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Affect and the political.

(Yubraj Aryal interviewed Lauren Berlant on Affect and the Political. Mr. Aryal focused his questions on the affective aspects of the political.)

Y. A.: Your book Cruel Optimism maps out an affective history of the present. What is the model of the present, which you think, with which people are relating to themselves with the present in the contemporary [American] society today?


L. B: In Cruel Optimism I claim that the historical present makes itself available to its occupants first as a serious affective disturbance in the reproduction of life. By "the reproduction of life" point to many scenes of engagement: from familial and intimate, to labor and economic, to participation in media and pleasure consumption. Since job and credit availability have become so very unstable in the last four years, there has been a tightening up in the diversity of the material experience of the present-more people are in sync observing and living the historical present as an economic crisis time. Economic crisis threatens the robustness of intimate consumer pleasure domains too, although the instability of intimacy and other modes of mediated cultural belonging doesn't only come from the economic root. The global financial crisis also threatens the faith in and the primacy of the nation form, in its symbolic and political infrastructure. The historical present became modern in the US and Europe with the coming to hegemony of the national frame: so a disturbance in what kind of resource for belonging the nation is is a disturbance in what constitutes the historical present in a serious way. So I guess what I am saying to you is that the model of the historical present at present is a disturbance in the historical present's traditional forms.

Y. A.: In the last part of your conversation, you are sketching the economic crisis. So, certainly you are trying to suggest reproduction of capital has shaped the "reproduction of life." I agree! It just reminds me what Deleuze says in the Anti-Oedipus that the formation of political reproduction at present is taking place through the reproduction of capital (all it matters is reproduction of money) whereas it would take place through biological reproduction (kinship, bigotry etc. Rulers or kings would decide whom their sons or daughters could marry and whom not in order to influence a specific political reproduction. The same regulation was also maintained in the familial relations among population) in the archaic societies, so that familial/intimate relations are increasingly viewed as "private matters." This is what another but similar way of understanding " a disturbance in the historical present's traditional forms" in terms of political reproduction. In what ways do these "private matters [familial relations .i.e. biological as well intimate relations i.e. biosociality] " participate in the reproduction of the political at the historical present? And how is it connected to the reproduction of capital?

L. B: It would be difficult to answer this question in general, I can't do it. Political reproduction (in administrative, policy, juridical, and symbolic ways) saturates (but never homogenizes) the reproduction of life, in the everyday, in people's relation to work and pleasure, in people's practices and imaginaries for belonging, and in debates and concepts of what a life is--and of course the question of the flourishing of people in families is always an extremely invested site for multiple performances of political antagonism, usually allegorical but not always. At the same time, everyday life theory has long argued that people's relation to the materiality of work-to that part of capitalism that constructs sleep and eating patterns, leisure and speed--constructs relationality in desperate and subtle ways, along with affecting what the shape of a life is in its daily and longer temporal arcs, not to mention people's senses of causality and efficacy. My contribution to this is to think about the ordinary as that zone in life where work, imaginaries for what a life is, and the aleatory aspects of subjective--individual and collective--being are inhabited. People move through life responding to the impacts of events and incidents and what they notice beyond assessments of the instrumental relations that constitute "structure" in most analyses. The intimate is a mobile thing, emerging in atmospheres beyond kinship, circulating in patterns that invest all sorts of attachments with the prospects of living on, from surviving to thriving: I am more interested in that than I am in "the private."

In Cruel Optimism the chapter "Slow Death" tracks the diverse forces that affect bodily health in the contemporary U.S. (and other industrialized countries): and the chapters on precarity (on Rosetta, La Promesse, Time Out, Human Resources, and South of Ten)

Y.A.: How does our political desire for social justice and freedom remobilize and redirect the intensities that can bind a public affectively to the political? And how does such desire reveal the affective aspects of modes of public life, intimacy, and people's creative imagination in shaping the world for them?

L. B.: In the US the vast majority of people have given up on a political solution to the problem of living--there is an anemic amount of participation in political life. So I don't presume that there is a general political desire for justice and freedom; I think there is a general desire to live the good life in a variety of idioms traversing the economic and the intimate. The political sphere can seem so distant and overwhelming, like a noisy nightmare from which one has not quite awakened, and so many people don't tend to invest their imaginative or bodily agency in advancing freedom in the register of political agency. The demands of the reproduction of life take up too much time and energy (as "Slow Death" argues, the workday exhausts one's sovereignty). So Ranciere and the everyday life theorists like deCerteau had it right, I think, that the work of dissensus produces a lot of aversion, and people try to steal material for their optimism and their pleasure in secreted folds within the spheres of the instrumental and the intimate, cheating, being unproductive, self-medicating. ...

Having said that, for those who thrive in a political idiom, it's an exciting time. This has to do with the revelation during this economic crisis that the state has made itself (and has desired to be) just as vulnerable and powerless in relation to private wealth as ordinary people are. So while in some years people would have demanded accountability from the state, now, three decades later than it might have happened, people are demanding accountability from the financial system and corporations, who have no responsibility to any public except for stockholders and a few representative regulators. How do we talk about justice and freedom to institutions that do not govern justice and freedom, without changing what we mean by those concepts? That's why this moment feels like an opening, because the political addressees have changed and therefore so, perhaps, will liberalism.

Y. A.: Could we say that "intimate" activities you just mentioned "cheating, being unproductive (serving web while at work etc.,), self-medicating (taking unnecessary drugs etc.,)" are worthless acts, but are examples, in their own ways, of political affect? In other words, even if such acts fall outside of the dominant political actions, can't such acts retain the political status in their own way (Foucault regards these things very political in their ways. For him, these acts serve examples of how a nonsovereign creates an alternative model of being political)?

L. B: Absolutely! Of course it could be converted to political resistance or revolt. But I think it's also important to point out that building a secret life under threat of shaming or damning exposure is not necessarily an act seeking social change; people might produce sensual developments in a radically private or idiomatic way out of desire for an otherwise not already saturated by dominant terms of belonging.

Y.A.: Is affect political or political is affective? Another way putting this can be: how do affective aspects of the world become political and vice versa?

L. B. It depends what we mean by political! If we mean saturated with the operations of power, the political is always invested with affect because it is always inciting bodies to appear a certain way, to cite Foucault. Power is biopolitical. This means that our visceral responses, our intuitions, are political. These responses can become-political in the narrower sense--e.g. engaged in struggle--when our modes of attention are focused on connecting powerful but often unstated affective formations to structures of social injustice. You might be thinking that the political public sphere, which includes administrative and juridical institutions as well as pedagogic institutions that induce normative ideologies as routes to reliable belonging, works in calculated and instrumental fashion too and doesn't always appeal to the affects, doesn't really care about the affects of citizens and denizens. But here too we can say that the political is always already affective-that is, it calls on unconscious fantasy often by soliciting normative emotion. "What goes without saying" in the atmosphere of ideology is what's really powerful in that sense--the threat of social negation, the promise of legitimacy or recognition--all of this is the really sticky material that binds people to objects, ideologies, and modes of life that don't work, for fear of having nothing, not even fantasy.

Y. A--Perhaps you might say more about the difference between political function and political affect. Are you suggesting that emotion is conscious, whereas affect is "sticky material that binds people--" perhaps unconscious or preconscious that is "visceral response"?

L. B.: It's a standard thing to say in affect theory now that affect involves nervous system responses and modes of sensing and knowing that do not first work through cognitive processing, whereas emotion is the feeling state more connected to norms, personality, and performance. You can't fake affect but you can fake emotion. There are debates about this. I am very interested in unconscious fantasy and the training of intuition, and the ways that our visceral responses become events in the world. To cap off this discussion: part of what I was talking about in terms of the historical present making itself available to our senses as a moment in crisis is that crisis is a sense of the state of things, a sense of threat, of the inadequacy of our genres of imagining and living life. That sense is affective and then people throw names at it and it develops as a relation between the unstated and unpredictable modes of attention to which we are always catching up and the project of organizing collective life through shared rubrics. I've been tracking this for the last twenty-five years in Europe and the US, with the diminution of the welfare state and debates about who belongs to the nation, and what the evidence of that belonging is (labor, blood, identification, beliefs): those debates about what constitutes continuity among strangers is, in many places, at an explosive conjuncture.
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Author:Aryal, Yubraj
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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