Meaning in art (what you have actually done and said) slips away from the artist’s ranges of control within the environment, for example, of the unprecedented circulation of commodities. But instead of allowing meaning and intention to be coopted, predictably and inevitably, the artists Michaels admires evacuate the work of emotional, affective, or personal forms of address preemptively, as though anti-pathos and anti-sentiment were a shield or defense.
Public schools that design curriculum to focus on belonging and social emotional skills are training students for low-wage jobs—and non-ironically calling this training equity and inclusion. Valorizing equity in this way—at the level of feelings—doesn’t only mean pushing aside teaching novels and covering anti-racist art if it makes students feel bad. It also means cultivating a principled indifference to the real wages of the working poor, including those who work for public schools.
I offer my analysis in the spirit of a “history of the present,” that is, as an attempt to understand the rise of a non-intentionalist “affect theory” in the light of the genealogy I have charted and to explain why I think the views being forwarded are a mistake.
Which suggests not only that it would be puzzling for a critical practice to declare itself against affect but that it’s equally puzzling to think of any critical practice as being for affect—to think, for example, of “reading for mood” as “a mode of reading.” There are no such things as modes of reading—there’s only trying to understand what a text is doing.
Take, for example, Turrell’s description of one of his recent ganzfeld chambers at the Henry Moore institute in Halifax, England: “It could induce an epileptic fit. You could really render someone useless if you choose to. The Henry Moore Institute had to have a neurologist from London…. It is serious business from that point of view. But there have been art pieces, by Christo and Serra, that actually killed people. I don’t in any way intend that…. It is invasive, closing your eyes will not stop this…”
Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.
I propose bearing as a marker of an artwork’s purposive comportment in and toward the world whose various relations and dimensions the work engages and discloses. I have chosen this term because at least five of its senses apply to artworks as I understand them.  Artworks have a manner of comportment, a bearing, e.g. bold, reflective, ironic, etc.  They are generative (in the sense of ‘bear fruit’) in that they provide disclosures.  They are purposively oriented and thus have bearings, principally toward an addressee, but also toward some determinate end, e.g. to be beautiful, to please, to rework culture, to witness suffering, etc.  Works of art also make use of the very world that they disclose, which leads me to say that artworks bear, in the sense of carry, extant possibilities, transforming them until they coalesce into a phenomenon that is bindingly eloquent.  Finally, artworks also bear (or fail to bear), in the sense of endure, the world they absorb in order to disclose whatever possibilities they are able to bear.
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.
This brings us back to Jameson and realism. Jameson continues to insist upon the idea of meaninglessness in Zola’s abundant descriptive lists; in referring to the copious description of the cheeses in the shop in Le Ventre de Paris, he speaks of “their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess.” The pungent cheese passage indeed shows a “delirious multiplicity,” but the cheeses are far from being meaningless or “autonomous.” For what does it mean when it is said that an element of a literary work is meaningless? Can it be true that multiplicity or excess leads to meaninglessness? Or that the moment something exists in the bodily realm, it does not signify?
What needs to be understood about my distance from those debates around affect polemics is that I still believe in the binary opposition, and am in that sense, I guess, some kind of structuralist Hegelian, or better still, that I include Hegel in Marx and structuralism in the dialectic. “Oppositions without positive terms”: such was Saussure’s great formula, his reinvention of the dialectic on a linguistic basis. Concepts do not exist in isolation, they are defined by their opposites: it is a dialectical lesson as well as a structuralist one, and in the best of worlds the latter should lead back to the former, which it reinvents in a new and contemporary way.