- Affect in the End TimesA Conversation with Lauren Berlant
Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, is renowned for her work on collective affect, sentimentality, fantasies of citizenship, and feminist and queer theory. In honor of her new book, Cruel Optimism, I asked her to help us make sense of a number of artifacts from the contemporary archive, all of which attempt to mark, in some way, the end of an era—historical, political, theoretical, or otherwise. What follows is a conversation that foregrounds not only the affective dimensions of the contemporary moment but also the circumscription of forms of togetherness by what she calls the “austere imaginary” of the American political sphere. Finally, it probes the question of what role affect theory might play in the re-imagination of social and political life.
Here is an image that registers the affective aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011: the May 14 cover of the New York Post addressing the discovery of pornographic materials in bin Laden’s hideout.1 The event of bin Laden’s death elicited an upsurge in public emotions, most of them positive—elation, vindication, “closure,” relief—despite the common acknowledgment that this victory was largely, if not completely, [End Page 71] symbolic. What do you make of the affects expressed in images like this one, and the countless others that accompanied it in media across the nation?
This is a really complex question, as it presumes some things I wouldn’t presume about what an event is, how we know what normative shape collective political affect has taken, if any (and its difference from media- or propaganda-orchestrated political emotion), and what it means to characterize something as “largely symbolic.”
So here are a few thoughts. One: rather than launch into a lecture about all of the different things contemporary theorists mean by “event,” I will just offer a heuristic here from Cruel Optimism. An episode is a perturbation in the ordinary’s ongoingness that raises to consciousness a situation that follows from something without bringing with it conventions or prophecies about what its ultimate shape as event will be. Episodes are defined first by causality, but their affective charge derives from confronting the enigma of their ultimate shape. Something has an impact: What will happen? I call this process the becoming-event of the situation. A situation usually gets its shape from the way that it resonates strongly with previous episodes, such as, in the case you offer, state-induced assassination, state- and media-orchestrated collective experience, popular imperialist revenge/repair fantasies, politicized erotophobia and so on. Insofar as it can be read through these other frames, the episode becomes part of a series and its danger to normative epistemology and affective habits (intuitions) is diminished, and people don’t have to be too anxious or creative in their processing of it. In contrast, if a situation arises that feels like a massively genre-breaking one, then the situation can become the kind of event whose enigmatic shape repels being governed by the fore-closure of what has happened before. But there are genres of the unprecedented too, which is why the Badiouian visceralization of the event (we know a break when we feel it) probably involves a wishful relation to affective knowledge.
So, you are asking me, What is the event of bin Laden’s assassination as seen through these media spectacles? How does the intensity of the spectacle and the violence/pleasure nexus of that [End Page 72] intensity provide a situation for the body politic that requires scrounging around for genres in the mass media and in the archive of politically saturated iconography? How does the national symbolic, with its flags and bromides, turn history into “symbolic event” in a way that protects the (affective) fantasy of the nation as a powerful anchor?
I keep thinking about Benjamin’s observation, in “A Short History of Photography,” that the real work of commentary and politics after photography is not the image itself but the process of captioning. I note that the...