Ala Eddine Slim’s “The Last of Us” and Bare/Burdened Life

  The story is familiar to us. She, or he, or they are poor. Poor in that way that most Americans cannot understand because it’s unending hunger, foreclosed options for survival (much less betterment), and deafening abandonment by anything like state services. This is the story of the migrant, the refugee, the sans papiers, the burners (harragas). We have seen the newsreels and documentaries. We know of the deaths and the refugee camps. We have heard the ugly rhetoric whipped up on both sides of the Atlantic by the threat–or is it audacity? or is it the inconsiderateness of undeniable need?–these bodies present to Europe and the UK and the USA.

 Ala Eddine Slim’s 2016 film, The Last of Us is part of this story, but it’s told with a different plot. It starts as we would expect, with a man and his friend walking steadily through the desert, stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, using cell phones and body language to arrange for a truck to carry them to Tunis. But things happen and the man arrives in Tunis alone. All of this is regular. I mean, it’s sad, but nothing is amiss in the story arc.

  The man seems as alone in crowded Tunis as he did in the desert. He makes it to the ocean, he scopes out a boat to steal. We know this story and we are attached to the man now. We know the high stakes of this part of the adventure and we gear up for it. We might even know the map of Tunisia that shows what seems a tiny stretch of water between the tip of Tunisia and the Western coast of Italy:

  It looks so absolutely doable! We see the man preparing for the voyage, we see him powering across the ocean in the little boat: We want him to make it! And here, just at this moment of wanting him to make it, Slim turns our want back on us. Having set us up for it, he slams on the brakes of the plot and denies it to us. The rest of the film is something else, something that leads me to ask about the want I had for this man. What did I want in wanting him to make it? What did I want from this film? Did I think this character would find a better life in Italy? Did I want the film to reaffirm Europe as the legitimate aspiration for the world’s desperate poor?

  When Slim stops the film’s plot one-third of the way into this film, the screen goes black and we are given what seems to be a poem or a stanza from a poem, one line at a time. It may be from the Libyan author, Fathi al Akkari (I could be wrong about this; correct me?) and it goes like this:

I stormed in deep into the human jungle/ Where I figured out myself as a ghost/ I had revelations/ In the beginning/ I was a nervous heat/ Then a tune, then an image/ And then a word/ I vomited humankind/ I related to the birds, plants and beasts/ I was enchanted by the woodland/ I relished the light and the water/ I thrust into the human nature/ I sailed into the light experience/ A moment of attainment and harmony

Then the camera returns us to the boat. It and its human occupant are fading away:

With a brutal cut, we see the man on the shore of a jungle island.

 Things happen; apparently, his compass no longer works here. Where is this? Is he dead? He meets another man who seems able to show him foraging and hunting and some basic first aid, but they never talk, they cannot be said to form a community or an intimacy of any sort. More things happen, much is violent, all of it is rather confusing.

  At one point the man (now changed in dress and habit) squats on a tree that has fallen across a river and howls like a wolf. The noise is startling because we have forgotten that anything but silence is possible.

At the end–and I honestly am not giving anything away in showing you this–the man stands at a waterfall and fades away:

  I can think of The Last of Us in two ways. In the first, this film is a kind of embedded fantasy, like (but completely unlike) Zack Snyder’s 2011 Sucker Punch. The man makes it to Italy and he meets someone who shows him the ropes, but he experiences it as entering a jungle, encountering a wild man, and living on the edge of sanity and civilization. This understanding of the film indicts Europe (and all countries who dehumanize immigrants) for stripping this man down to bare life, or what Homi Bhabha calls “burdened life,” and this understanding also indicts my viewer desire for this man to “make it,” to end up in Italy or somewhere in Europe, eking out a life barely understandable to him.

The second way I can understand this film is that it takes hold of my viewer desire for this man to “make it” to Europe, and refigures it as a desire for him to “get out” of whatever desperate circumstances he left. To make it to Europe is no escape, this film suggests, and to imagine some Edenic destination with chosen kinship, natural bounty, and hard-won comfort is simply too unbearably false to the conditions of today’s world. The bulk of the plot takes place on an odd, violent, and ethereal island which seems to offer the man not so much a ‘back to nature’ experience as a ‘displacement to wilderness’ experience. But perhaps, still or even so, it is an experience of attaining a kind of wisdom, if not harmony.

Only after watching this film again, drafting this post, and searching more for the author of that poem did I find Slim’s statement about the film at the Still Moving Film Distribution website. He writes there:

“The Last of Us is a sequel of my previous films. It is a continuity of research in the themes that are of importance to me: the problems of borders, imaginary territories, contemporary solitude, vagrancy, the issues of crossing and of the human nature in all its facets. The project tackles the realm of magical realism, of the ephemeral, and of disappearance and mutation. The problem of illegal sea crossings has existed for many years. During these travels, many people die at sea, and others succeed in reaching the other side. Moreover, there are those who go missing and whose bodies are never found. The leading character in The Last of Us is a missing body”.

   Yes, I got that he is a missing body, but why his disappearance and mutation is plotted out this way remains open for discussion. Whatever the reasons, or lack of them, I find the film haunting. And I find it a crucial comment on how the human world is treating itself these days.

 

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On Her Shoulders: Nadia, Christine, and the (re)Trauma of Testimony

  Today Nadia Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to draw the world’s attention to the Yazidi genocide in Northern Iraq. I just recently screened the documentary about Murad at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival (expertly curated and run by Professors Tula Goenka and Roger Hallas) so I cannot imagine that winning this Peace Prize will garner Murad any peace.

On Her Shoulders (Alexandria Bombach, 2018) tells us that Murad’s horrifying trauma began one August day in 2014. But like the film, I have no interest in recounting the gory details. Bombach’s film is not primarily about what happened to Murad, but about what it takes to get the brokers of global power, money, military might, and moral agency to do anything more than listen and yawn. Bombach frames her film as a question not only of what kind of story makes the world’s movers and shakers of the world take action, but also of how many times, to how many persons, through how many media venues, with how many tears must a person retell, and thus relive, the horror that was done to her and around her.

On Her Shoulders, in short, focuses on the juicy voyeurism of confession. Bombach presents but also subtlely critiques this voyeurism by showing the insatiable media and political desire for it and implicating viewers in that desire, but then nearly systematically refusing to satisfy it. We see Murad marched through a relentless gauntlet of a global media culture that demands–and obtains–self-flaying testimony from survivors of extreme trauma, but we don’t garner details from these scenes so much as an accumulated value of raw affect.

But wait a minute, you might say, Nadia’s actions are voluntary. And that is true. She could have remained in psychiatric care and turned inward. The moral quandary arises when she or other survivors actively seek help, redress, or justice for themselves or for those still caught in the trauma they have escaped. Is it possible for them to make their case without ceding to a process that persistently retraumatizes them?

Bombach crafts a subtle technique of visual and aural montage that whisks viewers through the huge quantity and devastating quality of Murad’s “appearances,” thereby maintaining a relentless, uncomfortable close-up on the structures of confession mandated by radio, television, national parliaments, and United Nations subcommittees. I couldn’t find a copy of my favorite image of the film (and of the entire SUHRFF), but it occurs shortly after the image I have included at the top of this post. Nadia has finished yet another radio interview in Canada. The interviewer thanks her with polished, radio-announcer empathy, and when Nadia removes her headphones we hear the announcer’s panicked voice ask Nadia’s translator to have Nadia put the headphones back on and say thank you and goodbye. Proper media format must prevail above all else. Nadia wipes her eyes and nose, as we see in the image I have shared. She struggles to regain composure. Then comes the moment I find most haunting. Through the glass behind her, a blurry figure moves toward the recording box and emerges into focus. It is a secretary or assistant, though we only see part of her body. She moves behind Nadia and off of screen right and we then see a facial tissue lowered over Nadia’s shoulder. The image sums up the film for me: an offscreen White woman discreetly offers a Kleenex to the (multiply) exposed Yazidi woman. The comfort is cheap, and Nadia pays a high price to obtain it.

Christine Blasey Ford is unlikely to repeat her testimony. The trauma she related is common and unextraordinary and though I and millions of others “stand with her,” she does not, as does Nadia Murad, feel the burden of representation. Every time Nadia testifies, she faces an almost insurmountable task of getting politicians to agree to work together against a known injustice. Christine Blasey Ford did not even expect her testimony to be believed. Bombach’s exploration of the social and political contours of the voyeuristic demand for confession was reduced last week in Congress to the affective contours of political spectacle, boxed and sold as ridicule before Blasey Ford even entered the Chambers. The week was not without voyeurism. Every computer, cell phone, and office hallway and cubicle participated in the voyeurism. Even those of us who could not bear to watch or hear, “watched” and “heard” through the various notifications that pinged on our smartphones. Weirdly, though, the focus of our voyeurism was not Blasey Ford–as the focus of voyeurism in On Her Shoulders was, relentlessly, on Nadia Murad. The focus was on the power brokers themselves, the animated, non-rational extensions of this dying machine we used to call democracy.

Democracy and power (Kraft)

 

 

  When I think about the habits of democracy (à la Jeffrey Stout), I think less of tradition and more of some odd Venn diagram that makes tangible the small, shared space between The Wild Kingdom and the Olympics.

Remember those Wild Kingdom scenes of a lion(ess) playing with his(her) cubs? The scene is unforgettable because usually, it follows a sequence of the same lion(s) unrestrainedly slaughtering some poor hyena or something. The apposition (thank you, Fred Moten) of lethal power and tender play is hypnotic.

Think now of those cut-away scenes during Olympic coverage of an athlete’s personal life and training regimen. These always bore the heck out of me but the accumulation of them over the two weeks of programming aptly conveys the single-minded focus, the long hours and discipline, and the immense sociality and economics it requires to form one’s body into something able to compete at the Olympic level.

What I don’t see or hear in Republicans, and what I don’t always see in Democrats, is this notion that leading this experiment in democracy (as outlined, with horrific limitations around the constituting gestures of slavery, in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution) requires the lion’s savvy sense of restraint and the athlete’s humble acknowledgment of the people and money it takes for them to train up her body into a proud ferocity.

I am sickened at the prospect of what might happen today in Congress because the Republicans have no restraint on their lust for power, no gentle play for the sake of this precarious cub called democracy that they hold in their oversized claws. And because the Democrats continually point to the logics and illogics of representation when really they should be turning their excellent training on democracy itself, this sickly cub that has had such physical setbacks recently and that needs to be reminded of its possible, its feasible, futures.

Restraint, discipline, and ferocious focus on the future: these are the virtues we need from our politicians… not for the sake of winning, and not to pay back the people who funded them and supported them but for the sake of what might be possible for the body of democracy itself

Afteraffects: Capacity in the Wake of Capaciousness

  Capacity stems from a Late Middle English word that means “taking” or “holding.” These two verbs don’t usually appear as synonyms since taking is an aggressive or assertive act of pulling in, and holding is a defensive or solicitous posture of maintaining a state without overt change. Capacity, however, is precisely the state in which taking and holding converge, because the term embeds both a sense of a cavern or abyss–like a womb or other cavity–that can be filled when something is taken from the outside and put into it–and a sense of potentiality, since if that abyssal womb or other cavernous cavity is filled, capacity refers to the sense of holding what’s been received in readiness for release or action. Capacity is thus both void and potency, that which is formed as a hollow to receive and, after receipt, formed to enable ability.

In his analysis of Spinozan ontology and ethics, Deleuze famously asks “What must we do in order to be affected by a maximum of joyful passions?” (Expressionism in Philosophy, Zone Books, 273) The first step in an ethic that will produce and express beatitude is, he argues, the creation in oneself of more joyful passions. This is because ethics and salvation are not produced or expressed by actions but fundamentally by capacities.  Joyful passions, in Deleuze’s reading, are the capacities for joy, such that the taking of or being affected by more joyful passions results in a greater holding of or capacity for joy. Put differently, the reception of joyful passions, that is, the ability to open up one’s body and relations to joyful passions, comes over time to orient oneself to joy(fulness) or as C. S. Peirce might say to create the habit(s) for joy. The taking of joyful passions into oneself transforms one’s life by trans-forming the number, kinds, and qualities of relationship into which one enters and by which one’s self is formed (taken) and sustained (held).

At the end of his remarks that opened last week/end’s “Capacious: Affect Inquiry/Making Space” conference, Super-Aefftman*, Greg Seigworth put forth a vision for affect studies that resonates in affective affiliation with this dual sense of capacity as taking and holding, as the reception and production/expression of joy:

“I would like to believe that the journal Capacious and this conference are modest attempts at enacting such a thing: testing out other — more welcoming — ways to enter into scholarship, to build empathetic intellectual communities, to live an academic life that is not about claims to mastery and hyper-competitive one-down-manship but rather looks for the means to produce affective encounters and generative relations that will need to do something more-than-merely-sustain us through the ethno-nationalisms, kleptocracies and climate catastrophes that shape our existence in the present, for the future” (cut and pasted from Seigworth’s post on the Capacious FB page).

In an age when neoliberal tactics of debt, precarity, and hyper affect-management have seeded profound cynicism and distrust in all theaters of labor, including academia, Greg’s words are a balm, a charge, and a feasible ideal. The study of affect considers not just the goals of research or the whats and whys of life, but the hows, the emotional and sensorial measure of things. Greg’s words inspire us to turn our questions of how we do things–how we take and hold, how we produce and express–to all arenas of our intellectual, academic, and life endeavors.

I don’t have pictures of the conference because I was too caught up in it. I was like a resonance machine. But perhaps we can think about affect through this picture of Three-Mile Island that I snapped on my phone as the plane was landing in Harrisburg. Nuclear power starts with uranium, shakes up its atoms, and then splits them asunder in order to release energy. The process sounds neutral enough but the fission of uranium atoms creates waste that will still be on earth long after we humans have figured out how to finally kill each other off. Greg’s conferences–and his stated hopes for the joyful passions of affect studies–do something quite the opposite. They start with unpredictable encounters of people, art, music, walking, ideas, food, and arguments that shake up and pull threads of all of these things together into new and unexpected patterns. This fusion results in the heat of intellectual (and other) passion but does not leave us with toxic waste. Quite the contrary, it spools out into generative focus and fuel for further thought, further encounter, further….

In other words, it leaves us (capaciously) with capacity.

 

*I get the neologism “aeffect” from superthinker-writer-poet-rhythmicist, Fred Moten.

 

Casa Roshell and the politics of trans visibility

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CasaRoshell12Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso, 2017) is a 71-minute documentary about a trans club in Mexico City. Some of the customers and performers are transvestites and some are trans-identified. We hear them chat about shopping and boyfriends, and about their hopes or plans for gender reassignment surgery. All of the customers are caught in fraught and poignant webs of public presentation and self-understanding.

What is striking about this film is Donoso’s frequent decision to refract viewer access to these trans bodies through mirrors. Often she uses more than one mirror, as in the still above (I screen-grabbed these images as I streamed the film on Mubi). The body we see is ‘actually’ just to the left of the filmic space directly in front of the camera, but viewers see the back of the torso refracted (and inverted) to our right, and we see the face only by a mirroring of another mirror inside that mirror. The technique repeats itself too many times to be happenstance or even, I would submit, simply to signal a familiar trajectory of self-discovery and coming-out. (See Mubi’s writer, Laura Davis’s article, “Queering the Frame: Close-up on Casa Roshell)

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The image above of Roshell, for example, might be easily explained as an attempt to show her off in 3D, as it were, but I suggest that the accumulated affects of absorbing these multiply mirrored images contribute to another kind of cultural and gendered work. Consider the screen grab I showed initially, of the customer transforming himself into his herself, and the many images of Roshell, such as the one above,  in conjunction with quite complicated shots such as this one, below, which clearly must contain at least two mirrors…but which image of the blue-garbed woman is the mirrored image and which is the camera representation, or are both of them mirrored, indicating a body behind the camera?CasaRoshell2

The shots of all of these women–bringing to Casa Roshell many different careers, neighborhoods, and sexual desires– are intermittently but persistently supplemented with images of the club’s secure lobby, which evidences at least two surveillance cameras:

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…and also images of non-transvestite and cis men who come to the club to dance and hook up with the women. These images are not always as starkly shadowed as this one, below, but they are all caught on camera by a starkly different gaze:

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It has been a number of years since I read and taught David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Duke 2007) but in watching Casa Roshell I recalled Valentine’s suspicions about reducing trans identity to a politics of recognition. He writes, “despite the differences and complexities of transgender politics, the logic of identity-based claims often silences that complexity, reducing the panoply of political arguments made by transgender-identified activists to the ‘recognition’ model” (272).

It seems to me that Donoso’s film shares this suspicion and uses the camera to insist not only on the “panoply” of identities and arguments to which Valentine points, but also the stark precarity of (especially) non-White trans bodies, their open vulnerability to murder. This latter is, in fact, what the editors of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility call “the trap of the visual.” They write,

we know that when produced within the cosmology of racial capitalism, the promise of ‘positive representation’ ultimately gives little support or protection to many, if not most, trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly those who are low-income and/or of color–the very people whose lives and labor constitute the ground for the figuration of this moment of visibility (xv).

Instead of rebuking recognition or representation, however, the editors shimmy down into the heart of their paradoxes:

representations do not simply re-present an already existing reality but are also doors into making new futures possible. …Put simply, if we do not attend to representation and work collectively to bring new visual grammars into existence (while remembering and unearthing suppressed ones), then we will remain caught in the traps of the past (xviii).

It is this quite Hegelian “labor of the negative” that I see Donoso performing so beautifully with her camera. Mirrors do not completely usurp the narrative terrain of this short film, but they are regular enough to be felt as interventions or interruptions, conveying ‘upset’ to viewers who might want–Romantically–for Roshell and her customers to come to a stable and “achieved” sense of self. The film refuses this kind of self, and this fact also refracts in multiple directions: the lived truths of nonbinary bodies; the fluxes of gender or sexual “identities”; the Shangri la of a club that enables bodies to perform, practice, be, and play with who they are; and the real shortfalls of current trans and other justice-oriented activism that has yet to stem the tide of trans precarity and, especially, of non-White trans women’s murders.

From this POV, the security camera footage of the club’s dingy lobby, and the shadowy images of cis men who come to visually and sexually consume trans women seem to me to clang out punctuated warnings about the dangers of trans visibility. It is remarkable, then, that the overall feeling of the film is one of hope and promise, not the promise of happiness, perhaps, but the availing promise of a space which, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS (and yet real!), is bigger on the inside because it is saturated with profusions of positionalities and desires that dodge and tiptoe around its death-haunted shadows.

The Incredibles, Gender, and America: the Affects of Democracy?

The enduring popularity of superheroes in the United States raises all sorts of interesting questions. What exactly is being lauded in these supers and what does this lauding say about democracy, individual will, freedom, and other idealized values of our nation? I have been privy to a number of conversations around these questions on account of the smart research being done by Adam D. J. Brett, a graduate student in my department at Syracuse who is mentored by my colleague and dear friend, Zachary Braiterman.  This blog post on The Incredibles and The Incredibles II will not likely touch on Brett’s concerns, but if it does I assume he’ll tell me!

Two facets of the Incredibles films strike me at once. First, the turn away from the state in order to attend to the microdynamics of family; and second, the affective fluidity between the impossible desire to “get it right” in the family and the impossible desire to inaugurate substantive community (Gemeinschaft) in civil society.

As any reader of Hegel knows, de-emphasizing the state is a historical interruption of the assumption that the family exists as the ethical core of the state.  In both Incredibles, the family absolutely stands as an ethical core, but not for the state. As represented by government officials of various, vaguely-presented sorts, the state is not the sublation of family and civil society but appears as a weak vessel for the will of the people, poised to wither away into obscurity. The ethical impetus of the two films stays with the family for the sake of a utopian desire for authentic community (as my former student Holly White might say). To reach this impetus, the films labor first to figure out what exactly makes and secures a family (particularly the economic role of men as laboring “to provide for the family” in The Incredibles) and second to figure out the question of parenting–or, put less generously, to tarry with the social contradictions that typically glue childcare to women–in Incredibles II.

  The unexplained premise of both films is that Supers are humans who just happen to possess unasked-for, physics-defying capacities. [I have often wondered whether the choice of the protagonists’ last name, Paar, is an attempt to underline Supers’ passivity with respect to their powers. “On par” with everyone else, they possess at birth whatever the genetic process has doled out, without any “super” intervention.] The use of their unearned specialness to intervene in social catastrophes is either outright resented, as is clear in the first Incredibles through Syndrome’s monologues, or found to be simply too chaotic, destructive, and expensive. In an ironic swipe against the order-restoring Supers, the general populace judges them disorderly and cries out to ban them. Lo-and-behold, the state meekly acts on the misguided General Will and bans them.

It is hard to feel sympathy for the Supers. Though their “natural being” is cruelly repressed by social opprobrium, they still remain, well, super. The first Incredibles presents this dynamic beautifully and humorously by squeezing the hulking Bob Paar into a tiny cubicle of a heartless insurance company. The images suggest that surely Mr. Incredible himself is a better insurance policy than anything sold by the company! It seems that social repression of the Supers’ powers only hurts society; it doesn’t really hurt the Supers. Far from arcing toward a radical anti-democracy, one might read this message against the grain and conclude that grooming persons fully to be who they are born to be–whatever their inchoate gifts and skills–will more certainly ensure social democracy than any state-enforced policy enacted in response to fear or misunderstanding.

   Back to the Family. In the Incredibles the gender dynamics in the family are cis, bourgeois, and heteronormative. Helen has taken Bob’s last name, and she represses Elastigirl in order to craft a successful, stay-at-home-mom persona. The familiar plot of Hollywood family drama is blown up, however, when Helen seeks counsel about her possibly cheating husband from Edna Mode, the fashion designer and no-nonsense critic. In both Incredibles films, it is Edna who speaks the film’s central message. In the first film, Edna shrieks in disgust at the sobbing Helen and her ridiculous, learned impotence:

“You are Elastigirl! My God! Pull yourself together! ‘What will you do?’ Is this a question? Show him you remember that he is Mr. lncredible, and you will remind him who you are! Well, you know where he is.  Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win! And call me when you get back, darling. I enjoy our visits.”

The viability of family lies here not in sublating social assimilation to state policy but in undermining the law in order truly to become who you are, that is, in relationships based on love and loyalty and that work to bolster each other in the communal task of protecting your neighbors with the skills and gifts you have.

  Many viewers supposed the gender inversions of Incredibles II to function as something like “equal time”. But really it’s more like a mirror image, with all the wonkiness that comes into play when you step through the looking glass. Helen Paar’s reincarnation as Elastigirl is the social application of the ethico-relational habits she developed as a stay-at-home mother, but without the feminine submissiveness required of her suburban persona. What habits? Those of close attention, awareness of details, a care for the integrity of space and process, a concern for the needs of the other. Recall that when Helen begs Bob to get more engaged in the family in this first film, Bob yells the desire back at her (“You want me to be more engaged?”) and then lifts the dinner table, careening the children through space. In Incredibles II, this kind of blunt action without regard for bodily context is actually given a neoliberal quantification: Mr. Incredible causes more damage and therefore costs more. If the public is to be cajoled back into favoring Supers, Elastigirl’s ethico-relational approach is a better bet. The benefits of her approach far exceed cost-savings, however.

  Once again, it is the encounter with Edna Mode that reveals the film’s true message. Bob is exhausted and despondent and, let’s face it, jealous of Elastigirl’s public regard. Edna poo-poos  Bob’s self-pity. She tosses her message back to Bob, over her shoulder:

“Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. …Done properly.”

The message here, I think, is not just that men need to up their game and learn to competently perform the household and childcare tasks that have been women’s purview for centuries, but that in learning these tasks they need also to learn a different manner of relating to others: to children, to neighbors, to lovers, to train tracks and tall buildings and anything else that has been materially wrought, brought into the world, and cared for.

To sum up by repeating my premise: the desire of The Incredibles and Incredibles II is profoundly democratic, perhaps even isonomic in the manner theorized by Kojin Karatani. The desire is, in short, for an open, caring civil society that soon will not need state machinations to bind it together. The desire is for family structures that cultivate deep attention and deep caring for others, an attention that bolsters each person’s unique skills and gifts, and a care that translates into support, protection and understanding. The desire is for the affects of this kind of family to broaden fluidly into a social context so that we feel ourselves a rule of the people, or an equal norm of the people, even while recognizing that each of us has different, unasked for, proclivities that need nurture, attention, and practice. That the two films focus on Bob Paar is a not-so-subtle indication that this ethico-relational comportment for the collective crafting of social community is hardest for those in dominance: for whites, for the middle classes of sufficient economic stability, and especially for men.

Impossible desires. Incredible.

The Affects of Parenting

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One of the phrases that affect theorist Sara Ahmed truly dislikes is the hackneyed plea of parents, “We just want you to be happy.” Though Ahmed’s books are like daily meditations for me (a paragraph a day keeps feminist anger at bay), I have disagreed with her analysis of this cultural cliché since I first read it, and not just (I think) because those hackneyed words have rolled, many times, off my own lips.

My disagreement is not with Ahmed’s careful analysis of homophobia and of the violence wrought by heteronormative parents who question and too often reject their children’s gender and/or sexual non-conformity. My disagreement lies in feeling, from my own orientation as a parent, a different correlation between words and temporality. As Ahmed knows so well, our lives pummel through non-teleological trajectories that we both do and do not forge. She puts it best when she talks about feet and paths:

“Take the phrase ‘a path well-trodden.’ A path can be made by the repetition of ‘being trodden’ upon. We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. When people stop treading, the path might disappear. On the one foot: we walk on the path as it is before us. On the other foot: it is before us as an effect of being walked upon. A paradox of the footprint emerges. A path is created by being followed and is followed by being created. We can use a path insofar as we do use a path. Can here is a consequence of doing. If we can because we do, then we do can rather than can do” (Living a Feminist Life, 45-46).

What this passage implies to me, though Ahmed does not stress it, is that a path spools out in front of our feet even as it is our feet that (re)make the path. The heartbreak of the generation gap is the expected but still painful heartbreak of your children veering away from the stories and rituals and principles and assumptions that have–quite materially–formed the spoken and unspoken walkways of family. It is a child’s rejection of the parents, of the past, of the old ways, and it’s ok, it’s expected. But it hurts. Sometimes, the phrase “I just want you to be happy” is a temporal band-aid, a cognitive scramble to bide time while the affects catch up. So much–so much–of being a (white, bourgeois) parent is training one’s bodymind into twenty years of hypervigilance on behalf of your child’s safety, material and emotional needs, and opportunities for the future. Because of this long duration, the hypervigilance becomes an unthought but deeply habitual path. It spools out into the future in ways that far exceed rational capture and yet are deeply felt. And it’s only after your child tells you that their path will be quite different–it literally is only then, when the geography of that path spooling into the future bursts into a million uncharted pieces, that its endearing and calming topography also comes into blinding, retroactive clarity. “I just want you to be happy” is a phrase thrown into that explosion, a phrase that, at least for me, attempts to clear the air of that bursting detritus, to perform a basic trust in my kid’s ability to step where they need to step, and to assert that come what may, I will be here for them. No matter what. My hypervigilance has to ease up and get redirected, but it will never not be the path that I walk.

  Pixar’s latest short, Bao, screened prior to the new Incredibles II film, touchingly illustrates my reflection on Ahmed’s phenomenology of parental path-walking. The Chinese-American boy is imaged as a little dumpling, a bao who is carefully and tenderly cared for by his competent Chinese mother. She attends to his food, his growth, his play. She establishes rituals with him and protects him from harm.

  Even so, of course, the boy becomes a teenager and pushes his mom out of his life. The emotional honesty of this short is intense and rare. The last shot–which I cannot find online–shows the mom and grown-up child sitting on her bed, sharing buns as they did together when he was young. They sit eating side-by-side, not looking at each other but looking out in front of themselves; tears stream down both of their faces. The healthy and inevitable veering of the next generation into autonomous adulthood is also sad, an irrecuperable loss of a closeness and tenderness that materially and affectively fed both parent and child for many, many years.

  Adrián Orr’s Niñato (2017) is carved out of the same parental problematic, but in a temporally and affectively different part of the family path-making and path-walking, prior to the children’s break-away to a different orientation. Set in contemporary Madrid, Niñato is shot tightly in claustrophobic sequences that refuse to pan out to establish a room or a full body or even a two-shot of the characters speaking in the scene. The spatial suffocation so closely matches economic suffocation that the one tips easily into the other. A man, his parents, his son, his sister, and her two daughters all live in a small apartment. The man and his sister can’t afford to pay for school lunches, so they walk the children to school, then home for lunch and back to school. To be available for this to-ing and fro-ing, they must work at night.

  Even this short description enforces too much linear narrative on a 70-minute film that dwells more on the long and futile morning battle of getting three kids up and clothed and out the door and the long and frustrating battle of getting the kids to do their homework than on any traditional story arc. There are rare moments when we see the brother/son/father smoking, snatching kisses with his lover and rapping on stage–and all of these moments are shot in tight, fragmented shots, in dark rooms, and often with the backs of the characters facing the screen. The film oscillates between long sequences of whining kids and little forward motion and these brief, almost stolen, moments of adult work, desire, and relationship. The oscillation cunningly conveys the affects of exhaustion, self-limitation, and open-ended obligation that are endemic to parenting during the precarious labor forces of the twenty-first century.

  Niñato, then, shows the affective hardening, the embodied and emotional endurance, that forms the frame and ground of the tender paths of parenthood sentimentally imaged by Bao. Let me be clear: I am not romanticizing parental sacrifice. The brother/son/father is the title character, Niñato, the “little kid”, played by David Ransanz. He is as petulant and short-fused as his tween son and nieces. He still expects his mother do to his laundry! Yet, even so, he is there for the kids. He is getting them up, getting them dressed, fed, and off to school, getting them home for lunch and back to school, getting them through their homework. To do this, to orientate oneself primarily to the needs and obligations of the children in your life year after year after decade, is to find yourself on a sturdy path that you (re)make with every step and that exceeds and eludes your rational control. You cannot keep your affects from spooling out into a felt and unthought future. And often, you cannot help saying what is both desperate and obvious: “I just want you to be happy.”

Exercise 2: Interrogating one’s mots d’ordre

We were told to write down our clichés, that is, the words or phrases we hear ourselves saying all the time. Since I don’t typically think of myself as a self but as a context or a relationship, I was stuck for a few minutes. But then I thought, well, “I am not a self” is a kind of cliché that I carry in my bodymind, even if it’s not something I say very often. It then occurred to me that the stage of verbal repetition for me is pedagogical: classroom, reading group, or one-with-on mentoring. Instead of cliché, I thought I would do well to jot down all les mots d’ordre that tend to come out of my mouth on the pedagogical stage.

For Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the function of language is not to signify, to represent, or to convey meaning, but to promulgate “order words.” The phrase mots d’ordre is often translated as watchwords or slogans but since I am a major switching point of power in the pedagogical scenes that call me to the stage, I prefer the literal sense of order or command. Deleuze and Guattari write that “Information is only the strict minimum necessary for the emission, transmission, and observation of orders as commands. …Language is not life; it gives life orders. Life does not speak; it listens and waits. Every order-word, even a father’s to his son, carries a little death sentence–a Judgment, as Kafka put it” (A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi, p. 76).

Deleuze and Guattari here suggest that by gridding human interactions with order/s, language creates channels for thought, action, and affect. Language creates incentives to think and feel in certain ways and thus not in other ways. As such, order-words become an efficient technology for plugging bodies into predictable, controllable circuits in harmony with what Foucault theorizes as disciplinarity or governmentality.

All of this points to why pausing for some minutes to consider one’s clichés or order-words is such a productive exercise. The exercise requires us to remember the staging of these precious mots: the where, when, with whom, and why. The why is especially thrown into relief because it seems pretty clear that an order-word arises when I want to stop, coalesce, or torque the direction of a classroom conversation. In other words, the “why” of an order-word can be generative and can enact a productive tension, but most often it’s a powerful tool for shutting down and redirecting what is being thought/felt.

The slogan I wrote about is “liberal individualism is toxic and false.” It’s a good slogan and a horrible scholarly assertion. It arises on the pedagogical scene whenever a student’s manner of talking evokes things like privacy, choice, and agency that are owned, possessed and consciously managed by a body that is itself bounded and separate from other bodies. This bland, insistent frame that so many students cart into the seminar room with them so often feels to me like a refusal to ratchet down the analytical focus in order to see/hear/feel all the ways in which a self, a bounded body, also has loads of holes and seeps into its surroundings in very unbounded ways.

But of course, part of what is so frustrating is that this “refusal” has been inculcated simply by years of living as a subject in the United States. The students speak out of an established distribution of the sensible, as Rancière would put it.

And of course, at one level of analysis, it remains crucial to assert the integrity of a body. Sexual and gender politics against assault, rape, and harassment are just the most obvious examples here. Advocacy around reproductive health, maternity leave policies, and the right to carry or not carry what lies inside my body are others.

The toxicity lies in the success of this way of thinking/living subjectivity. Liberal individual claims a blanket and unargued connection between bodily integrity and the possessive individualism (C. B. MacPherson, 1962) that has been so thoroughly naturalized by white male patriarchy and every single iteration of capitalism (the body that sell his labor power on the market of industrial capitalism, the body coddled by the niche markets of consumer capitalism, the entrepreneurial self [Lazzarato] of late liberalism [Povinelli]). My order-word arises like a sucker punch to dismiss this claim in shorthand when really any seminar should take the time to respond to this ideological smirk. The claims of liberal individualism signal a broad, diffuse, and agonizingly powerful set of norms, assumptions, practices, that thinkers should pause with and dwell into, instead of trying to block their power with the thin blade of an order-word.

The core of my frustration, as anyone who knows me knows, is the quick default to individual “choice”. Each situation is distinct and boringly the same, but the rapid assumption of choice ignores (or denies) the thick webs of social structure and the layered currents of history, memory, trauma, shame, and hope that orient, mold, and guide the perception and selection of those choices. On the other hand, humans clearly do in fact make choices and simply are responsible. Choice and structure, action and memory need to be uncoiled and stretched out so that we can see how history and obstinacy, social oppression and personal generosity work in tandem (or in tandems of tandems).

My thanks to L. Berlant and K. Stewart who designed and delivered this critical practice exercise.

An exercise in worlding: Affective attention (yearning attunement)

It is my first Airbnb experience, but that’s another story. I step down the uneven stairs and slip around the unlocked gate to the sidewalk of an uncertain neighborhood; I am heading (I hope) toward a deli I found on Google. Two birds flush up from the tree behind the building. I watch them rise, dip, and pitch toward and away from each other. Spring. Love is impulse is affective proximity is nesting is sex is love. Spring. I can’t tell if they are robins or starlings because the sun is at the wrong angle for anything but dark forms to hit my eyes. No color.

My eyes dip down to the trashy roadside, the disrepair of the buildings, the overgrown patches on the road’s shoulder, and they catch the rhythm of the dandelions’ wispy afros bending in the breeze. It is cool, the air, cooler than June ought to be. But where do these “oughts” come from? Why is cut grass prettier than these dandelions and their natural beat?

  I look up and see an elder occupying his front porch like a neighborhood institution. He nods his head to me, a slightly smaller bend than the dandelions. “Good morning,” my voice rings out in its best Southern singsongy Christian lilt. Where did that come from!? Before I can answer the surprise of my inner self, another man ambles down porch steps across the road in front of me. He is thin as a needle and wears jeans with brightly-embroidered back pockets. I try to catch his eye but my throw slides off of him like a sigh. His gait is lop-sided, labored. Back on the other side of the street, I see a white girl unlocking her bicycle, health oozing out of her fit limbs and correct cycling gear.

The man and I, but not together, are walking toward a liquor store. Its neon light is already trying to lure the moths, the goths, the sots, the “drinking shortens your life but it’s the bad years it takes away anyhow” sorts. Then he then I (but not together) veer left and right into the deli. I lose his embroidered pockets but I see his smile. The manager behind the counter is uncertain of this unknown me. She’s like a big, ripe plum, barely moving but so lovely. The waitress is efficient and full of blessings. Bless you, honey. You have a blessed day. “You too,” I respond, that singsongy church voice popping up from my past now twice in half an hour. She pauses and looks at me. “HE is GOOD, chil’.” “Oh, I KNOW, ma’am; thank you!”

I exit toward the conference, toward the experiments in critical practice that is the reason I am here, and see a COGIC sanctuary across the street. Ah, I think. As in, Ok, I see. But, really, who knows what I see or know, even in my knowing? I feel the presence of this place in its new-to-me’ness and I feel an openness, a juxtaposition, that has been granted me (or my white skin, which also oozes health and other goodies). I wallow in the local culture, I want my wallowing to be attunement. Love is impulse is affective proximity, even without the nesting or sex. Love. I am content with attainable attentiveness, and I am grateful.

Kore-eda’s Family Films and the Affective Mesh of the Everyday

The Movie streaming site Mübi gifted me this week with two Hirokazu Kore-eda films, Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). I have been a fan of this director for years, based on the only films I’d had a chance to screen: Mabarosi (1995), After Life (1998), and Nobody Knows (2004). In the religion and film course I used to offer regularly to undergraduates I nearly always assign After Life. I find it pairs perfectly with passages about memoire involuntaire from Swann’s Way and with ritual theory that unpacks how rituals anchor identity not just by the repetitions that thread us affectively into specific memories and histories, but also by the cognitive and practical labor of a representation that coalesces and channels affect-laden memories and commitments.

Both Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son center on the cis, heteronormative family structure, and both yield a central place to children. Unexpectedly, however, the focus on children is not a focus on futurity or even on the endurance of blood or repetition of the bloodline. Each decidedly disturbs and upturns such assumptions about what (who) a family is and does.

  In Still Walking, the beloved son died years ago saving another, weaker boy from drowning. His brother–disaffected with his elderly parents and haunted in his own way by the lingering worry that he, too, is a weaker boy–refuses to follow his father’s professional or domestic footsteps. His work has to do with art and music, and he has married a young widow who already has a six-year-old son. In Like Father, Like Son, the mother of a wealthy couple dotes on their only son and longs for her husband to be more emotionally engaged with them, while another family–composed of a boisterous, merchant-class mom and pop and their three children–seems to have an excess of love and play to counterbalance their lack of economic stability. The premise of this film is that two baby boys were switched at the hospital at birth, the only son of the wealthy couple, and one of the two sons of the working-class family. The hospital recommends that they switch the boys soon, before they begin elementary school, but what is stronger, what is more true: blood relations? Or six years of intimate being-family with one another?

  I am always impressed with Kore-eda’s quiet cinematography and patient storytelling, and these films are no exception. Each in its own way brought to mind the two affect theorists I will see (I hope) this weekend in Chicago, Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart.  Still Walking grinds down into the everyday. It grabs us with its attention to the chatter between mother and daughter over how to make a traditional dish, with the flurry of cousins darting through the dining room where the adults are trying to be civil with one another, with the rituals of family altars and cemetery visits, and with its distracted camera that drifts over landscape and through windows even as the characters continue to talk.

Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects that “The ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life. Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences. They’re things that happen.”

What we notice, in watching Still Walking is that it is the daily accumulation, charge and discharge, and sedimentation of these ordinary affects that materially make a life, a family, a history. What we notice in it, and in Like Father, Like Son is the tight coil of the past within the beating pulse of the present. As Lauren Berlant notes in Cruel Optimism, “If the present is not at first an object but a mediated affect, it is also a thing that is sensed and under constant revision, a temporal genre whose conventions emerge from the personal and public filtering of the situations and events that are happening in an extended now whose very parameters (when did “the present” begin?) are also always there for debate.”

The present is not an object–and not a moment–but a mediated affect. That sentence perfectly captures what I think Kore-eda is up to in these two films.