The Trinocular: Critics in the Off Hours

Summer Edition: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Therapy & Michel Foucault on Acid

The Trinocular, Miranda Mellis’ new column, takes as its point of departure cultural attitudes to the seasons: their moods, transitions, and increasing contradictions.

One doesn’t associate theory with vacation. One isn’t reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on the beach. After all, as Cicero and Montaigne et al taught us, to philosophize is to learn how to die, to take up dying as a practice, to kill your darlings and lose your illusions, not to sunbathe, ride ferris wheels, stare at ruins, or climb mountains as busy with people as malls. To think is already to wander lost, to happen upon the unexpected, to find ruins and mystery everywhere, which is what we seek from “buying back our leisure time,” as Guy Debord describes vacation, that plotted-out exit from the stress industrial complex.

However, if theory doesn’t know vacation in the usual sense of the word, it is expert on digression. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a foundational figure for queer theory and affect studies, digressed from her desk to make textile art, practice Buddhism, and go to therapy, there to divulge and analyze her life-long death-wish and to face the cancer that eventually did take her life in 2009. A Dialogue on Love is her account of therapy and it is a luminous and poignant read for any time of year.

Sedgwick describes herself to her therapist as moving through life receptively, in a state of “free-floating remediation.” She speaks about making others smarter by means of interested good faith. “I want to start out powdering people with fairy dust when I first know them,” she writes, “like there’s a working hypothesis that I’ll trust them, that we’re playing the same exciting game, that they’re radiant, kind, mysteriously talented, spiritually powerful.” This capacity to capacitate is linked to a childhood strenuous with the work of surviving self-involved parents to whom she had to attune inordinately well in order that they might care properly for her.

Sedgwick is particularly marked by repeated experiences of the sudden falling off of her mother’s interest without warning. She describes herself as her mother’s therapist: “That is: I’ve had an / immemorial motive / of eliciting, / supporting, helping / her inhabit and extend / a certain “true self.”” Her relationship with her mother causes her to “learn a rather imposing / habit of silence / about my own needs.” She becomes someone for whom it is “generally easier for me to take responsibility for somebody else’s self-perception than becoming visible to myself.” How many gifted educators and healers first learned inadvertently, of necessity, the basic tools of their trade–how to mute the self, recede, bear witness, facilitate–due to having narcissistic parents?

What the “loose-knit colloquy” of therapy provides Sedgwick is a place where she is powdered with the fairy dust of attunement: received, recognized and capacitated. Her therapist’s listening mien is neutral, absorbent, moves “tracelessly inward.” It is his power not to take space, to listen actively, that allows her to unfold with him.

Jean Laplanche writes of psychoanalysts that “We offer the analysand a ‘hollow’, our own interior benevolent neutrality, a benevolent neutrality concerning our own enigma.” For Laplanche, it is the listener/analyst’s capacity for internal alterity, for the ability to “hollow out” a conventional self by “respect [ing]and maintain[ing] the other in me” that creates the conditions of possibility for receiving, respecting and maintaining the enigma of the other. In such receptive interims it becomes possible to reckon with what in one’s own history has forced one into false positions. Here it is the attitude of the listener that is all important. What is needed is a listener who isn’t making you into a project, who doesn’t have plans for you, who doesn’t know more about you than you do. In Terrors and Experts psychoanalyst Adam Philips posits a kind of listening that never seeks an interpretation more authoritative than experience. There is a principle here similar to the pedagogy of popular education as theorized by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire which recognizes that each person is in a deep sense an expert on their own life and that a great deal of harm comes from the imposition of models of self, of knowledge. “There is no reason,” Philips writes, “to believe that everything in a life–each thought, feeling, action, dream–can be linked, or must fit in. It is the making coherent of a life–the forcing of a pattern–that people often suffer from (symptoms are ways of willing coherence).”

Free thinking and self-healing come side by side here. They are mutually galvanized by intimate and free association within the safety of a temporally bounded, formal bond. Intentionally, explicitly reparative discourse (to use a word I learned the import of from Sedgwick’s canonical essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”) unwinds early damage.

A Dialogue on Love is a work of what I learned from Thalia Field to call “page-performance.” Moving between different fonts and genres, it includes Sedwick’s therapists’ clinical notes (in the professional nomenclature these are called “verbatims”), and her own musings and analyses in prose and in haiku. This form enacts the way in which the self is co-created in, by and through relationship. It takes a chorale to depict a psyche—I contain multitudes.

One does not heal by one’s self. As my friend Mim, an acupuncturist, once put it to me when I asked her if she did acupuncture on herself, “I can’t heal my fucked up energy with my fucked up energy.”

For Sedgwick as well as Michel Foucault, self-care moved to the center late in life. If they didn’t have public identities as trauma survivors, corporal punishment was formative for both and deeply inflected their intellectual trajectories and explorations of desire.

Foucault told Simeon Wade, the chronicler of Foucault in California: A True Story–Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death, about a moment of recognition that seems like it may have been a seed, or the seed, for his life’s work on power, knowledge, and social control:

When I enrolled at the École normale the headmaster demanded to learn if there was anything unusual about me. When I informed him of my homosexuality, he replied with horrified expression that such behavior was not normal and certainly unacceptable to the reputation of the school. He then had me confined, for my own good, he said. He told me that I must be reformed, that I would be confined, examined, and treated by an array of authorities–doctors, teachers, psychologist, psychiatrists, etc. At this instant I recognized in a flash how the system works. I perceived the fundamental impulse of our society: normalization.

And yet Foucault also tells Wade that, after he first fell in love with a man when he was sixteen, “Since that time I have always moved from love to knowledge to truth.” On the one hand, a personal experience of repression and oppression generates his core insight. On the other hand, it is falling in love that moves him from knowledge to truth.

He says to his interlocutors towards the end of Foucault in California that “We have to be able to convey our own story, to record and communicate the stories from our childhood, our life. In this way we can overcome the distortion of the outer world foisted upon us by the media.” He encourages his friends to tell their own stories and exchange them with friends. He affirms personhood. And yet, never does the telling of a personal story mean for him the fixing of personhood, identity, or even species. When Wade says to him, “I want everyone to see you as a person” Foucault responds, “But I am not a person.” “All right, as a human being,” Wade concedes, to which Foucault replies, “That’s worse.”

Wade ends his story with a revelation, an elegy:

“Then I saw with my own eyes what he was saying. As Foucault hugged and kisses us goodbye he metamorphosed successively into the Deleuzian becomings: child, woman, marmoset, leopard, crystal, orchid, water lily, stammerer, noma, stranger, intense music, and finally, his ultimate dream, imperceptible.”

“We have had many pleasures together,” he said, as if from afar. His eyes glistened with the radiance of Venus rising over Zabriskie Point. Foucault molecularized into the arms of his men and then he was gone.


More Reads

Take the W: Entry Points

Katie Heindl

Believer Radio

Claire Mullen

Planting Foucault in Juárez

John Washington