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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Salary Compression and Anti-Maternality in the Academy

  A number of sociological studies have proven that women in academia fall behind their male peers by (1) getting married and (2) having children. Claire Cain Miller’s 2014 article in The New York Times, “The Motherhood Penalty vs the Fatherhood Bonus” clarifies that the penalties women academics face on account of so-called private, domestic choices (to get married, to have children) are not matched by a neutral field but instead men are rewarded in their careers for the same so-called private domestic choices (to get married, to have children). This argument is spelled out in gruesome detail in Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, co-written by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden (Rutgers UP, 2013). Mason has summarized the book’s argument in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Men, for instance, tend to occupy tenure-track jobs and more men obtain tenure than women. Though universities are under fierce pressure to increase faculty diversity, their attempt to satisfy this pressure does not threaten men’s dominance in secure, tenured positions. As Colleen Flaherty researched for her 2016 article in Inside Higher Ed, “most gains for underrepresented minority groups have been in the most precarious positions. That is, not on the tenure track.” Women and non-white faculty, that is, are hired into adjunct positions.

Not only do presumptively private choices (marriage, children) adversely affect women’s getting a job, getting tenure, getting published, and getting promoted, but the professional experiences of men and women are strikingly different. Cassandra M. Guarino and Victor M. H. Borden’s research, published in Research in Higher Education (Volume 58, Issue 6, pp 672–694), surveyed over 19,000 faculty members before concluding that “women do more service work than their male colleagues” (cited from a summary of Guarino and Borden’s paper by Lara Rutherford-Morrison.  I know this well myself. When I had far too many advisees, I was never thanked or offered service or teaching reductions. Nor did any of my colleagues or superiors ever initiate a conversation with me about why so many graduate students ended up as my mentees (I assure you I did not stand on a soapbox and solicit them. Many asked me in desperation. Many asked me through tears). 

I write all of this because I woke up furious this morning about the standard academic response to salary compression. It is said, it has been said to me, I have heard it said blithely to groups of mostly female graduate students: To remain current in your salary–to not fall prey to salary compression–you simply have to apply for other jobs, get an offer, and then negotiate a counter offer.

Simply what? Look at the graphic I’ve attached to the top of this post. Add another child, a husband always away on work, grading, class prep, committee work, and five to ten graduate advisees and that was me, every day. (It is well known that part of what is killing working women in all fields is the so-called second shift of domestic work.) When, where, and how would I ever have found the time, energy, or mental acuity to apply for another job? And what if I had done so, received an offer, and my institution had not countered? I could never have moved my burgeoning family or my husband’s career for a few thousand dollars per year raise. I could barely stomach the thought and energy involved in changing childcare arrangments.

Thus, dear readers, I conclude that salary compression is yet another example of the academy’s anti-maternality, that special and specific form of misogyny that refuses to acknowledge all the studies to which I gestured in my opening paragraph, much less institute policy changes to ensure that women who are not only professionally punished for their so-called private choices (marriage, children) but also professionally punished for doing more service work than men might at least have a shot at a fair and equitable salary without having to play Russian Roulette on the job market with that one milliliter of energy they have left.

Happy Wednesday.

The Spell of Student Power in the Neoliberal University

 I could start this story in 2014, or really in any semester leading up to this one. But I am not the Daily Orange, the Syracuse University student newspaper that should win this year’s college equivalent of the Pulitzer for journalism for its amazing reporting.    Let me jump into the middle of things–a “townhall” in the campus chapel last night, convened by SU administrators. The idea was to listen to student demands and provide a controlled forum for responding to them. The following is a small expansion of a series of Tweets I sent out this morning.

  The students demanded to be treated as equal partners in this parlay. The meeting was delayed as they reached a compromise. The administration would facilitate the discussion and respond to questions, but the students would be allowed to open the meeting and read their demands (listed in a petition that had been circulating on social media for most of the day).

  Here are the incoming Student Body President and President-elect. This, dear readers, is the comportment of leadership. The savvy and poise and mutual regard shown by these students signal the power of a new, national youth movement that is angry, passionate, and impatient for the historical patterns of structural oppression to change.

  This is what leadership looks like. Two of these young adults are sophomores. I am impressed and daunted by their laser-sharp focus and determination.

  Ms. Johnson read through the petition, which she crafted out of multiple conversations with students, faculty, and staff. All members of society are encouraged to sign this petition, which can be found here.

The students continued to frame the meeting by having representatives stand silently with signs. Here they are:

Stop asking what we want when we’ve told you concretely, with a timeline.

  They kept the focus off the personal and on the need for structural change. Emotions ran high, and the students insisted that this emotional expression not be suppressed and not be interpreted as mere personal experience. Anecdotes are refractions of ingrained patterns of the structural hate, bias, disdain, and disregard that gets condensed in the too-familiar terms of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colonialism.

  Students resisted the neoliberal, corporate tactic of endless energy and time-sapping committees and “talks.” You know what we want, they said. Now is the time to act and to provide regular, transparent updates on your actions.

I am impressed and I stand in solidarity.

At 55, I sense constraints on the administrators of SU that the students, perhaps, have no reason to know or to acknowledge right now. This movement is not about business-like compromise, however. Leave that to the Trustees. These students are angling to dam the global tide of what Patricia Clough calls “prefascist populism.” They are proving the worth of their Humanities classes, pointing to the ways in which the history of white supremacy and ableism anchors down in policies, building plans, police profiling, syllabus exclusions, and, yes, jokes. They are hungry for justice, not in a violent vicious sense but in that human way that we all feel and that pushes us to reach out for meaningful friendships, for collegial/peer relations built on deep listening and mutual regard, for the intimacy of shared purpose, for compassion, and for love. The last student who spoke, Ray, pleaded with the administration to treat students as persons, as intellectuals, as people who want to leave Syracuse University and be the collective force of change for the good. His voice was not angry or full of pathos. Honestly, what moved me so deeply was that his voice was full of that yearning lack that we recognize from Dickens’s writing about orphans, or from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Depression-era poor: he was speaking a desire he cannot not feel into a context that probably cannot satisfy it.

Altered Carbon: The Revenge of Descartes and the Death of God (reprise)

 Altered Carbon 2018), the 10-episode Netflix series based on Richard K. Morgan’s book by the same title, is slick and sadistic. Critics have rightly parsed its Bladerunner aesthetic, but I see more than Ridley Scott in its strategically plotted mise-en-scène. I see the Manichaean politics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the struggle over resource extraction and the revolutionary resistance of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the ethical quandaries of advanced A.I. technology’s of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the digital feats of Gibson’s Neuromancer. If you have read and watched twentieth-century science fiction, then producer Laeta Kalogridis and the episode directors of Altered Carbon want you to feel the familiarity, the correctness, of this humanoid future. This is your world, it seems to say; settle down and soak it up.

Evidently, I did soak it up, since I couldn’t stop watching the show, but I have to confess that I watched it with my hands over my eyes, peeking out from the gaps between my fingers. The series is relentlessly violent: sexual violence, lethally violent sexual fantasies, suicide, murder on the streets, fighters paid to kill or be killed for audience entertainment, “virtual” torture in realistic “constructs” that enable torturers gruesomely to “kill” a victim over and over and over, psychopathic revengeful murder of an entire family (including the children, whose bodies, oddly–considering all of this unapologetic gore–are discreetly tucked behind a sofa and showing only their bloodied calves and shoes). I am sure there’s more. The violence is over the top.

The optics of this violence both shock and dull the viewer, and channel that weird attraction-repulsion humans have to gore. It also comports to the inert unimportance of a body’s matter. Bodies, in Altered Carbon, are mere “sleeves;” they are as inessential to a person’s thinking and being as a piece of clothing. In general, humans rely on clothes for temperature regulation, social propriety, and as a limited means of marking affiliation, status, and proclivities. But humans are born naked and we first express ourselves with a naked cry. In Altered Carbon bodies are precisely like clothes: they regulate movement, skill sets, and social propriety and status, but the essence of a self is a “cortical stack”, a small disk inserted at the top of the spinal cord. Rich humans can pay to back-up their stacks and clone their sleeves (indicating an unnecessary but affectively convincing attachment to a body and not just any body). Murder victims can be “spun up” and asked what happened–if that is, the victims are not newly religious and therefore refuse to pursue more than one life, that is, more than one “sleeve.”

All of this is difficult for this ardent phenomenologist and Foucaultian to swallow. Humans are not our brains; it’s closer to the truth to say that our brains are our bodies, with all of the history and feeling that lie in them. The premise of Altered Carbon seems a cold and even sinister revenge of Descartes’s mind-body dualism, rendered here in a masculinist guise that promises the living out of every horrifically violent sexual fantasy without any bothersome culpability because, after all, the body you have just tortured and fucked to death can be discarded, a new sleeve swung down from the inventory and the “stack” newly implanted. “If you’ve got the money, honey, we’ve got the disease” –but without the dis-ease, and without fear of legal redress.

There is much more to say about all that, but I want to move on. Unsurprisingly, the series’ premised advances in human technology are not oriented toward reducing poverty and alleviating suffering, but rather ensure the rich can get richer, trample the poor flatter, and preen and purchase their way out of accountability. (The ending, which I won’t spoil here, might suggest otherwise, but I don’t believe it for an instant.) The rich live off-world in ethereal, gleaming towers. They keep rooms of clones in frosted pods, and oodles of back-ups to their “stacks.” In other words, the series posits the ultimate sublation of religion and capitalism: the rich are immortal and virtually omnipotent–just like the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim deity of old. Is it irony or only banality to note that the only thing these immortals can think to do with their immortality is to indulge in bodily pleasure, turning from the fleshpots of their making only long enough to think through and ensure the continuance of their wealth. “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in” money.

The sentimental fulcrum of all of this is the male protagonist’s, Takeshi’s (Joel Kinnemann), flashbacks to his troubled childhood and the memory of saving his sister, Rei (Dichen Lachman) from an abusive father. Much is promised in this fold of the plot. I am drawn to it by how memory of a particular embodiedness sustains a desire to feel and be that body again. I sense in this plotline an alternate ontology: implications about what it is to be human that revolve around shared stories, shared struggle, shared meals, shared friends and enemies. You know, all that stuff of human history and human literature.

It rings false and hollow, then, that Rei morphs into something more like a harpy than a fellow-traveler. I don’t understand the affectscape of the ending of Season 1, the emotions Rei declares and executes. I have wracked my brain to remember an apt evocation of Greek myth. Perhaps, after living so many centuries, Rei really has become something like Takeshi’s mother (Jocasta?) or wife (Medea?).

Or perhaps the critics of Laeta Kalogridis’s Bionic Woman were on to something. The shortcomings of Rei’s characters are of a piece with the inability of this series to portray women convincingly as anything other than lovesick or sexually available.

The Anthropology of Becoming and the Abstractions of Ethnography

  João Biehl and Peter Locke, the editors of Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming (Duke UP: 2017) gather a stellar set of anthropologists around the lens and method of unfinishedness. The editors advocate an affective attunement to what they enticingly term “the ethnographic sensorium” (p. 1), a scholarly orientation that foregrounds “a radical analytical openness to complexity and wonder” (p. xi). It may seem odd but is nonetheless true that the common term of “becoming” evokes the uncommon and collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Biehl and Locke nicely explicate how these French thinkers* generate a concept of becoming around affective intensities, power relations, and subjectivites that coalesce from numerous threads and, also, never quite congeal into full stability. Here is a sense of “identity” that better fits our everyday experiences, in which fragmentations, dissolutions, and unbearable uncertainties twine right alongside more durable patterns of self and world. Biehl and Locke’s anthropology of becoming is not only about rethinking subjectivity and ontology, however, but also promises to figure a form of writing that “sits with” (as my student Rebecca A. Moody would say) the persistent destabilizing of being and identity in the face of lived life (p. 8). Put another way, Biehl and Locke attempt to honor the collaborative work of anthropology by encouraging scholars to write in and with the fluidity of just those categories that traditional anthropology spent years trying to grasp, delineate, and settle. This is anthropology without closure, a scholarly focus on the unfinished. What does it look like?

Unfinished ethnography, Biehl and Locke tell us, commits to

  • “the plastic nature of human-nonhuman interactions” (p. 5)
  • “a dynamic interpenetration of past and future, actual and virtual” (p. 6) and
  • “an attentiveness to the unknown, both as a critical feature of people and material worlds and as a productive force in research and conceptual work” (p. 6).

Phrases like these show us that Biehl and Locke are resisting the perception that anthropology is stagnating in old paradigms. Indeed, they write in explicit response to George Marcus, who has bemoaned the fact that since Writing Culture (co-edited by Marcus and James Clifford in 1986), “There are no new ideas and none on the horizon” (48). The bullet-point list I extracted above from Biehl and Locke’s  “Introduction” is thus nothing short of marching orders for scholars of the contemporary world. Figure out a way to write, they seem to be saying, that illuminates, solicitously and tenderly, the epistemological black holes in our relations with other people, the questions we can never quite bring ourselves to ask, the answers that don’t quite match the question, the conversations that never flesh out to anything like a felt knowingness.

I find all of this tremendously exciting both conceptually and as a scholar tasked (in both senses) with writing the world I sense and the world I think. My excitement persists even as the experiment fails…as I think it must fail because the structure of academic language works against the best hopes for this anthropology of becoming.

My real concern, however, is discursively bound and frustratingly resonant with age-old debates about reality and abstraction. I refer to the places where Biehl and Locke show their commitment to ethnography in light of its apparent ability—unlike philosophy (p. 29)—to ‘get at’ something real (p. 44), something that is “actually happening” (p. 51) to “actual” people (p. 57). I take exception to this unexplained appeal to reality and actuality for two reasons.

First, it is unclear to me that the abstraction of months of research into a relatively short narrative in a book chapter (as is the case with the research proffered by the book’s contributors as well as editors) is, um, actually all that different from the abstraction of experience and analysis by a philosopher or cultural critic into a critical text. At any rate, I would want to hear more about these different abstractions and why one is perceived so automatically to accomplish something the other not only does not do but cannot do (p. 29). Also, it is unclear to me how talking to people can step cleanly out of the bog that is the (always-becoming) human, with its singularities (Badiou), its non-transparency and non-self-knowing (Freud), and its conscious and para-conscious angling to sequester and circulate power for itself and its agendas (Nietzsche). Unless, that is, one talks hundreds and hundreds of hours with hundreds and hundreds of people, and then (of course) one is dealing with the patterns of big data and not the intimacy of ethnography.

Second, it is clear to me that the tender attention to precarity given and articulated by the anthropologists in this text is bolstered by statistics, empirical studies, and social science institutes. In other words, the encounter with “actuality” does not stand alone but is given signification and context with data that is precisely not actual but accumulated and processed. The only aspect to criticize in this fact is the absence of its acknowledgment and theorization. The gathered anthropologists here are high caliber and persuasive, just the kind of scholar who could take on a theorization of how narrative and data combine in ways that devolve to something ‘more real’ than other kinds of scholarship, and they might even convince me. Maybe.

For now, I would wager that ethnography is not any closer an encounter with the real than is philosophy or cultural critique but rather deploys abstraction and marshals evidence and context differently. By all means, and despite my small jab, this collection is worth reading, worth teaching, worth considering. I read quite a bit of ethnography, and this is the first one that has riled me enough to blog about it.


*Deleuze and Guattari resist the title of “philosopher” since it refers to a stable set of thinkers that D/G’s collaborative work labors to upend and bastardize.

What in the Hell is The Death of Stalin?

I love what Zachary Braiterman writes here about Death of Stalin, which I screened with him a week or so ago.
The category of “grim parody” comes to my mind. Anthony Lane situates it in the long tradition of British “grotesque”. When he writes, “every gag is girded with fear. The humor is so black that it might have been pumped out of the ground,” I resonate strongly with his affect. This is the humor of rotting corpses; it’s like slipping on a decaying eyeball instead of a banana peel.
It is not a genre that works for me. I could not keep up the pretext that this was comedy–similar, I think, to my inability to pretend that rollercoasters are anything but sheer terror (I do not take pleasure in sheer terror). I felt “Death of Stalin” exacted a high cost for my occasional chuckles, as if in some Zizekian point about the horror of pleasure.
Film form played a huge part in sustaining this affect. Iannucci borrowed heavily from the dramatic logic of Shoah films–keeping the camera *just* off the mass murder but keeping focus on partial shots of eyes and hands, and medium shots with sotte voce asides that make it very clear what is happening, and to whom. I thought it was brilliant of Iannucci to start the film in the sound-proof but full-glass recording booth at the back of the orchestral hall. The tight shot/reverse-shot exchange between the terrified head producer and his calculating flunky after a terse phone call from Comrade Stalin beautifully and compactly shows the film audience what it feels like to endure amid a social precarity of silence, secret, sheer unpredictability, and the disempowered’s absolute transparency to power (the recording booth might as well be a cell of the Panopticon).

jewish philosophy place

Death of Stalin

Wow! What in the hell was that? And what was it supposed to be? The Death of Stalin was billed as a comedy, but that’s not what it was. Sure there was slapstick, jokes, and one-liners, and bumbling idiocy. But that is not what propels the film, which is not funny, not really. Nor, frankly, was it really about “the death of Stalin,” with whom the film is done relatively early going in. Post-genre, The Death of Stalin mixes comedy into horror, into satirical farce, into the cinema of cruelty that was socialist realism. Slapstick is the least of the film. Not about the death of Stalin, the telos of the film lies in the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police and chief executioner, the burning of his corpse, and the disposal of the ash. The mirth is mirthless.

How one gauges the comic in all this will…

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What is “Affecognitive”?

Recently, my colleague, Zachary Braiterman, asked me to elaborate on my concept of the affecognitive. I thought I already had but true to my scholarly habits, I had written it out, numerous times, and never inserted it into anything published. Put succinctly, affecognitive posits that all cognition embeds affect. As C. S. Peirce would say, all Thirdness includes Firstness, that is, all concept, generality, or law embeds quality, intensity, and possibility—and all affect arises out of a streambed of existing and sedimented thoughts and feelings.* The term is phenomenological and critical; it does not enter cognitive science debates about the origins and causes of cognition (thoughts) and feelings (named affects).

It turns out that I first used affecognitive in a 2010 paper for the IAPL conference in Melbourne Australia. The paper, titled “Fleshing Discourse,” was a newly excited discussion of epigenetics, Foucault, Rancière and social construction. It is rather more situated in the discourses of biological sciences than I am right now (I used to be a biochemist, remember, and genetics was always a path-not-taken career for me), but I offer this excerpt from it as a quick and public reference for those who might be interested in this term and its development.

In considering familiar twentieth-century analyses of hegemony, commonsense, and ideology, it is clear that the success of these cultural and economic critiques lay in part in their agile attention to the powers of the ordinary and the everyday to thread together the habits of thought and feeling within communities, societies, and nations. Hegemony, common sense, and ideologies are particular social fabrics that constitute the comfortable vestments of quotidian social interaction, and critiques of them are critiques of those patterns of comfort and those vestments of power.

I was trained in these critiques and I still admire their materialist commitments, but increasingly I found them too oriented toward reason and discourse. I became frustrated by their failure to attend to feeling and to the bodies that generate and distribute feelings. It seemed to me that Rancière’s analyses of “the distribution of the sensible” and Foucault’s suggestion that society’s various “technologies” can be understood as “matrices of practical reason” could be seen to improve on ideology critique by successfully extending sensation and understanding (sens) to the social plane, thereby evincing the fact that one’s sensory habits and willed actions are not simply one’s own but are formed, triggered, channeled, and sustained through various social venues. The fluid machinations of these models are reminiscent of Raymond Williams’s earlier notion of “structures of feeling,” but to me, Rancière and Foucault go beyond Williams by theorizing specific bodily arrangements and their particular capacities to sustain and interrupt the social status quo.

My contribution to this line of thinking is the term affecognitive, by which I intend to encompass the social nexus of sensation and understanding, like Rancière and Foucault, but in ways that stress the biological channeling of this nexus through the impulses and intensities of affect (e.g., chemicals, electricity, pheromones, subconscious awareness). Rancière and Foucault emphasize the social distribution of human sensation and practical reason, but my term inverts the lens and emphasize the biological condensation and flashpoint of the social. Affecognitive is about bodies; it refers to the ways in which the social circulation of affect (re)settles in a body and weaves into that body’s extant physical and psychological makeup. In referring to the biological, I do not claim it as a dimension of life cleanly separable from the social (epigenetics newly clarifies this imbrication), but neither is the biological simply reducible to the social. My premise is this: If in today’s world of intensifying social media and media prosthetics, the social comes to biological bodies predominantly through visual and sound images, the fabric of social life—biological, technological, institutional, and temporal—requires the actions and reactions of affecognitive circuits to generate, sustain, and (also) interrupt social consensus.

I developed the term ‘affecognitive’ in light of reading two sets of scholars. First cultural critics such as Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Kathleen Stewart, Teresa Brennan, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Wilson, Charles Altieri, Brian Massumi, and even WJT Mitchell, all of whom underscore the importance of attending to the affective dimensions of global capitalism. Second, media and communication theorists such as Lev Manovich, Tiziana Terranova, Katherine Hayles, and Alex Galloway, scholars who deploy notions of affect and intensity to capture the changing dimensions of subjectivity, technology and social interconnectivity within globalization. The first set of scholars deploys vocabulary and theoretical rubrics that tend to reinscribe a hierarchal split subordinating affect to rationality. Though this reinscription is not surprising, considering how the legacy of the Enlightenment continues to pressure scholars to prioritize words, arguments, and reasons, it does underscore the difficulty of theorizing affect within and alongside cognitive categories and not as beneath or sublated by them. On the other hand, the second set of theorists focuses so much on affect and intensity that they risk losing the enfleshed and discursive sociality that always inevitably accompanies them. The various turns to affect, in other words, appeared to me not to undo or avoid our shared Enlightenment legacy but merely to sink into its seductive invaginations.

The term affecognitive thus indicates the bodily, institutional, and personally and technologically mediated circuits of both felt response and thought response, circuits that both do and do not change according to the temporal scale of one human life. Affecognitive enables me to think about bodily, cultural and historical processes that are enfleshed and social, both personally idiosyncratic and transgenerationally effective. Affecognitive circuits are at once singular and collective: they inhabit single bodies, but they are also triggered and relayed through local, regional, national, and transnational collectives, shifting considerably in significance and impact as they shift physiological location, and thereby constituting the variegated pattern that is the lived commons of citizenship and democracy. Increasingly over the past century, these circuits include images and non-proximate information—cinema, magazine and newspaper advertisements, television, billboards, encircling advertisements in sporting venues and on corporate skyscrapers, footage from drones, the hyperlinking Internet and its social media, and now smartphones and smart (prosthetic) devices for home and body. Each technology registers an intensification and proliferation of our image and information culture.

In my 2010 paper I termed the analysis of affecognitive circuits ‘fleshing discourse’ in order to indicate the triple interpretive trajectory of (1) discursively delineating affective bodily circuits in their fluidity and socio-historical contingency, (2) suggesting how socially-distributed affects can harden into psycho-physiological habits that are environmentally conditioned, para-conscious, and somewhat transmitted (epigenetically) through the germline, and (3) modeling publicness as a fluid social tissue that coalesces through ontologically complex forces (affective and cognitive) of self-production.

Eight years on, I still find this account helpful, though I have let go the notion of “fleshing discourse.”


*I’ve omitted Peirce’s Secondness here for simplicity, but Thirdness includes Secondness and Firstness, and Secondness includes Firstness.

Unbearable intersections: Blackness, Queerness, Gender and the anti-black State

*I have corrected details in this post after speaking with Rahzie. I apologize for mishearing parts of her story at the rally this morning and I acknowledge I should have checked my version before posting. mea culpa.

On February 23, Syracuse Black Lives Matter leader, long-time community activist and advocate for Black youth, Rahzie Seals, was beaten up by four men. Rahzie is a queer Black woman. She went to the mall with a friend to buy clothes for a friend’s funeral–another queer black woman who died suddenly earlier this year–and she was beaten up in the mall lobby outside of Macy’s department store, under bright lights and in front of a number of witnesses, none of whom did anything to stop the violence.

Calling her “dyke” and “lesbian bitch” a number of young Black men attacked her physically.  Just days before the attack, Rahzie had finished raising money to send Syracuse Black youth to see the opening of Black Panther on February 16-17. She had hoped to raise $3500 and ended up raising about $10,000. Rahzie is known, she has been in the trenches for years fighting for reparative justice for African Americans in Syracuse. The young men who slurred her and beat her ran away, and mall security was less than responsive or helpful. Rahzie’s friend got her to the car and they headed to the hospital. Rahzie’s head was bleeding and throbbing. She had trouble standing up. On their way to the emergency room, the police called her and instructed her to come into the precinct office for questioning. She did as she was told, but she required paramedics to help her get in the building, and despite her pleas and the pleas of her friends, the police did not release her for medical attention until they completed an interrogation. The victim was treated as a suspect.

Rahzie ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

It is clear to me that if she had been white, the police would have met her at the hospital. But of course, it is clear to me that if Rahzie had been white, those mall witnesses wouldn’t have been so passive, and the mall security would have been more helpful, and maybe those young men would not have targeted her.

The truly unbearable aspect of this horrible story, juxtaposed so tightly to the trauma of violent attack that it is hard to think them separately, is the non-choice, the unchoice Rahzie now faces. Should she press charges against these young men, boys whose families she knows? Should she offer up more young, black bodies to a “justice” system that regularly beats and abuses Black inmates, often submitting them to over 200 hours of solitary confinement? How can she? But should she refuse to press charges and let violence against queers go unremarked? How can she? Should she focus on the lethargy and illegalities of mall security and Syracuse police? She is terrified of them.

Rahzie’s very body is on the line and she feels the demands of an impossible calculation: pitting Black lives against queer lives, queer lives against Black male lives, women against men. It’s impossible. Rahzie wouldn’t, she couldn’t, articulate this calculation so starkly. Her voice stumbles and cracks as she tries to talk about what happened to her. Her blood flowed into the gap between identities that should be bolstering each other up, but instead are pulling each other apart. The intersectional particularities of this attack have laid bare the precarities of being Black, of being a Black woman, of being a Black Queer woman.

Rahzie’s utter vulnerability comes from two well-worn truths of American society: the lack of deep reparative justice in Syracuse African American wages, housing, jobs, and schools; and the excess of anti-black racism in the police system.

Know Rahzie’s story. Tell it. Advocate for justice for queer, Black, and female bodies in your communities, and protest police racism, brutality, and lack of accountability.

Willy 1er: The affectscape of grief


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  A few weeks ago, I watched a small French indie film, Willy 1er (Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, 2016). Billed as a comedy, I find that at its core, the film is about loss and dearth. It’s about the loss that death brings screeching around the corner of your life, crashing into you headlong, and forcing you (limping and bloodied) to take notice. And it’s about the dearth of social connections born (that is, suffered) by society’s marginalized, almost like some sadistic sociological experiment that investigates how many robust relationships can be snipped away before The Human Subject simply goes mad.

  Daniel Vannet stars as both the title character and his twin brother, Michel. The brothers are corpulent, middle-aged men, mentally disabled, and living at home with their parents. They both work at blowing leaves and other yard maintenance at a local park, and Willy loves to watch Michel “make donuts” with his car by spinning round and round in the same direction. It is a simple life. We have to suppose it was too simple for Michel. One day he hangs himself.

Willy takes notice of this death by finally resisting his parents’ counsel. “I’ll move to the city,” he says, “buy a scooter, get an apartment, find some mates, and you can stuff yourselves!”

He does as he threatens. His mates are not, perhaps, the best choices, but Willy I is oblivious to social nuance. At his new job at a grocery store, he meets Willy II, a queer, and it takes Willy I a long time to befriend Willy II and then to understand why his “mates” don’t accept this newcomer to the group. Willy I and Willy II are a different sort of twin. Their shared name only draws viewer attention to the ways in which they share an affectscape of isolation and desperation, and how they both cling stubbornly to small, even negligible, threads of certain identity.

What really blew me away, however, is how the Boukherma brothers generate ghosts as the affective correlates of the two Willys’ grief. A transparent Michel appears outside Willy I’s window, or stands beside him in the road. The ghost conveys the way in which death is carried physically, relationally, and bodily by the one who grieves. We see how that spirit-presence is only sometimes present, even while the grief-work is persistent.

  I wish I could find an image of the other ghost. Here is the scene of his arrival. Willy I is finally telling Willy II about his brother’s death. He talks of a suicide he can’t believe in because he can’t fathom it. It doesn’t make sense, he says. Willy II understands. He tells Willy I his own story, how five years ago he lost the boyfriend he’d lived with for four years. The boyfriend had been a cop, but the death was just a stupid accident. Something went wrong with the car. It doesn’t make any sense, he says, twinning Willy I’s words. The ghost of the boyfriend–the name is James, I think–shows up and looks tenderly down on Willy II. Willy I asks him if he’s ever gotten over it. No, Willy II says. You learn to live with the loss; that’s all. It doesn’t go away.

At the very end of the film, Michel’s spirit sidles up to Willy I on the street and chats with him. We see a ghostly car pull up, and Michel says, “Well, I have to go.” Words cannot transmit very well what happens here, but it’s as if in watching Michel’s ghost drive off in the car, we see Willy I’s grief drive down into his soul.

I’ve never seen a film treat loss and social dearth with such care and loveliness. The film is billed as a comedy (can you believe it?) but to me, its backbone is formed by these ghosts. We are haunted by losses we each carry in agonizing solitude, no matter how many times we tell the story; and yet, telling the story saves us by its salving connection. Especially for those society has already, with a thousand small snips, pushed to the margins, friendship becomes the material nourishment for learning to live with senseless loss.

The Shape of Water: turning the ethics of My Fair Lady inside out

Myths and fairytales are dangerous. It’s a lesson we’ve learned from Freud, Bettelheim, Levi-Strauss, and (as I have done most recently) Roland Barthes. Myths are dangerous because they scoop up social threats and ambiguities and throw them at us like a snowball. It is dangerous to treat with danger. Perhaps, like a snowball, the myth will break apart and dissolve the threat; perhaps it is the means by which danger is reconciled to the ongoing life of society. Barthes asserts something like this in Camera Lucida (# 11), and though he is speaking of photographs, we know from Grimm, from novels, from Hollywood, from music, really from every cultural endeavor, that myths labor against any perceived irruption or intrusion into social status quo. But it also is true that the status quo is stable (a “state” or status) only by means of lived concepts that are always also unstable (the capacious ambiguity of that quo, “in which”). This means that the nearly infinite content of myth always functions concretely and finitely—but also never completely—to reconcile a specific threat back to social stability, an intruding difference back to assimilated sameness, an unfamiliar, unheimlich outside back to the warm, homey inside. The labor of reconciliation proceeds through representation and therefore repeats the threat it strives to mute. But all of this is old hat, yes?*

  Indeed, the very title of del Toro’s film suggests this trivial lesson about myths and social concepts since water, of course, has no shape but takes on the shape of its container. Critics frequently cite the film’s final poem—a paraphrase of Rumi, it is thought—to suggest the pervasive presence of love, or of the divine, and the poem does suggest both of these. And it also suggests the pervasiveness of meaning.

We are literally awash in meaning but we require channels to receive and communicate it to each other.

One of those channels is narrative form. Even though Giles’s (Richard Jenkins) opening narration does not begin with “Once upon a time,” the cadence and content of his words signal immediately that this is something like a fairytale. We settle into our seats expecting a story about how huge, age-old categories, cultural promises, and social ideologies come to bear down on the lives and pains and deaths of very small, single, trivial, creatures. At the end of the film, Giles’s narration doesn’t hesitate to satisfy his audience’s culturally shaped expectation for “They lived happily ever after,” but then through that poem, he parlays it into a deeper comment about meaning’s fundamental relationality.

That this film teaches us about the omnipresence of meaning and the necessity of viable forms or channels to translate and interpret that meaning could not be made more bluntly, more obviously, than by making its star a mute. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can hear but not speak and this singular fact radically defamiliarizes communication for us, that of both those who talk in the film and, profoundly, Elisa herself. The normal state of things—the status quo—is our human world of speaking and speaking-back (in both senses), but what Elisa’s quiet presence and non-trivial interventions in conversation index is the stark rarity of listening. To quote a song from My Fair Lady, most of the world around Elisa is just blathering “words, words words.” (“I hear words all day through, first from him now from you…”)

Elisa, I submit, is an inside-out Eliza Doolittle. Instead of a social misfit (lower-class)  who is appropriated by a linguistics professor (on a bet with a male friend) to learn the Queen’s English in order for her to catch the eye of masculine Imperial power, Elisa is a social misfit (a mute) who attunes her friends and us to the unhierarchized joys of the world’s profusion of dialects. There is American Sign Language, of course, but also the dialects of neighborly care, of friendship with co-workers, of Hollywood musicals and Bible epics, of painting, of recorded music, of dance, of eggs and pie and other culinary arts, of touch, and (if I can stretch your patience, but I really do want to call this a dialect) of self-care, the self-constitutive syntax of daily routine.

Dialect just means a form of speaking. Dialects are subsets of a language, a term too loaded for me to define here, but in this film, it clearly has something to do with American English in 1950s Baltimore. The film offers other dialects, then: General Hoyt’s (Richard Searcy) dialect of American military power, Richard Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) appropriation of Norman Vincent Peale’s dialect of the power of positive thinking, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Mihalkov’s (Nigel Bennett) Cold War antics (complete with poetic passwords, flashlights, and untranslatable words like “butter cake”), and another use of the bible, this time channeled through a Foucaultian technology of language that establishes the White male norms of Cold War America, particulary aimed at the only prominent Black character, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Strickland’s casual insertion of White male normativity into the imago dei story, for instance, is not socially, practically distant from his sexual attraction to Elisa in her very status as a mutant, a monstrosity (as he sees her) that might “squawk” for him during sexual intercourse (another kind of communication in the film).

By the time we get to that scene between Strickland and Elisa, the distastefulness of his harassment lies not only in the boringly predictable story of white male entitlement but also in the ugly smallness of his understanding of humanity. Humanism, that liberal periapt of the 1950s, shimmers with universality but behind its curtained facade it chewed up and spewed out anyone who didn’t assimilate to white, male, European values and comportment. The dialects of Strickland, the General, and the Russian bosses are status quo but not relational. Each puffs up the male ego, each claims the right to dominate, each shouts down, makes demands, and humiliates.

The only time Elisa “yells” is when she is desperate for Giles to hear her. She stomps her feet, hits him, pounds the wall. LOOK at me, she says. SAY what I’m saying. Touch my words with your tongue, touch my fingers with your eyes, touch my heart with your heart. Hear me.

Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Elisa shows us species being that includes and bursts through Humanism’s limitations. Indeed, expanding the concept of “living being”, of “valued life”, is at the heart of the message of this film and of the reconciling work of its myth. Consider this: we know from Giles’s opening narrative that Elisa is a princess. He tells us. And yet most of us still translated the lines on her neck into the scars of violent wounding, and not gills, into a traumatic past and not the identity and belongingness of an incomprehensible difference. The God-like creature is not assimilated into Baltimore society but instead rescues Elisa for a life of a divine connection.

The reconciling work failed. Or is it cast out of the screen to us?

  • I want to acknowledge Ken Derry’s helpful review of this film, “The Shape of Water,” in The Journal of Religion and Film, 21:2 (Oct 2017). Derry notes his ambivalence toward the film because of its clichéd tropes.