory is material for making openings, not scrapbooks. Because to me what’s important is the presence of what I know, and everything I know is in a different temporal arc from everything else I know. Memory is the name for one temporal arc in knowledge, but not more sanctified. I am thinking ahead of myself here, I realize.
When I began this entry I thought it was on brainstorming, and brainstorming was to provide a part two of thinking about mood as lag, as the atavism of the unconscious and the nervous system that keeps you from the present: mood was the past reducing you to the affective trace of history. This entry was to take up Joan’s suggestion from the last post to think with the Heideggarian thought about mood as both memory and the projection of sense-making that saturates the atmosphere. But I got distracted, because I was brainstorming with myself and need still to gather it all back up to make a nice form for knowledge. But the problem is still unraveling, shooting off its mouth: and I am writing a paper on something else,what was it? Oh: happiness.
Piece originally posted at Supervalent Thought, from August 2009.