Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

What do I do with these ugly feelings? (Post 1)

A sudden thunderstorm forced me to find refuge in Entweder Oder (“Either/Or”) on Oderbergerstrasse in Prenzl Berg, one of my favourite places for a coffee and a quiet spot of reading in the afternoon (Kierkegaard jokes notwithstanding). Actually, I hope to find a moment at some point to post on Kierkegaard as his fantastic essay/thought-experiment entitled “Repetition” has a direct Berlin connection. More on that another time…Sadly, it doesn’t look like Entweder Oder has a wi-fi connection so I will have to post this later today!

I’m currently making my way through Sianne Ngai’s remarkable book, Ugly Feelings which is undoubtedly one of the most impressive attempts to think about the relationship between the cultivation of certain affective states and the obstruction of political ‘labour’. As the author herself states in the book’s opening paragraph: “this book presents a series of studies in the aesthetic of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in a range of cultural artifacts produced in what T.W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” (2005: 1). Ugly Feelings eschews the kind of celebratory (and acquiescent) vitalism which courses through a wide range of contemporary affect theory. It seeks to remain alert to particular states of feeling such as envy, irritation, and paranoia and the ways in which they are themselves symptomatic of a “general state of obstructed agency” (3) that is characteristic of our own thoroughly commodified society.

Ngai charts these affective gaps and elisions through close readings of literature, film, and broader cultural theory (from Melville to Freud, Hitchcock to Ellison, Stein to Beckett). I can’t think of a recent book which evinces such a command of theory while remaining refreshingly attentive to both text and image. While Ngai is right to acknowledge how such “dysphoric affects” remain the “psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs,” she strives to recuperate their “critical productivity” as modest forms of resistance (3) . One may even plausibly describe the book as setting out a negative dialectics of ‘affect’ with a view to rethinking the connection (dare I say complicity) between the artful mobilization of certain affects and the ‘untruth’ (or semblance character) of the Culture Industry. In Ngai’s book, ‘affect’ is often a crucial predicate to the simulated nonfeltness of feeling that is the fuel and ontological ‘bedrock’ of capitalist exchange (76). I’m still working my way through the book, so I hope to post on it again – I was thinking possibly of something on Gertrude Stein’s notion of ‘open feeling’ and various theories of repetition.


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This entry was posted on July 8, 2009 by in Affect, Art, Politics, Theory.
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