by Steven Shaviro — Wayne State University
September 02, 2011 – 01:05
First of all, I would like to thank Michael O’Rourke, Karin Sellberg, and Kris Cannon for setting up this theme week at In Media Res devoted to my book Post-Cinematic Affect, to the curators Elena Del Rio, Paul Bowman, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Patricia MacCormack for their postings, and also to Shane Denson for his comments. The discussion has been so rich, and it has gone in so many directions, that I scarcely know where to begin. I will try to make a few comments, at least, about each of the four curators’ postings in turn.
Elena Del Rio praises the power of affect, for the way that it "throws into disarray the system of recognition and naming." She opposes the state of "exhaustion" and indifferent equalization that we might seem to have reached in this age of globalized finance capital to the way that "affect or vitality" remains able to energize us, to shake things up, to allow for (in the words of Deleuze) "a vital power that cannot be confined within species [or] environment." While I remain moved by this vision — which has its roots in Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze — I am increasingly dubious as to its viability. I’m inclined to say that praising affect as a force of "resistance" is a category error. For we do not live in a world in which the forces of affective vitality are battling against the blandness and exhaustion of capitalist commodification. Rather, we live in a world in which everything is affective. What politics is more virulently affective and vital than that of the American Tea Party? Where is intensive metamorphosis more at work than in the "hyper-chaos" (as Elie Ayache characterizes it, following Quentin Meillassoux) of the global financial markets? It is not a question of a fight between affect and its "waning" or exhaustion (whether the latter is conceived as the actual negation of the former, or just as its zero degree). Rather than being on one side of a battle, affect is the terrain itself: the very battlefield on which all conflicts are played out. All economic and aesthetic events today are necessarily aesthetic ones, both for good and for ill.
Paul Bowman is therefore not being wrongheaded when he wonders "whether approaching the world in terms of affect offers anything specific for cultural theory and the understanding of culture and politics." Indeed, I answer this question in the affirmative, whereas Bowman seems to lean towards the negative. But my saying this is not because I think that affect offers us "anything specific"; it is rather because affect (much like Whitehead’s creativity, or Spinoza’s conatus) is an entirely generic notion, one that more or less applies to everything. Affect is not a particular quality; rather it designates the fact that every moment of experience is qualitative and qualified. Eliminativist philosophers notoriously argue that "qualia" do not exist; at the opposite extreme from this, I follow William James and Whitehead in insisting that there is nothing devoid of qualia. For this reason, I am in agreement with the commentators who suggest that the two affective readings Bowman offers of the clip from Old Boy are not in contradiction to one another, and that sensual heightening and loneliness in fact go together. Bowman’s effects are inseparable from what I am calling affects.
Adrian Ivakhiv asks "whether there remain breathing spaces and sources of transcendence outside of hypercapitalism’s ever-modulating codes." That is to say, he worries that my account of what Marx called the "real subsumption" of all social forces under capitalism in contemporary leaves room for anything else. Do I not run the risk of painting so totalizing a picture that Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s vision of an "open universe" becomes impossible? I must admit that I present a rather pessimistic view of our prospects. I fear that under the sway of what Mark Fischer has called "capitalist realism" we suffer today from a general paralysis, both of the will and of the imagination. I do not share Gibson-Graham’s happy vision of all sorts of wonderful utopian alternatives burgeoning under the surface of actually existing capitalism. If I instead present what seems like a totalizing picture, this is only to the extent that capitalism "itself" — however multiple and without-identity it may actually be — involves an incessant drive towards totalization.
This is capital’s essential project: the ever-expanding accumulation of itself, of capital. It’s a process that is both economic (quantitative) and aesthetic (qualitative). The goal of complete subsumption is of course never entirely realized, precisely because accumulation can never come to an end. Also, we cannot see, feel, hear, or touch this project or process: in itself it is a version of what Ivakhiv calls "magic." And to my mind, this makes the aesthetic a kind of counter-magic, a spell to force the monstrosity to reveal itself, an effort to make it visible, audible, and palpable.
Patricia MacCormack generously expands upon the aesthetic and affective stakes of what I was trying to accomplish in Post-Cinematic Affect — as opposed to the concerns over "capitalist realism" that also play a large role in the book, and that were the focus of the other posts. I thank her for calling attention to the Whiteheadian and Deleuzian themes that, as several of the other commentators noted, seemed less present in this book than in my earlier ones. Indeed, this is a tension — or a problem that I have been unable to solve — running through pretty much all of my work. Mallarmé’s maxim defines everything that I am trying to do as a critic: "Tout se résume dans l’Esthétique et l’Economie politique" ("everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy"). This seems to me to be a necessary truth about the world; but I am never certain where to draw the line, how to partition the world between aesthetics and political economy, or when they are absolutely incompatible with one another, and when they are able to partially coincide.
In conclusion, I offer a media object that I hope responds to at least some of the tensions and confusions that we have been discussing this week: the music video for Janelle Monae’s song "Cold War."
The song, from Monae’s concept album The ArchAndroid, works as a kind of Afrofuturist counterpoint to Grace Jones’ "Corporate Cannibal." It addresses the unavoidable conflicts of a world that is increasingly posthuman (as well as post-cinematic). The lyrics to "Cold War" reflect upon the demands and meanings of Emersonian self-reliance and authenticity, and of subjectivity more generally, in a world that is entirely manufactured and commodified. The Metropolis Suite, of which The ArchAndroid is a part, narrates the plight of a robot/slave — a commodity, all the more so because she is nonwhite — who has been slated for demolition because she has fallen in love. She is therefore forced, not only to flee for her life, but to invent out of whole cloth, and without models, what it might mean for her to be a "person" with a "life," that is to say, with feelings, needs, and desires. The lyrics of "Cold War," in particular, speak both to the absolute requirement of self-integrity and to the near-impossibility of defining what it might be. The video is a single, continuous take: we even see a time code running in the corner, and a title reading "Take One" appears near the beginning. Against a dark background, we see an extreme close-up head shot of Monae as she sings the song. But at some point, there’s a glitch: she flubs a line, looks to the side and seems to be bantering with someone off-camera. Then she clenches her face and seems to be barely holding back tears. Through all of this, her voice and the music continues to play, indicating that she has in fact been lip-synching all along. The extreme intimacy and emotionality conveyed by the close-up on Monae’s facial expressions coincide with the revelation of the video’s artifice. The video thus resonates with the "Club Silencio" sequence in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which was sampled in Elena DelRio’s video). I don’t think that the revelation of technological artifice undercuts the affective intensity of the performance (as might have been the case in some twentieth-century modernist work). Rather, the incompossibles coexist, without negation and also without synthesis or resolution.