The question posed by our Affect and Inquiry conference was always meant to be “What do we need to do our best work?” This question always reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s famous maxim, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
But I (we) are not here to (solely) write fiction (although sometimes that sounds quite nice). This is graduate school. One must read; one must teach; one must grade; one must write—nonfiction. One must also go to conferences, seek publication, join organizations, and build one’s CV. But one must also remember to take out the trash. And make dinner. And do the dishes. And go to the dentist. And do laundry. And pay bills. And—at least in my case—work a second, completely nonacademic job in order to do so. At some point one must also bathe, consider going to the gym, and let’s be brutally honest here, sit down and have a beer or a shot of whiskey.
So, when Kerry Ann Rockquemore asked us at her talk on Friday morning, “What does it mean to thrive?” I thought to myself: I would probably do all of these things exceptionally well and did I mention I would probably also remember to call my parents more often and while I’m dreaming I’d make time to volunteer at the Humane Society.
But according to Kerry Ann, to thrive is simply “being able to be the scholar you want to be” … and also “having a life.” The kind of life where you have the ability to be “fully present” in moments that exist and occur outside of your work. Because it is important to have moments that exist and occur outside of your work.
Sometimes, I think that I have them. Last night, I was watching an episode of “The Walking Dead” on Netflix with my boyfriend. I was thinking about eating Cheez-Its and about how quickly I would perish in a zombie apocalypse. Totally outside the realm of my work, right?
“I should really plug in my phone,” I said suddenly. “In case one of my students emails me.”
Boom. Moment gone.
Kerry Ann offered many insights into and tips for the tenure-track professor. She described how much time and effort they put into service and teaching, and how little they have for their own writing. She explained that we should take 30 minutes every day—preferably in the morning—to write. While this was helpful in some ways (one day I’ll be writing a dissertation, right?), what I wanted to ask was: but how, exactly, do I live?
How do I make time to live?
I’m not sure. But as Kerry Ann so aptly put it, “I just need to figure out how to do this life without it costing so much.” Maybe that will come with the sort of awareness that our conference encouraged. Maybe, the next time that I watch “The Walking Dead” with Alex, I’ll leave my phone in my purse in another room. And, maybe that’s okay.
We were going to talk about this more at the end of the symposium, but didn’t quite get back to it directly. Towards the close of Lauren Berlant’s keynote talk, she said she, “wants reparativity to look bruised too.” I think it almost always does look and feel that way somewhere along the unending process. Since the symposium, I’ve been thinking about reparativity and shitstorms in conjunction with networks of communities, artwork, awkwardness, bodies, sex, shame, as well as collective spectatorship and participation in aesthetics. And I’ve been sleeping.
On Saturday afternoon, Cristina Albu’s talk entitled, “One of An Exposed Crowd: Mirror Affect in Contemporary Art,” focused on public modes of spectatorship, in relation to several art pieces that use mirrors to “render viewers conscious.” She discussed works by Olafur Elliason, Joan Jones, Dan Graham, and Ken Lum. The mirror acts as a binder, a literal reflection, of the crowd. It is a forced self-disclosure of each member of the viewing crowd. In this way, the viewers’ bodies activate the piece, becomes part of the aesthetic, and through that viewing, as well as internal and external dialogue, the affective experience of the collective viewer becomes the art. These experiential artworks are of interest to me as an artist that frequently engages the audience in a participatory way in my art practice and projects. Either in the making or the viewing, or both. I frequently think of this collective spectatorship and participation in aesthetics as a both a metaphor and collective action towards reparativity of our pummeled souls. Especially through modes of storytelling. I also frequently speak with friends of them being mirrors of and for me, and I appreciated Albu’s nuanced look at artwork that incorporates actual mirrors as a way to name this collective connectivity, even though it may be a forced one at the beginning of the experience.
Also that afternoon, Michaela Frischherz spoke on, “Vaginal Visibilities: Shame and the Possibility of Affective Agency,” through her look at the online “Large Labia Project.” This website is a way for collective spectatorship and participation to happen with our corporeal bodies, visually next to each other in photographs, but not physically present with one another. But even more than viewing liberations from bodily shame and awkwardness, these online collections of difference and similarity give way to feelings of connectivity, which can be just as strong or stronger as physical closeness or proximity in a gallery with a work of art and other viewers.
These forms, both in person and online, are ways to bring about reparativity, create community, embrace awkwardness, pleasure, and openness as a courageous way to overcome shame and the erotophobia that plagues our society, which Berlant spoke of later in the day. So what about shitstorms? I will just close with saying that in digging in, opening, committing, and exposing oneself to be connected to each other and networks of communities, there is going to be bruising, cutting, spitting, inconveniencing, and other various shitstorms along the way. Sometimes, along with the laughter, care, love, and generosity, working through those shitstorms in a committed way is what makes reparativity so meaningful and worth the risk.
The Affect and Inquiry symposium at the University of Iowa was perhaps one of the most influential events I’ve attended in my academic life. Not only was I productively overwhelmed at the plethora of topics and discussions; I was most certainly made affectively aware of my intellectual growth that took place. As I recount my attendance at the keynote speeches of Lauren Berlant, Jasbir Puar and Ann Cvetkovich, which were nothing short of incredible, I was moved to re-coordinate my thoughts on my own research into disability and the affect of negativity. In addition to the keynotes, I also attended the majority of the panels and discussions, and I was equally impressed with the expansive depth of topics and relevance of their varying analyses. In short, the Affect and Inquiry conference was an incredible weekend, striking a balance between conceptual in-sight into theorizing emotional intensities in art/science with a rigorously critical examination of affect as an everyday reality of unexplored possibility and knowledge.
During the brown bag lunch with Lauren Berlant, I was eager to engage her about how to expand her conceptualizations of recuperating optimism in relation to our affective intensities in the experience of negativity. As such, Berlant spoke about her recent theoretical exchange with Lee Edelman on the nature of queer theory and their differing interpretations of sex, or the “unbearable.” While I will not rehearse their theoretical differences here, I would simply like to point to a particular passage in Sex, or the Unbearable (2014), where Berlant responds to Edelman’s conflation of her position that “flourishing involves a ‘simple’ self-evidence in happiness that demands a detachment from the ‘bad life’:”
“…[F]lourishing involves traversing material conditions and then the affective sense of thriving, which is something different from and often incoherently bound to scenes and modes of living. This is why the materially “good life” might not be something one would want to repeat… It therefore entails a complex navigation of life and noise, and the will to achieve it calls for practices and tendencies beyond mere accommodation to the world’s and our own negativity.” (Emphasis mine, pg.12)
I repeat this quote, here, because of its intense relation to current debates in disability studies. In large part, reflection on the “affect-of-disability” has been largely under-theorized due to the continual and necessary emphasis on law, governance, social construction of disability and identity politics. However, Berlant’s words strike me and push me to think critically: how does it feel to be disabled?
The affective dimension of disability, or to borrow Puar’s terminology “de-bility,” necessitate and extend critical examinations in the overlapping intersections between queer theory and disability studies. In particular, where do we locate the affective dimensions of negativity in its relation to disability? I am pushed to answer this question by pushing back on the common theme of many disability theorists (i.e. Rob Michalko et al) to attribute the affective dimensions of “suffering” or “limitation” of impairment as an effect of the social construction of disability. While such realities persist, the pain in “suffering a disability” cannot be reduced to just the social norms of exclusion.
Here, I’m reminded of Ann Cvetkovich’s understanding of depression as not just a socially shared phenomenon, but also, a deeply personal affective intensity. As a deeply personal affective intensity, we can now begin to understand why disability scholars have emphasized the theoretical relevance and importance of the knowledge contained within examining the personal narratives and experiences of people with disabilities. As such, Berlant reminded her interlocutors at the brown bag lunch that her understanding of “cruel optimism” should be understood as a “looking forward:” an open ended optimism (an optimism without hope) for a future with negativity. She pushed her audience to think about how we metabolize the concept of negativity?
At this point, I asked Berlant if she could expand on this conceptualization and its relation to disability. Berlant responded by recalling a narrative about dementia and the loss of a corrective vision of the self. What happens in these moments when we realize that the body can function autonomously, as is the case with dementia, where the normative conceptions of the self are eviscerated? Interestingly, she proffered the conceptual example of the infant in order to explore where optimism is to be found when hope appears to be lost in the wake of an autonomous development in an aging body of dementia.
Drawing our attention to the infant as a comparison awakens the affective possibilities that pertain to a body that hasn’t—or, as with dementia, no longer able to– develop selfhood. What we love about the infant is not the charm of a “little person,” but rather, the infants “that-ness:” a precarious existence of a body that is sovereign to our willing optimism to shape it. Dementia reawakens this material affect for our elders that perform a “cruel optimism” of our senses. While we may feel that we have lost a relative to dementia, we are simultaneously reminded of the affect potentialities of living in the moment with dementia. A particular affect of wishful thinking that embraces living with the “that-ness” of our elders with dementia. Here, the negativity of disability is at once a social feeling in relation to the aging body that conjures possibilities for understanding the human without a fixed or ineffable selfhood: the self is always a precarious construction. We lose ourselves only to find ourselves in the affective lives of others and this dimension is never lost in our fears of aging and the eclipse of personalized identities.
In a word, Berlant’s words push us to accept that dementia is a negativity that awakens the affective reality of a disabled mind/body that exists otherwise. In this sense, dementia is a disability that teaches us how to love without a reflective self. In loving our elders of dementia, we are taught the “cruel optimism” of unconditional love: the possibility of a future where our love will become blind in loving an aging mind that cannot recognize or return our affectionate gaze with recognition. In these moments, the affective possibilities of dementia lay in accepting the loss of self as an in-sight into a life without the self.
What does love feel like when it is disabled by the Other?
How does blind love teach us to metabolize disability?
University of Iowa Communication Studies PhD Student.
The final discussion of the Affect & Inquiry symposium was a patchwork of conversations that skipped over and around many of threads that wove throughout the weekend. Some of the topics explicitly or implicitly brought up were:
- The shift from discussions of sex within gender and queer theory (particularly during the Sex Wars) to discussions of “intimacies“
- I would add: this shift away from the concreteness of the sexed and sexual body in such discussions is related to a shift in definitions of queerness to include and make sense of post-identity-politics non-normativity
- The connections from GWSS fields to disability studies through this simultaneous invocation and abstraction of the body, and disability studies as a possible inheritor of queer studies’ projects
- The role and place and uses of shame in both queer theory and disability studies
- Attentiveness to the poetics of language within affect studies
- Conviviality as being with and dying with, as an acceptance that not everyone can have “the good life” and a grappling with questions of what we are willing to give up, or who we are willing to stand in alliance with, so that others might have a little more
- The lack of interdisciplinarity, and need for interdisciplinarity, in much of our work
- The affect of pedagogy and pedagogies of affect
- Whose bodies produce knowledge for others, whose bodies are granted the autonomy, time, and space to do their own work
- The curious specter of “sixty-eight” in much of the weekend’s work, a shortcut, touchstone, and site of political loss, longing, frustration, and nostalgia
And finally, the topic I want to take up most in this blog post, the “management” of affect, and that management’s relationship to movement and motion.
This topic is what I most want to stay with because it is what resonates most with my symposium experience. At the first panel of the weekend, Aimee Carrillo Rowe began her presentation by saying she had hoped not to cry but was crying already, before she even began talking. And at that moment I knew I would soon be crying too. Aimee has a history of bringing me to tears—in the class I took with her my first semester at Iowa, during a healing ceremony of hers I was fortunate enough to participate in, during the rhetoric PDP program we worked in together, at her farewell party. Every in-person conversation I have with her feels like some combination of therapy and ritual, with good doses of theory and politics thrown in. It takes a lot out of me, and I always feel guilty that I have benefitted from her uncanny gifts for empathy, healing, and wisdom without giving anything in return.
The piece Aimee shared this weekend was her birth story, punctuated by explorations of writing about and around and through trauma, and what such writing feels like and does. As I listened, I cried and cried and cried. The story of Roque’s near death, of Aimee’s fear and pain, and of her reopening those wounds to write about the experience were viscerally powerful on their own terms, but I was also unexpectedly and jarringly thrown into my own birth story: two days of labor, massages and baths and walks, doula and midwife and husband, visualizations and rehearsed movement and a mental state that I would later describe as my “feral birthing trance.” Finally delivering on my knees, feeling mighty and primal, with my arms braced against my husband’s, reaching down to pick up my daughter, proud to be the first one ever to hold her. And then the blood—so much blood. Rushed to the bed, the placenta pushed forcibly out of me, injections of the Pitocin and Fentanyl I had adamantly refused before. Talk of transfusions. Not standing again without fainting for another day. And then sent home a day after that, weak and wobbly, deathly pale, unable to hold the weight of my baby or stand without leaning on something and thinking it was all normal because what the hell did I know? And then the clots the size of grapes, of plums, of oranges, of all the fruits, clots that looked like I was losing internal organs, clots that brought to mind words like “abject” and “monstrous.” And then the day that I felt Suddenly Very Bad and lay my crying baby on the floor and ran to the bathroom and hemorrhaged into the toilet, the amount of blood going from embarrassing to comical to worrying to oh shit. Yelling to my husband to get the baby, no wait, call for help, no wait, I need you, and then he was kneeling in front of me and my vision narrowed to a pinhole and then nothing. Until I came to, lying on a blood-soaked bathmat, my head through the doorway into the bedroom, and he had the baby on the bed in front of him and was giving our address to 911 and his voice was shaking. After a foggy ambulance ride—flailing, grabbing arms, pleading “UIHC! Don’t take me to Mercy!”—I did finally get a transfusion, but only after I lay naked on a cold, metal gurney for hours, unable to sit up without fainting, unable to get better until the one person on call who would perform a D&C was available. All that was inside me was “retained products of conception”—some bit of the amniotic sac, most likely—and it was killing me, and removing it was still spoken of in hushed tones as a “procedure,” was something that could only be done in a designated “procedure room.” I had had a baby two weeks earlier and now was to be opened back up and cleaned out. I refused all painkillers because I was breastfeeding.
(For the sake of completeness: after the midwives badgered and badgered and badgered me, I agreed to have an IUD inserted. I returned to the hospital a month later, expressed my concerns one last time, signed the release anyway. And as it went in I felt searing, unbelievable pain, and realized I had no idea anymore what pain was “normal” and what pain was a problem. The midwife also felt that something had gone wrong, told me to hurry to ultrasound—it was the end of the day and we had to catch them before they left. I limped down the hall, leaning on my baby’s stroller, as she mercifully slept through the whole thing. The technician frowned at the screen in silence, then the midwife did the same, then the doctor did the same. The confusion was over how thoroughly the IUD had perforated my uterus. I was given the option to leave it alone and let it settle into a more comfortable position on its own—“get it out of me right now”—and reassured that in six weeks we could try again—“the hell you will.”)
As I listened to Aimee’s story on Friday, I was terrified for her and for her daughter but I also couldn’t stop thinking about my own repeated traumas, my own near death. I’ve written about the experience a few times, and it’s always difficult, and I always cry. My husband says when he ran into the bathroom he was just in time to see me faint, said it was like watching the power go off or watching me disappear from my body, said I slumped toward the bathtub and would have cracked my head on the faucet if he hadn’t caught me and lowered me to the floor. He was running late for work that morning. If he had been where he was supposed to be, I might have cracked my head. I might have bled out. My mother and sister, due to arrive at our house hours later, might have found me unconscious or dead, my baby alone and screaming. The might-haves feel equal parts terrifying and asinine. I don’t normally play what-if games, or look down the road not chosen, or dwell on what could have been different. But I can’t let go of this one: I almost died. A voice in my head wouldn’t stop repeating it that night as I listened to Aimee: I almost died. I almost died.
As Aimee reminds us, every time you write a trauma you open it and relive it and work through it in a new or different way. The process is not linear—I don’t even want to say the “healing” process, because it suggests a progression from worse to better that isn’t always accurate. I have gotten better, and the story has gotten easier to tell, and for the most part I am more able to look directly at the events and the feelings tied to them, but there’s also always some new angle or feeling or detail that can arrest me anew.
I purposely use the word “arrest” to return to the topic of this post, the management of affect, and its connections to movement. I fall into ways of thinking that equate management with stillness, with being contained and controlled, almost with bracing myself—I make the mistake of thinking I manage my affect best when I try to control it and hold it still. But holding still and trying to control affect is bullshit. At the end of Aimee’s story was a description of playing on the beach with her daughter, a moment of diving into and under the waves. And later, at the reception, Aimee gently admonished me, “You’re trying to control things you cannot control.” Insert here all the clichés about going with the flow, about rolling with changes, about riding waves instead of fighting against them. They’re clichés, but they work. Thinking of managing affect the way a manager manages an employee is setting ourselves up for struggle and failure. I think management of affect, if it is to have any positive connotation, has to mean something more like abiding with affect, paying attention to and responding to affect, taking affect and its messages seriously. I had these realizations Thursday night during and after Aimee’s talk, which is why I mostly didn’t feel self-conscious or embarrassed as I sat there crying in the auditorium, or later when I cried some more while talking with Aimee at the opening reception, not even really caring that I was sitting two feet away from Important Famous Theorists I should be trying to talk to. Instead I felt that a block I’d been holding onto, that had been keeping me still, was releasing, and that I couldn’t stop this affect from washing over me, and that my best course of action would be to listen to it, to manage it by responding to it gently, on its own terms.
So here is how I managed my affect for the rest of the weekend: I went very easy on myself. I spent most of the weekend listening rather than talking. I jotted down ideas and turns of phrase that I liked, and didn’t worry about capturing papers’ complete arguments. I let my mind wander. I emailed an editor for an extension on a writing deadline. I slept eight hours a night, like a rock. And I tried to keep a different voice in my head: when my husband picked me up after the reception, I got into the car still crying, and the whole way home my daughter reassured me from the backseat, “okay Mama, okay Mama, okay Mama.”
I was absolutely blown away by the first panel of this symposium. When I entered the second floor auditorium of the Art West Building, I did not expect to be as provoked as I was when I left. I do not know if this was me underestimating the potential of conferences in general, but I certainly did not expect to think and feel like I did.
The first speaker, Bianca Williams, opened the panel with her interrogation of affect and ethnic studies. Her specific example that lead her to this site of inquiry is her ethnographic project that looks at the transnational coping strategies of black American women, particularly the GFT (unfortunately, I did not catch the full name of the group), in response to U.S. racism and sexism. The GFT, a group of black women from the U.S. who travel to Jamaica, takes new admits to a vista in Jamaica where almost without fail they cry in a ritualistic way, in Williams’ estimation, in addition to visiting other parts of the island. By looking at the affective lives of black American women, Williams asks what the benefits are of placing black women in the center of affect studies inquiries. I really enjoyed her line of inquiry. At the beginning of the five-week course associated with the symposium, I, too, had wondered how affect studies and ethnic studies could be brought together. Her project seems to be a great example of how the two can certainly inform one another. However, I did leave the auditorium wondering how much of these transnational coping strategies relied on the labor (affective and otherwise) of Jamaicans, particularly Jamaican women and men who work in the hotels, restaurants, and tourist locations. While black American women temporarily leave the confines of the U.S. and the forms of racism and sexism that exist in the states, the black Jamaicans that serve these women live and work within the confines of Jamaican racism and sexism. What are we to make of this? I understand that Williams could not have possibly addressed these issues in the time allotted or even in her book project, especially if it is bound by a certain set of research questions. However, I do believe that these issues of power are important ones to discuss and continue thinking about.
The second speaker/performer brought up equally interesting issues concerning whiteness in Africanist dance. As an Africanist dancer, Jewish-American dance choreographer Esther Baker-Tarpaga’s inquiry into Africanist affect through dance lead her to “revisit whiteness.” From what I gathered from her paper/performance, she had to begin interrogating the “white dancing body,” her white dancing body, especially in Africanist dance. As the mother of mixed-race daughter, the wife of a black man from Burkina Faso, and the co-founder of the Baker-Tarpaga Dance Project (a transnational dance company), she could exclude her positioning, making this line of inquiry quite personal (as I suppose most things are). The second video performance she showed called “Free to be You and Me” was a collaboration done by her young daughter and herself, which demonstrates one mode of inquiry for Baker-Tarpaga. By dancing and performing with her daughter, she says that she is able to learn from her new ways of looking at the world. By dancing and performing with others in different performances, I suspect that she is also suggesting that whiteness can be interrogated alongside notions of blackness, mixed race-ness (whether or not that is a word), and other facets of identity.
The last performance she demonstrated was live. The previous speaker, Bianca Williams, and a co-organizer of the symposium, Naomi Greyser, sat in two different desks. While drumming was playing on her computer in the background, Baker-Tarpaga had tied thick ropes to a leg of each desk and had pulled each woman to a point on the “stage” where they faced each other. I think it is worth pointing out that Williams is seemingly black and Greyser is seemingly white, which I think adds a layer of significance to the performance (I say “seemingly” because I do not want to presume I absolutely know. Apologies for any misreadings and/or line-crossings). With both ropes crossed behind her back, she began dancing. The newspaper she had taped to her waist during the showing of her previous video performance added an auditory layer that was just as thought provoking as the black lines she drew on herself earlier in her paper/performance and her theorization of the body being poly-centered that she borrowed from another Africanist dance choreographer. She soon fell to the ground between the two desks, the ropes still crisscrossed behind her back and danced horizontally in a way that looked like she was flailing. At this particular time, I began welling up with tears although I could not understand why I felt like crying. I certainly did not want to be vulnerable in that particular space, which brings up issues about which affects are allowed in “academic” spaces. Later on, though, I began thinking that I felt like crying because of Baker-Tarpaga’s willingness and ability to embody and perform in a way that I understood to be vulnerable. In other words, what I perceived to be her vulnerability made me feel vulnerable. Her performance displayed a kind of vulnerability that was especially highlighted by her arms being crossed behind her back with ropes as well as her flailing on the ground. Moving and dancing horizontally between the two sitting women looked like a certain form of prostration, possibly submitting to the reception of knowledge or to the process of working through issues like whiteness in Africanist dance. However, that reception of knowledge or that process of working through issues is not easy, as indicated by her flailing movements. This last performance made me wonder about the utility of vulnerability in research, writing, and teaching.
The third speaker, Aimee Carrillo Rowe, walked up to the podium crying, admitting that she had tried her best to read her piece without crying yet there she was, crying before she had begun reading, provoked by the previous paper/performance. Carrillo Rowe’s creative nonfiction about the near-death of her newborn child Roque Luna (apologies for my misspellings if there are any) along with her theorization of writing about trauma was beautifully written yet difficult to sit through. I felt like crying again, although I have not lived through this particular traumatic experience. While I can empathize with the author, and the piece she read seemed to almost demand empathy or something else out of audience members, what resonated the most with me was the theorization of writing about trauma. Interspersed throughout the recounting of Carrillo Rowe’s traumatic experience were her poignant observations about how trauma is twice-lived through the act of writing. During the Q&A session afterwards, she pushed this further to say that trauma is thrice-lived by theorizing the act of writing about trauma. She also drew from Gloria Anzaldúa concept of “entering the serpent,” a hard process of consciousness-making that Carrillo Rowe asserts expands one’s capacity to feel and, ultimately, connects one to the divine. At the end of the panel, I was left wondering about the parameters of theorization, particularly about difficult issues and topics like trauma, specifically as an academic/scholar/fill in the blank. I suppose this relates to the question asked during the Q&A session about what is/should be public and what is/should be private. What gets discussed and theorized and what does not? Who is allowed to discuss and theorize trauma/fill in the blank? These questions are certainly not meant to diminish the powerful narrative and the thought-provoking theory developed to further illuminate the nonfiction piece (or the work of the other two presenters). Rather, I think they highlight issues of asymmetrical power relations when it comes to making the personal political.
on AESTHETIC FEELINGS: Art / Affect / Everyday Life
I’ve been a commuter on public transit since middle school. I came of age in this Levinasian face-to-face relationality AKA taking a train & two buses to high school. A public transit commuter carries the paired sense of self-sufficiency—being capable of navigating the city solo—and the surreality of being alone and yet never quite alone, physically close to so many other bodies and yet not directly engaging with them, except accidentally, the occasional witness to intentional detours into violence or compassion, into dance or danger.
The everyday commute convenes a mutable, unstable collective.
This panel on “Aesthetic Feelings: Art / Affect / Everyday Life” made me think about this “training” of mine in the everydayness of affect: the subway & its temporary collective. Part of my response is triggered, of course, by the panel’s opening image of the performance artist Adrian Piper in her “public transgression,” mouth stuffed, eyed disparagingly by a commuter who sits in an anticipatory stance. Piper makes herself into the site of affective displacement, a radical agent—a radicalized object—who then redistributes affect around her in fluid lines of felt dissonance.
We’ve seen over and over how this is the great resource of art & one of its contributions to affect studies: to throw into immediate relief the way we relate, the way we might navigate our own coherence & incoherence. Piper’s “disruption” makes her body into a highly voiced if silent object in the midst of commuters, strangers who are then forced to acknowledge each other as subjects within a collective. The museum-goers who find themselves set on display in Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time” form such a temporary collectivity, as well, suddenly placed.
The questions become, Can strangers speak to each other?, and, What might this communication look and sound like?
In the spirit of conviviality, I want to think about how these dislocations that artists & art environments spin into our everydayness relate to the notions of shame and visibility in Michaela’s work on the Large Labia Project. One answer is: strangers can and do speak to each other online. They can construct whole environments that ricochet from the virtual to potentially alter ways we navigate bodily shame.
Elspeth Probyn, in that affect-theorist-way of reclaiming negative emotions as a space for critical interrogation, is interested in “a strange little strain of shame: the body’s feeling of being out-of-place in the everyday. It is a shame born of the body’s desire to fit in, just as it knows that it cannot” (“Everyday Shame” 2010). In her presentation, Michaela showed how the Large Labia Project serves as an example of this complex of everydayness/shame/body and the ambivalence of sidling up against norms. It asks what happens when that “being out-of-place” is located precisely at the “private(s),” demanding attention to sexuality and its coincident vulnerabilities.
This work also importantly brings us to the Internet, which is this huge, molten space of affect that we haven’t engaged with too much in this seminar. Self-formed, online communities recreate difficulties of the “real,” as Michaela pointed out how the Large Labia Project in the attempt to expand or dispel certain norms, unintentionally establishes others (e.g., What about small labia?!). But like the collectives that artworks form, this public expression offers a critical space where we can recognize our own reckonings with beauty and shame and where we can see lived instantiations around norms. The discords and harmonies, momentary or prolonged, of community are made strikingly visible.
The Internet, conveyor of all manner of disturbance, anonymity, and affect-suffused imagery, can also be the site of what makes reality a little more bearable—or even just a little bit larger, providing a more diverse resource of visible bodies, of public privates, to engage with in this project of continuing on.
During the roundtable discussion that drew together the Affect & Inquiry Symposium this past weekend at the University of Iowa, Jasbir Puar asked the conference delegation who gets to have futurity. And in offering a rejoinder to the question, she implored us to stop pretending that everyone can participate in the “good life” in identical or equal ways. I want to dwell on this question in my blog reflection, in the hopes of beginning a discussion about the ethics of sexual practices, scholarship practices, and sexual scholarship practices. During the symposium’s final keynote lecture, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” Lauren Berlant reminded the culturally curious to practice a kind of reparative scholarship that does not look or feel repaired. The reflection that I offer joins this conversation about living in a time of transition (a time of crisis)—guided by an intense cultural erotophobia—and follows Berlant’s urging that we may meet this crisis not with a search for new end-games, but with fresh and capacious approaches to the conditions of erotophobia.
One of the ways in which we might begin thinking through that search is by orienting ourselves toward that thing we call “structure” differently. For Berlant, naming structure as synonymous with “power” gets us nowhere. That is, to imbue structure with the loaded meanings smuggled in with the expression “power” frustrates our ability to think of structure as that which organizes transformation, and agency as that which offers a moment of movement or mobility. Theorizing (or, experimenting with) structure and agency in these terms, then, also requires a social theory that, as Berlant suggests, accounts for the inconvenience of other people, ambivalent relationalities, and the tangled-ness of lived realities within structure, within the possibilities of transformation.
The title of my blog reflection not only suggests my attachment to thinking through some of these questions among the connections between sex and scholarship, but it also inspires me to reflect on what scholarship feels like when it is not attached to the political, and by extension, the affective. One of the moments with which I continue to dwell as the symposium-high wears off (on), is this idea Berlant shared about flourishing. That is, a notion of flourishing (sexual or otherwise) that is not political is critically stunted because the apolitical marking evacuates the relational and public nature of those practices and processes of coming together. Apolitical flourishing also neglects the worlding capacity of intimacies. To be sure, intimacy’s worlding capacity is not all unicorns and rainbows; it is, indeed, hard to share in sex and communication, and it is hard to show up to practices of sex and relationality when they are weighted with the burden of crystal-clear optimism. There is, as Berlant says, a failure that always floats around sex. And as graduate students that feel the weight of precarity, there is also always a failure that floats around our intellectual passions.
So what then of sex, scholarship, and sexual scholarship? During the Q&A, Berlant asked us to consider how it is that we come to learn not to be or become erotophobic when the worlds in which we live are so often contoured by the pressures of erotophobia. If we take this question as a guiding one, remarks Berlant, then we ought to attend to those moments that have the potential to renovate, alter, and make more capacious the discomforting sensations of erotophobic terrains. This question not only speaks to the venues in which we pursue our scholarly endeavors; indeed, sex and scholarship bear a remarkable resemblance in their dispositions for (mis)recognition, disruption, and the chance of coming together. Those resemblances remind me of a beautiful parallel drawn by Berlant this weekend wherein she put Dan Savage’s “Good, Giving, and Game” (3Gs) sexual ethics mantra in conversation with Stanley Cavell’s notion of becoming “in sync.” This connection compelled me to think about what it means to be good to one’s object (of study), what it means to be giving during the act of critical inquiry, and what it means to be game—to be open to surprise and to think outside, beyond, and across the canons and fields that discipline our modes of scholarship.
In my own work in rhetorical studies, I have long been preoccupied with sex beyond the expectation that it just happens. What I mean by this is that I have long been preoccupied by the highly stylized and highly communicative dimensions of sex and the public articulation of pleasure. Both Savage and sex-positive feminisms are instructive for describing and elaborating those dimensions (after all, we would always benefit from initiating the encounter with the question, “what are you into?”). Not only do sex-positive feminisms precede and extend Savage’s “3Gs” to encourage us to think about what constitutes an ethical engagement in the practice of sex, but they also give us a formation on which to think through what the political implications of scholarship might be if we engage criticism guided by the “3Gs.”
To be sure, not everyone has the same access to the good life—to unicorns and rainbows, to blissful flourishing. But to live with these disturbances, I want to suggest that a vision for ethical engagement, both with sex and scholarship, helps me grapple with some of those structural inequities. If structure is not the thing that always and necessarily incapacitates, but the thing that makes transformation possible, then this is a different starting place for both sex and scholarship. “Always-already” constructions begin to soften, and openings for political flourishing might emerge. Those openings can never totally repair that which did the breaking, but they do offer us an opportunity to hold on to those moments wherein individuals “make do”—live with norms, survive, and sometimes even thrive despite the duress of structures not in our favor. It is this critical orientation, one that approximates a practice of the 3Gs, which allows us to tune in to questions of access, (mis)recognition, and maybe even flourishing in our scholarship and our sex.
Sex has consequences, and so does scholarship. And while we might not always finish together, coming together sometimes feels right.
MICHAELA FRISCHHERZ – 1 April 2014
The Affect & Inquiry Symposium was an eye-opening experience for me, as a novice to the literature, providing case studies that were easier to grasp than dense theoretical arguments. I especially appreciated talks that demonstrated the many different ways I could use the idea of affect within my own academic interests. I was particularly intrigued by the second full panel titled, “Feeling Out of It.” Since Brook has laid out concise yet insightful interpretations of the panel’s arguments, I’d like to offer a few additional thoughts about one of the talks in particular.
Especially useful and interesting for me was Sean Scanlan’s talk, “What does globalization feel like?” He presented a case study of two pieces of literature about international airports analyzing two different types of homesickness, global and radical. Examining “A long way home” and “The terminal man,” Scanlan was able to articulate meaninngs of homesickness as a collision of two selves: the old self of the past, who once belonged to its original home, and the new, who has gained new insight through broader understanding, or the experience of “affect.” Scanlan describes his idea of “global homesickness” as the combined feelings of displacement and detachment from a literal or local “home” along with a new attachment to various non-local, even non-state, entities. One feels loss in the excess of new possibilities and realizes that the cherished idea of wholeness is an illusion because a genuine feeling of wholeness is impossible. The “radical homesickness,” on the other hand, is experiencing a lack of choice, being barred from affiliating with desired groups. The individual feels powerless because his/her national and ethnic affiliation is unwanted by the people in power, usually the felt experience of a refugee or exile. In answering his own question of the weighing valence of homesickness, whether or not homesickness could serve as a positive function or act as resistance to global inequality, he notes that the global corresponds to the former and radical to the latter.
In thinking about global homesickness, I wanted to ask Scanlan if the feeling of nostalgia could be further articulated. I began to think about the state that induces homesickness and nostalgia: the state of in-between. The temporal and spatial in-betweens are the past and the present selves that you have to face within continuous global mobility. The feeling of in-between includes the loss and longing for home, that is, feelings of nostalgia, and could include the possibility of going back home, or even frequent visits to home. But you never fully belong to the past self precisely due to the newer experience. You are ambivalent about the past and the present because you feel detached from both. In other words, your changed perspectives do not welcome you to your mental and psychological construction of home, as you are now able to observe your past with a set of critical eyes, yet you feel displaced as a global nomad within your ability to be mobile. You’re constantly afloat, but stuck in the in-between.
not the transformation of blood
breathing; nor is it stable.
Brick red is a wall telling you
“Keep going- but not this way.”
Circumvent, imagine the geography
of a red that says, “go.”
Find the soft places, the broken,
the willing to try again.
Instability does not have to be a
mark of solubility.
Not every wall crumbles always either.
Red does not need to mean, “stop.”
Rather, the question now is:
if you can’t go this or that way,
where might possibility lie?
(Do not get hung up on lies;
they are simply permission
to come up with something close to truth.)
Brick red is resemblances
pastiched in a wall facing you.
Can you face it too?
So what’s the take away from all of this?