Anne Cheng and Ornamentalism: affectivizing the social role of aesthetics

Anne A. Cheng’s recent work pushes scholarship about the racial logics of modernity from the binarism of Orientalism to the fuzzier contours of what she terms Ornamentalism. While not releasing analytical grip on the lessons about visuality, flesh, exoticization, and othering from both Said’s Orientalism and critical race theory, Cheng’s 2011 book, Second Skin (on Josephine Baker) and her 2018 Critical Inquiry article, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman” drill down into the conceptual and practical ambiguities between flesh and skin, between animal and machine, and between person and thing.

Is ornament a “second skin” or the primitive adornment of skin? Cheng looks, for example, at the patterning of black and white blocks or stripes—a pattern criticized and yet often used by modern architect Adolf Loos.

© Roy Ooms
Model Release: Yes
Property Release: No

Does this familiar pattern index the primitive art of tattooing skin, or animal stripes, or criminality, or the regularity of machines? Cheng superbly draws a discursive line connecting all of these possibilities. Rather than resolving the question into the binary logic of flesh (white vs. black, or white vs. yellow), Cheng’s metonymy between primitivism, modernist architecture, animality, criminality, and machines demonstrates what Bill Brown terms the “indeterminate ontology” of modern things (Second Skin, 116) and what Cheng herself argues beautifully as the “ineffable fusion between thingness and personhood” (“Ornamentalism,” 420).



Near the end of Second Skin Cheng writes, “In spite of our political sophistication today, we still have few tools and little language for addressing what I call visual pleasure in the contaminated zone: those uneasy places of visual exchange where pleasure, law, and resistance converge” (167). Cheng’s work in “Ornamentalism,” which I assume is continued in her forthcoming book, Ornamentalism (due out from Oxford in less than two weeks) dwells with this lack and aims to create the conditions for new and workable tools and concepts.

Perhaps because of my obsession with affect, I see Cheng successfully creating these conditions in theorizing a material socio-political space for aesthetics that limns both subjectivity and objectivity. The social skin of aesthetics, she shows us, cannot—should not (she does raise “ethical looking” in Second Skin)—devolve into asserting the authenticity or dominance of either the subject or the thing but brings each into a new, fraught, and fluid relation to itself and to its opposite. By placing aesthetics as the buffer, skin, or membrane between subjects and objects (maybe in resonance with Gramsci’s placement of culture between Marx’s superstructure and base?), Cheng’s scholarship affectivizes theoretical approaches to subjectivity, to objectivity, and to their relation, by showing how the shimmer, skins, colors, textures—in a word the ornaments—of modernity are not additions to (adornments on) pre-existing subjects and objects, but instead bring these elements into ontological and phenomenological tangibility. Through its very affecognitive slipperiness, ornament troubles our ability to separate subject from object or person from thing, and therefore troubles our ability to domesticate and control them. Losing this control is like losing our humanity–but this is a sense of humanity that is founded in rational (and racial) control. As Cheng writes in her 2018 essay, “While Orientalism is about turning persons into things that can be possessed and dominated, ornamentalism is about a fantasy of turning things into persons through the conduit of racial meaning in order, paradoxically, to allow us to abandon our humanness” (“Ornamentalism,” 435).

Cheng’s theorization of ornament gives us what I think Eve Sedgwick would call reparative scholarly tools to navigate the self-implicative binary racial logics that have dominated racial theories since Fanon. I look forward to the full book.


The Patience of Sebald (Saturnine Pilgrims)

61ob6KHrv4L._SX342_ Last summer, I listened to the audiobook version of Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Riffing off Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and channeling the author’s grief over her father’s illness and death, Joyce’s novel is a startling account of the freedom, constraint, self-reflection, and emotional release availed by even the barest of pilgrimage structures, such as the plain desire to walk from point A to point B. Joyce’s title character exemplifies how that  unadorned desire can mutely slip into sensed obligation, then curse, and then, just as softly, blessing. As with the Bunyan prototype, Joyce’s protagonist meets a welter of human characters and character types, and each encounter leads him more solidly back to himself, to the family in his memory and his wife still waiting, bemusedly, for him back home. The book comes to resolutions of understanding and renewed commitments, even if everything isn’t easy and beautiful.

The novelist W. G. (“Max”) Sebald also was a pilgrim. But if his writerly encounters guided him into self-knowledge, he never let his readers in on the secret. His fiction books, Vertigo, The Emigrants, Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz centrally involve quest, movement, and transport even as they manage to convey a profound and static sense of place; but the narrator’s accounts of his quests and movements and perceptions of place never rebound to the narrator himself. Sebald’s is a pilgrimage of kenosis, an emptying of self in order better to mirror the encounters, connections, and fraught relationships of destruction that constitute human life and world history.

I re-read Rings of Saturn this fall with/for a friend who now lives out of state. We both struggled to stay the course with Sebald’s text, which might be an easier read in more sanguine times that would counterbalance the book’s dark messages (though this is not what Paul MacInnes claims in his review of the book for The Guardian). “Saturnine” means “melancholy,” of course, and Sebald is decidedly a saturnine pilgrim, walking the English coast at Suffolk but also walking the particulate detritus of history’s relentless destructions. Just as the rings around the planet Saturn are thought to be the fragments of a former moon that was destroyed by ice, so Sebald relates fragments of history and place that can be seen to carry their violent, horrible history with them like a dust storm.

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.36.49 AM.pngThe references in Rings of Saturn move so quickly from place to person to event (each in its uniquely wounded or wounding form) that a reader with mild OCD (i.e., me) will find herself googling constantly in a futile attempt to keep up. Imagine my surprise and delight then, when, on screening Grant Gee’s film about this book, Patience (After Sebald) I am introduced to Barbara Hui, a literary scholar who has crafted what she terms a “Litmap” of Sebald’s pilgrimage. The desire for such a map, at least for my part, is to grasp the structure of Sebald’s journey, the arché of his pilgrimage, as it were, and thus to resolve some general coherence out of its shifting, lattice structure.

images Both book and film ultimately frustrate this desire, however. For instance, an astute reader might suggest that silk and sericulture form the linchpin of Rings of Saturn, and such a reader would be both absolutely right and utterly misguided. Like the narrator’s pilgrimage, Sebald’s intricate sets of references are compelling in and of themselves, but their delineation does not add up to, does not unfold, the meaning and identity of the objects themselves; rather, this delineation that is the structure of Sebald’s pilgrimage patiently emits an aura –like clouds of particulate dust– that settles out as the affectscape of natural, individual, and historical destruction. Sebald writes, channeling the words o the 17th century thinker Thomas Browne, “What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world” (19). A few pages later, Sebald adds his own comment, “For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark” (24).

Gee_Grant_Patience_After_Sebald_2012      As one example, Grant includes a reflection by Lise Patt, co-editor of Searching for Sebald, who is struck by Sebald’s inclusion of a large picture of a herring. He has been discussing the overfishing of herring and the odd fact that a dying herring releases a chemical that turns its ordinarily drab skin colorfully luminescent. Patt finds the picture odd because Sebald rarely includes pictures as mere illustration, as simple reference, but uses photographs as affective intensifiers. It is when Patt thinks together four of Sebald’s pictures that a felt sense of their accumulated meaning emerges. These pictures are, first, a group of fishermen standing knee-deep in herring, like trees amid piles of leaves; second, the single herring; third, a picture of a military action at the foot of a hill; and fourth, shockingly, the well-known picture of piles of corpses under trees outside of Bergen-Belsen.


barnes_post_1_01 Gee edits Patt’s reflections in a way that clearly shows the patience required of (and that rewards) Sebald’s reader, who needs to to be puzzled, to flip back, to find the geometric resonances between these pictures and draw out their ethical analogies. And Gee also, of course, is showing Sebald’s patience, as he walks step by step along the English coast but also kicks over stones, flips through ancient books, talks to aging gardeners, poets, and caretakers to find the trauma, horror, tragedy, and destruction that lies like fine silt beneath the veneer of today’s ordinary coastal villages.

“It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder” (220).  Sebald credits these words to an Irishwoman, Mrs. Ashbury, but they seem to be Sebald’s fundamental disposition, too. Perhaps the saturnine sees only his own melancholy reflected in the world? Or perhaps the world’s relentlessly reflected blunders fall on Sebald with a force that melancholy can barely contain or channel. This readerly/writerly undecidability is not a literary trick but the carburetor for the moral reflection Sebald wishes to ignite.

Poetry. Or Life’s Textured Sensorium.

Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s 2015 film Antonia is billed as a biopic about the mid-century Italian poet, Antonia Pozzi (1912-1938), a woman unpublished in her lifetime and unsure of her calling as a poet. (Today she is considered one of the most important 20th century Italian poets.) The film underscores Antonia’s lineage as the daughter of a Milanese countess and a stern, successful lawyer, but this elite lineage, while guaranteeing an elite and thorough education, did not assure her happiness or security. She took her life with an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 26. (This image below shows her about to remove the bottle of pills from her jacket.)

Filomarino’s film is hardly driven by plot. Much of it simply lingers on Antonia’s body stretched, draped, arched, or scrunched over desks, beds, grass, and tables. The camera frequently cuts to close-ups of her hands (writing, wringing, rubbing) or feet (pushing off socks, caressing the bedsheets). Her world is shot either on very grey days or with a filter that so denatures the ambient colors that the entire film almost feels like a series of sepia-toned photographs. (Below Antonia is in post-op recovery after trying to bear the pain of appendicitis. Her male friend of the moment took her to hospital.)

Perhaps the film’s uncaptioned attention to Antonia’s micromovements of her body encourages viewers to speculate on her unseen cognitive processes–as if to suppose that we are seeing the body of a poet poetizing and though we can’t see the wordcraft forming inside of her, we can view the restless flesh that awaits the synthesizing results of that wordcraft.

That could be. I confess I found the connection between the film’s cinematography and Antonia’s poetry closer to something like Benjamin’s Arcade Project, the attempt by the film to capture the textures of an ephemeral and now-vanished sensorium, the textured life that, as felt, Antonia transfigured into words. In this view, her restless body in the film is not an index of unseen mental activity but rather is the poetry itself as it feels the world and life that ignite and catalyze a transfiguration into words.


To have two long wings
of shadow
and fold them up against your pain;
to be shadow, the peace
of evening
around your faded

Antonia Pozzi, May 1934

Much of the scenes in this film are unexplained. In the middle, Antonia seems to leave her father’s mountain house, where she has secreted away a former Greek professor-turned-lover, in order to trek to a rock-climbing lesson. Antonia appears open and joyful as she meets her instructor and watches him climb up, inserting pins in the rock as he goes. Tied to him, she follows after and they both mount the top of the peak. She is high, fierce, and isolated, but surrounded by a glorious beauty.

  Somehow, the way this sequence is filmed, I sense that the point is not that Antonia has mastered the peak but that she has merged her physical self with the physical world around her, that the two physics are not separate, one against the other, but in a confluence. Her poetry, the words of her poems, also are like colored glass vessels into which she pours this merging confluence so that we, her readers, can see and feel it.


A small Note on F.J. Ossang’s “9 Doigts” (9 Fingers)

  The film looks like a cross between the chiaroscuro of Fritz Lang’s murky expressionist films and Dreyer’s crisp portraiture.

   Its classically shot dialog scenes

 interpose tilted or high-angled shots that bring Hitchcock to mind. FJ Ossang’s 2017 film, 9 Doigts, presents as something like a gangster film, or a surrealist thriller, except that its plot is very nearly incoherent. It doesn’t help that small plot points remind viewers that despite the black-and-white film stock, this story is absolutely contemporary. After the characters end up on an ocean liner, we hear more than once about the huge continent of plastic and waste that threatens to swallow up the ship (in addition to some destination or Siren-call delusion of repetition and dementia called Nowhereland).

My probably too-hasty takeaway is that this is not a film to follow cognitively but a film to absorb affectively. Ossang tosses out rational coherence but presents a film that powerfully conveys the paranoia, panic, and dual sense of urgency and impotence that characterizes this moment of upsurging proto-fascism, crumbling civil society, and the material traumas of climate change. Here is true affect wrapped in Daliesque madness.

As if to underscore his film’s diremption of rationality and affect, the mad doctor stands before a bizarre planetary map and states what religion scholars know from JZ Smith, “map is not territory.”


Nationalism is like Religion: Discuss

After some throat-clearing Benedict Anderson opens his oft-cited Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism with the assertion that “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind.” (4) We might expect, then, that his next section on “Concepts and Definitions” will explain this particular kind of artefacts, and he does, eventually, but he first shares three “paradoxes” that “often” befuddle theorists of nationalism. First, nations are objectively modern entities (to historians) but subjectively narrated as ancient (by nationalists). Second, though clearly a modern entity with a clear historical genealogy, nationality is assumed to be a sui generis and universal category (everyone has a nationality). Third, nations are stupendously powerful entities but theories of nationalism are stupefyingly weak. (5)

In other words, Anderson prefaces and offsets his famous definition of the nation with an affective situation that is both inherently unsolvable and (as he states) “perplexing.” To study the nation is to feel oneself split between the limit of what the nation is and the unlimited feelings swirling around it, and between what a nation successfully does, in all of its complexity and force, and how a nation fails to be conceived in a logically satisfying manner. To study nationalism, he seems to imply, is to try and keep one’s [rational] head while sinking into an emotional mire.

Just turn the page and we will find the well-known pages that spell out Anderson’s famous definition of the nation as “an imagined political community–and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (6)

But just prior to those lines, he comments further on those three baffling paradoxes by offering another equally common tendency, this time a tendency that is “unconscious” and apparently applicable to any “one,” whether historian or nationalist. Let me provide the entire short paragraph:

“Part of the difficulty is that one tends unconsciously to hypostasize the existence of Nationalism-with-a-big-N (rather as one might Age-with-a-capital-A) and then to classify ‘it’ as an ideology. (Note that if everyone has an age, Age is merely an analytical expression.) It would, I think, make things easier if one treated it [nationalism] as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’.” (5)

What can it possibly mean to compare nationalism to religion or kinship? Scholars tend to find the salient contrast in ideology. Anderson positions nationalism, they say, as a diffuse structure of human experience and not a specific ideology. This short paragraph does seem to say just this. But the larger context provided by the preceding paragraph, in which, under the heading “concepts and definitions,” Anderson delineated the bizarre paradoxes that persistently swirl around the rhetoric, history, and theorization of nationism suggests that nationalism is hard to study precisely because its filaments get swept up in perverse ideological claims that are stubbornly emotional.

Anderson stunningly does not elaborate. To me, Anderson’s opening paragraphs posit that the imagined community of a nation is constituted, like religion or kinship, through a projected sense of belonging generated by events, affects, and habitual dispositions rather than through principled norms and actions. Nation and fascism, religion and liberalism, kinship and communism: all of these aggregate strong affects and yield poignant stories, but the first of each pair inheres a blurry, aleatory quality that is missing from the second.

It seems to me that Anderson is suggesting that whereas we align ourselves (or not) with fascism, we dispose ourselves (or not) to this motley group as “kin”; that whereas we align ourselves (or not) with liberalism, we feel ourselves to be Buddhist or Jewish (or not). And finally, whereas we align ourselves (or not) with communism, we are interpellated by the acts and assumptions of national identity (or not).

I see Anderson suggesting here a real problem, and that is that nationalism functions phenomenologically as a diffuse affective economy that binds us to one another through events, habits, dispositions, and (yes) the imagined communities disseminated by print media, while its very diffusion and ambiguities position it as ripe fodder for discursive ideological poaching. Ditto for kinship and religion.

In discussions of Anderson this doubled-edge of nationalism is not stressed enough. Public media–like print media and now like digital media and social media–enable “ways of being” to feel themselves in continuity with discontinuous persons, places, and institutions. This feeling, this expansion of a way of being and this accrual and sedimentation of particular habits is a social fact that is shared by all of us, even though the particular claims we use as ballast, logic, or/and justification for these feelings function ideologically to separate us. More and more often, now, this separation is violent, even lethal.

Is it at all possible today, on this Monday after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, to separate U.S. nationalism from fascism or from fascism’s current opposite, liberalism? When we have a leader such as Trump, can we even hear the difference between “we all have national feelings” and “I am a nationalist?” I’m not sure.

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.


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)


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:


…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:


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.