I’m Crying Already: Managing Affect

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.”

Standard