It's been an exciting few weeks on campus, as we had Elizabeth Freeman give a talk called “Queer Chronicities” at Georgetown and Lauren Berlant give the keynote for the GW American Studies “Collected Stories and Twice-Told Tales” conference, titled “Structures of Unfeeling in Mysterious Skin” (or something like this).
Bringing Queer Theory and Bioethics together, with an eye to the conjunction of chronic diseases and modernization-industrialization, Freeman treated the audience to a facile reading of Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha” as a story of depression and addiction written in a chronic Steinian style, placed alongside Freeman’s compelling reading of the “chronic” as an etymological and conceptual site where Biomedicine meets sexology in a possible ontology of queer subjecthood.
Seeking to intervene in critical disability studies, Freeman stated a desire to move beyond the terrain of struggle that is Foucaultian Biopower; beyond critique and toward a Bioethics of living and self-care (which I would, and I think she may, say are still Foucaultian, though of a different strand) that are irreducible to Biopower. Such an ethics would be based, she says, on heterogeneous forms of practice, where Bioethics is a bio-biased discipline of self-production. She differentiates this sort of practice-based self-fashioning from what appears at first glance to be very much like a Butler-ian theory of performativity by differentiating “chronic” bioethics as more about insistence and intensity than about repetition and catachresis. She also differentiates the chronic mode of repetition from the psychoanalytic durcharbeiterung or working-through, since there is no temporality of progress or resolution when we are speaking of chronic conditions, which are not terminal, nor do they have a clear ontology. She speaks of an inflammatory (my word, which does work with the idea of intensities) endlessness as an attribute of that belies narrative. Stein’s writing style in “Melanctha” is markedly aligned with this reiterative temporality, and the story itself, which folds back in on itself and is bookended by the death of Rose’s baby. Freeman spoke of an insistence and intensity, a contraction and dilation as markers of the narrative temporality of “Melanctha,” rather than any forward or backward linearity.
In keeping with her stated intention to shift away from “stigmatizing models of moral deficiency” that may otherwise adhere to queer subjecthood or chronic illness, Freeman (in a characteristically anachronistic move) turns to “chronic” in the urban dictionary, and finds that in terms of Marijuana, to be “chronic” is in fact to disrupt, to shock, to be momentarily severe. She thus suggests that “chronic” does not always have to be about grim endurance but about pleasure, and circles back to addiction and temporality, referring to Melanctha’s incapacity for historical thought, and rather, her ability only to
“remember” in the present, as something happens. Freeman suggested, as she neared the end of the talk, that we consider the emptying out the historical as having a tonic effect. This she corroborated with Stein’s theory (redolent of Bakhtin for a moment) and injunction of unrepeatability. “Do not repeat yourself.”
Lauren Berlant’s talk, which she said is a part of a forthcoming book on the “Matter of Flatness” took the film Mysterious Skin as an aesthetic example of a post-melodramatic, post-camp and post-postmodern mode of sociality and (sub)cultural citizenship. [The piece about anachronistic periodization – she may have used the phrase “manifest anachronism” – escapes this write-up, but was a part of the talk, and makes for a continuity of sorts with Freeman’s engagement of temporality.] It was an extremely dense talk that engaged with a great breadth of disciplinary discourses, and I am merely doing my best from notes and recollection for this write-up.
Observing a casualization of emotion as an aesthetic and cultural trend [or was it just subcultural? – She spoke of a degree of disillusionment with the American teleological work ethic somewhere around the 80s as conjoined with a shift away from melodrama (perhaps with a reference to Cruel Optimism), and this could account for the anachronistic setting of Mysterious Skin, per her reading], Berlant proposed to consider such affective diffusion or flatness as a mode (or would she say style?) of “respect and accounting for the enigmatic other,” and thus holding within it a sort of promise of decent, well-mannered cosmopolitanism (and here she refers to the understated affective register how, say a cashier would speak to you; unobtrusive care [?]). She riffs off of Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling” as “residue, something that goes without saying, beneath the surface, inside knowledge, or shared enigma” and suggests that aesthetically, emotional underperformance is a style to supersede the “diva citizenship” of gay men, because queers are now allowed not to be melodramatic.
Berlant then showed a clip from Mysterious Skin that shows Neal McCormick’s first day as a gay prostitute. She reads the relational mode of these scenes as moving via apprehension as opposed to expression. Here she talks about a stuck, neutral, or repelled mode of relationality that is nevertheless constitutive of a connective encounter, such as that of Neal and the john. She stopped the film at a shot of Neal leaning back, arms behind his head, with a semi-smirk, saying “Whatever”, to the john’s question of how he would like to have sex with him. This shot, she notes, is likely in visual dialogue with Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, citing Warhol as a stylistic precedent for the flatness of affect she is engaging.
Referring back frequently to this image and several others from the film, Berlant developed an argument for an understated, passive and vaguely apprehensive sociality as a style of bounded openness (my words, as I try to make sense of this) that is not founded on expressivity. Complicating the narrative of molestation, she points to an understanding of Neal’s juvenile desire as necessary to her analysis. She spoke of “fading and drifting in scenes of desire” and disavowing the particularities of one’s desires via Neal. She also characterized Neal as one who conflates having and being himself as a child (because he flashes on his own face as seen from his adult/molester’s perspective), and in an interesting sort of temporality, “waits to feel the rush of the relation between what happened and what happens next”. There is almost an effect of an evacuated present and the material self for Neal from this reading. She did not in fact make this last reading, but did speak of a “nonpresent presentness – not knowing what one feels while knowing that one feels”.
In the course of her discussion, Berlant nodded to Barthes’s work on the Neutral, and Zizek’s work on the Interpassive, which theorize (per her glosses) minimized emotional response and/or an interpassive emotional handoff, and here she notes Zizek’s reference to the laugh track as an example. She also notes a tension between the subcultural reading of understated affect and one informed by Bourgeois entitlement and the concept of using “inside voices”. Manners are an important touchstone for the talk as she works through the implications of this sort of sociality for problems social trust.
Ultimately, she argues for this relational style of underperformed affect, this holding of a neutral space, as something other than splitting or failure. Berlant suggests that it as a mode of connective participation and even of social reproduction. Rather than viewed as a wound of inattention, it can be viewed as a gift or a permission of inattention. Such an “enigma with manners at a certain level of generality leads to space for self-satisfaction for the other”.
In the end I was left with an unresolved tension between the notion of “going under the radar” or self-protective motives for “toning it down” and a view of understated affect as a sociality that is imbued with “the tenderness of not knowing”. Discursively present yet somehow analytically spectral in the talk was an appreciation of the problematic relationality of a traumatized subject, such as Neal apparently may or may not quite be, whose mode of sociality on the surface presents very much like the one Berlant unpacks and analyzes. It is a difficult leap to make from the damaging effects of trauma on the subject to a sociality that is open, curious, generative, and holding space for the enigmatic other in a sort of tender new affective cosmopolitanism. And yet, wouldn’t it be nice if this were indeed an emergent post-traumatic sort of social comportment? Or would that be sinister? I would like to be, but am not just yet, convinced.
Berlant also talked, near the end, about underperformativity as a blockage to method, and cited the Syndrome of AIDS as informing underperformed overdetermination, picking up on the words “syndrome” and “protocol” as affectively related. I’m curious about the social implications of the “blockage to method” in light of the arc of the talk.
- Theodora Danylevich