“Hooked on Phonics” marks the sixth publication as part of These Essays, a series selected by editors-in-residence Suzanne Doogan and E. Saffronia Downing.
thinking of you today.
i am working on some essay right now—it’s not good. it’s bad. i keep spinning the wheel (exhausting), i watch some TV (dangerous), i accidentally end up trying to justify the medium of language as a whole (foolish?). u ever find yourself doing this? they are real questions (i don’t think it is just anxiety): who for? what purpose? do I want to change a mind? self-consciousness in moderation, too: “do I have something to offer?”
a dumb idea: the most significant thoughts throughout history were never formalized into language, no? you’re right, I can’t prove that, but I can imagine ones that stayed shapeless, non-congealed, never weighted by self-serving performance in being spoken or written down. “pre-cognitive,” or something. Or thoughts that were expressed more purely through attitude. or love, or care. there are so many books that should have just been essays, but maybe just as many essays that should have been a brief, fluttering touch, too.
It’s usually that audience question: how can you know who you are trying to reach? really though: is it the audience who already knows what you’re talking about? Or is it the audience that you’ll spend your entire life trying to convince (but at least it’s not a life spent preaching to the choir)? That’s just marketing, probably. Maybe I write only to myself in order to remember some intangible series of thoughts on a later occasion. (Or are you the audience? I’ve always been bad at parties and good on dates.)
References for “the audience you already know”: (1) A painting by Brad Phillips: “Shit! I’m an Artist’s Artist!” (2) That bit by Wittgenstein in his preface to Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:
This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.
(Do writers generally do this, or do most people work under the guise of novelty? Of offering something new to the world? How many texts have I been in the midst of (semi-) contentedly reading when—suddenly—-the writer is coining an empty neologism? My eyes roll backwards—I wake up dazed. (remember that one essay on hyperallergic trying to coin the term “Like Art” for “bright colored painting?” fuck that guy. he had a lot of other bad writing on there, too.) Sometimes you need a new word; sometimes you’re just lazy.)
Ludwig is pretty transparent with non-novelty in a way that seems sweet. He wrote the notes for that text while fighting as a soldier for the Austrian Army in WWI (after attempting to avoid the position, I should mention) and finished while on leave in 1918. It’s the only book-sized text he ever published. That’s always amazing to me, when someone like that keeps such a hard boil that anything they put out seems indivisible. (tbh I’ve only read bits of it—oops—but I do get the sense that it’s up our alley: language and world, what can be said vs. what can be shown, etc.) I guess it makes sense for that to become a point of reference here when I am trying to figure out how to write, thinking about that translation, thinking about that filter. I wonder how many soldiers he spoke with when writing his notes, what kind of lines he heard uttered into a bowl of stew at evening time.
(did u ever see that movie Restrepo? i watched it while sweating painting my room in the copycat in summer 2013. it’s a documentary on the soldiers of a combat team in korangal valley in afghanistan, a record of the boy-fighters playing xbox while on tour and sleeping and killing. it’s soft and intimate and disturbing. i think about the boys I knew in high school who joined the military and of the times I saw their smirks dissolve in the halls. and the acne they had. i also wonder how much is not said in war.)
This aspect of formalizing the pre-existing that Ludwig gestures towards seems to be what so much useful writing is for: crystallizing some latent synchronicity. There is a looming shadow that is unnamed, unnameable, and perhaps the tools don’t exist to name it; it is your job to do so.
What is that shadow? Some portals: Melanie Gilligan’s text “Affect & Exchange” consolidates a few points of reference. On Spinoza’s binary distinction of ideas and affects, she notes that the work outlines “the idea” as a mode of thought defined by its representational character, while “affect” might be a mode of thought “which doesn’t represent anything.”
Jumping to Brian Massumi, she moves to offer more language by paraphrasing him: “that affects are pre-personal while emotions are social.” Further, that “feelings…can be interpreted to exist somewhere between affect and emotion… as affects that register in the subject’s conscious world of personal signification [my emphasis added].” Feelings and emotions both function here as “recognized affect,” that is, ~ the shadow ~ that finds its name. But since emotions function socially (and are externalized), they become independent from a subject’s interiority. (This is a similar independence that affect performs inversely, being neither recognized nor named, but still experienced.) Feelings, then, “are the only point in this process that can rightfully be considered confined to the individual’s inner world.”
This creates a pipeline of sorts between inside and outside that interfaces with Wittgenstein’s showing/saying nicely. Here is a diagram I made:
pre-personal (interiority) social space
affect ——-> ( feelings ) ——-> emotions
exteriority ( self ) exteriority
The public, in general, mocks affect beyond that which can be harvested for exchange-value. It becomes gendered, racialized, weeded out. Massumi’s language, appropriately, will always feel like the wrong tool for wading through muck, but it illuminates experienced moments in which it seems impossible to verbalize why someone has made me feel embittered, used, useless. Related: Amy Sillman once explained to her student Paul Chan that, “dumb people make great work, too,” but the word dumb remains gravely uninterrogated here.
(How does that shadow become the shape? Perhaps it’s like McLuhan’s analysis of Gutenberg’s influence, where Western thinking becomes an imitation of technological ability, where the development of movable type privileges and develops the visible as much as it privileges linear discourse.
Here is a proposed continuation of that theory of human consciousness: first the inner world either does not exist or mimics the shadowy cloud of affect, then it mimics spoken word, then the page, then the radio, then the television, then the network. Arriving at mind-as-network, you come close to full circle: zoomed-out views of network visualizations look like the shadowy cloud of affect, but zoom in and one encounters a deep architecture built from countless connections.
btw did u see that 2018 olympics opening ceremony? They made that floating cloud with thousands of drones to draw a 3D point cloud of some running man. horrifying)
i feel like these shadows are externalized all the time, though. Writing of Wittgenstein’s kind is what social media has perfected: an orchestration of mass-subjectivity from the ground up by pointing to [something] and saying “This is me” (by typing “dra g mi”). it seems appropriate, since it functions through such a cloudy, soft-edged network, that the image complex of meme production and exchange is so affect-oriented.
it is only the context that changes in memes; the feeling itself stays constant, becomes shared and communal. authors and audience find that they don’t identify with but, rather, embody these depicted avatars in a way that ends up functioning pre-personally. this is seemingly only a semantic shift, but it significantly repositions the subject/object relationship: the audience’s embodiment here is of an object (that feels), and is not identification with a subject that one understands. Because of that, the meme-subject is always actually the meme-object.
The roleplaying aspect of the meme-object finds relationship with BDSM’s positioning of the agencies of the subject/object and the props surrounding them. A Chris Kraus line resonates: “S/m’s a double flip around the immanence of objects in the theater: the objects aren’t blank and waiting to be filled with meaning by the actors. The objects here are meaning-cards, they hold all the information.” She is referencing the gags, the whips, the chains and their implied uses here, but it is the notion of meaning-card as script that draws a strange thread between our meme-object and their access to agency. One proposed meme: a servant is bound in a medieval sex dungeon and cries out when the paddle whistles through the air and lands on exposed, swollen ass cheeks. Labeled over the sobbing face: “me”; labeled over the dungeon-master: “this essay”.
Presenting affect in such an image based platform intuitively privileges the concise—-a word or two is almost too much, but increasing the number of typos allows longer captions. These misspellings become phonetic, moreso serving purity through performative immediacy than strategy. I’m thinking about sadpapsmear69’s and scariest_bug_ever’s femme memecraft now and how they selectively subvert and reinforce all of these dynamics. How much information is actually stored in a blurry photo of a lipstick smeared borzoi rolling on its back, me as my g o o d boi cortical homunculus? A version of my body as I feel it from the inside out? It’s a little unclear if it could be a monograph or a percussive, demonic grunt.
from audre lorde: erotics function as power, where erotics is outlined as a resource deeply within a femme and spiritual plane, a power in an unexpressed, unrecognized space, a space that is publicly both encouraged as a signifier of inferiority and rejected as a contemptible virtue. “A longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered,” she says. “Women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex.”
i am imagining a bookstore called Erotics and Erotica. it is full of theory, sci-fi, non-fiction, fiction, and ah, yes, erotica, too. it’s a queer space: the books are always sharing touch with each other, always being held, yielding, opening, bending spines. romantically and platonically, always pouring forth this unrecognized shadow of a space through haptics. i flip through a few selections, letting the book touch my hand, sliding against its yellowing paper and letting its contents dictate my interiority. it’s a small bookstore, very intimate. only a few books, lots of essay collections, a very sweet staff.
lorde’s erotics function as a linchpin for me between these worlds. the intangibly networked somehow functions within and external to the inherently bodied nature of affect, despite that contradiction. maybe text finds a place here after all.
letter writing as the virtual: an effort towards epistolary (if I am bad at parties and good on dates). I drafted a virtual version of you in my head while I write. Actually, I was trying to write this letter in a cafe right now, but tbh you’ve been texting me erotica the whole time trying to get my pants wet. I should write a little longer so I can walk out the door without embarrassing myself. Is that what Lorde was thinking when she said that fear is what relegates erotics to the bedroom when it might just as readily be embodied by the act of painting a fence? Probably not, but I will write another paragraph or two purely for the sake of letting my pants dry off.
A related question: who is bottoming in this letter? The text is a score and you perform it for me. I have you eating from my palm; you follow in the order in which I prescribe, comma by comma, following the text’s turns and dictations, allowing it to lead you wherever I choose.
but I am writing now and watch myself take shape as “the page” and its contents, ossifying the shadow into parts to be distributed, dog-eared, abused, written on, torn up, confined to the shelf for days, then eventually months, years. uploaded, circulated, and then downloaded. you look down on me in your lap and open me up. I feel your gaze and yield my contents to you. your grip is firm.
but maybe this letter should be a brief touch, instead, too, and do away with that question. This letter as touch: something slow, a little less than a graze and a little more than a brush.
image credit: Keenon Brice
These Essays is a periodical mini-series of non-fiction writing curated for the promotion of joy and inquiry by E. Saffronia Downing and Suzanne Doogan. For the duration of the project, one essay will be posted each Sunday here on Post-Office Arts Journal. Writing is not restricted by theme, and ranges from pop culture criticism to personal essay and material analysis. For more information or to contribute an original piece, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.