3.2 Working Through Negative Affects
Marie Raynard & Josina Robb
ENG 7901: Seminar in Affect Theory
The University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba
In “What Affects are Good For,” Michael Hardt’s short introduction to the affective turn in cultural theory, he argues that “the perspective of the affects forces us constantly to pose the problem of the relationship between mind and body with the assumption that their powers constantly correspond in some way. [...] The notion of correspondence here is importantly open and indefinite” (x). Affects can be actions (they can be determined by internal causes) or passions (determined by external causes); the perspective of the affects does not assume that reason and passion are the same but rather poses them together on a continuum. While the study of affect must thus grapple with the philosophical mind-body problem, the transmission of affect introduces social, political, and cultural dynamics because, although affect is a physiological shift in the body, it also marks an orientation towards surfaces, boundaries, bodies, and worlds — those things with which we come into contact.
In the dead of winter, 2013, we embarked on four months of reading, discussing, and writing about negative affects in a graduate seminar called Affect Theory at the University of Winnipeg. This course primarily focused on scholarly approaches to negative emotions like shame, anger or disgust. And yet we left the class feeling more roused than depressed. A thousand pages of imaginative scholarship later, we found ourselves more interested in the scholarly essay, the monograph, literary criticism and qualitative research — the writing was that good. The course was grounded in the work of Lauren Berlant and Sara Ahmed. Their theoretical rewriting of how people orient and attach themselves to the world and to each other fundamentally challenged many of the ways we had been trained to study texts and cultures. The course proceeded to examine affect and emotion from feminist and queer perspectives with readings from Sianne Ngai, Leo Bersani, Heather Love, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and many others. The professor framed the course in terms of two questions: Why have so many feminist and queer theorists turned away from themes like pride, collectivity, and desire in favour of a distinctly negative spectrum of emotions and affects? What do these recent investigations into “raw” emotion suggest about the place of theory in the field of gender studies at the present moment?
The course began with a somewhat unconventional text for a theory class. In Ordinary Affects, anthropologist Kathleen Stewart explores affect through a series of vignettes that are part ethnography, part poetry. Stewart describes everyday moments with exquisite clarity, allowing her readers to come to an understanding of her ideas through gradual exposure to examples rather than through formal academic argument. The texture of Stewart’s prose has its own affective quality, evoking “intensities” that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes repulsive. Each vignette marks a break in the text, encouraging reflection and association. This work was a great way to introduce the themes of the course and to open up discussion. Thereafter, seminars focused on a specific negative affect or “ugly feeling,” such as panic, anger, disgust, and paranoia. Students gave two presentations in which they used the assigned readings and a “cultural object” of their choice to examine the affect under discussion. These objects, which ranged from magazine ads to sound art to comics, provided examples through which we interrogated abstract concepts. The presentations never failed to inspire lively discussions about the way affect functions in culture and how the objects we encounter are always already imbued by affect.
The first affect we studied in the course was shame, and Marie chose a menstrual pad with a silent wrapper as her cultural object. In her presentation, she discussed how menstrual product advertising reinforces the cultural attitude that women must hide their menstruation to avoid embarrassment. The desire to hide is a key element in Sara Ahmed’s understanding of shame. Specifically, “I” experience shame when a significant other finds me out as bad, as having failed to live up to an ideal. In that moment, I turn away in shame. Menstrual advertising invokes the threat of exposure to sell products, and menstrual products like silent-wrapper pads encourage women to hide their menstrual status — their failure, their badness — even from other women in public rest rooms. In her final paper, Marie explored these ideas further in relation to pop cultural representations of a girl’s first period. She analyzed the horror films Carrie (1976) and Ginger Snaps (2000) for the ways shame and disgust put menstruating girls “into place,” and the ways that girls conform to or resist these forces.
For Marie, one of the most exciting outcomes of the course has been applying affect theory to her larger research projects. Her current work involves focus groups of women discussing their adolescent experiences of menstruation. Her own experience and the experience of many women she has spoken with indicate that our culture does not make it easy to be a menstruating girl. Affect theory can help illuminate the reasons this is so, and suggest possibilities for change. Affect theory remains an important part of her analysis as she is able to identify elements of shame and disgust in the women’s talk, as well as find affective “conversions” or “reorientations” — moments and processes that change the dominant affects surrounding menstruation.
During the final few weeks of the course we turned to compassion, happiness, and optimism. Rather than defining these emotions as social or ethical goods, the readings were once more critical of the cultural politics at play. After we discussed a chapter from Kathleen Woodward’s Statistical Panic that broke down contemporary examples of the liberal and conservative narratives of compassion, we watched a video of an aggressive media scrum surrounding Chief Theresa Spence at her camp on Victoria Island. We had a heated debate on the general lack of compassion — and even outright disdain — that saturated the mainstream media’s coverage of her six-week hunger strike.
The following week, Josina presented on Ahmed’s 2010 book The Promise of Happiness in which she considers the family as a “happy object,” as what good feelings are directed towards, and as providing a shared horizon of experience. A promise for the future, the happy family is a powerful legislative device that distributes time, energy, and resources. Josina used the character Betty Draper from the television series Mad Men to illustrate Ahmed’s argument that proximity to happiness does not necessarily cause happiness. Although Betty approximates the happy housewife, like female troublemakers and feminist killjoys she is an affect alien because she has an alien affect: the happy object — her children, her husband, her suburban home — make her unhappy. Thus she spoils the happiness of those around her, she ruins the atmosphere. Josina used the popular Tumblr website Betty Draper Looking Pissed and the frequency with which Betty tops lists of “TV’s Worst Moms” to make the point that, perhaps especially for mothers, turning away from the promise of happiness makes a woman unsympathetic.
We ended the course with readings from Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism in which she argues, “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” With our program coming to an end, this sparked a discussion about post-graduate studies and the current job crisis in the humanities. As universities continue to train too many for too few positions, has our optimism for an academic career turned cruel? It was a question we could only answer for ourselves and, as it was our final seminar in the MA program, it seemed a fitting place from which to depart.
Course Reading List
Introduction / What is Affect Theory?
Hardt, Michael. “What Affects are Good For.” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Eds. Patricia Ticineto Cough and Jean Halley. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Feel Your Way.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Brennan, Teresa. “Introduction.” The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.
Berlant, Lauren. “Starved.” After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory. Eds. Janet Halley and Andrew Parker. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Dunham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Touching and Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Rank. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Probyn, Elspeth. “Doing Shame.” Blush: Faces of Shame. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005. Print.
---. “The Shamer and the Shamed.” Blush: Faces of Shame. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “Shame before Others.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Bersani, Leo. “Shame on You.” After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory. Eds. Janet Halley and Andrew Parker. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Woodward, Kathleen. “Containing Anger, Advocating Anger: Freud and Feminism.” Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotions. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
---. “Bureaucratic Rage.” Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotions. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Attachments.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “The Performativity of Disgust.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Ngai, Sianne. “Afterword: On Disgust.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Abjection.” Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.
Panic, Fear, Envy
Woodward, Kathleen. “Statistical Panic.” Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotions. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “The Affective Politics of Fear.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Ngai, Sianne. “Envy.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.
Paranoia and Stuplimity
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading.” Touching and Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Rank. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Ngai, Sianne. “Paranoia.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.
---. “Stuplimity.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.
Loss and Trauma
Love, Heather. “Emotional Rescue: The Demands of Queer History.” Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Refusal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.
---. “The Politics of Refusal.” Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Refusal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.
Cvetkovich, Ann. “The Everyday Life of Queer Trauma.” An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
---. “Sexual Trauma/Queer Memory.” An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Woodward, Kathleen. “Liberal Compassion, Compassionate Conservatism.” Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotions. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.
Edelman, Lee. “Compassion’s Companion.” Compassion: The Cultural Politics of an Emotion. Ed. Lauren Berlant. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
---. “Feminist Killjoys.” The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
---. “Unhappy Queers.” The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
Berlant. Lauren. “Cruel Optimism.” Cruel Optimism. Dunham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Marie Raynard graduated from the University of Winnipeg’s MA Cultural Studies program in October, 2013. Her research interests include fairy tale films, menstruation, and devised theatre. She currently teaches in the Theatre department at Providence University College.
Josina Robb lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is a member of the Editorial Collective at ARP Books where she also serves as the Acquisitions Editor. She holds an MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Winnipeg. Her research interests include critical race, queer, and feminist theory, life writing, visual culture, and post-1945 nonfiction genres.