History, Affect, Literature

scar

This is my brief contribution to a roundtable yesterday at the MLA in Chicago; the session was entitled Can Affective Criticism Read Material History in Literature? and featured also Eugenio Di Stefano, Rita Felski, Jonathan Flatley, Mathias Nilges, and Jen Phillis. A fairly lively discussion ensued after the presentations.

“History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson tells us. Does this mean, then, that hurt (or any other affect) can provide an index to history, a means of understanding history in terms of affect rather than (say) narrative? In the first instance, Jameson’s answer would seem to be negative, as History here is portrayed as stubborn constraint, as material bulwark that forecloses the changes or transformations that we would normally associate with the historical: “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” (The Political Unconscious 102). And yet if affect marks history’s limits in this way, we surely touch upon those limits to varying extents and in different ways depending upon the prevailing social, cultural, and economic conjuncture. We may be consistently butting heads with history, but we do so in diverse circumstances, and indeed the “we” that butts heads will change over time. To adapt Tolstoy’s dictum about happy and unhappy families: desires and praxes that history enables (for these, too, surely exist) may be alike in their happy (if contingent) ability to deny the realities of historical constraints; but desires and praxes that history blocks or reverses may each be unhappy in their own specific ways.

More generally, in any case it is not as though Jameson is propounding history as simply some stubborn, featureless Real. The constraints that it offers up change over time, both in the short term and the long. The kinds of desires and praxes that are blocked today may be enabled tomorrow (or next week, next year, next millennium) and vice versa. The limits of the desirable or actionable, just like the limits of the thinkable or the intelligible, themselves change: sometimes glacially, sometimes with surprising speed. Indeed, is this not the import of Michel Foucault’s histories of sexuality: to chart the changing cartographies of desire, or topographies of affect, from the Ancient Greeks to our own time. Particular times (and places) are the occasion for particular affective investments or cathexes or (as we are by now accustomed to recognizing) for specific traumas, specific instances of historical hurt that are contingent in form and even in nature. To put this yet another way, what Raymond Williams termed “structures of feeling” are historically embedded and therefore mutable even if they are not directly accessible to consciousness or discourse. Affective landscapes, and the panorama of potentially identifiable and indeed nameable affective states, vary over time. From moral panics to summers of love, ages of contentment to times of fear, there is a visceral history of affect that is also a history of the body or bodies and their various capacities to affect and be affected. Our sense of time itself is colored by the sensations and intensities, fleeting or otherwise, that structure life and mark off particular experiences as distinct and memorable. Meanwhile, on another, more mundane level, codified as habit, regular and regulated encounters between bodies (the morning walk, the daily commute, the hourly peek at Facebook, Friday night at the pub) also make up the routine and the everyday, our parallel sense of time as packaged chronology.

Literature (and culture more broadly) is part and parcel of this affective history, from the banal regularities to the periodic explosions of intensity. No wonder that the history of aesthetics is a history of feeling, of the feelings that culture provokes and celebrates as well as those that it manages, softens, and even denies. From Aristotelian conceptions of catharsis to Romantic pronouncements of poetry as modulated emotion (“recollected in tranquility”), and on to fears about the impact of televisual violence or the distractions of social media, it is hardly an innovation to claim that culture seizes our bodies and is seized by them, is absorbed through the skin. Literature reproduces the structures of feeling of a given age and also (perhaps scandalously) goes against them, to open up new forms of embodiment, new lines of flight. Reading is a habit, and a habituating activity, as well as being at times a means to break with our habits, to channel the desires that history (in Jameson’s sense) may ultimately refute or allow. Whoever said that reading was merely a matter of interpretation or signification? On the contrary, what is at stake whenever we pick up a book is the mobilization or demobilization of affects, the consolidation or invention of habits, and the emergence of individuals or multitudes.

Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

Antigone

antigone

It is not always entirely clear who (if anyone) or what is the tragic hero(ine) in Sophocles’s Antigone, or what exactly is the nature of their tragedy. One might have thought that the tragic figure was the eponymous Antigone herself, but the Chorus suggests otherwise. Their focus, at least as the play ends, is rather on her uncle, King Kreon, who likewise seems to feels the burden of tragedy lies mainly on himself: “No, no! / I’m rising on horror, and horror flies. / Why don’t you hack me down? / Has someone a sword? / I and grief are blended. I am grief” (71). And as for the cause of his downfall, the Chorus has already proposed that “Kreon has shown that there is no greater evil / than men’s failure to consult and to consider” (69). Hence perhaps their conclusion, that “For their grand schemes or bold words / the proud pay with great wounds” (72).

And yet Kreon shows little of the complexity and ambiguity that we associate with the tragic hero. For modern audiences especially (but not only), the focus of the play is surely throughout on Antigone, torn between the edicts of the state and the responsibilities of kinship. She is, on the whole, a far more sympathetic figure, even if–or perhaps because–we recognize from the start (as she certainly does) that her principled stand is bound to lead to her destruction. She sacrifices herself for the sake of loyalty to her dead brother, whose corpse Kreon has declared should remain unburied because he died fighting against his own city. But though it may just be true that the Chorus’s final lines are directed at her, too, it is surely a harsh judgment to blame her for “grand schemes or bold words” or to accuse her above all of pride. Or rather, though she has indeed spoken boldly and refused to renounce her pride in familial identification with her kin, to pinpoint these sins seems to miss the mark or misjudge the tone of all that has gone before. We may justifiably feel that the Chorus perhaps hasn’t really understood Antigone, even by the play’s close. Which leaves us with a curious sense of irresolution at the end.

One response to this problem is to point out how wrong, perhaps in this play above all, is the common notion that the audience is expected to identify with the Greek tragic Chorus. For in Antigone there is from the outset something discordant and misguided about their pronouncements. That sense that they are somehow out of tune and don’t really understand is palpable at the time, and not merely in hindsight. Indeed, unlike Oedipus the King, this is not a play about hindsight at all–at least not for Antigone herself. She knows exactly what she is getting into, and we do, too, when she declares to her sister, Ismene: “Leave me alone, with my hopeless scheme; / I’m ready to suffer for it and to die” (25). Kreon may not anticipate the results of his ill-thought edict (and so for him it is perhaps a tragedy of hindsight), and the Chorus may be likewise blind to what is coming, but for the rest of us this is a play that holds few if any surprises. We see a woman march, with open eyes, towards her fate. To put this another way, we could say that this is not a play about hegemony. At least, it has to be admitted that Antigone is outside of any hegemonic relation; this is what constitutes her subalternity.

But is then Antigone in fact a tragedy of hegemony by default? It is Kreon’s tragedy precisely that he thinks he can institute a hegemonic pact with his citizens? And perhaps the Chorus’s tragedy that they think so, too… and indeed continue to think so to the last, never less than in their conviction that the moral of the story is that rulers should rule with more consultation. Here, then, is perhaps the source of our distance from the Chorus, our strange sense that their discourse has little purchase on the actions we see unfold before us, little relation to the speeches that other characters make–and that this is the case right from the start and on beyond the play’s closing lines. The tragedy of hegemony is its irrelevance, the way in which it (here, literally) misses the plot and continues to do so.

Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

Freud, Dora

In one of his final essays, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), Sigmund Freud writes that “it almost looks as if analysis were the third of those ‘impossible’ professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government.” In some ways this is a rather dispiriting conclusion to a life’s work, though it fits with the melancholy tone of much of Freud’s later pronouncements, written in exile from Nazism and in the shadow of impending world war. See for instance the last sentence tacked on to the end of Civilization and its Discontents in 1931, tempering its hitherto relatively upbeat conclusion about the return of Eros: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

At the same time, there is also a resigned determination here reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Just because an enterprise is doomed to failure doesn’t mean it’s not worth undertaking. The fact that something is impossible doesn’t necessarily mean we should cease striving towards it. Few would suggest we give up on education or government however much they, too, are destined to “unsatisfying results.” Like Sisyphus, we roll the stone up the hill once more.

What is interesting is that, for all the confident tone of Freud’s earlier writings, in which he presents himself as the heroic scientist or explorer uncovering an entire new world, failure was always inscribed into the heart of psychoanalysis. Famously, he seldom held up much hope for a cure to the human condition or the various psychological maladies that afflict us. As early as Studies in Hysteria (1895), the most that he felt able to promise was to transform “hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness.” Moreover, his first published case study, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), ostensibly presented as the confirmation of certain of Freud’s insights on dream analysis and symptomology, is also manifestly a narrative of a failed analysis. After a mere couple of months, the patient gives up on the treatment as though quitting a bad habit at year’s end: “she said good-bye to me very warmly, with the heartiest wishes for the New Year, and–came no more” (100).

Not that Freud is all that apologetic for his failure with Dora. If anything, quite the contrary: he takes her decision to break off the analysis as confirmation of his interpretation of her symptoms, and of his theories in general. For the problem with Dora is her “craving for revenge” (101), exacted against all those who show her affection. She treats those around her (particularly the men) with what Freud calls “an almost malignant vindictiveness” (96). No surprise, then, that he should characterize her behavior with him as “an unmistakable act of vengeance on her part” (100). That is just how she is. And the fact that Freud should be receiving the same treatment as she doled out to her mother, her father, and family friend “Herr K.” merely demonstrates that the analysis is working, and that transference is setting in. After all, Freud concludes, “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed” (100).

There are some harsh words here reserved for Dora. It is as though it were a case more of exorcism than of therapy. No doubt the young woman in question would have her own choice words to say in return. But she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: continuing the analysis legitimates her treatment as much as breaking it off also ended up doing; when she is on the couch, all her protestations are taken simply as instances of denial. And at the end of the day, when this “talking cure” is written up, it is Freud who does all the talking (and none of the cure).

The sad irony is that the reason Dora comes (or is brought) to Freud in the first place concerns a story she tells that nobody will believe. She has been out for a stroll with an older man (Herr K.), who apparently propositioned her, getting a slap across the face for his efforts. K., who is married (though in a somewhat sordid ménage a quatre his wife turns out to be Dora’s father’s mistress), vehemently denies that anything of the sort took place. And though Freud believes Dora’s story, he does so only to turn the tables on Dora’s own denial that she was interested in K. Isn’t she secretly in love with him after all, the analyst asks? Doesn’t she turn him down only because she was jealous that he had (it seems) earlier also tried to force himself on his family’s governess? Or was she simply playing hard to get? After all, she didn’t even mention the scene until a fortnight afterwards, as she was waiting “so as to see whether he would repeat his proposals; if he had, [she] would have concluded that he was in earnest, and did not mean to play with [her] as he had done with the governess” (98). K. himself, meanwhile, can hardly be blamed for being disappointed at Dora’s apparent rejection of him: surely “he must long before have gathered from innumerable small signs that he was secure of the girl’s affections” (39).

All this has understandably raised the hackles of feminists. Not least because it goes against the grain of the prevailing mantra by which men are (rightly) reminded that women’s agency should be respected: “No means no.” What to do then with a psychoanalytic theory that claims so definitively that “there is no such thing at all as an unconscious ‘No'” (50) and that therefore advises the “inquirer” not to “rest content with the first ‘No’ that crosses his path” (18)?

One response might be to suggest that there is a distinction between an encounter by a lake (or in a bar or wherever) and the analytic couch. Out and about, in normal circumstances, we should take a “no” at face value; perhaps therapy presents a space where such denials can and should be questioned and challenged. But how distinct are those two settings really? Isn’t the danger that the analyst repeats the traumatic situation that inspired the call for help (and this is manifestly his aim: “a whole series of psychological experiences are revived” through transference [106]) only also to replicate the cultural prejudices that were the true source of the trauma… “You did want it, didn’t you?” There are few points at which Freud, for all his scandalous iconoclasm, more clearly reveals himself to be a man of his time, and psychoanalysis to be an agent of normalization and (ultimately) repression. So no wonder its work is never done: as analytic theory itself tells us, repression is never either total or complete.