Suspended Agency, Ambiant Anxiety

I’ve been reading a lot of Lauren Berlant lately.  I’ve also been in the doldrums of a pretty persistent case of intellectual paralysis– unable to read or write very much, or at least not at the pace I would prefer or consider myself capable of.  It being the last week of August, the time seems ripe for a reflection on another summer lost (this blog is unashamedly a near Foucauldian dispositif for reactivating my writerly energies, I confess).  The tempo of the academy these days is so utterly infected with neoliberal machinery that any time not spent working seems wasted; nevertheless, I am coming to grips with what I think might be, colloquially, called instead a kind of writer’s block, abstracted to include reading (I think Eve Sedgwick once referred to a kind of “reader’s block” in reading Silvan Tomkins).  To me, it seems a product of the everyday life of anxiety.

But lest my opening mention of Berlant seem supercilious, I want to retrace my recent and tongue-in-cheek self-diagnosis of “suspended agency by way of ambient anxiety” (my bizarre phrase, not hers) through the assemblage of her work I have been trying very hard to, well, read.  (Oh, and her blog is, of course, brilliant.)

Berlant’s most recent work, which has a proper genealogy stretching back into the 1990s, of course, is fascinatingly focused on why the subject clings to normativity so desperately and passionately in a fantasy of relief in the utterly normal.  Affect figures prominently in this approach, enabling the space of what she coins in The Female Complaint as the “juxtapolitical”: the way certain feelings (in the case of that book, sentimentality) feel close to being political and resistive, but ultimately wind their way back, through an investment in happy endings, to normative resolution.  In the smattering of already published components of what will be published this October as Cruel Optimism, Berlant hones in on a specific kind of attachment to the fantasy of “the good life.”  Cruel optimism refers to the felt need to stay attached to an object understood as bad for the subject, but whose loss would entail too painful a break with the maintenance of the subject’s life.  The attachment is optimistic insofar as proximity to the object of desire keeps alive the sense of a potential for a better future, for the famed “good life”; it is cruel insofar as that very attachment enables the ongoing attrition of the subject.

One chapter in that forthcoming book will be a revised version of the essay already out under the name “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)” (Critical Inquiry 33, 4).  This is where I want to focus my attention.  Slow death, here, is defined by Berlant as “the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence” (754).  The essay, as its title implies, is actually a reevaluation of the concept of sovereignty through the prism of the obesity epidemic.  The part I want to seize on, though, is her re-centering of the notion of self-medication by asking us to imagine what moments of self-interruption, of “lateral agency,” would mean if we were to think of them as what “someone is doing when they are not acting in a life-building way—the way that liberal subjects are supposed to do” (759).

The notion of “self-interruption” is one that I have been wrestling with all summer.  For me, an ambient anxiety is exactly what it sounds like: a sort of in-the-background hum, an affective charge oriented toward an always latent possibility of fleeing into the suspension that is feeling anxious.  Anxiety’s temporality is future-bound: you are deferring the object of anxiety into a future that can never come, but can be anticipated for near unlimited duration– or at least until you get exhausted.  Hence anxiety is here a form of gentle paralysis– you can’t help but focus on it, yet it leaves you just enough agency (if it is ambient) to become frustrated by your own lack of movement (this treatment of anxiety I am drawing from Sianne Ngai’s fabulous eponymous chapter in Ugly Feelings).

Feeling suspended is, to say the least, unpleasant.  Especially when you have a stack of books staring back at you from the coffee table.  And yet, Berlant’s notion of lateral agency suggests that we seek out slow moments where the pace of life is dialed down.  It’s not that we’re necessarily doing anything about the attrition of our bodies under capitalism; in fact, that’s sort of the point of her essay.  At its most severe, “slow death” through something like eating is one of the few forms of agency available to the subject.  My conundrum is far from that weighty, though.  Being stuck in an ambient anxiety all summer has prevented me from doing a lot of reading and writing.  Thus, the solution is obviously to read and write, in spite of it.  And yet, I am haunted by the obviousness of anxiety: that part of why it keeps suspending me from life is because it is trying to at least give me some lateral agency, something I am cognizant of losing as September rolls around and I once again plunge into the hyperreal of the semester.  Then what am I left with?

So I’m left with the weird desire to make friends with my anxiety.  I’ve fought it all summer, besides, and that didn’t accomplish much.  I’m not sure how to befriend a bad feeling.  But, short of pathologizing myself, I expect that anxiety and I will continue to have a long and intimate relationship whether I’d like it or not.


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