Intersectionality Wars: the affects of scholarly struggle

Jennifer Nash’s careful and high-stake book, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality unfolds along two, equally important trajectories, that of the nature of scholarship and that of the nature of the self.  By nature, design, and the sediments of institutional and social violence, these two trajectories cross and re-cross each other and are fueled by an arc of affects that ranges from loss, anxiety, defensiveness, protectiveness, solidarity, and allegiance, to love, curiosity, and a deep yearning for freedom. Nash focuses particularly on the affect of “black feminist defensiveness” and its “proprietary attachments to intersectionality.” While she does at times discuss the affects driving white feminist attachment to intersectionality (including a white defensiveness to demonstrate allyship), her primary addressees are her black feminist peers; they are the “we” of her book.

She sets out her argument this way:

“I imagine black feminism as an affective project–a felt experience–as much as it is an intellectual, theoretical, creative, political, and spiritual tradition. …This book traces how defensiveness is largely articulated by rendering intersectionality black feminist property, as terrain that has been gentrified, colonized, and appropriated, and as territory that must be guarded and protected through the requisite black feminist vigilance, care, and ‘stewardship.'” (p. 3)

By keeping her primary focus on black feminist scholars and their relationship to intersectionality, Nash is able to keep steady pressure on the “affective traps” (p. 3) of property and commodification that continue to frame, capture, and exhaust black women scholars. These capitalist traps repeat on the level of scholarly conceptualization familiar historical conundrums that at once assert and deny personhood and citizenship to black women. Nash’s thorough articulation of the history of the term in the National Women’s Studies Association (Chapter 1) and in scholarly practices that she terms the impulse to tell and heed the “origin stories” of intersectionality (p. 39-45) and to commit to a hermeneutics of “originalism” (p. 61-76) point out the affective and structural resonances between the simultaneous promise/foreclosure of possessive individualism for black bodies in the academy and in our larger, white supremacist US society. Into this chiasm of visibility and invisibility, Nash inserts the claim that black feminist defensiveness over the proper (proprietary) use of intersectionality relegates black feminists–again–as service workers for women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, forever feeling the defensive and possessive obligation to correct and properly credit published accounts of intersectionality and to weigh in on what properly counts as intersectional scholarship. From page 4 to the last page of her text (p. 138), Nash refers to this obligation to perform affective service work (and its correlate in the academic expectation and obligation to perform “diversity” service work) eleven times.

Nash is clearly evoking the long history of black female domestic and other service workers in her nod to black feminist service work on behalf of intersectionality. As a religion scholar, this appeal to service work, along with her discussion of black feminists as “white feminism’s salvific figures” (p. 136) also evoke the labor of priestesses, of theological apologists, and of the service labor that black female bodies continually and voluntarily provide to many religious institutions.  I am perhaps particularly attentive to Nash’s quoting Joan Morgan’s concern that intersectionality has become a kind of “dogma” (p. 112, 113), with the suggestion here of a reified apologetics that is no longer a “productive analytics” (p. 113). To be dogmatic is to defensively protect the scripture and practices of a community, to watch out for hints of heresy and other sinful infractions, and to marshal resources in order to amplify, reconfirm, and recommit to orthodoxy. I realize I am over-reading Nash a bit here, which I do in order to draw out the affective lineaments of dogma so that I can better hear and feel the stakes of Nash’s alternative. Nash sets out to resituate and reclaim the task of black feminists as scholars of care, love, and witness. She affirms that black feminists are invested in myriad “new debates about eroticism, reproduction, visual culture, maternity, and surveillance” (p. 137), and she urges black feminists to embrace and return to their long labor to theorize strong connections between U.S. feminisms and transnational feminisms.  I also hear Nash reminding us about the art and rituals of pedagogy, since the grassroots and counter-hegemonic dynamics of black feminist pedagogy tend to embrace the pushback and change wrought by our students. Nash raises the question to me of what holding onto a “dogma” of intersectionality might be doing to our students, and to our pedagogical politics. Scholars may groan and resist the commodified pressures of publishing that, as Nash spells out, incentivize thin readings or even misreadings for the sake of clearing intellectual space for a young scholar to make her own intervention (p. 47), but I hear Nash asking about what might be gained if black feminists see this contortion of publishing as an unstoppable extension of the ongoing mutations (“travel”, p. 45) of concepts that always do occur in and through our teaching. Nash is imagining what would happen if black feminists refuse defensiveness and, instead, turn to other concepts and other intellectual urgencies.

Charles Peirce felt that William James had stolen and misused Peirce’s term, pragmatism, and so he suggested a new term, pragmaticism, which was, he hoped, “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (CP 5.414). It seems to me a point in Nash’s favor that Peirce’s term was so safe as to become inoperative; pragmaticism is barely known outside of the tiny circle of Peirce scholarship, whereas pragmatism means all sorts of things to all sorts of scholars, business owners, politicians.

I will end with Nash’s own final words, which are beautiful and poignant:

“Letting go untethers black feminism from the endless fighting over intersectionality, the elaborate choreography of rescuing the analytic from misuses, the endless corrections of the analytic’s usage. Letting go allows us to put the visionary genius of black feminism to work otherwise. It is, thus, a practice of freedom” (p. 138).


Questions I brought home from Duke’s 2019 FTW (Feminist Theory Workshop)

My academic location in the study of religion always puts me in a discursive minority at the Feminist Theory Workshop.* There is the occasional religion scholar there, and sometimes graduate students from Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill’s religion program participate. Most academics, though, don’t really know what goes on in religion departments and don’t really care. And that can be…inconvenient.**

My particular way in to the study of religion is through critical questions of valuation and transvaluation, particularly the embodied, inter-relational, and technological forms that affectively transmit and sustain shared valuations. Questions of valuation are affective questions: we value what we hold dear and this “holding dear” multiplies affects and orients us as individuals and communities. Readers of this blog know that I approach religion as an affecognitive structure of valuation in which every affective patterning inevitably makes use of and is constrained by existing discursive and institutional arrangements. As such, our daily lives are saturated with a gooey mess of feelings, intuitions, practices, and assertions of values, and these inevitably press up against and interrupt other values, sometimes with relish or bafflement, sometimes with disgust or rage. I am curious about when these shared valuations express themselves or are denominated as “religious” or “spiritual”—and I seek to understand how they are transmitted and sustained by particular embodied, inter-relational, discursive, and technological forms.

This year’s workshop challenged me to think about a few broad thematics that I have brought home and continue to ponder. I am grateful to the four plenary scholars: Riley Snorton, Lauren Berlant, Jocelyn Olcott, and Kim Tallbear. I also want to shout-out to my on-site workshop interlocutors: Randall Johnson, Kim Hall, Rebecca Moody, and Courtney O’Dell Chaib.

Below I gesture to further thoughts on (1) valuation; (2) the differences and connections between the conceptual rubrics of structure, ecology, and web; and (3) the theoretical and political problem of limited or non-existent available grammars;

  1. Valuation. Extending last year’s presentation from Denise Ferreira da Silva, all four papers this year expressed the need to grapple with the ways in which every structure of valuation coalesces on a ground of nullification that in the United States is blackness. This fact of nullification and its relation to valuation raises the question of how attention to forms of embodiment and practice might be supplemented with acute attention to what makes that form both possible and valued. How might we grasp what escapes-form and why certain modalities of survivance come to be valued? As Snorton noted, how does the swamp as a horizontal ecology of external relationality constitute the vertical valuation of the “plantation zone”? As Olcott challenged us, how do we come to ascribe (or not) value to affective fields and practices of care? As Berlant suggested, how might we better attend to and value small gestures of perturbation in a larger social and affective landscape of erotophobia and trauma? The familiar dialectic of naming what is non- or under-valued, and then mobilizing thought and activism to get it valued fails to show how what counts or matters as “value” always coalesces on and out of grounds of nullification. Tallbear suggests this fact to me in the word-war between so-called water activists and self-named water protectors. Protection of water as a value, as a relation, is not valued in dominant culture—any more than care labor is so valued, as Olcott shows—but the question of what forms show up that non-valuing is something I need to think more about.
  2. Conceptual rubrics. The need to pursue better models of valuation raises questions about the relation and difference between the three theoretical rubrics raised by the plenary scholars: structure, ecology, and web. What might be the useful differences between scenes of structure (Berlant), scenes of ecology (Snorton), and scenes of web (Tallbear)? How are these frameworks of structure, ecology, and web useful for thinking about what remains, and how we might use what remains, in excess of the White supremacist capture of life? In their book with Lee Edelman, Sex or the Unbearable, Berlant writes that, “Structure is a process, not an imprint, of the reproduction of life” (p. 12). In “Swamp Sublime: Ecologies of Resistance in the American Plantation Zone,” M. Allewaert, cited by Snorton, calls ecology “an assemblage of interpenetrating forces” (341). In “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family,” Tallbear writes of “a web or net in which relations exchange power, and power is in tension, thus holding the web or community together” (Clarke and Haraway, Making Kin not Population, p. 160). Do these different terms attend best to different problems or are they resonant? Do they work better, or differently, at different social or inter-relational scales?
  3. Staying with the Trouble of Grammar (Haraway). I heard Lauren Berlant as questioning how we might nudge our affectscape from erotophobia back toward something like erotophilia, while Snorton claimed, at the end, that he was quite simply interested in life, in Black life. How might we push for something like the positivity of sex or comedy or social transformation, without being heard as minimizing or resisting the trauma of violence? It feels to me that attempting such a push quickly runs us up against the limit of available grammars of analysis. Likewise: How might we theorize the swamp as an ecology of fugitivity that is life without minimizing the dynamics of capture and death that are articulated as social, state “care,” as Snorton challenged us? How do we insist on reconceptualizing value outside of capitalist logic and assumptions, as Olcott insisted, when we can barely imagine, much less speak, an outside or beyond of capitalism? How do we wrestle with the fact that all translations between indigeneity and the modern state form when all translations are, as Tallbear rightly noted, “terrible”? All four papers leave me with the challenge to face dead-on (or rather, erotically) the challenges of conceptualization and categorization, to hit my own walls of insufficiency and yet to stay, and to suggest tactics of research and activism that continue to touch and tease out what Amit Rai, in his recent book, Jugaad Time calls the “infinite sponginess” of the world.


*I was invited (and honored) to share remarks at the FTW closing round-table. I reproduce those remarks here in a slightly edited form.

**Prof. Lauren Berlant spoke at the workshop on the “inconvenience of others” and “erotophobia.”

Academic Form: Affective Blockage

I want to write about a failure of form. Or perhaps the failure is in me, or in our times. I’ll let you decide.

**   I went to a big academic event recently. I’m not going to name particulars because the particulars of this event do not matter as much as the way it replicated very general and familiar problems that I often have experienced with “academic discourse on very important matters.” (The event concerned topics of profound, I’d even say dire, importance.)

Here is the form: The event is divided into sequenced panels of five speakers. Each panel has a moderator. In order to honor the importance of the event’s topics, the organizers have creatively planned for audience participation and underscored the importance of audience collaboration.

To me, this form says (1) the questions being posed are critical, (2) they need to be approached from multiple perspectives and areas of scholarly and lived expertise, and (3) for the event to be successful, the audience needs to contribute to the thinking that will constitute the event. Excellent.

Why, then, does it fail? The five speakers, all of whom are gorgeous thinkers, do not really answer the pointed question the moderator asks them. They talk too long. The issues and problems and questions and conundrums multiply, aggregate, split apart, and fly around the room, pummeling all of us. No one can do anything in response because the words continue to come at us, fast and furious, filling up the spaces for thought and action. The many different levels and lenses and approaches used by the speakers start to feel weapon-like, some even akin to grinding axes. When one speaker happens to elicit applause, something shifts and all subsequent speakers angle toward that same buzz, seeking the same sweetness of adulation. Time is slipping away, and yet the moderator sticks to the script, amending protocol only slightly by asking each panelist to answer a final profound, complex, and compelling question in a miniscule amount of time. Because that’s impossible, the panelists do not keep to the sliver of time allotted them. In the end, the creative plan for audience participation is foreclosed temporally and structurally. The room is saturated with the heaviness of urgency and complexity. The excellent discourse of each panelist has boxed out the possibility of flow and seems to stand alone and unlinked, much less discussed and galvanized by the other panelists and by the audience.

This is what feels like failure to me.

Let me underscore that everyone involved in this event is smart and worth hearing. No one did anything wrong. And yet I experience this failure of form as a stoppage and frustration, and I experience it at almost every conference I attend. The failure feels akin to insisting on established models of expertise and delivery in an age that no longer expects or aligns itself with those models. To arrange an event such that a crowd sits in 90 minutes of silence before relentlessly articulated top-down expertise feels like imposing a traditional–white, male, mind-driven–Enlightenment model, even when the experts are not white or mind-driven and are actually using words to theorize against this model! 

In our age of Twitter and YouTube, texting and Instagram, participants now come to events carrying a dizzying range of knowledges and experiences. They come not only with a daily, habituated practice of commenting constantly on the world around them but also with a new cognitive and bodily sense that it is through that discursively engaged practice that they come to learn about the world. 

The moderated panel of experts that inevitably goes over time is an old form, built out of an old understanding of what the academy is and does, and out of a tattered grasp of what thinking is or what an argument might be. It materially blocks current affective, cognitive, and bodily expectations for thinking, for thought, for participation, for praxis.

What would it be, what would it take, to structure intellectual events for our times and our new practices of thinking, radically different from this old model?


**Image from: No copyright infringement intended.

“What kind of religion do you teach?”: Religion and valuation

When, over dinner party chitchat, I am asked what religion I specialize in, I typically answer with my training in continental philosophy and cultural studies. This disciplinary background means, I say, that I don’t approach religion primarily through an institutional location or historical narrative (the church or Jewish History) but instead through the diverse ways in which claims for and about religion “pop up” in socio-cultural exchanges. For instance, when and why do films or stage-plays turn to overtly religious figures (an Imam or a New Age hipster) to vocalize certain positions or practices? When and why, in a debate about mandatory prison sentences among friends, does one friend find it important to assert their religious identity: “I’m Buddhist…” Why are regional debates between conservative Christians and, say, secular humanists about whether and how to teach evolution, or whether and with what restrictions our nation should allow women to abort pregnancies seemingly so endless and unresolved?

What links each of these examples is what I think of as structures of valuation. “Religion” denominates and functions as complex and murky coagulations of values that are lived and received, actual and remembered, resisted and hoped-for. Sedimented in our bodies, our technologies, and our institutions, structures of valuation are always only partially available to epistemological or logical investigation because, as social terms and functions, “value” and “valuation” are fundamentally affective. The affective dimension of valuation is at the heart of Marx’s attempt to demarcate use-value and exchange value, an always blurry line that aims at the fact that some values (use values) are closer to biological and social needs (food, clothing, shelter), while other values (exchange values) pivot around factors like desire, aesthetics, and symbols of distinction.

That humans have some needs that are more basic than some wants is uncontested, but it is difficult to make a more specific assertion without raining down the chaos of history, because valuation not only solidifies a group (however spatially or temporally dispersed) but also solidifies who is not of that group. Valuation and its sedimented structures are, therefore, vehicles of social power and oppression, and therefore also can be leveraged as vehicles of social transformation against those very same relationships and assumptions about power and oppression.

Two important aspects of structure and value lie in a possible (sometimes contested) etymology of “religion,” both the binding evoked by “ligare” and the repetition of that binding indicated by “re-“. I can have my personal slew of idiosyncratic values, but these do not take on the discursive weight of “religion” unless they are patterned and shared, that is, unless these values take shape in, are formed into, specific verbal, embodied, inter-relational, or institutional attachments and practices, that bind persons to one another, not once but over and over again. Values are structured through repetition into valuations; and valuations take shape in lived orientations that maintain their importance and intensity through repetition.

Religion, in my work, is thus the structuring of valuation that binds (some) people together over and again. This repetitive binding engendered from and by structured valuations can also focus a line of inquiry about what separates religion from other types of valuation. I find this question interesting but not crucial. Religion signals the multiple repositories, capacitors, and intensifiers of human value. We certainly can ask what separates this kind of structured valuation from, say, a Bourdieuian habitus, or political normativity but I doubt we’ll find clear and consistent answers. It seems better to pay attention to when, where, how and by whom “religion” is used, and arrange our analyses around the difference this use makes.

Silvan Tomkins: The Affective Basis of Human Freedom

  In “What are Affects,” the first essay by Silvan Tomkins in Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s collection of his writings, Tomkins opens his theorization of affect with a pointed claim about how humans differ from other animals:

“All animals ‘want’ but only man concerns himself with the nature of his own wants.” (Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, p. 3).

Tomkins, writing in English, does not use the Freudian word “desire” here. This not-use of desire resonates with Foucault’s not-use of desire in The Use of Pleasure (discussing instead the cultivation of bodily pleasures)Both Tomkins and Foucault have reason to step away from Freud’s dominant schema. I am not an expert in Tomkins’s thought, so this post is offered on the plain of speculation. His opening salvo in terms of “want” seems to portend Tomkins’s double interest in drives and affects, that is, his approach to the human being as requiring attention both to the “wants” of food and sex, which Freud designates as drives, and also to the “wants” of interest, joy, fear, anger, shame, etc., which Tomkins calls affects and adamantly separates from Freudian drives. This separation of affect from drive, I posit, enables the human “concern with the nature of” that I think (I am supposing) grounds Tomkins’s understanding of human freedom.

To Tomkins, humans are organized as feedback systems (drives) that always intersect with and are subtended by affects.  Affects are felt but not always known. Tomkins indicates that affects unconsciously subtend human feedback systems (drives) and also sometimes come to intersect with them consciously. Though the clinical goal is to bring affects into conscious engagement with the drives, Tomkins sensitively draws on his vast clinical experience to suggest the rarity of meeting this goal. In one passage, Tomkins describes how a person can develop an early and unconscious affective activation in response to a “want” and then many years later feel this activation kick into gear, without ever really understanding what this feeling is or why s/he feels it:

“The infant passively enjoys or suffers the experience of his [sic] own affective responses long before he is capable of employing affect as part of a feedback mechanism in instrumental behavior. He does not know ‘why’ he is crying, that it might be stopped, or how to stop it. Even many years later he will sometimes experience passively, without knowledge of why or thought of remedial action, deep and intense objectless despair.” (37)

The lack of conscious grasp on the reasons for our affects is not, I’d caution, the same thing as a lack of cognitive connection with it. Here I follow William James in assuming that feeling and thinking an emotion are the same thing. The man knows (cognizes) that he is feeling “deep and intense objectless despair” even if he cannot know (explain, understand) its etiology. (Or we might say, channelling Aristotle, that the separation of drive and affect is yet felt by the “inner touch” that conjoins all of our sense capacities, even if they remain separate from intellection.)

In a section that discusses the feasibility of making a human-like AI, Tomkins connects the “critical gap” between affective responses and knowledge of what activates these affective responses to human freedom, indeed to why humans differ, in our greater freedom, from other animals (42). Previously, Tomkins had discussed freedom in terms of complexity of wanting and capacity to attain what is wanted:

“A human being becomes freer as his [sic] wants grow and as his capacities to satisfy them grow. Restriction either of his wants or abilities to achieve them represents a loss of freedom” (36).

Human subjects emerge out of a complex and temporally varying interplay of the drive system and the affect system. The drive system is relatively fixed (when we are hungry we have to have food), while the affect system is relatively liquid (when we are angry, any number of things can amplify or dampen or work through our anger). The affect system, however (1) tends to operate paraconsciously (as felt but not understood) and (2) can deliquify into  emotionally-laden habits that become tremendously hard to relinquish. Again, Tomkins argues that it is this interplay between drive and affect, between fixity and fluidity, that explains how and why humans are freer than other animals and yet it’s clear that this is not a freedom of will or action in the senses we are used to claiming for ourselves. He writes,

“The human affect system by its complexity gives rise to the extraordinary competence and freedom of the human organism” (38),

and yet this competence and freedom is not about attaining a Stoic and rational mastery of the affects since,

“most human beings never attain great precision of control of their affects” (38, bold added).

The split between drive and affect induces the “critical gap” that Tomkins describes as “the necessary price which must be paid by any system which is to spend its major energies in a sea of risk, learning by making errors” (38-39). This gap between drive and affect is thus precisely what enables the “learning to learn” that Gregory Bateson made central to his systems-theory approach to biology. Tomkins stresses that the gap between drive and affect pitches humans into a “sea of risk”, so that we have to learn to learn by engaging that risk and making (and overcoming) errors. But inevitably, the way in which we engage risk into a “what-is-learned” comes to deliquify affect into relatively set and emotionally-charged habits. According to Tomkins, it is this capacity to respond to the chaos of the world by navigating risk, making errors, and settling into some kind of habituated response to patterned stimuli that “frees consciousness, or the transmuting mechanism, for new learning” (39)–in other words, this is the developmental and pedagogical system that makes humans freer and more complex than other animals. But by calcifying old learning into bodily loops of reaction that are not fully available to consciousness, it also makes personal and institutional change very difficult.

In short, the imperfect and split systems of drive, affect, and cognition create the stunning complexity and richness of human life and culture, but do so through a systemic “critical gap” that prods humans to “learn how to learn” (40). This is the origin and essence of our freedom. Human freedom is hardly a picture of human mastery. Indeed, Tomkins writes,

“affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all. They are in these respects somewhat alien to the individual. They are the primitive gods within the individual” (62).

By Tomkins’s theory of human want and human freedom, what humans “learn to learn” hardly results in clear and distinct knowledge of ourselves or the world, but instead is more akin to diplomatic settlements with an ongoing divine possession that results in something like a good-for-now set of cobbled together tactics for muddling through.


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.