Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"The Hikers that Rocks Crush" (ASA 2011)

Fourth in a series of reports from the American Studies Association.

“Affective Histories, Critical Transformations: A Roundtable Discussion."

I don’t often attend such highly philosophical panels as this one; I showed up as an admirer of McRuer’s and Luciano’s work. But it was an immensely popular panel, with over fifty auditors, a couple dozen of whom had to sit on the floor. Not quite what many readers of this blog would regard as “a roundtable discussion,” it consisted of the panelists reading papers shorter than most panels comprise, allowing for more discussion and responses in the q & a.

Jasbir Puar opened by raising the question of the role of affect in our fields. In the process that Patricia Clough has called the Affective Turn, what kinds of histories and genealogies are evolving? What are we eliding? Especially in the context of American Studies, what is affect? What are our objects of inquiry and analysis? People keep asking about Occupy Wall Street, “What is it going to do?” as if it weren’t already doing something. Following the tradition from Spinoza to Deleuze/Guattari, Puar finds that the affective turn contests the dominant terms of critical theory itself and reveals the limits of poststructuralism. The presumption of the subject as a formative space from which a politics emerges is also being questioned.

Karen Tongson began her talk with, “Thank you, Jasbir . . . I probably won’t address anything you’ve brought up.” Tongson wants to talk about acafandom. She was originally a Victorianist but finds her work veering toward music and considering what she has learned from Cole Porter. What would it mean to be true to you in our fashion? What counts as infidelity? How can we reimagine the style, scope, and fashion of infidelity? In our work, we tend to see fidelity as disciplinarity; in these times of scarcity, we tend to ask, how does a young scholar construct herself as true in order to be chosen? We receive mixed messages — be innovative, but be ready to impress a hiring committee half of which has no idea what “digital humanities” means. So to what extent do we hipsters harness our fidelity to new disciplinary formations as our capital? Consider Heather Love’s “Close, but Not Deep”: Tongson shares that fascination with surfaces, which involves tone and humor and the ways in which certain capricious encounters with musicality can offer a porous relation to fidelity.

Consider Theodor Reik on “The Haunting Melody.” Looking at the origins and motives of the disciplinary loyalties we start out with, we get pulled back to where we reside: we are held by a promise, a long-term commitment. Tongson’s love and fidelity were always exogamous and polyvalent. Her attachment to Kant and Derrida began with their invocations by Scritti Politti; so many of her loyalties have been informed by pop, and Keats and Yeats are on her side. In making sense of the affect that made this textual promiscuity possible, she started with Matthew Arnold and his idea of “the touchstone” — the lines of poetry we carry in our head as standards. These earworms always have to do with the vicissitudes of affective attachment. In the face of the edict to produce disciplinary coherence, we can’t only respond with interdisciplinarity and post-disciplinarity, nor, aware of the perils of these programs, can we disavow their viability. But in a fantastic reconciliation with the idea of disciplinary fidelity we can reimagine an enduring open relationship with our field. It is time for you now to go out to the places you will be from.

Tongson spoke very fast and managed to put many words into her time slot, even though she skipped a page of her prepared talk; so my note-taking hand was too tired to take especially thorough notes on Mel Chen. Chen’s book speaks to affect and to debates about the status of the human, the haunting connections that remain between language and matter, and the issue of posthuman humility. A statement such as “The hikers that rocks crush” violates a cross-linguistic norm of agency, of the conceptual order of things. What if nonhuman entities or marginalized humans enter into animacy? What about Critical Pet Theory? We see the animacy of toxins appear in the discourse: toxicity is figured as gendered, sexualized, racialized: in the Chinese Toy Panic, lead actually moves and travels over time: it is not passive. In artists’ heightened attention to objects, under what conditions and by whom are stones considered inanimate and where are they considered animate? What about the stereotype of the stone butch or the stone-faced foreigner?

The great Robert McRuer then gave a talk on his “Cripping Austerity” project. Perhaps “austerity” doesn’t need to be defined for this audience. The Puerta del Sol has been occupied since 15 May, the Hardest Hit March occurred in London on 11 May; we’ve seen images of the police beatings in Barcelona, of the student movement and hunger strikes in Santiago; npr reports that “austerity” was chosen as 2010’s Word of the Year. But “cripping” may need elaboration. An anti-identitarian disability identity may not account for the full non-normative range of agents here. Much of this was discussed at the October 2010 Prague conference on “Cripping Neoliberalism.” Robert wants to present four theses:
  • Disability is an unexamined and undertheorized issue in the global austerity project. Neil Marcus’s “Disability is an Art” poster graced the Arnieville Sleep Out in Berkely in 2010.
  • Disability simultaneously exists as a niche identity or market that’s potentially useful to our neoliberal masters.
  • Disability has the potential to go the way of a globalized and commodified identity.
  • The path that cripping takes is dependent on issues of affect.
Hence McRuer’s title, “The Crip’s Speech, or, Benefit-Scrounging Scum.” The global success of The King’s Speech and emergent discourses/uses of disability are not part of the usual “Overcoming Narrative”: it’s not just a “Good for you [Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, et al]!” story, but something much insidious and something more useful, in the sense that the Paralympics 2012 are useful, which is the reason they’re being boycotted by disability activists: London’s hosting of the Paralympics is being used to give the ruthless Cameron government compassion cred. We see an affective rallying around certain representations of disability, one that coexists with demonization of the UK’s equivalent of “welfare bums”: Labour equates “benefit fraud” with the crimes of the banksters who cause the crash. McRuer ended with an image by artist Celia Franklin and a shout-out to Sue Marsh’s Benefit-Scrounging Scum.

McRuer presented a similar paper at the "Composing Disability" conference two weeks later: Margaret Price and Ann Fox offered some very informative tweets on it.

Dana Marie Luciano noted that the preliminary questions for the panel had addressed the issue of proper and improper objects and what objects have been omitted that are important to the study of affect. She confessed a sense of imposture and wondered whether, despite multiple uses of “affect” in Arranging Grief, where it was used more or less synonymously with “emotion” and “feeling”, affect has really been present in her work. She’s considering affect as a site for the exploitation of the inhuman. Grief in modernity is a measure of what makes us human, so how do we respond to signs of inhumanity? Talking about rocks, of course, gives one a Simon and Garfunkel earworm, brings to mind the endurance of stone, Cohen on our fascination with Stonehenge and its mystery (while we’ve repurposed it to plastic expression), romance of the stone, Ozymandias, Thomas Cole’s painting of the Coliseum, and a bunch of associations from which Luciano surprisingly omitted Bob Dylan. The pedagogy of awe — stone’s durability bespeaks our precarity. The erotics of rock: Wilde’s tomb is covered with ineradicable lipstick stains from all the pilgrims who’ve kissed it, but it’s also castrated: someone stole the penis from Wilde’s monument. The accidental intimacy that occurs at Wilde’s grave resists imagining the nonhuman or inorganic as cold and chaste. Anthrodecenterism may well sponsor a powerful ethics: what would it mean to stone austerity? She ended with a Plain Dealer cartoon about Martin Luther King.

Puar asked, Are we producing in this turn toward object-oriented ontology another form of the ontological realism that Karen Barad unfortunately advocates? Isn’t it risky to suggest that the truth is in the stone? Can queer temporality embrace terms like durability? Don’t terms like that reproduce a politics of reproduction or of fidelity? In response, Dana noted the perils of commodity fetishism and explained that an intimacy with the Earth has to take forms other than the desire for a quest for truth. And that we should watch out for inhumanization as fossilization, or as fascination with “primitives,” at a nexus of dehumanization.

Someone asked a question about petrifaction and uncanny monumentality. McRuer spoke of the materiality of the wheelchair, and the ways in which wheelchairs differently materialize disability. He contrasted the petrification of disability in a picture of Cameron exploiting disability with the use of wheelchairs by protestors in Santiago. A questioner took on the language of fidelity by asking, What about the infidel? Giving attention to the abjected within disciplinary spaces, and what happens when you talk about the things you’re not supposed to talk about in ways you’re not supposed to talk. The reply involved how we seek out experience of the objectness, the thingness of the body that are not abjecting. An auditor asked about lineages of affect theory and whether it isn’t possible to take us to queer and feminist readings of Marx on the fetish. A comment brought up Rey-Silva and how we can and should find ways to think about indigenous epistemologies and ontologies.

Someone asked, Aren’t we disavowing agency and historical materialism when we talk this way? Are we evading issues of the political? Chen said she doesn’t think toxicity can be reduced to a matter of human actions and that “affect” is doing more work than “causality.” She feels she’s doing the kind of bracketing that’s necessary to tell the story. Puar, known for her own critique of the notion of agency, said that affect asks us to rethink issues of temporality and scale. Luciano noted that Jane Bennett’s work on materiality sometimes retreats in causality/agency when you don’t want it to and that redoing sentimental-queer-vitalist genealogies can undo human mastery.

Tuhkannen asked about geology and whether the emergence of psychoanalysis was the geology of the unconscious, and does ontology have to be equated with truth? Luciano is interested in the relationship between enigma and truth. She cited Stephen Jay Gould’s retort to Freud, explaining that the decentering of the modern subject, a project which Freud claimed he was the culmination of, actually began with 18th-century geology rather than Darwin. The issue of transformative accommodation in religion, which has been going on since that discovery if not earlier, came up. Puar remarked that her critique of Barad’s version of ontological realism was not a critique of the attachment to objects.

A questioner in the front row observed that the buildings under construction around Liberty Plaza are huge, while the plaza is tiny. But another thing is being built there: they’re rebuilding a relation between people and objects. McRuer noted that Bloomberg’s invocation of sit-lie laws had recently failed, but all around the country laws about how people can interact with stones and concrete are being used against protestors successfully. One audience member asked about the sexuality of the stone structures in India and the motion of stone. When we privilege deep time, what kinds of time are being left out? A panelist cited the great works of art coming out of the Haitian earthquake that are bypassing the sentimental and are very geological

Finally, an audience member asked about the stigma and blame being thrown at immigrants and how it resembles the discourse around British “scroungers.” Wittingly or not, the question was tailor-made for McRuer, who acknowledged that the issue was very close to his heart and that disability identity in the U.S. has been defined as an appeal to the state — it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act — and as such has made it impossible to identify certain bodies as disabled.

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