This boat is a womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. …

The next abyss was the depths of the sea. Whenever a fleet of ships gave chase to slave ships, it was easiest just to lighten the boat by throwing cargo overboard, weighing it down with balls and chains. These underwater signposts mark the course between the Gold Coast and the Leeward Islands. Navigating the green splendor of the sea-whether in melancholic transatlantic crossings or glorious regattas or traditional races of yoles and gommiers–still brings to mind, coming to light like seaweed, these lowest depths, these deeps, with their punctuation of scarce1y corroded balls and chains. In actual fact the abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.

But for these shores to take shape, even before they could be contemplated, before they were yet visible, what sufferings came from the unknown! Indeed, the most petrifying face of the abyss lies far ahead of the slave ship’s bow, a pale murmur; you do not know if it is a storm cloud, rain or drizzle, or from a comforting The banks of the river have vanished on both sides of the boat. What kind of river, then, has no middle? Is nothing there but straight ahead? Is this boat sailing into eternity toward the edges of a nonworld that no ancestor will haunt?

– Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation (1990 / 1997)

We steamed up into New York harbor late one afternoon in spring. The last efforts of the sun were being put forth in turning the waters of the bay to glistening gold; the green islands on either side, in spite of their warlike mountings, looked calm and peaceful; the buildings of the town shone out in a reflected light which gave the city an air of enchantment; and, truly, it is an enchanted spot. New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face, and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments,–constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. And all these become the victims of her caprice. Some she at once crushes beneath her cruel feet; others she condemns to a fate like that of galley slaves; a few she favors and fondles, riding them high on the bubbles of fortune; then with a sudden breath she blows the bubbles out and laughs mockingly as she watches them fall.

Twice I had passed through it; but this was really my first visit to New York; and as I walked about that evening I began to feel the dread power of the city; the crowds, the lights, the excitement, the gayety and all its subtler stimulating influences began to take effect upon me. My blood ran quicker, and I felt that I was just beginning to live. To some natures this stimulant of life in a great city becomes a thing as binding and necessary as opium is to one addicted to the habit. It becomes their breath of life; they cannot exist outside of it; rather than be deprived of it they are content to suffer hunger, want, pain and misery; they would not exchange even a ragged and wretched condition among the great crowd for any degree of comfort away from it.

– James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912 / 1927) – Ch. VI

I AM no physician, and not learned in physiology, therefore I cannot enter into a learned analysis of the opium appetite. Neither have I read any books upon the subject. I know nothing about the matter save from my own observation or experience. But whether I know why this is true, or that is so, or not, one fact I am entirely conscious of, and that that in this appetite abides the enslaving power of opium. The influences of opium in the latter stages would not have such an attraction for the habituate but that he could easily forego them but the appetite comes in and makes him feel that he must have opium if he has existence, and there an end to all resistance. Here dwell the Circean spells of opium. Should one become accustomed to large doses, or rather large quantity per diem, almost impossible to induce the mind to take less, for fear of fall ing to pieces, going into naught, etc. It seems in such state that existence would be insupportable were reduction made. An intense fear of being plunged into an abyss of darkness and despair besets the mind. Hence the opium eater goes on ever increasing until his final doom.

– anonymous habituate, Opium Eating: An Autobiographical Sketch (1876)

And, as all activity implies a waste of tissue (since it is dynamically equivalent to the passage of potential into kinetic energy), Pleasure is to a certain extent concomitant with a decrease of vital function. The limit at which such waste of tissue ceases to be pleasurable and begins to be painful is, I believe, the point where the waste exceeds the ordinary powers of repair.

– Grant Allen, Physiological Aesthetics (1877)

The same factors which, in the exactness and the minute precision of the form of life, have coalesced into a structure of the highest impersonality, have on the other hand, an influence in a highly personal direction. There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. It is at first the consequence of those rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves which are thrown together in all their contrasts and from which it seems to us the intensification of metropolitan intellectuality seems to be derived. On that account it is not likely that stupid persons who have been hitherto intellectually dead will be blasé. Just as an immoderately sensuous life makes one blasé because it stimulates the nerves to their utmost reactivity until they finally can no longer produce any reaction at all, so, less harmful stimuli, through the rapidity and the contradictoriness of their shifts, force the nerves to make such violent responses, tear them about so brutally that they exhaust their last reserves of strength and, remaining in the same milieu, do not have time for new reserves to form. This incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy constitutes in fact that blasé attitude which every child of a large city evinces when compared with the products of the more peaceful and more stable milieu.

– Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903)



two notes


  • abolition (paraphrasing Aaron Carico throughout): indebtedness is the silenced / nominally enfranchised motor of finance and its multiscalar but ultimately national circulation of creditacquiring personhood via universal manumission does not mark a systemic break with plantation slavery: it just modifies the insolvencies on which that system runs — the presumptively canceled exchange value of the ex-slave’s flesh just migrates to their person, as an injunction to assume the autonomy of accumulating the debt that will both repay (or assure the persistence of) lost exchange value and, in collusion with vagrancy, enticement, and false pretense laws, materially reproduce both geographic and temporal restrictions of slavery

    freedom from debt is the endlessly / cyclically deferred span of 12 months from now, and corporeal violence — the manifold of what Saidiya Hartman calls the “micropenalty” — hammers home bondage by both basic necessities and the occasional splurge


  • acute / eternal: Branka Arsić — some drugs speed us up and others slow us down. or rather “all drugs are related to speed” but the stimulants “speed up perception to the level of the proliferation of images without categories” (Arsić mentions cocaine so one wonders here about how Freud deals with perceptual speed beyond categorization, perhaps vis-a-vis libidinal dynamics — cocaine applies energy from outside the subject — but also vis-a-vis “free-floating” or “evenly suspended” attention — free association, automatism, etc.)opium “reduce[s] the diversity of the images to the immobile point of the ‘eternal event’ (eternal surprise by the univocal event)” (73) –>

    does opium’s eternal event — “abyss of divine enjoyment,” for De Quincey — necessarily take the form of a non-event?



Just back (or basically so) from Jackie Wang and Lily Hoang’s readings’ zigzaggings through so many networks — some bouncing analogue along Wang’s moody “chaoscillator”or figures not just figuring out but, everywhere and from the beginning biochemically beyond themselves, clearing away proximities to/from victimage in Hoang’s — this occurred to me:

One explanation, given by Wang, for the turn from New Narrative use of real names for characters might be the social network. It yields, ideally, to your every documentary impulse, or doesn’t even ask for that impulse anymore, just preemptively contains i.e. solicits it.

Another, not brought out by questioning, but at least as relevant (though actually I wouldn’t say this “explains” anything) would be that both found little reason to be discrete about their pharmaceutical emplotment by history (turbulent, hedonistic, oceanic, mood-stabilizing or not, were the concepts that bubbled up; I would add “dissociative” – like ketamine, tho that wasn’t mentioned). Neither in their poetry nor in conversation.

If the pharmaceutical is a form of “affective knowledge,” what residue does it leave on style, if any?

Or form: something inseparable, in Wang’s reading, from this anaphoric (and ultimately “tautological,” or self-containing) act of “finding” at the bottom of the pool, each diving line perhaps by necessity synchronizing with echoes of the line in her voice swimming out from the “chaoscillator” (which is therefore not that chaotic – a mood stabilizer?).

One of the students in the audience implied that the oceanic was opposite appetite. Wang picked up on it but an elaboration didn’t find time to happen.

Does a pool really hold the oceanic? Equivalent, in conversation, to asking: can a pool be sublime in a way that not just everything can be? Which is to say: pleasure in the oceanic scenario is the elapsed distance between drowning and watching oneself drown. It’s that in slow motion. So not to say a pool can’t be sublime (what would be the point, even?); rather to wonder how the pool gives form to the oceanic.

Were Edouard Glissant in the room, he’d interpose that “the abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, makes one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.” An experience of the victim’s “exception” from history cannot hold together a viable existence, (to paraphrase both Glissant and Ian Baucom’s reading of this passage in Specters of the Atlantic), so “the best element of exchange” is an “experience of the abyss” that allows sharing or “‘transversality'” rather than “‘the universal transcendence of the sublime'” (again quoting Baucom quoting Glissant, 309-10). Victimage by this logic would not mean transcending history by falling out of it, but rather setting up the condition of possibility (a “vast beginning”) for traversing history. To traverse history would, perhaps, mean to move through the abyss’s continuous bounding by the “pleasures of sand,” both coastal and in the depths. Lives discarded from history remain at the bottom but the circuits of exchange value they never realized (interfaced along coastlines) now put their value beyond recovery, irremediably sunk — though it’s as if for that very reason, because of their abyssal recession from value, that they open history up as an element of exchange — via infinities of debt? via Baucom’s melancholy property in the dead? My intuition here is that Baucom’s arguments about sublimity either must be rewired here or they contort Glissant…




Lily Bart overdosing on chloral – pharmakon dose-effect curving from gift to poison, or whatever – feels the “tender pressure” of going too far after waning efficacy and then thereby finally sliding down the brink into an abyss, which is to say, the oceanic.

Down there it’s too heavy for effervescence. On the surface, playing her cards (several kinds), she stays afloat on expenditure, or as an accessory to the “new scenes” she plunges into.


Le déluge (1911) – Léon-François Comerre

Morbid tableaux like this one flood their subjects’ postures with the ecstasies of static: of, that is, staying still, and of having everything drowned out. Wherever rain marks bodies in Le déluge, they howl, or shrink into horrific (self-)cradling amidst the apocalyptic weather; they wail, or splay (ambivalently or fervently) into exposure to self-dramatizing entreaty; they roar, or arch back, out of the crowd, onto something approaching neutral sensation.

Begin with the howling dog. It’s set between the composition’s center — a body cradling itself — and the figural group’s lowest right edge — a serenely unconscious mother still holding her wailing child.

Move from the wailing child’s mouth to its repetition in the mouth of the woman furthest left melodramatically gasping and clutching at nothing as she sinks into the flood.

Then move along a line from her gasping mouth straight up to the roaring mouth of the lion.

At the middle of that line you’ll find the androgyne described, above, as arching back onto the oblivious sensations of rain. Apocalypse takes ecstasy; this figure is out of it: outside the tableau of horror, but also thereby coordinating one of the tableau’s outsides. Namely, a final line of figures beginning with the lioness’s cryptic indifference, through the androgyne, and coming to rest at the drowned body at bottom; (the other floating corpses I’ll exclude from this line, for now).

Why should the above itinerary through the painting’s composition come to rest at the drowned body in the closest foreground?

What we find, here, is the water line. It underlines the compositional field or tells us our orientation to the picture plane. It presses against the painting’s fourth wall — and this is part of how we know it’s a tableau.[1] Seeing the water line puts us out of the picture. As if to seal the scene behind glass, not the way a vitrine does, but like a terrarium — as if the scene were sealed off but noise from inside could still be felt vibrating against the wall separating it from us.

Maybe this enclosure promises something like the self-distantiation that allows the sublime to give pleasure; maybe it promises the tableau’s aesthetic autonomy.[2] Its biblical sourcing (almost a Peaceable Kingdom, if the menagerie hadn’t gone so extinct) could reinforce this work by putting the scene into an allegorical / typological beyond. However the scene enframes itself, though, the effect is basically the same: show the borders of a world-engulfing event.

But why would it need to? Doesn’t the picture plane already formally assert its ontological autonomy from or incommunicability with the spectatorial world?

Several orifices – linking the child’s wailing to the drowning woman’s gasping to the lion’s roaring – collect at the edges of the tableau’s systemic enclosure. 

It is the “ordinary seriality” of weather, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick tells us, that lets it “offer a kind of daily, ground-tone pulsation of mémoire involuntaire.”[3] Making demands on the elements, she finds, asks for satisfaction not from any discrete object’s action, but rather from an environment’s “reliable ability to resist pressure from [the subject] or damage by it” (28). It is from D.W. Winnicott’s work on transitional objects and Barbara Johnson’s use of that work in “Using People: Kant with Winnicott” that Sedgwick draws these terms; Winnicott, she notes, gives the name “‘holding environment'” to this set of “satiable object relations” (28-9). Neither of psychoanalysis’s classical drives (pleasure / death) need be invoked to account for the unspooling of “existential urgency” in the “terror attached to survival.” If analysis is to fully describe that terror (or any affect, really) in its own “qualitative intensity,” then libido ought not be conflated with drive as such. (And neither should the death drive). Not libido, but the drive to live through and thereby keep making demands on a holding environment’s attrition or unyielding tendency toward chaos: not the death drive, but the “existential functions” are what should “represent drive in its existential urgency” (29). 

What happens if that seriality builds to an event of the weather’s systemic autonomy from any human need to be held? In Le déluge,  what we see is not the weather’s absorptive capacity – its ability to not act, but simply passively take damage and make it dissipate – but rather the inevitability of its own laws at work beyond human survival. No redemptive promise holds these naked bodies together, (even if we can parse this death as unfolding its own kind of negative of utopia), just their shared occupation of high enough ground to survive for a little longer.[4] 

Seeing this painting now, one cannot help but see a catastrophic effect of climate change. Perhaps call this the tragedy of the atmospheric commons. What generates the effect is, after all, a kind of systemic presumption: to advance endlessly into a speculative future, as capital thinks it will, is to presume the environment’s serial continuity. And, if not an absolute cushion against human damage, then, at least, one fantasmatically spongy enough to recover so long as each subject commits to indefinitely recycle their commitment to commodity chains (neither reduction nor reuse inhabits / encodes public space the way recycling bins do). 

[1] John Bender and Michael Michael Marrinan’s The Culture of Diagram (2010) finds in Diderot a formulation of tableau in which the scene seals itself off from its viewing public.

[2] A subject’s subsumptive recognition that it retains its sovereignty over what’s happening, for Kant, is what generates the negative pleasures of the sublime. I would describe this as a form of self-distantiation insofar as it consolidates sovereignty by dissociating from the person’s actual paralysis by a scene. Aesthetic autonomy is from Theodor Adorno; what’s interesting about the aesthetic autonomy of tableau is that it escapes the logic of the everyday not exactly by asserting a closed system of “immanent consistency” but rather by joining up with other such closed systems — tableau, in other words, conventionalizes affects by inserting their intensities into a codified set of passions, and by conventionalizing them lends the scene an immanent consistency from without.

[3] From The Weather in Proust (2011)

[4] Jose Esteban Muñoz’s engagement with Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno’s conversations about utopia in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) is behind this formulation; also behind the above thing about apocalypse taking ecstasy.

Not only flesh, or not only reading, may be set working by machines reading (or machines assessing, diagnosing, encrypting); so too may interlocutory situations. Searching for the citations that spiderweb out of D.A. Miller’s “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White” (1986) — 104 in total, says google —  mounts a fleeting collection. (Perhaps the kind of discussion commodities have with one another, or perhaps interlacing conversations attached to names).

Where would it take us if we were to put all 104 in a footnote? Rabbit-holes sprint toward totality but never really get there.

A possible technique: build a database collating every citation, (Miller’s essay, by the way, is merely exemplary of how a close reading may generate research), topic model its distributions of self-description (perhaps looking to organize them by the publisher’s topic headings or perhaps just by whatever clusters around the citation in each case, with a radius of, say, 250 words), and abstract, from those topic models, a summary of critical engagements out of context — not in order to replace, much less try to subsume under an average, those conversations (many of which, to be sure, head in completely different directions), but simply to retrieve one distillate among others of a provisional totality.

One technophobia might posit that kind of automation fearfully, as so many or too many automatisms. Too much data-hoarding and too little analysis. Quicksand for the poetics of talking with the living.

One technophilia might single out (passionately) sites of automatic becoming. Another swirl (entropically) around sites of automatized becoming. Where does that move you? Into magnetisms.



“passive aggressive” is a phrase the OED dates to 1945 at the earliest.

“passive aggression” appears in a 1905 article by Theodore Waters in Pearson’s Magazine titled “How DeOro Won the Pool Championship”:

It required the closest watching on the part of the referee to be sure that no scratch was made, and yet in all that time the object-ball seemed not to move an eighth of an inch.  It was delicacy of touch of the highest order; it was a magnificent combination of mechanical skill and intellectual endeavor, the very refinement of passive aggression; but it was nerve racking to look upon, and the assembly was to be pardoned the deeply expressive sigh of relief to which it gave utterance when DeOro, having determined upon a last brilliant stroke for victory, announced his intention of putting the ball into the far corner pocket.




73. What astonishment is
This surprise has great power to steer the spirits in the brain’s cavities towards the place ·in the brain· that contains the impression of the object of wonder—so much power that it sometimes it drives all the spirits to that place, and gets them to be so busy preserving this impression that none of them carry on through to the muscles. . . . The upshot is that the whole body remains as still as a statue. This is what we commonly call ‘being astonished’. Astonishment is an excess of wonder, and it is always bad because the body’s immobility means that the person can perceive only one side of the wondered-at object, namely the side first presented to him. ·If he weren’t outright astonished he could turn the object over, walk around it, or the like, thus learning more about it·.

  • René Descartes, in Les passions de l’âme (1649)

57. If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as destruction of pleasure were to think logically, then “wow” would be the best criticism of the greatest work of art. To be sure, there are critiques that say nothing more, but only take much longer to say it.

  • Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum fragments (1798-1800)

What if we think of these modes of being in the world–Warhol’s liking of things, his “wows” and “gees,” and O’Hara’s poetry being saturated with feelings of fun and anticipation–as a mode of utopian feeling but also hope’s methodology?

  • José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)