tears revisited

My friend Susana notes that it would be better to describe The Take as emotional, rather than affective. And it’s certainly true that what we see is affect captured: affect given a subject and object. In Brian Massumi’s terms, this is emotion.

So these Argentine men define their subjectivity through the emotions that they express: their pain at failing to fulfil their duties as a husband or father in fact underlines the sense that their proper role is as pater familias; their pleasure in labour confirms and justifies their identity as workers.

Likewise, their emotions have very specific objects: sentiment ties them to other people (wives, fathers) and things (machines, commodities).

In short, the emotions that the film projects upon its human subjects define it as melodrama, a hackneyed tale of the desire for work and social integration, rather than the social disintegration that a more (self-)critical approach would demand.

And yet, because emotion is affect captured, we can still read back affect through emotion. There is always something that goes beyond or escapes.

Indeed, the very fact that the film’s attention to male affect is so excessive already troubles its attempts at a neat liberal resolution. The film takes too much pleasure in the men’s tears on which its cameras linger. There’s something improper about its attention, so often willing the men to cry, that we might wonder about the limits of propriety itself.

And so it is perhaps that this somewhat disturbing excess offers a line of flight along which we could imagine other forms of community, other forms of solidarity.


Homeland Advisory Security SystemBrian Massumi writes about the US Department of Homeland Security’s “terror alert system”:

Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. “Safe” doesn’t even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal. (“Fear (The Spectrum Said)” positions 13.1 [Spring 2005]: 31)

The Proudfully American Logo Museum (a site that’s well worth browsing) has a fine collection of threat logos. Here’s one that shines out for its dynamism:

Bush and Alert Spectrum
And it is our dynamic response to terror that, Massumi argues, the alert system seeks to calibrate and modulate:

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public’s fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government. (32)

Moreover, and like the other logos that are always at the edge of the screen, glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, this colour-coded alert system is aimed not at consciousness, but at “bodies at the level of their dispositions toward action [. . .] The system addressed the population immediately, at a presubjective level” (32, 33).

Television here takes on a new function, to become “the event medium,” distinguishing itself from the Internet though its “resurgent role as the privileged channel for collective affect modulation” (33). Bush’s is a televisual mode of governance, which takes advantage of the way in which TV hotwires a link between image and affect, bypassing persuasion or proof, conducting collective resonance or what Massumi terms “attunement” (32). As we tune in, so we are also attuned to the prevailing “affective tone or mood” (41), a modulated fear before an unknown future threat.

Massumi goes on to develop a sophisticated and complex account of what we could term the vicissitudes of fear in these post-9/11 times.

This account is too involved to detail at length here. Those who have access to Project Muse can download the whole article, and indeed the entire issue of positions, which includes a number of related articles such as Alberto Moreiras’s “Preemptive Manhunt: A New Partnership” and Marilyn Young’s “Permanent War.”

It’s interesting, however, that Massumi’s argument seems to reverse his position in the much-reproduced and collected article “The Autonomy of Affect” (which ended up as the first chapter of Parables for the Virtual). There, Massumi’s stress is on affect’s ontological priority, “its participation in the virtual,” but also the way in which “it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is” (Parables for the Virtual 35). Affect in this sense is a figure of resistance, and also of constituent power: “Something has always and again escaped. [. . .] Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect” (35).

Here, in “Fear (The Spectrum Said),” however, Massumi emphasizes the initial co-presence, immanence or immediacy, of affect and action, the way in which “we have already begun to experience fear nonconsciously, wrapped in action, before it unfurls from it and is felt as itself, in its distinction from the action with which it arose” (36); it is only subsequently, “as the action unfolds” that “the affect of fear and the action of the body [. . .] begin to diverge” (37). Linearity (narrative) separates itself out from the nonlinear intensity of affect, and then recodes (reflects upon and recollects) that affect as, now, quantifiable emotion.

Massumi continues by tracing “the autonomization of fear” as, simultaneously, “a next natural step” (42; my emphasis) in a series of feedback loops (“from activation to feeling-in-action, from feeling-in-action to pure expression of affect, from pure expression of affect to branchings into perception, reflection, and recollection, then on to affective containment” [44-45]), and at the same time a politically-motivated mechanism of control that leads us eventually to “the wonderland world where the startle can come without the scare: body activation without the feeling [. . .] that it is” (44; emphasis in original).

So, two comments (and I suspect they’re related):

First, I’m not sure about this new topography of affect that Massumi presents here. Or rather, it’s not so much that the topography is itself new but that the conclusions drawn are very different. It almost sounds like a lament for the ways in which affect diverges from action through time, whereas “The Autonomy of Affect” had presented precisely that divergence (the fact that “something has always and again escaped”) as the very possibility of minoritarian empowerment.

Second, Massumi comes close, in presenting this series of “loops” as quasi-natural consequences of any shock to the system, to legitimating contemporary forms of power as simply the complex effects of unfolding immanent processes. This reminds me of the way in which Manuel de Landa eviscerates Deleuze and Guattari’s work of any political charge, by posing complexity theory as immanent justification for the world as it is.

I know that Massumi doesn’t want to leave us with this second conclusion, and to be fair I am sure that this article is simply part of a larger work in progress. But here at least the only gesture towards resistance or counter-power is, well, no more than gestural, coming in this piece’s one-sentence final paragraph, which reads in full:

Confusingly, it is likely that [the Bush administration’s fear in-action] can only be fought on the same affective, ontogenetic ground on which it itself operates. (47)

My own suspicion, then, is that some kind of counter-power only finds a place here as a residual “confusing[. . .] likel[ihood]” precisely because the main force of the article has been to argue that “all that is certain is that fear itself will continue becoming–the way of life” (47). Which is surely a resigned pessimism of the intellect if anything is.


Over at Long Sunday, there’s an interesting post on Benevolent Global Hegemony, about the “power of ideas”:

I am amazed (and horrified) that in the mainstream it is conservatives who talk about “ideas” and “liberals” talk about “solving problems.”

But it’s no surprise that conservatives should be “idealist,” i.e. that they should erase or elide the importance of material (economic or political) factors in their own success. It’s worth returning to The German Ideology:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. (47)

Marx’s account has of course to be added to and complicated, but it’s a decent start.

There remains, however, the question of what additional work ideas do. In what ways do ideas overdetermine political and historical processes?

The power of ideas has little to do with the extent to which they convince those to whom they are addressed, though this would be what hegemony theory suggests: that people consent to their own domination on the basis of the ideological discourse to which they are subjected. Rather, it’s a matter of the conviction with which those ideas are held, the sense of confidence or presumption that they convey.

Brian Massumi writes about the confidence projected by Ronald Reagan. The coherence (or, more often, otherwise) of his pronouncements was unimportant. And people happily voted for Reagan even though they were aware that they disagreed with him. But Reaganism secured power through affect, not through ideology. Or, as Massumi says, he produced ideological effects by non-ideological means. Hence the Zizekian formula of posthegemony: “I know, but still I do.”

Much of what Massumi writes about Reagan applies a fortiori to Bush the Younger. Liberals who pillory so-called “Bushisms” miss the point. The power of Bush’s ideas resides not in their logic or coherence, but in the ways in which they are held: as folk wisdom, from time immemorial, imperfectly remembered in the present, but unassailable for that very reason.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.

What’s important here is the flexibility and mutability (“I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee”) of ideas that are never meant to convince, to cohere, to secure consent.

The work that these ideas perform is, to poach a phrase from Hardt and Negri, a form of affective labour.