What is affect? A deceptively simple question, without an easy answer. Or, perhaps more precisely, a question that already reduces the concept of affect to regimes of categorisation, definition, knowledge. In this epistolary exchange, which originated as an exploratory and collaborative research project for a tutorial on affect, a group of students share thoughts organised in part by this question, by thinking through and with different approaches to affect.
The project took this particular shape in response to the difficulty of finding language and form appropriate to discuss or represent something so elusive, transitory, non-linguistic or pre-cognitive. On one hand, the personal and interactive approach allowed space, felt to be restricted by more traditional academic forms, to follow threads of thought and associations, to stumble, to ask questions and to experiment with form and expression. On the other, the letters also reflect a frustration with the kind of ephemeral, evocative language which is often seen as a prerequisite to discussing affect. The result was an exploration of positions, attachments, experiences, at times linked and at times disjointed, which do not attempt to offer an answer to the question of affect, but instead try to accompany affective responses to what that question might mean.
This is the first part of an edited series compiling this longer exchange. The second part will be published soon.
Amsterdam, 7 July 2018
What is the pain of unlearning? Who feels it? What does it feel like? Is it an acute pain, a redemptive pain, a pleasurable pain, a pain that can and must be anaesthetised?
Visiting my grandparents over the weekend, we talked about a show about unconventional weddings. My grandad: ‘So, tell me – what is the difference between transsexual and bi-sexual?’ Groans from half the room; don’t be so ignorant; laughs. His question was loaded, but from our side. In words we explain to him the difference, but affectively we shame him – block his unlearning by assuming it already done. His pain of unlearning the privilege of being a white, male-identifying, heterosexually married man has to begin with discomfort – but whose? Why is the wrong question so wrong?
‘Okay, okay, I get it.’ We build a wall with language – does that make us liars? Is language the ultimate unlearning? For Brian Massumi, labelling emotions cuts off affect; it traps infinite potential. For Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, language is the first step towards machinic codification – we hide beneath words, negating our feelings. We categorise, code, construct boundaries. But we can’t opt out, can we? Something circulates, remains untrapped, untapped.
We create a narrative to make our way through life. Time marches on, in a straight line. But time is out of joint. What happens when the narrative crumbles, when the old anchors rust, and no longer hold us in place? What genre are we in without narrative, without the onward march of time? What happens to the characters? How do they go on? Should they go on? How can we break down the walls we build? Is there really anything behind the wall? Won’t we be vulnerable? What does this vulnerability feel like? Is it painful? Is it worth it?
Amsterdam, 8 July 2018
You wrote: “What is the pain of unlearning? Who feels it? What does it feel like? Is it an acute pain, a redemptive pain, a pleasurable pain, a pain that can and must be anaesthetised?”
I have thought of ‘the pain of unlearning’ this year. Is it something that one comes to accept – a state of mind that accompanies us? (Once I accept that I will be unlearning, does it change my conception of self, my self-image?). Is it something that one conceptualises (a sort of mental image of: ‘Oh yes, I am unlearning at the moment’ – the same way I conceptualise differences)? Is it about accepting to live with noise, or pain (the discomfort of not knowing where one goes, the ambiguity)? Or is it more about constructing, deconstructing, etc.
Also, how does this unlearning affect relationships? How to set necessary boundaries, in relations for instance, but be open to change, or different points of views, values, etc. To stand for your ground but remain curious, open to unlearning. To what extent can one push the unlearning process? Does unlearning comes with truth? How to frame the unlearning process?
Is it about training your brain to stop controlling? (To stop thinking too much?) Is it something that one ‘cures’? (The need for narratives.) With curiosity, for instance, or playfulness. Meditation, sport, etc.
It is an individual and collective pain. What happens when the individuals unlearn at different speeds? When someone, or a group of people, is keener to unlearn than others? What happens when the unlearning brings us in opposite directions?
Amsterdam, 8 July 2018
Dear I and C,
This is not an easy letter for me to write. It is personal and interpersonal. We don’t only share our study programme, but also friendship. But sharing this letter feels more honest to me than not sharing it out of relational motivations.
The past year in class, I sometimes felt as if in Cultural Analysis we try hard to be inclusive, but in the process of doing so become very exclusive. How can I say that I think that our class sometimes acts discriminatory and hegemonic, without hurting anyone’s feelings?
Let me start by sharing my process of unlearning Zwarte Piet. I remember hearing for the first time about Zwarte Piet as an offensive character. I was caught by surprise. I never thought about Zwarte Piet as a black person; I knew s/he was a white person painted black for traditional reasons. S/he was funny, s/he gave me candy – I liked the character. I even performed as Zwarte Piet myself at school and at my hockey club. As soon as I heard that there are children who point at a black person and say ‘Zwarte Piet’, I understood it was offensive. I became neutral about continuation of the tradition. But, honestly, I was more annoyed by the recent commercialisation of Sinterklaas, for example when I saw pepernoten on supermarket shelves in August. Slowly I started to understand that the tradition of Zwarte Piet was a result and continuation of slavery. It more radically changed my opinion on the issue. Now, five years since I first heard about Zwarte Piet as an offensive character, I can say that I firmly believe that the tradition of Zwarte Piet should be abolished.
Why do I feel shame when admitting that it was a gradual process to understand that Zwarte Piet is an offensive character? Why do I feel shame admitting that there was a time where I was neutral about Zwarte Piet?
Is unlearning a discrete process for other people? I don’t think that my process of unlearning is that different to other people’s processes of unlearning. Therefore, I do not believe one can say that certain people can see or can listen, while certain others cannot. Seeing, knowing and unlearning is not a discontinuous, discrete process. The simplification of the process of unlearning blocks circulation and creates divides. Simplifying people into discrete categories is the first phase of discrimination.
I too have family members that don’t see the harm in Zwarte Piet or who do not know the difference between transsexual and bisexual. Why do we shame them? Because it hurts that our families still hold on to discriminatory practices? What hurts? That they hurt other people? Or that they unlearn at a slower pace than us? Maybe it is not them who are privileged, but us. We have learned that Zwarte Piet is harmful. We have learned the difference between bisexual and transsexual.
We believe that we are right, so we can apply our own standards to family members. That is why we shame, but it sounds rather hegemonic to me. Why should family members already know as much as I do, as you do? Is their not knowing always due to privilege? And if so, does being privileged justify shaming? The world is not fair: processes of unlearning are not only about being right, but also about being attentive to differences that constitute people. How can we practice sharing our insights without expecting other people to immediately understand, so that affect does not poisonously accumulate and divide, but keeps on circulating and accelerates learning processes?
Amsterdam, 8 July 2018
Thank you for your letters.
C, I wanted to go back to your mention of the idea of training your brain, to think about how that relates to the concept of brain plasticity. Are we able to stop thinking too much, or able to ‘stop to think’ in Berlant’s sense – to think against the constant and dizzying demands on our cognitive, affective energies and emotional energy? It is an interesting challenge to think of affect as pre-cognitive, and therefore perhaps something that is beyond our grasp to control or understand in many ways, and at the same time to try to envision our neuronal consciousness, or a consciousness of the mind, body and atmosphere, as might be practiced in meditation and mindfulness. There is something in meditation and mindfulness that is working towards a different kind of perception – not one of critique, but of an attunement to something like an affective level, one that doesn’t look for answers, doesn’t demand a narrative, but observes, attunes, tracks and follows different ebbs and flows. There is something in our discussions about affect that has this, that knows we can’t necessarily move ‘forward’ but perhaps stays with it – accompanies the pain as you suggest…
The cynical part of me wants to question practices like mindfulness, perhaps even like cognitive behavioural therapy, that work towards a control of the brain. We talked in class about means of affective control mainly from the ‘outside’. Do these practices which offer to help us to deal with the dizzying affective, emotional cognitive demands of contemporary capitalism, also work to align bodies/minds with the needs of production? Rather than remaining with the work of unsettling, unlearning, it becomes about acceptance, coping. But perhaps this is a rather dark idea to end on…
Like any other morning I put my alarm on snooze to close my eyes for five more minutes in agony, a sadomasochistic habit shared by many other fellow citizens. I blankly headed to the metro station. When I woke up from my walking coma I realized that I have already arrived at the station. Prisoned in a subway car with blocks of indifference, dissatisfaction and irritation, I guarded myself with my earphones, a sonic wall of electronic sounds and auto-tuned voices. But the blank faces of commuters suffocated me, and I, like everyone else, became indifference, dissatisfaction, and irritation.
The subway car vomited us out when it reached Yeoksam station. People scattered all over the platform and flows of men and women soon swallowed the station and streets. The same deranged old man preaching in front of the exit greeted us. Fear God! I looked at my shoes while walking past him, and his anger faded into the busy urban background, echoing and vibrating through tall glass buildings. The buildings’ glass walls reflect each other rather than showing us what’s inside them. And I wondered whether he can still get an erection.
When no one pays attention when I enter the office, I sometimes try to make loud noises, almost stomping my way in for a perverse desire to make them frown. Most of the time my effort is shadowed by incessant typing sounds, occasionally interrupted by my boss’s demonic laughter, phones ringing and people picking them up after they ring three times. Outside the window people were walking and running, cars coming and going. I imagined that our bodily movements, like electrons, create electric currents to fuel the city that never sleeps. The city consumes us and runs on dreams, hopes, desires and promises unfulfilled. The city as an affective monster. I wasn’t sure whether to feel powerless or powerful.
I looked around, and everyone else was attached to their desktops. I tried to interfere with the rhythm and to be a pebble thrown in the lake. I made funny faces, I stuck my tongue out and rolled my eyes. I mouthed the words ‘fuck you all’. I wanted to poke the bubble of everydayness with a needle and see what happens. But no one looked up, nothing was destroyed. So I went back to work, becoming yet another typing noise, another lipstick-stained mug, another plastic ID card that makes a ding-dong sound when opening the office door.
Berlin, 8-9 July 2018
You make loud noises and throw your pebbles in workaholic lakes, form funny faces like drunken photos: tongue out, rolling eyes. Your lips sculpt Fuck you all. Feminised, lipstick-stained mugs cannot care less. Plastic ID cards even less, let alone The City including its Offices. Pebbles, drunkenness and sculpted lips cannot be consumed, although consumption is all there is. My favorite YouTube videos change every other second: Your office colleagues do not.
When I say that all there is is consumption, I do not mean to say that all can be consumed, and by extension done, even if Just Do It suggests otherwise.
Wikipedia: The slogan was coined in 1988 at an advertising agency meeting. The founder of Wieden+Kennedy agency, Dan Wieden credits the inspiration for his “Just Do It” Nike slogan to Gary Gilmore’s last words: “Let’s do it.” The “Just Do It” campaign allowed Nike to further increase its share of the North American domestic sport-shoe business from 18% to 43%, (from $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales) from 1988 to 1998.
Cities are so good. But no, there, really not, Just Do It. Or, indeed, even more nasty, Just Luck It. See here how nGbK project group COVEN BERLIN1 puts it in the introductory lines to their newly opened exhibition LUCKY:
Everything in life is luck, or so we’ve heard. If you work hard, you will succeed—you just need to wait for your big break and play your cards right. Success once realized is often passed off as lucky coincidence. But what if you can’t even get a seat at the casino table?
Without desktop, no car, both trans and bi, without erection, nor penis, for instance. Luck is not external to imaginary myths.
Let me insist. Let me ask you to Just do it with me: Imagine this city with this couple. One of many many.
Visualize two sedentary city-beings, seated in front of one another, alongside an elegant wooden table, a vase of flowers being pretty (clearly, they have pretty faces, à la D&G), a metre in between them, love in between them, unconsumed envy in between them, unconsumed anxiety all over. Don’t forget the gendered dimensions of the unconsumed ones, because hadn’t I already mentioned that your imagined couple equals a man and a woman. Here, but really only here.
This couple does this:
It splits the pork, divides the wine, contemplates the flowers. There is plenty of everything. Then, it dines! And, it enjoys! And, it does not eat all of it!
This couple continues like this:
It eats the pork with the wine – it cuts the beast’s noos in 2 –
Thus, it has de facto shot the pig and destroyed the flowers – and it is not para – it is simply being served.
This couple has the following:
[it has] the wine, the pork, the gun, and the brain
[it has] the pig shot before it, the grapes void before it, the flowers hanging before it.
And also, This couple has:
[it has] not having to have had any pork
[it has] not having to have had any wine
[it has] not having to have gunned down the pig
[it has] not having to have vacated the grapes
[it has] not having to have torn down the flowers
Then, we do it, just not.