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Thinking About An Insomniac Humanities

Published onMar 08, 2020
Thinking About An Insomniac Humanities

[Originally posted October 13, 2011]

Every known object

as if:

b. keeping busy
c. stunned

–Rae Armantrout, “Arrivals”

We address the question of our aliveness to the object of fascination because contemplating such an object allows us to suspend our aliveness without suffering from it; in reverie, in gazing, we are undead.

–Aranye Fradenburg, “My Worldes Blisse: Chaucer’s Tragedy of Fortune”

leave your possessions, positions, ambitions at home,
temporarily quit the human race;
how long can we stay?
the fairies with the stars won’t say;
it all depends on your money . . . or your case.

–poem written by an anonymous American while incarcerated in a Chinese prison, from This American Life, Episode 448, Adventure!, Act I: “Chinese Checkmate”

What we need is an account . . . of how the complications of praise may be thought, said, and sung together with the complications of truth and, yes, pleasure.

–Cary Howie, “Inextricable,” Glossator 4: Occitan Poetry

Before beginning, a disclaimer and a frank personal aside: I am well aware that some people are afflicted by chronic and long-term bouts of insomnia, and that this can be a horrible thing to live with, and I am not meaning in any way with my post here to minimize or overlook that fact. For a brief period, when I was working on my MFA in the early 1990s and living in Richmond, Virginia, over a period of about a year, I had a terrible and long battle with insomnia that was also combined with an illogical anxiety that if I went to sleep, I would die. I never actually sought help for this (because I was young and stupid), but spent many late nights and early mornings riding my bicycle through the lamp-lit streets of the historic Fan district in Richmond in order to wear myself out, and also because I believed that, by cycling, I was keeping myself alive. I had a lot of interesting “visions,” epiphanies, “visitations,” and hallucinations on these bike rides, some of which made it into my fiction writing, and one of which convinced me I had cracked the “code” of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” but mainly, it was just a horrible period in my life. It didn’t help that, at the time, I was also — how shall I put this? — a total pothead. But I must admit, I have some nostalgia for those visions and visitations, which were, for lack of a better way to describe them, windows that momentarily cracked open to reveal to me the frail yet tender interconnectedness of everything, human and inhuman, past and present (Richmond is a truly Southern gothic city in which the past is always visible), as well as the shining beauty of the world. In short, even when sick and afraid, I’m an optimist [or is it” hopeless aesthete?].

When I was in New York City just this past September for a series of “speculative” and “object oriented ontology” events, I did not sleep very much. As is typical for me, when I am caught up in certain events, such as a conference or symposium or even just visiting friends, I like to stay up late and soak it all in: for me, these are joyous occasions in which to take everything in and not let anything go unnoticed or unattended, if at all possible. If there are several events and things to do that last for longer than four or five days, I sometimes go for 2 or 3 days in row without really sleeping at all, and of course, New York City is a great place to do just that. On one day in particular, the Sunday after the party to celebrate the publication of Karl’s book (How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages), for which I was up until about 4:30 am, rising again at 7:30 am, and which followed the Friday night after the Speculative Medievalisms event when Jeffrey and I and and three brave graduate students stayed up the entire night and did not sleep at all, well, suffice it to say: by Sunday, I was like the walking dead. And still, I did not go to sleep after arriving at Nicola Masciandaro’s apartment in Brooklyn, where I was staying — I kept going until later that night. There was so much to do that day (which involved a gorgeous bike ride with Nicola from Sunset Park to Park Slope to open up a bank account for punctum books). So much to do, so much to see.

On such days, when one is so tremendously sleep-deprived, a peculiar thing happens: sleep begins to feel almost beside the point, or so fugitive you give up trying to catch it. You imagine, likely insanely, that you can just keep staying up, avoiding the sleep that obviously every cell in your body is clamoring for, and there is a certain exhilaration, a certain heightening of all of your senses, while at the same time, all of your balance and equilibrium and your reaction time is seriously compromised: you can’t quite line up thought and speech and if you drove a car, you’d probably kill someone. My favorite “text” on this subject is Christopher Nolan’s film Insomnia, in which Al Pacino plays a seriously sleep-deprived police detective [Detective Dormer, pun intended], who has been sent to Nightmute, Alaska [at a time of year when the sun never sets] to help investigate an unusual homicide, and who in the midst of a confusing chase of a suspect in a fog-filled river ravine accidentally shoots and kills his partner. And that’s just the beginning of the movie — everything that happens afterward is part classic mystery thriller, part gorgeous dissection of the surrealities of an insomnia-addled mind, in which the most mundane and typically unnoticed (because so common) gestures and objects become suddenly charged with a kind of slow time-lapse hyper-sensuality.

Taking the subway back to Sunset Park in Brooklyn that Sunday morning, walking up Fifth Avenue toward 46th Street afterward, and sitting at a dinner table later that evening which had been specially prepared for the arrival of strangers and for a practice of faith within a co-operative anti-Church “church” [“no costumes, no hierarchies, no dogma”] that stands “opposed to systems of this world that prioritize individualism and personal success,” I experienced several instances [four instances, to be exact] of such highly charged moments in which I felt as if the entire world — and more so, particular items within that world — had become irradiated, and also, suddenly detached from their surrounding contexts, both human and inhuman, demonstrating what Jane Bennett might call a certain vibrant thing-power and “agentic capacity” that “refuses to dissolve completely into the milieu of human knowledge” and becomes somehow (impossibly) independent from human subjectivity (Vibrant Matter, p. 3), and through which thing-power Graham Harman might say we experience “a strange new realism in which entities flicker vaguely from the ocean floor: unable to make contact, yet somehow managing to do so anyway” [“On Vicarious Causation,” p. 193]. In such moments, the world both stops, all of its “items” coming forward for particular “freeze-frame” notice, and also melts into me, so that I can’t tell where I end and the world begins, and vice versa.

As I was having this experience, but also afterwards when I had the benefit of some actual sleep, I reflected on the ways in which these four charged “moments,” which were also things glimpsed anew through my insomnia, provided some interesting structures of thought for re-thinking our professional and institutional affects, especially within a humanities that might benefit now from more “enchanted” [while still critically rigorous] modes of inquiry, theory, and practice [on this point, see also Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life and Tara Williams’s essay, “Enchanted Historicism,” in postmedieval‘s recently launched online Forum]. I’ll pose these structures of thought as questions [for now], arising out of four insomnia-riddled moments, which are also figures as well as objects:

1. The Smile: as I was walking through the underground tunnels that connect the Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street stations, and in the midst of the hurly burly of this crowded interchange in which most, people, including me, were looking down or straight ahead to non-peopled vanishing points [we’re afraid to really look at each other in crowded places, although I often make a concerted habit of doing just that], I glanced to my left and saw a couple, a man and woman in their thirties [I guessed], walking toward me and holding hands, not talking or looking at each other, but obviously happy, and apropos of nothing in particular, the woman smiled, broadly — it was the kind of smile that took over the entire space of her face and instantly altered the architectonics of the subway tunnel, shooting like a radiant arc to all of the other passersby, to me, to the tiles and posters that lined the walls, to every piece of trash, and to the turnstiles and defunct machinery. The smile levitated and caused everything in its multiple arcs to levitate with it. It was both human, because emanating from this woman, but also inhuman and prosthetic and thingly, because, once given [or suddenly manifested], it detached itself and began to travel as a force with its own contours and properties, and a large part of its power was its spontaneity: it seemed to arrive from absolutely nowhere — there was no predisposition to its arrival, for it surfaced suddenly from the depths of this woman and just as quickly, overflowed her in its glimmering. It was infectious and made me smile; the tunnel of the subway, typically dingy and worn down with human traffic, all grays and greens and blacks, was now shining with the surplus of this spontaneous gesture, both utterly human but also inhumanly for-itself. In his book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, Michael Snediker undertakes a reading of the “smiles” of Hart Crane’s poetry as “certain things” that have their own autonomy and which recuperate “the unequivocal objectness of the positive” [pp. 47-48]. As Snediker also writes,

What does it mean for a smile to mean something? How to distinguish a smile’s own local conditions and effects from the conditions and effects that a smile (metaphorically or otherwise) might designate beyond itself? [p. 59]

It might be said, as Snediker suggests, with reference to the smiles of Crane’s poetry, that the smile is “both doomed and indefatigable,” always fading at the moment of being offered but also, simultaneously, “ever present” [p. 68], and therefore, also transcendent, even beyond death. For me, the question all of this begs, within the context of institutional or disciplinary affects, and following something Hart Crane himself practiced [perhaps ludicrously — after all, he committed suicide], is whether or not, “through very much dullness and suffering,” it might still interest us to “affirm certain things,” and even to engage, or participate, together in “pure emotional crystallizations” [pp. 218, 65] of joy, of happiness, as forms of self-sustenance, but also as a form of lending to others the positive objects of our affirmation, so that, even when, as Auden once wrote, we are “beleagured by the same negation and despair,” we might “show an affirming flame”?

2. Tenderness: while sitting on the D train, headed to 36th Street, I sat across from an elderly couple, a man and a woman, who had between them a young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years of age, who I assumed was their granddaughter. As the young girl threaded her arms into those of her grandmother, who kissed her on the top of her head, the grandfather took off his glasses and handed them to the grandmother who, without even acknowledging the gesture, and with no direct looks between them, simply took the glasses and placed them in her purse, as I assumed she has done thousands of times before. They rode together like this in what appeared a contented silence, each of them locked in their own thoughts but also intimately intertwined through touch, holding, and unconscious yet ritualized gesture. Here, there was a light touch and unspoken concord that suggested a certain familiar comfort, but also solicitous [if unspoken] tenderness. Similar to the smile, the action of taking and putting away the glasses detached itself, or jumped, from the three fellow-travelers with whom it initially co-habited and thus warmly embraced, with tenderness, the entire train-car and all of its human inhabitants, as well as the nonhuman objects of the car, such as the seats, the doors, the various bags and backpacks and purses and iPods and newspapers and so on [this was just my hallucination, of course, but perhaps a productive one?]. Tenderness comes from the Latin verb “tendere” — to stretch, hold out, offer — and then, with the idea of “yielding” built in, as an adjective it comes to mean something that is soft or delicate, fragile, easily broken, frail, fine, easily giving way, and so on. Tenderness, then, connotes an action which is itself delicate and frail, if assured [a light touch], but which also seeks to shelter [without imposing or containing] that which is delicate and frail — a yielding to that which is also yielding. Similar to Whitman’s poet, and with the “years straying toward infidelity,” tenderness “is no arguer,” and also “judges not as the judge judges but as the sun failing round / a helpless thing” [“By Ontario’s Blue Shore”: for a beautiful meditation by Jane Bennett on this poem of Whitman’s in relation to the “voices” of things, go HERE]. How can we better practice, within the humanities, the lighter, more tender touch, in which we might seek to create new spaces for the more loving holding and carrying of others’ projects? How might the humanities, further, be envisioned as a collective endeavor in which, while we may constantly and very productively disagree about all sorts of things [here, I remain committed to Bill Readings’ vision of the university as a dissensual community, a multiplicity “not of subjects but of singularities”], we also commit ourselves to the care of others’ work? To be blunt: are we willing to dedicate a portion of our careers to the tender holding and carrying of not only others’ work, but also of the persons themselves, who may need our affections, may need our affirmative [yet non-oppressive] touch? Can we take responsibility, not just for own careers, but for the careers of others [and I don’t mean just our students — that is a given] who would no longer be our agonistic competitors but our queer traveling companions?

3. The Water Bowl: after I left the 36th Street station in Brooklyn and made my way up Fifth Avenue toward 46th Street, I stopped, quite purposefully, at the large garage and parking lot where all of the New York City MTA buses are parked overnight, and where my friend Heather Masciandaro leaves food and water for the neighborhood’s homeless cats twice a day, every day of the week [this is just one of three places that she does this], and I noticed that the stainless steel water bowl had been filled recently and was gleaming in the bright sunlight. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the cats, who were hiding, and the bowl of water began to vibrate and send rings of watery light through the bars of the large metal gates and down Fifth Avenue, encircling all of the cars, the persons walking up and down the street, and me. It struck me that this bowl of water, filled and re-filled every day by Heather, was like a bottomless well and also a river than ran through the Sunset Park neighborhood, offering the comfort of a sustenance that could be depended upon to those persons [the cats] who are marginal, unseen, uncounted, abandoned, and untouched [and even reviled by some as not worthy of human attention, of requiring extermination]. This bowl was just a bowl of water, but it was also a shining token [literally, from the Old English “tacen,” a “sign,” a “mark”] of a certain dedication, a certain unwavering fidelity, one that performs small miraculous acts of staying on and watching over, that says, “I won’t leave you,” even though, of course, we all leave at one point or another and nothing is forever. Heather will likely be embarrassed that I have “outed” her charitable acts in this way: she seeks no attention for them and does what she does out of necessity. It isn’t because she wants to be “good,” or feels she has to be “ethical,” that she feeds these cats every day, but because she can’t see how she could not do this. In this scenario, necessity names the affective (and loving) propulsion through which anything good could happen at all, what Levinas termed the gestures of “la petite bonté”: those smaller singular moments when “the human interrupts the pure obstinacy of beings and its wars.” This goodness, which is “little,” is ultimately “fragile before the power of evil,” and yet is the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be “a regime, an organized system, a social institution” [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 207, 208, 217]. How might the humanities be the preserve for the production and safekeeping of the gestures of “la petite bonté,” however frail and ultimately doomed? How, in other words, can we make the humanities more liveable for each other, as well as the place in which the number of “persons” and “things” that count as lovable and grievable are expanded beyond our current imagining, and where we would remain “true” to each other?

4. The Table: Sunday evening, after doing some work, I headed to The Commons, a co-op space on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, to join my friend Meagan Manas who recently started a new church co-op and ministry there, “Our Table,” that mainly consists of a dinner on the occasional [not every] Sunday night, where friends [and hopefully, the occasional stranger] gather to eat together and “tell and share sacred stories,” and also to share the ups and downs of their lives and work projects. Yes, it’s a Christian co-op, but one that is decidedly anti-Church [with a capital “C”] and that is invested in social justice and in desiring and building “alternative realities.” I am not at all a religious person, and on most days I really hate religion for the divisiveness and hatred and violence that it sows [while I also recognize the more positive role it has occasionally played in historical events such as the movement to abolish slavery], and as a medievalist, I know too much about how the late antique and medieval European Church “assembled” and propounded its theology [and the Protestant Reformation didn’t improve anything, in my mind]: ultimately, I think we need an ethics “before ethics” and a divinity [what I might call the dignity of persons and things] “before divinity.” Nevertheless, sitting around the table that Meagan had brought into being, and which I had “arrived” at through Meagan’s invitation — and now pretty much completely whacked out of my mind from lack of sleep — and talking with people I had never met before about the tribulations and struggles of their week, and also hearing people ask for others to pray for them and for those over whom they have much anxiety [such as a gravely ill mother], I reflected on the table itself and how tables, over time, have served as important sites for gathering and orienting us to each other. Sara Ahmed has written eloquently, in Queer Phenomenology, of tables and what they allow, or don’t allow, to arrive, and how even the tables themselves don’t always “appear” or “arrive” to us in the way they should [such as the writing table of a philosopher of phenomenology like Edmund Husserl, whose domestic writing table “disappears” in the philosophy that it made possible], and yet, as Ahmed writes,

objects not only are shaped by work, but . . . they also take the shape of the work they do. To think about how objects are “occupied” we can begin by considering how we are busy “with” them. Whether we “take” up different objects depends on how we are already occupied and on the kind of work that we do. We say that we occupy space; that we have an occupation. We are occupied with objects, which present themselves as tools to extend “the reach” of our actions. We are occupied when we are busy. We are booked up; we are using up time when we are occupied with something. . . . How are we occupied with objects? How does an occupation orient us towards some objects and, in that towardness, to some way of living with others? How does this orientation take up time as well as space? [p. 44]

We need tables around which to gather, and do so all of the time within the humanities, although we often pretend otherwise, since we are so invested in the “singular” success story, the “one” theory or “explanation” that triumphs over others, as if we were always sitting alone at solitary tables. Aren’t we always sitting at tables, as I am doing now, writing this, facing and talking to interlocutors [imaginary and otherwise], with whom we are hoping for some affinity, some agreement, some affirmation — at the very least, some company [which literally means to break bread with others]? How might we make our tables more visible — the homely, domestic spaces within which we work — while also better articulating the fellowships we are working at secretly all of the time? How can we work harder in the humanities at sitting together, facing each other, and just talking, not always knowing where that talking might lead — as Leo Bersani recently put it, this would be “a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussions — or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech” [Intimacies, p. 87].

Further, how can we be more “awake” to each other, and to the world? How can we practice better the “disorder” of insomnia, which in the Middle Ages was termed amor hereos, or “love-melancholy” [thanks, Aranye Fradenburg, for teaching me that!], where we might better notice, with pangs of longing, the shining strangeness of others and of Otherness, and take better stock of the gorgeous [if even, at times, terrifying] singularity of all of the items of the world, human and nonhuman, accounted for and unaccounted, the diamonds as well as the trash, your lover lying in bed beside you, but also the homeless cat howling outside of your window, the lost grocery list blowing down the street, and what George Mackay Brown described as the most frail things, “spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone.” Or, put another way, and because I think everyone knows by now how much I love others’ words and can’t live without them, as Cary Howie writes in an essay cited in one of my epigraphs above, if we can hear the

“mine” in the most radical sense—as necessarily co-implicated with the “you” . . . —something explodes inside ownership. You are mine. You are a minefield. And that small explosion—I can’t help wondering—must have something to do with how I am bound up not just with you, whoever you are, but also with these bodies, human and inhuman, animate and otherwise, that are both near and distant from me. We are inextricable. [“Inextricable,” p. 32]

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