So…I have been invited to represent the work we do at the Always Already Podcast. I’ll be presenting at The Sound Education Conference at Harvard University on Saturday, November 3rd. Stay tuned for more details.
Part Two: Feminism for the Men Who Love and Lose
This writing project, however brief and punctuated by long breaks, was taken on as a means of dealing with the effects of Sedgwick’s analyses on my own thinking about queer and feminist theories, and most critical theories alike. In particular, I see these entries as (sometimes disjointed) thoughts on what it might mean for me, a queer feminist with a nonbinary trans identity, to re-examine things, to look into the intensities I feel about my own work in activism and literature, and wonder as to how they have been shaped by loss, and the parallel loss sustained by another figure in my life: my father.
Love and Memory
For Sedgwick, in Dialogue, her diagnosis was enough to challenge her beliefs in everything from paranoid reading to the affective turn in social theory. She focused on positive affects (joy) instead of negative ones (shame) as a means of addressing what happens to feeling in a culture that situates the self as unfeeling. She did this because, as she states later in Touching Feeling, finding joy and repair in criticism seems so much more pressing once she situated her life-line alongside her friends. She realized that joy could be a critical object, a partial object, and not something absconded by psychoanalysis, robbing joy of its authenticity. To feel joy. To love. That was what Sedgwick began thinking on when she realized that generations of queers whose lives were lost might never have known that. And generations of critics might never revisit it.
I want to ask a question that moves in two directions at once. It is the same question asked in different equations. How do we make room for men to feel something, anything, when feminisms could be read as foreclosing that space? When can we, or when do we, love the men in our lives? In this entry, I want to examine the nature of my father’s experiences with my mother’s slow death.
This entry will meditate on the strange effects of love on memory and life trajectory. Of the fact that he had a longer period of conscious time with caring for her. Of the experience of it in terms of love and the attachments he made to things like medicine, government, politics, sexuality, and gender identity. Of what it must have meant for a working class white hetero-male to see his lover dying. Of how this perceived inevitably led to a certain kind of dealing with the world, a certain genre of living that invites some form of recourse into feminist and queer thought. If only for the sake of understanding how these formative forces enabled a relationship between a hetero-father and a queer-child in the ways that it did.
Memory is strange, that “if not the truth, [memory] is also not a lie,” as Claudia Rankine puts it. Memory is somewhere in between–a re-connection to the historical self so that the present self can exist, persist, and be temporally coherent. We choose as to whether this inter-subjective exchange between temporally distinct selves is nourishing or harmful. So writing feelings and affects might not find the same kind of (approximated) empirical precision an analyst with transcriptions might have. All any of us can do with our memory, or the recollection of someone else’s, is apprehend the intensity of a memory in conjunction with all the strange webs and connections established in along the way to our ongoing present.
Love’s Not So Erosive Effects on Memory
My father was a military man. He grew up with a military father. It was a strict life. But from the stories I heard it was often brutal. Filled with his father’s alcoholic rage and abuse. Dad went through high school and quickly joined the Air Force. Fast forward a few years and the man meeting my mother–a mother who had a child (me) out of wedlock–was formed out of the fires of that kind of intensity. So I wonder whether I am exculpated from my judgments of him, of his rigid habits of heteronormativity, traditionalism, and that these may have been intensified by the feelings sustained during a life lived always adjacent to (perhaps fully saturated by) illness and its affects.
A memory: I remember once rummaging through various things in the living room. My mom hated when I would “rummage.” It wasn’t my stuff after all. It was a combination of things. But I remember once when I removed a card that my father and sent to her and it read something like “and all the blue out there.” I didn’t know what it meant. When she saw me “rummaging,” she remarked, “let me see what you go there.” And she explained. My father was in the Air Force, requiring some physical distance between the two of them. And his love captured her and “all the blue.” And I was transfixed. I still am.
I want to pause here and also wonder at the fact that this kind of imagining/remembering, one that is inspired by the emotion called love, defies what Berlant calls love’s immemorial effects. Love, normative love at least, is what allows for the convention of the “female complaint” to persist, “where women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Normative love recruits people, mostly women, into arrangements and attachments that reinforce a code of quiet desperation because it romanticizes the past. It reframes history in such a way that those historical conditions are no longer remembers as conditions, just episodes on the path toward happiness.
Here’s the first thing. I am feeling a more or less rich encounter with some kind of emotion–something like love, perhaps? And I am inhabiting memories that aren’t justifying repairing end of my relationship with my father, or the patterns of behaviors that got us to this point where we no longer speak. Rather, it has reopened those pathways to examine them and possibly repair them not because I want a traditional or normative kinship relationship with my father again. Not because having a relationship with him would fulfill a normative desire, to feel normal, like all of my other friends. It stems from a feeling that so many men in our lives–if only and maybe for a queer feminist like myself–are too often put at arms length. As if their masculinity is, in itself, toxic without any hope of redemption.
Perhaps I should feel privileged, however great or small, by the fact that such love flourished during times of her illness, when my mother was so weak she couldn’t leave the bed. When she needed help to the bathroom. I learned that love is not beautiful in the normative sense. Love is dark and impatient as much as it is light and kind. It is a relationship obtained among things, between intimate partners, that has a sense of stability. A stability, a ringing truth of something I didn’t, at that point nor since, fully understand.
Here’s the second thing. If this feeling, this normative sensorium of intimate reciprocity, is always jeopardized by illness, what does this mean for the men who experience the other side of loss? What does this mean for a feminist point of view to incorporate those feelings? A queer point of view? Any of it? Berlant’s book The Female Complaint aims to reflect on the sentimentality of that complaint, of the intimate publics created in the name of hetero-femininity and the exclusionary practices such affective spaces invoke. And within these these intimate publics, also created by dominant feminisms, must they always prima facie excavate men from their genealogies? And which? Heterosexual men? White men? Or are they queer men? Hyper-masculinized or “machismo” men? Men of color? Transmen? Where they intersect? Are we always at a point of departure and not a point of arrival? That there are men who do the care-taking and the mending and the crying and the emotional labor that inevitably gets left out portraits of working class life. In that sense, I ask: where in the cartography of feminisms does love become the gift that keeps on taking from those we pejoratively “men”? When does this cartography take stock of the feeling (hu)man in any of its critical engagements? Because “every bad thing/ that threatens people I love,” Sedgwick wrote, is the dread of the double movement of cancer–from within to without. She wanted joy where she feared only dread would dwell.
And so if men are caught in this nexus of feeling where they are saturated by a culture of non-feeling and yet feel too much; if they are not welcome in feminisms’ pantheon and acid-wash of patriarchal critique; if, in the abstract, they are always easily making a life because their worlds have already been defined beforehand by their birthright of masculinity–if all this is true, when is it appropriate to love the men in our lives so they (and we) might learn to feel (our) joy? Or do they deserve even that?
End of Pt. 2
I want to discuss one of my not so favorite shows, Real Time with Bill Maher, and in particular an episode that aired on June 8th.
I think I “get” the appeal. I mean, I hate-watch the show (…clearly). His wry humor is meant to indicate his own (pseudo) distance from the clash of “phony” politics. His monologues are clever and critical, but for their own ends to be clever and critical. His panelists are meant to “represent” threads from the large cloth of American political identities. And the topics for the panelists are current.
But as I’m watching the panel, I feel as though I’m watching a wall strenuously rearranging itself brick by brick all while insisting itself to be a window into a culture it seems pathetically out of touch with. It’s within this confused space that Maher can then attend to his treatment of audiences as infantile citizens, to borrow a phrase from Lauren Berlant’s work The Queen of American goes to Washington. It’s a strategy of sentimentalism that preys on engineering a critical feeling of “American” without ever being critical of feeling.
Part of this idea that Maher invites infantile citizenship is drawn from the all-too-often fact that public and private discussions of American culture, politics, and/or national identity become ahistorical. These discussions could be their own narrative genre, I think. It engages in an active form of national forgetting. It’s a cultural amnesia that isn’t accountable to itself. It’s not a new phenomenon or critique (Cornell West has made similar remarks, I think even on the show itself). It’s just that this June 8th episode really brought to the fore how easy it is for cultural amnesia to set in when history is luminous backdrop of the discussion. Maher had interviewed Michael Eric Dyson about his book on the unfinished business of race in America. Maher did his usual “listen, agree, repeat what was said in a new format, repeat” kind of interview. So we have about 15 minutes of a Black scholar discussing one untold history of Black radicalism. But what I find breathtaking is that Maher can move from having this esteemed guest discussing racial antagonisms in American history and politics onto a panel discussion (complete with an uneasy feeling of tokenism) that seems to completely sideline those antagonisms.
So I started asking myself a few questions more commonly found in queer, feminist, and critical race theories. For example, why is it that the subaltern body (the body of the Other) is the ideal proving ground for when “truly national” feeling gets experienced? For example, when Maher champions the national feelings associated with the constitutional liberty to “free speech and expression,” it’s the “Muslim woman” whose body is thrown into rhetorical relief. More specifically, it’s the Muslim woman who doesn’t don the “oppressive” veil as examples of true American freedom. Freedoms set of affects are so obvious that the Muslim woman doesn’t even need to speak of her own experiences. If she did, she would apparently express how lucky she feels to be thriving in a “free” country and not a theocratic, “Islamic” one. And there it is: the image of her a covered woman juxtaposed against the uncovered one that is paraded, respectively, as a sigil of oppression on the one hand and the American promise of a freer good life on the other.
So audience members are supposed to understand “Muslim women” as a group that is static and lacks any dimension? This kind of suggestion asks viewers/listeners to allow a homogeneity of experiences that this category of women are facing in America. But what are the actual experiences of economic, racist, or sexist scenes in their everyday lives? It sutures a Muslim woman’s identity with an American (read white and male) one. An identity that, if you pay close attention, has somehow always been here for them. “But free speech and expression…” is a kind of shorthand for not having to deal with the complexities of racialized, gendered, and sexualized lifeworlds.
Why is it that capitalism is never discussed as part of the root cause of economic, political, and social disaffection? The (Muslim) woman’s body isn’t the only body that gets drawn up in sentimental hyperbole during the episode. Chicanx and/or immigrant bodies are also used as a means of articulating another facet of American identity: hard work under the benign aegis of the free-market. It suggests more than simply a slapdash avowal of immigration or immigrant communities generally. It marks those communities as workers necessary for the reproduction of our capitalist system without giving them a voice in the manner of wages, style of work, or real opportunities for making a life. Such bodily parades also disrupt, and in fact invite forgetting about, the historical narrative of xenophobia and anti-Mexican sentiment that still haunts the southwest. Speaking on behalf of subaltern communities in liberatory vernacular doesn’t liberate them. It makes a double abstraction out of them: as both bearers of rights and silent agents for whom others have the right to speak.
Why can history be center-stage when its performance is not? The concept that freedom of speech and expression can be used as a shield against and eraser of historical context. It shields Maher from taking responsibility for idiotic and problematic statements about race, gender, class, or religious creed. It also erases the lived value and thick histories of these identity categories. It disdains the relations between history and present feeling. Thus, this concept of expression makes expressing complaints about racist remarks seem infantile, overly emotional and thus irrational. It suggests that real hurt doesn’t look like that. That real or true feelings means bearing the brunt of a joke with a sense of dignity, not defeat. That true feelings are not about disengaging from the circuits of (what Maher presumably already thinks actually exists as) a public sphere. But of engaging it, fighting back, talking it out. Because, like liberalism’s pedagogy suggests, it’s about individual transformations in present time, free from the contradictions and complications of history. At every turn, his conception of “true feelings” are not really not historical ones, but ones that make peace with history by falling in love with fantasy.
This is the ethos of Maher’s show. It exploits the ahistorical fantasies of freedom for its effects at cohering together the fantasy of “real” America. It treats audiences as infantile citizens by using the iconicity of otherwise important aspects of American constitutional life to reroute audience’s memories and attention away from everyday suffering. It hypes up revitalizing institutions of a genuinely American type (namely, the vote) and suggests that this kind of knowledge is individually transformative. In this way Maher cannot claim an ideological distance from conservatism. It is avowedly a conservative one.
This ethos, not peculiar to Maher, owns up to history only when it is convenient to own up to it. It hyperbolizes subaltern life when it illustrates what is best about American life, even when those subaltern lives are left somewhere in the space on the side of road. This ethos panders to everyday idealities of American life, and even to its ordinariness, in spite of itself. It infantilizes citizenship, creating an ideal that audience members might inhabit–one that allows forgetting the historical conditions that brought the everyday zones of livability and unlivability to them. In that sense, Maher is a bad sentimentalist (if there ever is a “good” one). He’s bad because he thrives on generating affects of commonality under the rubric of the American “nation” that requires forgetting, willfully, that such a concept of nationhood perpetuates its own foundation in white normativity, white histories, and white institutions. He relies on audiences forgetting their personal histories within this kind of impersonal zone by appealing to “the political” in us all. And to add insult to the injury he commits to intellectual honesty, he pawns these affects as honest, truthful, and, well real in “real time.” He is a sham, much like his regularly remarked arch-nemesis-of-the-people, Donald Trump.
There are many more things I could say. But I gotta get back to my dissertation I’ll be defending in a couple of months. And sorry for not providing links. I was lazy.
Part One: Finding A Voice
My writing is difficult.
“B,” I’ve heard people say. “If only you wrote what you just said, exactly how you said it, instead of the way it was written–I would have understood you.” Really? I meant the same fucking thing in the same fucking grammatical ways, just with different symbols called words! I wanted intensity to reflect the lives I was writing about. Why do I have to stop mid-sentence to explain “sensorium,” “affective attachment,” or a “culture of epistemic myopia.” I don’t want to care more about writing, just the subject. What an abyss.
So I’ll do a little story-telling and give a little structure to what all this blog project (as I’m calling it) is about.
I’m going to share some details about my life that has impacted the multiple trajectories I have taken in my life. I’m going to break this project up over several parts, this first being the inaugural part (who knows how many after). It’s about the parallelism between the book I’m currently reading, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, and the linkages between her prose and analysis and my own experiences growing up with a mother with cancer.
Throughout this multi-part project I’ll be emphasizing themes I’m sure I can’t predict now. But I can think of one for this particular entry, what could be called the phenomenology of shame and what prevents me (or us) from writing clearly about emotional living (or affective experiences). Perhaps this project is a way to think about (past and present) affective experiences in reparative ways.
When I think about it, this seems to be the most ridiculous thing? I can’t even write about what I find to be the most constitutive and transformative series of experiences in my life: Barbara, my mother, and her slow death of breast cancer. Every time I do write about the experiences, I feel like I’m pandering, like I want pity or something. Even to this day when I mention that my mom passed away more than 12 years ago, I cringe. Everyone has their mom. “I’m so sorry.” For what?
So don’t feel sorry. This isn’t sentimental. Just read. Just read without the questions of “what does the author intend to do here.” Don’t let the confusion of incomplete sentences and tense issues stop you. Just. Read.
I grew up around cancer. My aunts both lived with and died from it. My mother lived with it for most of my life until she, too, died from it.
Suddenly, I’m a 16 year old queer all over again, learning for yet another time that she’s been re-diagnosed.
Standing in the kitchen of our New Mexico home on Kirtland Air Force Base (my mom would always call it “Kirkland” for some reason), fixing a pot of ramen noodles. “Sweetie, we have some news…”
And then breaking down while being told everything will be alright.
And the anger at the complete wantonness of it all: the privative life of a kid whose parent is dying and no one else can see it so that they might feel it. The smell of the oncology ward and the pit that grows like a plague seeing all those women on pull-out chairs attached to IVs, their heads wrapped in cloth for reasons you can only reason are for warmth, not aesthetic value.
Or the shame of feeling like I have to “deal” with another one of her mastectomies, her complete hysterectomy, her bed-riddenness, her inability to get up before noon each day, her loss of appetite, her sudden outburst of crying, of telling her to “stop” and then finding myself retching at my own disgust. And the ensuing emotional distancing because the shame of not being able to look at her without feeling pity, or that she was pathetic and weak, or that anyone would wish to be someplace else–it all became too strong. And I vomit.
And then the substance abuse that people call “self-medication”–only it was neither about myself nor particularly medicating. It was her. Just like the cutting, burning, whipping, and scratching that “self-injury” diagnoses relish in calling “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
Or the reprimand from my Oma (father’s mother) that “you’re going to regret” not spending enough time with her. And of yelling at my Oma, an old German immigrant, that she had no “fucking clue” what she was talking about. And the awkward lunch she then took me to.
Or the college days that were really not a reprieve. It was a first semester of hell that started with a move-in that required my mother to sleep through a majority of it. And the biochemical bullshit of taking two different antidepressants and something else (I can’t remember) to help me sleep and something else (I can’t remember) to give me energy. Existing in a zone of in-between-ness.
Or of the constant phone calls to make sure everything was alright. And it always was. And then the Stevie Nicks concert where Barbara wore her shawl and twirled like she was the bewitching star on stage and “so there you go again, you say, you want your freedom.” You’re right Stevie. The shame I felt because was when I realized I didn’t want my freedom from Barbara but from her sickness and the distance it put between us.
And of finally being put at ease. She was OK. Even though she was never quite available to talk on the phone anymore. Always asleep. But that she wanted me to teach her about the Supreme Court because I was asked to lead a panel discussion in which I defended a more progressive affirmative action program at NMSU and knew my shit about case law and argued against a group of “dumbass white folks.”
Or that time where, after letting my hair down, relaxing, I came home from a drunken night with a friend, both naked in bed, feeling like I was living my best life, finally. And the phone call in the morning from my father, “You need to get here. Your mom. She has a week.” And the fire, fury, futile rage, anger, betrayal, blasphemy of words that couldn’t meld a single potent expression of the pitiful state. Just feeling. A raw nerve. I was in the fetal position, hungover, weeping on the floor of my college apartment.
And then suddenly being there in the hospital room, seeing her take her last breath. And hating my brother and my father for making me watch. And hating being there in that room.
Because there is nothing beautiful about watching someone die.
It doesn’t take a professor or a therapist to feel that “shame is a painful thing to write about. It gets into your body. It gets into you.” That’s what Elspeth Probyn intones in “Writing Shame.” It’s about exposure and vulnerability that drives the urge to turn away from the computer screen, close your laptop, and walk away. Because, exactly like you’ve been taught your entire life, you don’t want to be sentimental in your feelings or writing. You don’t want the weight, a pathos so overbearing as to be writing mere melodrama. But “it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. The gulf between the two may bring on the feeling of being a sham or…a deeper shame.” Elspeth gets it. “Shame forces us to reflect continually on the implications of our writing.” She gets it.
Then there’s Sedgwick’s canonical account, that shame “is the affect that mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality, between performativity and–performativity.” Shame has the affective force of interrupting all of us midway through a sentence, or an utterance, or wordless thought. It’s as constitutive as it is interruptive (maybe both are the same?). And thus in writing, there’s an ambivalent practice that occurs. A distancing that the author creates from the subject because, well–you don’t want to get too “in the weeds” and forget your own “voice.” Or the feeling that being too dispassionate makes you sound like an asshole, like a typical social scientist whose voice is overly formal–banalizing the singularity and beauty of a life. Where does the middle ground emerge? Is it somewhere between that introvertedness of a writer who knows the subject but can’t grasp the words, filled to the brim with affect and the extrovertedness of the scholar who has the words but lacks the affective content to match the subject?
I found a semblance of an answer (so far) in A Dialogue on Love, Sedgwick’s account of her experiences with therapy after being diagnosed with cancer. My copy of the book, the 1999 edition from Beacon Press, has no table of contents. It’s set up very much like a diary, starting in 1992. And while I was reading I couldn’t help but think of where I was in 1992, with my mother who, although in remission, still had to deal with the knowledge that her cancer can return at anytime. She had lost a sister already.
You see, the first two chapters of Sedgwick’s text deals with the dialogue she and her first (cis) male therapist, Shannon, have. It’s a reflection of those exchanges: of her intellectualism and its effects on her desire, her relationships, and her need to be in therapy.
The reading is a dreamscape. A set of memories. As memory then…
In 1992, I was in Colorado. Aurora, Colorado to be exact.
Nine years old. I remember even then feeling so energetic about nearly everything except cub scouts. I knew what “cancer” was. I knew it was deadly. At night I would say the same prayer exactly 15 times before I could sleep, “God keep my mother alive.” It was exactly 15 or the prayer was worthless. Everything had to be perfect for me. (I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD.) However, this is what Lauren Berlant has called “affective attachments”: things that bring about a sense of a secure, durable world. I excelled as a student. I didn’t have academic problems. I loved to read about facts–just facts. Encyclopedic facts, actually. My mom had bought a partial set.
Not surprisingly, I was an introverted kid. I liked playing with Adam, my handsome best friend and neighbor. But what I loved most was being at home with my mom. Watching “Unsolved Mysteries” with her until bedtime. My mother was even the den mother of our local cub scout chapter. She had energy then but was still very thin.
I remember she had a prosthetic breast from her first bout with cancer. She showed it to me in order to explain it because, well, I didn’t know why she even needed it. “You are who you are,” I told her. I couldn’t (and didn’t) tell anyone else that she had cancer, that I was terrified she was going to die from it, that it could be my fault. There was an internal intensity that never quite made it to the surface of my body as a child. And every night I would lie there in bed, petrified that if I didn’t pray just right, get into bed just right, I would jeopardize my mom’s life. I would even sneak into her room at night and ever so carefully hover over her face to make sure she was breathing. One night she woke up and caught me and gasped in terror. I ran with such motivation back to my room, hid under my covers, expecting punishment.
Nothing happened. She just asked what I was doing in her bedroom. I told her that I was making sure she was still alive.
Perhaps these scenes in 1992, alongside an entire lifetime of experiences contemplating her death and her bodily appearances as a result of chemo or radiation therapies, is why I tend to question mine or anyone else’s privilege, their “OK-ness of being,” as Sedgwick puts it in her book. Because, like Sedgwick, I was (and am) stuck an impasse in this. How many other (at least white) kids in that neighborhood, or that school, could actually say they felt and knew what death was? That they lived with it every day and that it consumed them to the degree that their ordinary–those rhythms and grooves of expectation and relief in everyday life–was broken into vignettes of prayer, anxiety, play, and emotional fatigue from making sure they weren’t the ones responsible for their mother’s death? What happened to that kid who loved their mother so much that they grew up that, for a time, they felt ashamed of her illness? Where is the kid (in the adult now) that thrived on love and security?
End of Part One.
(The second will be to stage a textual event on the shoulders of the first, if only to broker some conversation between feminism and hetero-masculinity. Or what the witnessing of slow death does to a person’s sense of belonging in the world [i.e., my father]).
We discuss the text of our love.
No. Not Calibri.
No. Not Ariel.
Yes. Times New Roman. That looks nice.
That’s how you you sneak in your preference.
Like an old guard
full of fury, ready, making sense of things.
Like so many key strokes read to strike.
You construct a sensorium of express trains;
Roller coasters and drunk nights;
Our minds are synced and improvise
every moments when we feel out of touch
with a reality not quite there, not quite here,
but you love me. And I love you. And we love. Right?
Did we fuck up our book clubs?
Did you forget to love me for it?
The texts and words and novels–
Woolf, Hurston, Davis, Dubois…
And then. FUCK!
Like some bold sans serif I realize–
It was me!
(is it “san sarif”?)
(You dumb fuck, B!)
(You can’t even get the “sans serif” right!)
So we argue until I remember why I cannot have a relationship!
Mostly because I require too much proofreading.
Mostly because of not enough copy editing.
Or: too many copies and drafts and reports.
Not enough presses, prints, and publications.
12 point font, double spaced, Times New Roman
On the desk by morning.
Allow me to have a brief but queer detour on my way to Queer Eye.
I think Fredric Jameson might have been right. (Wait, was it Jameson?) He argued that contemporary (or post-modern) culture sells “intensity.” It promises what Brian Massumi calls affect. For the normal person, the consumer of mass media, it sells an assortment of feelings and emotional relief. Media (literature, magazines, blogs [except mine], and now streaming television) are saturated with intensity. The reasons for this vary. Why are we more comfortable crying or laughing hysterically on our beds with a pint of ice cream in our hands than at cafes, bars, on the sidewalk, or on the stoop with others. Are we afraid of expressing our feelings? Perhaps we are taught that. Once after middle school, two guys bullied me on the school bus ride home. I came through the door sobbing. My mother freaked out. “What have they done to my baby?” She was so shaken that my father decided to take me to the side and tell me, “I don’t care if Mike Tyson threatens you at school…don’t tell your mother.” Obviously that memory has had a lasting effect. I tend to keep my emotions to myself. Middle school is fucked up.
Given this kind of personal experience, I tend to enjoy reading theories that explain this cultural and social “introversion.” Ann Cvetkovich, in An Archive of Feeling, argues that the internalization of feeling became more broadly cultural when doctors began pathologizing certain affectivities. In other words, they considered certain psychic states “of being affected” by external stimuli (what we might call a trigger) to be signs of a medical condition. Intense feelings–of anger, depression, joylessness, or manic happiness–were modified, in part, by the new cultural genre of psychology. I tend to agree with Cvetkovich on this point. Extremes of emotions and feelings, and their performances, have been signs of instability. How does one keep these emotions in check? Do they have a place in public life? If not, the autonomous individual in American life needs to learn how to self-manage. What better avenue than the private office of a therapist?
Enter “Bingeable” Media: Queer Eye’s Normative and Queer Dilemmas
So I began Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I couldn’t help but wonder why in the fuck was I crying (bawling might be the more accurate term) during Tom’s makeover? Maybe there really is something queer about Queer Eye, or this episode at least.
In spite of the consumerism; in spite of the commodification of “feeling”; in spite of the mainstream LGBTQ narratives of acceptance, Queer Eye made the attempt to delve into the utterly ordinary and banality of life-making in a southern town. It was an exploration of affects that keep people in holding patterns that don’t produce anything other than the next day. This episode reminded me of Katie Stewart’s concept of the “space on the side of the road […] a space in which people literally ‘find themselves’ caught in space and time and watching to see what happens, and yet it also makes them irreducible subjects encountering a world” (38). Let’s face it. Most of us pass by this space where life persists without a second glance.
Tom is a 56 year old dump-truck driver. He introduces himself as a “dumb, old country boy from Kentucky.” He’s a father, has had two divorces, and has been diagnosed with Lupus. He lives in a basement apartment. His ordinary is what one might expect from life in the space on the side of the road. “I don’t do a whole lot. I get up, I go to work, I come home. Fix me a redneck margarita [that’s Mountain Dew and tequila, for nonplussed readers]. Smoke a cigarette and watch the television through the door. It’s my favorite thing to do.” I get the sense that although these practices don’t amount to much, the affects they produce (of self-sustaining assurance, of ordinary pleasure) can map onto other ordinaries despite material differences.
So Queer Eye focused on what was ordinary. Ordinary spaces invite unanticipated happenings, psychic snapshots of a life lived with “that special someone,” or self-transformations of beauty and recognition. And sometimes all it takes is a burrito. Antoni’s innocuous questions in the kitchen about Tom’s favorite Mexican cuisine allowed a space where Tom confessed that he still loved Abby, his ex-wife. That Mexican joint was their thing. I felt an affective shift, something that had been building throughout the episode. Tom’s confession was important for me because it illustrates how memory can suddenly snap into place, constellating the things you wish you could have, or things you wish had gone another way. In a way, it outlined the contours of those affective attachments that keeps Tom stuck. So when the “transformation” is complete, Tom, overcome with feeling, starts to cry. And I start to cry.
But I realize, now, that I was crying because there was an underlying sense of urgency in the episode, an affective tremor stitching together the scene of Tom’s life with the makeover itself. What Queer Eye did was take Tom–a cisgender, white, heterosexual male with back and health problems, two divorces, a daughter and a grandchild–and understand how his attachments act “as a space for detaching from the normative world while cultivating a parallel sensorium from it” (Berlant 148). I was deeply affected by the fact that he felt as though he, a member of a population most in my intellectual circle would consider already normative, felt as if he had been living in that parallel sensorium, finally invited to enter the normative one, the beautiful one. He, too, could be “fixed.” Fixing, temporarily, what seems to crowd out hope in spite of the fact that still holds out for hope’s possibility. If it’s not a cruel form of optimism then maybe it’s a queer kind of hope.
Beside figuring out why I cried, a point I’ve been implicitly making is that Tom, and people like him, have to be considered in this larger picture of localized and hidden affective experience. It’s to get the total picture, the reparative picture, of a culture that is at once binding and fluid. If media can provide us access to affective intensity and emotional release, it’s not to satiate but to inform. In a way, media (documentaries, projects, you name it) allow us to
picture a world in which there is something wrong with the everyday and an ‘Other’ world–more real than ‘the real’ and resembling dream or fiction–rises as a sign of unrealized possibility. In the daily, lived conflict between what is and what might have been if people had not lived the lives they were forced to live or chose to live, there is a double vision of two lives (caught and free, used to and anymore, the city and home) differentiated by a lived experience of loss and the dream of redemption (Stewart 50).
So, when Queer Eye explored the practices that kept like Tom trapped within a sensorium that is parallel to normativity–I think that’s a queer invitation to rethink livability in American culture.
As is often the case for me, I started off writing about one thing and ended up with something completely different. This blog entry was to engage with white privilege discourse critically. But I wanted to do so with an eye toward understanding how privilege can be discussed without utilizing the affect of shame and at the same time be productive, informative, and critical of systemic racism. As a queer theorist, there’s enough shame to go around.
Then, quite by accident, I came across a recent piece published in The Nation called “The Costs of Campus Activism,” written by Lauren Lumpkin and Devan Cole. (All quotes and data referring to student activism come from that article via the above link.) And I found myself obsessed with how the article is implicitly dealing with the unanticipated emotional costs of non-privilege. I wondered how critiques of privilege fail to address these affective components, e.g., of nonnormative forms of life lived through education as it is felt as the only path to obtaining the good life.
[TL;DR: The first section is broken into various reflections about slow death and emotional recess in Black student life. There I contend that combatting racism within a neoliberalizing higher ed (increasing administration, on-campus security, rising costs) may lead to an ongoing state of self-dissipation. The last section is a reading that pairs Eve Sedgwick and Claudia Rankine. There I consider what it means to do reparative reading of privilege and nonnormative life without the affective weapon of shame.]
The Invisible Affective Labor of Black College Students: Scenes of Slow Death
I want to focus on the affective attachments brought about when “acts of racial bias draft black students into racial battles without warning, where they sustain evidence of battle fatigue, reporting skipping class, missing work, and sleeping less—all in service of making change at their schools.” So for Caleb Jackson, a Black student at American University, making life livable on a campus with several recorded incidents of anti-Black violence (most of which I would call twisted pieces of “DIY performance art for racists”) meant attending rallies, protests, and demonstrations to make the college administration pay attention. He felt making this point was necessary to making a life. His grades suffered. He missed final exams. And his financial aid was terminated. By doing what Jackson thought was both life-making and life-building, he was reprimanded by the very institution that, by contemporary norms, grants “access” to the good life. And yet, when asked how he felt about the situation, Jackson responded: “annoyed.” I think this this feeling is remarkable because I believe Jackson captures something essential to the attrition that Lumpkin and Cole are getting at. Exhaustion related to the practices of having to defend one’s sense of belonging, especially in a space toxic to that sense, is magnified for Black students. If we take America’s racist cultural and political history into account here (as I think we have a duty to do), then we might say that, if history hurts (as Fredric Jameson might say) analyses into anti-racist activism must attend to the historically cumulative fatigue that results when “the reproduction of life absorbs most of the energy and creativity people have” (Berlant 168).
It would seem that Claudia Rankine’s words in Citizencouldn’t be more timely here: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you” (63). That past is a sagging sensation that might often produce indignation or resignation. If Caleb’s story admits of anything, it is that the “affective stretch” produced by the new normal of neoliberal productivity should be re-framed, as I will argue below, as “slow death” or the attrition of nonnormative populations in their pursuit of normative fantasies of the good life. Consider, Steven Rose, a Harvard student who committed suicide in 2014. His death reflects the kind of racialized drama that harries ordinary life, inciting instability and everyday hostilities cruelly forbid solid affective footing. I don’t mean to dramatize a death for the sake of making a sentimental overture. I mean that college is symbolically linked to achievement, success, and self-worth–a proving ground for the passage into adulthood. So one can’t help but relate Rose’s suicide to Claudia Rankine’s words: “there exists the medical term–John Henryism–for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11).
I struggle with the following questions. Where does one situate the singularity of Rose’s life-death within a genre that intersects two phenomena: (1) the perils of normative promises of hard-work-to-success within the racialized rancor of American culture and (2) the affective attachments of nonnormative existence that respond to them in order to make and sustain a life? Perhaps in recognizing, or situating the narrative, within the concept of “slow death,” (in Cruel Optimism) the patterns of fatigue for Black students (and communities of color more generally) illustrated in the article become a culturally induced (and self-reproducing) phenomena. For Berlant, “the phrase refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deteriorating as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (95). Because these populations are, to borrow Rankine’s word, erased from the social imaginary of mattering, “slow death” captures the affective attachments that reproduce the very conditions of a population’s deterioration, their being worn out, their self-dissipation.
Is this so for Black life under the American dream and its particular iteration in higher education? As Lumpkin and Cole illustrate, Black students on American campuses perform the unpaid (and over) work(ed) labor-as-activism against on-campus racism. They shoulder the pressures of an absorptive situation that enervates their creative and intellectual power, their bodies, their sense of self, and other life-building practices that ideally make college life manageable. Imani Ross, a student at George Washington University, admitted that, while bringing attention to a racist Snapchat image circulating the campus, “there were days when I was in class and in back-to-back meetings, and then we were doing organizing work. There were nights when we were up until three or four in the morning planning something or writing up something for administrators, or just organizing and trying to get our voices heard.” I get the sense that the work needed for Black students to have a voice is absorbed (rendered invisible) into the neoliberal situation of having to work in order to succeed (the visible).
This sounds a lot like a double bind.
Perhaps what’s even more fucked up is that double bind is perfectly in sync with the mantra of American culture: individual responsibility. If you don’t like what you see, change it. It doesn’t matter that the normative “individual” is (uncritically) self-sustaining, (consciously) healthy, and (always) in the habit of making good decisions. (And we’re all thinking it–white.) You have to make the choice: learn or learn to deal with shit. In a way, that affective feedback loop (where attachments to belonging create over-achievement that inevitably requires more energy to sustain itself) was there all along. Students track this cultural sensation with them, exacerbated by distance from home or the direct hostility of others on campus. And so if you find yourself in a shitty situation, you gotta fight back. It’s the same in the “bubble” of college life as it is in the everyday worlds of “reality.”
So the fight was always already on Black students’ shoulders–assumed to be the sole arbiters of their own fate. But this fantasy is a kind of non-history that, itself, smacks of racism, sexism, and white privilege. So when change does come, there is a temptation to perform a kind of relaxing sigh, regardless of the contingent vigilance that inevitably follows. So we might rejoice that policy changes as a direct result of activism occur. Lumpkin and Cole report these include mandatory diversity training for faculty and incoming students; increased security on campus to monitor potentially problematic events; implementing a zero tolerance policy regarding racist acts; easier access for Black students to register complaints and communicate with administration; and expanding counseling services.
Here are my concerns about administrative victories (and its relation to slow death). It is evident that students of color, more so than others, “have been forced to adjust emotionally to the process of living with the political depression produced by brutal relations of ownership, control, security, and their fantasmatic justification in liberal political economies” (Berlant 261). But this adjustment, of fighting for a certain kind of freedom from bigoted assholes on campus, might also produce the condition of unfreedom that perpetuate self-dissipation. So when universities, like American University, corroborate with the FBI or engage in increasing security, I wonder what’s “more free” about campus culture. I know I’m sliding into the paranoid here. But if it’s the affect of belonging that we should all nurture, and not the institutionalization of security as such, my sense is that, taken together, such concessions erode the political possibilities for Black students. Trauma is further pathologized (counseling); security is a matter of, well, increased security (increased presence police or CCTVs); and even avenues of communication are bureaucratized through administrative channels.
Could the promise of administrative outlets for a more racially-just campus simply be cruel optimism. Do such goals implicitly take up the narrative that changing institutional practices will change the order of things more broadly? It’s cruel because we have the secret knowledge changing institutional practices will alway be spatially and temporally distant from our day-to-day lives. But if such anti-racist activism is about making life more manageable, to create a sense of security as a condition of belonging where it does not exist, then we must read these stories as indexes of crisis in lived time, whether of racial experience itself, or of ordinary affects of feeling at home, or even of the culture of higher education more generally. Policy changes could then be read alongside the persistence of attrition–not as solutions to it. That the crisis-ordinary is more complex and involves everyday iterations of self-reflexivity. Of the need for a kind of never-ending vigilance. Perhaps the objective is to read such indexes as ways that inform improvisational activisms that work outside institutional channels. As a focus on the strength of “ambient” democracy, a feeling or ethos of togetherness through shared practices. What does this look like exactly? You tell me.
Toward a Reparative Conclusion: Claudia Rankine Meets Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Isn’t this vexed visibility violent? That in order to fight erasure, one has to expend their energy to remain visible, and that energy expenditure (as a product of racism) goes unseen? Already precarious Black, queer, trans, brown, differently abled, or immigrant students are the ones who must unplug from the neoliberal culture of work in order to plug into the networks of social justice only to be reprimanded by the neoliberal culture from which they unplugged. Holy shit. Now I’m exhausted.
This means that self-extension, of realizing a future possibility for self-realization, is at best felt as an impasse in this historical moment. And that the (often white and male) privilege of never having to perform this exhausting cycle outlined above is either tamped down (“well, I’m not racist”) or is addressed by (frankly) unproductive projects that seem better equipped at making the “friend/enemy” distinction than any substantive cognitive or epistemic change amongst participants. Discourse on white privilege is rooted in paranoid criticism, strong theories of suspicion whose focus on what is invisibly negative tend to avoid what is lived, visible, and possibly life-sustaining.
For Sedgwick, the paranoid reader (or critic) “knows” something is up. In a sense, this is what a critic ought to be: by nature suspicious. She writes in Touching Feeling that “in a world where no one need be delusional to find evidence of systemic oppression, to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naive, pious, or complaisant” (125-126). One can see the appeal. Paranoid inquiry speaks to the conspiratorial in all of us (especially for queers, women, and communities of color). Just survey the last hundred years or so of American history. The act alone appeals to this inner voice that seeks to indictment (rightly or wrongly): slavery, indigenous genocide, settler colonialism, sexism, racism, and homophobia. These were all but re-lived or reflected in moments like the Tuskegee Experiments, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, or the war on drugs. If history is what hurts, then let’s hurt (blame, shame, discredit) the ones who did this in the first place.
Sedgwick is skeptical of this rather one-track method of inquiring into the effects of violence. She asks:
Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United State and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret (140).
And that, I think, defines Sedgwick’s plea for reparative reading, i.e., the unsettled question of what violence means when visibility itself is the violent act. If the making visible of the body forms a kind of violence–illustrated in the act of shaming social classes or criminals as spectacle–then violence has been in front of our faces all along. When I think of reparative critics of this stripe, I think of Saidiya Hartman or Michelle Alexander, whose works have illuminated the historically situated, culturally rich, and diverse practices of Blackness (Scenes of Subjection); or a powerfully descriptive and detailed account of mass incarceration, its visible institutional attachments, and the spectacle of Black bodies in the carceral system (The New Jim Crow).
Rankine’s work, Citizen, capture the sensation of embodied violence in the everyday–the invisible visible of the racialized ordinary. Citizen explores in “thick” detail Rankin’s own embodiment as a Black woman across times and places. I can only provide some examples from the text, but I do so with the explicit aim, circling back to Sedgwick, to bear witness to how “[reparative] practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture–even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (151). Citizen is one archive illustrating that extraction.
Rankine textualizes self-care and violence in the most ordinary situations. In a car, her passenger passingly insults her by remarking that a new employee was an “affirmative action” hire. Inwardly she asks, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam in to the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind” (10). But her outward reaction is silence. Self-preserving silence. Or, a casual exchange between Rankine and a (white) friend ends with her friend making an off-handed remark about the existence of the “self self” and the “historical self” (14). The self self is being friends, being in the world. The historical self, on the other hand, presences whiteness and Blackness alike, recruits the long history of racial relations into any interaction. Rankine’s refrain throughout the text, “What did you say?” points toward the “letting things be” until they’re not OK–of already knowing something might happen because a culture has within it the narrative of racialized hurt. And here, she wonders, why it is that her white friend gets to narrate the historical self–why it is her white friend, in essence, gets to set the parameters relational entanglements as fragile? She recalls having to apologize for her friend’s presence at her house because her neighbor saw a “strange Black man” outside looking “crazy” (15). He was one the phone. The visible body not belonging. The visibility of not belonging. In another scene, Rankine is accosted by an otherwise surprised trauma counselor who, after opening the door to her home/office, wondered what Rankine was doing in her yard. Correcting her by telling her she had an appointment, the counselor responds “I am sorry, so, so sorry” (18).
What objects of culture could she possibly utilize as a means of sustenance, as a method of repair? Often it came in the form of decompression, of sitting at home with the TV muted–the “comforts” of ordinary life in her own privacy. Perhaps it was wearing sunglasses inside, though the need wasn’t there–it just felt good (61). Because feeling good when feeling bad seems to be the affective norm means doing what you can. “You take in things you don’t want all the time,” she writes. “The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus” (55). So “sometimes you sigh,” (59) itself an act of self-preservation (60). Words are themselves “well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture” where the ordinary sensation of knowing the sound of your own voice uttering those words “is worth noting” (69). A joke about privilege (148) or the meditation on feeling, on sensing the worth of her body in and through language–its power–become methods of self-regulation (152).
The point is, if not to change the world, then to change the condition of your affective state. Of loving yourself in spite of a cultural impasse, especially when self-love comes at a high premium. Of learning a new poetics of the self and in doing so “unmasking” the open secret that the ruses of power was already there–that its visibility violently blinds us (hence the shades!) to life itself. And I imagine that is precisely Sedgwick’s point, too: that reparative inquiry is more important than ever not only because of the “brutal foreshortening of so many queer [and nonnormative] life spans” (148). As Lumpkin and Cole’s article painfully illustrates, Black youth are more likely to feel the material and affective squeeze in adjusting to a normative conception of the good life that never had them in mind. And if they are indeed experiencing (as I’m sure many nonnormative communities are) an approximation of slow death, then we might need a different kind of knowledge about activism, solidarity movements, and even the very the avenues for cultural, political, and economic change. Maybe it isn’t about suspicion and the underlying thrust to expose what may, in fact, be right there all along. Maybe it’s about the moments of ordinary exchange, or invested discussion, where we confer plenitude instead of instrumentalizing shame as our activism of choice, as our affective practice. I sense that we owe it to each other to offer lived pain the space to speak of its own realities and contexts without being anchored in a narrative that makes its plot more understandable. Is it there in the presence of others, within that space where pain of approximating the good life is allowed to unfold, that repair can emerge as so many practices of relational sustenance?