Feeling Political

Anthony Sutton

Apr 22, 2022

Beyond Lauren Berlant series >>

Affect theory, the realm of critical thought Lauren Berlant is most associated with, is essentially the study of feelings, but there’s more to it than that. Berlant described affect theory as “another phase in the history of ideology theory,” [1] meaning politics is an expression of feelings. Their 2016 essay for The New Inquiry, “Trump, or Political Emotions,” argues that part of what made Trump an effective political actor was that he presented himself as free to act however he wanted. He says what everyone's thinking was the old saying, or as Berlant put it, “people would like to feel free.” [2]

Berlant’s work provides something feminist thought has intentionally abandoned: a schema of the universe, if even a very loose and flexible one. Where Kant and Schopenhauer lament that part of human nature is a separation from the real—I can never look at a tree and just see it as a tree; it’s beautiful, or ominous, or the color of its leaves makes me think of the seasons—Berlant’s work asks us to accept that we are subject to human emotions and encourages us to understand the universe through how it makes us feel.

At the same time, Berlant is true to the roots of queer and feminist theory in that they ask us to be open to ways of living that are full of possibilities, no matter how stigmatized. Though less of a provocateur, Berlant contains semblances of Leo Bersani, one of queer theory’s most influential forebearers. Where in Bersani’s seminal essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” he writes, “there is, however, a way to explode this ideological body [of masculinity],” [3] Berlant asks us to explode any way of living we are told to strive for despite our best interests. Throughout the arc of Berlant’s writing they return antagonistically to the phrase “the good life” and all its bourgeoisie implications. This antagonism reaches its climax in Berlant’s most famous book, Cruel Optimism. “When something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” [4] is how Berlant defines the titular term. A quiet observation at first, it propelled Berlant to think about the attachments that keep people bound to careers, familial structures, political causes, and entire notions of selfhood, even when those attachments are clearly failing.

The blueprints to Cruel Optimism can be seen fourteen years earlier in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, when Berlant was more concerned with dissecting the relationships that make one an “American”:

This exhaustion of cultural struggle over the materials and symbolic conditions of U.S. citizenship is a desired effect of conservative cultural politics, whose aim is to dilute the oppositional discourses of the historically stereotyped citizens—people of color, women, gays, and lesbians […] today many formerly iconic citizens who used to feel undefensive and unfettered feel truly exposed and vulnerable. They feel anxious about their value to themselves, their families, their publics, and their nation. They sense they now have identities, when it used to just be other people who had them. [5]

For Berlant, part of the problem of politics is that marginalized people have to accommodate the feelings of their majority counterparts in order to successfully exist in public, or else those majority counterparts may, frankly, freak the fuck out. Controversial stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle gives us evidence that the January 6th, 2021 U.S. Capitol riots represent a moment in which the anxieties of “formerly iconic citizens” ran wilder than has ever been witnessed: “[white people] felt what black people felt for 400 years and felt it for 30-minutes, stormed the Capitol, and rubbed their shit on the walls.” [6]

At the time of this writing, a school board in Tennessee recently banned the graphic novel Maus, which depicts the holocaust and its impact on the author Art Spiegelman and his family. The school board justifies the ban over eight “curse words” that appear across the nearly 150 pages and a single panel depicting Spiegleman’s mother’s dead body in a bathtub after committing suicide. For the board members, the problem with the panel is not the blood, the death, the slit wrists, the trauma, or even the historical context, but rather that the mother’s body is naked and, in spite of everything else about the context, considered pornography. [7] This is precisely the type of moment Berlant would have dissected. It reveals that the parameters for women in public are so centered around sexual potential that, when it comes to the actual lives of women, the culture is, at best, apathetic. Furthermore, Spiegleman’s comments on the ban point to an underlying affective politics: “they want a kinder, gentler holocaust to present to their children.” [8] Tennessee is not the only state in the United States where book bans are happening and could be considered part of a multi-pronged national effort for “formerly iconic citizens” to feel comfortable. Spiegleman elaborates, “this is part of the localizing of all politics at this point; school boards are much better equipped than congress to pass laws about how children may be educated so they may be good citizens and useful to a country in peril.” [9]

Berlant’s observation regarding the “anxieties of formerly iconic citizens” gives us the tools to unpack this sense of peril. If politics is a way of expressing feeling, then politics happens when different parties feel differently. “Formerly iconic citizens” may feel the need to protect the nation they see themselves participating in while non-iconic citizens may want to create a nation they can inhabit. For a specific example, one may turn to the “Queer Nationality” chapter of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, co-written with Elizabeth Freeman, which traces the counterpolitical practice of “Queer Nights Out” used by the Queer Nation movement to subvert the (defensive) uncomfortability a queer person may feel by inhabiting public space and the (offensive) discomfort a straight person may feel upon seeing a queer person:

Queer Nights Out are moments of radical desegregation with roots in civil rights-era lunch counter sit-ins […] Queer Nights Out have also appropriated the model of the surprise attack, which the police have traditionally used to show gays and lesbians that even the existence of their subcultural spaces is contingent upon the goodwill of straights. [10] 

The so-called “goodwill of straights” runs so deep in history I can feel it under the soles of my feet as I write this sentence in Houston, the city where the policing of same-sex activity escalated with the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas, which finally struck down sodomy laws throughout the United States. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy quotes the book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America: “The modern terms homosexuality and heterosexuality do not apply to an era that had not yet articulated these distinctions.” [11] Intimate Matters is a sprawling and comprehensive chronicle of 350 years of sexuality in the US. However, despite the book’s extensive precision in depicting changes in cultural sensibilities, legal battles, and racial entanglements, Berlant and Freeman’s essay does a better job of capturing what the updated third edition of Intimate Matters simply refers to as “LGBT advocacy.”

By Berlant and Freeman’s description, “all politics in the Queer Nation are imagined on the street.” A version of this political imagining can be found in the zine Queers Read This!, available online through The Queer Zine Archiving Project (QZAP). Queers Read This! is a brief but wonderfully indulgent call to arms that describes how and why queer people can and should exist in public while being antagonistic to the “goodwill” of straight people. It is also the clearest example I can think of when it comes to a politics of feelings. Here’s an excerpt from a section titled “I HATE …”:

I hate Jesse Helms. I hate Jesse Helms so much I’d rejoice if he dropped down dead. If someone killed him I’d think it’s his own fault.

I hate Ronald Reagan, too, because he mass-murdered my people for eight years. But to be honest, I hate him even more for eulogizing Ryan White without first admitting his guilt, without begging forgiveness for Ryan’s death and for the deaths of tens of thousands of other PWAs [People with AIDS]—most of them queer. I hate him for making a mockery of our grief.

I hate the fucking Pope, and I hate John fucking Cardinal fucking O’Connor, and I hate the whole fucking Catholic Church […]

I hate that the Supreme Court of this country says it’s okay to criminalize me because of how I make love. I hate that so many straight people are so concerned about my goddamn sex life. [12]

“I HATE …” is admirable for the fact that it puts its feelings out there in what Berlant would call “public intimacies.” Here, affect makes explicit feelings that would normally be invisible to “formerly iconic individuals.”

That is not to say “I HATE …” is without its own subtext—underneath the surface is also quite a bit of hope. It is important to acknowledge the difference between hope and Berlant’s conception of optimism, which is aspirational, forward-moving, something that gives one reason to see the next day. Hope is a similar feeling to optimism, but “I HATE …” reveals that while hope can be a wish that leads one to the future, it has other dimensions to it. One of the archaic uses of hope is as a form of trust. Between the visions of queers as “my people” and its wish for a world where Reagan begged for forgiveness, “I HATE …” shows that hope is an affect ripe for the imagination. Hope is unique in that it allows one to peer, even just momentarily, into other realities.

[1] Gabe Winant, “‘What Would It Mean to Think That Thought?’: The Era of Lauren Berlant”, The Nation. Web. https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/lauren-berlant-obituary/
[2] Lauren Berlant, “Trump, or Political Emotions”, The New Inquiry. Web. https://thenewinquiry.com/trump-or-political-emotions/
[3] Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism vol. 43 (1987), 209.
[4] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 1.
[5] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, 2.
[6] Dave Chapelle, Redemption Song. Video. Netflix.
[7] Art Spiegleman, interviewed by Walter Isaacson, “‘Maus’ Author: Tennessee School Board Wants ‘a Kinder, Gentler Holocaust’”, Amanpour and Company. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuZubQmHZr4
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, 197.
[11] Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/539/558/#tab-opinion-1961305
[12] “Published anonymously by queers”, Queers Read This!, 10.

Anthony Sutton resides on former Akokiksas, Atakapa, Karankawa, and Sana land (currently named Houston, TX), holds an MFA from the currently under threat program in Creative Writing at Purdue University, and has had poems appear or forthcoming in guesthouse, Gulf Coast, Grist, The Journal, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Oversound, Quarter After Eight, Southern Indiana Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere.