While pretending to read a book, I gaze at the passengers slowly filing onto the small airplane, watching them adjust to the shallow centre aisle, searching for their place. I am fascinated by how people live their bodies, noting how others occupy space, navigate different air densities, and shift from positions of rest toward movement.
A puffy older woman with some kind of skin condition—she is covered in alternately brown and white patches—pushes past me, looking upset, catching my eye. I immediately glance down at Lauren Berlant’s text:
A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.
According to an online survey I recently took for fun, my wrist circumference classifies me as having a small frame. For this I am currently grateful. Not everyone is so lucky. A large Mexican man with a protruding belly has barely squeezed into his seat. He perches awkwardly beside his voluptuous girl friend. Both are contained by the rigid arm rests that separate them, and the straight chair backs that force them upright. The flight is full, 25 people.
Cruel Optimism is, then, like all phrases, a deictic—a phrase that points to a proximate location. As an analytic lever, it is an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call “the good life,” which is for so many a bad life that wears out the subjects who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their conditions of possibility within it.
Feeling hot breath on the nape of my neck, my chair heaves backward as a heavy woman plops herself into the seat behind me. I smile tolerantly. Tolerance is my privilege.
The phrase slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining feature of its experience and historical existence.
Almost as soon as our 7 am flight takes off, the constrained man orders a beer, then another, and then a third, draining the cans in rapid succession. Although his placid female companion takes no notice, the young white air hostess is alarmed. She informs the male customer that the remaining beer is not yet cold enough to please him. He nods, agreeing to wait a few minutes. Her strategy is working, at least for now.
Self-medication isn’t merely a weakness of those with diseases of the will. It is often a fitting response to a stressful environment, like a family. It is also often part of being in a community, or any space of belonging organized through promises of comfort.
I identify with this working girl, admiring her seeming refusal to become more attractive by wearing make-up. Because I was once a waitress, both responsable for the consumption of burly men and subject to them, I understand her current predicament. She is practicing the feminine art of male management inside a small space rife with contradictory power dynamics.
As one African American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (i.e., sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment toward death as a way of life, marks out slow death as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.
The air hostess busies herself at the back of the plane, far from the demanding man. The flight is mercifully short and we are soon deplaning down a narrow set of temporary stairs, directly onto the tarmac. The older white woman in front of me—well she is actually only about ten years my senior—is incredibly frail. She lowers her skinny legs tentatively toward each step, as if seeing with her feet, unable to judge distances. She has no faith or trust in her body.
… under capitalism sickness is defined as the inability to work.
The stairs heave with the grunts and groans of slowly descending passengers. Most of them pause before attempting to mount the ramp and additional stairs that lead into the terminal building. I know that I should wait patiently, but instead I quickly navigate what is for them an obstacle course, feeling my strong glutes and hams propel me forward with intention, ease, and self-confidence. How did this situation come about? As an historian of corporeality, I realize that there is nothing natural or inevitable about any of these bodies, including mine.
Food is one of the few spaces of controllable, reliable pleasure people have. Additionally, unlike alcohol or other drugs, food is necessary to existence, part of the care of the self, the reproduction of life.
I rush toward the baggage claim area, squinting against the artificial lighting and sharp reflections coming from the glass walls, mirrored surfaces, and shop signs. I pass kiosks vending pretzels, bagels, and candy at exorbitant prices.
Working life exhausts practical sovereignty, the exercise of the will as one faces the scene of the contingencies of survival. At the same time that one builds a life the pressures of its reproduction can be exhausting. Eating can be seen as a form of ballast against wearing out, but also as a counter-dissipation, in that, like other small pleasures, it can produce an experience of self-abeyance, of floating sideways. In this view it is not synonymous with resistant agency in the tactical or effectual sense, as it is not always or usually dedicated singly to self-negation or self-extension. Eating amid the work of the reproduction of contemporary life is best seen as activity releasing the subject into self-suspension.
I strain forward, eager to begin my holiday weekend, long overdue after months of uninterrupted work, with no time to watch television, much less sit down for lunch. The next few days will be filled with restaurants, cafes, walking tours, and art galleries.
It would be easy and not false to talk about [the so-called obesity epidemic] as an orchestrated surreality made to sell drugs, services, and newspapers, and to justify particular new governmental and medical oversight of the populations whose appetites are out of control (a conventional view of the masses, subalterns, the sexually identified, and so on). We learned most recently from AIDS, after all, that the epidemic concept is not a neutral description; it’s inevitably part of an argument about classification, causality, responsibility, degeneracy, and the imaginable and pragmatic logics of cure.
But that there are debates over what constitutes health and care and responsibility for them does not mean that there is no problem. So what is our object, our scene, our case?