Floating Feelings on the Sedimented Affects of Racism

    The time I have been spending lately at various community meetings is not “public scholarship” for me. I’m not even sure, really, how I feel about public scholarship, but certainly it does not (for me) involve making my neighbors into research subjects. Thus, whatever I say below is not about my co-citizens; it’s about me. I want to be very clear about that.

The context for my comments is this: too often, in the doctor and lawyer and scholar-on-the-hill contexts in which I typically swim, I hear poor persons explained and dismissed as uneducated, ill-informed, ignorant. (As Glissant might say, let me open a parenthesis here and bracket the fact that speakers of such statements are powerful cogs in a culpable system that keeps the poor poor in various but sadly unvarying ways, including a direct link between school funding (and thus school success) to property taxes, thereby consciously and unconscionably keeping the poor under-educated.)

My floating feeling is this: I am starting to suppose that positions taken by poor racial minorities are not explained by a lack of information or a misguided willfulness but by a bruised and tragically well-informed distrust of the White status quo.

As a White, educated, highly entitled citizen, I feel trust that the world is not fundamentally rigged against me, and this feeling is pretty well-founded. I could even say that my trust in the world is a path (S. Ahmed) my body uses to spool out into the world. So far, this well-trodden path has rarely thrown up reasons to distrust my trust. Don’t get me wrong, I do encounter rampant sexism and I have reason to fear rape and sexual assault. But the police officers who drive through my neighborhood wave at me and smile. If I wave them down, they will stop and help me or answer my questions. I don’t fear my doctors, I trust them to take proper care of me–and this trust has never been betrayed. My Whiteness exudes unthinkingly from my body and plashes about the world untrammeled. Like echolocation, my radiating Whiteness bounces off the world and confirms my ease of passage, my comfort, my basic humanity through a material semiotics (D. Haraway) structured and interpreted by the vibrations of my Whiteness against the world.

But I wonder what it feels like to be, to have always been, a problem (DeBois), that is, to have never not felt like a problem to the world. I wonder what it feels like to not even know to search for a place to stand to consider what it feels like to be a problem because it’s just what it is to be alive (D.K. Kim). A shrinking corporeal schema (Fanon) could well replace what I feel as trust.

It’s not that affects of trust and hope are absent, or that an open orientation toward the world is impossible. My floating feeling is that these very much are possible. But as paths that allow a body to spool out into the world, the affects of trust and hope and openness are gummed up, clogged, with the sedimented truths of surviving anti-Black and anti-Brown racism. In bodies always already coded as problems, the affects of trust and hope and openness are not absent but are re-routed through distrust, through a distrust that is deeper than words or beliefs or even habits. It is a profound distrust forged from centuries of bruising, from generational wounds of genocide, torture, and dehumanization.

What might seem ignorant or ill-informed is–this is what I suppose–a distrust born from crushed lives and lesioned souls. The question–especially for Whites who cling tightly to the premise that Reason is our best tool, that getting the story straight is most of the battle–is how such profound distrust can be matched? With what can it be matched?


Bidet’s “Foucault avec Marx”

 Many months ago, my colleague William Robert brought me back a book from his sabbatical in Paris: Jacques Bidet, Foucault avec Marx. Bidet is an emeritus philosophy professor at Paris-X and honorary director of the socialist journal, Actuel Marx. I hadn’t heard of him before William brought me the book, but apparently, Bidet is an important and persistent voice in the growing French socialist philosophical subfield that studies the co-thinking and co-implications of the works of Foucault and Marx.

I enjoyed the book, despite my sense that Bidet flattens the name (or what Foucault calls the author-function of), Marx, to refer simply to a specific critique of market economy. I suppose if we suspend critical disbelief and assume with Foucault’s teacher, Althusser, that for Marx it really is the economy in the last instance, then the argument is incontrovertible; but even without this critical suspension, I find Bidet’s argument worth pondering.

The center of his argument is a “metastructural” approach that posits a dialectic between the structural (market) pouvoir-propriété of the capitalist, which Marx emphasizes, and the nominalist (organizational) pouvoir-savoir of labor, which Foucault emphasizes. It would have been intellectually satisfying if Bidet had noted how this same dialectic operates at the level of the authors’ names—that is, how the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ are commoditized objects that sell a certain scholarly privilege by signaling the requisite structure of scholarly production, a structure that stands in dialectical tension with the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ as particular organizational practices that forward thought about certain and various socio-political conundrums. But even as it stands, and even if we disagree with a rather econo-centric Marx, Bidet’s arguments are smart and useful.

I found it helpful to translate the dialectic between pouvoir-propriété and pouvoir-savoir into that between the capacity to hoard or circulate matter (things, machines, money, real estate), and the capacity to withhold or enact various skills, (welder, seamstress, typist), practices (careful listener, never misses work, keeps a neat workspace, good at prioritizing tasks), and attitudes (obedient, respectful, flexible, affable). The first pulse of this dialectic is about capital, its ability to devour and to transform, and its vampiric tendency to suck life from labor in order to reproduce itself to the (material) profit of the capitalist-owners. The second pulse of this dialectic is about competencies, the necessary disciplining of bodies and time (of bodies in time) in order to reproduce the workforce for each day.

One of the most useful parts of Bidet’s argument, to me, is the way this metastructural dialectic between property and knowledge, or valued matter and affective practices transmutes discussion of class relations (relations, in French, which signify micrological, interpersonal relations) to class as a particular set of relations meshed or networked within capitalist society (rapports, in French, which signify macrological and structural relations). I appreciate this restatement of class struggle, because it reminds me that the problem is not just the manager who tells me, “smile and I’ll let you work here another week,” but also the fact that the manager’s manager and the regional cadre of managers, are all stressing to get their employees—under duress of losing their jobs—to smile more, and more genuinely. Very few are exempted from the material-practical dialectic of disciplined norms of life until one peeks at the very tippy top of society. Not the dingy factory room beneath the free space of civil society where workers bid their labor to employers as free and equal humans, and not even Mr. Moneybags at home with his wife and children, recharging for another anxious day of making money, but rather the low-oxygen eyrie of the likes of Donald Trump or a philanthropic celebrity, where cruelty or compassion seems squirted or oozed out at random and where the capacity to feel (much less what is felt) seems raw or alien, that is, unaffected by the matrix of valued matter and affective practices that catch up and bind down the rest of us.

Bidet’s more recent book is on neoliberalism. I am keen to read it.


White Supremacy, Christian Gifts and Misogyny in The Deerslayer

 [Illustration of Judith and Deerslayer by N.C. Wyeth]

Though James Fenimore Cooper’s 1841 novel, Deerslayer, is the last published novel about Nathaniel (Natty) Bumpo, it functions as a sort of prequel to the other four books in the series, the most famous of which is Last of the Mohicans. Set in the mid-1700s, Deerslayer takes readers through the protagonist’s first “warpath” with his Mohican friend, Chingachgook. As the Deerslayer turns from providing food to protecting territory, he comes to kill his first man and this dying Iroquois renames the youth Hawkeye in recognition of the sharp eye that killed him.

It is Indian nature, Deerslayer relates, to give names according to one’s battle skills. A reader might then expect that a white man who befriends a Mohican and takes up this Indian naming practice (preferring Deerslayer to Natty Bumpo) would model tolerance and co-mingling with the peoples who occupied this land before the English and the French. No, no. The cross-racial friendship serves principally as a foil for underscoring the radically different “gifts” and “natures” of the White and Red races.

Consider this early lecture Deerslayer gives to his beautiful but uncultured friend, Hurry Harry March:

“God made us all, white, black, and red; and, no doubt, had his own wise intentions in coloring us differently. Still, he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are Christianized, while a red-skin’s are more for the wilderness. Thus, it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead; whereas it’s a signal vartue in an Indian. Then ag’in, a white man cannot amboosh women and children in war, while a red-skin may. ‘Tis cruel work, I’ll allow; but for them, it’s lawful work; while for us, it would be grievous work.”

Deerslayer’s constant comments along these lines and indeed his rather perpetual moralizing were difficult for me to stomach in the current U.S. context of rising hate crimes and an unmasked, violent white supremacy that is framed as Christian and given official sanction from the President’s office. Annoyingly, everything in this novel is churned through racial difference. True, the perspectives are phrased in balanced sentences, as if the races are ‘separate but equal’, but really the words provide a clear catechism of reasons why white Christian settlers are more virtuous in gifts and nature and (sotto voce) why the WhiteMen merit this land and its resources more than do the RedMen. Most of the novel was a slog for me. I found myself sarcastically sassing the audiobook, and I felt utter disdain for Deerslayer’s priggish decision to turn himself back over to the Iroquois to be tortured to death.

Then, out of the blue, I found myself caught up in the action of the story. I tried to guess how Deerslayer and his white and red friends would work to save the virtuous young warrior from his Indian enemies. Finally, good will was built up toward Fenimore Cooper and I began to realize why his name survives the erosions of time.

And then the end.

Say what you will about the novel’s celebration of white supremacy and ugly efforts to keep American Indians in their marginalized place, white women still come off the worse. Poor Judith Hutter. No torturous death by heathen Iroquois (to speak the language of the novel) could be worse than the fate handed Judith by WhiteMen when Deerslayer refuses to marry her. God forbid the gifts and nature of Whites be compromised by the sexual improprieties of a lovely young woman who, having no guide into society’s sexual mores, followed instinct and WhiteMen’s proddings, and fell. How far she fell is unclear, but her fate is not. Abandoned by our hero, she hands herself over to sexual slavery in the house of an officer at the garrison. These officers are not the marrying kind, he tells a fellow soldier, thus informing readers that Judith will never have the social rank and security that comes from marriage and a family (not that those thin reeds relieve all anxiety). The novel stresses that her fate is just punishment for the crimes of her family:

“Time and circumstances have drawn an impenetrable mystery around all else connected with the Hutters. They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten. None connected have felt sufficient interest in the disgraced and disgracing to withdraw the veil, and a century is about to erase even the recollection of their names. The history of crime is ever revolting, and it is fortunate that few love to dwell on its incidents. The sins of the family have long since been arraigned at the judgment seat of God, or are registered for the terrible settlement of the last great day.”

White supremacy and White genocide of American Indian are propped up, also, by sexual violence against (white) women.

George Saunders, Life in the Bardo, and the state of our Union



  Prof. Saunders’s most recent book starts with interrupted intimacy and structured incompatibility, and ends with possessed intimacy and forward-moving communion:

Opening: “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now I know what you’re thinking…But that is false. That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.” (3)

Ending: “And then I roused myself, and sat up straight, and fully rejoined the gentleman. And we rode forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen” (343).

The stage and problem of the entire story arise from the impasses generated by selfishness, or better put, from the understandable but self-directed desires that prevent us—mortal and ghost alike—from an honest assessment of our situations and ethical engagement with those most proximate to us. The novel’s conceit is that the souls of the dead are trapped in the bubble of their situation at death. Take Hans Vollman, with whom the novel opens. He was a middle-aged man whose new eighteen-year-old wife married him to escape a life of poverty. On account of this structured incompatibility, Vollman offers his young wife a platonic marriage of companionship and mutual respect; she accepts. Tragically, his death-day arrives just after this sexless co-dwelling had begun to turn hesitatingly to the erotic pursuits salient to conjugal relationships. His ghost thus registers this death-situation and presents as, “Quite naked     Member swollen to the size of …It bounced as he   Body like a dumpling   Broad flat nose like a sheep’s   Quite naked indeed” (28).

When or if the ghosts release their hold on this death-moment, they transition—with “the matterlightblooming phenomenon and its familiar, but always bone-chilling, firesound” (300)—to the seat of Judgment, a quite different stage and problem that remains mostly offstage in this novel except for one scene and one character (who is not inconsequently a Protestant Christian minister). If they cannot release their hold, then these ghosts are stuck in between life and eternity—in the “bardo” of a D.C. cemetery—telling and retelling their story to anyone who will (or can be imposed upon to) listen, and referring to their coffins as “sickbeds.” In other words they are stuck in selfish repetition of their self-centeredness, mired in their absorption by care, in that Heideggerian sense of Sorge that designates the structure of Dasein as human interconnection and temporal anticipation.

The exception seems to be children, souls who simply are not supposed to be so narrowly focused on their lives, desires or/and situations that they would have any reason to linger in the bardo. Or perhaps children do not have the strong sense of self that is woven from years of egoic desire, trauma, and pleasure, and so they should not have Sorge magnetic enough to anchor them in their death-situation. If for some terribly erroneous reason a child does linger in the bardo, tortuous vines and visions invade their spirits, literally cementing them to the cemetery. For children, the bardo is hell.

Thus when young Willie Lincoln shows up in the bardo and does not rapidly transition, the spirits are thrown into a tizzy. Suddenly their attention is wrenched away from their own stories; suddenly their Sorge throws them into Willie’s death-situation and Willie’s story. The vast civic diversity of the bardo—bankers, businessmen, slaves, a preacher, a mother worried for her daughters, a gay man, a poetess, three rapscallion college boys, etc—all becomes laser focused, like the reverse action of a prism, e Pluribus Unum, in acting to prevent Willie’s torment, in trying to convince him to let go and move on from the bardo.

Well, their shift in attention is not completely unmotivated. What sharply draws the ghosts’s attention is the shocking fact that President Lincoln comes to the cemetery, opens his son’s crypt and holds the body of his son. “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community,” Hans Vollman narrates. “Individuals we had not seen in years walked out, crawled out, stood shyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity,” adds the Reverend Everly Thomas (66), explaining that, “It was the touching that was unusual” (67).

The dead ache for touch, for intimacy, for the connection that surpasses voice and eye with the connection of the heart that is expressed in loving touch.

But, then, so do the living. The President’s difficult grief endangers his son’s soul, but also the soul of the nation. Only as he finds a way to say goodbye to Willie does he find the will to wage a ruthless war for the sake of democracy:

His [Pres. Lincoln’s] heart dropped at the thought of the killing” (307). His own climb to the Presidency stood as claim “against this: the king-types who would snatch the apple from your hand and claim to have grown it, even though what they had, had come to them intact, or been gained unfairly…, and who, having seized the apple, would eat it so proudly, they seemed to think that not only had they grown it, but had invented the very idea of fruit, too, and the cost of this lie fell on the hearts of the low….

Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, …it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.            Well, the rabble could. The rabble would” (308).

To me, the story and conditions of the bardo clearly evoke a complicated metaphor for our contemporary civil society. We are divided by our selfish absorption in self-centeredness and we speak over and against each other, screaming our stories to any who will (be coerced to) listen. White folks, especially, our petty desires distract us from collective endeavors, and our profound longing for the touch of love ironically leads us to isolate ourselves, to hole up and turn away from those who need us, to silo ourselves in echo chambers and wish destruction on those who differ from us.

This reading of the novel was really brought home to me by the racial apartheid that Saunders underscores and then overcomes. When the spirits chase Willie’s ghost into the cemetery church (a sacred space that protects from the vine and torments threatening the child-ghost), Mrs. Francis Hodge, the ghost of a slave says,

We black folks had not gone into the church with the others. Our experience having been that white people are not especially fond of having us in their churches. Unless it is to hold a baby, or prop up or hand-fan some old one” (310).

But the ghost of Thomas Havens does what other “black folk” do not. He passes into the President as quickly and unremarkably as when a shadow from a cloud passes over a party and lingers there. He mind-melds with the thoughts and feelings of the President and he responds to his grief and worry, to his Sorge:

We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do” (312).

It is no surprise, then, that Saunders gives Mr. Havens the last word of this novel. His spirit fully possesses the President, making a “we” out of the beating heart of a white man who grew up poor and the dead spirit of an old slave. Then the spirit of Mr. Havens claims the “our” of “our countrymen” and we-the-readers are left with the momentum of their riding “forward into the night” (342).

The Total Eclipse is not about Seeing

  I did see it, the totality. The weather being what it is, we decided to build the trip around location instead of event. We headed to a national forest in the NC mountains that we’d long wished to visit and we hiked its trails to huge, old-growth trees. We took pictures and lingered, but still, long before 2:10 p.m. we’d finished with the location. We considered hiking back up to a bridge on one of the trails. We considered simply walking to the nearest highway and planting ourselves on its shoulder. We wondered about heading back toward the Parkway. But in the end, we decided to take a “no outlet” road that angled up the mountain, just to see what we could see. What we saw was a small gaggle of humans milling on the edge of a lookout over a distant mountain lake. We stayed.

Much of the chit-chat between us strangers was about sight: watch for the cars, look at the clouds, don’t look at the sun until the totality, look at the light, I’ve never seen anything like this! Does your telescope work, may I see that picture, can you see the moon shadow?  We eclipse-viewers are an educated bunch, I guess, and like all modern students, we have been trained over a lifetime to correlate and connect sight with knowledge.

Consider the tired assumptions of James Frazer’s 1922 account of an eclipse:

“To us, familiar as we are with the conception of the uniformity and regularity with which the great cosmic phenomena succeed each other, there seems little ground for apprehension that the causes which produce these effects will cease to operate, at least within the near future. But this confidence in the stability of nature is bred only by the experience which comes of wide observation and long tradition; and the savage, with his narrow sphere of observation and his short-lived tradition, lacks the very elements of that experience which alone could set his mind at rest in face of the ever-changing and often menacing aspects of nature. No wonder, therefore, that he is thrown into a panic by an eclipse, and thinks that the sun or the moon would surely perish, if he did not raise a clamour and shoot his puny shafts into the air to defend the luminaries from the monster who threatens to devour them” (The Golden Bough, 288a).

Frazer loops his reader into the universal “we” of modern man [sic]. “Our” cool, controlled rationality is born of wide observation and long tradition, and Frazer opposes this rationality to the savage’s [sic] panic, churned up by the latter’s narrow sphere of observation and short-lived tradition. The lethal race and gender dynamics that support(ed) British (white) political and intellectual supremacy are on full display here. I want to press against these dynamics by pointing to the particular way Frazer names affect as denigration (“panic”) and how he offers this denigrated affect as the explanation for the “savage’s” kooky responses. “No wonder” the “savage” resorts to such inane responses, Frazer posits, when his mind is fevered with the runaway rollercoaster of panic and confusion.

But if Frazer’s reader recalls (with his cool rationality?) earlier descriptions of those indigenous responses to an eclipse, they hardly seem panicked or confused:

“At an eclipse the Ojebways used to imagine that the sun was being extinguished. So they shot fire-tipped arrows in the air, hoping thus to rekindle his expiring light. The Sencis of Peru also shot burning arrows at the sun during an eclipse, but apparently they did this not so much to relight his lamp as to drive away a savage beast with which they supposed him to be struggling. Conversely during an eclipse of the moon some tribes of the Orinoco used to bury lighted brands in the ground; because, said they, if the moon were to be extinguished, all fire on earth would be extinguished with her, except such as was hidden from her sight. During an eclipse of the sun the Kamtchatkans were wont to bring out fire from their huts and pray the great luminary to shine as before. But the prayer addressed to the sun shows that this ceremony was religious rather than magical. Purely magical, on the other hand, was the ceremony observed on similar occasions by the Chilcotin Indians. Men and women tucked up their robes, as they do in travelling, and then leaning on staves, as if they were heavy laden, they continued to walk in a circle till the eclipse was over. Apparently they thought thus to support the failing steps of the sun as he trod his weary round in the sky. Similarly in ancient Egypt the king, as the representative of the sun, walked solemnly round the walls of a temple in order to ensure that the sun should perform his daily journey round the sky without the interruption of an eclipse or other mishap” (The Golden Bough, 77b).

These indigenous responses seem quite logical and practical, actually, and they seem to arise from discernable affective orientations of empathy, compassion, military bravery, and mimetic identification (perhaps all of these are simply different modalities of empathy). The difference is striking. Indigenous knowledge as presented by Frazer comes in the form of actions arising out of a story, but the point is not the action or story (or some Aesopian moral) so much as the threading of story and communal action as a way of acknowledging, channeling, and reorienting affective responses to the world. Far from indicating a narrow sphere of observation or short-lived tradition, Frazer’s summary words suggest a communal, affective interconnection. The indigenous here are acutely, minutely aware of the natural and cosmological worlds surrounding them, and they care so deeply about those worlds that they act arduously to enact an appropriate (ethical) response.

This is what a friend of mine, Randall Johnson, might call an aesthesiological knowledge, or an aesthesiological ethic, because it is instituted and sustained by aesthesis, or sensation/ feeling.

On that mountain overlook last Monday, the eclipse was not, for me, simply what I saw, but what I felt. I felt the temperature drop about ten degrees. I felt the light dim so that it seemed like I had filters between my eyes and the world. I felt a stillness drop down over the mountainside as the moon shadowed the sun and the birds and bees and no-see-ums disappeared. The light became eerie, surreal, and I felt eerie, surreal, along with it. I felt stunned by the beauty and oddity of the two-minute totality, and I stared at the black-covered sun like it was an alien spaceship or a god or a portal to another galaxy. Most inexplicably, it felt good being with this group of strangers, better (so I said to my partner) than if we’d watched the eclipse alone on that trail-bridge. The collective experience was not at all about knowledge–or at any rate not the knowledge of cool rationality. It was the felt knowledge, the epistemaesthesis, of shared excitement, shared attunement, and shared attention, even if we–this motley “we” of humans and canines from NY, PA, VA, NC, and TN–never see each other again.

The eclipse, an eclipse, is not about seeing. Or at least: it is not about seeing and knowing, but about seeing and feeling. It’s about turning our hearts and bodies away from the daily obligations that demand attention, sap energy, and divide us into ideologically-driven isolation cells and turning toward events that remind us–no, that make us feel– how ridiculously small and finite and trivial, how shockingly joyful and connected and compassionate and capable, we all are. And by “we”, I mean every single living thing.

Charlottesville and our Public Sphere


  It’s the shoes. Do you see them? Amid the crowd chaos and red stop signs and cameras and flying bodies there are four empty shoes–three mid-screen and one bottom left. When I came to this picture, I had already seen the tweets and FB posts and Yahoo trending news. I knew a car had plowed through counter-protesters in Charlottesville, even though the driver and death and the number of injured were as yet unreported. The picture was not “news”, then, but something more like evidence. It slotted into my jazzed-up affective state like an amplifier and transmitter, boosting my affective signal and catalyzing my body to post and repost my feelings and reactions. Somehow those four shoes were corpses to me. They stood for death real and intended. They stood for the shock of a violence so unexpected that at least two people ran out of their shoes.

The blood pouring from civil society Saturday challenges the echo chambers of identity politics–or it can if we let it. Bigotry and fascist white supremacy are woven into the fabric of civil society and those of us shocked by it all (white folks, that is) need to own our complicity in it. This post is an attempt to see the “public sphere” that formed around the events of Saturday as a wounding that can reorient white Americans to see ourselves and what we take for granted about “the public” differently, differently enough that we orient ourselves, our discourse, and our practices to antiracist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-antiSemitic, and anti-Islamophobic labor.

For some years now I have wanted religion scholars to rethink the public sphere—to attend to the ways that our sense of being a self, and our sense of being a polis and of being a demos arise today through media, particularly that broad canopy we condense into the moniker, “social media.” These social technologies of public co-existence work in ways to produce publicness, but they depart from familiar narratives of the public written by Rawls and Habermas, and also stray from Anderson’s “imagined communities” driven by print media.

Instead, our public is threaded and bolstered by what I call “affective technologies of mediation in a digitally global world.”

By this phrase I want to evoke how subjects—citizens and noncitizens—construct, enter into, and react against temporary interconnections with each other on a minute-by-minute and hourly basis. These temporary interconnections are conjoined and sustained by web-based media platforms that compress time and space more profoundly than newspapers or television, and that circulate affects in ways that position subjects not as knowers but as feelers, as the clickers of click bait, the posters of repostings that keep affective response moving, flowing until the moment dissolves into other constellations of mediated interconnections.

This mediated flow of affects operates as a network in Latour’s double sense of the term, both as the material infrastructure (servers, software, cell phones, apps) and as that which flows through the infrastructure (affective). This mediated flow of affects also operates as a technology in Foucault’s sense of a matrix of practical reason. In my still-new theorizations, our public today, quite contrary to that articulated by Habermas or Rawls, is a multiply mediated, affective technology; that is, it is a matrix of practical reason dispersed through multiple material networks that enable and accelerate the circulation of affects.

  Chances are, any one reading this posting experienced this affective matrix of practical reason last Saturday as the events in Charlottesville unfolded. But, see, our language needs to change. The events in Charlottesville are materially tied to the media events responding to Charlottesville. An event and its reactions are no longer separable enough to allow for “commentary.” Even this blog posting is not a commentary on the events in Charlottesville but on the event of the events in Charlottesville, on what “Saturday, August 12” was, at least for some of us.

Our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Reddit scenes delimit public address as the kind of affecognitive discourse Foucault calls “dramatic”; it is the discourse of theater and spectacle. Indeed, Foucault’s entire point about the importance of Kant’s odd sense of Publikum in “What is Enlightenment” is that “public” means for Kant quite precisely the stage or platform on which a certain kind of drama can be staged or performed, where a certain kind of scene can be seen. This staged drama is a kind of normative punctum, an event that functions as a gauntlet thrown down within the boundaries of the Publikum and for the sake of its continued maintenance. Kant’s Publikum establishes and legitimates the infrastructural means by which certain statements can be deployed freely, and it is the very free deployment of these particular (normative) statements that establishes and legitimates the Publikum’s infrastructure.

Making a scene in public may enact the freedom that feeds autonomy, but it is not for Kant itself a representation of Enlightenment. This distinction is important because unlike the pointillistic quality of public interventions, enlightenment is a slow process with an oscillating rhythm that conjoins the systole of sociality to the diastole of historical development. To draw out this rhythm, Foucault distinguishes pedagogical discourse from the dramatics of autonomous action. The drama of autonomy is both preceded by pedagogy and followed by self-reflection, thereby showing inextricable developmental and historical links between the government of others (by teaching them) and the government of self (daring to know for oneself). These two pedagogical moments—being taught and teaching oneself—are hinged by the interruption of public, dramatic discourse as we saw in Charlottesville, or like any event that rips the fabric of everyday life and, by claiming or debating the proper face of universality, exposes the bloody wounds of particularity on the skin of public tissue.[i]

It also is important that for Kant, the significance of the Revolution does not lie in the bloody events of the Revolution itself. “What is significant and constitutes the event with demonstrative, prognostic, and rememorative value,” Foucault writes, “is not the exploits and gesticulations of the revolutionary drama itself.” Rather, “[w]hat is significant is the way in which the Revolution exists as spectacle, the way in which it is greeted everywhere by spectators who are not participants, but observers, witnesses, and who, for better or worse, let themselves be caught up in it” (17).

Today, under the technological aegis of social media, we could restate this “significance of the Revolution” as the material dynamic that constitutes our very publicness: not the bloody action on the streets, but the entranced witness of the spectacle; not activism, but absorption. Foucault foregrounds a specific phrase used by Kant to describe the affective register of witnessing, a register that Kant associates with the sign of real human progress. The phrase is: “a sympathy of aspiration which borders on enthusiasm” (18).

As we saw with the event of the events of Charlottesville, what matters for our sense of publicness and our sense of the possibilities of social transformation–what matters, that is, in the sense of what holds the bodies and actions of the persons involved and what holds and disperses the significance of their material presence and actions–lies not with the punctum of any particular action (not even that one man driving that one car through a crowd), but rather within the crucible of splayed, saturated, relayed, and defensively diverging affective reception that unfurled multiply and nonlinearly in graduated and unpredictable ways.

From Foucault’s reading of Kant it is clear that the material and institutional factors that generate the circulating ground or ‘stage’ of the Publikum are necessary but not sufficient conditions for sustaining a viable ‘public sphere.’ The license to demonstrate, the police and national guard presence, the Constitutional guarantees of the right to assemble and the right to free speech are thus necessary but not sufficient conditions for a viable “public.” The tissue of publicness also requires that readers and spectators “sympathetically,” that is, affectively, absorb and rearticulate the “aspirations” of the dramatic discourses unfolding before their witness.

What Foucault sees (through Kant) as acts of autonomy, truth telling, and revolution, I would rewrite as the rapid threading of publicness through affective technologies of mediation. Through social media, the affecognitive lineaments of our enfleshed social life are dramatized in a flash. The spectator-bodies may refuse this public moment; they may ignore it, seek to kill it, refuse it, counter it, or redeploy it; but for publicness to thrive, its witnesses must absorb events with the tingling affective sympathy that the events are making claims (however contestable) about our shared human conditions of flesh, life, and precarity. To me, this relationship between the image, sound, word or body of the public event, and the body of the spectator positions the flesh of the citizen as a crucial node or switch-point in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.

On 8/12/17 I saw and participated in just this relationship between the images, sounds, words, norms, and bodies in Charlottesville, and the words and images of the witnessing spectator-bodies. I felt palpably how the flesh of citizens function as crucial nodes and switch-points in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.


[i] I worked through Foucault’s lectures on Government of Self and Other a year before reading Katrin Pahl’s lovely book, Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2012), but her argument about the Phenomenology resonates strongly with my reading of Foucault’s Kant. Especially in her Chapter 2, “Pathos,” Pahl argues that Hegel offers a theatrical ‘staging’ of ethical life that requires the presence of both an audience of others and the agony of self-reflection after the passionate public display.

Consciousness, Perception, Body

  Though I do not find the reading pleasant, something about delving into Husserl’s Ideas 1 is akin to a religious investigation. For many of us, such religious investigation begins with a feeling, like that we have when we look up at the summer night sky and track Cygnus arcing down the Milky Way. It is a feeling of trying to stretch beyond our cognitive limits and really grasp that we live and breathe on a tiny planet hurdling around our sun in a backwater corner of one of billions of galaxies, a feeling of trying to match the perceptual data of small bright dots to what we ‘know’ about the universe from physics and astronomy. “What’s it all about?” we might ask, despondently or wonderingly (or both), as the stretch fails and we feel ourselves slough back into crude and infinitesimal finitude.

The question is massive and sublime, but here I’m mainly focused on the feeling. What does it feel like to try to think beyond perception, to think beyond the body? How does it feel to stretch toward God? How does the body feel the limits of its own thinking?

Reading Husserl’s Ideas 1 is unpleasant to me because it involves warping my head into a prolonged, cirque-du-soleil caliber stretch of this sort, and one that continually sloughs into glaring but unacknowledged, Marx-brothers caliber failings. Husserl doesn’t give a whiff about God, but he is trying to get to the unthought conditions of consciousness:

“consciousness considered in its ‘purity’ must be held to be a self-contained complex of being, a complex of absolute being into which nothing can penetrate and out of which nothing can slip, to which nothing is spatiotemporally external and which cannot be within any spatiotemporal complex, which cannot be affected by any physical thing….” (section 49; Kersten transl. p. 112)

The spatiotemporal world of human experience is posited by consciousness as “something identical belonging to motivated multiplicities of appearances,” Husserl maintains: “beyond that it is nothing.” (Ibid.)  Such is the stretch toward purity, toward a pure consciousness detached from (not merely bracketed from) the somatic dimensions that dictate psychology.

Husserl’s failure lies in the fact that the body keeps showing up in Ideas 1, reminding me of that taunt aimed at elementary school children who don’t know the technical word for skin: “Your epidermis is showing!”  I am not setting out to take down Husserlian phenomenology in 1000 words, but wish only to hold focus on what Ideas 1 presents so well, almost against itself: the vibrating edge of flesh desiring to escape fleshed finitude. Another way of animating his question, I think, is to bracket (ha!) his frustrating acrobatics and remain modestly on this side of purity and infinity. How does the body feel consciousness? How does the body feel itself sentient, that is, how does consciousness feel as it is in (and it always is in) a body? How does sentience evidence its own embodied matrix?

I visited Mass MoCA’s James Turrell and Sol LeWitt exhibits last weekend and it seemed to me that both artists were immersed in questions somewhat like these.


LeWitt’s large wall installations reduce you to vectors of affective exclamation. Each turn of the gallery leads to another squeak of pleasure. These large works are studies in color, in color juxtaposition, in pattern, in pattern juxtaposition, and in color and pattern juxtaposition. They stand over you and overwhelm you as you walk through the gallery. They draw your body in to see how these massive pieces have been constructed and they push you back to try to ‘take in’ the entire pattern or color spectrum. I would say the wall art is spectacle but it really is the opposite of spectacle; it is superbly logical and measured, pleasing in its symmetries and hues, pleasing by the way those hues and symmetries flood the body with a kind of rhythmic intensity. The intensity slows you down and stops you. It’s mesmerizing, not in a manner that yields hypnotism or loss of self, but in a manner that materializes the power of form and tone to shape bodily comfort, task and concentration; the power of form and tone to catalyze feeling and to reduce thought to the felt pulse of consciousness. This consciousness hovers somewhere between LeWitt’s art and my body, and is dependent on both.

 James Turrell’s art is about light. Color is used, it seems to me, merely to call attention to the materiality and character of light. I saw this purple artwork (above), called “Wedgework”, I believe, and this green one (below).

I also joined about eight other bodies in a nine-minute exhibit called “Perfectly Clear”, which included two periods of strobing light and otherwise a series of changing colors in what felt like a dimensionless room. I felt an irrepressible attraction to these lit spaces, and also a profound disorientation. In the “Wedgework” room, I began to feel nauseated. Turrell’s presentation of the materiality of light is so unlike my own corporeal materiality that I lost cognitive orientation. I sat down and closed my eyes. I tried to shut out this enveloping ‘experience’ that refused my attempts to situate it around the axis of my body. The world went black.The weight of my joints and muscles was oddly noticeable after the weightlessness of light. After-images bounced on my retinas. I felt my breathing in my nose, esophagus and lungs. I felt my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the nausea subside.

LeWitt demonstrates that consciousness can feel like a spooling out from my body and an entangling in form and color. I am not “in” my body when I look at LeWitt, but I am not “beyond” it, either; I am somewhere in between. Turrell, on the other hand, uses the ethereal materiality of light to demonstrate the entanglement of consciousness with the minute particularities of physiology: the weight and jointedness and awkwardness of bodies, their greedy clamor for color to resolve into (with) form, their incessant dependence on the flows of air and blood. I feel the weight of finitude with Turrell, but also the desire for, the beauty of, depthless eternity.

Boleaño’s 2666

  The title is the first clue, I guess. The sequence of four numbers has absolutely no referent in the novel, and for the novel’s readers, its most obvious referent–that of a year–is so far in the future that imagination is rendered sterile. Hungrily, one’s eyes roam to the next obvious referent, the triad “666” or the number of the beast, that familiar apocalyptic creature of the Christian book of Revelations. Future apocalypse? The year of the end of the world? Nothing in the novel portends such a momentous, cosmic reckoning, and yet it’s hard to shed the rather creepy feeling that this text is centrally about time and judgment.

The epigraph is the second clue. It’s from Charles Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.”  The line is from the first stanza of the seventh section of the poem, “The Voyage” (Le Voyage) of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du mal). The entire stanza reads:

Bitter is the knowledge one gains from voyaging!
The world, monotonous and small, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

(Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!)

Perhaps the context matters; perhaps not. Perhaps readers can infer from the context that the epigraph of 2666 refers to an image of humanity (“our image”), as opposed to an image of history or nature, or that the novel marks time as human time when(ever) lush, life-giving horror interrupts the dry severity of boredom. Is horror life-giving? Well, does not horror sell–is it not what is sought and imbibed greedily?  I prefer the coercion embedded in a literal transcription of the French: “The world…makes us see our image.” That which is not human (or at least not self) presses on the human/self willfully, and the effect is like being forced to look in a mirror. What looks back is horror surrounded by boredom–and thus is judged the so-called pinnacle of creation.

But can this judgment really apply to the artless, bumbling, grieving, ordinary, sex-obsessed, and often rather grotesque characters of 2666?

One last clue. The editors of this posthumously published masterpiece have included a postscript that references Boleaño’s 1999 novel, Amulet (the year 1999 standing in a tempting aesthetic inversion, it seems to me, to the year 2666):

“I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city’s imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more [sic], and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” [bold added]

Taking these three ‘clues’ together, I suggest 2666 is a book of the future anterior. Not a book written in the future anterior but a kind of Gedankenexperiment that posits in its characters and its readers a dual temporal receivership. In the present, we are flooded with the boredom of quotidian banality, and yet we know–we know from the way the academics of Book 1 struggle desperately to link the shards of Archimboldi’s life–that most of this banality will drop into oceanic oblivion, leaving for the future mainly the stark, interruptive horrors and, perhaps, the occasional footstep in the sand that marks the paths between these repulsive oases.

In other words, the novel enacts a reflection on history and memory and shows how these archives of human being work against each other. It also is a savage rejection of the image or ideology of human nobility. The narrative works on its readers slowly and steadily, patiently building a pit of unease for us with every page. 

Boleaño’s novel is truly a materpiece. To me, it unspools in almost perfect opposition to Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s novel pulls us into the sparkling, pulsing grace of the infinitesimal and pushes us lovingly into the task of remembrance. The world, the cosmos, the multitudinous textures and times of life itself open up for us in reading La Recherche2666 pulls us into an equally textured and infinitesimally recounted world, into the gritty, gruesome phenomenology of torture, rape, war, isolation, mental illness, misconstruals, and missed opportunities. It is a necessary counterpart to Proust, and a fitting judgment on the twentieth century (history as horror) and its human denizens (as (un)remembered boredom).

The Academy and Class Diversity


This post will be short because the problem it concerns is not new, and the difficulty both of articulating and of destabilizing its comfortable embrace is profound.

To be an academic (and let it be underscored at once that not all academics are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are academics) is have been accepted into a certain guild. This guild, of late, prides itself on its commitment to diversity. This commitment is good and worthy. Diversity is not my focus here but rather something like the internal limitations of diversity, which pertain to class.

Class is not an easy dynamic for Americans to absorb. (I say “dynamic” because the occupation of a certain socio-economic class is not a “thing”, it is not reified or unidimensional, but rather relational and multidimensional or intersectional.) One American ideology–absurdly assumed in the face of hourly empirical contradiction–is that Americans live in a classless society. Whether our democratic polity actually positions each citizen (and who counts as “citizen”?) as equal before the law and in the voting booth is fodder for another conversation, but clearly, in our mass- culture, image and media-driven civil society, no one is equal to anyone. Jockeying for greater status, distinction, and salary are the game, and not to play is by default to lose.

The competitive qualities of class formation under global capitalism also are fodder for a different conversation; I raise this depiction here only because I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that you have a colleague in your department who does not abide by bourgeois business-ethics demeanor as we academics all know it. This colleague doesn’t know the intricacies of Robert’s Rules and would probably scorn them. This colleague is not aware of discursive nuance, or how to defer properly to senior colleagues, how to indicate that delicate balance between fearing and resisting the Dean, and how to bury political commitments in the ever-shifting costumes of accepted buzzwords. This colleague frequently uses cuss words, doesn’t always use an inside voice, and doesn’t always dress in a way that signals professionalism. Then: imagine that the issue on the faculty agenda is (you guessed it) increasing diversity in the department.

This scenario is completely hypothetical. I draw it out to point out that bourgeois class propriety is an internal limit to academic diversity. It is assumed (though this assumption is neither theorized nor discussed) that professors should comport themselves with a professional decorum, discourse, and sensitivity to department hierarchies. In other words, professors should be good bourgeois denizens of academic territory. Not to do so is to upset the apple cart that quietly aligns academic habitus with capitalist habitus. Not to do so would be to open for discussion and theorization the elitism endemic to–indeed essential to the production of– a college education.

But in our age of the 1% vs the 99%, perhaps, just perhaps, it is time for us to face such assumptions head on and at least be brave enough to have a faculty conversation about them. Think about it: an Ivy-league educated and polished male academic can sexually harass and even rape female students over the course of decades and it doesn’t come to light (or its discovery doesn’t result in embarrassing consequences for him) because his habits mesh so well with expected class decorum. But a non-bourgeois scholar, with an accent, crass opinions, and clothes that make your eyebrows squinch…THIS scholar might be barred from an academic career, despite being universally beloved by the undergraduates, particulary undergraduates who come from (you guessed it) diverse demographics.

In the Wake: Christina Sharpe on writing repetition without reification


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 An early scene of Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust features a kaleidoscope. Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a photographer hired to chronicle an African American family’s 1902 “migration” to the mainland from the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast, visibly revels in the kaleidoscope’s new technology. Exuberantly, he tells Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), Trula (Trula Hoosier) and Yellow Mary (Barbara O. Jones) the word’s etymology: “Kalos, beautiful; eidos, form, and skopein, to see.” He continues,

“If an object is placed between two mirrors, inclined at right angles, an image is formed in each mirror. Then, these mirror images are in turn reflected in the other mirrors, forming the appearance of four symmetrically shaped objects. …It’s beauty, simplicity, and science, all rolled into one small tube.” [transcribed from the DVD]

Beauty, simplicity, and science.

The technical workings of a kaleidoscope aptly describe the entire structuring aesthetic of Daughters, a film that travels complexly through memories and realities of the Peazant family’s African past, Jim Crow present, and African-American future. Just as the objects placed between mirrors in a kaleidoscope roll about in the tube such that their variously reflected juxtapositions create compelling and constantly mutating patterns, so Dash posits, jostles, resituates, and blurs familiar cinematic languages of American Black experience to create true but startling images. Facts, visions, rituals, hopes, and memories imbricate through simple cinematic choices. The effect is stunning.

  This same kaleidoscopic aesthetic structures Christina Sharpe’s recent text, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke, 2016). Slim but elegant and poignant, In the Wake, like Daughters, elicits startling ways of hearing and feeling truths about the Atlantic slave-trade and U.S. chattel-slave economy, traumas that are not simply past and not merely present but complexly both, such that their wake will also complexly—frustratingly, despairingly—continue to shape our national and global futures. Through a carefully crafted repetition of words, images, and episodes, Sharpe pulls readers into the turbulence of her book’s kaleidoscopic roll. Like the words, bodies, photos and events to which she attends, we are rolled round and round, and with each twist of her text, Sharpe throws them and us into a new pattern.

Wake. Wake is the trail of water behind a ship; wake is the marked trajectory of a gun’s recoil; wake is the state of being conscious and aware; wake is the event held before a funeral in celebration of the dead person’s life. This single word-object becomes, in Sharpe’s able hands, a thousand interconnected patterns. And she adds other word-objects to wake’s semantic fullness: ship, hold, and weather–these are the chapters that form the Gestalt and largest objects of her kaleidoscope. “Defend the dead,” “former mother,” “what is the look in her eyes? What do I do with it?”, “partus sequitur ventrem“–these are some of the phrases, names, and events that form the smaller shards of colored glass that roll through Sharpe’s text. You can imagine how simple word-objects can take on breathtaking complexity through Sharpe’s use of a kaleidoscopic technology of juxtaposition, reflection, and rolling repetition.

So much needs to be said about this book, but I start here, with a single observation about aesthetics, primarily because Sharpe herself draws attention to a different and more familiar aesthetic. Halfway through her last chapter (on weather), Sharpe evokes the damage wrought by repetition within contemporary media culture. She is discussing Black annotation and Black redaction as two (further) modalities of “wake work” (113), and yet her passage swerves sharply at the end to announce a clear ethical charge to us:

“We have been reminded by [Sadiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (116, bold added)

The powerful success of Sharpe’s book lies in the fact that its form resists this mass culture reification by offering up an affective pedagogy that pulls readers into the wake of the problem (into its currents and vessels and prisons and atmospheres). Readers are both buoyed and bedraggled by the roll and tumble of her text so that by the time we reach this passage we can hear the anguish and profound challenge of the questions she raises for us here. Her own repetitions are decidedly not reifications, they are not the profit-driven means of anchoring and perpetuating colonial traumas but instead move more like a natural rhythm. They toss us into the churning roll of the “beauty simplicity and science” of a kaleidoscopic aesthetic.

Because Julie Dash compares filmmaking to jazz, inevitably Ralph Ellison’s use of jazz motifs in Invisible Man came to mind as I was reading In the Wake. But what the form of In the Wake really reminds me of is the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 magnum opus2666 (“The Part about the Crimes”). For some 300 pages, Bolaño drags his reader through relentless, agonizingly specific, and detailed descriptions of the murders of 112 women and girls in Santa Teresa, Mexico between 1993 and 1997. Loosely based on the disappeared girls in Ciudad Juárez (where some 340 females were murdered between 1993 and 2003), reading or listening to this part of 2666 is a horrifying fall into helplessness. The pattern of death is interrupted–and therefore spared from reductionism or reification–by the meticulous detail provided by the narrator’s descriptions: The body was wearing this and such, it was positioned in this way, it was found at this hour by these people in this location; the victim had been raped this way, and that way (at one point the narrator wanders into the police lingo for the different number of ways a girl can be raped); the cause of death was this, or maybe that; the girl was identified (or not); the girl had lived at home/run away/worked at a maquiladora/been a prostitute; the girl’s boyfriend/father/stepfather was taken in for questioning; the case was soon shelved as unsolved. The singularities clinging to the repetition are the essence of its grotesque horror, which in the end has less to do with the deaths and more to do with the fungus of impotence and indifference that grows up around them and cheapens a reader’s sense of her own worth, decency, or even agency.

Sharpe’s book, too, leaves us with soggy complicity. But it’s good to be woke  (or at least prodded to be so).