An excerpt from The Hundreds.
The Hundreds is an experiment in keeping up with what’s going on. Ordinaries appear through encounters with the world, but encounters are not events of knowing, units of anything, revelations of realness, or facts. Sometimes they stage a high-intensity tableau of the way things are or could become; sometimes strangeness raises some dust. This work induces form without relieving the pressure of form. It pushes and follows histories out. It takes in signs and scaffolds. If our way is to notice relations and varieties of impact, we’re neither stuffing our pockets with ontology nor denying it: attention and riffing sustain our heuristics.
What draws affect into form is a matter of concern. Form, though, is not the same thing as shape: and a concept extends via the tack words take. Amplified description gets at some quality that sticks like a primary object, a bomb or a floater. The image that comes to mind when you read that (if images come to mind when you read) might not be what we’re imagining—and we’re likely not imagining the same thing either. Collaboration is a meeting of minds that don’t match. Circulation disturbs and creates what’s continuous, anchoring you enough in the scene to pull in other things as you go.
“Punctum” ought to mean whatever grabs you into an elsewhere of form. There ought also to be a word like “animum,” meaning what makes an impact so live that its very action shifts around the qualities of things that have and haven’t yet been encountered. You can never know what is forgotten or remembered. Even dormancy is a kind of action in relation. Think about watching a dead thing, a thing sleeping, or these words. Think about skimming as a hunger and defense against hunger. Think about the physiological pressure of itching.
(barthes  1981; deleuze  1993; freud  1961; goffman 1981; massumi 2010; moten 2013; nersessian and kramnick 2017; posmentier 2017; shaviro 2016)
Things cross your path like the fireflies you once dreamed of collecting in a jar. Memories come at you like space junk. My sister, Peg, remembers that our mother made us get short haircuts when we were kids because it was easier to take care of. All I know is that when my hair is cut short it’s chaotic. I remember the humiliation of the high school yearbook picture with the parted hair all poofed up on one side. And that, only because the picture showed up at the bottom of a box forty years later.
Thought is an afterthought.
(a box of photographs once taken; sister talk over decades)
Once, I needed the perfect time and place to write. I stood in my way like a poison-pen letter to myself. But slowly, under the velocities of worldy reals that came and went, I learned to write in my own skin, like it or not.
Making money, making dinner, taking care of people and stupid shit, getting sick or getting well, getting into and out of what presented, I ended up with a writer’s life. I learned to write in thirty-minute episodes on my frail mother’s dining room table with a three-year-old playing with old plastic toys underfoot. I took notes on my phone at a doctor’s office. I started the day writing in bed even though I had only ten minutes. Over time, I became allergic to the long-winded and roundabout, cutting words down to size. But then I’d become attached to a word fern shooting up in the space between words or I’d be surprised by something energetic already somehow taking off.
Some people have long, lean writing muscles; mine are shortened and taut like a repetitive stress injury turned into a personal tendency. I can write anywhere now but not for long, and it’s only in the morning that I have that kind of energy and interest.
Things are usually in my way but that’s the thing about writing. For me, it’s an arc sparking in the midst of what’s already freighted. It knots up on what crosses its path in a bit of bark, sparks on a sliver of rock, turns its back on someone.
For me, writing is necessarily recursive. Every day I start at the beginning, scoring over words like a sculptor chiseling things neither here nor there. Working words is like feeling out the pitch of a note set by an imaginary tuning fork. Pockets of composition can produce worlds as if out of thin air but only because writing is a compression stretched by a torque. When writing fails the relation of word and world, it spins out like car wheels in mud, leaving you stranded and tired of trying.
Deleuze once thought to say we’re for the world before we’re in it. Writing throws the world together, pulling the writer in tow into contact with a slackening, a brightening, a muffling. Something saturates with physicality and potential. There is a pond and then the occasional water bug skimming
(clough 2000b; deleuze 1986; deleuze and guattari 1987; kusserow 2017; raffles 2011, 2012)
The Icing on the Cake
I am the girl who sits by the fire whether or not it’s cold. The three kids at the next table are clearly siblings, stealing gleefully from each other’s plates. They have similar haircuts and their eyebrows are noticeably thin. They are young and their teeth are tiny squares. One kid is having a birthday and a large cupcake with a lit candle approaches. There is oohing and clapping, then high-spirited bad singing. After the silent beat of the child’s wish they all blow because everyone wants in unison to wish that the wish would have a shot at coming true.
Draw a storyboard of this scene.
Does “birthday cupcake” suggest a budget or a festive surplus? How big is large? Are the surrounding tables paying attention or passively penetrated by the family’s sound? Is it sunny out? What are the genders and races of these children and their muffin-delivering adults? How big or cropped is their hair? Are they all dressed alike, or do generations shift? Are there presents on the table? Are these the right questions? What is it about icing that links it to joy, to empire and excess and the sovereign tongue? Seriously, what is it?
I fall into step on the sidewalk behind a family of five. The thin, blond grandmother has the gnawed face of a meth addict. She lopes when she walks, swinging her legs out and forward, cutting her eyes over her shoulders, arms circling a little randomly. It’s as if she’d been torn limb from limb and now finds herself at the outlet mall with her daughter’s family. Her shorts are ironed, she has nice sandals.
She reminds me of a woman I met who has trouble being in a room. I stood next to her. We started off pretty well, talking about books and travel and how we knew people, but after twenty minutes we were trapped. I drifted away, releasing us. Over the next three days, we ricocheted off a backlog of social failures; there were furtive looks, the occasional sharp turn on the poolside pavement to avoid contact. No bad feelings but bad feelings were between us, suturing us in a contact aesthetic like my childhood visits to the piano teacher—the earthy oils she wore, the way she ran her hand up the page of music, opening it flat without catching her skin on the staples.
(contact aesthetic; contagion; gibbs 2006, 2011; pine 2012, 2016)
On one side of the café January (they talk at length of her name) is on a date with a sweet internet hookup whose fingers are like Tiparillos. And it’s going so great for a while until January says no, in a slightly louder voice, NO, I do not eat meat, it makes me feel bad, I won’t even have plants. The guy loves meat. It’s the only reason I see my father, he says: no one cooks meat like him. The conversation gets quiet and then turns toward work, and phrases like “and whatnot” spring up, so things get sweet again.
I have eight pairs of khakis and eight shirts, he says, so I never have to make a decision. My underwear is all sorts of colors, but that doesn’t mean anything, she says—I like to live simply—and to look at her metal T-shirt and sweet flats with jeweled skulls embroidered on them, I get it. They are trying to maintain. They already know how they will fail because when they’re not alike their jaws get set. Santa over here wants to give them five pouches of patience and some Xanax to help them ace the test like in fairy tales.
Outside, in the sun, a couple who divorced a year ago has a date to take an “inventory.” Before the woman arrives the man tells a friend he runs into that it’s been a year since he’s seen his ex: they’ve kept it to email. The friend nods and backs off. The remainder tilts back in his chair, straightening up when she arrives in a van. She is a foot taller than he is: wider too. There is no awkward hug, just the scraping of metal chairs. Both are gray-pale, as though they’d remained inside since the apocalypse poisoned the air.
Each ex has a paper with penciled notes—I’d bet anything that their mediator, or someone’s shrink or sponsor, suggested this tool so that they could erase their bullshit if it showed up for a fight. From the outside they seem tired. The woman is wearing big metal jewelry and the man a baseball cap backward. I’ll begin, she says.
1. I was a narcissist.
Then quiet. Things have gotten so bad, she rebegins, that I had to do an inventory with another friend too, and she made me admit it: I’m all about my own feelings. The guy gets sad and seems humiliated, too, that still, a year later, he is profoundly passive in the air of her. He makes supportive noises.
1. I had my stuff, too, he mutters, looking at the paper. I tested you. We played games, she said. I wasn’t trusting, he said.
2. Also, she said, I owe you money, I took a lot from you when you were sleeping, and she hits the table with a crushed ball of bills that scatter to the ground. Everyone on the outside rises and laughs, pretending to steal what wasn’t ours, or theirs.
(jackalope coffee & tea house)
Fish in Drag
Think about what you do when you revise a sentence, seeking a precision that gets at a situation so well that the empirical expands. You add something, delete something, substitute tenses; you rearrange clauses and phrases, remember another thing that happened that made this thing more of an event, and with each change the world offered to your readers shifts. Any attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment—a greeting in the street, the opening of a window, the startling sound the world slips in—necessarily leaves out more than it includes, which is nothing to despair about.
I was raking leaves in the backyard when I heard honking and yelling on the street. Thinking one of our dogs or cats had gotten out, I ran through the gate to find neighbors standing in the street yelling back and forth. “What was that?” “We should call the police.” “Did you get her license plate?” A woman walking a dog and pushing a stroller had to walk around a parked car into the street (no sidewalks). A car speeding up the street nearly hit her and then stopped to yell, “GET OUT OF THE ROAD!!!” A young couple walking down the other side of the street told us the driver was well known as “the crazy driver” and there were YouTube clips of her doing this kind of thing. The police had been called, her license plate had been circulated on the neighborhood listserv. There was a pause. We looked at each other. The scene felt overfilled and rickety, ricocheting off isolation, vulnerability, snap judgment, the state of place, the status of community watch, the thinness of commonality. I wondered where that crazy driver lived and what it was like inside her house, and her life, and her car.
All the Desperate Calls Rolled into One
Each day begins glasses off and a quiet reading of the world’s noise. The cats, the street already flowing with joggers and cars, sirens because I’m in a city and inside the hover of yesterday’s knee-buckling encounters. I call Katie for a refresher course in dedramatizing the crazy. We banter and cackle, then she says: rather than saying “I’m hurt,” say “I feel funny” and “What’s up?” Rather than saying “I want x to change,” say “What if we did x?” I’ve also heard “Feel ten in your heart, act seven in your movements.” “Smile like an animal tracking prey.” “Don’t rush to breathe: just write.”
Baldwin says, love the racist enemy too fearful to ditch his vicious innocence. Imitation is the something of something but it’s also a way of learning, and I’d give anything to sound loving-sad like that instead of not understanding the burst of what comes out when I play the keyboard. Because I love no one when I’m writing there’s an everything—it’s like laughter, fierce and emotionless. Norms are spongy, absorbing a lot and smearing the encounter with grit. I say embrace the love you feel surging when you’re taken up by your whatever weapon.
(baldwin  1992; barthes  2005; bergson  1914)
Every house we lived in had a thing we called “the built-in.” A built-in is an infrastructure for everyday order slotted into a closet whose frame would have read, “This house is mine” if things had signs revealing their true function. My father’s change jar sat there, a large brandy snifter that was once for something else, a terrarium or ceremonial candy. His watches lay there too, just next to his cufflinks. Near them were his stacked white laundered shirts, each of which had supportive cardboard in the back, and if you slid it out carefully you would have a thing to draw on. Today I emptied mine, for $27.23. His was full of quarters: never lesser coins. The counting machine at the Jewel supermarket at all times has a long line of characters. It’s like a social club where everyone makes everyone else more alive, but less jumpy. Coinstar tithes 10 percent of what you pour into it and it’s involving to pour the change in, to catch the spraying rejects and try again. The woman ahead of me glanced over and said, “Everything helps.” She poured her change from tall tins that had once held incense or Pringles.
(márquez  2006)
Some Things We Thought With (Abridged)
A box of photographs once taken.
Baldwin, James. (1963) 1992. “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” In The Fire Next Time, 1–10. New York: Vintage.
Barthes, Roland. (1980) 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, Roland. (2002) 2005. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977–1978). New York: Columbia University Press.
Bergson, Henri. (1900) 1914. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: Macmillan.
Clough, Patricia. 2000b. “Comments on Setting Criteria for Experimental Writing.” Qualitative Inquiry 6 (2): 278–91.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1986. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. (1988) 1993. “What Is an Event?” In The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, translated by Tom Conley, 76–82. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fish, Stanley, 2012. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. New York: Harper.
Freud, Sigmund. (1925) 1961. “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad.’” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, volume 19, edited and translated by James Strachey, 227–32. London: Hogarth Press.
Gibbs, Anna, 2006. “Writing and Danger: The Intercorporeality of Affect.” In Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice, edited by Nigel Krauth and Tess Brady, 157–68. Teneriffe, Australia: Post Pressed.
Gibbs, Anna. 2011. “Affect Theory and Audience.” In The Handbook of Media Audiences, edited by Virginia Nightingale, 251–66, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jackalope Coffee & Tea House. 735 W. 32nd St., Chicago, IL 60616. Storefront.
Kusserow, Adrie. 2017. “Anthropoetry.” In Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing, edited by Anand Pandian and Stuart McLean, 71–90. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Loeffler, Zachary John. 2018. “Speaking of Magic: Enchantment and Disenchantment in Music’s Modernist Ordinary.” PhD dissertation. University of Chicago.
Márquez, Gabriel Garcìa. (1967) 2006. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper.
Massumi, Brian. 2010. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 52–70. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Moten, Fred. 2013. “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (4): 737–80.
Nersessian, Anahid, and Jonathan Kramnick. 2017. “Form and Explanation.” Critical Inquiry 43 (3): 650–69.
Pine, Jason, 2012. The Art of Making Do in Naples. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pine, Jason, 2016. “Last Chance Incorporated.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (2): 297–318. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.2.07.
Posmentier, Sonya. 2017. Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Raffles, Hugh. 2011. Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.
Raffles, Hugh. 2012. “TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IS A LONG TIME.” Cultural Anthropology 27 (3): 526–34.
Shaviro, Steven. 2016. Discognition. London: Repeater Press.
Sister talk over decades.
Read “Ordinary Poetry,” an interview with author Lauren Berlant.
Excerpted from The Hundreds by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. © Duke University Press, 2019.