Odd, the things that make one think of affective exhaustion. The kitchen sink in my new apartment does not have garbage disposal, and yet I cannot be bothered with the painstaking work of keeping food debris from going down the drain. When Nduta was visiting, she reminded me that doing dishes in Kenya is synonymous with keeping food debris from going down the drain. I would like for this to not be yet another annoying “I have been here too long,” but alas. Pengine nimeficha miaka kwenye kwapa. It might be wishful thinking to hope that people cannot smell time. Perhaps I am beginning to reek. More on that later.
I have become enthralled by a gesture, particularly because it seems intransitive—it appears to have no direct object. To put it briefly, someone has taken to unwrapping a condom and placing it on the handrail along the stairwell of my new apartment. It’s clearly unused rubber, with the wrapper always left—I should say “placed” because placement matters here—nearby. I find the gesture charming. A pure gesture with no direct object finds pleasure only(?) in itself. Pure gestures—and I should really decide whether to call it pure or intransitive—remind me of that now infamous metaphor: the bridge to nowhere. That is a metaphor I like. I have always found it very productive. But perhaps I should be more honest, so please follow me to the next paragraph.
Perhaps I like this gesture because two years ago I amassed a somewhat large collection of condoms. I have, in fact, never used any. Every few months I pull the collection out, sort through it for the ones whose expiration dates are either past due or coming up, and I toss them out. (Even though I have gone into confession mode, I should clarify that I am not the one making the gesture on the handrail). The collection has been thinning. One is reminded of condoms advertised for their thinness (“so thin it feels like there is nothing there,” which would also be a great way to advertise numbness, which is not to say that numbness ever needs advertizing. Chema chajiuza). I also recall that I may have told someone—I cannot remember who—that some non-latex condoms are made from sheep’s intestines, and I was right but not to a T. I have strayed. Let me return.
I find keeping condoms I never “use” intriguing. And I find the auto-erotic (sic) gesture of sorting through my collection to cull expired rubbers that much more interesting. I would like to claim this gesture as yet another instance of unworlding, but it says more about affective exhaustion. As does the sink. As will the rubber on the handrail tomorrow, and the day after that.
Perhaps I started thinking of unworlding when my friend Shannon tweeted that “it takes too much energy to have an outward-oriented personality,” or when we met for tea and she expressed a desire for aphanisis. And perhaps my thinking started earlier, from Berlant’s observation that we desire encounters even as we organize our defenses against them, because we do not want to be completely dissolved by them.
I have been tracking the process of becoming something difficult. And perhaps “process” is too deliberate for that which happens through the accumulation of many unaware moments. What began as a folding—I like to think of it as an invagination—into the self, manifesting as the tone-down of my voice into a moth-breath, as feeling vocally blocked or sometimes forgetting to project, as my voice growing inward from frequently being unheard, has become the difficult work of trying “to map how one moves to a ‘better’ that is ‘bad.’”
A sentence from email has stuck with me: “there are over 3,000 gays in Kisumu.” It is not that I that I want an exact number—even as the fiction of coming up with an exact number would be fun. It is that I am struck by the roundness of the number 3,000. How do rounded off figures of bodies at risk circulate in spaces and publics where reports produced as necessary hardly receive more than a cursory look? Because I have worked for nonprofits and I am familiar with report realism and circulating, I am trying to picture the echo chamber where unimaginable people circulate as rounded off numbers in unread reports.
But perhaps there is nothing more annoying than having your numbers disputed by someone with a dying body. People with dying bodies routinely get in the way of nice round numbers to demand more than a cursory look. They demand double and triple takes, and then some. And it is very annoying.
Why the Kenyan demand that people narrativize themselves, time and again, as “humble” and as “polite”? Which selves become possible through these vernaculars of personhood? Which ones are precluded? How do the selves imagined in this way interact with power? How do they interact with each other? How do “we” circulate—I am thinking of women circulated online as uppity, for instance Huddah Monroe, Mirfat from Tujuane and Vera Sidika—those who refuse to traffic as “humble”? How do those who imagine themselves as “polite” maneuver a social replete with banal, impersonal cruelty? Are the oppressed required to be “polite” in order to get empathy? In order to pursue justice?