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Theory Camp #2: Glad to the Brink of Fear

Lauren Berlant’s totem animal is roadkill. She begins our mini-seminar with a pedagogical heuristic picked up from Eve Sedgwick – a little something that we former(/eternal) camp counselors like to call, an icebreaker. We’re to introduce ourselves, remark briefly on our work, share our totem animal – and give the names and animals of everyone previous. It’s interesting to see how academics negotiate an immediate register-shift: from research areas to endangered species, or from a 100-person anonymous lecture to the intentional intimacies of seminar. Lauren wants to “float” (her verb du jour) ideas. She describes a pedagogy of attention, wherein it’s up to the current speaker (seated in the “floating chair”) to call on the next raised hand. I can’t be alone in wondering how this practice would have altered the course of the rather breathless Q&A that followed her talk last Monday. At orientation, director Amanda Anderson indicated that SCT is known for and largely fueled by and seemingly quite proud of its climate of “lively debate” – that said, I’m wholly unaccustomed to scholars straight-up yelling (but I’m also not sure I don’t like it).

In the flesh.

Titled “Sensing the Commons,” Berlant’s lecture drew from a current project on “the inconvenience of other people.” I found it electrifying. Dense, complexly phrased, often difficult to parse both conceptually (its archive includes Emerson, Marx, poet Juliana Spahr, Hardt and Negri) and sensorily (Berlant races through sentences in a low tone, says rightly: “I think I’m loud, but I’m not”). To give an embarrassingly reductive gloss, the talk was concerned with the relations between: “the common” (as in people – or, following Paolo Virno, the multitude – but also spaces), sovereignty and its alternatives, (infra)structure, and affect, or our “sensorium.” Scanning my notes, one might find too that she oscillated between provocative suggestions (“movement differentiates infrastructure from institution”; “taking something in is to be non-sovereign, but not destroyed”; “there can be no change without re-visceralization”) and not-exactly-evidentiary engagements with sample texts (Emerson on solitude in nature, excerpts of Spahr’s anaphoric sequences, the enigmatic conclusion of Liza Johnson’s 2009 film, In the Air). Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. (Emerson, from “Nature”) “Glad to the brink of fear” was then reprised in the follow-up seminar as a possible articulation of the affective range made possible by, or symptomatic of, our contemporary condition of being multitude (relatedly, our Berlant-assigned readings were, in order of most to least discussed: Paolo Virno’s “Forms of Dread and Refuge,” Michael Hardt’s article “Reclaim the common in communism,” and Raymond Williams’ “Structures of Feeling”).[1] By way of play as much as of illustration, Berlant screened a 2005 Miguel Arteta/Miranda July short titled “Are You the Favorite Person of Anyone?” in which a survey-taker (John C. Reilly) asks three passersby the same series of questions with varying results (if you have four minutes, you can watch the film here).[2] For me, the “couplet” of “Are you the favorite person of anybody? Are you anybody’s favorite person,” recalls the question Hardt poses at the end of his article: “What would it mean for something to be ours when we do not possess it?” Or rather, the movie’s joke of the attachments expected from past/ongoing relationships repositions his question in terms of an attunement without belonging: what would it mean for someone to be ours – or to be someone’s – when we do not possess each other? Or does any notion of a “favorite” foreclose the kind of plurality and simultaneity Berlant so values in Spahr’s and Johnson’s work? Meanwhile, ITHACA!

Speakeasy in Collegetown. Parties here seem entirely word-of-mouth.

Choppy Cayuga.

I’m in the grateful midst of all these only-in-Ithaca moments: tasting Finger Lake ciders at the farmers’ market, receiving dance party intel from unprecedentedly warm barfolk (-tenders, -istas), reading Stiegler at Lake Cayuga, hours on the quad (the quad!) not reading, not anything, breath-warm air in branches. If I came to this place afraid – of embracing “distraction,” of protracted solitude, of how even an unhurried summer sprints ahead – the last is the only thing like fear that remains.


  1. Berlant evocatively describes a symptom as the “unmetabolizable” experience. []
  2. Note also the neat resonance between Virno’s notion of “not feeling at home” as the “permanent and irreversible” condition of the multitude, and July’s collected short stories, titled No One Belongs Here More Than You []

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