I was at a high school friend’s wedding in Charleston recently. The wedding itself was harmless and fun, but the city is a haunted place, unrepentantly hawking its evil past as if it were a tourist trap like any other. A city full of gorgeous mansions (who built them?) beside a beautiful harbor (what cargo lined these piers?), it felt like a reunion staged inside a concentration camp. The night before the ceremony, at a place downtown, I made some comment along these lines. A stranger — a white man, obviously — leaned down the bar. “Don’t say slavery,” he said. “Just don’t say it. We don’t use the S-word here.” Here I am, I realized — the death of the party. The next night, a few of us stepped off the dance floor when the band started “Sweet Home Alabama.” No one noticed, but it felt like the tiniest victory, a knot of shared bad feeling in the midst of celebration.
The experience of being alienated from common, mainstream ritual, unable to take pleasure in a friend’s wedding like a normal person, is something people with left-wing politics will recognize, and not just because of our proverbial social awkwardness. What makes the experience especially painful is not its intensity — often low-level, occasionally rising to the point of rage — but how few others share it. The buzzkill faction is rarely more than a rump. Righteousness, in these circumstances, is a grim pleasure, at best a consolation, never a victory.
Why, then, even bother with such pointless little rebellions? Because the past — the thing that makes it impossible to stay silent, or at least to casually take part — isn’t just something one knows. “History is what hurts,” as Fredric Jameson wrote. Welling up, often against our own hopes for new beginnings, “it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention.”
With these lines, written in 1981, Jameson could well have been describing himself or his generation of scholars. Entering what seemed to be an emancipatory era, the leftists of the 1960s and ’70s were wounded by the staying power of the past, and by the dark turn events took after the left lost in the streets. In the decades since, this association between pain and powerlessness has assumed an increasingly central place in academic writing and culture. As the pain has grown, so have attempts to analyze it, many clustering around the term affect, a more generalized way of talking about the connection between feelings and power. If you hang around academics, especially in the humanities, you’ve probably heard about it.
You or I can have a particular emotion regarding a particular object. We generate these emotions, but out of what material? Prior to emotions, many of these theorists hold, are affects, which float free of individuals, inhering instead in the atmospheres of institutions and social spaces. Affects reverse the subject-object relationship of emotions: we are their objects, rather than their origins. They are the way social life makes itself felt, leaving deposits in individual people, which we then process into our own emotions. We might even call affects “objective” features of the social landscape, albeit ones that can only be observed and recorded through feeling. As one of this tradition’s major theorists, Brian Massumi, writes, affect is “as infrastructural as a factory.” By this logic, the power lines of affect running through every office and production facility are as central to our political economy as any physical infrastructure.
Look around the room you are in: there is some way of feeling that is proper to this space. (Most likely, you are in compliance with it, rendering it semi-invisible; it is more noticeable in the breach.) This is affect. The campus library, perhaps, is anxious; the New York party is insecure; the office is alienated. Different individuals will enter these settings in different states and respond in different ways to their atmospheres, but they cannot not respond.
What the word affect in this sense describes is the inward dimension of collective experience as it is manifested back out to the world and made visible through behavior. Although scholars tend to disagree on how to define the relationship between affect and emotion, the argument for a meaningful distinction comes down to a question of subjects and objects. It is the difference between “I feel terrible” and “this feels terrible.” The latter’s implicit transitive verb — “this makes me feel terrible” — provides much more analytic purchase. It suggests an action taking place, rather than a state being maintained. And if an action is taking place, perhaps other actions could take place. The point of this way of thinking is to make explicit and external something otherwise tacit and internal, and thereby to open a new avenue of critique on the origin point of this particular affect: the institution, the relationship, the object that has generated this feeling.
Outside of the academy, affect theory’s greatest traction has come through its attachment to labor. This also happens to be one of the best ways to get at the origins of affect theory itself.
The idea behind “affective labor,” a concept that emerged from the feminist revolution of the 1970s, is that some forms of employment extract value from workers’ emotional lives as much as they do from workers’ bodies. The argument first directed itself toward the domestic scene, where the ideology of marriage held that women’s unpaid work was a natural extension of love. “The literature of the women’s movement has shown abundantly the devastating effects this love, care and service has had on women. These are the chains which have tied us to a condition of near slavery,” wrote Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici in a classic 1975 essay. At the same time, feminist criticism pointed to the new service workplaces into which women were streaming, where their labor was often an extension of the grin-and-bear-it dynamic of the household. The classic work in this vein is sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1979), which took the work of flight attendants as its main object of study. “Seeming to ‘love the job’ becomes part of the job,” Hochschild wrote, “and actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort.”
These critics stood at the beginning of a process that has now subsumed us all. Though they differed in their political beliefs — Federici is an Italian autonomist Marxist; Hochschild, an American left-liberal — they shared the kind of ontological optimism that moments of revolution make possible. Hochschild thought the main problem of emotional labor, as she called it, was that it alienated you from your true self. The closing sentence of the book urged readers to ask, as a measure of self-preservation, “What do I really feel?” This humanist position implies that rediscovering your core self — what Hochschild called “the search for authenticity” — is possible. Further to the left, meanwhile, Federici’s Wages for Housework movement distributed a pamphlet with song lyrics on it: “We’re cooking / We’re cleaning / We’re looking our best / We’re taking a beating / We’re faking the rest.” Women might have complied, both arguments went, but they did not consent.
Such belief in an authentic and intact subject, perhaps obscured from view by oppression and exploitation but real and uncontaminated at her core, is a relic of a more hopeful era. Its organizing metaphors — authenticity and alienation, surface and depth, consent and coercion — bespoke a belief in the reality of an ultimately resilient individual. And why not? The 1960s and ’70s had witnessed the shattering of the postwar consensus by a global uprising of those who had until then appeared subservient. The movements for the liberation of women, black people, and the colonized around the world gave vent to the rage and desire that had bubbled below the surface. This eruptive phenomenon, which historians and sociologists of the time associated with the humanist watchword agency, was the way, it seemed, the world changed. People found their voices, and when they did, they made their own history.
But the subsequent story of radical thought amounts, in many ways, to one big crisis of agency. Left-wing criticism has long fixated on the questions of who and how. Who is the agent of history? How will social transformation come about? The proletariat occupied the position it did in classical Marxism not because of some metaphysical virtue, but because Marxists believed industrial workers occupied a position in society that uniquely equipped them to transform it, and to lead other social elements in doing so. This position faltered over the course of the mid-twentieth-century economic boom, when many radicals came to see the labor movement as complacently accommodating itself to power rather than leading social change. Through the 1960s and ’70s, new social movements proposed a series of candidates for the role of the motor of history: students, the postcolonial world (especially its peasantry), African Americans (in the United States), and women. But the defeat or co-optation of these movements, one after another, cast the very concept of agency, premised on the overcoming of alienation and the emergence of the authentic self, into question, and with it went the whole imaginary edifice of collective social transformation. By the 1980s, that model was in ruins, and antihumanist pessimism was triumphant. Agency had proved insufficient as a force of transformation, as the foundations of society, despite the impressive shaking given them by the “new social movements,” stood firm and perhaps even strengthened.
In the theory that followed hard on the New Left’s defeat, gone was the majestic dialectical unfolding of repressed human freedom that had guided student movements around the world. Gone was the individual itself, the former site and agent of liberation. Flows of desire, the operations of social machinery — these preceded and determined the reasoning individual. As Deleuze, one of the first to make use of the term affect, argued in a 1978 lecture: “Inspiring sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power.” Rulers, he went on, “need the sadness of their subjects.” Here is Deleuze’s version of “History is what hurts.” Pick a tradition — Deleuze or Jameson, Marxism or feminism — and for all their differences, they arrive at the same place: hurt and sadness.
The sense of a self capable of agency had given left activists a point of entry into political action. Its loss threatened to close off the only known avenue to emancipation — and left these movements and their theorists close to despair. Foucault’s 1972 introduction to Anti-Oedipus illustrates the problem. There he famously wrote of “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” But what sort of movement follows from the acknowledgment of “the fascism in us all”? What sort of strategy do you adopt for that? The result, for many if not for Foucault himself, was rather downcast — not to say defeatist.
Affect offers a new approach to this old problem: What latent thing do you and I, two powerless individuals, share that might, if activated, endow us with a common sense of things, and from there a collective potency? Affect theory does not discover an authentic self buried by oppression; it constructs one anew from the wreckage of defeat. In doing so, it assembles collective knowledge against the devil on your shoulder that whispers that you are alone in this — in this dead-end job, in this broken relationship, in debt, in depression, in paralysis.
This political potency comes from another source in affect theory’s overdetermined origins — the women and people of color for whom political defeat signaled human catastrophe on an unspeakable scale. The violent repression of black radicalism, the consignment of a generation of gay men to death (Foucault among them), the rollback of victories as basic as the right to birth control and abortion, the criminalization and caging of millions of people of color, the evisceration of the social support on which the poor and the working class, women especially, have depended for survival — mere hurt might not be an adequate response to these occurrences. Sadness is easy: it is the affect of impotence, which is not a position all can afford. Anger is much harder, since it points toward action, even in adverse circumstances.
I began this essay with an account of feeling uncomfortable celebrating a wedding in slavery’s theme park. This posture, while probably the right one, comes somewhat easily to me, a white man. What kind of personal vitriol or physical menace would I have withstood, even just muttering complaints at a Charleston bar, if I were a black woman? While Deleuze may have been among the first to speak of affects, radical and black feminists — from Shulamith Firestone to Audre Lorde — proved the decisive origin points for affect theory because the stakes were so much higher. One part of their progeny then crossed these earlier insights with poststructuralism and the traditions of the gay liberation movement, heavily influenced by Foucault, to produce what is often seen as the key to understanding affect: the queer theory of the 1990s. Seen from this vantage, everyone, not just those ruled by the patriarchy, thrums with trapped desires, intensities with nowhere to go. All the world, in other words, is a closet.
The late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick — best known for her Epistemology of the Closet (1990), about the ubiquity of the homo/hetero distinction in modern culture — remains the most immediate reference point for this strand of affect theory, as well as most of the scholarship that has become best known by that name. Sedgwick’s work on the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, Shame and Its Sisters (1995), is often cited as a key contribution to the field — Sedgwick dates Tomkins’s theory of affect to 1955 — but it was primarily Sedgwick’s work as a literary critic that demonstrated how a more careful attention to affect might rescue theory from political defeatism. As a literary critic, she went against much of the critical current of her time, which tended to search beneath the text for its real truths (somehow already known in advance) and its author’s hidden political failures (compared with the critic’s superiority). Calling this method “paranoid,” she proposed a “reparative” method. This way of reading requires a critic to shed her own hermeneutic biases, or at least hold them at bay. In doing so, she might be able to see “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture — even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”
Affect theorists following Sedgwick are distinguished from many of their feminist and queer forebears because they do not argue that identity or desire has been repressed (a key term in the old theory of agency). Their work approaches the decisions and desires of the apparently obedient victims of domination not through comparison to a presumed true self, but through a much more immediate kind of sympathy, one that need not propose a hidden self in order to acknowledge the humanity of even the most downtrodden. What follows is also a new sensitivity, an openness to surprise, since sympathy may well lead not to a return to the “true self” but to the production of new selves altogether.
What Sedgwick’s method also required was a sensitivity to historical time and change, something of little appeal to the post-structuralist sensibility adopted by many of her contemporaries. And while Sedgwick was critical of historicism, what she called “reparative reading” requires a historical imagination; an understanding that the past, as it was lived, was as bewildering and surprising to its writers as the critic’s present is to her: “To read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious, paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as New.” In her 1997 essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Sedgwick describes “the dogged, defensive narrative stiffness of a paranoid temporality . . . in which yesterday can’t be allowed to have differed from today and tomorrow must be even more so.” Noting the “Oedipal regularity and repetitiveness” of such a pattern, in which what happens to fathers is revisited by sons, she moves into a lovely reading of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s narrator, long a recluse, has gone to a party, and at first thinks everyone is dressed up in old-age costume. But he “realizes that they are old, and so is he — and is then assailed, in half a dozen distinct mnemonic shocks, by a climactic series of joy-inducing ‘truths’ about the relation of writing to time.” This revelatory disorientation, Sedgwick points out, “would have been impossible in a heterosexual père de famille, in one who had meanwhile been embodying, in the form of inexorably ‘progressing’ identities and roles, the regular arrival of children and grandchildren.” Sedgwick uses the phrase “queer possibility” for this phenomenon — the idea of a break in the transmission from past to future, from fathers to sons.
Contemporary thinkers about affect, a generation younger than Sedgwick, have brought an increasingly explicit historical consciousness to this approach. Where Sedgwick advised an epistemological modesty, her followers suggest a historical modesty. A text might surprise you, they argue, and so, too, might history: it’s not just that the reader might pick up on something previously unnoticed (an idea, a fact); she might even discover something new to the world entirely. A Marxian-seeming political hope accordingly crept back into what had been a decidedly non-Marxist tradition. What if the present always contains the possibility of transformation? Perhaps the chain of transmission from one generation to the next can be broken.
It is here that affect theory suggests a new dialectical turn. The growth in affective labor has made possible a form of critical knowledge that begins on the grounds of the conquered self. Vast markets now depend on the successful reproduction of identities: millions of women work in the “caring” occupations, often immigrants, and most often women of color. One major element of the economy of affective labor is thus a mass expropriation of feeling — a flow that runs in aggregate from the Global South to the North, from women to men, from the poor to the rich, and from people of color to white people. The home-care workforce, who occupy one of the fastest-growing job categories in America, is a classic case. But this working class—call it the affectariat—has more proficiency in two skills necessary for political organizing than perhaps any group in history: the creation of fellow feeling and the production of new identities.
If our daily exploitation produces feelings in us that we might turn toward our own liberation, what affect theory seeks to understand is, in effect, why we have been too demoralized so far to do so. It’s certainly possible to imagine that being commanded to love on a daily basis might make someone a revolutionary beacon. But it’s much easier to imagine that it will make a person depressed or worn out.
Having to spend one’s own inner reserves to restitch the fraying fabric of society is exhausting, and poses all sorts of obstacles to collective organization and self-assertion. After a long day spent caring for others, it’s hard enough to care for a family, let alone comrades. The spread of capital’s reach across all social life has also turned many kinds of human relationships into empty market transactions. Click “Like”; have a good attitude; smile at the customer; establish a real connection with the patient; be an ambassador for the corporate brand. It’s exhausting, how the growing immateriality of the economic system depends ever more on the endless work of self-invention. Then there’s outright oppression. The shattering of political constraints on the market has seriously wounded democracy, replacing it in part with vicious forms of repressive social control that often act through affective mechanisms: Eric Garner was murdered, recall, for reacting with visible negative feeling to police harassment. It is the interaction of these two dynamics — Facebook and Ferguson — that makes affect so central to the neoliberal order. Capital issues two commands at once: Do what you love, and keep your head down.
The enforcement of these simultaneous imperatives — to both actualize and minimize one’s selfhood — depends on a vast, uncoordinated apparatus of powers that regulates contemporary emotional life. Such powers can take the form of institutional authority figures like bosses and police, of course, but also parents, children, friends, and lovers. What’s insidious about a system of affective rule is that it doesn’t need a center of power. It banks on the fact that it’s hard to be defiant when you hear a warning from your parents, feel a chill from your colleagues, or sense sudden distance from your loved ones, who — fearful themselves — are made uneasy by your dissent.
In her 2012 book Depression: A Public Feeling, the feminist theorist Ann Cvetkovich describes the formation of the project Public Feelings, which is more or less the organizational expression of affect theory. “Public Feelings was forged out of the crucible of the long Bush years,” she explains. “In finding public forums for everyday feelings, including negative feelings that can seem so debilitating, so far from hopefulness about the future or activism, the aim is to generate new ways of thinking about agency.” In a spirit of camp humor that Cvetkovich attributes to the queer-theory roots of Public Feelings, the group’s Chicago hub, called the Feel Tank, declared an International Day of the Politically Depressed. They came up with a slogan — “Depressed? It might be political!” — and put it not just on a T-shirt but on the classic garb of melancholy, the bathrobe.
Cvetkovich’s book, part memoir and part critical interpretation, represents one of a number of efforts emanating from Public Feelings to inspect sad affects for what they tell us about power relations. How does neoliberalism feel? It feels like shit. “What gets called depression in the domestic sphere is one affective register of these social problems and one that often keeps people silent, weary, and too numb to really notice the sources of their unhappiness (or in a state of low-level chronic grief . . . if they do),” writes Cvetkovich. More empirical arguments have come to register the force of this insight. The sociologist William Davies, in his 2015 book The Happiness Industry, argues that depression and stress are the products of the current order, but also grit in its gears: “Since the 1960s, Western economies have been afflicted by an acute problem in which they depend more and more on our psychological and emotional engagement (be it with work, with brands, with our own health and well-being) while finding it increasingly hard to sustain this.” We might, then, Davies argues, think of mental-health problems as forms of individualized resistance: “Forms of private disengagement, often manifest as depression and psychosomatic illnesses, do not only register in the suffering experienced by the individual; they are increasingly problematic for policy-makers and managers.”
If we can come to understand the negative affects with which we are entangled, these writers suggest, perhaps we can begin to make use of them. Sara Ahmed attacks happiness itself as an expression of normative and disciplinary power in her 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. In her essay of the same year, “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects),” Ahmed goes on to embrace the figure of the stereotypical angry woman as an avatar of feminist willfulness. “Someone says something you consider problematic,” she writes:
You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. How hard to tell the difference between what is you and what is it! You respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,” recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.
You know the line: “Why do you have to bring race into this?” Comfort and happiness, in this scenario, are the result of aligning properly with the atmosphere you’re in. In other words, they’re the affects of obedience: happiness is the feeling that proper behavior generates. “To be willing to go against a social order, which is protected as a moral order, a happiness order, is to be willing to cause unhappiness, even if unhappiness is not your cause.”
Affect theory’s center of gravity is found near this question of happiness. If there is one contemporary scholar who looms over the field, it is Lauren Berlant, an English professor at the University of Chicago. Her central concept is also the title of her 2011 book, Cruel Optimism. It is a distinctively contemporary feeling, Berlant argues, the sticky affective residue left by the slow decay of once-stable forms of the good life: “‘Cruel optimism’ names a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” The result is a kind of purgatory. However harmful any individual attachment might be — to a relationship, or an ambition, or a way of life — giving up on it would shatter the personality that has been organized around it. “Whatever the content of the attachment is,” Berlant writes, “the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living and to look forward to being in the world.” Taking on an impossible debt load to buy a house or go to college, because you won’t have a stable or normative or meaningful adult life if you don’t — this is cruel optimism. The graduate student’s single-minded, misery-inducing pursuit of one of the few remaining tenure-track jobs — this, too, is cruel optimism. (It’s no coincidence that affect theory so precisely captures academic life; academia, just like the rest of the economy, is undergoing the process of the colonization of feeling.) Perhaps the grandest example of cruel optimism is found in our collective relationship to looming climate catastrophe. What we have done is surely terrible, but apparently we find it less terrible to keep on as before than to imagine other ways of living.
At a more general level, what “cruel optimism” describes is the way life under neoliberalism feels stuck in a stalled-out temporality. Theoretical advances are typically products of moments of great social change. Yet affect theory in general — and some of its sharpest political criticism in particular — emerges from inertia. Cruel optimism flowers in the shade cast by the overhang of an unresolved past over an absent future. We are, Berlant argues, picking over the ruins of a good life that we cannot restore and will not leave behind. It is as if the whole society were living in Grey Gardens.
Berlant’s best-known specific case is her reading of mass obesity, which she describes as a form of “slow death.” The poor and the working class, she notes, know that they will not live as long as their social superiors. The bourgeois imperative of self-care, the efficient reproduction of one’s own body, has become at this point a cruel joke. To eat unhealthily is not simply an act of direct resistance, for Berlant, but a form of “lateral agency.” Food is one of life’s few reliable pleasures, and its consumption offers a form of community and belonging. “Under a regime of crisis ordinariness, life feels truncated, more like desperate doggy-paddling than like a magnificent swim out to the horizon,” she writes. “Eating adds up to something, many things: maybe the good life, but usually a sense of well-being that spreads out for a moment, not a projection toward a future.” Berlant’s prose, always a bit slanted, seems to enact the kind of lateral agency she describes: “Paradoxically, of course, at least during this phase of capital, there is less of a future when one eats without an orientation toward it.”
What Berlant observes in her cultural criticism is visible in another strain of social theory. The German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, in Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (2014), proposes that the wealthy democracies of Europe and North America have been engaged in a delaying operation since the economic crisis of the 1970s. Again and again, these states have pushed forward in time the reckoning building up inside the capitalist order, manipulating the money supply and relying on asset price bubbles to generate “illusions of growth and prosperity.”
Streeck’s analysis goes like this: As the postwar economic-growth machine sputtered in the 1970s, the legitimacy it had bought for capitalism fell into arrears. Streeck says that from this point, the wealthy capitalist democracies went through three stages of postponement. Each was designed to sustain public legitimacy the easy way, by putting off a resolution of fundamental questions. The first phase came with the great inflation of the 1970s. So long as labor could keep bidding up wages and capital could keep raising prices, both sides could avoid — for a time — the absorption of the underlying losses the economy as a whole had sustained. But this process could go only so far. When the inflationary spiral wore on for a full decade, central banks moved to put it to a halt by hiking interest rates, flatlining economies, and throwing hundreds of thousands of factory workers into unemployment. This initiated the next episode of postponement: the growth of public debt. In the early ’80s, high interest rates multiplied the value of the public debt. Meanwhile, the global 1979–81 recession produced large-scale unemployment, forcing governments to take on deficits to finance the social safety net. To escape the recession, the capitalist democracies borrowed, and cut taxes for the rich to spur growth. The state, in other words, took the legitimacy problem onto its own balance sheet. But ballooning public deficits began to spook markets, triggering the retrenchment of the 1990s. The shredding of the welfare state was, of course, largely presided over by center-left social democrats — Blair, Clinton, Schröder, and their ilk. With financial markets liberalized in the ’80s and ’90s, the state finally offloaded the burden of buying legitimacy onto private creditors. An essentially privatized Keynesianism resulted, in which policy makers encouraged a series of asset-price bubbles — culminating in the housing bubble — in order to maintain overall growth and the consumption levels of individual households. “The securing of a mass base for modern capitalism thus shifted from the sphere of politics to the market, understood as a mechanism for the production of greed and fear,” Streeck writes.
Although Streeck’s argument is as straightforward as that of any other economic historian, we might think of the story he tells, under the sign of affect theory, as a neurotic and incomplete mourning process for the postwar boom — an anguished refusal to say goodbye and move on. Rather than change the organization of our society in response to stagnation and inequality, the wealthy democracies have relied on monetary policy and financialization to delay a reckoning. The consequences are clear in our everyday experience of those markets in which mass participation has been sustained only by the expansion of credit, the debt-financed commodities that we can neither afford nor imagine living without: cars, college, health care, and, above all, houses.
What better represents Berlant’s archaic “good life” fantasy than homeownership? At the core of the 2008 financial crisis we find this contradictory arrangement: American society is unwilling to pay enough to significant numbers of its citizens for them to buy houses, yet also unwilling to live with the idea of itself as anything other than an “ownership society,” as George W. Bush’s 2004 slogan put it. Individuals and households, for their part, cannot bear to break with their aspirations to participate in this version of the good life. The problem, then, is that we are too straight — too bound to failing norms — to attack the forces disfiguring our lives. Desire for the kinds of stability and comfort neoliberalism has dissolved is precisely what makes the neoliberal advance possible.
What radical political economy of Streeck’s type lacks is a sense of where to do reparative work. Streeck can survey the landscape and see the aggregate results of cruel optimism, but one dreads the thought of him trying to talk to an underwater homeowner or an indebted college student about the structurally hopeless nature of the situation. Instead, Streeck flatly registers “the destruction of collective agency, and indeed the hope for it, in the neoliberal-globalist revolution.” It is to the great credit of Berlant and her colleagues that they have dared to reopen the question of how, without being nostalgic for past movements and victories, we might actually accomplish change in our own time.
Elizabeth Freeman comes closer still to synthesizing queer theory with a sense of political-economic agency in her 2010 book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Freeman employs the concept of “chrononormativity,” the way that bare and chaotic human bodies are ordered into directional, choreographed lifetimes. This is done through the chronological signposts of an individual biography: “marriage, accumulation of health and wealth for the future, reproduction, childrearing, and death and its attendant rituals.” To fail to proceed through the proper stages is, in Freeman’s view — an extension of Sedgwick’s reading of Proust — a violation of normativity and thus a kind of queerness. To reject marriage, or the future orientation of parenting, or the time discipline of the work ethic, to pursue self-discovery instead of self-denial, is then to refuse capital and heteronormativity at the same time.
If queer sexuality is one version of such asynchrony, another is found in working-class life. “We might think of class as an embodied synchronic and diachronic organization,” Freeman writes. “In its dominant forms, class enables its bearers what looks like ‘natural’ control over their body and its effects, or the diachronic means of sexual and social reproduction. In turn, failures or refusals to inhabit middle- and upper-middle-class habitus appear as, precisely, asynchrony, or time out of joint.” Perhaps in the inability to form a nuclear family (or to institute the constitutive rituals of the family, such as the nightly collective meal), or to move steadily forward through a career, or to accumulate savings, working-class people are denied the rewards of “successful” chrono-normativity. The working class also looks, to those who do manage such normative goals, off-kilter, queer.
The concept of class has been in fairly wide discredit in much critical theory since the 1980s, thanks to the epochal defeat of the industrial proletariat and the fall of the socialist states that once claimed to speak for it. As an idea, class seemed stubbornly archaic, nearly Victorian, in its fixation on so-called material realities. The rehabilitation of class through the terms of queer theory is a surprising turn of events. The theoretical unity of queerness and class identity in Freeman’s account is a record of the defeats of a more fragmentary left and a product of political necessity, to be sure. Yet it represents something more. It is the beginning of a plan.
What would happen if we could take charge of our own affects? It might be possible to send an impulse back in the other direction; perhaps capitalist institutions are vulnerable at the level of affective struggle.
This possibility gets at one of the strangest and most appealing aspects of academic affect theory: its resemblance, at the level of tone and form — direct appeals to the reader, memoir — to self-help. While odd in the pages of an academic press book, these characteristics shouldn’t be all that surprising. For if a downcast affect is a structural component of late capitalism’s triumph, one would expect the most depressive of all to be the most defeated people — those who identify with the left. And what is generally the case for radicals should hold doubly for radical academics, who are disempowered twice over: not only identified with a defeated political movement but relegated to doting over the memory of the left and tinkering endlessly with its shrine. The affect of university life — mournful and defensive — would seem to forbid leaps of radical imagination.
Sixteen years ago, the theorist Wendy Brown diagnosed this malaise. In her essay “Resisting Left Melancholy,” she described “a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward-looking and punishing.” Today’s leftists, as anyone who’s done some organizing will know, are still attached to the experience of defeat, since it gives structure to their sense of their own marginal, heroic, and sad position.
Here are some of the times I think of Brown: at the sound of a new repetitious modification of “Hey hey, ho ho”; when I have the same conversation about some irresolvable issue of left-wing strategy for the hundredth time in a union meeting or a Marxist reading group, and I myself have nothing new to add; when an anarchist explains to me that he really would prefer to create communal safe spaces rather than do anything that would make anyone uncomfortable; when a sectarian or an ultra-leftist insists that he is only interested in revolutionary politics and not reform, and therefore will do nothing — call him when the strike starts or the barricades go up. Such is the scale of the defeat inflicted on the radical left that many of its adherents have come to hate politics itself, the site of their sadness, and their aversion has made them sadder still.
An answer to this challenge remains unclear. The case is not helped by the way much affect theory appears incomprehensible and empirically thin outside the bounds of literary criticism. The whole project may be too arcane to have legs outside the academy. Still, in this moment of utopian impoverishment, one could do worse than to begin at the level of fantasy. Berlant herself addresses the question:
The demands of the present mean protesting not only the state’s servility to capital but people’s very own fantasies of the good life. . . . The response to a potentially radical reconstruction of the conditions of the reproduction of life ought to be very demanding on everyone, including the resisters. At the moment most resisters are protesting state/capital but not protesting themselves. Without accommodating the affective demands for adjustment to the austere ordinary with which they’re being confronted, people need to think about what kinds of good life might better be associated with flourishing, and fight that battle (with fantasy, politically) too.
The content of an affect-theory-driven program or demand would thus seem less important than the form of organization, which would have to be both durable and intimate enough to sustain processes of personal transformation. The project of collective action would then become a project of collective queering. If the aspirations of such a project seem similar to those of the antidisciplinary left of the ’80s and ’90s, the problem then was that a social basis was not yet in place — nor did the theorists or activists of that era have a sufficiently strong sense of history. The country, as they say, was not ready. It still might not be, but affect theory’s promise lies in its belief in the very possibility of positive collectivity: its reparative impulse to generate new fantasies, yet fantasies made practical by their placement in historical time.
Such a political practice ought to terrify its participants as they embark on it, and discomfit those with whom they seek to engage. Like all stigmatized relationships, political engagements adequate to this moment are as likely to feel confusing or frightening as ecstatic or liberating. Affective struggle has to entail becoming connected to the people who can’t see past their confusion or fear, and building solidarity where there is none by insisting on a form of relationship to which few are accustomed and that the mainstream neoliberal subject sees as genuinely queer: camaraderie. What’s more, the willingness to generate discomfort will require insistence on connection even through multiple rounds of rejection. To lose heart at the first refusal — whether to join a union, attend a protest, or just talk about politics — is one of the indulgences of left melancholy, with its grim satisfaction in defeat. I’ve been sent scurrying from the slammed doors of many people whom I’ve tried to recruit to join my union, including countless people who are today members and leaders of the organization. I doubt this process is nearly as painful or costly as coming out of the closet. (Though being queer in America and being a trade unionist may not be so far apart in stigma as they once were.) Still, it does seem to me that the affective kernel at its core — attempting to form new relationships that violate and undermine the collective norm — is essentially the same.
The reparative impulse of affect theory — easily written off as individualist — can in this way give shape to a collective movement. To mount effective challenges the left will have to withstand not only the punishing opposition that descends on any attempt at social transformation but also the more vicious internal mechanism by which power speaks to each of us in our own voice. There may be no authentic self buried deep down, waiting to be discovered, but it might be possible to invent new selves in the crucible of shared struggle. For this, the left may need less of the antinomian radicalism of Foucault and Deleuze, and more of a loving discipline of its own — the kind of social organization that keeps you coming back to the same slammed-shut door, again and again, because you love your comrades more than you’re afraid.
There’s no way to win any justice without generating tremendous amounts of discomfort, for ourselves first of all. Having a theory for thinking about this is a start. Having some practice at winning will only happen when activists and organizers stop being so melancholy and fearful, and start being more willful, not just in our declarations but in interpersonal relations based on constant unease. This is something that I find few radicals have learned how to do. In our decades of loss, we have become creatures of habit — as is common to exiles. The journey back from the political desert is dogged by the desire to stay and grieve the easier days when we knew we had no chance. To drag our feet or look backward is appealing, given the vast uncertainty of what lies before us. The question ahead is not just where we will arrive, but, more frightening still, who we will be when we get there. Perhaps, if we are lucky and brave, it will be a surprise.