Paul C. Fermin writes about states (and stakes) of being through basketball, star trek, and "oceanic feeling."
Part of the And We Begin Again series—writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.
Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.
—C. Wright Mills
Ball so hard, motherfuckers wanna fine me
i’m an editor at a contemporary art archive, so naturally i play a lot of basketball. there’s an outdoor court visible from my 19/f office window—three of them, actually; each one coated a different pattern of clashing, garish pastels.
the serious ballers usually occupy the middle court (colour scheme: mauve / aquamarine / navy blue), but they’re only there on nights and weekends. during the day, when it isn’t hot AF, some loners trickle in to shoot around and kill time. occasionally a nearby primary school holds recess on the southeast court (mustard / tangerine / periwinkle), so you’ll see a bunch of kids in their gym uniforms, running around and playing something that isn’t basketball, but that is still basketball court–dependent somehow.
in the office i’m often squinting—incredulously or otherwise—at an array of texts: essay drafts, social media blurbs, curatorial texts, job ads, email correspondences, scandalous WhatsApp group chats, literature reviews, etc., all requiring varying degrees of attention. which is to say: at work i’m often in my head, and my eyes are often strained (constrained?).
i take breaks by staring at the basketball courts in the distance. it’s usually a blank, resting stare; but sometimes it’s a damn i wish i was out there balling stare, or a: must life be so discordant? stare. i mean, the opposition—between running sweaty pick-up games with the neighbourhood regulars, versus editing stuff on microsoft word in an air conditioned office—is rather arbitrary, and a false dichotomy at that; but it’s a contrast that’s impressed itself upon me.
i’m not looking to generate some grand synthesis out of the two. nor am i trying to localise some “in-between” state that combines “the best of both worlds.” it’s just that lately i’ve been noticing the disparateness of the states i inhabit in them, the ways of living and being that each more readily offers.
the odd thing is that i’ve been playing ball since i was a kid, and i’ve been at this editorial job for a while now—there haven’t been any radically new inputs to these spaces or anything. something about my own subjectivity must be shifting, such that certain pre-existing discrepancies are now registering as ones i cannot ignore, ones that feel critical, somehow.
i can hear my bro sam saying, in a bid for me to keep digging: “this feels important to you.”
and it is, bro. it is. one of the stakes is the old adage about how, supposedly, you are/become who you surround yourself with. i used to bristle at that because, ironically, the people who’ve told me that (douchey tech bros) are people i do not want to be anything like.
but then it’s so clear how our surroundings, our holding spaces, and the people who populate them, have incredible influence—however subtle or not—in shaping us. even this office chair i’m sitting on as i type this…i’ve been locked in battle with it, like, i’m talking shakespearean cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war–type shit; its flimsiness messes with my lower back and, if i let it, screws up my posture—literally: the orientation with which i move in the world—such that i need to remember to get up and walk around every now and then to loosen up.
people also influence.
and while no one is solely determined by their environments, the degrees with which a given person shapes or is shaped by them is another matter altogether.
this one time my colleague andrea was offering editorial feedback on an exhibition text, and when she uncharacteristically blurted out, “i think it needs to go harder,” i was all: dayummm girl. yes. YES. that’s what i’m talking about. GO HARD. we need more of THAT. and then somehow my mind drifted to some basketball-related, nicki minaj bars:
Ayo, look like I’m goin’ for a swim
Dunked on ‘em, now I’m swingin’ off the rim
Bitch ain’t comin’ off the bench
While I’m comin’ off the court fully drenched
i mean, i can completely relate to that mentality—there’s just something about basketball that brings it out in me. the physicality, the intensity, the (homo)eroticism ("comin’ off the court"), the drive. ready for all the smoke, absolutely convinced in your ability to go hard and drown these motherfuckers. or drown trying.
koel, one of the other editors, catches me in this state of reverie and brings me back to the office:
“boss, are you ok?”
* * *
in star trek, there’s a rite of passage some cadets face during their academy days. anyone interested in commanding their own starship must first pass a test called the kobayashi maru. it’s a live simulation, in which a damaged civilian frigate (the eponymous kobayashi maru) is sending out a distress call—an insurmountable enemy force is bearing down upon it.
you must decide how to respond, as the acting-captain of a nearby starship.
though the scenario can play out in an infinite number of ways, the test is rigged to entail a loss of life—perhaps the life of you and/or your crew (say, if you attempt the rescue against the superior enemy numbers), and/or the crew of the kobayashi maru (say, if you decide not to engage in the skirmish at all).
the test forces you to confront “a no-win scenario.”
as acting-captain, you must make decisions under duress, in real-time, and against overwhelming odds—conditions that, supposedly, uniquely reveal your character.
spock, one of the programmers of the test, describes it as follows: “The purpose is to experience fear; fear in the face of certain death—to accept that fear and maintain control of one’s self and one’s crew. This is a quality expected in every Starfleet captain.”
if the cadet cannot embody this seemingly paradoxical quality—accepting fear, yet remaining composed; facing death, yet fighting for life—they are deemed unfit to lead.
one of the only cadets ever to beat the test was james t. kirk, who later became the legendary captain kirk. his solution was novel. he secretly reprogrammed the test the night prior to taking it—in other words: he cheated.
kirk’s response to the test, to the no-win scenario, was to alter the conditions of the test. his choice was to reject the very idea of a no-win scenario.
* * *
for the past year, i’ve been participating in a monthly reading group. we’ve been commiserating over age-old questions about collaboration and solidarity—as in: how to—given: differences of thought and personality; clashes with group dynamics; wounds from previous communities; ever dwindling resources and infrastructures; dismal political landscapes; etc.
along the way we shared our writing, discussed books and essays and stories over take-out dinners, in an attempt to find a language of our own—to find ourselves in conversation, community.
we began with an understanding that such vaunted outcomes are never guaranteed, nor ever accomplished once and for all. it’s an ongoing process or it’s nothing. i think of stephen best in his book none like us, where he critiques recuperative impulses in academic historicism: “in the archive, we discover not who we are but how ‘we’ are not.” he’s writing against scholars working with archives and historical records, who too easily assume (or even weaponise) “community” where there is none. stephen best highlights the problem, and maybe even the impossibility, of the “we”:
What “we” share is the open secret of “our” impossibility.... To echo David Walker, James Baldwin, and the anti-communitarian strains we have attempted to sound from the first page, it is not the recovery of an impossible community but, rather, the making of a world that will no longer have me that is at stake. I said, too, that whatever blackness or black culture is, it cannot be indexed to a “we”—or if it is, that “we” can only be structured by and given in its own negation and refusal. There is no mutuality, no witnessing, no acknowledgment to be discovered in the archive (understood, as one final reminder, not as a repository, but as a Foucauldian “knot of conflicted interdependence”). In the archive, we discover not who we are but how “we” are not.
the reading group was composed of five other people, a few i had just met: bruce li, christine vicera, özge ersoy, sam chan, and ysabelle cheung. part of the thrill (at least for me) was the uncertainty of it all, the sense of mutual dislocation—we took a risk on each other.
strangers coming together to try and create something meaningful.
i can’t help but relate this to splitting into teams for pick-up games at my local basketball court, with its rotating cast of neighbourhood regulars: college kids with a steph curry shot, older dudes who still got game and hella cardio, finance bros decked out in fitted under armour, that one awkward lanky dude who never says anything, etc.
we break into two teams via “rock-paper”—and immediately an alliance of former strangers is established. suddenly you got dudes you just met ready to set screens and put their bodies on the line for you. the straightforward ease of it all is *chefskiss*.
what follows is a moment of sizing each other up: who’s gonna take point? who’s gonna guard the other team’s allstar? is there anyone we can count on for some deep threes?
who chokes? who’s clutch?
it’s not like anyone is actively taking notes or anything—all of this occurs intuitively, based on previous experiences playing together, or via observations during warmups on how someone moves, the sharpness and quickness of their handles, whether they were making their practice shots, whether they know how to use their relative size to their advantage—
there’s something so vital about being thrown together with a common goal that everyone is fully committed to. and then: having to rely on and work intimately with the differences of others, and they in turn having to depend on you and yours.
in basketball you cannot be in your head about any of this—really, you cannot be in your head.
no matter how flawless you were during practice or when you were shooting around alone, game-time is different altogether. now the stakes involve others. there is a shot clock; a defender, or maybe even two, in your face pressing you (full-court or otherwise); and, look, there goes your teammate gunning for an open pass with a brief window of opportunity; etc.—
if you’re constantly second-guessing whether to shoot, or hesitating to drive, then you are in your head, you are furthermore out-of-sync with your team, you are thus playing terribly, and you have already lost. basically, if you’re in your head, it will show.
part of the rush i get from states of overwhelm—a rush from being rushed—is the prospect of accessing an invincible calm amidst it. i feel like i’m operating at my best in that state. the phrase “grace under pressure” doesn’t convey the communal aspect to this oceanic subjectivity, of how connected i feel to the rest of my team, the fluidity and flow enacted under duress. as if time slows and my vision sharpens, achieves clarity. notions of winning or losing matter but not really. there’s this kinaesthetic awareness of my movement in relation to everything happening on the court, as an infinite permutation of plays coalesces into one—this one and only play we are running, here and now.
it’s not a state i have unbroken access to—like, yeah, it’s not MYSTICAL MAGIC BOOM BOOM LAND all the time. some days i’m so off; i feel heavy, sluggish, rigid; i feel divided. but it’s getting much easier to diagnose, much easier to understand the conditions that more readily foster this state. there are games within the game beyond the game—
lately i’ve been obsessed with translating “this” to spaces beyond basketball (“translation” being a running thread for the reading group as well)—for “this” is a space of fullness, where my actions draw from plentitude; it’s a space that does not reject partiality or incompleteness; but also one that does not dwell upon, much less operate from, lack.
it’s a space undefeatable even in loss. a space oriented towards intense, erotic action in the world. and i want it to be a space that operates no matter what space i’m in.
the reading group helped bring this into relief.
i’ll say their names again: bruce li, christine vicera, özge ersoy, sam chan, and ysabelle cheung—each so different, each impressing upon me such different ways of being in the world.
for the first couple sessions we met at asia art archive’s library, but then each meetup after that was selected by a different person in the group. the point was to choose a place more meaningful (say, more formative) for them. so, one night ysabelle welcomed us into phd group, the gallery her and her partner founded; bruce invited us to his mother’s storefront, which he used to frequent as a kid—we learned about different spaces, different selves in those spaces, different ways of being in the world.
this seemingly small tweak to the reading group’s meetups attuned me to how the spaces we frequent both hold and are held by us.
the various formations, tendencies, and compulsions at work—the possibilities enabled and foreclosed; the states on offer, and what remains virtually inconceivable, beyond the horizon of possibility. their relative staticness or dynamism.
at times these spaces connect, at times they feel so irreconcilable.
who do you hope to catch up to who do you want to wait for who do you have to leave behind
for now for now for now
out of infinite possibilities, you’re making decisions in real-time—
* * *
Image: Basketball courts at Blake Gardens, Sheung Wan.
* * *
Everyone has a mental life, so everyone regards himself as a psychologist. But that strikes me as an inadequate title. The story is told of how someone who applied for a post as a children’s nurse was asked if she knew how to look after babies. ‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘why, after all, I was a baby once myself.’
having once been a baby doesn’t make you an expert on babies.
merely existing does not mean you’re an expert on living.
one can lose one’s way. or never have found it. (or, what do you take thom yorke to mean when he sings: “for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself”?)
you require others (say, communities) to become who you are…which sounds absurd: become who i am? am i not already myself, automatically, by definition?
this is a paradox and you are the stakes. who you are becoming (or not) with them, us, it, here, there…because of, or despite—
lauren berlant once said that love is “one of the few places where people actually admit they want to become different.” i heard echoes of this when i read ronjaunee chatterjee’s “bearing the intolerable,” where she argues that love exposes a truth about your desire, and, at least in psychoanalytic settings, may lead to a new orientation to that desire:
In analysis, we repeat our traumas, garnering an enjoyment from this repetition in language of the site of repression. The end of analysis, brought on by love, should involve the production of something new in and through repetition, something that is radically interruptive of homogenized pathways of enjoyment.
repetitions make you and me. there is enjoyment in repetition. from psychoanalysis, there’s the idea that people can even derive pleasure from repeating exasperating narratives about feeling stuck—perhaps an unconscious attempt to assert control, to remain with what is known, enjoying the very stuckness being lamented.
regardless: what’s clear is that repetitions, however comfortable or pleasurable, are not inherently liberatory.
love does not leave spaces as they are would not leave you where you are at. love is still and still moves—
i share all this with jocelin. she messages back:
I really really think [sara ahmed’s] queer phenomenology would be so fun for this, especially given your focus on bodies and their orientation. She has a section on how bodies ‘tend’ towards certain things because they have repeated the action before, and how these tendencies carve out a path for bodies to walk on. The cycle perpetuates. We, in our bodies, walk along these paths, because they are in front of us and they are what we are used to. But what happens when we deviate? And what about the way different bodies have access to different paths? Maybe to orient yourself you have to first be disoriented etc. etc. It’s a funky fresh time. I think you would like it.
* * *
freud had a close friend named romain rolland, a french historian, writer, and mystic, with whom he maintained a decade-long correspondence. in one of their exchanges, rolland pushes back, ever so slightly, on freud’s critique of religion as “wish fulfilment.” rolland maintains that freud’s critique throws the baby out with the bathwater—the bathwater being forms of institutional religion; the baby being a capacity for experiencing transcendence.
rolland draws from personal experience to try to convince freud. he describes his intimacy with a transcendent state that feels “like an ocean,” like a “sensation of the ‘eternal,’” which, even if not actually eternal, is nonetheless boundless, a feeling “without perceptible limits.”
his term for this temporal and spatial limitlessness is “oceanic feeling” (which now has its own wikipedia page, so you know it’s a thing.)
freud is mystified. he writes back: “Your letter of December 5, 1927 containing your remarks about a feeling you describe as ‘oceanic’ has left me no peace”—no peace! (for some reason i’m hearing that in george castanza’s voice from seinfeld.)
publicly, too, freud remained rather dismissive of this oceanic feeling, even if it’s something he couldn’t quite shake. in the very first chapter of civilization and its discontents, he concedes, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings”—and so he forecloses that imaginative possibility as unscientific, irrational—mere “feelings.” he goes on to pathologise it as a regression to an infantile state, in which you’re unable to differentiate yourself from others or your environment. that freud is a taurus and rolland is an aquarius will be significant to some.
scholars have speculated about freud’s dismissiveness. some wonder whether he’s trying to further distinguish his form of psychoanalysis from jung’s more mystical bent; others end up psychoanalysing freud, suggesting he himself is suppressing something.
jackie wang wrote my favourite take on all this. she explored how freud, and a wide array of major psychoanalysts and scholars—most notably fred moten—have addressed the oceanic. wang sides with those who see its potential for connection and sociality, against the usual attempts to valorise “differentiation” as more primary for human subjectivity:
To dismiss oceanic feeling on the grounds that it is infantile tacitly locates “adult” subjectivity in the capacity to differentiate self from other rather than the capacity to conceptualize of the subject as connected: as part of an assemblage or node inscribed within a larger world or network. Framed this way, it becomes possible to see that the denigration of oceanic feeling by some psychoanalytic thinkers also reveals an attachment to a specific idea of the subject. In a sense, oceanic feeling as an affective state has the potential to open up the subject by temporarily dissolving its boundaries.
i’m interested in the implications of this temporary state, in which the self becomes engulfed—overwhelmed—undoing what wang calls “the fiction of the bounded subject.”
might it lead to connection and solidarity? and if so, is it possible to prevent it from being weaponised?
this is where freud’s critique of the oceanic comes back into play, though in relation to different states of overwhelm. in “on mourning and melancholia,” for example, freud suggests a startling equivalence between love and suicide. in both cases, though in different ways, “the ego is overwhelmed by the object.” the self gets subsumed—and, with suicide, subsumed ultimately. i raise this to eschew investments in the oceanic that fail to acknowledge how you still have to surface for air, or risk complete dissolution; i raise this to insist that you matter.
the stakes are myself are the people i love.
* * *
A BRIEF INTERLUDE ON WEAPONIZING DESIRE & A CLARIFICATION OF THE STAKES
Fascism exploits a collectivist tendency—the human desire to be a part of something larger than oneself. But instead of class consciousness, fascism provides a violent paradigm that only serves to further entrench the ruling class.
The culture of excess—that is, the culture of global capitalism—succeeds in seducing subjects into its logic through the promise of plenitude. Global capitalism offers subjects a plenitude of choices, images, and objects. Each commodity contains within it the promise of the ultimate enjoyment, and each commodity must constantly betray this promise in order to sustain the subject in the position of the consumer. The betrayal is not contingent or empirical but necessary and systematic, insofar as it works to maintain the structural relationship between the commodity and the consumer. The consumer who attains satisfaction is no longer desperate for the next commodity. As a result, the commodity must perpetually betray the global capitalist consumer, and yet this consumer returns to the next commodity seeking again the ultimate enjoyment that it did not find in the previous one. In this way, the subject who invests her/himself in plenitude and the idea that plenitude will provide the ultimate enjoyment inserts her/himself perfectly into the functioning of global capitalism and also dooms her/himself to an inevitable chronic dissatisfaction.
- lots of ways to weaponise. etc. etc. etc.—
the stakes are myself are the people i love.
the stakes are:
“love is a ‘reinvention’ of the world,
and this should spell
‘the desire for an unknown duration’”
jackie wang ends her essay on the oceanic by mitigating investments in it, citing research linking the oceanic to trauma, or manic defenses against pain, while maintaining that “it still might (paradoxically) also be true that the oceanic is a source of ecstatic joy: a kind of terrible gift.” she notes the impracticalities of attempting to “induce” this state, however, and so casts doubt on pursuing it for communal, political projects in the first place—if, as with freud, it remains inaccessible to some, and thus essentially undemocratic.
to be clear, i am not invested in the oceanic itself as a concept. nor am i attempting to recuperate “oceanic feeling” as some “politically efficacious affect” (sianne ngai’s phrasing). i am not committed to abstractions.
i am invested in the survival of my loved ones, with and beyond me, but wanting much more than survival for them—wanting for them to find something so radically oceanic that they’re able to go aquamarine in any and every space, knowing they can collectively drown anything and anyone that stands in opposition to the more liberatory world they long for—i want this for them, now, and always; not just as a rupture but as a dynamic and transforming duration, as a world—and i am committed to rejecting anything, opposing anyone, that would negate them.
* * *
* * *
I don’t hate players, I don’t love the game
I’m the shot clock, way above the game
To be point blank with you, motherfuck the game
I got all this work on me, I ain’t come for play
as i hurtle towards a conclusion, i think about the fact that so-called reality is always changing, always in flux (in the heraclitus, can’t step into the same river twice–sense), and so terms like “realistic” or “realism” are kinda annoying to me. what someone thinks of as “realistic” is so hopelessly influenced by their positioning, historical or otherwise—and people change. reality isn’t some static thing, nor does it bend towards justice on its own. people, the people, must always enact it.
in james cone’s book on martin and malcolm, he argued that you can’t understand either man without the other, as diametrically opposed as they initially were—martin, for example, spoke about his dream for america, with hopes for integration; malcolm, on the other hand, spoke about the nightmare of america, and offered a separatist/nationalist solution. but martin and malcolm had an enduring influence on each other, and cone shows, with much more nuance than is capable here, how each moved closer to the other’s position later in life. this is not to imply they met somewhere “in the middle”—no. emphatically: no. both were slaughtered for their radical political commitments.
lately i’ve been thinking about both men’s profoundly communal visions, how both were responsible to a “we” that was composed of and exceeded them, without their singularity being effaced. i’ve been thinking about how they changed the game, how they refused the world as it stands, how they were committed to a present that enacted a futurity. and about how, unlike captain kirk, it cost them their lives.
the reading group had dinner at a singaporean-malaysian place last night. it was a celebration of how far we’ve come, which hopefully, is merely a beginning. i mean, really, who knows what life will bring next—the dinner itself was a dramatisation of unpredictability: who knew we’d spend our final minutes discussing all-things-bear-related: the tv show the bear, a turkish documentary about bears, yogi bear, the then-recent viral news about a sun bear in a hangzhou zoo that people suspected was a human in a bear costume...
i do not know the infinite and infinitesimal ways i’ve been moved to this conclusion that is not really a conclusion, typing precisely these words on this precisely page. it’s been a long year. but i do know that life feels less like something i’m passively observing, and more like something i have a stake in changing. i do know that you and i are still in motion, and that maybe you and i are not.
find love in the smoke—
Paul C. Fermin is Managing Editor of Asia Art Archive.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023