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  • Executive Overspill: Affective Bodies, Intensity, and Bush-in-Relation
  • Jenny Edbauer

This article contributes to emerging theories of affect (following recent work by Brian Massumi, Steven Shaviro, and others) by outlining a critical vocabulary that approaches culture in its affective dimensions, beyond existing cultural vocabularies of signification. Such an affective vocabulary makes it possible to account for social and political effects that are conducted through non-qualified and non-signifying operations. Taking the body as a site of affect’s operation in culture, this article suggests that we should read certain political body-sites across the affective terms of intensity, relationality, and a Deleuzoguattarian sense of the event. Citing the specific illustration of George W. Bush’s infamous malapropisms, the author argues that we cannot fully understand the effects of political and cultural bodies if our readings proceed only along the plane of signification. This article thus offers a double gesture of affective analysis. First, it generates an affective vocabulary via the spectacle of Bush’s decomposing body. It then reads this body across a developing vocabulary of affect. —jhe

If there were no escape, no excess, no remainder, . . . the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death. Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect.

—Brian Massumi

I’ve changed my style somewhat, as you know. I’m less—I pontificate less. . . . And I’m interacting more with people.

—George W. Bush, 13 February 2000

Introduction: The Chief Eruption

The President appears and suddenly something goes wrong. He stumbles. He squints. His mouth opens, but the words won’t come. And when they do finally come, they are wrong. The sounds are strangely tangled up, misplaced, tortured. His body jerks just a little, but the camera magnifies the small flinches until they appear larger than life. When watching George W. Bush speak, you are watching an event. It is easy to get the feeling that you are witnessing something fall apart. In front of the cameras and lights, his body cannot contain the linguistic flaws, grammatical blunders, wild malapropisms, and visible confusion that are present. The executive body becomes a wild composition of energies and forces. Something erupts. In a 1999 article for The New Yorker, Joe Klein describes Bush’s body like this:

He will squinny his eyes, raise his chin, lift an eyebrow, and curl his lip slightly—his face seems to be involved in a somewhat painful, quasi-involuntary struggle to prevent itself from erupting into a broad, self-satisfied smile. This facial skirmish is often accompanied by a slight forward bend at the waist and a what-me-worry? shrug, and they often occur after the Governor has delivered a line particularly well, or thinks he has.

(“Campaign” 40)

Of course, Bush hardly ever delivers a line particularly well. The phenomenon of spotting and cataloging “Bushisms”—those infamous verbal flubs and failings—has become a kind of sport. His caricature almost creates itself: if Bill Clinton’s stereotype was The Good Time Bubba, Bush’s popular image is The Dumb Jock. Yet, as Mark Crispin Miller points out in The Bush Dyslexicon, this image is hardly a source of shame for President Bush. By playing the role of the folksy American during the 2000 campaign, Bush seemed “a viable alternative to the far more seasoned and intelligent Al Gore—whose very strengths could be perceived, or spun, as weaknesses by contrast with the Texan’s ‘naturalness’ and ‘likeability’” (Miller 13). Bush’s mispronunciations and slips of the tongue are thus rendered as a reflection of his populism. As Miller tells it, “certainly George W. Bush has always postured as a good ole boy, who don’t go in fer usin’ them five-dollar words like ‘snippy’ and ‘insurance’” (13). Indeed, Bush has capitalized on this image quite well. Bush understands that “there is no balm like ‘self-effacing humor.’ Thus he started early on to use that weary little joke about his tendency to ‘stress the wrong syl-LAB-able,’ and told Letterman that he ‘would make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and big pictures’” (Miller...

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