- Reading Affect in Harryette Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T
The first poem in Harryette Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T (1992) describes the supermarket of its provocative title: "Individually wrapped singles, frozen divorced compartments, six-pack widows all express themselves while women wait in family ways, all bulging baskets, squirming young" (Recyclopedia 65).1 Throughout, S*PeRM**K*T exposes advertising's manipulative acts of "hailing" through such punning détournements of racist and sexist marketing jingles. Scholarship on the volume has largely focused on these skillful and scathing critiques, yet another passage in the same poem reads, "Align your list or listlessness" (65). Punning on "grocery list" and the emotional state of "listlessness," this line juxtaposes the intention represented by "list" with the feelings of ennui and distraction associated with "listlessness." The shopper with a list is at least marginally self-directed and in control, while the shopper without one is not only "list-less," but "listless," sluggish and languidly indifferent.2 Attentive to how [End Page 388] these poems navigate what it means to wander the supermarket aisles listlessly (in other words, to participate in the systems we disparage), this essay shifts focus to the book's complexities of affect.
Though less immediately striking than a strong feeling like rage or joy, "listlessness" registers within the domain of emotion. S*PeRM**K*T explores the ambivalent and compromised affective states arising from daily life within systems we deplore. Attention to Mullen's depictions of muddied and minor emotions contributes to the growing body of scholarship on affect and economic and environmental precarity.3 Perhaps because Mullen avoids the first-person, declining to give voice to the kind of lyric subjectivity that invites immediate identification and empathy, this book has primarily been read as critique. Yet Mullen is equally committed to refusing the implied purity and distance often expected of critique. Close attention to tone reveals how S*PeRM**K*T obliges readers to grapple with the uncomfortable overlap between states we might prefer to think of as separate: critique and feeling, our bodies and flawed food systems, poetry and advertising.
In drawing attention to this intermingling of critique and feeling, I do not want to diminish the work critique accomplishes in S*PeRM**K*T. Indeed, a range of targets for Mullen's keen-eyed scrutiny emerges. Michel Delville, Amy Moorman Robbins, and Juliana Spahr have discussed the book's critiques of commodity capitalism, race, class- and sex-based stereotypes, and limiting constructions of identity, while Deborah Mix, Courtney Thorsson, and Robin Tremblay-McGaw have considered how these poems intervene in literary genealogies that ignore or actively suppress writers of color.4 Critique, however, can imply a detachment and distance that insufficiently characterize poems that shift between irritation, humor, and longing, rant and ironic lament. These poems [End Page 389] undeniably emote, as well as "expose," "indict," and "reveal," verbs that consistently recur in writing on S*PeRM**K*T. Proposing that Mullen's poems yield further insights when we consider their affective and expressive dimensions, I turn in particular to elements of S*PeRM**K*T that resist, undermine, or otherwise complicate the mode of "critique."
Mullen's poems confront each part of the food system, including food of dubious quality ("embalmed soup" ), landfill waste ("a land fills up dead diapers with funky half-life" ), female labor ("Spots herself in its service, buffed and rebuffed" ), and corporate malfeasance ("A strychnine migraine is a p.r. problem" ). While this attention is often critical in nature, a close look at affective gestures throughout the volume reveals a complex engagement with living and making-do amid the conditions of structural inequality, manipulative advertising, hazardous waste, and poisonous food that the supermarket represents. In poems that grapple with existential compromise and linguistic complicity, Mullen uses subtle shifts in register to convey emotion even in the absence of unified lyric subjectivity. Ultimately, I argue that S*PeRM**K*T gives voice to affect that persists amid and after critique.
Optimism, perhaps particularly in the perverse form Lauren Berlant names "cruel optimism" and defines as a condition that exists "when something you desire is actually...