There’s so much that could be said about this photograph, winner of the World Press Photo prize for portraiture. The expressions on the couple’s faces; the distinct ways in which they hold themselves. And then there’s the caption…

Iraq wedding portrait“Wounded US Marine returns home from Iraq to marry”via Interbreeding.

[Update: More, from Majikthise, including links to the full gallery of pictures, and the comment “The groom’s ambiguous expression is a metaphor for the all the ways that war changes people. [. . .] Maybe the Marine is literally a different person than his finacee agreed to marry.”]


“The body is never in the present,” Gilles Deleuze notes, “it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189).

Gabriel Garcia MarquezGabriel García Márquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” is concerned above all with tiredness and waiting–and so also the corresponding attitudes of the body. It provides, therefore, a version of what Deleuze terms the “time-image”:

the series of time. The daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, the body as the revealer of the deadline. The attitude of the body relates thought to time as to that outside which is infinitely further than the outside world” (189)

The story opens with the colonel of the novella’s title making his wife a cup of that ubiquitous stimulant, coffee, banishing tiredness with caffeine. The process is described in all its material determinants: the ground beans, the boiling fluid, and a series of containers that themselves leech into the resulting mixture as he “scrape[s] the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot” (109).

At the same time, we also get an early insight into the physical maladies that ail both the colonel and his wife. He finds his gut and stomach affected: “the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut” (109). She “had suffered an asthma attack” the previous night and “sip[s] her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched, rigid spine” (109, 110).

The pair’s deteriorating corporeal condition is a direct result of their long wait for the colonel’s overdue pension. “For nearly sixty years–since the end of the last civil war–the colonel had done nothing else but wait” (109). And in the novella’s sixty or so pages that follow, there is not much in the way of action except for the small routines that occupy the couple in their quiet, desperate poverty.

In the first few of these pages, the colonel makes coffee, winds the pendulum clock (one of their few remaining possessions, a constant reminder of time’s passage), sees to the rooster they are keeping for a forthcoming cockfight, seeks out his suit, shaves, dresses… “He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act” (112). But of course these habits are far from transcendent; they are the endlessly iterated reflexes of a life spent waiting for transcendence, for a response from that department of state bureaucracy charged with allocating money to war veterans.

For of all the colonel’s routines, the most symptomatic is his weekly trip down to greet the mail launch, follow the postman to the post office, and watch him sort the mail. “And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter” (127).

Colonel waitingStill from the film El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
These are, then, bodies that have yet to be scripted into the national narrative. The colonel frequently and somewhat obsessively casts his mind back to his role in the revolution–in which ironically he himself was a type of mailman, whose own arduous journey delivering funds for the war is somewhat belated, arriving only “half an hour before the treaty was signed” (131). But he receives a receipt for his delivery, a proof of his service, and can’t believe that it can now have been mislaid in the national archives. “‘No official could fail to notice documents like those,’ the colonel said” (131).

But indeed, despite the myriad documents and missives that circulate through the story–newspapers, pamphlets, an air-mail letter for the local doctor–the story emphasizes the lives and experiences that never achieve representation. All this writing is characterized by its absences, its lacks. The national papers are subject to censorship, demanding but also frustrating suspicious interpretation: “‘What’s in the news?’ the colonel asked. [. . .] ‘No one knows,’ [the doctor] said. ‘It’s hard to read between the lines which the censor lets them print'” (119). While there’s little hope that any outsiders will interest themselves in local happenings: “‘To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar, and a gun,’ the doctor said, laughing over his newspaper. ‘They don’t understand the problems'” (127).

And though there are also clandestine missives and messages that attempt to make up for this representational lack, these endlessly say “the same as always,” and the colonel doesn’t even bother reading them (137).

Waiting, waiting, the colonel and his wife are subject to a “slow death” (165). But almost to the end, they maintain their patience, however much it is tried in their various squabbles as they figure out strategies to keep their bodies at least semi-nourished. Should they sell or keep the clock, and above all the rooster whose fight might lead to a big pay-out? “But suppose he loses,” objects the wife (165).

In the end, the couple are reduced to something like what Giorgio Agamben terms “bare life”. What are the two then to eat? And yet it is, strangely, this condition, in its loss of hope for transcendence and realization of pure, immanent materiality, that is portrayed as a moment of almost ecstatic ascesis. After all his hesitations, his anxiety, after all the ways in which he is ignored or taken advantage of by the state and local notables alike, somehow the waiting is over:

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years–the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute–to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment that he replied:

“Shit.” (166)

(In the meantime, it would seem that García Márquez himself is now tired of writing.)


Via 3 Quarks Daily, an MSNBC report of an experiment on brain activity in response to politically oriented stimuli:

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” [. . .]

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained. [. . .]

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Westen said. [. . .]

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

Now, the interpretation put on these results, by MSNBC if not by the Emory team itself, concerns the irrationality of partisan “bias.” “Nonpartisanship” is such a strange fetish in US media and political culture.

But of course political habits are about affective fixes; and political responses are affectively conditioned before they are reasoned–or even ideological–judgements. No great surprise or scandal there.

Update: further discussion at Alas.


In another context, Glen Fuller of Fuller’s Speed Shop points me to an entry of his about “dead wood”, near the end of which he writes briefly about the affect of airports:

there is an announcement broadcast continually over the PA at Sydney Airport that begins with: “Due to increased security measures…” This message has been played over the PA for a long time, I noticed it about 7 months ago. It captures the affective of the ‘to-be’ journey in pretension with itself. That is, the futurity of the present is in an affective tension with the eventuality of the future. The word ‘increased’ increases the polarity of the tension across scales of temporality – of coming and going bodies with various anticipations of the future. The anticipating body is in tension.

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but it has got me thinking…

Airports are often portrayed as very neutral, affectless environments. Think of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, for instance, as the semi-subliminal soundtrack for a place that tries to be as characterless, blank, and unremarkable as possible. I guess that this results in part from the fact that the architecture of airports is characteristically modernist–form following function–unlike the ornate neo-gothic ornamentation that characterizes the great railway stations of the late Victorian period. (Is that the problem with Euston? It’s a train station masquerading as an airport; or vice versa. In any case, it sticks out like a sore thumb compared with the other London terminals, not least its nearest neighbour, St Pancras.)

Of course, airport architecture is also at times spectacular, and supposed to be visually impressive. But still usually its affective tonality is cool. Concrete and curves, glass and grace. Think of Stansted or Vancouver International, two very fine airports, at least the first of which was built by a notable architect (Norman Foster), and the second of which is full of impressive native art: none the less, both aim at quiet seduction rather than brashly drawing attention to themselves.

Of course, too, airports are increasingly becoming bustling bazaars, with barely a square inch of peace (apart, that is, from the VIP lounges) as more and more of their space is given over to commerce. If you thought malls were nightmares, meet the mall without an exit.

But still, the affective image of the airport remains that of unperturbed modernism, a dampening of affect rather than its exacerbation. This is the affect of the “non-place” of liminal insubstantiality.

Yet at the same time, and perhaps here’s the reason, these blank backdrops are the setting for an unending series of affective outbursts. Airports are sanctioned sites for the display of a fairly complex range of emotions, and as such quite different from most other public spaces. Notably, there are the hellos and goodbyes of that membrane separating “airside” from “landside.” “Public displays of affection” are permitted, even expected, here: the lingering embrace or frantic snog of boyfriend seeing off girlfriend, the balloons and flowers waiting for visiting relatives, the tears of the bereft, and increasingly the anxiety of those not merely afraid to fly but reminded to be vigilant, suspicious.

Tiredness and waiting (the bodies draped over chairs as their flights have been delayed), sadness and elation, even drunkenness as somehow when you have a early morning flight to the Algarve 8am is never too early for getting in some lagers at the bar. All possible attitudes of the body are to be seen here.