vinnyhaddad

Musings of a Curmudgeon on the Future of the Book

Category: Affect

On Jonathan Flatley’s “Affective Mapping”

It is high time I write an entry on Affective Mapping, a text whose vocabulary I have invoked a number of times in these blogs. The conceptual framework of this text illustrates the complex ways in which a work of art can produce for its readers an affective map, an aesthetic practice that transforms our depressive relation to loss “into one in which loss itself becomes the mechanism of interest in the world” (91). I will offer here a short explanation of the concept of “affective mapping” and its function in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I will then offer a short analysis of my own depressing “coming to terms” that this conceptual framework cannot be applied tout suite to every work of art, as I often deeply wish it could.

Flatley appropriates and modifies the term from its use in geography and environmental psychology as a psychic, emotional process conjunctive with cognitive mapping. Our affective maps are constantly in flux, “reversible, rhizomatic:”

Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. (78)

Flatley’s focus illuminates not the existence of affective maps in general, but “the ways an aesthetic practice might help with this process of affective mapping.” In other words, he is interested in moments when a work of art makes one’s affective map an object of analysis for the reader through a process of self-estrangement analogous to transference in psychoanalysis. The author, like the analyst in psychoanalysis, facilitates our conjuring up ghosts from the past into the present, to see, behold, feel and recognize. The most intoxicating turn that Flately’s argument makes is the political potential that becomes available for use when our relations to loss become antidepressive, when history floods into the present in our affective life in all of its material actuality: “by creating a kind of mood atmosphere with its own objects, artworks bring affects into existence in forms and in relation to objects that otherwise might not exist” (81). The political potential of these aesthetic practices is contingent on its ability to create “a meeting place for an affective collectivity.” While Flatley is careful to point out that this space for political feeling is not “always good,”[1] but in a very specific sense I think Flatley departs from, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of the violence of the image. Whereas for Nancy the violence of the aesthetic opens up a space that, in its very force, we cannot predict a political outcome, Flatley’s argumentation shows texts that not only quite clearly create opportunities for self-estrangement, but “also have something to say about the very subjective experience from which a reader has been estranged. This allegorization of the experience that the aesthetic practice is itself promoting, the narration of the production of their own readers—this is the moment in which the text functions as an affective map for its readers” (83). Like when the analyst intervenes with an observation during psychoanalysis, the work of art, in its very act of articulation, makes the affective map a thing that “can no longer be ignored, and the analysis of the emotions in question can begin” (83). Therefore, a considerable level of planning, of investment in the objects of the work of art, of intentionality on the part of the artist both “allow[s] readers to input different experience” and encounter an affective collectivity.

The publication of The Turn of the Screw follows Henry James’s debacle with theater, which “reverberated with special emotional force because his foray into playwriting had been an attempt to redress an earlier failure to keep that audience that had existed for novels and stories” (85). In the context of The Turn of the Screw, this occurs both within the narrative and, mimetically, for the reader herself. Affective Mapping shows off a machine-like ability to concisely, clearly, efficiently summarize texts and otherwise incredibly complex philosophical arguments, so I will offer Flatley’s summary of Turn of the Screw rather than my own as a footnote for those unfamiliar with the text, and as a lesson to those out there like myself who need one in word economy.[2] Significantly, the aesthetic practice of The Turn of the Screw, produces, Flatley argues, a ‘reading into’ for the reader that mimes that of the governess: “Crucial to the story’s effect is the fact that this is all narrated in a highly ambiguous style that makes it impossible to tell whether or not the ghosts are real or the governess is crazy. Like the governess, the reader is put in a position where s/he has to read into an unclear text. Gradually her pursuit becomes more aggressive and less rewarding” (87). Reading into, briefly, is a process that is necessitated by a failure of direct communication: “Reading into a text is a matter of making the dead speak, of creating a specter who can provide the sense of communication the silent text lacks” (89). The mechanism by which this is put into practice is prosopopoiea, or reading as “[imagining] a person having thoughts and feelings that the text itself leaves undecidable, that is, that you author-ize your reading” (88). In other words, Henry James creates in his ambiguous style a ghost who the reader herself is left chasing, paying heightened attention to. Ultimately, this mimetic practice comes under fire both by its own undecidability for the reader, as well as the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of the story,” both which uncover of its tension with our will to knowledge, as Foucault understood it:

The final movements of the story can be read as a severe cautionary against taking reading in too seriously, for when reading gets caught up in institutional modes of the will to knowledge, the flirtatious, mimetic moments can be steamrolled by the imperative to uncover secrets and produce knowledge…The story strongly—and very critically—allegorizes the very experience it promotes, drawing the reader into the circle of complicity. (102-103)

The payoff, here, comes in the form of an affective map and what the recognition about ourselves, our own emotional history, that text makes unavoidably present (I will come back to this unavoidability):

In catching the readers in this way the story creates a nugget of affective experience for them, one that draws on and repeats their earlier experiences, and then tells them something about those experiences. It tells them: do no trust the will to knowledge; it does not deliver what it promises. James maps the affective territory created by the new discourse of sexual identities. He shows us whence the emotional attraction of reading into the secrets lingering especially around children’s bodies and behaviors, and what happens when one gets caught up in the desire to find a fix a truth there. James also provides a map for finding pleasures within the new regime. That is, the existence of a new will to knowledge, of a new proliferation of secrets everywhere, can in fact allow for and indeed provide cover for a flirtatious reading in…But this is a reading in that does not need to—indeed, that needs not to—turn into a will to actually find knowledge there…Ghost relationality is itself the cure. For James, we might even say that it is only as ghosts (when we are possessed by an emotion from our past) and with ghosts (the people who are stand-ins for lost objects from our past) that one can be affectively attached to the world and the people around us. (103-104)

This type of effect, this type of relationality, this type of knowledge, that reading fiction produces resonates so strongly with me that I seek out opportunities to apply this theoretical framework when possible. Unlocking the mysteries of incredibly complex, emotive aesthetic practices, and explaining their ability to alter/shock the shared affective territory of geographically dispersed audiences, I see as one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. However, the project of Affective Mapping offers a cautionary tale that I have only recently, and somewhat depressively, uncovered in its relation to my own work with book history and contemporary fiction.

The loss of audience that Flatley describes Henry James experiences, the very thing that necessitates his creation of an aesthetic practice that converts “one relation of loss with another” is itself something that has evolved and taken on new forms, changing the publishing business (see Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, and John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture), copyright laws (see Paul Saint-Amour’s The Copywrights), and audiences, and the literary imagination itself. The “loss of audience” that Henry James experienced as a “shock” is not exactly the same as the loss of audience that, for example, Jonathan Franzen so powerfully explores in his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream” When, for example, Affective Mapping reveals W.E.B. Dubois’s insightful recognition that propaganda is effective as an aesthetic practice, the propagandistic effect only functions only insofar as it has eyes on it, which Souls of Black Folk secured in spades. The audience for novels has changed (though they are not as near extinction as we are sometimes led to believe).

However, we might consider that audiences are still the same in their affective attachment to books and their power. In this context, it is key to consider, I think, Amy Blair’s recent book Reading Up, which I wrote about more extensively here, next to Affective Mapping. Blair uncovers is that the ways in which authors were slotted and recommended in Ladies’ Home Journal facilitated a proliferation of mis-readings of “serious fiction” and vacuation of meaning from aesthetic/canonical categories. Many non-professional readers with less sophisticated interpretive frameworks were in fact incapable of seeing when a text, like those examined by Henry James and William Dean Howells, were being critical of the very reading practices they were employing, specifically those targeted at self-improvement and social climbing. Significant questions arise from seeing these two texts side by side. In the same way that “spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going,” would not books as commercial objects, particularly those in high esteem like The Turn of the Screw and Souls of Black Folk, be imbued with specific feelings about the books we are about to read? Do these resultant mis-readings (Blair notes these as relatively common occurrences among middle-class readers) necessarily occlude one from encountering affective mapping in these texts? Or, does the aesthetic practice make such avoidance impossible, or, to speak in less hyperbolic terms, unlikely? In other words, when Flatley speaks of the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of The Turn of the Screw, he is referencing Barthes’s notion of the force of the aesthetic to create a specifically powerful, shocking, encounter for the viewer/reader. The effect of prosopopoiea is analogous to the psychoanalytic process of transference, in which the similarity of an object with one in one’s past is facilitated by analysand’s process of imagining the face of the analyst while they remember and articulate their past, the projection of emotions on to the analyst, and finally, in the analyst’s act of articulation, the unavoidable recognition of the origins of their misery. If mis-reading is possible because of a certain affective disposition one has towards books qua books, does that immunize them from recognizing their affective maps as well? Or does the force of the aesthetic practice make the recognition of their affective maps unavoidable? If this is the case, how have reader’s affective relationship with books changed reading practices in the present, as the pre-occupation of, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls the self-image, those “entrenched in the outskirts of culture”? I contend that the force of the aesthetic often, in its violence, creates discontinuities and ruptures between the affective territory of our relationship with books/authors/marketing and the work of art itself. However, the webby attachments that we develop and revise on both sides of this rupture co-mingle when we return from the disembodied “meeting place for an affective collectivity,” when we begin to comprehend our prehensions. I like to live in this rupture.


[1] Flatley is riffing on Benjamin’s concept of history and our emotional connection with the historical losers: “ ‘The tiger’s leap into the past’ [is not] necessarily progressive or revolutionary. The process is essentially political, open to contestation from the left or the right…Rather, Benjamin’s theory suggests that motives such as retribution and reparation are ‘fundamentally indifferent to the passage of time,’ and that there are lots of retribution-reparation feelings and images of unachieved happiness floating around in that pile of catastrophes we call history” (75).

[2] “A poor woman is hired by a wealthy and attractive bachelor to take care of his nephew and niece at a luxurious country estate. She is thoroughly charmed by the ‘gorgeous’ children, Miles and Flora, the estate itself, and the general sense of privilege that attaches to the position. However, things almost immediately start to unravel, as Miles is kicked out of school, at which point the governess starts seeing ghosts around the estate. They are ghosts, she gradually comes to realize, of a now deceased servant and erstwhile governess, who, she learns through innuendo, seemed to have had vaguely and unspeakably improprietous, perverse relations with the children. They have come back, it is clear to the governess, to get the children, who, however, refuse to admit to their intercourse with the ghosts. The story becomes a quest for the governess to find out the secret of the ghosts’ relation to the children, to get the children to confess to this relation, and thereby to purge and save them from the ghosts. First, however, the presence of the ghosts allows for a certain pleasurable intimacy with the children, because it forces her to be extra attentive and imaginative in her interactions with them, as she tries to read into the children’s behavior for signs of their knowledge.”

On Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening offers a critical locus for many of the texts I have thus discussed that deal with the question of loss and affect (Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, and Silvan Tomkins’s Shame and its Sisters).  But, it also figures critically into the question of what precisely the relationship between the novel, as a formal practice and commercial object, and loss precisely is for readers. As Terry Eagleton suggests, literature itself is a response to a problem, or, rather, a problem posed in response to a problem. So, let’s start with the prevailing question that the novel asks and see if we might not work backwards to find the problem to which it is a response.

What is ailing Edna Pontellier? There is an instinct to qualify or diagnose precisely what “the problem” is, presumably so it could be “solved.” While there is certainly sense that Edna “fails” to come to terms with her position, “fails” in her duty to her children, to her husband, to her station, and “fails” to come to terms with her narcissistic awakening, that she ought to have been more successful in any of these processes neglects the origins to which her melancholia is a symptom. Jonathan Flatley’s methodology in Affective Mapping incorporates, among other key questions, “What social structures, discourses, institutions, processes have been at work in taking something valuable away from me? How long has my misery been in preparation?” (2). The “valuable thing” taken away from Edna is unclear, it seems, to Edna herself. On the one hand, she is strongly affected by the accusation that she is a bad mother by Mr. Pontellier early in the novel, and Madame Rotignolle’s dying wish that Edna ought to “think of the children” (111) resurrects this shame-inducing indictment on her actions. This is never more apparent than in her final encounter with them: “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. But by the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone” (95). Furthermore, Edna responds in the affirmative when her conversations with the Doctor turn to the guilt she feels towards her children: “‘The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost” (111).

We could, then, conclude that what Edna has lost is her freedom, or at least a perceived loss of freedom. But, what do we make of Edna’s own admission to Robert that it is his affection, or lack thereof, that was the source of all her anguish: “‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! You have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (109). The confusion of what exactly is the source of her anguish, or her happiness, might be explained by Edna’s over-determination of her moods. As Flatley explains,

The world never presents itself to us as some kind of value-less set of facts or perceptions—things always appear to us as mattering or not mattering in some way. It is by way of mood that we attribute value to something. And since value for Heidegger, as for Tomkins, is a question of affective attachment, this is another way of saying that it is only possible to be affected when things have been set in advance by a certain mode of attunement. (21)

Crucially, Flately goes on to clarify, “even though it is only by way of moods that we know how we are in relation to the situation we are in, this however, does not mean that we are necessarily aware of our moods. In fact, we are often ignorant of the determinative effect our moods have on the world we see and how we relate to it” (21-22). This is quite illuminating when we apply it to Edna’s hyper-awareness of feelings, but blindness to their determinative effect or their origins: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summers day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood” (6). When Edna allows this mood to color her perceptions of her husband, or contradistinctively a positive mood to over-emphasize her interest in Robert, she shows an awareness that her feelings/affective attachments to these objects matter, but not that they have been set in advance and may or may not contain all that she invests in them, positively and negatively.

Furthermore, as Flatley rightly points out, “one is never not-attuned; one is always in one mood or another” (21). However, this does not suggest that one cannot be improperly attuned, constantly exhibiting the wrong affects, incongruous with those around you. The power of attunement is put strongly in the event of the dinner party:

But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable. The moments glided on, while a feeling of good fellowship passed around the circle like a mystic cord, holding and binding these people together with jest and laughter. (89)

Each of the guests are connected (bound together) by a “mystic cord.” However, Edna’s ennui is indicative that she is somehow not properly attuned, and guiltily aware of this failure on her part. This “improper attunement” comes to a head when she rages and storms out: “The voices of Edna’s disbanding guests jarred like a discordant note upon the quiet harmony of the night” (91).  There is something off about Edna.

It makes sense, then, that art becomes an intoxicating source of excitement for Edna. Two examples:

‘A book had gone the rounds of the pension. When it came to her turn to read it, she did so with profound astonishment. She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so—to hide it from view at the sound of approaching footsteps. It was openly criticized and freely discussed at table. Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease” (9-10).

The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist on the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitutde, of hope, of longing, of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her. (26)

Art is the quintessential “space” allotted for the full expression of feelings in public. Her outpouring of emotion during the piano recital or in the private reading of her book are socially validated, and, in fact, Robert looks forward to seeing how a new piece by Mademoiselle Reisz “affects her” when he returns from Mexico.  Edna relentlessly pursues a maximization of these positive affects (interest-excitement, joy-enjoyment) through her own painting and periodic visits with Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna’s “failure,” if we are to call it such, is her unwillingness to maintain the boundary between art and life, the “appropriate” aesthetic practice and the “inappropriate” one. Every object can be perceived aesthetically.

I contend that what appears to be Edna’s “awakening” is a correction to a series of misrecognitions. The qualities and optimisms that Edna invests in different object attachments (painting, Mr. Pontellier, Robert LeBrun, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Alcée Arobin) may or may not be present in the objects themselves. In fact, the objects at times appear to be interchangeable (as in the case of Robert and Arobin); Edna merely practices different methods to “come to terms” with the constriction of her freedom and individuation that motherhood and marriage have had on her. Her romantic love interests (which are not limited to Robert, or men for that matter, but unquestionably include queer attachments with Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle) appear to present a compensation for, rather than a fulfillment of, the unattainable fantasy of a “free woman.” Art offers the most quintessential example for this compensatory dialectic, offering a space to feel strongly so that one does not have to do it in “real life.” The compensatory nature of these object attachments, I believe, is what Edna properly recognizes in the end of the novel, and suicide, a consummate break from all of these attachments, is a “rational,” liberating solution to that problem, but it also appears to be a particularly ambivalent one. Can Edna Pontellier’s despondency be fixed (the narrator suggests the possibility on the final page “Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone”)? Our instinct to question whether or not Edna can be “fixed” is contingent on our assumption that the novel can make such a question of psychosis answerable. To recognize the feeling that The Awakening produces in us is to recognize that the book itself functions in much the same way that books and music function for Edna in the book. The ending facilitates a self-indictment of our feeling that art has value outside of itself; we ought to try and control our affective attachments more conscientiously, lest we lose site of what affects are socially foreclosed and which are allowable. Of course, our own attachment with Edna, our frustrations, irritations, our grief are simultaneously socially foreclosed and allowable, such is the power of the novel.

On Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

I think one of the major challenges of literary criticism is still developing a theory of how a text like Ozik’s The Shawl has such an affect on the reader. The announced lessons of postmodernism for on fiction (the systematic problematization of many of our assumptions about narrative and history) vanish, it seems, through the allure of feeling in fiction. Ozick’s The Shawl, as one reads it, is seemingly unproblematic in the way it offers up the story of a Holocaust survivor and her inability to assimilate into American society: it simply hurts. The Shawl hurts like few texts I have ever encountered. I open in this way because it seems to me that The Shawl offers itself up as a sort of argument for fiction, something it essentially shares with even the most playfully destructive postmodernists.

The reader is put in the position to attempt an empathic relationship with Rosa, to desperately understand her experience, and, potentially, to diagnose her mania. The narrative offers up a counterpoint to our reading with the much maligned James W. Tree, Ph.D. from the Department of Clinical Social Pathology at the University of Kansas-Iowa who is undergoing the same task. As Rosa sensitively deconstructs the language of his letter of request to interview and examine her for his research, Dr. Tree becomes a phallic symbol of the ultimate violation, psychic penetration. Implicit in the juxtaposition of Rosa’s deconstruction, contempt and deep terror, of Dr. Tree with the narrative is that fiction “cares,” that fiction when fiction touches and hurts us, it does so because it cares and without ever losing sight of our humanness. When Dr. Tree’s letter opens his inquiry on the wide range of “neurological residues” that his work at the Institute for Humanitarian Context has discovered in “survivors,” Rosa becomes irate: “Disease, disease! Humanitarian Context, what did it mean? An excitement over other people’s suffering. They let their mouths water up…Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. It used to be refugee, but by now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors. A name like a number-counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference? They don’t call you a woman anyhow. Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering” (36-37). Rosa is also goaded when Dr. Tree refers to data accumulation as his own concern, “as a human being” (“Ha! For himself it was good enough, for himself he didn’t forget this word human being!”). The clinical language is too much to bear, and Rosa reclaims her subjectivity through a “routine” she has with all university letters: “she carried the scissors over to the toilet bowl and snipped the paper squares whirled like wedding rice…She threw the letter into the sink…she lit a match and enjoyed the thick fire. Burn, Dr. Tree, burn up with your repressed animation! The world is full of Trees! The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire!…Big flakes of cinder lay in the sink: black foliage” (39). The way in which Rosa asserts her disgust for opens itself up to us with a vastness of interpretation (of her use of fire as a liberating destructive agent, of her self-exhibition that she wields “power to minimize affect inhibition” [Tomkins]) that have as an underlying current the irony that as a readers of fiction we are not vastly different from Dr. Tree. We exhibit the same “excitement over other’s people’s suffering” as we get fully absorbed and magically lost in the narrative of The Shawl. We commit the same phallic violation of psychically penetrating Rosa because we are mimetically enthralled by Ozick’s imaginative exercise; we uncritically ride the track laid out by the narrator, puzzling our way through Rosa’s delusional mania, voyeuristically pining for more pain to excite and engorge us.

Retrospectively, it seems The Shawl prefigures/ embodies the “affective turn” in literary studies. The persistence to her Rosa’s feelings of shame and being ashamed throughout invite the Tomkinsian interpretations of affect that were so powerfully brought to the fore by Eve Sedgwick. Tomkins describes shame in the following way:

If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and eath and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth. (Shame and its Sisters, 133)

A prerequisite for the affect of shame is the activation of interest or enjoyment, to which shame acts as an inhibitor to one or the other or both. (134) Much of the shame is induced by sexual excitement and interest/contempt for the old man who pursues a romantic relationship with her: “When the drying cycle ended, Rosa noticed that the old man handled the clothes like an expert. She was ashamed from him to touch her underpants” (19). The shame connected to sex is uncovered in the letter she rights her long-deceased baby and her paternity: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it’s true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive” (43). The presence of a potentially new object attachment, Mr. Persky, seems to bring to the fore this sexual shame, but it is consistently mirrored by the constant threat of a psychic penetration by Dr. Tree, by the writer, by the reader, by fiction itself.

In this way, shame functions not just as an observation of an affect of Rosa’s, but as an affectively shared atmosphere that is experienced vicariously by the reader. Speaking from my personal experience of this narrative, the announcement of Rosa’s shame did not in and of itself produce a feeling of shame for me; instead, I was carefully enthralled and deeply saddened throughout the series of frustrations and irritations. However, in the moment in which Rosa attempts to produce for Mr. Persky her living daughter Magda only to produce the book Repressed Animation. Persky “can see [he’s] involved in a mistake” (61), and quickly retreats. Within just a few pages, Rosa receives the proper package with the shawl. Upon having a conversation with Stella on the phone, the phrase “long distance” conjures up the phantom of Magda in the shawl and her delusion moves about the room. When the delusion stops, the narrator remarks, “Magda did not even stay to claim her letter: there it flickered, unfinished like an ember, and all because of the ringing from the floor near the bed—Magda collapsed at any stir, fearful as a phantom. She behaved at these moments as if she was ashamed, and hid herself. Magda, my beloved, don’t be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” (69). She vanishes as Mr. Persky re-enters: “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70). There is, it seems, an imbalance or competition between object attachments for Rosa, and neither can be present when the other is.

However, I want to return to the offering of the phrase “long distance” as the prompt for Rosa’s delusional fantasy. The image of Magda and the phantom recalls the tragic scene from “The Shawl,” when Rosa is helplessly far from baby Magda as she waddles out into the middle of the concentration camp wailing for her mother, shawl-less:

Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the should that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped he helmet and sparkled into the goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. ‘Maaamaa, maaamaaa,’ they all hummed together. How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side! She was no bigger than a moth. (9)

After Magda’s murder, Rosa cannot move:

the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried. (10)

This unimaginable, incommunicable helplessness is relived so potently in this moment when Rosa attempts to avow her delusion to Mr. Persky that I vicariously felt deeply ashamed for her. It is noteworthy that the word “distance” is uttered here, not by Rosa herself, but by the narrator. The only other time the word distance exists in the entire text is when Stella complains of long distance charges. It is possible that the word linguistic utterance of “distance,” as a match with the narrator’s use of it in this pivotal early scene, as a trigger for her delusion suggests an unseen attunement between the narrator and Rosa. This attunement between narrator and Rosa is significantly matched by the attunement that the narrator produces with the reader, which only circuitously reasserts the power of fiction to produce such an object attachment in the first place.

Because interest and excitement are the prerequisites of shame, according to Tomkins, “shame enlarges the spectrum of objects outside of himself which can engage man and concern him. After having experienced shame through sudden empathy, the individual will never again be able to be entirely unconcerned with the other…If there is insufficient interest in the other, shame through empathy is improbable” (162). The novel (or, as this story is technically a novella, perhaps fiction is the operative word here) can only produce shame because it has first become an object of interest and excitement, and one product of this shame is the never returning to a state of indifference to that which has produced it. In this sense, we might consider that The Shawl, by successfully producing a shared affective atmosphere of shame, not merely between Rosa and the reader, but also between a myriad of geographically and temporally dispersed readers, successfully makes the case that the novel “cares” in a way that Dr. Tree cannot, achieves a humanity where the rest see only pieces and survivors.

This implicit argument for fiction ought not be seen uncritically, I think. The oddness of it does not go unseen by Ozick when an interviewer asks about her ability to write stories that convincingly are read as if “you were a Holocaust survivor yourself:”

I don’t agree with the sentiment “write what you know.” That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That’s what it’s there for.

All the same, I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences — organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg’s oral-history program — keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can’t help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school — I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature — and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings.

When “The Shawl” was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience.

As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook — absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is “the past”? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation. (“The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick”).

Ozick offers in her response this fascinating tension between “sticking with the documents” because and the impulsion to write Holocaust fiction, to engage imaginatively with history and trauma. The playfully destructive irony and the historiographic metafictional techniques of much of the fiction that falls under the banner of postmodernism come to mind here as Ozick juxtaposes history with imagination. The deep feeling of The Shawl is, I contend, deeply ambivalent and unresolved. The belief in the value of fiction is a constructed one, but not any less real of one. As Tomkins suggests, “value hierarchies result from value conflicts wherein the same object is both loved and hated, both exciting and shaming, both distressing and enjoyable” (68). Such is our relationship to the value of fiction “after” postmodernism.

On Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

At times theory can feel overly burdensome and frustratingly vague (reading Deleuze and gnashing my teeth, I thought to myself, “None of the words you are putting next to one another seem to signify anything in the order you are putting them”). However, theory undeniably opens up new ways of seeing and alters perception. This was the case when reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). I squashed my initial navel-gazing impulse (oh-yippee-a-bishop-that-converts-Navajos-to-Catholocism) when I began to notice what might be a richly and poetically expressed repressed homosexual relationship between two priests.[1] Willa Cather is popularly studied through the lens of queer theory (and I will do nothing to detour that trend in this blog), but the queerness in her texts are unique in their quiet resistance to interpretation. In Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall, Christopher Nealon discredits the linear narrative of progress from the discourses of sexology and the invert to those discourses of ethnicity and the gay and lesbian liberation movement, instead bringing to the fore what he terms “foundling” texts that address the tension between the two, ultimately invoking a desire among queer characters to “feel historical.” Nealon distinguishes Cather from her contemporaries in the following way,

Cather’s refusal of the trappings of mass culture, and of the literary strategies modernist writers were developing in response to it, sets her apart from her literary and her lesbian contemporaries: she makes recourse neither to the strategies of irony so many of them embraced nor to the new explicitness about sex. Radclyffe Hall, although similarly sincere, is of course writing directly about lesbians in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Djuna Barnes’s dithyrambic Nightwood (1936) reads light years away from the measured prose of [Cather’s novel] Lucy Gayheart, published the year before. Of course, one difference between Cather and Hall or Barnes is that Cather wrote about rural people of little means, while Hall and Barnes, whatever their innovations in sexual subject matter or literary style, were still firmly rooted in the tradition of writing about the rich, or at least the glamorously mobile. This difference reflects a class difference between Cather and the other literary lesbians of the period, such as Hall or Barnes or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of whom were either born into privilege or privately educated. Cather, born on a farm and enrolled in a state college, seems in retrospect all the less likely to incorporate her lesbianism either mimetically, into her writing, as did Hall and Barnes, or publicly, into a bohemian life, as did Millay. Barnes, Hall, and Millay all embraced the age as the age of sex, either according Freud or according to the sexologists (in Hall’s case)—an embrace that would have appalled Cather, in whose novels sex is never narratively rendered. (Nealon, 63-64)

Briefly, I might add that, whereas in my recent reading of Henry James, an openness of interpretation can be invited through linguistic ambiguity, Cather’s careful clarity seems to face the tension of the repressed; in Sedgwick’s words, the “secret that always reveals itself” (Epistemology of the Closet) is not inherently political, so much as it is melancholic with precious few avenues to the anti-depressive. Interpretation is available to those able to see it, and utterly absent for those who cannot or will to not. This being said, Cather’s historical novel that offers an account of two French Jesuit missionaries sent to install morality where Spanish padres modeled moral depravity in the newly annexed American Southwest aligns well with Nealon’s positioning of Cather as seeking out a feeling for a queer history. The intense feeling of movement in the novel is complicated by the intense temporal and physical paralysis that the foreclosed queerness of the characters induces. Her affiliation with the moral certitude of Jesuit missionaries creates a tension between how this history buoys up and aligns with a Catholic spirituality (particularly through the medium of nature and the natural as I will show) and how it must also be endlessly deferred, how the denial of a queer past acts as a paralytic to the future.

The characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop (with their, and the audience’s, romanticized history of Navajo’s as a mimetic guide[2]) experience an affective attunement with nature and the environment. Let us take the following experience of Bishop Latour as an example:

Father Latour lived for three days in an almost perpetual sand-storm—cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand. He either sat in his house and listened to the wind, or walked abroad under those aged, wind-distorted trees, muffled in an Indian blanket, which he kept drawn up over his mouth and nose. Since his arrival he had undertaken to decide whether he would be justified in recalling Father Vaillant from Tuscon. (250).

The way in which the swirling dust and sand cloaks and covers Bishop Latour on the one hand allows for a secretive divulsion, and on the other an activation of the stormy feelings that have been covered for so long: “Father Latour needed his Vicar…When they were together, he was always curbing Father Valliant’s hopeful rashness—but left alone, he greatly missed that very quality. And he missed Father Vaillant’s companionship—why not admit it?” (251). This socially foreclosed desire is endlessly deferred for the reader, his admission of what this “missed companionship” is can never be verbalized textually, and therefore fulfilled physically. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant exhaust all means of verbal signification but are deterred by the clear repression of what can and cannot be uttered:

‘I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too. [emphases mine]… If you take [the mule] Contento, I will ask you to take Angelica as well. They have a great affection for each other; why separate them indefinitely. One could not explain to them…’ Father Vaillant made no reply. He stood looking intently at the pages of his letter. The Bishop saw a drop of water splash down upon the violet script and spread. He turned quickly and went out through the arched doorway. (283-285)

Cather invokes Freud as only one possible avenue to understanding the psychic life of Bishop Latour. This socially foreclosed desire is expressed through a familiar description of melancholia: “But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few” (Emphasis mine, 283). Melancholia becomes depressive, or non-productive, when it casts a “shadow of the object” on the ego. If the relationship to the lost object is ambivalent (the relationship with Father Vaillant is at the same time held up in its bodied relationality and then disavowed), then it causes “this introjected emotional tie…[to introduce] a particular relationality into the ego, producing a ‘cleavage’…in which one part of the ego (the ‘critical agency’) ‘rages’ against the other” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 47). Latour’s inability to form new ties can be traced to the loss of Father Vaillant and the socially foreclosed grief that accompanies any recognition of the importance of that cathexis. It lodges itself as a shadow in his Ego,

More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself.  This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature.  And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant; accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico in search of his Bishopric. (325)

What Latour perceives as an increasingly hostile and prohibitive influence of the Ego suggests the melancholic cleavage. However, in a moment of ‘embrace,’ Nealon’s focus on a desire to ‘feel historical’ complicates a fixed diagnosis of Latour’s melancholia:

On the morning of his departure for home, when his carriage was ready, the cart covered with tarpaulins and the oxen yoked, Father Vaillant, who had been hurrying ever since the first streak of light, suddenly became deliberate. He went into the Bishop’s study and sat down, talking to him of unimportant matters, lingering as if there something still undone…He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him…He knelt, and having Father Vaillant, having blessed him, knelt and was blessed in turn. They embraced each other for the past—for the future. (293)

Again, these tense, ambivalent feelings are preserved in the material:

When he was otherwise motionless, the thumb of his right hand would sometimes gently touch a ring on his forefinger, an amethyst with an inscription cut upon it Auspice Maria, — Father Vaillant’s signet-ring; and then he was almost certainly thinking of Joseph; of their life together in this room… in Ohio beside the Great Lakes…as young men in Paris…as boys at Montferrand. There were many passages in their missionary life that he loved to recall; and how often and how fondly he recalled the beginning of it! (318)

Jonathan Flatley elucidates the profundity of the past, in all of its sensory outputs, forcefully erupting into the present, through material itself: “if sensory feeling (Empfindung)…is not experienced in the brain, but in the materiality of the place, then affect travels along the material paths of sensation to find a dwelling place. And here, it is as if beauty is too abstract and generalized; because it produces an overall effect that ‘dazzles’ one, it cannot provide a nestling place for the ‘fleeting darts of adoration…’ For Benjamin, experiences of affective attachment are interesting because they put us—precisely at those moments when we care most, when we feel the value of something—‘outside of ourselves.’” (Affective Mapping, 18). When the Archbishop is in a trance of these memories about Father Valliant, “when a voice out of the present sounded in his ear. It was Bernard” (305). This feeling is conjured beautifully and cathartically in the death of the Archbishop, when “there was no longer any perspective in his memories.” Then, only to be released and expressed in the final moment of the Archbishop’s death, the narrator ventriloquizes the immobilized and mute Latour’s dying fantasy:

 He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. (335)

Near the conclusion of the novel, Father Latour summarizes his view of History: “For many years Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going” (327). What is remarkable about this moment is the way in which the historical is actually at best a merely dramatic background for the affective turbulence of the Bishop’s personal relationship with Father Vaillant. The offering for the reader that the Navajo’s freedom is triggers the possibility for an anti-depressive melancholia is, to me, merely metaphorical. The repression of the “nature-conscious” Navajo’s by Americans mirrors, for Latour, an “affective map,” of the historical origins of his own melancholia, of his own foreclosed homosexual relationship with Father Vaillant.


[1] Again, I do this often with this blog, but as a disclaimer, I am in a whirlwind of reading from my upcoming Qualifying Exam and I would be very surprised if a minimal level of research does not uncover a wealth of scholarship on this relationship. If it does exist (and I would imagine it does), apologies for not due credit, you have all been in my shoes. If it does not, shame on you Willa Cather scholars.

[2] As a brief example, Bishop Latour admires “the Indians’” respect for the environment in contradistinction with “the white man” through a series of familiar associations, ending with the following, “The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it” (263). The notion that Native Americans never attempted to improve their land by changing it (a romantic trope borne out of tradition popularized by James Fenimore Cooper) embodies a fantasy structure of white settlers as much as it would be for Cather’s American middle-class readers in 1927, or for contemporary readers for that matter.

On Cruel Optimism

“We can learn a lot from listening to the increasing demands on love to deliver the good life it promises… Maybe we would learn too much.”

-Lauren Berlant, “Sex in Public” (556)

Cruel Optimism, published in 2011, serves as a departure from Berlant’s earlier work, namely her national sentimentality trilogy, because of its “notably intensified focus on contexts in which normality is aspirational rather than hegemonic” (Ngai). As Berlant states in the introduction of Cruel Optimism, much of the work in this book is one of periodicity, locating, through a study on minor affects, an intensification of, perhaps, the key symptom of heteronormativity: what she terms, as ‘cruel optimism.[1] As Sianne Ngai points out, one of Berlant’s finest accomplishments in this work depends on her methodological usage of affect and intersecting it with queer social theory. By understanding affect “not as a sign of ahistoricism but as the very material of historical embeddedness,” Ngai states, “what Berlant does is strengthen the theoretical connection between affect and the present.” Affect, for Berlant, is keyed in well in terms of understanding or diagnosing the present because it is felt before it is known, particularly in the way that she is looking at the present as structured by the impasse, rather than movements towards any futures.

In this sense, Cruel Optimism, while different from Berlant’s earlier work, can be read as a direct extension of the queer-social theoretical manifesto that she and Michael Warner espouse in their classic article, “Sex in Public.” In that article, the political stakes of their argument are made clear; “Heterosexuality involves so many practices that are not sex that a world in which this hegemonic cluster would not be dominant is, at this point, unimaginable. We are trying to bring that world into being” (557). The premise of “Sex in Public” is that our (read contemporary American) attachment to privacy has contributed to the establishment and institutionalization of a national heterosexuality; a space of pure citizenship in fact relies on our subscription to a hegemonic national public around sex (549-550). Berlant poses the problem as follows:

People feel that the price they must pay for social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the heterosexual narrative; that they are individually responsible for the rages, instabilities, ambivalences, and failures they experience in their intimate lives, while the fractures of the contemporary United States shame and sabotage them everywhere.

They are breaking open, here, an intersection Habermas’s theory of the public sphere and Foucault’s personalization of sex through a will to public exposure. This intersection becomes fruitful because, in spite of what Berlant sees as specific neglects by each, because “both identify the conditions in which sexuality seems like a property of subjectivity rather than a publicly or counterpublicly accessible culture” (559). The solution for Warner and Berlant, articulated via their experience at a performance of erotic vomiting, relies on creating making overt queer counterpublics. The experience enlightens them to recognize that possibility exists in publicizing “these scenes where sex appears more sublime than narration itself, neither redemptive nor transgressive, moral nor immoral, hetero nor homo, nor sutured to any axis of social legitimation” (565). These scenes intend nonheternormative bodily contexts, thereby multiplying the possibilities of intimacy or potentialities of what we consider the “good life.”

“Sex in Public” lays the groundwork for Cruel Optimsim, then, in a fundamental way. Berlant defines cruel optimism as,

A relation of attachment to comprised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. (24)[2]

The paradoxical relationship between private/public, particularly the way in which this relationship infiltrates and pervades our attachments to non-sexual objects, accounts for, what Sianne Ngai calls, Berlant’s impressive “stereo vision.” In diagnosing how these attachments that create moments of cruel optimism cut across our understanding of the “good life” in the present (upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacies), Berlant effectively furthers the agenda she and Warner set forth in “Sex in Public.” While her emphasis on queer social theory appears to be less frequent in Cruel Optimism, the effectiveness of her argument relies on a presupposition that a national heterosexuality as institutionalized heternormativity into each of these domains of our understanding of “the good life.” It also establishes affect, in Berlant’s theoretical usage of the term, as something that is situated and trained: “Affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary, and that bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves” (15). This is most clear in her development of our understanding of intuition, that pre-cognitive favoritism towards an action with a real effect, as tied directly to our situatedness in time and place.

As Berlant establishes a defense for this, a brief point can be made here about methodology in this book, which consists of a series of close readings of texts (primarily novels and films). She states in her introduction that, “My method is to read patterns of adjustment in specific aesthetic and social contexts to derive what’s collective about specific modes of sensual activity toward and beyond survival” (9). In “Sex in Public,” she elaborates that, “Every cultural form, be it a novel or an after-hours club or an academic lecture, indexes a virtual social world, in ways that range from a repertoire of styles and speech genres to referential metaculture” (558). Yet, it is also important to point out that her attentiveness in these close readings is towards minor affects that are repeated and repeated, those that are then able to contribute to the cruelty of that optimism because our investment in the optimism is based on trained notions of what the “good life” will entail. This not only stands in contrast to her earlier work on melodrama and trauma, but also supports to a trend in affect theory itself to focus on the local rather than the global in close reading, one mirrored in recent work by Sianne Ngai, Anne-Lise François, and Alex Woloch to name a few.

After what I have said about the limits of her analysis thus far, I still think it may be helpful in this class for me to close read or expand on a moment when she is specifically dealing with promises of intimacy and sex (although one could make the argument on a week dedicated to what is queer theory and what it can do, it would equally make sense to look at her close reading of some cultural norm superficially unrelated to sex). In her chapter, “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” Berlant close reads a novel of the same name by Mary Gaitskill in the mode of and in response to Eve Sedgwick’s reparative criticism to highlight the “stupid optimism” based in “misrecognition.” Berlant identifies the ways in which the two main characters of the novel, Dorothy and Justine (one fat, one thin) create attachments with food, knowledge and sex, each of which cannot deliver precisely what is promised to its subject and in the interim savagely harms their ability to move forward out of a feeling of “stuckness” or impassivity.

In Berlant’s examination of the sexual lives of Dorothy and Justine, there is a point in the novel when each appears to achieve the sexual ideal that they had set out early on. For Dorothy, she is seen as an ideal of beauty and appreciated, for Justine she encoutners S/M sex in a way that is not so much perverse desire as possible (an encounter that opens her up to “new and destabilizing practices” (151). Yet, as Berlant unpacks the conclusion of the novel as not so much a fulfillment of this promise as hopeful, it ends in exhaustion at the impasse: “This is what we come to: the exhaustion of a repetition, and an impasse. What does it mean to turn an exhausted something into something other than itself, or anything? A lesson learned?” (152). As she moves through the conclusion of this chapter, she posits a number of ways to read this ending, none of which embody our own optimism as readers (in spite of our willingness to create such a reading through the pseudo-lesbian union of the two main characters). What Berlant shows, instead, is the following:

Pleasure does not always feel good, and that understanding the binding of subjects to both their negation and incoherence is key to rewiring the ways we think about what binds people to harmful conventions of personhood. Second, affects have content and form…They are not species of preideological clarity, but quite opposite: they are taught (Hey, you!), barely known (“Wait up!”), and often more sense than event (159).

What this type of close reading shows is that in our haste to identify the larger, unambiguous affects that constitute an event, a shift in the way things were to the way they will be, Berlant actually shows that it is the culmination of a series of recessive affects that can “best index of how subjects of the historical present register the presence of systemic or structural crisis in the ordinary” (Ngai). While the payoff appears to not be abundantly optimistic in and of itself (how do we detach ourselves from our attachments of the good life? How do we avoid the seriality of all these recessive affects that constitute our very subjectivity, our intuition, our feeling?), we can read this type of work as the “bringing about of a world” that Berlant and Warner cite in “Sex in Public.” This new world depends on the possibility for attachments that are not cruel in their very becoming, not based in the incoherence of heteronormativity. Establishing that this possibility does not exist in the historical present, Berlant models through Cruel Optimism a corrective procedure for our misrecognitions by first simply being able to recognize them as such.


[1] Berlant’s definition of heteronormativity is helpful in this context: “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientation that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is organized as a sexuality—but also privileged” (n548).

[2] This phrase points to a condition different from melancholia, which is enacted in the subject’s desire to temporize an experience of the loss of an object/scene with which she has invested her ego continuity. Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object. (24)