Archive for August, 2007

Oh, the Names You Have Called Me

August 28, 2007

Last night a woman at a condo association meeting began screaming at me that I was “a liar and an idiot.”

This felt very familiar, as if I were coming home. It occurred to me that people like to yell at me and insult me. It’s conceivable that I might possibly provoke this sort of behavior in others. For posterity’s sake, I am going to create a list of the names people have called me and the insults they have hurled my way since my earliest childhood. Please check back regularly for updates to this list. If you can recall insults I haven’t included, add them to the comments section and I will integrate them into the main entry. Also, there are many kinds of insults here. Help me come up with types.

Sausan: “Your brother never punched me when he was in the womb.”
Cindy: “You’re a fascist.”
Anne: “Oh yes, you’re e-mail boy.”
Lacy: “He’s a sexual harasser.”
Neville: “I asked how you were doing, not your sordid friends.”
Michael the Therapist: “You’re not insane, but you are a sociopath.”
Michael: “You don’t make enough money.”
Phil: “Go back to Egypt, camel jockey.”
Tony: “You’re a farkin’ idjit!”
Tony: “Thanks for the sources. I was able to find all the books at Borders.”
Liz: “He wants to suicide bomb my office!”
Bradin: “You’re a genocidal maniac.”
Sharon: “You have no deductive reasoning.”
Howard: “You’re a smart guy, so stop acting like such a fucking idiot. You’re beyond arrogant. It’s something else more pathological than arrogance.”
Brian: “I don’t have as much experience as you do with prostituting myself, but…”

Concordances

August 5, 2007

“We can’t hear ourselves speak.” — Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

Liz was a linguistic anthropologist with a strong bent towards neo-pragmatism. That meant she couldn’t flat out admit she was a stalker. Her motivations were too “over-determined.” Liz only considered that her statements indexed “something,” but was — like the late, great, Susan Sontag — against interpretation. She encouraged her graduate students to compile indexes for their dissertations, lists of what their objects of study were referring to when they spoke — never what the natives meant. Melanie Klein’s writings would appear on her syllabuses as examples of the kind of too-free-thinking that, as compelling as they were, should be discouraged. They were signs of a bygone day. “We know better now.” Liz was secretly ashamed of the days when anthropology was a tool of empire. When she encouraged her female doctoral candidates to study ‘indexicality,’ she failed to realize that her turn from imperialism sent them all back to the days when women in Ph.D. programs wrote concordances instead of dissertations. Concordances are lists of words and where they appear; such as where the word “eye” appears in all of Shakespeare’s plays. They were popular in the days when women were encouraged not to hold a thought; to barely filter the material they wrote about. Though she was an out and proud lesbian, Liz was ashamed of her own intelligence.

Liz saw signs everywhere. First she liked C.S. Peirce and his semiology because it avoided the binary of Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics. Later Saussure was preferred because “the post-911 political situation had reinforced the dialectic between binary utterances.” Liz felt that “theory is a tool box.” She would reach into the tool box for whatever equipment suited her at a given moment. Lacan was useful to quote whenever she wanted to go into denial about any aspect of her personality. She felt that she was the last person to be bothered to look at herself objectively given the inevitability of “misrecognition.”

That night Chamberlain and I ran into her at the Medici, I ordered an ice-tea. Liz needed no caffeine. She was wired from an exciting “constellation” of influences she had seen appearing in the work of various papers at that afternoon’s series of panels on Otherness. Talking and gesticulating excitedly about the difference between “the event of narration” and “a narrative event,” she didn’t notice what a scene she was making. Graduate students I knew at other tables were pointing to ours and whispering, giggling.

Liz brought up her mother to demonstrate a point about how “the Other enrages for no apparent reason.” It was the drapes that did it. Liz’s mom would constantly bring up inane topics, like the new drapes. Visiting her family, the last thing Liz cared about was the drapes. Discussion of drapes would fill her with rage. Liz had no drapes in her apartment. I’d seen it: in fact, she had no furniture at all. The natives she worked with had no furniture. Why should she? (Her allergy to domesticity hid behind a cover story of political commitment.) The unfortunate drawback of living without drapes, Liz raved, was that the object of her obsession lived one story above, across from Liz’s unit. She did not call this fellow professor “the object of my obsession.” She referred to the woman she loved by name. She would spit that name out as if it were an insult or speak it with the vastest condescension. This woman did not sleep regularly. “The light from her window is like a spotlight in my apartment all night,” lamented Liz. She easily segued into self-pity,”I can’t sleep at night because of it.”

As Liz told us of her predicament, Chamberlain refused to make eye-contact with me. He nodded politely and told her what she was saying was interesting, being almost encouraging. He was embarrassed by expressions of desire that weren’t camped up by references to coke or public sex. Why would anyone talk about an unfulfilled desire? To Chamberlain, expression of longing was unseemly. We were both trained literary critics, and Liz’s longing was obvious to us both. Why wouldn’t she see it? Or, did she see it? Was it part of her routine of self-deception to make bald admissions about herself through ‘deictics’ and ‘indexicals’ that merely gestured to her?

Secretly, she denied her intellectual positions and thought her subtlest gestures counted. In her most depressed moments she would quote Erving Goffman on the importance of posture to identity formation. The spotlight put her on stage all night long, so that in her exhausted stupor even the boyish slouch of her shoulders would send a secret communication across the courtyard, up one floor. In reality, subtlety escaped her. She was loud and obnoxious. At lectures by other academics, she would chit chat like she were in some high school cafeteria. I shushed her while Victor Burgin spoke; I shushed her at a lecture on Typhoid Mary. During question and answer sessions, she wouldn’t ask the normal questions that usually translated to “Why isn’t your work like my work?” Instead, she would ask long rambling questions that would turn into a second talk — one that wasn’t actually saying anything. She talked until it stopped being actual talk; the stream of words coming from her mouth would only look like talking. At some low animal level her body registered constant frustration that the one she loved wasn’t paying close enough attention, and neither, ‘damn it!’, were the rest of us. I used to wonder if she was experiencing a condition to which only academics were susceptible — metapause. When she would ask questions, you could practically smell the engine burning. She would press on the theory, and all that would come out amounted to a loud jungle screech.

It’s the demand inherent to making a spectacle of herself that counts. That demand for a patient reading meant that Liz struggled with the understanding that she wasn’t loved. “You can never be too patient with the ones you don’t love enough.” This stubborn refusal of interpretation was her way to remain in denial about her loved one’s non-affections

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back and trying to understand Liz. Friends and colleagues dismiss her as a kook. When a friend mentioned that her dissertation topic would be about slapstick comedy, Liz stopped and started to hit herself. Her voice widened and she began shouting for “water” with each slap. A few minutes later she explained that she was performing an aboriginal rain dance. Once, when escorting a famous philosopher around campus, this woman asked me expressly to keep Liz and her mania away from her person at upcoming public events. For a while, I gave up and trying to figure out what was wrong with Liz and, if asked, would go with the flow by summarizing her as ‘nuts.’ I would argue in vain against her intellectual positions as if they were truly intellectual and not simply painful formations of emotional immaturity grinding against a stubborn refusal to be “fragile” in the face of adversity and intellectual complexity. It wasn’t until I was myself carried away by an under-current of obsessive feeling that I began to relate to her. Reading around, I came to understand that Liz was an eroto-maniac.

Ian McEwan’s creepy novel, Enduring Love, puts a spotlight on eroto-mania. In the aftermath of a ballooning accident, science writer Joe Rose meets born-again layabout Jed Parry and “something” passes between them. Jed begins to stalk Joe, talking endlessly about what Joe communicated to him on the fateful day they met. He accuses Joe of using curtains to send signals that torment him. Over the course of the novel, no one believes Joe is being stalked. He is the one accused of having gone mad, living a life of delusion. Eventually Joe remembers a case he once read about:

This woman was convinced that all of London Society was talking about her affair with the king and that he was deeply perturbed. On one visit, when she could not find a hotel room, she felt the king had used his influence to prevent her from staying in London. The one thing she knew for certain was that the king loved her. She loved him in return, but she resented him bitterly. He turned her away, and yet he never stopped giving her hope. He sent her signals that she alone could read, and he let her know that however inconvenient it was, however embarrassing and inappropriate, he loved her and always would. He used the curtains in the windows of Buckingham Palace to communicate with her. She lived her life in the prison gloom of delusion.

The condition comes to be known as de Clerambault’s Syndrome for the French psychiatrist who eventually comes to treat her and make her his most famous case-study. The novel may be the best of Ian McEwan’s positivist novels. If you’re familiar with his work, especially his 911 themed novel Saturday, you’ll know that McEwan believes in science above all else. Every character insight his novels make are taken from references to diverse discoveries in neuroscience, evolution or even meteorology. But in Enduring Love, the science writer is faced with having to dissect the concept of love. Someone who lives in a world of clarity where love consists of drives and evolutionary imperatives, is suddenly forced to face a ‘pointless’ homosexual obsession without reproduction as an end. Moreover, this love is sublimated into a Christian desire to bring Joe into union with not only Jay, but Christ as well. With his atheism threatened, Joe loses all objectivity; he destroys Jay’s love notes and shoos him away before anyone can witness them together. For a while even the reader wonders if Rose is an unreliable narrator who has lost his mind, wishing up a stalker for the attention; it’s the gothicism of obscurity, desire, confusion, being pissed off, that is the horror of positivism. Luckily for Rose, psychology is also a science and once he arrives at the breakthrough that allows him to pigeon-hole Perry, the novel reaches a tipping point. Joe seems reliable once more, and the horror recedes. By the end of the story we find ourselves back in familiar McEwan territory of pithy observation and pop science analogy, out of the very interesting ambiguity into which he had too briefly plunged we readers.

Liz feared and loathed the signs she saw all around herself for just that sort of ambiguity, and being unable to see the forest through the trees she couldn’t understand that they spelled out the same old formulaic “love” script Jay Perry and all other stalkers read: the script which promises “you are important since you bring meaning to others, especially your extra-special, super-duper, true love with a cherry on top.” Or maybe she could read the script, but also understood at a deeper level that though this script was written to adhere to unchangeable rules and formats that apply to everyone, it also, nevertheless, singled her out as unique, concrete, singular.

Liz tacitly acknowledged her compulsion to stalk and veiled it over by the old anthropological stand-by of “culture.” Once, she confided in me, “I’m Siccilian, and my people understand revenge and the vendetta better than most. What I’ve learned is that the reward of revenge comes at the moment where your target finally understands all the years of effort, of labor, of calculation, that went into hurting them at just this moment. It’s that look on their face as they realize how well you’ve crafted their punishment that makes it all worth it.” Three years later, while teaching a class with her, I told Liz that her long-term sociopathic revenge plan against the object of her obsession had to end. It had gone too far. I explained that I would bring her machinations to light if she persisted.

Liz took great measures to try to silence me. She confiscated the “golden age” gay porn that I had lent to her “for research” (these were vintage, mint condition, issues of Straight to Hell). She tried to intimidate me through my friends, threatening to ruin their careers (even when they were in completely different disciplines). Liz appealed to my professors to mediate. When that didn’t work, she contacted the dean and accused me of being a “terrorist.” The same woman who once told me that she finds violence to be “thrillingly enabling,” dredged out an email where I had referenced suicide bombing. The dean denied her request to have me kicked out (she hadn’t edited out her psychotic emails from the ones she forwarded to him). He asked her if she was holding my porn hostage. She told him that she would not be returning it under any circumstances.

In a psychotic outburst, Jed Parry tries to kill Joe’s girlfriend, Clarissa. Liz, on the other hand, parceled her violence out over time. She put the lie to the myth that these breakdowns are spontaneous. They are in fact, planned, fantasized about. The fantasy is that violence will enable meaning. It filters what has been indexed and allows the “love-script” to speak. Liz hoped that all her cruelty and aggression would be recognized, and even, despite the pain she caused, appreciated.

Stalking was a perfect past-time for Liz. Her intellectual positions, which centered on flirtatious vagueness, became a screen on which she projected this feeling that she’d reached the threshold of politics. Since she was queer, it was convenient to feel oppressed and transgressive when opposing society’s hard core stalking laws. Instead of just watching tee vee like the rest of us do when we can’t sleep, she spent those long insomniacal nights putting together an action story with herself at the center. Of course at the end of her nightly battles with ennui, she’d get the girl. Whenever she would pause a moment to consider the collateral damage, she could delude herself into thinking her fantasy was meaningless. Liz is one of the ideal case studies of what the theoried classes do with their leisure time. I have more to say about Liz, and not all of it bad. One day I’ll discuss the time when Liz intervened and prevented a professor of Philosophy from stabbing out one of my friend’s eyes with a pen.