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Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture

Author(s): Lauren Berlant

Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 445-451
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004)
2004 by The University of Chicago. 00931896/04/30020003$10.00. All rights reserved.
Critical Inquiry, Armative Culture
Lauren Berlant
Many of our essayists x onthe senses as a revitalizingdomainwithwhich
to chart theories and concepts of history, aesthetics, and experience. The
words power and ideology dont make it into these paradigms much, and
questions shaped around social inequalities are either presumed or sub-
sumed in these phrasings. Class inequality and labor-related subjectivities,
for example, are nowincreasingly embeddedincapitalismandglobalization;
and, I think, but Im not sure, critical race, feminist, and queer studies con-
cerns are covered, covered over, or articulated in more general conceptu-
alizations of embodiment, a term that designates the closeness to the body
of social, experiential, and aesthetic aect. Because these sublimated cate-
gories of historical subordination were not formed as aesthetic events, and
because they trouble the distance from the body that traditionally secures
the prestige of critical thought, it is not surprising that a certaindisenchant-
ment would fall upon Critical Inquirys writers and readers, motivating re-
turns to the elegance of a greater distance, whether couched as the new
aestheticism, a better empiricism, or rigorous theory.
Were it not for Mary Pooveys and Teresa de Lauretiss nely tunedstate-
ments, this shift would seem (among our essayists, anyway) to have hap-
pened without comment. De Lauretis argues that the ambitions of the new
social movements were sustained by a hope that today appears enmeshed
in neoliberalism (p. 366). Surely the uneven global history of liberalisms
incommensurateness with itself in theory and in practice requires a more
dynamic perspective. I take that to be the promise of de Lauretiss great
phrase the time for theory is always now (p. 365). Now, though, is not
merely the denitional province of the World Bank, the IMF, nor, really, the
U.S. capitalist/Christian state and all its others. Critics and pundits alike
446 Lauren Berlant / Armative Culture
1. See David E. Wellbery, foreword to Friedrich A. Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans.
Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford, Calif., 1990), pp. viixxxiii.
2. See John Leland, A Movement, Yes, but No Counterculture, NewYork Times, 23 Mar. 2003,
sect. 9, p. 1.
generate apprehensions of the present discursively. The present is some-
thing given back to us by those who reect on it; not available to experience
as such, the sense and the sense experience of the present are eects of criti-
cal practice.
De Lauretis herself accurately notes, thinking . . . originates in an em-
bodied subjectivity, at once overdetermined and permeable to contingent
events (p. 365). So, if one does ride the wave that turns political fatigue to
conceptual aversion, isnt that shift, along with the widespread backlash
against theory, also enmeshed in neoliberalism? Perhaps conceptual fa-
tigue is inevitableon the model of metal fatigue, which denotes the ex-
haustion metal experiences on having to bear the burden of too much
weight. But I am also reminded of David Wellberys observation that theo-
retical projects (hes referring to poststructuralism) tend to be deemed ex-
haustedprecisely whentheyre poisedtodotheir perhaps nowunglamorous
There is much more to be said on this topic, of theory and embodied
histories of the present. Who is embodied, and how, and what is served by
the sensual turn? Can we think about the relation of critical optimism to
our vertiginous awareness of escalating violence in ways that continue to
challenge our professional contexts? Or is it the case, as the NewYork Times
opined recently, that this is a time of resistance without a critical social
One could dilate innitely on these questions. My pre-
sumption throughout will be that the critical realm of the senses encom-
passes what the senses do empirically; what feelings are made out to mean;
and which forces, meanings, and practices are magnetized by concepts of
aect and emotion. As in In the Realm of the Senses itself, the construction
of newvisceral practices inthe context of massive social upheaval, perceived
as both violence and aesthetic pleasure, is the scene from which I write.
I propose for further discussion a few other approaches to these ques-
tions, noting at the outset that the matter of professional critical theorists
proper objects, projects, and attitudesmost deftly expressed in the pieces
by Robert von Hallberg and Harry Harootunianforegrounds a crucial
Lauren Berlant teaches English at the University of Chicago. She is the
author of The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life
(1991) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and
Citizenship (1997), the editor of Intimacy (2000), and a coeditor of Critical Inquiry.
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2004 447
3. See AdamPhillips, On Composure, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic
Essays on the Unexamined Life (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), pp. 4246. Phillips argues deftly that
intellectuals habits of composure are (overdetermined) modes of control.
4. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography, In
Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York, 1988), pp. 197221.
concern. It must be the case that increasing pundit- and legislator-centered
disrespect for the humanities has had some inuence on our shifting at-
tention to objects/scenes like emotions that can be misrecognized as uni-
versals or, less grandly, as things perceivable through common sense. One
could make the same argument about the current literary critical embrace
of ethics, which, whatever else it opens up, just sounds so comforting, so
fundable, so theoretically palatable, and so politics-lite. Some of my best
friends are ethicists (well, just one), dont get me wrong; its not the eld
itself that concerns me but the impulse to recement individuality-with-
consciousness at the center of critical thought.
For the most part, my estimable colleagues have written armative es-
says about critical work andits futures. Whether or not they proposeproper
objects and better horizons for critical thought, their viewis that critics and
criticism will continue to sound as we currently dosmart, abstract, and
slightly overabsorbed. Only my dear departed colleague, Harootunian,
writes in a crackling tone of voice, arguing for working beyondthe national,
regional, and methodological norms of disciplinary expertise, refusing the
backlash against theoretical work, and taking the risk of engaging with the
history of the present. At the same time, he pushes aside the usually cool
distance of the thinker with a series of jarring rhetorical moves, as though
the intellectual performance of composure were a threat to occupying an
analytical edge that might very well cut in any direction, back at the author
himself or at the audience of readers.
The sharp edge of intellectual passion
opens up what you cant control; I love thought that welcomes the risk of
formlessness, the unpredictable consequences of ideas. Thats what critical
theory does when it is done well. Truisms are cut into, things come undone,
and what Gayatri Spivak calls provisional generalizations that make new
contexts for knowledge threaten the transparency of expertise along with
the phenomena under analytic scrutiny.
Those who turnaway froma scene
of thought performedinunusual modes of critical intensity, theoretical acu-
men, or referential familiarity miss an opportunity for surprise learning.
On the other hand, as Harootunian argues, such resistance is well rewarded
professionally. As someone wrote in a memo once, we want to be at the
cutting edge, but not go too far.
But, not to be carried away entirely by metaprofessional polemic, I ex-
tract two issues from the pile Ive amassed that address the production of
448 Lauren Berlant / Armative Culture
5. The bibliography is enormous. For recent entries see, for example, Peter Goodrich, Oedipus
Lex: Psychoanalysis, History, Law(Berkeley, 1995) and Epistolary Justice: The Love Letter as Law,
Yale Journal of Lawand the Humanities 9 (Summer 1997): 24596; Julie Ellison, Catos Tears and the
Making of Anglo-American Emotion (Chicago, 1999); Representing the Passions: Histories, Bodies,
Visions, ed. Richard Meyer (Los Angeles, 2003); WilliamM. Reddy, Emotional Liberty: Politics
and History in the Anthropology of Emotions, Cultural Anthropology 14 (May 1999): 25688 and
The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (NewYork, 2001); Jacques
Rancie`re, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis, 1999); Brian
Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Aect, Sensation (Durham, N.C., 2002); Michael
Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (NewYork, 2002); Gillian Bendelowand Simon J. Williams,
Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues (New York, 1998); Antonio R.
Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New
York, 1999); and Avital Ronell, Stupidity (Urbana, Ill., 2002).
6. The classic work on emotionology is Peter N. and Carol Z. Stearns, Emotionology:
Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards, American Historical Review90
(Oct. 1985): 81336. See also, most recently, An Emotional History of the United States, ed. Peter N.
Stearns and Jan Lewis (NewYork, 1998).
7. See MiriamBratu Hansen, The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as
Vernacular Modernism, Modernism/ Modernity 6 (Apr. 1999): 5977.
8. See Herbert Marcuse, The Armative Character of Culture, Negations: Essays in Critical
Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston, 1968), pp. 88133.
emotion as critical inquirys object/scene. One: to talk about the senses is
to involve oneself in a discussion of the optimism of attachment, the socia-
bility of persons across things, spaces, and practices. It represents a turn to
the human without resurrecting, necessarily, a metaphysical subject, for
sensual experience and emotions are usually thought about, these days, in
contexts of enunciation and experiencethe nation, the law, the family,
religion, mass culture, or aesthetic ambition, for example.
usually intends a discussion about processes of belonging and reexivity, of
selves oriented toward worlds that are organized by forms that provide ma-
terial and subjective senses of continuity.
Paradoxically, then, much of the best work on the senses means to de-
universalize them, rooting them somewhere in a space of time. Miriam
Hansens work in this area is exemplary.
But what remains is the implicit
optimismof critical thought that presumes the clarity of the senses andtheir
phenomenological and historical place in world building. Herbert Marcuse
called this phenomenon armative culture, a phrase rarely applied to the
kind of critical work in this journals pages but nonetheless, I am arguing,
all too relevant to its practices.
It seems hard to talk about the sociality of emotion without presuming
the clarity and coherence both of it and the world in which it is intelligible.
It is hard for thought to abandon its desire to intensify the thingness of its
thing andthus its value. After all, as Hansenargues, the trainingof thesenses
is the bourgeois project of aesthetics, bourgeois not standing here for privi-
leged in the bad sense but as a marker for the pleasures of capitalist modes
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2004 449
9. See Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston, 1966),
pp. 2154.
10. I refer here to the emerging importance of the study of trauma and human rights in the
academy and of what we might call terror lms in the U.S. popular public sphere, which are
remaking traditional mainstreamgenres fromhorror to melodrama. What matters, in both of
these domains, is the incomprehensibility of escalating violence everywhere. But the incitements
to paranoia and conscience do not dissolve the armative impulses of consumer survivalism.
11. For a fuller critique, situated in queer theory, of the normativity of optimism, see Lee
Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (forthcoming).
of distinction. Bourgeois suggests that the aesthetic of modernity always in-
volves a market, even if the name of the value it gives its objects of exchange
is merit.
At the same time, aesthetic experience gifts the good life with a dierent
pacing than the working life, donating to the worker the privilege of slow-
ness, of time to have a thought/experience whose productivity is subjective,
connecting the sensorium to something that feels noninstrumental, ab-
sorbing, and self-arming. Slowing down is a legendary tactic of anti-
bourgeois and antinormative activity generally, but it turns out to be the
privilege of the consuming subject as well. The double person of whom
Marcuse speaks, who receives slow time as free time secured by hard work,
is not countering any norms.
Aesthetic and critical works that seek to pro-
mote overcoming what are called the immediate gratications of mass so-
ciety are, mainly, in perfect consonance with its modes of privilege even as
they remain a marker of a dierent, or better, pace for living. Even when
the content of aesthetic experience is disturbing in a utopian, avant-garde,
or just dicult, counternormative way, one cannot say about it that its criti-
cal distance interferes with the reproductionof violence inwhatever form.
Poovey, Hansen, Frances Ferguson, and de Lauretis demonstrate this beau-
I propose that we turn optimismitself into a topic probably best phrased
as collective attachment. Optimism is a way of describing a certain futurism
that implies continuity with the present, but, as it does not always feel good,
attachment seems a better way to describe the pleasures of repetitionwith-
out presuming their aective reverb.
This is Marcuses point: How is it
that the bad life appears to so many as the good life yet unrealized? What
relation is there between this mode of optimistic negativity or deferral and
the pleasurable distances of aesthetic self-cultivation? At the same time that
emotions bring us toward others (even internal others, say the psycholo-
gists) in a way that merges self-continuity withthe continuities of repetition
and futurity, there is a whole eld of negativity that is not the opposite of
cultivated emotion. We need to give more thought to the modes of subjec-
tivity that are disorganized, or noncoherent, or negative, or lagging in a
450 Lauren Berlant / Armative Culture
12. Feel Tank Chicago has a complex bureaucratic history. It is a cell in a larger systemrst
generated by the collaborative eort of Janet Jakobsen of the Barnard Center for Research on
Women, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy of the Department of Womens Studies at the University of
Arizona, and me, when I directed the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. If
our initial impulse was to work together to honor the unnished scholarly, aesthetic, and activist
business of the 1982 Conference on Sexuality at Barnard evidenced in the anthology Pleasure and
Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carol S. Vance (Boston, 1984), we moved quickly to
reimagining the formof feminist futures with feminist and queer scholars and activists fromall
over, who have met collectively and in individual cells during the years since to pursue particular
interests. Transnational Feminism, Sex and Freedom, Organizing Gendered and Racialized
Communities through the Axis of Class, and Public Feelings are the most active cells.
more profound way than even Freudian Nachtraglichkeit or deferredaction
would suggest.
My second point follows fromthe rst one, then, whichargues that criti-
cal theory and criticisms investment in cultivating consciousness as a good
in itself is, among other things, related to the anxieties of keeping critical
culture armative. At the same time, whether the experience of available
aesthetic phenomena provides beautiful, sublime, or palliative relief from
the business of creating value for others, along with this relief is a whole
eld of negative emotion. Negative emotion is a formal category, related to
bad moods and depressions the way attachment related to optimismabove.
For the last fewyears a project titledFeminismUnnishedhas developed
a national program of local cells, dedicated to a variety of topics; one of
these is Public Feelings.
The Chicago group calls itself a feel tank rather
than a think tank, only partly as a joke. Comprised of artists andacademics,
the feel tank is organized around the thought that public spheres are aect
worlds at least as much as they are eects of rationality and rationalization.
This is a collaborative project, and collaboration is one of our topics. We
study theoretical, historical, and aesthetic materials engagedwiththe aects
and emotions. Right now, we are amassing for future research the negative
political emotions because most U.S. citizens and occupants have aban-
doned participating in the political sphere and because many who do, say,
merely vote, do it without optimism for the kind of transformative agency
that might/ought to have been a possibility. Some of these emotions: de-
tachment, numbness, vagueness, confusion, bravado, exhaustion, apathy,
discontent, coolness, hopelessness, and ambivalence.
Our instinct is that these political emotions are often experienced as dis-
connection, consciousness at a distance. In the tradition of the negative di-
alectic, but also in other ways, what does it mean to think about the aversive
emotions of negativity as kinds of attachment? We have hosted, for example,
an International Day of the Politically Depressed. What does it mean to
think of negativity not as an eect of bad power but as a way of being critical
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2004 451
without consciousness, as we currently understandits cultivatedform?How
is it possible to think about cultivated subjectivity in the aesthetic sense
without implying uplift, progress, or errancy? Situated in our own contra-
dictions, we are also restless, angry, mournful, and strangely optimistic ac-
tivists of the U.S. political sphere. I close with the slogan that will be on our
rst cache of T-shirts and stickers: Depressed? . . . It Might Be Political.