I Went Back 2 The Violent Room for the Time Being



by Lauren Berlant

Prince was at the cusp of my unclenching. I’ll never be able to tell the story as long as people are still alive but I won’t tell a cover story either. I mean, I won’t intentionally tell a cover story, but it’s all a cover one way or another: you can’t say everything, even if you would. But if you are not free all the way through you can still build from a space where your freedom’s not entirely crushed. Comedians call it commitment to the joke. Where the lung’s even a little unencumbered, possession and dispossession are just bad memories.

So for the moment, let’s say it’s been seven hours and thirteen days, divided by your weight in dog years, say. Frankness stands in for facts. Thunder sounds out what the lightening speaks. I was driven to tell you something simple. Forgive me if I go astray.

I’m a teacher.

Was it the year my co-teacher had a nervous breakdown and I froze in an inhale or the year my teacher said I’d be lucky myself to lose it, as he just stood off and made faces at life?  He always wore a microsmile on his face at himself that people mistook for happiness and imitated. We were on the phone.

Whatever year it was, I was in the classroom with other people. That’s not a technical observation. Here’s what it feels like. We are alive at the same time you are reading this, for the time being. The time being is shared time dilated to a thing we could live together. The time being is like all things being equal and also the truth: stand-ins for an idea of a shared sense that has material effects on our action.  For the time being we are readers and writers slopping along in the same general aliveness. But that doesn’t mean that we share a historical present. We are not living together in the historical present only because we’re not dead for the time being and you’re reading near the writing’s publication time while the writer’s still alive, I’m sorry to say.

I am sorry; I typed “sore,” which is also funnily a synonym for “angry”: I wish we shared more. But there it is, between us for the time being, a world of never-ending happiness, day or night. All things being equal, for the time being, we are extended in time, attempting to attune. But the historical present, that’s something else.  Not the afterworld. Not the alterworld. Not the future we won’t be in. That present doesn’t exist until we make it and make something of it. Which doesn’t mean that stuff didn’t happen.

So I am a teacher, and I say to my students, who are like readers but better because bobbing in the tub, we are here together but don’t share the present.  We’re alive with all sorts of strangers and though we share a planet we can’t presume a world that’s held commonly. We may argue that x shapes life systems at a scale of visceral abstraction, but even then we can’t have confidence that we are imagining the same object, image, figure, or world.

In classrooms we share a space of time and a project whose contours emerge. But we all enter history in a fractured simultaneity we didn’t know wasn’t shared because families are captioning machines whose frames we presume, until we don’t: then heuristics as we move through things. And school. You thought you were taking a class about x but you didn’t know much about what x is, which is why you’re taking a class. The class tells you what others thought x was and also complicates x. We giveth x and we shaketh x. The present can’t be a kind of thing without genres that are made from its forms of life. Genres have to be shared, which is what makes their making political.

That was a little unwieldy, I’m sorry.  It’s hard to build out the steps and not leap to inclusions.

I paraphrase my assignment to help things along, to transform reading at the same time to reading in sync. This is a sexuality class, where we will learn to know better about such desires.

Frame a matter of interest in the contemporary world and find a situation for interviewing it, then come back and tell us what you learned about the historical present, including nothing at all, in case your data appears singular rather than a strain of something collectively held, which is all we can hope for for our concepts.  A strain is a pain and a string in a song’s continuity. No need to pick: it would be arbitrary.

I explain interview protocols to them, because they think good intentions are the same thing as virtues.  The dumpling restaurant that opened a few doors from my office was sad today when I walked by, staff sitting glumly in the window, no one pounding on the door asking for small organic locally sourced and delicately infused starch packages.

So the rules were: tell them what you’re doing and what it’s for, no tricking. They have to consent to talk with you under explicit parameters, which makes the demand for consent a fantasy of governance as a good luck charm, because when we consent it’s to the unpredictable and the unreliable thing to come and not, sadly, to a capsule of safety. In the interviews you have to have a plan and both stick to it and be a human in the situation, following out arcs with care, which is different than carefully. Good luck with that.  Do no harm, break no things, including trust. Good luck with that. Try to be worthy of trust. Be attentive to intervals.

Everyone, by which I mean some people, wants to call their mothers.  No one has ever sought out a father.  But families are not permitted. You have to interview people whose middle name you don’t know, the way some vegetarians refuse to eat things with faces. Two of the students were student teaching a third grade class at a local school.  Three of the students were interning at a law office downtown. Another group is drawing blueprints of the public bathrooms hotels located near the lobby, and talking to the architects of public intimacy. No one takes up my suggestion to talk to food and sanitation workers, or the campus telephone operators. Two of the students called their mothers anyway, and asked about–I can’t remember.

The elementary school interns asked the eight-year-old kids, what would happen if you woke up tomorrow morning as another gender?

I’ll wait while you think of that as a possible outcome for you.  What if you woke up tomorrow morning as another gender?

How you respond to a “what if?” game tells you a lot about how you fix action in the world. They got consent to tape the responses.

The kids’ voices are so high it’s impossible to tell who the girls and who the boys are, except a little by what disgust adheres to, but even then you just have to laugh and feel sad. No one admits that being another gender could be a relief or even improving.  Ew, gross, wieners, etc. Then one kid said, what about Prince? He’s not a woman, he’s not a man! And then all the kids started chiming Prince! Prince!  in their high little voices, Prince! Prince! He’s not a woman, he’s not a man! I love Prince! There’s some singing and, from the scraping sound of chairs, some dancing. The sheer idea of the idea of Prince freed them from being scared of what they hadn’t yet imagined for themselves.

Losing your object can release a riotous plenitude, and also the nausea of indefinite awkwardness. The heart opens its mouth and lets out a breath, and maybe there’s piercing, and gratitude even. The class hazarded what-ifs about what followed from the not-quite-data. We wished for self-evidence the way we wish to use love–to simplify and let us be good-natured sometimes. But there is a difference between the spike of attention from the rise of desire and the transformation of what feels open. For that you need a world for the shift to stick to, and composition, and repetitions, and above all the time being’s fresh extension against the never quite vanquished violence.

1400 words; part 1.

Piece crossposted with Supervalent Thought.