Affect Studies, part 3

Of the remaining twelve chapters in The Affect Theory Reader, there are six that stand out to me. Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” is one of the most cited pieces in affect studies, and the basis of her 2011 book of the same title. Berlant defines cruel optimism as a state in which we are attached to a possible something “whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (94). In other words, it’s what happens when the thing we want is not good for us, and yet the loss of that thing is not good for us either. Berlant is writing out of twenty-first-century American neoliberalism, a context in which people’s desire for “the good life” produces “a bad life that wears out [its] subjects” (97).

Like Sianne Ngai and Melissa Gregg elsewhere, she’s writing about the affective life of late capitalism, and what it feels like to inhabit it. Cruel optimism is one affect endemic to this state of affairs; another is “political depression,” an experience of detachment and numbness in the face of “the world’s intractability” (97). The most accessible example of cruel optimism is the lie, or false promise, of the American dream, which Berlant reads in a John Ashbery poem and the Charles Johnson story “Exchange Value.” I’m not the first to suspect that the dream of becoming a tenure-track professor might be another example of cruel optimism; Marie-Alix Thouaille makes this very point. Despite the rumors that we academics know nothing of the “real world,” in fact we are embedded in the same economy of scarcity, precarity, and public disinvestment as many other industries.

Ben Highmore’s “Bitter After Taste: Affect, Food, and Social Aesthetics” examines “taste” as a sensory, affective phenomenon that is also social and cultural. “The very mobilization of the word ‘taste’ to describe refined and discerning choice (and the social status that might go with it),” writes Highmore, “should alert us to the way that bodily sensorial life is implied in such judgments from the start” (124). Taste and distaste are embodied experiences, not abstract, ethereal things. Highmore reads George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier as a foray into class-based disgust and bitterness that reflects Orwell’s attempt to get “out of the stranglehold of his own ethos” (131). The takeaway: “politics is a form of experiential pedagogy, of constantly submitting your sensorium to new sensual worlds that sit uncomfortably with your ethos” (135). There’s a hope here, then, born out of disgust and other experiences with bad taste, that opening ourselves up to these experiences could attune us differently with the world and with others.

Finally, Anna Gibbs’ “After Affect: Sympathy, Synchrony, and Mimetic Communication” offers a take on affect studies that veers close to animal studies. Gibbs begins with the point that “Contagion is everywhere in the contemporary world,” and, we can surmise, within affect studies too (186). Contagion leads Gibbs to articulate the concept of “mimetic communication,” or “corporeally based forms of imitation,” including “the visceral level of affect contagion,” or the tendency to match each others’ expressions, moods, tones, and gestures (186). Mimetic communication happens all throughout the animal world, including within human culture. As Gibbs points out, “There is now a renewed interest in the biological foundations of human life, and a new curiosity about the permeability of boundaries between human and animal life as the possibility of organ transplants from animals to humans (for examples) becomes part of our daily awareness” (190). The study of mimetic communication, then, brings together the humanities and sciences, and shares the foundational assumption of animal studies about the continuity between humans and other animals.

Facial expressions are one important transmission point for affects (191). But even signs and things—“the Nike swoosh,” “the brief arrangements of notes with which our computers and mobile phones greet us”—can transmit affects too (192). And mimicry—which may be sympathetic or hostile, identificatory or deceptive—is a kind of communication or affective transmission between others (193).

Touring infant behavioral studies, evolutionary ecology, and philosophy, Gibbs makes a case for mimetic communication as the very foundation of human culture, though it is not unique to humans. She writes,

Mimesis operates at every level of experience, from the most immediately corporeal to the most abstract. Understanding the corporeal, nonverbal dimensions of mimetic communication is crucial to explaining its pervasiveness in human social relations and its centrality to cultural forms such as cinema and performance, which aim to bind spectators into complex forms of sociality, including story, cinematic spectatorship, and audience membership… Mimesis can then be understood as the primary mode of apprehension utilized by the body, by social technologies such as cinema, television, and even the Internet, and by the cultural processes involving crowd behavior, fads, celebrity, and pandemics of anorexia or depression, as well as the processes by which rapid shifts of social and political attitudes may occur. (202)

I’m reminded of the way that, when I’m with a new group of people, I begin to talk like they do, to adopt the same patterns of language, tone, and gesture as they do in conversation with them. This isn’t entirely voluntary or entirely involuntary. It’s just the kind of mimesis that creates a social glue to hold together our everyday efforts to communicate.

Gibbs traces her history of affective contagion back to Silvan Tomkins and to Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and I wonder if mimetic communication can offer a way out of some of the impasses of animal studies (188). That is, animal studies is preoccupied by the threat of anthropomorphic projection: the worry that we can’t know animal minds at all, and that what we think we know about animal experience is mere projection. But if affect studies is right, maybe we can trust our responses to animals’ expressions because, well, that’s what we’re evolved to do—because we share an affective capacity with them.

I’ll write about the remaining three essays from this volume that impacted me later this week!

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