Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Book Club in the Sky: Some Brief Thoughts

 This post has been composed (but for legal/practical reasons, not published) in the skies above Kansas, where Will Danger has just been scolded by an air-waitress a flight-attendant, over the plane’s loudspeaker, for trying to use the bathroom during a no-pee interval. My sincerest apologies to the passengers of Southwest 627. Srsly guys, flight attendants are the worst.
Today’s intellectual knot comes from Theresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect, a book whose argument has, to my mind, some wonderful implications, even if her psychoanalytic source material is somewhat outside my know-how:

“The transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment.’  But transmission does not mean that a person’s particular emotional experience is irrelevant” (6).

“The name or the concept of the transmission of affect does not sit well with an emphasis on individualism, on sight, and cognition. These things are all associated with the subject/object distinction, with thinking in terms of subject and object. This thinking, while it long precedes mechanism, gives rise to a particular understanding of objectivity that is coincident with it, based on the notion that the objective is in some way free of affect. Once this notion is accepted, then the affect, as a vehicle connecting individuals to one another and the environment, and for that matter connecting the mind or cognition to bodily processes, ceases to be a proper object of study” (19).

In addition to proposing a model for affective transfer, Brennan’s argument suggests a circulation, so that emotional transfer isn’t simply a one way street, but rather that affect flows back and forth between any number of people in complex and generative ways. Such an affective network raises a number of interesting questions: Does this affective network have a structure, or architecture? Can we think about this affective circulation in economic terms, where anger, for example, becomes a currency that is traded among people and sometimes exchanged, to various ends? A la Sara Ahmed, how does such an affective economy orient its subjects? How is this economy itself oriented? What kind of work might this framework for understanding emotions enable?

The most fascinating facet of this discussion is the way in which it reimagines the boundaries we’ve placed around affect and refigures the work which we imagine emotions to be capable of doing. As Brennan proposes in the second quote, this economy dissolves the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity (though I secretly wonder how useful an intellectual/rhetorical move this is). As a final set of things to think about, what does it mean, for psychoanalysis, our own (possibly fictional) individuality, and our interpersonal relationships to suggest that people are not psychically self-contained? What it might mean that Brennan gestures towards affect as the point at which psychological boundaries break down?

Happy Monday, folks. I hope you find the time either to curl up with a good book or watch some trashy television. Both would be even better.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Re-Mapping Citizenship, America's Psycho, and Angsty Trajectories

Or "Re-Assembling my Life, One Blog-Post at a Time"

In the somewhat lengthy silence that has (once again) crept into these rainbow-tinged halls, a number of things have happened. The most important and anxiety producing of these is that I graduated college. That's right, folks, the UMD campus is, for the time being, significantly less Dangerous.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, celebration, last minute apartment hunting, and possible job acquisition, I've managed to take advantage of my newly discovered free time and have gulped down several Brett Easton Ellis novels (The Rules of Attraction, Less Than Zero, and American Psycho), which have me thinking in a number of directions. Through these distinctly American novels, especially Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, Ellis maps and remaps the state of American interpersonal connection in the late 20th century. I'm particularly struck by the blurbs on the back of Rules of Attraction. They describe the novel as a satire, and Elis himself as a "moralist," which just seems too easy (and also somewhat strange). If we read Ellis' novels in this way, then the reader is supposed to venture through the novel's story and detest the wanton sex and drugs in which the characters partake. Ellis' America, then, is a dystopia, and we read these novels with our noses upturned the whole time, observing these borderline detestable characters. Reading any of these three novels satirically is perfectly legitimate, but simplistic in a way that I find deeply unsatisfying. 

I wish to propose an alternate reading for these novels which begins by displacing Ellis from the role of moralist (I remain pretty unsure how he was placed in that position to begin with). Instead of lamenting the isolated nature of America and its generation of snotty, smutty, drug addicted teens, these novels re-map interpersonal connection and reimagine what this connection might mean. In a peripherally queer move, Ellis does not wag his finger at the actions of The Rules of Attraction's protagonists, but frames them as new modes personhood, connectivity, and American citizenship. Ellis asks us what it might mean, in late 20th century America, to embrace the supposed desolation of gratuitous anonymous sex and drug abuse as a new way of bonding, a new mode of socializing. What might it mean to understand this seeming lack of emotional connection as simply a new incarnation of American identity? (As I'm writing this, I'm realizing there's been a ton of queer work done in this vein, but I think it's important to note that Ellis' intervention does not place itself against heterosexuality and normative American citizenship/culture, but rather takes place within them. An important and really fascinating distinction)

This brings me to American Psycho, a novel which admittedly, I am only about a quarter of the way through. If in Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero, Ellis remaps the American quest for human connection, American Psycho presents Patrick Bateman, the figure of the American psychopath, as the central figure in this new American citizenship. What I can't figure out, probably because I haven't finished the book yet, is where the American psycho is positioned. Does Bateman kill as a new mode of human connection, or do we need to rethink American intimacy (which strikes me as an odd formulation: Do we have an intimacy which is distinctly American? Can intimacy be nationalized?) because the old mode is producing Patrick Batemans? Is the figure of the American psychopath product, catalyst, or a new mode of American citizenship? Thinking about Patrick in this way lets us read his murder-spree as a kind of patriotic duty that either provides him connection to other people or creates connection among observers of his behavior. Maybe both. Or maybe I should finish the novel (Image thieved here).

Another thing which Ellis (and also obviously the immense parental pressure in my own life) has me thinking about is the specific trajectories we inherit from our parents and the way in which the figural child (or, in this case, the 20-something pseudo-adult) comes to receive and inhabit these trajectories. Because this is not an English paper, I want to think about some of the specific forms these genealogical trajectories might take. Our parents expect things of us and, well intentioned though they all are, we inevitably grow up in the shadow of our parents hopes for our lives (which are more or less narcissistic, depending on the parent). 

Before I get an angry voicemail from my mother about this post, I should clarify a little: I don't think these familial expectations are negative, necessarily. First, I think we are initially positioned within the world on our parents coat-tails, for better and worse, and Will Danger counts himself wildly fortunate to have been so positioned (This would be a good place to point out that I have even inherited my name genealogically, though my father prefers to go by Bill Danger).  The bulk of this intellectual knot lies in the fact that we position ourselves in relation to these inherited trajectories, we decide how to inhabit them, and there is an age at which we outgrow them (I think?). How are we affected by these genealogies, in the form of expectation, circumstance, temperament, and education, how does this complex network of baggage function to produce our present environment, and how do they affect our own desires (if, in fact, we can even identify our own desires as distinct from this familial inheritance)? ...or maybe this is just the (slightly) grown-up version of the angsty livejournal posts I used to make in high school.

I apologize for the vaguely disjointed nature of the post; it was written over a period of about a week and, as such, is weirdly organized. Oh blogging, how I've missed you.