On Writing Light


by Lauren Berlant

And how hard it is to do. I tried, in the last post, to say something about secrecy.

I don’t even care about secrecy, usually, because the scenario of exposing what’s unjustly censored has always seemed overdramatic to me, a distraction: all communication amounts to a defense, a performance of knowledge management that approximates some parts of reaching out to a thing while bracketing out others; and when information is hoarded to consolidate power, often the fact of the hoarding is overemphasized (Lies and Lying Liars, etc.) relative to the substance that was hoarded in power’s treasury (see etymology in the last post).

Think about the word “disclosure.” In the event of the revelation of the secret it just feels big because it reveals that control over history and the present has already been stolen from you (or the body politic), and thus the revelation delivers a quadruple shock (we discover and are forced to adjust to the news that we have not known a particular thing, nor known how to read the world, after all).

But I’d read an article that had excited me, and I wanted to report on how reading a thing had opened me up to a cluster of associations and bridging energies to do with my older work on the new state realism that embraces coping with terrorist secrecy by copying it and papers I’m going to write this spring countering some traditions of everyday life theorizing about encountering the present. The event of the secret, its meaning and force, is, paradoxically, how it’s shared. That was the animating revelation for me.

But my mood was at so many removes from my writing. I could barely stay focused on feeling out the thing. So the writing in the last post sucked in such a deeply familiar way (my fingers typed “failed” and “familial” before they allowed the word they intended). Clotted. I was unhappy at how long it took to say a thing, anything, about the privilege of state secrecy and secrecy in love. So because I couldn’t write with the energy I actually had I had to invent a new genre of riffing, the side effect. Yet even in that incarnation it feels, still, too heavy, each phrase adding a weight rather than folding in light.

Then today I’m rereading Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading” and “White Glasses” essays, the former of which I find such a strange combination of careful and willful argument and which I treasure for what it wills to hold out when it replaces “depressive position” with “reparative reading” on behalf of its commitment to creating, through writing, luminous part-objects or potentialities for gathering up qualia, intimate and associative knowledge. It is trying to convince itself that anger and paranoia can be not the whole story, that they can be interrupted by theory, an orientation toward an affective tendency to appreciate disorienting juxtapositions, mistakes, tenderness, and sweetness. Ideally there would be no compensations, one could just appreciate what’s now. But that’s not the plot of the thing, that’s not the energy of repair.

I am writing this in a cafeteria of sorts. I smell french fries, and when I leave I will smell of french fries. That is not the vehicle I imagined myself being. Sedgwick: “If every refusal is, finally, a loyalty to some other bond in the present or the past, refusal is simultaneously preservation as well” (“White Glasses,” 258). What did I want to be the transistor for, then? She cites Michael Moon’s claim that this refusal is not just of all the sexualities with which one doesn’t identify but a whole range of perversions that we deny without mourning. But is the sensual richness of polymorphous porousness merely amputated when one finds some comfort in being organized? Is the pleasure of form, of becoming oriented, only a defense against the pleasures of desire’s perversity? Is mourning a structuring appetite, a structuring hunger from not being or having everything? (My old shrink said once, “You’d want everything too, if you thought you could get it.”) Is the appetite for optimism the same thing, the slow and manageable leakage of a kind of exuberant animal greed that refuses the finality of loss? I don’t intend these as rhetorical questions.

What lightens me most about Sedgwick is the need to connect, “the bitterness of not doing so” (260), and the need to make theory give permission to bunt one’s head toward the beyond of what feels impossible. The style of “White Glasses” is to reiterate phrases and elaborate on them, to produce a kinetic energy to find new shapes of potentiality for the rageful, destructive, self-shredding affects. I want to build my skills for patience to stay longer than that in the transitional spaces, to not be overwhelmed while I pay attention to what’s cracking irritatingly and inconveniently, to what’s opening, what’s confusing, and what’s flourishing in the transitioning cracks. (The history of the present-in-transition.)

Piece originally published on Supervalent Thought, February 2008. 

Image: Detail from Winston A. Hide: The American breakfast, 2019 (Unsplash)