Saturday, 8 January 2011

"Affect and the Politics of Austerity: An interview exchange with Lauren Berlant"

Sir Andrew (Ian McKellen, L) bids adieu to Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) on the steps of the Foreign Ministry in the film version of David Hare's play Plenty (Fred Schepisi, 1985), in part an acute study of some of the early affective conditions, after the Second World War, for the rise of neo-liberalism in the UK.
One of the most useful activities in defence of their disciplines in which Arts and Humanities academics can engage, at present, is, wherever possible, the turning of their scholarly attention to analyses and public discussions of the production of present conditions. Such acts of deconstruction and uncovering may turn out to be the most effective forms of resistance.

One Humanities academic who has been doing this most compellingly, and for many years, is Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago.

Berlant has written about the production of legal and affective public spheres in the United States from the 19th century to the present: in particular, formal and informal modes of social belonging or citizenship. These might be organized according to political, racial, sexual, or economic status; they might be forged in everyday life. She also works on the public circulation of emotions like trauma, love, optimism, and political depression. She is the author of Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (2001), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997) and The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia and Everyday Life (1991), as well as The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008). She is currently writing about the "negative emotions that bind subjects to normativity despite the stresses of contemporary everyday life: Cruel Optimism is largely a book about affective experiences of neoliberalism, and their aesthetic mediations."

Below is an excerpt from a very recent exchange with Berlant on the current 'politics of austerity' in the UK and elsewhere by Gesa Helms and Marina Vishmidt for Variant, issue 39/40. You can read the whole interview here.
    Lauren Berlant: Polly Toynbee wrote a great sentence about the savage cuts of the new austerity: “The price of everything was laid out, but not the value of anything about to be destroyed.” What does it mean for a symbolic relation to be too expensive, an unbearable burden? The image of the good life is too dear; something has to be sacrificed. The attempt to associate democracy with austerity – a state of liquidity being dried out, the way wine dries out a tongue – is fundamentally anti-democratic. The demand for the people’s austerity hides processes of the uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability. Democracy is supposed to hold out for the equal distribution of sovereignty and risk. Still, austerity sounds good, clean, ascetic: the lines of austerity are drawn round a polis to incite it toward askesis, toward managing its appetites and taking satisfaction in a self-management in whose mirror of performance it can feel proud and superior. In capitalist logics of askesis, the workers’ obligation is to be more rational than the system, and their recompense is to be held in a sense of pride at surviving the scene of their own attrition.
    See also Berlant's research blog Supervalent Thought for more of her work on these questions, and especially the recent post Crossover/Combover: A performance piece (Approach 3: from ASA 2010)

    Thanks to JDR and JC for the links.

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