Affect & Disability: Reflections on Optimism

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?

-Christopher Clough-Hunter

University of Iowa Communication Studies PhD Student.



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