“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Insta-Affect: The New Age of Sensibility

Yes, that's right. Everyone's partying like it's 1779. For someone who cut their intellectual teeth studying that period, it's deja-vu all over again.

It kinda proves the point I keep making, that we are still stuck in that period, trying to find exits, without studying the ways in which most exits were tried between then and about 1832.

[talkin about white Western culture here]

Sensibility is an almost perfect eighteenth-century version of what scholars now call affect, which is like emotion only you're really not in charge of it at all, and it isn't really you. Putting your hands in the air and waving them like you just don't care. It's like the way your nerves shudder...they discovered the nervous system and invented this whole culture and aesthetics and politics out of it...

Affect is sensibility with a different vocabulary. John Hartley and David Hume versus Deleuze et al.

This is the kind of thing that the Romantics were rebelling against. It's not true to think that they were into being swamped by insta-affect. Wordsworth thought that was basically oppressive, tyrannical overstimulation. The whole idea of those guys was to introduce some hesitation, some reflection.

And to go “You want to contact the other? You want to identify with suffering people? All right--let's do it.” And then writing poems about identifying with mentally disabled people, absolutely destitute vagabonds, murderers, and so on...

You think politics should be based on sympathy? Let's go...

The insta-affect religion believes, like Rousseau, that a gigantic swell of emotion, re-tweeted as rapidly as possible, amplified by the number of shuddering bodies, is democracy in action. He wasn't quite right. Just ask Goebbels.


It's pretty obvious to figure out what he meant in the cases of feminism (he was a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft), animal rights (he wrote a lot about it) and anti-slavery (and that too).

Version 1: There is a power relationship: the pitied thing, and the pitier.
Version 2: We must all be feeling the same vibe--to be transparent to one another, a gigantic sea of easy to identify insta-affect.

Those might not be the same thing as solidarity, he understated.

For instance: if you really hate (rather than say you hate) politicians who keep doubling down on being "right" when evidently they're so wrong, you might want to scrub Version 2 from your wish list. You get the politicians you deserve.

Romantic art is all about being wrong, beautifully. Realizing that there has been some kind of mistake. That there is a crack in the real. And so on...

That doesn't mean it doesn't care. It means it cares even more. When you get really up close to something, it stops looking like that something. A rock-face. An idiot. An emotion. Ever had that feeling of unreality when you're having a car accident?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a colleague who is all up in empathy ... how can we show empathy to survivors of terrible things etc etc -- and, frankly, it makes me queasy as fuck. Like, if I were raped on campus, I really don't want this colleague attempting to affectively empathize with me. I'd prefer a safe campus because that's the good thing to do. Period. It doesn't have to be felt to the bones to agree that people shouldn't be hurt... that reparation is owed. Also: Can one empathize with objects? Is that the goal?