Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

“Depressed?…It might be political.”

I've just been reading Lauren Berlant's essay, “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture.”   I got here by following the literature on emotionology.  The history of emotions has been getting a lot of academic press of late.  It’s a fascinating field (did happiness then mean the same as happiness now?), but most fascinating to me, it overlaps greatly with the literature on the city, every-day objects, and material culture. 

Berlant’s own work is on the emotion of every-day experience.  She has written, for example, on how  Hawthorne uses the close reading of everyday visual objects in his text (the American eagle in the “Custom House,”  the scarlet letter in that novel) to deconstruct the nationalist utopianism they seamlessly symbolize. 

In this essay, she wants to argue for the compatibility of critical inquiry and phenomenology.  For Berlant, analysis of the every-day leads perhaps most intimately to the unpacking of unconsciously accepted frameworks.  Focusing on the everyday is focusing on the purely social and personal, rather the disciplinary or governmental: 

“To talk about the senses is to involve oneself in a discussion of the optimism of attachment, the sociability of persons across things, spaces, and practices.  It represents a turn to the human without resurrecting, necessarily, a metaphysical subject, for sensual experiences and emotions are usually thought about, these days, in contexts of enunciation and experience – the nation, the law, the family, religion, mass culture, or aesthetic ambition, for example.” 448

She wants to validate two paradoxical impulses in the scholarship:
  • de-universalizing the senses – the tendency of Miriam Hansen’s work on vernacular modernism and cinema --- which is about historicizing perception to a specific place and time
  • the affirmative character of criticism, which depends on trusting the senses to convey some objective reality, referred to by Herbert Marcuse as “affirmative culture”.  Thus utopian, avant-garde, or even merely difficult art that seeks to slow down and thus interfere with culture rarely overturns anything, because it reinforces the absorption and consumption of the bourgeois subject.  She’s not the first to have noticed how much twentieth-century criticism depends upon replicating the very distanced, male gaze that it was trying to tear down.  She summarizes the problem deftly: critical theorists experience an “anxiety over critical theory’s own optimism.”

According to Berlant, the way out of this legitimate anxiety is to focus back on the every day, the human, the emotional.  And then to ask questions about the origins of those emotions, of those attachments to material things.  Where did they come from?  What to they mean?  How exactly is the scarlet letter A with its overwhelming, instantaneous message bound up with a world-view or a theology or a sense of individual worth that we as a society have already discarded?

Berlant’s practical solution, then, is to launch a series of feminist cells throughout American cities, where artists and academics come to talk about being depressed, being happy, and how many of those feelings are structured by participation in social forms that they'd rather avoid.

Her “feel tank” investigates “political depression” as an exit strategy to the collective guilt of voting without hope.  By focusing on negative and suppressed emotions like this guilt, they aim to identify and jettison public feelings that don’t belong to them. 

Conclusion #1: think out your depression.  Where's it coming from? Your depression probably *is* political.  All emotions are, even as language is. 

Conclusion #2: If the big, big gaze from the prospect only helps you see what everybody else is seeing, looking closely at the world around you might be the best way out.  The "close reading" practice of literature scholars is embraced as the first step to the "negative dialectic" of unravelling the norms of one's own culture.  For Berlant and her peers, the close reading needs to start not merely in the text but also in the material world. The material object leads all the way back into the world of emotions, repressions, social expectations.  Look at stuff.  Wonder how it got there.  Write about it.  Your material world is structured by the same forces that structure your emotional life. 

Read more:
Google Scholar search on Lauren Berlant

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