I write this introduction to Issue # 7 in the state of melancholy most of our readers share, or have experienced, since November 8, 2016. One truly appalling dimension of that state is a lack of words—to speak only for myself, an inability to find adequate expression for my feelings. How to say that distant, official events that move an abstraction called the body politic feel like lacerations, abrasions, real wounds that cause you real pain, that make you wince and crouch, head down, hands up?
The miraculous thing about this issue is that our authors have answers. By my reading, their essays are symptoms of deep melancholy that are attempted cures. They let us begin to mourn what we have lost. They let us celebrate what is left to us, and think about what is to be done.
They do so by staying at the level of affect, trying, as I read them, not to elevate the tone or the diction or the lexicon—not to abstract from the scene at hand and rise to the level of a global generalization—but to make us feel this moment, their moment, by stretching it out on a horizontal axis, where the lower topography of their bodies are engaged.
“Flesh matters,” as Mira Karavanka puts it. Her Ishmael, who watches these new mariners, renegades, and castaways confined to the old airport in Athens—they’re refugees, got no place to go, no homeland to claim—because the EU has made her a stranger in her own country. She wants to breathe the sea, turn away, but she knows better. She wants to “make friends with the odor” of the outcasts.
Marco Roth also forces us into “an ugly experience of sublimity,” as Mikkel Bolt and Devika Sharma frame it in their interview with Sianne Ngai, the author of Ugly Feelings. “Instinctively, we shy away from wanting to know too much,” Roth says as he meticulously tracks the physical traces of local encounter with the Korean Caliban, Vent Man, in the Philadelphia neighborhood they share—the author as rueful witness to the “enduringly broken” place they inhabit, his subject as evidence that gentrification never paves what is permanent, the human rubble of desire. “People here carry on medievally.”
Ngai won’t stand for the “cognitive powerlessness” that seems to inform the rise of affect theory. She defends the high theory that post-structuralism delivered, and insists that feminism as developed by Butler, Wittig, and Kristeva remains “in the pores of the analysis.” Nevertheless, she shows us how to speak differently about attitudes or sensibilities like envy, shame, irritation—and how the designations of “cute,” zany,” and “interesting” are objective structures of feeling, not merely subjective dispositions. The ambivalence embedded in such labels is itself an incentive to the increase of social affect, because “no one judges by themselves.”
Andrea Crow demonstrates that proposition in her powerful description of organizing the graduate student union at Columbia, ca. 2014-2016. Here, too, words fail, as it were. She believes, with good reason, that unionization is a “genuine plan to save academia” from its death spiral, but what she learned in the course of the campaign might give anyone who lectures for a living pause: “Coherent arguments in print don’t really change minds.” I say pause, not despair: “Face-to-face individual conversations on the ground do.”
Sean McCann’s essay on Orange is the New Black, both the memoir and the TV show, may seem a departure from this affective norm, but it actually adheres to it, by demonstrating that Piper Kerman’s privilege resides in her ability to abstain from the ugly experience of the prison sublime—to escape the realm of necessity, where mostly black bodies bleed and sweat, stink and decay. Piper and Alex “slip wisely away” from the riot that concludes the last season, to the place where they can “think about injustice without having to imagine redistribution.” McCann’s essay enlists Max Weber to recall and recast Nancy Fraser’s dictum, thus changing the meaning and significance of recognition—that is, what we can choose to dignify with language.
Bruce Robbins puts us back in the classroom, that most uncomfortable place, where the privileged species of anti-Semitism supposedly flourishes under the aegis of ant-Zionism, along with the more familiar genus of racism. But he asks how this narrow phantasm subsists on such meager evidence. If it requires power to make itself known, who has it, where does it reside? Pretty clearly not with MLA-affiliated faculty who are passing resolutions in favor of BDS: students and alumni de-hired Steven Salaita. The larger question Robbins asks is, does racism wax and wane as a historical circumstance, or is it an irreducible, abiding affect, always in waiting? He answers by noting that until the election of Donald Trump, incidents of anti-Semitism were a function of Israeli assaults on Gaza.
I finish off this section of Issue #7 with a question for Donald Trump and Henry Kissinger, who have recently convened a mutual admiration society. How do you want to end the long American Century? Bang? Whimper? Let the Russian gangsters run the show, or . . .? Here, too, it gets exhausting, as if the world had become a treadmill. How do you run the world without some knowledge of or investment in the emotional atlas you are etching with your executive orders and your—your tweets?
Herman Melville would seem an unlikely hero of this issue, but there he is. Ishmael the innocent on a whaling ship, a factory afloat, where he fingers every detail of the 19th-century working man’s life as if it were a scar worth the lash, and Bartleby the scrivener at work, or not, in his cubicle, where his self-imposed inertia registers as his refusal to buy the right not to die.
Brad Evans is our bridge to the extra-textual moments of Issue # 7. He writes about the original pussyhat, Le Chat Noir nestled in the covers of Vogue in the 1890s, when feminism was still a scandal. This image, he explains, was the bohemian equivalent of contemporary “locker room talk.” But he rightly insists that the image has no meaning or significance apart from its reception, then and now. “No one judges by themselves,” as Ngai puts it.
But there’s more! Bruce Robbins brings us the trailer for his new documentary on Shlomo Sand, the firebrand who writes best-selling books explaining to his fellow Israelis why apartheid is an appropriate way to understand their relation to Palestinians under their political control.
Then I sit down for a long talk—a podcast—with Corey Robin on the precipice we call contemporary politics, always probing the filial relation between conservatism and what he calls the reactionary mind.
I still think we’re winning. Us leftists, that is. This issue gives me new hope, or at least new faith in my comrades.