- Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight
One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his color?—Jean Genet, The Blacks
Probably the dark blue skin Of a black man matches the dark blue skin Of his son the way one twilight matches another.—Terrance Hayes, "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin"
What do you call an affective occurrence that is less than an event, functions neither as a cause nor an effect, and yet remains formative as a force, although not in a developmental way? Including as that which is not captured by narrative, be it historical in the sense of "feeling [End Page 21] backward," or circuitously teleological in the sense of "cruising utopia" (Love 2007; Muñoz 2009).1
This is a question about what evades the tyranny of the plot, melodrama, or a story about the good life. As that which happens but doesn't last, it is perhaps not even a matter of being "formative," even though it can be said to singularly endure in its very momentariness. Durative yet inescapably perishable, the duration of such an occurrence involves an endless emptying out (including of temporal continuity). It is what Roland Barthes described as a "hole-filled temporality" as opposed to what we might describe as a crystallization of time (Barthes 2005).
Furthermore, it is something other than a mere delay, pause, or suspense that simply awaits being taken up and subsumed within a developmental trajectory along which a more coherent self and a less interrupted life might be formed. Instead, this is something that is even before the formation of a self or a subject who would then be able to turn around and claim it for itself—to incorporate or internalize it. It is in this sense inappropriable: incapable of being claimed and owned or made one's own—but it might also be what cannot be expropriated, stolen, or taken away from you.
In this essay, I am interested in the time of the affects. More specifically, by theorizing neutral affect as a temporal genre, I argue that we are dealing with a historicity of sense or feeling that in its a-temporality defies the laws and categories of genre, requiring us to move from the singular to the anonymous, rather than from genre to the general.
I raise this question about an affective occurrence or experience that is less than an event and nondevelopmental in its endurance not only because I think it pertains to the topic of queer feeling and affect but Also because I see it to be the speculative proposition posed by Barry Jenkins's film Moonlight (2016). It marks the film's utter originality and its social and ethical—as well as artistic and cinematic—importance. The scene in the film that most fully engenders this question occurs in Story 2, when the lead character, Chiron, and his high school classmate Kevin encounter each other on the beach one night.
Earlier that evening, Chiron's drug-addicted mother had kicked him out of the house for the night, telling him she has someone coming over and he can't [End Page 22] be there. He has spent most of the night riding the trains and hanging out in the stations of Miami's public transit system. Later that night, he walks to the beach, a place described by Jenkins as one of solace and a life-giving place. In his review of the film, Hilton Als writes about this scene—a passage that is worth quoting in full:
The light-skinned Kevin has nicknamed Chiron Black, and he [Chiron] asks why, wondering if it's a put-down. Kevin, who is more comfortable in his own body, says that it's because Chiron is black; to him, it's not an insult. This moment of confusion—about internalized self-hatred and the affection of naming—is unlike anything that's been put onscreen before; it shows what freedom and pain can look like, all in one frame. When the boys kiss, Chiron apologizes for it, and...