Affect Studies Part 2

I’ve finished The Affect Theory Reader and am feeling slightly less confused than last time I posted. I remain nonplussed by affect theory qua theory, but excited about affect studies as it pertains to specific affects. I could not explain to you what these people mean by “bloom-space,” what the difference is between the virtual and the actual, or what the Deleuzian refrain is. What I do get, and what I’m excited about, is what affect studies can do.

Sara Ahmed, for instance, uses it to reveal the political work of “Happy Objects” like the traditional family or the multicultural nation, via their friction with “affect aliens” like the feminist killjoy, the queer child, and the melancholic migrant, who disrupt happiness. Brian Massumi uses it, in “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact,” to critique the George W. Bush-era climate of “threat,” in which the perception of a future possible threat became a felt “fact” that justified pre-emptive action in the present (“Bush did what he did because Saddam could have done what he didn’t do”). And Elspeth Probyn uses affect studies, in “Writing Shame,” to explore the relationship between writing and shame. The dimensions of this relationship include shame about one’s writing, which Probyn describes as “the specter of not interesting readers and the constant worry about adequately conveying the interest of our chosen topics”; the embodied nature of writing and reading, which creates effects on the bodies of both the writer (in Charles Darwin’s case, a serious illness) and the reader; and the ethics of writing about shame, on the personal and the collective level.

These are the first three essays in the volume, grouped together as “Part One: Impingements.” Ahmed’s “Happy Objects” speaks to me not just for its insightful reading of happiness and its disruptors in the film Bend it Like Beckham, but also because its famous concept of the “feminist killjoy” is so generative and portable. I often feel myself a killjoy, feminist or otherwise, in the classroom. Students point out that the texts I assign are almost universally depressing—this semester, it was Parable of the Sower, Never Let Me Go, and Snowpiercer: The Escape. Granted, they are not the most uplifting of stories, though Parable tries to end on a hopeful note; but I find myself attracted to depressing stories, which to me are generative of difficult but important insights on environmental, racial, and class politics. These politics seem fairly bleak and unhappy right now, but I like what Ahmed has to say in the conclusion of the essay:

I am not saying that feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics do not have anything to say about happiness other than to point to its unhappy effects. I think it is the very exposure of these unhappy effects that is affirmative, that gives us an alternative set of imaginings of what might count as a good or better life. If injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there.

To bring into the open unhappy political feelings is, then, a move of hope, an insistence that things can get better than they are now.

What I like about Massumi’s analysis of threat as an “affective fact” is that it’s useful not just as a diagnosis of the fearful aggression of the Bush era, but also to describe the affective logic of police shootings of black men over the past decade—the officer did what he did because the victim could have done what he didn’t do. It’s also worth noting that we are still, in some ways, in the Bush era. We are still threatened by the “politics of preemption”—especially in light of the recent appointment of John Bolton, the Iraq War proponent who has also spoken in favor of strikes against North Korea and Iran, as a national security advisor. If the president listens to Bolton, we may once again respond to the affective fact of threat by preemptively bombing North Korea to prevent Kim Jong Un from doing what we believe he would do if he could, at the cost of millions of lives. Well, no one said all affects are good.

Probyn’s “Writing Shame,” meanwhile, captivated me with its opening, which meditates on the illness and bodily pains of the blocked academic writer. “To care intensely about what you are writing,” Probyn says, “places the body within the ambit of the shameful: sheer disappointment in the self amplifies to a painful level.” For me, this is especially true of the writing academics do when on the job market: cover letters, teaching philosophies, research prospectuses, sample syllabi. Even sometimes when I am writing conference papers and essay drafts, every now and then I feel a pulse of the shame of the contingent academic: shame that I never did get a tenure-track job, that I never made it into the cool kids’ club, that my colleagues might look down on me.

Objectively, though, I think this feeling of shame, unlike the writing shame that Probyn describes, is wholly unnecessary. It’s academia that’s bad, not me. I also think, though, that we need, alongside Probyn’s chapter, an essay about writing joy. I love writing, and others who love writing will recognize that what I mean by this is not that I always or even most of the time feel positive things about the act of writing, but rather that when I am working on a writing project, every now and then a tiny, intense charge of joy flickers through me, sometimes because I have written something good and other times for no identifiable reason at all.

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