The Wheel Inside the Wheel

Adam Gopnik‘s recent piece in the New Yorker codifies the suspicions many of us have been sharing with each other: “We are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers…The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it.” Gopnik’s evidence is everything in that “nothing like this has ever happened before” category: Trump’s win (Sad!), The improbable Superbowl outcome (Go Pats!), the Best Picture Oscar snafu (even in airbrushed Hollywood.)

Gopnik’s conclusion:

Whether we are at the mercy of an omniscient adolescent prankster or suddenly the subjects of a more harrowing experiment than any we have been subject to before…we can now expect nothing remotely normal to take place for a long time to come. They’re fiddling with our knobs, and nobody knows the end.

Or perhaps, let us pray, it’s just that someone forgot to plug in an important part of the machine, and, when they spot the problem, they’ll plug us back in to the usual psychological circuits. Let’s hope for a sudden mysterious surge of energy, and then normalcy again. But don’t count on it. Expect the worst. Oh, wait. It’s already happened.

Gopnik’s “I’m kidding but not really” tone has a dark humor, but it is also aligned with more serious efforts to figure out this blinkered thing called shared reality. Kathleen Stewart‘s Ordinary Affects is a slim but brilliant unpacking of the significance of everyday experience. As an anthropologist, Stewart approaches the quotidian with a point of view that is reminiscent of my recent fascination (some are saying obession) with hyperobjects*:

Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relation, scenes, contingencies and emergences…They work not through “meanings” per se, but rather in the way that they pick up density and texture as they move through bodies, dreams, dramas, and social worldings of all kinds. Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible.

Stewart has a writer’s bent even though her collection of vignettes is not categorized as fiction. Ordinary affects “surge or become submerged,” can offer a “tangle of trajectories, connections and disjunctures,” can gather into “stories or selves” and then quickly disperse, float, recombine.

Here is a sample vignette:


The potential stored in ordinary things is a network of transfers and relays.

Fleeting and amorphous, it lives as a residue or resonance in an emergent assemblage of disparate forms and realms of life.

Yet it can be as palpable as a physical trace.

Potentiality is a thing immanent to fragments of sensory experience and dreams of presence. A layer, or layering to the ordinary, it engenders attachments or systems of investment in the unfolding of things.

This may not be the right forum for placing a heavy hand on these larger than life topics. Just note that Stewart’s book is a great one (and a special thank you to my fabulous kinswoman and friend Rebecca Ricks for this recommendation). It can, along with Gopnik’s piece, also find commonality in the jaunty spirit of Mary Gauthier‘s lyrics:

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die
Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made of water, ain’t made of sky
So, ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel
And roll on, brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

From the Bodleian Library (Photo: BibliOdyssey)

* Timothy Morton‘s term. More about Hyperobjects on Slow Muse here and here.

1 Comment

  1. Stewart’s vignette reads like a prose poem.

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