We Found Love in a Hopeless Place

Affect theory for activists

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Surrogate, 2014. Oil and wax on canvas, 72 x 66”. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

I was at a high school friend’s wedding in Charleston recently. The wedding itself was harmless and fun, but the city is a haunted place, unrepentantly hawking its evil past as if it were a tourist trap like any other. A city full of gorgeous mansions (who built them?) beside a beautiful harbor (what cargo lined these piers?), it felt like a reunion staged inside a concentration camp. The night before the ceremony, at a place downtown, I made some comment along these lines. A stranger — a white man, obviously — leaned down the bar. “Don’t say slavery,” he said. “Just don’t say it. We don’t use the S-word here.” Here I am, I realized — the death of the party. The next night, a few of us stepped off the dance floor when the band started “Sweet Home Alabama.” No one noticed, but it felt like the tiniest victory, a knot of shared bad feeling in the midst of celebration.

The experience of being alienated from common, mainstream ritual, unable to take pleasure in a friend’s wedding like a normal person, is something people with left-wing politics will recognize, and not just because of our proverbial social awkwardness. What makes the experience especially painful is not its intensity — often low-level, occasionally rising to the point of rage — but how few others share it. The buzzkill faction is rarely more than a rump. Righteousness, in these circumstances, is a grim pleasure, at best a consolation, never a victory.

Why, then, even bother with such pointless little rebellions? Because the past — the thing that makes it impossible to stay silent, or at least to casually take part — isn’t just something one knows. “History is what hurts,” as Fredric Jameson wrote. Welling up, often against our own hopes for new beginnings, “it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention.”

With these lines, written in 1981, Jameson could well have been describing himself or his generation of scholars. Entering what seemed to be an emancipatory era, the leftists of the 1960s and ’70s were wounded by the staying power of the past, and by the dark turn events took after the left lost in the streets. In the decades since, this association between pain and powerlessness has assumed an increasingly central place in academic writing and culture. As the pain has grown, so have attempts to analyze it, many clustering around the term affect, a more generalized way of talking about the connection between feelings and power. If you hang around academics, especially in the humanities, you’ve probably heard about it.

You or I can have a particular emotion regarding a particular object. We generate these emotions, but out of what material? Prior to emotions, many of these theorists hold, are affects, which float free of individuals, inhering instead in the atmospheres of institutions and social spaces. Affects reverse the subject-object relationship of emotions: we are their objects, rather than their origins. They are the way social life makes itself felt, leaving deposits in individual people, which we then process into our own emotions. We might even call affects “objective” features of the social landscape, albeit ones that can only be observed and recorded through feeling. As one of this tradition’s major theorists, Brian Massumi, writes, affect is “as infrastructural as a factory.” By this logic, the power lines of affect running through every office and production facility are as central to our political economy as any physical infrastructure.

Look around the room you are in: there is some way of feeling that is proper to this space. (Most likely, you are in compliance with it, rendering it semi-invisible; it is more noticeable in the breach.) This is affect. The campus library, perhaps, is anxious; the New York party is insecure; the office is alienated. Different individuals will enter these settings in different states and respond in different ways to their atmospheres, but they cannot not respond.

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