Reading for Affect, from Literature and Film to Facebook and #Occupy: Why an Epistemological Lens Matters in the Criticism of Capitalist Cultural Politics
What is the relationship between affect and politics? I recently happened upon a scholarly debate in a Facebook forum devoted to literary criticism about whether Slavoj Žižek was founded in declaring that the “passionate attachment” of falling in love was analogous to that of political engagement.1 One scholar claimed, on the basis of experience, that politics could not equal love in intensity; another scholar claimed, also on the basis of experience, that it could. Both perspectives seem defensible and potentially important. But what is even more interesting to me than the broad and absolute claims we feel authorized to make about the nature of emotion on the grounds of personal experience is thinking through the reasons why we feel authorized to make such claims in the first place.
I would like to approach the aforementioned debate from this latter distance—that is to say, not engaging it directly at all, but rather wondering about its epistemological foundation. I take as a point of departure the view of epistemology as an exercise in extended narrative in the creation of paradigms of human knowledge, its rules, frontiers, and possibilities always contingent, always subject to change, but shifting only on what Michel Foucault called the “deepest strata of Western culture.”2 In this essay, I will sketch out a working hypothesis of what those deepest strata might be for democratic capitalism in the modern West, which I argue brings into view a shift of cultural episteme from reason to affect in the Age of Revolution that becomes eminently visible during the current era of globalization. I will then consider the Hispanist literary canon during this same time period to gauge the epistemological framework at play and to consider how it squares with the periodization that I have proposed largely as a function of France and the United States in the Age of Revolution. Turning to the cultural present, when I argue that affective epistemicity is becoming pervasive on a global scale, I will flesh out its contours through a close comparative analysis of two Latin American films. Finally, I will come full circle to my epistemological lens on the opening debate about the relationship between affect and politics, and its import for cultural criticism.
From Rational to Affective Epistemicity
What are the established terms of the epistemological narration of human knowledge? In the modern West, reason has been the physiological process overwhelmingly credited with the production of human knowledge. The iconic Cartesian cogito “I think, therefore I am” has served as a conceptual lightning rod for narrating—and thus defining—knowledge since the seventeenth century as the exclusive purview of self-conscious rational cognition. The rational cogito has long been conceptually synonymous with modernity and science.
Implicit in this famous formulation is the residual rendering—if not abjectification—of the “being” body over which the “thinking” mind presides. Cartesian mind-body dualism privileges the rational mind and relegates the passionate body to subordinate status. This story of the primacy of the superior rational mind and the relative insignificance of the inferior non-rational body has held culturally hegemonic sway for nearly four hundred years.
All of a sudden, over the past twenty years, affect has emerged as a challenger for the role of protagonist in the storytelling about human knowledge. By some bold counts, modernity is no longer best comprehended through the optic of rationality. Literary critic Patricia Clough calls our attention to what she dubs an “affective turn” in which no aspect of our contemporary social fabric may be fully understood without the consideration of affectivity, a term I employ as the obverse of rationality: sensory perception, emotion, feeling.3 It is not only modernity that is being redefined but also, and perhaps even more significantly from the perspective of epistemological storytelling, scientific discourse. In a groundbreaking rejection of the investigative—epistemological—insignificance of emotion, neurologist Antonio Damasio posits that emotion is the very seat of reason and the foundation of the human condition itself. Damasio’s influential trade publications in the early 1990s coincide with the onset of a steady and rising upswing in funding for affect-related scientific research.4
Four hundred years of epistemic reason have yielded our comprehension of reason as such: as what Foucault made salient, in the Order of Things, as an episteme. Indeed, in this magisterial study treating this same time period—the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries—Foucault lays bare an epistemological archaeology of the modalities of reason in modern European thought. Hierarchical taxonomies as a means of imposing order on the external world dominate the early modern era. Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes argues persuasively that this taxonomizing rationality underwrote the epistemological conquest of the New World by the Old.5 On the strength of Ángel Rama’s reading of Spanish empire as a thinking monarchical head governing an overseas colonial body, the time period for the cogito as modern imperial praxis could be traced in its conceptual origins as far back as the Catholic Kings in the late fifteenth century.6 Indeed, this rationalized conquest—its epistemological aspect underwriting its political, economic, and cultural aspects—would be what thinkers like psychiatrist and anti-colonialist revolutionary Frantz Fanon would centuries later decry as the most insidious mechanism of European imperialism.7 Interestingly, and significantly, then, the rational Cartesian subject was exposed and rejected—overthrown—on the grounds of foundational collusion with modern empire.
The mid-twentieth-century throes of global decolonization and the intellectual decapitation of the Cartesian subject therein dovetail with the globalization of liberal democracy and the onset of the so-called “affective turn.”8 As a thought experiment that is also the central conceit of the present inquiry, let us entertain as a possible diachronic epistemological model a correlative relationship, on the one hand, between rationality and imperialism, and, on the other, between affectivity and democratic capitalism. Cartesian rationality is a dualistic relationship in which the self is split between superior transcendental interiority of mind and inferior residual exteriority of body—an epistemological model wholly resonant, if not coeval, with the imperialist logic of a rational governing head ruling over an unruly body politic, like the classic 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan in which the head and upper body of an absolute sovereign rise up to preside in enormity over a landscape in comparative miniature scale of settled land.9
Of course, companies and private capital played an enormous role in the establishment and proliferation of European empire. Perhaps the most notorious example of the intertwined nature of mercantilism and colonialism was the East India Company, which, founded in the very juncture of England’s maritime-colonial ascent following the decisive 1588 defeat of Spain’s “Invincible” Armada, would become so powerful as to colonize India in 1757, governing by proxy until formal colonization took place a century later. A bourgeois mercantile class possessed of such hefty economic, political, and military might was bound to be on a collision course with top-heavy monarchical rule. By 1751, the French term “laissez faire” had made its first known print appearance.10 Semantically, the third-person plural/formal command “laissez faire” seeks freedom from a higher and greater power to “let do” in trade and commerce; the fact that this petition assumes the form of the imperative would seem to signal an urgency of discontent that a social class capable of economic self-determination, yet hemmed in and denied political autonomy by the constraints of kings, would have been feeling on the eve of the Age of Revolution.
“Laissez faire” answers the cogito in an epistemologically contestatory way: the imperative mode notwithstanding, it is a voice that speaks from below, asking for a freedom that it does not enjoy, and which is at the mercy of a higher authority to give or deny. It is, in short, a subaltern subject, whose contours are further elucidated within the original formulation, which is said to have been “laissez-nous faire“ (“Lettre à l’Auteur” 111)—”let us do”—in a first-person plural speech act that casts the residual body politic as “we.”11 This “we” asks for a loosening of constraints, regulations, rules. It asks for the suspension of vertical power.
This “we” that anticipates the French Revolution finds its conceptual parallel in the contemporaneous “we, the people” that is the speaking subject of the United States Declaration of Independence; their respective “liberté, egalité, fraternité” under the organizing principle “ce qui est immoral est impolitique” and “all men are created equal” for the enjoyment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are likewise resonant. A political life measured in feeling is declared in both instances as the model for a perfectly equal and free—democratic—social order harmonious in its brotherly horizontality. The implicit homology between morality and capital in these bourgeois revolutions is rendered explicit in the writings of Adam Smith, who theorizes the circulation of capital and morality throughout the body politic in the same terms, as being guided by an internal wisdom that Smith famously metaphorizes as an “invisible hand.”12
The portrait of this collective social subject that emerges in the composite when all of these components are considered as a whole is one whose governance is internal—that is, self-governance—on terms that are fully comprehensible, reasonable, and functional to that self, but which require no guidance or direction from without. This collective “we” of the Revolutionary Age is one that has discursively dispensed with the thinking head of monarchy—and literally, by guillotine—and instead of rationality now affirms a logic of affectivity: a social order that, having done away with the erstwhile sovereign head, vindicates itself, the formerly abject body, as a headless soma that can feel its way toward order. The passions that were once used as a label of dismissive vilification of the commoners by the ruling elite are now rehabilitated as an epistemological elegization of that very class. The bourgeois remainder—what in France was indistinct from the rest of the Third Estate, that is, all who were not nobility or clergy—takes its revenge by investing with the power of political self-determination and autonomy the very body that had been discounted within the epistemological schema of rationality, and, moreover, identifying its base passions as the medium of its felicitous self-governance. As though by homeostatic principle, the headless bourgeois soma feels its way toward social—political and economic—equilibrium. Historian Nicole Eustace claims as much in her analysis of the American Revolution as a political movement made possible by the discursive valorization of emotion in its universal dimension. “Passion is the gale,” her book avers in its subtitle.13 During the eighteenth-century Age of Revolution, Eustace affirms, emotion becomes what I would call the epistemological glue of political horizontality, as that which underpins perfect brotherhood and perfect democracy, because it is what binds all people—and not just an elite—together, creating a “we” and legitimizing its power.
An Epistemological Analysis of the Modern Hispanist Canon
How does the birth of epistemological affectivity as a function of capitalist democracy in the eighteenth century affect cultural representation since that time? I argue that epistemological affectivity is most salient in the aforementioned explosion of storytelling interest in emotion—and I use the term “storytelling” in the broadest possible way, akin to the poststructuralist notion of a “text” that goes far beyond the borders of a book or the parameters of a discipline marked as literary, to include all inquiries into human knowledge, whether in the humanities or sciences, whether empirical or representational. For the purposes of periodization, it is telling, as I have already underscored, that the onset of broad investigative and representational interest in affect coincides with the definitive end of formal empire and colonialism—both in the process of decolonization and the end of the Cold War, which had perpetuated a colonialist division of global territory.
But what of the centuries that lie in between? The tracing of an epistemological historiography of the cultural discourse of emotion would be tantamount to rewriting Foucault’s Order of Things, beginning after the seismic shift he identifies at the end of the eighteenth century and replacing his persistently rational lens with that of affect. This is a challenging proposition, for between the birth of capitalist democracy and its so-called, though fiercely disputed, universal triumph, there lie three centuries of complex global politics.
There is a course that I have taught many times over which affords me precisely this diachronic optic. It is a survey of canonical modern Hispanic texts from 1700 to the present in both Spain and Latin America. I would here like to offer a meditation on how I have been teasing out the relationship between the epistemological model of the democratic-capitalist feeling soma and the texts that I treat from the perspective of my training as a Latin Americanist critic.
The beginning of the course has a certain simplicity and ease because of the fact that it involves received epistemological knowledge: I explain to my students what the Enlightenment is—an obsession with reason, they conclude—and we proceed to consider the ways in which reason turns up in texts from Bourbon Spain and colonial Spanish America. In Benito Jerónimo Feijoo’s “Causas del atraso que se padece en España en orden a las ciencias naturales” (“On the Causes of Spain’s Backwardness in the Order of the Natural Sciences”; 1742), we see a carefully constructed plea for the acceptance of scientific empiricism by the theologically-minded institutional status quo.14 Feijoo casts God as the “Author of Nature” (“Autor de la Naturaleza”; section 12), thereby discursively legitimizing the study of the material world (as opposed to the spiritual) and the acquisition of knowledge through direct observation (as opposed to faith). Tomás de Iriarte’s “El gato, el lagarto y el grillo” (“The Cat, the Lizard, and the Cricket”; 1782) constitutes a lyrical paraphrasis of Feijoo’s position.15 In this fable from the animal world, a learned cat—much like Feijoo’s anecdotal character “Teopompo,” an ecclesiastical scholar profoundly ignorant in the natural sciences—pontificates aloud in incomprehensibly complicated terminology. A lizard looks on, utterly perplexed by the cat’s opaque language, yet finally comprehends the situation when he deduces—through direct observation, like Feijoo’s “Charistio,” an expert on Enlightenment thought—that the cat’s unintelligible latinate utterances mean to communicate his intention to ingest sunflower nectar to reduce his abdominal swelling. The cricket of the story, like Feijoo’s “rudo Vulgo” (“vulgar Commoners”), entirely lacking in the lizard’s powers of direct observation, instead applauds the cat’s pompous display, failing to condemn him for unintelligibility or to comprehend the merits of the lizard’s comparatively simple, plain speech. Revolving around the grammatical figure of the esdrújula, words whose emphasis falls on the antepenultimate syllable, and which are quintessentially emblematic of the scholarly register, the poem performs an intimate knowledge of the very form it critiques, in the process amassing a long list of esdrújulas comprised of the medical, pedagogical, and poetic terms either employed by the pedantic cat or used to disparage him.
This performance of an exhaustive inventory as a means of representing the possession of knowledge—and power over what is known through its display—is a narrative rendering of the dominion of the thinking mind over the unruly material body. In Iriarte’s case, the raw material whose mastery is demonstrated, positioning the poetic subject as its reigning authority, is the language of Spanish imperial culture—of the Church and Crown. Indeed, the poem concludes with the poetic subject’s taunting summary of the fable that has been recounted as a medicinal antidote for the kind of pedantic institutionality that it critiques.
Iriarte’s masterful catalogue of esdrújulas will further evolve into Linnean taxonomy in Alexander von Humboldt’s letter, “A Willdenow” (“To Willdenow”; 1801), in which the celebrated German naturalist will treat the whole of Spanish American flora and fauna as raw material for his—decidedly European—collection of knowledge.16 (The original iteration of this course paired Humboldt with Pratt’s notion of “planetary consciousness” at this juncture to facilitate the consideration of Humboldt’s epic travels through Latin America as a seminal instance of epistemological conquest.17) Simón Bolívar, Andrés Bello, and Esteban Echeverría—the “Liberator” of Latin America, its earliest lettered statesman, and writerly political activist, respectively—all echo this central organizing principle at the heart of this rationalized cataloguing and taxonomizing. Bolívar’s “Carta de Jamaica” (1815), written in the throes of the continental struggle for independence, begins with a genuflection to Humboldt that then strategically dethrones him from his seat of epistemological conquest.18 Bolívar declares the continent to be impossibly enigmatic—therefore unknowable by outsiders, even the great Humboldt—yet then goes on to lay out a detailed region-by-region portrait of Latin America in three ways: first describing the rebellious populations of the colonies, then giving a summary of their inchoate revolutionary self-governance, and finally giving an analysis of their political futurity. It is this display of unparalleled territorial knowledge that Bolívar uses to establish his discursive sovereignty, counterbalancing the fact that he is, in truth, writing from the precarious position of requesting—almost begging for—England’s military aid in procuring definitive independence from Spain. Bello’s triumphal “Silva a la agricultura de la zona tórrida” (1826), penned in the first blush of definitive Latin American independence, takes as its point of departure the lyrical detailing of the continent’s countryside.19 Now this detailing focuses not on the development of botanical knowledge, but on the inventory of agricultural products; as Santiago Colás brilliantly argues, Bello is aware of the latent value of the Latin American landscape and anxious for Latin Americans—and not neocolonial interlopers, unnamed but implicit—to reap that wealth and resultant political power as their own, thus giving foundational stability to their fledgling nations.20 In yet another echo of the same discursive pattern, Echeverría’s “El matadero” (1838; published 1871), the most frequently cited and studied example of a Latin American cuadro de costumbres, includes an extensive and detailed description of an Argentine slaughterhouse, as though through an empirical lens.21 Here the posture of empiricism is meant to lend incontrovertible truth value to the vision of the slaughterhouse as bloody, violent, and uncivilized, to the end of using it as a condemnatory metaphor for the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Mariano José de Larra’s contemporaneous short story, “El castellano viejo” (1832), is also considered part of the genre of the cuadro de costumbres and shares the same hyperdetailed descriptiveness, here in the service of painting a picture of middle-class Spain.22 The narrator, a refined and worldly writer by the pen name Fígaro—whose name implies the superiority of French culture—finds himself reluctantly compelled to attend the birthday dinner of a crass and uncultured acquaintance whose thorough lack of manners and social grace embody the cultural ills of the insular nation. Yet in the final clause of the very last sentence of this extended diatribe against uncouth Spain, Larra abruptly turns the full weight of the story’s moralizing judgment against itself: he asks, quickly and concisely, whether the middle class, for all its painful gaffes and provincial gaudiness, might not in fact be morally superior after all. Why? Because—and here is where the entire course takes an abrupt turning point right along with the story—the tiny elite to which Fígaro belongs may know how to act with decorum and gentility, but, the final confession goes, this social class knows no true bond of affection. It is the middle class which, rude and crude though it may be, is truly capable of loving and respecting its neighbor.23
This moment in the story cracks the course in two. All of a sudden, in the course of a single complex clause (which usually requires mapping on the whiteboard for students to fully comprehend), the terms of valorization are radically altered—and permanently so, as we will appreciate as we move forward in time. The logic and narrative patterns of rational all-seeing omniscience are undermined in one fell swoop, upended by a new criterion of critical judgment: affect.
At this juncture, I always find myself, without exception, in difficult terrain, and ironically so, since it is at this point in the course that I begin to enter my own comfort zone of disciplinary expertise. Its challenge lies in the sudden loss of established descriptors for a comprehensive epistemological framework. In the context of the course, we have spent the first third of the semester under the conceptual aegis of the Enlightenment insofar as we have come to understand its rationality as an epistemological model: inventories, catalogs, taxonomies, empiricism. In short, models of externally organized order imposed upon a body—be it language, continent, nature, or nation. Suddenly, all such meticulously and exhaustively crafted demonstrations of cultural power and control founder on their moorings, for the sudden shift sends fatal tremors through the fault lines of the old paradigm. Why does Larra suddenly talk about love and respect? This is, interestingly, a question my students do not ask. Instead, they nod their heads and acquiesce, coming at Larra’s turning of the tables from an experiential perspective, regarding love and respect as thoroughly naturalized rather than constructed discourse. In other words, at this point they slide from the epistemological to the ontological: to them, it seems, love cannot be discursive; it can only be real. Are we so steeped in the epistemological supports of capitalist culture that they are invisible as such? I watch, acutely aware of the lack of adequate disciplinary vocabulary—of the lack of adequate epistemological vocabulary—to explicate this shift, much less to propose that they be just as suspicious of love as they have been of reason as a discursive construct.
In the next several readings, the shift toward a foundationally affective narrative logic only becomes more pronounced. Clarín’s “¡Adiós, Cordera!” (1892) approaches the spread of modernity to rural Spain through the emotional response of a little girl, Rosa, who initially regards the telegraph pole and the train with excitement, but ultimately comes to resent technology and the wide world beyond for their role in stripping her humble family of all that is dear—first their cow, then her only brother to fight in one of the Carlist Wars—to satisfy the gluttony of far-off gentlemen, priests, and “indianos” (men made rich in the New World).24 Rosa’s internal sentimental landscape creates the story’s arc; the somatic metaphor of a city callously devouring the countryside serves as the foundation for its social critique, with Rosa’s “loves” (“sus amores”) being an affective synecdoche for all that is lost in this unsalutary crush of modernity. Miguel de Unamuno develops this line of critique, diagnosing Spain on the verge of the Spanish-American War and the loss of its last colonies as though it were a sick body, outlining a pathology of its moral, cultural, and institutional ailments as a paralytic stagnation (“marasmo”) and prescribing a remedial rejuvenation by means of exposure to contemporary European intellectual currents.25 José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891) exhorts Latin Americans—particularly Cubans—to wake up to the imperial battle that looms overhead and to stand for independence. For the first time in the course, the first-person plural “nosotros” enters the lexicon of revolution. Martí defines this “we” through the prescriptive definition of where its affects should lie: with the autochthonous over the foreign. Correct politics, in effect, derive from correctly placed affective priorities: self-governance turns on self-knowledge; self-knowledge is rooted in a preferential love of the mestizo self (“Nuestra América mestiza” ) as against the European other.26
These late nineteenth-century texts are epistemologically hybrid in the sense that while they move toward affectivity, they also continue to evince some measure of faith in rational institutionality—where Martí, for instance, calls for a supplantation of European models of education, history, and governance by autochthonous ones (in the same way that Domingo Sarmiento has earlier proposed Facundo (1845) as the first sociological study of Argentina, imagining it as the Latin American counterpart of Alexander de Tocqueville’s analysis of the United States).27 But as the course enters the era of full-blown twentieth-century U.S. capitalist cultural dominance, affective logic becomes textually hegemonic. Federico García Lorca’s “New York: oficina y denuncia” (1931) decries the injustice of U.S. social asymmetry through the metaphor of a continual sacrifice of animals symbolic of the powerless poor, imagining the Hudson River as coursing with their blood. Lorca establishes his poetic duty to serve as self-sacrificial empathetic witness as an emotionally charged cultural value judgment in which callous and cold impersonality is associated with the world of ciphers representing the indifference of the elite, whereas passionate feeling and vitality—albeit threatened—are associated with the “other half” (“la otra mitad”), those who occupy the bottom of the social spectrum.28 Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” (1935) likewise casts the structures of civilization as artificial and deadening, and fantasizes about the thrill that would come from using poetic language as a revolutionary weapon to interrupt insitutional culture and to achieve a salutary return to organic nature. This poetic desideratum takes on the stature of moral imperative by the close of the poem with the empathetic testimony and implicit wish to alleviate the suffering of the civilized world personified in “toallas que lloran lentas lágrimas sucias” (“towels that cry slow dirty tears”).29
Toward mid-century, affective textual interiority bears more and more weight of narrative content and meaning. In Juan Rulfo’s “Nos han dado la tierra” (1953), the injustices of Mexican post-revolutionary hypocrisy are communicated through the somatic experience of destitute campesinos walking toward the land granted them by a politics of agrarian reform. Far from fertile, this “comal acalorado” (“hot skillet”) of a promised land cannot support even a modicum of life.30 This theme of social asymmetry as deadening thus continues, here conveyed most centrally and powerfully as the compromise of the poor social subjects’ bodies themselves: the campesinos seem to be walking backward even as they set feet forward; the heat and lack of water impedes the generation of ideas in their minds; they mean to speak but they cannot.31 The material circumstance of poverty and its exacerbation by the very government that ideologically purports to alleviate it has the effect of subjugating the poor at the physiological level. Extreme poverty makes it physically impossible to think, to talk, to make literal and figurative progress—impossible to achieve political agency. This is, in other words, a narrative representation of political injustice as biopolitics.
Gabriel García Márquez’s “Un día de éstos” (1962) also turns an affective optic on political realities, treating brutal dictatorship through an encounter between the powerful and the powerless—a lieutenant turned mayor and a dentist—in which the nuanced subtleties of their physical and emotional dispositions tell the story.32 The way the characters’ eyes move, the extent to which their bodies are tense or relaxed, the way they speak to each other through verbal and body language, all work to narrate a tooth extraction that in turn tells a back story of violent military repression cum corrupt civil governance. This reliance on mood and emotion to tell a political story is arguably nowhere better exemplified than in Víctor Érice’s El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive; 1973), which offers a scathing retrospective critique of three decades of dictatorship under Franco as an education in trauma.33 The young protagonist Ana is an independent thinker whose heart naturally draws her to all that is officially categorized as dangerous: presented with Frankenstein, she feels empathy for the putative monster; warned away from poisonous mushrooms, she nevertheless thinks they smell good. Her expansive judgment of the heart leads her to care for a wounded and hungry fugitive in a wordless friendship that contains one of the only true smiles of the film, yet also runs counter to official sanction: the fugitive, presumably a Republican soldier and possibly the addressee of Ana’s mother’s clandestine letters, is soon killed by the resident official of the Francoism that deems him a criminal rather than friend. Yet Ana’s experience proves otherwise: this “Frankenstein” played gently without killing, only to have been victimized as a monster. The film ends with Ana’s renewing her call to this martyred “spirit” of her father’s beehive, the latter being a metaphor for the coerced ideological conformism of Francoist Spain. Ana’s sustained affection for the fugitive, which is more enduring than the letter her mother burns after his death, symbolizes the subterranean persistence of counterinstitutional memory and the possibility of political resistance. (Another film that I often include in this course, El laberinto del fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth; 2006], is a quasi-fantastical period piece that defies history in returning to the scene of the Spanish Civil War to stage not the destruction but rather the triumph of the maqui resistance, characterizing anti-Francoist resistance as a community network defined by impulses toward love and healing whose spirit will outlive the dictatorship even if historical fact tells us that their bodies would inevitably fall victim to its violence.34 If both El espíritu de la colmena and El laberinto del fauno construct the expectation of an emotionally charged phoenix of political resistance, the 2011 movement of the so-called “indignados” in protest of neoliberal asymmetry and the conservative political status quo presents itself discursively as following this epistemological script, as I will discuss in the final section of this essay.)
As the course takes its final turn into the post-Soviet twenty-first-century era of globalization, the theme of health and well-being (both emotional and bodily) that we have seen with particular insistence since 1898 becomes even more salient. In the final two films of the semester, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga (The Swamp; 2001) and Walter Salles’s Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries; 2004), the decadence of landed social elitism is treated as what we could call ill-being.35 In La Ciénaga, a provincial Argentine family of pepper-growers lives in a state of physical decay that finds its moral equivalent in the swamp-like paralytic lethargy of their inner lives. The family’s bodies are riddled with scars and wounds from their auto-abusive lack of self-care, and they project this self-abuse as racialized “savagery” onto the indigenous working class. The dominant class thus inflicts the emotional cruelty of discrimination onto its own hired help as an unsuccessful palliative for its own pain, which the family also tries, equally unsuccessfully, to alleviate with alcohol, sex—including sensual sibling relationships that flirt discomfittingly with incest—and violent sport.
Diarios de motocicleta picks up where La Ciénaga leaves off: with a bourgeois-dominated social order in desperate need of a cure for its deep structural injustices. Positing Ernesto Guevara’s political awakening as a process of coming into his own as a healer, the film suggests that the young “Che” must first learn the care of self. From the outset, Ernesto’s asthmatic condition is foregrounded; the act of becoming a caring healer of the body politic—i.e., a revolutionary—is figured as tantamount to conquering his own asthma. This care of self that is also therapeutic dominion of the self becomes manifest when Ernesto swims the Amazon from the caregivers’ side of a leprosy colony to the patients’ side, bridging the social divide and dissolving false hierarchies within the universal humanity of what Ernesto has declared to be “una sola América Latina mestiza.” The members of this newly unified community call out together, wave together, and stand together in emotional health and harmony as they bid Ernesto goodbye, with the well-being of the group, which represents all of Latin America, having reached what we understand to be an unprecedented apex.
This exercise in diachronic textual interpretation demonstrates most clearly an arc over the three hundred years in question, 1700-2000, in which the beginning and end points show a marked contrast between epistemological rationality and affectivity, respectively. At the poles of this spectrum, eighteenth-century texts are concerned with rationally organized systems of classification, order, and intellectually justified control; twenty-first century texts are concerned with affectively organized mechanisms of assessment, judgment, and a moral claim to power.
How we chart a historiography to explicate all that lies in between is a more complex proposition. In Spain, the shift from the Habsburg to the Bourbon dynasties in 1700 opens the country up to an uneven but significant influx of liberal thought from the rest of Europe. By the mid-late 1700s such aristocratic entities as the Sociedades Económicas de Amigos del País have formed in many cities in both Spain and Spanish America with the general agenda of advancing industry and agriculture, and encouraging the Crown toward free trade. We might say that this period also initiates the conflictive cycles of liberal-conservative alternation between what José Ortega y Gasset would later call the “two Spains.” At the same time, Latin America is developing a bourgeois criollo class of Spanish-descended natives who will break free from Spain in the Age of Revolution. Yet, if we accept the argument that the nominally sovereign Latin America immediately enters into a neocolonial economic relationship with Great Britain, and so from the standpoint of epistemological analysis, in some ways the entire continent makes the same seismic shift away from colonial empire and toward global capital—arguably a new form of neocolonialism, though by a democratic power—when Spain loses its last colonies in 1898 and England begins to suffer the same fate in the aftermath of World War I, putting an end to what British revisionist historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson controversially called in 1953 its “imperialism of free trade.”36 Santiago Colás’s aforementioned 1995 analysis of post-independence Latin American discourse as desirous of colonial structures of hierarchical power and textually reenacting them is instructive on this point in the sense that it helps to comprehend how colonial rationality could persist in Latin American discourse well into the post-independence era.37
It is important to note that, in this regard, the preceding evidentiary consideration of canonical Hispanic texts thus suggests that the dynamic interplay between rationality and affectivity is different in the Iberoamerican circumstance where imperial and colonial structures, in their material and epistemological dimensions alike, were more culturally powerful for a significantly longer period of time than were their democratic and free-market counterparts. Yet, regardless of how we periodize this lengthy epistemologically hybrid coexistence of formal empire and capitalist democracy on the world stage, what seems clear is that affectivity holds epistemological sway in the contemporary era of neoliberal globalization.
Toward a Contemporary Model of Epistemological Affect
In the first section of this essay, I suggested that we understand modern Western epistemology as being most foundationally constituted by the shift from rationality to affectivity, and underwriting imperialism and capitalist democracy, respectively, in non-Spanish Europe and the United States. As a second movement, I turned to the transatlantic context of Spain and Latin America to consider how a diachronic overview of canonical texts during this same time period squares with this periodization. There my goal was to underscore that the same shift from rationality to affectivity is operative in the Hispanic context over the course of the time period that we generally consider modernity—the eighteenth century to the present—irrespective of the particular ways in which rationality and affectivity were entwined in epistemological competition from the Age of Revolution to late twentieth-century globalization in Iberoamerican discourse. Whereas in the second section I framed my brief textual analyses with an eye to a broader measure of a diachronic epistemological differential, since my objective was the demonstration of an overarching pattern across centuries, here in a third section I would like to focus in depth on the contours of affectivity as an epistemological model in the present cultural moment.
To this end, I have paired two Latin American films made in the past decade by renowned directors and enjoying significant distribution and critical reception: Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness (Canada/Brazil/Japan, 2008) and Pablo Trapero’s Carancho (The Vulture; Argentina, 2010), both of which develop a symbology of dystopian car culture that serves to theorize the pathways of neoliberal power.38
I would like to give a brief analysis of each film before turning to a final consideration of how their representations of the social as a function of car culture evince a common epistemological model that I hypothesize is in play in broader global culture.
Blindness begins with a full-screen close-up of lights clicking red and green before giving way to a long shot of generic “anywhere” urban streets at rush hour, which look like a crawling parking lot, one false move away from gridlock. As the film shows us a range of characters moving through that milieu, we appreciate how social life is defined as a grid of hierarchies based on inequities of social class, race, and gender; in this light, the red and green traffic signals represent these strict segregations. That hierarchical verticality should be decried as the backbone of neoliberal culture is its worst possible accusation, for it suggests that the capitalist claim to happy and salutary democratic horizontality is a false and empty ideological shell masking a deeper reality of neocolonial asymmetry. This accusation grows in crescendo when the outbreak of a pandemic affliction of blindness abruptly moves the neoliberal grid into quarantine, where the logic of materialist asymmetry is perversely exaggerated and patently sovereign. One group manages to achieve liberation from the quarantine and, against the backdrop of a sea of motionless cars that symbolizes social death, this small band practices a new form of being-together by moving through the chaos of neoliberal post-apocalypse by holding hands and feeling their way through space as a collective—feeling with their hands and their hearts alike, in both tactile and moral terms. The small renegade community reinhabits private property now defined as shared space, bathing together in a symbolic rebirth and breaking bread together in a first supper. Black, white, Asian, male, female, old, young, rich, poor: all such distinctions are swept away in favor of a common togetherness held together by caresses and laughter. The film ends with the regaining of sight by a member of the group whose first words are a declaration of how beautiful his companions are. When we truly see, the film suggests, our vision reveals the communal beauty of humanity, without unjust asymmetries of any kind. The car culture of asymmetrical isolation—of living in individual and hierarchical compartments—cedes to a culture of perfectly horizontal touch and commingling in which material goods flow according to need, without the hoarding or stagnation of their greed-driven accumulation as capital.
Pablo Trapero’s Carancho also treats dystopian neoliberal culture through the metaphor of cars, but it is infinitely more pessimistic in its vision. Nominally, the film is about the romance between an ambulance-chasing lawyer and a paramedic whose relationship is threaded through the lawyer’s criminal activity of staging accidents for the purpose of gaining clients. But the overarching character in the film is the traffic that courses incessantly through the dark and lugubrious city. The film begins with an opening caption that gives a staggering statistic of some 10,000 deaths from automobile accidents in the last ten years in Buenos Aires. Later, the first flirtatious conversation between the lawyer and the paramedic turns on how commonplace it has come to be for cars to run red lights. From that point on, the film develops quickly as a crime noir thriller; the lawyer and the paramedic are forced to bet their lives on the success of an elaborate scheme for liberation from the corrupt forces bearing down upon them. This proposition is vertiginous: the lawyer’s unscrupulous boss makes clear the extent to which this underbelly of neoliberalism has every thread of the social fabric in its grip when he hisses, “Los clientes son míos, el caso es mío, la policlínica es mía, el país es mío“ (“The clients are mine, the case is mine, the clinic is mine, the country is mine”). Indeed, we see that corruption has woven a seamless connection between hospital, police, and law, rendering perfectly powerless what is portrayed as an unwitting and helpless working class. The lawyer and paramedic wage an epic battle to exercise their free will and to fight for their moral integrity within this system that derives profit at any cost and from the most extreme victimization. The film’s breathless climax resolves into a miraculous getaway on the strength of the couple’s newfound love and commitment to do good. Just as the plot seems to settle into this triumph and the victorious couple drives on through a green light, a truck—barreling through a red light—slams into their car. The screen goes black and emergency-medicine technicians speaking in voiceover give us to understand that the lawyer has been killed and the paramedic critically wounded. There is no utopia in Carancho. The final car crash works like a deus ex machina that crushes the protagonists’ bodies, and, just as importantly, quashes their stories. Their story of love, their quest for redemption, their fight for freedom and a modicum of social justice, their very narratives of unique selfhood in the world—none of this matters because it all succumbs to the immanent force of violence that envelops, defines, and determines their subjectivity and their fate. There are no persons, in the sense of personhood, of which to speak in the context of this kind of unremitting, generalized violence that is posited as the state of neoliberal cultural affairs; there are only numbers of victims.
Both films figure car culture metaphorically as a kind of circulatory system of the social. Blindness imputes a vertical dimension of power dynamics to the ostensibly horizontal car culture, viewing materialist, capital-accumulating, and race/gender/class-based hierarchies as primary in the constitution of neoliberal cultural logic. But Blindness also holds out the optimism that this culture can be abandoned like so many shells of cars left to rust on the congested highways, in favor of a logic of truly horizontal community togetherness enacted through a holding of hands and walking in a group as one with mutual trust, cooperation, and sharing. Carancho, on the other hand, suggests that any bid for dissent, autonomy, and withdrawal from the system will meet with failure. This failure will not stem from an inadequacy of the will or the imagination; it is possible to outsmart neoliberal logic—which, after all, turns monotonously on the vulture-like maximization of profit—but it is not possible to outrun it. There is no outside to the neoliberal circulatory system in Carancho, where the flow is congested and fatal. Cars in continually and spasmodically violent circulation frame and subsume the story of the lawyer and the paramedic like an autonomic system that has gone haywire and evinces a chronic state of fatal precarity. Whereas in Blindness social death is sudden and swift, bringing with it the possibility of social rebirth into a utopian common, in Carancho social death is continuous and progressive, like a body whose own vital fluids have become toxic and disease-addled. Perhaps most disturbing about this film is the suggestion that the sick social collective precludes any and all autonomy; self-determination as an act of narration and of liberation is thwarted not by some rival philosophy or ideology but by the senseless violence of a body that is putrefact, in the throes of slow internal death. Whereas Blindness stages a return to health as the utopian opening of a common, Carancho morbidly suggests that neither health nor common is possible in a neoliberal order that maintains a perfect biopolitical vise grip on its integrants.
Despite the diametrically opposed outcomes with which the imagination of power, dissent, and self-determination culminates in these two films, I would like to underscore the extent to which the component parts of these very different political imaginaries are nevertheless common to a shared epistemological framework. In both films, urban life is a visually horizontal mass, a collective body whose comparative dynamism is indicative of its level of health and functionality. That the circulation within this body should creep along or crash in lethal spurts should be understood as a serious critique: unfettered flow is implicitly privileged as the underlying measure, its obstruction signaling poor social health. Blindness suggests that the reason for this social malaise, in which cultural dis-ease manifests as pandemic disease—figuring a literally sick body politic—is that the urban way of life cannot shake either verticality of power and privilege or the greed-driven and static accumulation of material goods that creates and sustains that verticality. Carancho coincides with this diagnosis, and goes further to suggest a causal connection between exploitative profit and ill-being to the point of death. The health and very life of the body, whether of the broader population or extrapolated to the individual, are the baseline epistemological terms of critique. In the final turn to social and physiological health in Blindness, we see this model expressed positively as a utopian realization of the ideals of flow, though it is represented as a post-apocalyptic outside to the neoliberal culture to which it is epistemologically proper. Carancho seems to say that there is no cure for neoliberal illness because there is no outside of neoliberalism wherein to seek salutary refuge; there is only the putrefaction of the inside. The films’ aesthetics mirror these inner states: Blindness represents social disease as a cold whiteness that gives way to a rich warm palette of earthy reds and oranges symbolizing the healthy vitality of the perfectly horizontal group that has managed to inaugurate a de facto political common; Carancho communicates its comparative cynicism about such a possibility with unrelenting yellow and green hues that make the city’s interior seem like diseased innards. In both cases, contemporary social life is foundationally imagined as a sentient horizontal body in flow, with a healthy, happy flow being the explicit or implicit ideal, respectively, and its circulatory interruption, accompanied by unhappiness and disease, constituting social critique.
From Kant to the Arab Spring: A Politics of Affect, and Its Critical Apprehension
I opened with an anecdote about the taking of sides around Slavoj Žižek’s decontextualized claim of an affective equivalence between falling in love and engaging in politics. As proposed, I would like to sidestep the ontological dimension of this debate in favor of the epistemological, which I suggest we may do by returning to Žižek’s pages. If we resituate his claim in context, we appreciate an uncanny echo of this essay’s central proposition that affective epistemicity is born in the Age of Revolution and fully realized in the current post-Soviet era of globalization.
In the sentences immediately following Žižek’s positing of this analogous relationship between love and politics, he goes on to name the historical and textual precedent that both inspires and evidences such a consideration: the French Revolution as analyzed by Immanuel Kant. Indeed, immediately after suggesting the affective homology between love and politics, Žižek cites Kant’s characterization of the French Revolution as an instance in which politics stirred high emotion in the form of an “enthusiasm” capable of inspiring imitation. Žižek goes on to say that Kant’s assessment of the French Revolution also “fit[s] perfectly” the popular Egyptian revolution of 2011 in which colossal public protest ousted the president: “for that instant of enthusiasm,” says Žižek of the Egyptian uprising, “each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.”39 Žižek cites the protestors’ chants as demonstrative of this latter sentiment—“We are One!”; “We are brothers! Join us!”—and argues that what they are seeking is “social and economic justice” as well as “market freedom” (2012: 34).40 In Žižek’s analysis, we see the reemergence of the affectively constituted headless soma, the democratic-capitalist episteme of old, again in its revolutionary aspect.41
The 2012 documentary film by the Canadian director Velcrow Ripper entitled Occupy Love echoes Žižek—and Kant before him—in theorizing the Arab Spring and Occupy movements in global terms as arising on the strength of love as the new revolution.42 But enthusiasm and love are not the only emotions associated with these most recent “revolutions”; rage and indignation are their inverse mirror image. Stéphane Hessel is credited with seminally inspiring these movements with his 2010 Indignez-vous!, directly linked to the name of the “indignados” movement in Spain that called for “¡democracia real, ya!” (“Democracy, Now!”).43 In the accounts of the origins of Mexico’s 2012 “Yo Soy 132” (“I Am 132”) student-propelled national protest movement—the “Mexican Spring” perhaps best known by its Twitter hashtag #yosoy132—there is a key moment during a visit made by then presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, staunch proponent of neoliberalism and unrepentant wielder of repressive police force, to the Ibero-American University where a college student, in defiance of the mandate to cease and desist from protest, held up a handmade sign that read, simply, “TE ODIO” (“I hate you”).44 This social media panorama resolves into an emotional spectrum in which negative feelings represent oppositional critique and positive feelings supportive affirmation. It is interesting to observe the extent to which Latin America’s revolutionary icon, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, has been slowly remade through selective citation into a synthesis of these two emotional poles of love and indignation.45
Žižek’s emotional homology between love and politics as bookended by Kant’s admiration of the French Revolution and Mubarak’s resignation after popular revolution draws for us a through-line from the eighteenth-century Age of Revolution to the Occupy movements of the twenty-first. Underwriting this arc, the sentient headless soma—leaderless and guided by feeling—figures as political protagonist on a grand scale in movements that seek democracy and free markets as obverse sides of the same politico-economic structure. Seen in this epistemological light, our notions of first-person plural “oneness,” universal freedom, and well-being take on a discursive value beyond their immediate literal meanings: they epistemically underwrite the multi-century project of democratic capitalism itself. And so regardless of who wields it, affirmative discourse will privilege conditions favorable to the integrity of the headless soma: happiness, vitality, good circulation of capital, positive moral disposition—in short, health and love. Critical discourse will underscore conditions detrimental to the integrity of the headless soma: unhappiness, torpidity, poor or asymmetrical circulation of capital, negative moral disposition—in a word, disease and hate.
Social media—technological networks of communication—are as inextricable from the contemporary avatar of affective epistemicity as were pamphlets and coffee houses of the Age of Revolution. Some months after the Egyptian revolution, a cover of the Economist acknowledged their continuity with a cartoon of wigged and culotted American revolutionaries with bubble captions that fused the revolutionary discourse and media of the two time periods: “Wilt thou be my Visagebook friend?”; “How goeth ye American Spring?”; “I hear Tom Paine’s all a-twitter”; and a news scroll entitled “Wikye-Leakes Latest.”46 Indeed, the role of social media and emotion in shaping political action has garnered considerable corporate, governmental, and academic attention. To wit, in 2014, Cornell researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the findings of a highly controversial “emotional contagion” experiment that consisted of covertly manipulating the news feeds of almost seven hundred Facebook users, a study initially announced as having been funded in part by the US Army, though this connection was quickly retracted.47 Speculation continued about the relationship between Facebook and the Pentagon, particularly given that the principal investigator of the Facebook study had been funded in 2009 for research on “Modeling Discourse and Social Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes” by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative, launched in 2008 to fund academic inquiry into “areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.”48 Even closer to the question of emotion-driven social media communicativity is the 2014 Minerva Initiative award for another Cornell study, “Tracking Critical-Mass Outbreaks in Social Contagions” (2014, expected), which proposes to evaluate the “critical mass (tipping point) model on … datasets of digital traces of social contagions, which include Twitter posts and conversations around the 2011 Egyptian revolution” (“University-Led Research”). If we lay Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment and the Minerva Initiative’s social contagion research alongside Žižek’s citation of Kant’s commentary on the contagion of revolutionary enthusiasm from over two centuries past, we appreciate a shared language of the communicability of emotion and its privileging as central to the workings of popular politics.
As academics, what will we do with this knowledge? Will we be ontological arbiters of affect without profoundly questioning the epistemological underpinnings of our sense of universal authority on the matter? Will we be activists for affect, privileging non-rationality over the now politically suspect Cartesian rationality of old without interrogating the epistemological impetus for our respective valorizations?49
Coming full circle to the beginning of this essay, I reiterate my concern that we develop the critical language and conceptual framework necessary for the analysis of affect on the epistemological plane. There is certainly an important place for what we might call experiential heuristics—the empiricist teasing out of emotional ontologies on the basis of experience to define what it means to be a sentient living being. There is an equally important place for the definition of a politics of feeling, as distinct from a politics of reasoning. What I suggest in the present intervention is that to engage with affect on either of these planes without considering the epistemological basis for our current cultural interest in and privileging of affective logic and inquiry is tantamount to missing the forest of knowledge construction for the trees of knowledge subsets. Corporations and government are fast researching the workings of affect and developing technologies for their manipulation on a massive scale. In order to comprehend and contest these affective biopolitics, it is of the essence to understand the ways in which they are not only empirical, but also discursive.
Affective epistemicity—the idea of a self-regulating, homeostatic, non-rational flow of well-being in both moral and material terms throughout the headlessly horizontal body politic—is the conceptual framework informing how we view the human experience itself. I argue that the importance we accord to happiness, health, and wealth—in the kaleidoscope of ways that we define these terms, particularly the latter contentious one—as well as the definition of freedom as the universal right to enjoy them all, on the one hand, and, on the other, our denunciation of their lack and deprivation as tragic and even criminal, are discursive movements that take place under the epistemological aegis established by democratic capitalism. Investigating the origins and force of affect as an epistemological cultural structure will help us to comprehend and navigate the premium on affective well-being in contemporary politics. Powers that be assert themselves as purveyors of well-being; critics, in the spirit of Marx and Engels, decry an inverse relationship between ideology and material reality, accusing a reality of ill-being under the false promise of health, happiness, and wealth—”cruel optimism,” in Lauren Berlant’s turn of phrase, as we saw illustrated in the film Carancho.50 Yet even the elaboration of an alternative scheme for the optimization of the homeostatic principle, such as the utopian common that takes shape at the close of the film Blindness as a therapeutic evolution in social structure, privileges this same epistemological model of moral and material headless flow, and stages its realization as a return to truth. To what extent can we reshape democratic capitalism if we are continually staging its epistemological return? Even my own interpellative use of the first-person plural “we” traffics in the same epistemological currency. Be that as it may, I nevertheless maintain the hope that the critical interrogation of the contours we seek to give affect in research and the truth values we assign to affect in our discourse may yet yield an understanding of affective epistemology that proves liberating.