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.