After Irony

After Irony

Can affect theory help us understand our contemporary unease—and express our dreams for the future—without becoming a stand-in for the slow, hard work of politics?

Kathy Acker (via Vol. 1 Brooklyn)

Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction
by Lee Konstantinou
Harvard University Press, 2016, 384 pp.

Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism
by Rachel Greenwald Smith
Cambridge University Press, 2015, 194 pp.


In July 2015 the writer Jess Zimmerman tried to settle a bill with the men in her life. The charges were for “unpaid emotional labor”; payment was long overdue. “Acknowledge your thirsty posturing, $50,” she wrote in an essay for the Toast website. “Pretend to find you fascinating, $100. Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150.” Frustrated that her advice and attention always went uncompensated, she insisted that the kind of care demanded of women should be considered work. We might not end up charging our friends and family, she wrote, “but we absolutely get to recognize that the constant labor of placating men and navigating patriarchal expectations is exhausting because it’s work.

Zimmerman’s essay signals the intensification of a decades-long discussion of the relationship between feelings and labor. In 1979 Arlie Hochschild developed the concept of “emotional labor” to describe how employers train workers to “induce or suppress feelings” as part of the job. Examples included the cheeriness of female flight attendants as well as the threatening manner of bill collectors. Today, this kind of labor is required of workers across sectors: nurses, teachers, customer-service workers, and domestic workers. (This is to say nothing of the emotional labor men require of women, or white people demand from people of color.) Even start-up employees are told to “do what they love” and warned that they might be called to account for not loving more volubly. Our smiles aren’t simply expressions of goodwill; they are our insurance against unemployment.

The primacy of feelings in our economy has given rise to a new field of scholarly inquiry. “Affect studies” refers to humanistic and social-scientific investigations of the ways that feelings are generated, experienced, and interpreted. An affect is a particular kind of feeling, one distinct from an emotion. For academics in the field, affects are feelings that reside not in individual people but in social groups, institutions, or physical spaces. They’re not personal property; rather, they belong to a social body or to a collective experience. Individuals who participate in social life are always responding to these affects, sometimes by sharing a dominant affect, sometimes by rejecting it. If you work in academia, for example, you may feel anxious because the corporate university is pervaded by free-floating anxiety—you imbibe the affect that the institution generates. Drawing on queer theory and feminist theory, scholars interested in affect ask us to probe the negative feelings we experience on a daily basis—depressed, anxious, fearful—to see how they might reveal something about our political and economic circumstances.

Two new books examine the relationship between affect and politics. Lee Konstantinou’s Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction investigates the cultural connection between disaffection and political subversion. He focuses on irony, which, he argues, is always a political feeling. His book demonstrates how, from the midcentury to the present, American literature and culture moved away from irony and embraced a form of sincerity. We now live in a “postironic” moment, a time when irony is no longer cool. Instead, it’s cool—even radical—to love, believe, and hope. Rachel Greenwald Smith’s Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism approaches affect and politics from a different angle. Her study focuses on the way readers respond affectively to literature. Discouraging readers from identifying too much with literary characters, she draws attention to what she calls “impersonal feelings”: feelings that exist not in people, or in characters, but in books themselves. Untethered from individuals, such feelings thwart the market logic of neoliberalism and, perhaps, make collective action possible.

Both scholars suggest that there’s something to be gained politically from probing uncomfortable feelings. This is a principle they share with other affect theorists. Many affect theorists would argue that a negative feeling—like sadness, guilt, or anxiety—is not a psychological problem, belonging to a moody or disordered individual, but rather the product of an unequal economic or political order. Take the case of the “feminist killjoy,” an identity coined by Goldsmiths professor Sara Ahmed. “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism?” she asks. “Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?” Likewise, the Chicago-based Feel Tank—an institution founded by activists, academics, and artists—has offered the following slogan: “Depressed? It Might be Political!” Liberation will come, these thinkers suggest, when we look away from feeling individuals and towards social feelings.

Greenwald Smith, too, wants us to stop privileging the feelings of specific individuals. Her book is, fundamentally, an argument against empathy—more specifically, the empathy readers feel for literary characters. She advises readers to stop seeking out books that move them, or searching for characters to whom they can relate. Instead, she encourages readers to pick up books that seem cold, cerebral, or impersonal. These are the books that will generate productive discomfort; they’ll force readers to reflect and, maybe, to make change.

This argument goes against an old story about the ethical value of reading. We read fiction, so the story goes, in order to encounter people unlike us, and worlds unlike ours. When we relate to these fictional characters, we gain new perspectives, and we become better global citizens. A woman in Wisconsin reads a novel about a young Sudanese refugee, and, distressed by his plight, she starts to raise awareness about the conflict in Darfur. But Greenwald Smith dissuades us from reading in this way: in feeling for and with specific characters, we might become politically quiescent. Channeling Brecht, she argues that a reader’s political consciousness is best awakened not through empathy but through estrangement. In discussions of novels by a range of contemporary American writers, she makes the case for reading fiction that alienates rather than fiction that moves. Emotional catharsis, for Greenwald Smith, is escapism.

Often, she illustrates her argument through comparison, placing one somewhat conventional novel alongside another, more experimental one. Take the contrast she draws between Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road and Paul Auster’s 2002 novel The Book of Illusions. McCarthy’s dystopian novel, which follows a father and son on a journey through a post-nuclear landscape, was widely celebrated—the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the book the 2007 prize for fiction, and Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club. Critics have noted its “tenderness” and called it “emotionally shattering.” But this is precisely the problem, in Greenwald Smith’s opinion: in offering its readers the emotional catharsis they crave, the book gives them no incentive to reflect upon their contemporary situation. Instead, readers are better served by Auster’s supposedly “cold” book, the story of a university professor who mourns the deaths of his wife and children. The book never plumbs the depths of the protagonist’s pain, and as a result, it’s not exactly moving. However, Auster’s novel is the more “transformative” because it forces readers to engage in “detached assessment” of their feelings. Such feelings are often unrecognizable, impersonal, and, according to Greenwald Smith, politically significant; works that produce them are “not easily incorporated into a market model of literary production and consumption.”

Indeed, one of the main reasons she thinks “impersonal feelings” are politically useful is because they disrupt current economic relations. Identifying with a literary character, and feeling moved by that character’s emotional experiences, is far too similar to the neoliberal subject’s habit of investing money, time, or even love with the expectation of a guaranteed return. Using this reasoning, Greenwald Smith argues that reading Karen Tei Yamashita’s “chaotic” 1997 novel Tropic of Orange, a story told from the perspective of many different characters, does more to dismantle neoliberalism than reading Jonathan Franzen’s heralded 2001 novel The Corrections. This is because she believes the emotional bonds we form these days are too often transactional; a novel like Franzen’s encourages us to make similar affective contracts with characters. In her account, we now form friendships—“affective ties”—not out of love or compassion but out of “economic imperative,” as a way of making sure we’re adequately networked. She suggests that by reading books that demand similar affective attachments, we only reinforce the structures of neoliberal life.

But there’s a problem with the way Greenwald Smith describes American life under neoliberalism. For her, contemporary life is defined by increased freedom as well as increased privatization. The neoliberal individual is an “entrepreneurial actor,” someone whose daily life is defined by increased, dizzying freedom and an ever-proliferating bevy of consumption choices: “we can choose among three different private insurers; six different charter schools; eighteen different espresso drinks; four different student loan providers; organic bananas or free trade; natural gas or oil; twelve blockbuster films.” But these experiences only pertain to one segment of American society—those who are insured, employed, and empowered with disposable income. For many, neoliberalism is about the constriction of choice and the diminishment of freedoms. It’s not about espresso drinks or free trade bananas but about prison cells, falling wages, occupying armies, and poisoned water. These problems won’t be solved by reading cerebral books.

In fact, it’s not quite clear how reading—and feeling—according to Greenwald Smith’s theory amounts to political resistance. Time and again in her book, we read that certain novels match up with neoliberalism—the form of one 9/11 novel “runs parallel to” the policies of the Bush administration, while another kind of formal experimentation “finds an analog in” global capitalism. This isn’t the same, however, as saying that this fiction props up the neoliberal state in any real way. To be sure, literature helps form our beliefs about ourselves and our world. While it’s possible that books like Auster’s might cause us to question some of these beliefs, it seems a bit of a reach to imagine that immersion in any novel’s affective atmosphere could compel a change in the global order. Also, books that trade on a reader’s compassion can advance political change quite effectively. One thinks of recent fiction by feminist authors like Chris Kraus, Elena Ferrante, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—works firmly grounded in the emotional experiences of individual characters. At times ironic and playful, at times sincere and, yes, moving, these books do the work of consciousness-raising.

Konstantinou has a more concrete idea about what it means to engage in politically revolutionary action. (A hint: it involves organizing.) But for him, the more interesting question is why, in the postwar United States, certain creative and literary communities understood displays of feelings or attitudes as political acts. Drawing on literary and cultural history, he focuses on the life and afterlife of irony. For him, irony is not just a feature of good literature but a disposition, an attitude, an ethos. Over the last fifty years, irony has migrated from the margins of American life to the center; as a result, writers and thinkers have been forced to adopt different attitudes in order to criticize the political and cultural mainstream. Showing us how we got from bohemia to the Believer, Konstantinou examines four character types who relate to irony in some way. The midcentury hipster and the 1970s punk were ironists: they belonged to bohemian subcultures that maintained a critical distance from the mainstream. Two contemporary figures are “postironic”; they’ve moved beyond irony and embraced an ethic of sincerity. They are the “believer,” which he describes as “a newly earnest countercultural figure” modeled on David Foster Wallace, and the “coolhunter,” a type of trend forecaster. In an epilogue, Konstantinou addresses the figure of the “occupier,” a different kind of hipster from the hipster of the midcentury, who marries irony and sincerity in a new way.

Cool Characters is a remarkably thorough work of literary scholarship, most valuable for how it unravels the political thinking of canonical American writers (Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer), as well as some celebrated contemporary writers. Konstantinou takes evident delight in tracing the influences and legacies of each of his authors—in showing, for example, the way French feminist thought influenced the avant-garde writer Kathy Acker, who was associated with the New York punk scene. The chapter on punk is in fact the book’s most provocative. In it, Konstantinou suggests that anarchic writers like Acker aimed to bring about utopias but actually shored up the political order. In his account, punks rebelled against the state, but their rebellion didn’t always amount to anti-capitalist action (there’s even an implication that punk politics may have anticipated neoliberalism). The political vision of punk, which was grounded in the destruction of state-protected private property rights, was in fact perfectly synonymous with the dictates of free-market capitalism. Many of these subversive writers ended up popular, he argues, because they were telling “Americans a story about themselves that many of them—that many of us—want to hear.”

The chapter points to Konstantinou’s general skepticism of those who claim that their detached, disaffected attitudes amount to political resistance. The trouble with adopting the guise of irony, he argues, is that it makes politics an individual matter rather than a collective one. The danger of “cultivating personal irony” is that it “might, at best, allow us to shelter ourselves from the nastier depredations of capitalist modernity without having to do the hard work of engaging in political action or transforming dominant institutions.” In other words, the adoption of a cultural attitude becomes a stand-in for political action. This isn’t to ignore the politics of culture entirely—Konstantinou thinks that some leftist critics are too quick to dismiss the role culture plays in politics. But he is wary of the kind of political “quietism” that postures of irony can produce.

It’s not only the ironists who come under fire. Konstantinou is also skeptical of “believers,” those who suggest that exhibiting childlike wonder amounts to challenging political oppression. He argues that we must dispense with the fantasy that countercultural ways of being (or buying) will change the political order. Our sentiments, whether feigned or authentically felt, have less of an impact than we might like. To effect change, we need to develop clear political goals and effective tactics. Not surprisingly, he is skeptical of the “prefigurative” politics of a movement like Occupy, which, he fears, could produce more cynicism than it cures. “If you think you have already literally lived the future,” he writes, “you may become quietist. If you thought that the General Assembly was the sole legitimate means of achieving a better future, and came to see it destroyed . . . you might become cynical.” We must instead engage in “specific ambitious, sustainable, scalable, and—yes—sometimes dull political projects” of transforming the structures and institutions that produce cynicism as well as political and economic inequality.

It’s hard to find fault with this prescription for political change, but it’s also hard to imagine how diverse groups of people might engage in collective political projects without a small dose of prefiguration—what some might call hope. Sustaining the hard and disciplined work of actual movement-building requires the utopian imagination and desire of the General Assembly—people must learn to dream, feel, and relate in ways to which they’re unaccustomed. At the same time, though, decisions must be made, and opposition must be overcome. This is where Konstantinou’s hardheaded pragmatism is not only useful but necessary.

The negotiation between pragmatism and utopia is the hallmark of political life. Politics may be the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” in Weber’s evocative phrase, but it is no less an endeavor of passion. If Greenwald Smith overstates the political significance of feelings, Konstantinou slightly undersells it. Sentiments aren’t actions, but they’re often the precursor to actions. It’s in the transition from fear to rage, or from rage to inspiration, that political transformation becomes possible. More work—hard, “dull” work—must be done to turn collective desires into realities, but these desires must be recognized, articulated, even cultivated. The use of affect theory is that it offers us a way to understand and express our dreams for the future as well as our contemporary unease. Hope, too, might be political—not just a comforting feeling, but a necessary tool.

 Maggie Doherty is a lecturer at Harvard.

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