Lauren’s thought is fat: rich and extensive, spreading with pleasure. And I’m headed to murder, fat, and luxury as I seek to fete her. First, however, something in Lauren’s tone is moving.
The sly, alluring sadism of optimism finds its tender, Sadeian analyst in Berlant. With her eye on structural inequality, structural brutality, only she can render the equal opportunity beat-downs spreading across a spectrum of enervated people hoping for something. And do so with gentleness, trying to account for how we are bitten by our most fervent, even if ironic, even if conventional, even if pathetic, panoply of dreams.
Tone and range are the axes of her brilliance. They are also tightropes, showing what is difficult in what she attempts. (And each axis, range and tone, affects my work, as I will explain.) Not only does she range across economic placements from which a gamut of people launches hope (hers is a generous reach, which is crucial). But she also delivers with precision the micro- and macro-fluctuations of tones that accompany and shape a range of actions, a range of affects, a range of attachments that are optimistic. Given what she senses in single scenes of texts, let alone the arcs of texts, Roland Barthes might call her a master of the “vertical din.” Or, in my words, tonal stack, which comes from spread. Vital, wrenching tones fan out in Lauren’s texts — the texts that move her thoughts. To grasp these tones and render them, she must (re)produce them in her own prose. This sort of trapping and conveyance is tricky; really hard to do. She succeeds, cannily. One gets “din” — a demanding, moving, flooding sense of synchronic affects building to a height, grabbing our attention — in her analyses. And one also perceives tonalities layering while spreading, even over time, sometimes also quietly, making for a stacking of tones, which she sediments out from each other, while she listens for their queer harmonics.
There’s so much to learn from watching Lauren work, especially as she handles anything that spreads. In a moment, I will show her supremacy on fat, which, as you might know, leads her to think about a spread of human agency: agency as lateral in some cases, strewn across time and involving self-suspension. Often, I am asked about the link between our views, Lauren’s and mine, on this crucial point. Take me as a backdrop, take me as a means, then, to showing what is striking in her focus on obesity. To be sure, a similarity exists in our trying to understand lateral modes of agency, motive, and/or growth. In The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, I examine “sideways growth”; Lauren investigates “lateral agency” in Cruel Optimism. Fittingly, our work on these matters has emerged side by side in print, sitting adjacent and at angles to each other, each of us differently showing what a stress on the horizontal offers. In fact, having tried to scout laterality, I am so admiring of what Lauren theorizes on this front.
For myself, I needed a term that resisted the phrase “growing up,” which has made growth an upward march through the “ideals” and timeline unfolding as marriage, career, reproduction, and the raising of children. Through to the end of the twentieth century, I have suggested, such verticality was only available to “heterosexuals.” This conception of “growing up” made no place for ghostly “gay” children,and besides, for anyone, is a paltry rendering of one’s maturing, since growth should include extension, vigor, and volume, especially through the brain’s capacity to make neural networks through connection. So, as a way to circumvent the Child, in Lee Edelman’s trenchant sense, I set out to limn the elegant, unruly contours of one’s “growing sideways,” in my coinage–“lateral growth,” as I also termed it. Something related though not reducible to the death drive. Something that locates energy, pleasure, vitality, and (e)motion in the back-and-forth of connections and extensions that are not reproductive. These I theorized as “moving suspensions”: something looking like “delay,” from one angle, though there are movements inside these suspensions.
More to the point of lateral agency, in Lauren’s sense, my chapter on the intrigue of children’s legal motives–“Feeling Like Killing? Murderous Motives of the Queer Child” in a larger section on “Sideways Motions”–builds a “cubist model” of motive growing sideways and stacking as it spreads. Using Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, alongside Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, each of which creatively scouts a famous murder, I show why the “homosexual” child and the queerly “innocent” child together symbolize dilemmas of motive in general for Anglo-American law (as I analyze “motive” and “intent” in judicial language and legal theory in treatises that gather British, American, and New Zealand law). Apropos of Lauren’s idea of cruel optimism, both of these murders are dreams spun off in wrong directions, destined to be spoiled at the moment of murder. (“Charged with the drainage of dreams, the police catch them in their filters,” wrote Jean Genet.) Here is the problem of motive as a form of explanation — a form of legal agency — when it is more often a living, growing, cubist form of dramatically mismatched feelings and movements from different temporalities and from multi-layered sideways inclinations. If motive is a feeling, as well as an action, then the urge to kill is often made from feelings that bear no resemblance to the feelings of the killing itself when performed. Hence, a motive, many-layered as it is, may not seem like any of its elements at the point of murder, because of their spoiling. Or to put it differently, ordinariness comes to crisis here; event reaches back, looking for itself where it can’t be found.
In the same year my chapter appeared in article form in GLQ, Lauren published in Critical Inquiry her “Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency)” (2007), which became a part of Cruel Optimism. Here she critiques what she considers “a militaristic and melodramatic view of agency” in the likes of thinkers such as Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Georges Bataille, and Achille Mbembe when they speak of “sovereignty.” Finding the latter “an inadequate concept”–unable to get at “the pleasures of spreading-out activities like sex or eating”–Lauren makes “obesity,” its “slow death” (its drawn-out killing?), the focus of her examination of what is “vague and gestural about the subject and episodic about the event,” as she “recast[s] some taxonomies of causality, subjectivity, and life-making embedded in normative notions of agency.” Wanting to explore “agency and causality as dispersed,” Lauren urges that we “need to think about agency and personhood not only in inflated terms but also as activity exercised within spaces of ordinariness that does not always or even usually follow the literalizing logic of visible effectuality, bourgeois dramatics, and lifelong accumulation or self-fashioning.” Thus she takes on the “un-heroizable case” of obesity — because it engenders “strong data, florid prose, and sensational spectacles” — so as to get at “what’s not prone to capture by a consciousness organized by archives of memorable impact.” Such an aim involves her in matters of “motives and temporalities” and “a cluster of factors that looks solid only at a distance.”
I on murder, she on fat. Here’s what’s impressive about “Slow Death.” Laying out the tangle of obesity debates (what is causing this eating “epidemic,” “experts” ask?), Lauren scouts an action much less striking and eventful on its face than the act of murder: someone’s overeating, which has led to crisis-talk in ways any reader will instantly recognize. As a tender voice emerging from this fray, but one more conceptually complex and convincing, Lauren shows how grandiose notions of causation miss a person’s micro-temporal wish for self-suspension through overeating, “self-medication through self-interruption.” A momentary spreading-out into pleasure, as Lauren describes it; one’s relaxation into a “small vacation from the will.” A moving suspension, I might add, since a person extends herself into a new state of mind and mode of flesh. This mini-dream, splayed-out desire, comprises the “motive” for this “death” (death by fat)–itself spread out in fantastic slowness, Lauren suggests, spoiling the feelings that lead to this “killing.”
Now from fat to luxury. Eating, of all things, demonstrates how hard it is to separate “luxury” (“an inessential, desirable thing,” according to dictionary definition) from the zone of “need” (something “required”). We have just seen that a person’s eating past what he requires may fill a need (can I call it that? does it feel like that?) for a survival of a different sort: “self-medication through self-interruption,” which, for a moment, feels luxurious, like better life. If, moreover, as Lauren theorizes, slow-death-obesity collapses major differences between overeating and starvation — poverty, in fact, contributes to both,–is there any purchase to using these terms, luxury and need? With Lauren’s book as a caution and a guide, we might study luxury, along with need and poverty. In two senses: the luxury of praxis; the ethics of luxury as a praxis. Just a word on both, here at the end.
Given the capacious diagnosis Lauren makes of precarious life in all its spread — I can’t imagine a superior dissection — her book has left me wondering, now with greater force: What do our theories ask us to do, beyond what they ask us to feel or think? From the early arguments of queer theorists in the age of AIDS, to our cogitations on forms of temporality in our recent work, to economic matters begging queer response in the present moment, there has been, to my mind, a strange continuity: puzzlement over the matter of praxis (is this even a word to stick with?).
“Analysis, while necessary, may also be an indefensible luxury.” So wrote Leo Bersani in 1987, at the height of AIDS (or so we thought), in his famous essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” And so, paradoxically, began queer theory’s “anti-social thesis” (the “value of sex as . . . anticommunal, antiegalitarian, antinurturing, antiloving”), as stressed by Bersani in that essay, which has, ever since, been seen by many theorists as apolitical and anti-collectivist. What, by the way, did Bersani regard as “morally, the only necessary response” to the state and the public’s take on AIDS? In a word, rage. Analysis is somehow too luxurious, but also necessary; AIDS is political but shows the value of antisociality; rage, for Bersani and many after him, takes the form of deliberative thought, outrageous thought, making our action our rage against the state and the way it thinks.
Lauren has sparked my rage over optimism. And she’s intervened in how I think about it. She’s even pleasured me with tones she’s stacked around it, since her vertical dins are so instructive. Moreover, her attention to compassion’s ruse is supremely generative, warning that attempts at “feeling with” people can lead to feeling replacing action and a stress on persons that obscures structures. Lauren asks in a piece outside her book: “What if it turns out that compassion and coldness are not opposite at all but are two sides of a bargain that the subjects of modernity have struck with structural inequality?”
Here’s what I want. There’s only space to state it, though I’ve explored it, on and off the page. I want a queer hedonistic ethics tied to a praxis (individual and collective) that tethers bliss to loss. Agreeing with Lauren that anyone, at anytime, can know the knife of optimism, might we get at affective complications surrounding “poverty” (another can of worms) from distinct ends of the economic telescope? To be more precise: we might look at poverty from the point of view of those-not-in-need (a group much larger than the one percent — we who are secure, economically, professionally, as far as one can tell) and those “in poverty” (by the shifting measures of moneyed distress). While doing so, and perhaps jarringly, we might scout an ethics of luxury, an ethics-not-of-duty, a politics of bliss. Our resulting focus would be not only redistribution or economic justice, but also luxury as a crucial need (for anyone, for everyone) and the power to lose, in Bataille’s sense.
Poverty substantially drains the power to lose. On this latter point, there is much to say. For example, Bataille is at the same time: pro-luxury, pro-loss, anti-conspicuous consumption, and pro-structural change. It’s a huge challenge to think these aims together. Should we even try? And maybe just as jarringly, we might attempt to think Bataille’s power-to-lose (which shows that giving is not compassion but a form of power, thus a form of pleasure, though a form of loss) alongside Irigaray’s loss-as-jouissance, especially where she theorizes loss as a space between desiring bodies, loss as shaping a space of engagement into which one enters, as to be desire(d). Bringing together thinkers as diverse as Edelman, Muñoz, and, quite centrally, Lauren herself, this could be a try at thinking social justice with and through the death drive, alongside bliss, as a way to call for structural change and to craft a model for behavioral praxis, as we wait for change we can’t be sure will come.
Top image courtesy of Flickr user Industry Is Virtue.