Perhaps a theory orders the world; perhaps poetry disrupts it . . .
Perhaps The Hundreds (Duke University Press, 2019)—Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s collaboratively written work—does both, by writing around its “ordinary.” I say around in the phenomenological sense of losing track of some backside, and accepting this. The lost track is the space of a poem, which begs the question: why this ordinary, this world, in this order? Where we find its curious contours, “a worlding is an imperial promise of a form barely roughed out and still charged with its own retractability . . . A 'we' likes hot food or it doesn’t” (22). I wonder what gets retracted, or what is drawn together—ordinary habits, things, events, routines, “with movement, pattern, and concept; hundreds stretch out a scene, hold up a world’s jelling, and register change, which is not the antithesis of chains” (117). What I learn from The Hundreds: you can document what you think is ordinary, and this will be one way of performing a concept. The question might be: in treating the ordinary as a concept, what world coheres, disintegrates, regenerates or blooms? And, given its constraints, “What are we going to do with our proximity?” (117).
We learn that the book began as a habit, or trying to create one in intervals of one hundred, writing observations over email. Writing in tandem, one voice blurs into the other. Things get real: when the project is to write a “new ordinary” in 100–500 word segments, the stakes amplify what is known or noticed, what matters, and therefore who or what is doing it justice. In this way, the ordinary is a responsibility (or The Hundreds is about response-ability), where grafts and attentions belong to the perceiver and her milieu. Its cumulative argument holds the world by performing itself in gesture. As such, the three of us perform an ordinary review of The Hundreds with a nod to its concept(s)—exchanging our hundreds, blurring our authorship, playing/writing with what concepts hold this world together, and how forms of attention shape its indexicality.
The Hundreds suggests that the ordinary, like reading, like writing, is a game of expectation. We know this is true because we can see it in friends who finish our sentences too often or try to. I learned English phonetically, lyrically, the Pledge of Allegiance was a series of sounds sung together before it was devotion. At risk of seeming callous we press our words against an arbitrary form to challenge ordinary composition. Reading becomes a challenge too, “a riot, a notice, a wormhole, or mote” (85). The reader is jolted from reading habits of academic lyricism, of three object lists. The “jolt” is worth the misstep or the breathlessness if the reader might also sense a responsibility to the ordinary.
The jolts become pivots of attention. “Thinking goes sideways. Anything can start to act like a hinge, activating something suddenly somehow at hand” (22). Misstepping becomes the pattern of alienation from the ordinary, which draws one closer to it. A thought is a small fish swimming desperately away from the mouth of a shark while being inexorably sucked into it. Sucked into what? A rash of reality television, or its opposite in fantasy, sci-fi. A juxtaposition of the two, as if what is real and what is imagined had never suffered bifurcation, now sutured by powers of perception. The shark is a hege-monster. Something happens in the act of reading, where some things feel too real to be real, and others too weird to not be real. It’s all a little uncanny. Concepts blur, place becomes both arbitrary and where the mind goes to distinguish them. Perhaps the joke here is that all theory is a matter of pointing out the obvious, an obvious that ought to be interrogated: what form does knowledge/art/ordinary life take?
That we ought to interrogate our assumptions seems obvious. In “The Icing on the Cake” we are handed an ordinary scene and asked to storyboard it. The scene contains a large birthday cupcake and siblings who amplify a wish by blowing-as-one. Berlant/Stewart asks us questions, digging gently at our assumptions; what do you see in the scene? “Is it sunny out? What are the genders and races of these children and their muffin-delivering adults? . . . Are these the right questions?” (30). The lesson here seems to be: triangulate your attention and imagine what shimmers at the edges . . . then question that. Which is to say “the” ordinary is already a red herring. How does that make you feel?
While writing the review together, the obvious-ordinary morphed into ways of feeling. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel,” said Cindy, as if there are canonical ways of feeling, modes of apprehending that might insert us into neat epistemological categories, satisfied with a habit that becomes a tic that becomes a shared world. Similarly, we read on autopilot, seeking buzzwords and listening for pith and punctums to indicate where we’re supposed to nod, hmm, and applaud. Knowing becomes a tone. The tone serves an expectation, how things are supposed to feel.
The supposedly ordinary often queers itself upon scrutiny. Perhaps the ordinary perceives our gaze and elects to perform itself differently, with more/less flair, with sequins, maybe. That an ordinary thing might resist our knowing feels about right in this climate. Berlant and Stewart argue, “Evaluative critique is a mental habit of demagnetizing things for the sake of clarity”; as remedy, they suggest, we should “try remagnetizing and then think again” (120). Clarity certainly feels good, but the lesson here is to subvert. This is observation pushed to the point of invention. Collaborative writing opens us to the revelatory pull of each other’s words, invigorating the scene of composition. Between The Hundreds and our response, voces paginarum abound.
Can we see what we don’t (want to) look at? Is “see” part of the problem? Can we perceive more? How might we reinhabit space and place through language, perform ethnographic rupture, abandon “scientific description,” and lean into poetics. Our questions will necessarily shift.
Questions promise to generate but lead to circuitous ends, and we go looking for genre as a foothold. We learn from Berlant’s broader scholarship that genre, too, is arbitrary as it is a certain conceit for gaining traction in a world. We learn from Stewart’s work on narrative and its performance that cohesion is often a matter of looking. The urgency in illustrating a mode of theory in service to the temporal and compositional characteristics that inspire it would be nothing new, too, except that it feels familiar because we know it as art, literature, documentary—not the so-called “theory” that elicits nervous groans or eye rolls from ungenerous pupils. Along with an emerging body of arts-based research, ficto-criticism, creative nonfiction, and myriad other hybrids, genre-bending theory draws our attention to the epistemological conceits considered necessary to their delivery. To perceive is to futz with genre, method, and relationship.
Perception comes in slow building layers. The Hundreds offers readers a glimpse into altered perception, or what happens in the act, but it also highlights beautifully that perception itself is inherently multiple. Which means composition is necessarily multivalent, and The Hundreds is but one iteration. Reading compositionally, reading as a writer, searching for words and worlds that provoke and haunt, paying attention to the way words attract and repel us and each other, the way something hints to us from between the lines, we witness concepts emerging, expressing, and dissolving, fragmenting into offshoots and iterations, always pulling objects into performance. “For us, a concept is a space that got lit up and lights up. We try to conjure up the world of its words and the words of its worlds . . . everything initiates” (51). The authors dance with concepts. “We try to picture the energetics of thought/matter’s movement, its sheering” (51), it’s all about “how to feel your way in” (58). They show us one possible way of perceiving the world, of composing the world, of worlding. We understand perceiving and worlding as attitudes.
Reading The Hundreds, my “I” felt exposed; my attachment to a solitary perspective and my desire to feel something were called out, and “I” was left behind, temporarily abandoned. The experience, an affective challenge to my desire for certainty, detached me from a certain way of knowing and plunked me into a kaleidoscope of intuitions and atmospheric attunements, where other forms of perception are activated and expanded. Berlant and Stewart’s attention to ordinary happenings and how they emerge—out of simple penciled notes or the look on the face of the guy at the next table who’s on a date with a fervent vegetarian he met on the internet—seek to provoke a kind of alternate awareness. The authors insist that composition be seen as an act of perception; their work, they say, is “a practice of tightening and loosening the object-scene in hundred-word swatches” (8). This way of composing invites us as readers into a world where the “I” is not the focus, where we are exposed, instead, to the performance of concepts in emergent scenes where the “I” is simply one part of the scene, nothing to dwell on, just another something folded into the performance.
A friend heard Berlant and Stewart deliver excerpts at a conference. The showstopper was a line on page 42: “Humanist critique just keeps snapping at the world as if the whole point of being and thinking is to catch it in a lie.” The authors seek not to abandon critique but to develop new critical practices, seeing concepts as becomings. They locate alternative ways of being and thinking that help us enter a scene differently. It’s not accidental that this way of being disturbs identity; Humanist critique and the “I” have been friends-with-benefits for a good long while, enjoying their collective hold on certainty.
Anticipation and address can be terrifying and exciting. Readers crave the “fitting in,” of finding an “I” even at the risk of being exposed. The wish for interpolation is specific and snug, a hole in a rock face shaped just like you, unlike the pieces I saw once in Manhattan galleries, in the Meatpacking District. My friend Fag Tips said, “Often, when they make me feel nothing, they make me feel angry.” The art said nothing, leaving an “I” unaddressed, undressed, unattended, unadorned. It can be infuriating, to graze or be grazed by a text in an unsatisfying way. “The quotation marks force a hole in the world that sucks disparate moments into vulnerable copresence” (206). There tends to be holes where persons should be, like “Lauren” or “Katie,” a “reader” or an “I.”
The Hundreds makes for a reading experience akin to standing on a precipice, balanced on tiptoe. Any sense of ground is fleeting and provisional. I wonder: do we need certainty to feel? Often, when they make me feel nothing, they make me feel afraid. “The Dread of Being Inside an Unnameable Enormity” (142) is one heading in the Not-Index offered by Andrew Causey and C. Thresher in The Hundreds. “We’re in this together, 73, passim” (142). That readers crave the “fitting in” means some won’t. We ponder the readerly shapes available, but even that feels unfamiliar. In the end we respond via habit. That the practice of naming things calms us is exploited. There are no revelations in these pages, only scenes in suspension.
And in the beginning, there are also no page numbers; at first I wondered if the authors got away with it and how else they resisted; “We tried not to provide even this preliminary” (x). We don’t know who wrote what or what wrote who; part of what’s at stake here is the insufficiency of knowing. There’s no adventure in knowing, no opening to new possibilities. Instead, each Hundred sidles up to the ineffable and sniffs around, attuning to elements that operate on another register, a different scale. Through collaboration, seeking to “apprehend objects as movements and matter” (8), approaching a thing/scene/event as “a becoming,” they manage to highlight possibilities and not always what pleases.
Attending to the “I,” it becomes possible to ask whose ordinary gets the attention. As I read, I find myself playing a game of whose writing is whose (sometimes easy, sometimes not) and then reconfigure my findings—does it matter? In what instance would it not, and when would the difference mean life or death? “Will we want to know that insurgents at the skirmish wore brightly colored jeans?” (18). “I” thinks about this history as a world of meticulously catalogued events that must be made sense of, in order to prevent more accidents of history. For this, it matters what objects are held true or together.
Co-authorship is a game of which The Hundreds is self-conscious. Co-authorship games can declare what is yours and what is mine (Philips and Bersani 2008; Farquhar and Zhang 2012; Berlant and Edelman 2013), or they can set themselves to other tasks. We task ourselves, instead, with subletting identity, daring stories, and sensations to hinge on one another in other ways, as microbiomes of play, giggling along a long food chain. These other ways know that meaning does not owe speaker or intent.
Though, if I walked away with a single hundred, it would be “On Editing.” There is a rhythm, Berlant and Stewart call it a “mental breathing,” that readers habitually lean on. Throughout The Hundreds, words collide syntactically like shuffling mahjong tiles, never flushed, never stacked, never strung, but crashing together. Was it noise or was it music? Until “On Editing” the practice of reading seemed often out of breath or out of sync, often shuffling or tripping, like at the bottom of a staircase expecting one more.
The trip ends in an index, which is there for pleasure and for thinking with: in a poetics of asking where a concept comes from, there’s also deciding what is citable, what’s worth attending to in multiples. The fun begins when you start to think that the air you breathe or the coffee you drink has made a significant contribution to the way you live, and thus think. Someone posts on Facebook—“Today I got tenure. I have also discovered French press coffee, and which of these do you think will significantly alter my life?” I decide not to cite this exactly, for professional reasons.
Some of the things cited in The Hundreds are things conventionally cited—books, magazines, articles; then there is the “fuck-you shrug,” and an “animatronic sparkle” (157). There is “Evidence. See inventory; see love; see contact; see syntax” (161). There’s the getting your friends to index for you, as a notational practice, and out of curiosity—asking what someone else might see when you ask them to see what you’re seeing. The index is the feeling of asking a new lover, “but what did you think of me, when we met?” And they respond generously. Fred Moten, Susan Lepselter, Anrew Causey and C. Thresher, and Stephen Muecke write their indices to their own drums, what “with all the voices in your voices and / their outstretched hands” (Moten, 139), “passim—”, (141, 142, 143, 144, 146, 147, 148, 149) and, where “this epistolary novel is a poem. But already a poem is a conversation” (Lepselter, 152). Finally, Muecke notes about the genre of ficto-criticism that the -criticism part “comes in the risky leap of taking the story to a different “world,” where it might be tested by an unexpected public” (153). I’m not sure it’s an unexpected public so much as an unexpected chain reaction, where the public is given a new toolkit for perception—certain rhythms become contagious, certain questions—why is the index built the way it’s built, and not another? certain “of course” sense-abilities that make the world bearable by sharing its objects. We find ourselves bobbing our heads along with the rest, borrowing a syntax, attuning to the unfamiliar ordinary and the familiar strange. The “overall” is that the ordinary is a slippery object, and, like dust, sticks to everything innocuously until it becomes a nuisance. Passim—the “there” there.
Bersani, Leo, and Adam Phillips. 2008. Intimacies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Berlant, Lauren, and Lee Edelman. 2013. Sex, or the Unbearable. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Farquhar, Judith, and Qicheng Zhang. 2012. Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing. Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books.