- Unfeeling Kerry
Only a sense of professional responsibility (I said I would do it) and political urgency (to aid a collective refusal of reactionary historical foreclosure) compels me to keep my obligation to write this piece, the prospect of which stimulates, mainly, political depression in the form of failed anesthesia. I cannot not feel enough about all of this — the election, the loss, the whole stupefying election season of framing options and desires in the U.S. political sphere.1 The ego is supposed to protect you from emotional overstimulation: but, as we know all too viscerally, this is no longer the era of the ego but rather of the ego’s exhaustion.2 To be exhausted is not to be empty or archaic but to be dragging-on tattered and barely holding shape, and therefore living a different, more unprotected kind of existence than that implied by “sovereignty.”3
As the title predicts, this is an essay about being unfeeling, a condition which, in many senses, was a topic throughout the election season, ranging from issues of candidate affect, the humanity and inhumanity of policy, voter apathy, and the like. But it is also an examination of the more general logic by which, in a season of high passions, we produce a calculus of public affect and emotion, usually without knowing it, and in a way that suggests massive analytic disrepair in our conceptualization of political attachments. In this brief piece I give some examples of public sphere attention to the insensate political emotions, flesh out motives for developing a richer lexicon of political anesthetics, and close gesturing toward futurity with a foggy utopianism.
You will note that I do not sound all bloggy and ranty about this electoral event, tones that one finds in the emergent style of web writing that is journalistic, at once seriously intellectual and stridently casual. I often cavil at this new critical frankness — it is too knowing, it has a hard time honoring analytically the obscurity and strangeness of an event: every event is already of course clearly way x, and there is no time or space for enigmas of form or case, and even the supplèment has become unsurprising. Which is to say that I do sympathize with its desire for transparency and for the sense of belonging manifested in the need to know right away what people and their communities think about x: this emergent tonality also speaks to anxieties about wanting a public for intellectuality as opposed to punditry. Which is to say that reading the present as a recent past that might still be an opening for something, I feel a little hesitant and ineloquent, without in turn wanting to be a polemicist about it. Like Thoreau in his moment, I honestly do not know how to sound now apart from writing a mode into existence. So, this is a deliberate piece feeling its way around a suspended space, an impasse.
These days, the usual genre of analysis after the political event is the post-mortem. The post-mortem, which mixes epitaph, eulogy, and autopsy, is in many ways an appropriate mode for measuring the end of an event, involving as it does counter-factual fantasies, projections of blame, and musings about imaginable consequences. In terms of this particular event, the election itself was plenty amortized in commentary (amortize: to liquefy, from Vulgar Latin admortire, to deaden). Commentary haunts the event: the post-mortem is the revenge genre of the commentary class.
Roland Barthes argues that a picture of someone who’s dead—taken while they were alive — forces the spectator into the future anterieur, the will-have-been of the period before mourning when the unfolding of something alive was yet to occur; Drucilla Cornell talks about this tense as the condition of imagining better justice.4 But the post-mortem mainly looks back and blames. It tries to derive lessons. It reeks of a cramped and moralizing pedagogy.
Nothing has died, though, so the post-mortem itself has to be resisted as political commentary’s pleasure genre. But what else is there: the après coup? In Freud’s account a traumatic event...