|University of New South Wales / University of Canberra|
Anne Brewster and Hazel Smith
AFFECTions: friendship, community, bodies
I wonder if I am still alive at UNSW
The light is on in my room and
That last day we took photos hoping to hold on to
You're glad to have escaped
Sometimes I'm sad
Everyone thinks that their experience is singular
The best workplace is a mobile home
Not just one plot, then, but plots within plots, competing plots, and plots without beginning or end.
When I returned to my mother-in-law's house after she had died, I expected to be lost in loss. As we drove to Gloucester I was aware only of the guilt, remorse and sense of inadequacy that seem to accompany death.
When we first opened the door of her house I thought those same feelings would overwhelm me, and for a few moments they did. But very quickly the delight at seeing her house again, and all the objects which had surrounded her, began to rise. It didn't so much blot out the grief as transform its sourness into something meaningful and sweet. Her coats were hanging on the back of the door in the cloakroom, where there was the same fresh smell. In the living room her coloured paperweights still graced the top of the wooden chest. The copper jugs shone like kindness in the hearth, the samplers spoke from the walls. Her home celebrated its own chaotic orderliness: a bohemian tastefulness tempered by middle class restraint. I've always loved coming here, I thought, as we made tea in the not-too-floral teacups and remembered the parkin she used to make.
In the afternoon we sorted through her drawers, pulling out papers, diaries and photographs. There were love-letters and letters from devoted friends. Ostensibly we were looking for what we wanted to keep, but we were also hunting for signs of her, secrets we might have never known or guessed. And we found them, not in the words themselves, which told more of events than emotions, but in the crevices between words, the interstices of the unspoken.
In the evening we packed up all the things we wanted to be shipped to Australia, and I still felt more elation than despair. Joy in the rings and teapots that survive, in the endless love that laced her life, in the gifts she had given us that remain.
I think about the interiority elaborated in the eighteenth-century novel and how the virtual community this produces is re-convened in electronic environments. The epistolary intimacy of email produces a form of subjectivity not unlike that produced in the act of reading a novel. Email is more interactive, more oriented to exchange; the pleasure of reading and writing is produced through the inter-relationality and reciprocity of the epistolary mode. But email inevitably shares the dream-like landscape of fantasy and feeling that the experience of reading a novel invokes-and in modes ever more intimately knitted into the micropractices of the everyday world. One might argue that email forgoes the epic narrative of the trials and tribulations of novel's protagonist. However I think we become our own favourite protagonist, played out through the daily private micronarratives touched to life in the intimate public space of email.
When I'm cyberwriting, I seem to change skins. My work becomes less intense and dark, more parodic and ironic. In cyberspace I'm political but satirical, social but surreal.
Because cyberspace is nothing if not interruptive: emotions dodge between screens. If I wallow, the screener will simply press on a link! The virtual is a moody fellow who never stays in one spot. As cyborgs morph in chat rooms, rage and sadness intertwingle.
Cyberspace is buoyant and throws up what would normally sink. But you have to resist because cyberspace is only what you allow it to be. Hold those feelings down for a moment, deadlock all those doors. If something really needs to be said, stop the surfing with the waves.
I've always thought flamenco's seduction lay in its blurring of the lines between affective dispositions-between rage, grief and triumph
I was punch drunk, without the punch, without being drunk
Oestrogen, the ruminative hormone
Why is it so hard to say, 'can we talk?'
When sadness goes on and on it becomes a question, longing for an answer. I began to feel nostalgic for its company
The bus driver was chatting to himself. He kept interrupting my train of thought
She howled several long notes. There was no clapping, the guitars were silent. Was it pain or exultation? I discovered I was weeping. I couldn't explain why
At one point the dancer stamped nimbly in a diagonal line across the stage and stopped in the front corner. He was drenched in perspiration and puffing. He looked up as if he was framing a question
Do you think it's unreasonable?
Oestrogen, the thinking woman's hormone
I was floating, slightly numbed, relieved
A friend had said, it's pointless trying to make a logical decision
Her back was arched, arms stretched out, fingers splayed like a cockatoo's crown. She held the pose, breathing heavily, her face a proud frown. Then she relaxed, remembering herself, and walked to the edge of the stage
There was a tension, in the striking of body poses, between the seduction of flow and that of the gaze held, rivetted. As spectators we were poised in the between -at the point where one switched into the other-mesmerised
And so the search begins for explanations. Maybe he once saw an advertisement when he was in a traumatised state, and is condemned to revisit the link. Maybe his weeping is a cathected orphan that will accept any belonging. Only one thing seems clear: it is not the content of particular advertisements that causes the weeping, but the genre itself.
So odd this disjuncture between the context, the putative emotion, and the physiological symptom! The convention (crying in the cinema) has become curiously displaced. The advertisement and the tears seem like strangers from different countries posing as relations.
And yet this is what interests me about affect: it does not obey the laws of space or relativity. What we feel is always somewhere else, embarking on an independent mission. Our hopes and fears straggle out of line, forget their words, abandon all they know, jostle furiously with others.
It lives side by side with its confidant, its interlocutor, its intimate other-the misanthrop, the malcontent, the melancholiac.
Happiness is a party, open doors. It is hospitable, undiscriminating, expansive, contagious. Happiness makes you forget-it moves you from the opacity of the past into translucent potentiality: all that you dream of is possible.
Happiness spreads outwards in all directions, overflows. It is not only departure but return -from all directions, simultaneously.
Happiness is a monologue but is punctuated by the pause for applause. It is epic in its proportions but has no grand design or plot. It does not name, measure or stop in one place; it has no secrets. Happiness used to be shy but now basks in the sun, naked, loving itself.
Yet she knew that there were many parts to the equation. The venue might be cold, the acoustic intractable, or the microphone crude. Maybe on those occasions the audience sensed her discomfort, and responded mainly to that. More likely perhaps, she misread their reaction, since it was easy to over interpret a little harmless fidgeting, or a blank stare.
Which made her realise that she did buy into those myths about performance rather too much. She needed to respond more freely to the ebb and flow of the occasion and accept the lack of control. She must act on what she already knew: that any emotional interaction is multivalent, uneven. And every audience is a mixed species: suspecting and loving the gift they are offered, at different times, in changing spaces, and in varying ways.
a music made of sadness
I am enjoying that lush melancholy and want to join in
as it has many times
I watch myself
(she is swaying
'what's the big deal about marking in the bowing'
it can't be both
some people are listeners
notes pass by but circumvent one place
she dumped her violin long ago
Do not indulge. Stay cool. Be dry. Disarm.
Minimise. Do not spill over. Speak low, speak little.
Turn only the pages of the book. Do not read. Do not think anything 'through'.
Refuse. Be your own space. Step aside but stay still.
Put on some music. Turn the lights down.
Quell: you are already feeling too much.
events and their aberrant echoes
you need advice?
let pain run round
let fire pass
one flips over into the other the
the event, emergent
it is always the first time
there is no way of knowing this as it happens
a recognition perhaps later
a familiar story
we become adroit, eloquent,
sadness or perhaps fear
they're too monumental, the feeling veers
the violent reversals of proximity and distance
friendship arriving at this point repeatedly we
knowing ourselves as residue
A journalist asked John Howard this morning whether he saw historical precedents (such as Viet Nam) in the current situation and he blithely dismissed 'history'. At times like this, he said, we can only think about the present. This is precisely where a discourse of feelings is so politically expeditious; it erases the history of antagonisms and an analysis of causes (such as a rapacious US foreign policy). And so we see the insidious effects of instrumentalist feeling in what Derrida calls the grotesque 'onto-theology of national humanism'.
it had until today
a cloud of thick intellectual rage clings to her. every day she studies the screen. it contains smoke, burnt out tanks, the rubble of buildings. she can see what is happening to these people. she is exhausted with frustration.
|the way things
fall, supported by everything, then
very little, then by
the minimalism so
... aesthetics and ethics ... to make the affective
(feeling) perform the work of the ethical (thought) (Kerr)
|a series of small shifts
the day there
was no need to hang on
to imagine that time
moved in a straight
that she should follow
she was haunted. The sound made when she tapped the dish brush on the edge of the sink when she finished the dishes, was the sound of the word 'baghdad'.
Obviously the terms absorptive and anti-absorptive line up, to some degree, with the concepts 'mainstream' and 'experimental': the absorptive text smooths over the seams which the anti-absorptive cracks open. But what fascinates me is the way Bernstein evokes the absorptive in much more affective terms than its opposite face. The absorptive collects us together emotionally, and binds our contradictory responses into an overall intensive state. The anti-absorptive, in contrast, produces a diffuse, low-level, undemonstrative response.
However much I admire anti-absorptive ways of writing, I still, as a reader, want to be totally captured by the word on the page. Perhaps this is the great challenge for the inventive writer (and Bernstein himself claims that he often uses anti-absorptive techniques to absorptive ends). Sabrina Achilles' Waste, or Paul Auster's early novels, engage me, because they manage to be fragmented, opaque and allegorical, but are also page turning, compelling and engrossing.
Poetry had stirred her when she read the surrealist poets. Then she could be outside normalized meaning. She could become the poem when she surrendered herself entirely to language. And when she didn't have to pose in one emotional position.
And yet at the same time there was always that uncomfortable paradox: that fracturing language could flatten, disengage. By searching for affect you could find it slipping through your words. That's why she had taken to the sonic as a way of warming the pulse, loosening the semantic.
It's interesting how much recent work in the field of ethics foregrounds affect. Andrew Gibson anticipates a postmodern ethics which would focus on 'the will to be moved' and 'the power of being affected rather than [that of] affecting'.
He calls for a postmodern aesthetic that would be properly ethical. Central to such an aesthetic is a process whereby the role of affect is rethought. He critiques the concept of an objective rationalism within which the category of the aesthetic is the last bastion of a sovereign, transcendental subject: master of its world.
Gibson imagines instead an ethics and an aesthetic characterised by openness, attentiveness and expenditure. He turns to Levinas' interest in our exposure to the other, our 'uncovering', and a sensibility that registers 'immediacy on the surface of the skin'.
I daydream about the ways that writing can open/be open(ed).
After she died the boxes of her possessions were shipped to your front door: the bundles of her life. Clothes and pots jumbled together, and papers brown with age. It was an excavation, except you didn't know what you were digging for.
And yet you kept digging and digging deeper. You longed to understand, to know more, however small the advance. But you craved feelings not facts: the wild underside to the smooth running of everyday life.
Each family has its own language and enunciation. Another family is always difficult to comprehend.
There were birth and death certificates: the legacy of generations. Letters, diaries, holiday snaps. Some delicate lacework passed down from the 18th century. These relics spoke, but at the same time were also curiously silent. This wasn't a family that showed what it felt, or courted demonstrative friends.
And yet the highs and lows hovered everywhere, even if they were difficult to read. E died prematurely in the First World War: his last letter begins 'my dear sis'. K was a young girl when they married, and C was twice her age. It seemed an unlikely romance. But they formed the deepest attachment, and it endured after he died. This is what you wanted to know about and wanted to be part of.
You parcel up the boxes again: nothing has been quenched. You will pack and unpack these boxes looking for new spoils. There will always be feelings you can mine, diamonds hiding under rocks.
Patience is the most intimate of privacies. It's hard to talk about without invoking the idea of theological allegory, yoga sutras or bureaucracy. Patience is undoubtedly discursive but also bodily. Patience lines my chest and caresses my organs. Patience sits behind my eyes and watches as I do. Patience has an other-worldly temporality. It makes me aware that I am in medias res, inside a process; that time passes and I can see that too, if I look with the eyes of patience.
Is patience an emotion? It registers in the body like emotion. My breathing becomes a smooth scarf. I sink into myself, but lightly. My contours become more distinctly defined. I am aware of my skin, the way it presses into the room in which I am sitting. In the centre of my torso I can feel the solid weight of the room-the things that have happened and the things that will happen. These two are so tightly intertwined they create a kind of gravity or mass. It's a weight that holds me here, paradoxically in my body, 'in the moment'. It's as if from this point you know that life never stands still. That life moves, and as soon as things happen, I things happen.
Patience is transitive. Patience moves I but by holding you here in your body where everything begins and ends.
Sometimes this euphoria lasted for weeks, even months. It carried her through the early stages of research and writing: the book would amass itself, running on its own energy. But as she needed to deepen her ideas and organise them more stringently, there was always a period of increasing frustration and disengagement. Logics would start to break down, gaps would occur, and she would not know how to stitch the pieces back together. She would try to move, and find everywhere only dead ends to her advancement.
Each day she would dread working because the work didn't promise any destination. She would discuss the problems with others, find temporary enlightenment, but always be unable in the end to see how she could proceed.
But then, if she continued to think and read, she would stumble on an idea, almost by chance. An idea that would murmur and sway. And gradually that thought would morph into the next and then another. She could see her way again: the lines of light would bend, loop and interconnect. And like a spectacular burst of heat, the excitement would return, she would start to be absorbed, wrapped in the warmth and kinetics of her own ideas. Now she could write.
From my desk-gazing past the pencil jar, stacks of books, the computer, layers of paper, notes and assignments, past the desk light, the half-closed blind and the inside of my room reflected on the window glass-I can see a small space of night sky criss-crossed by telegraph lines, the slanting beams of the streetlight and branches of the jacaranda.
In this small triangle of sky the slight moon is a finger-nail clipping, an ethereal slice of detritus. Perfect, sharp, alive with light.
The clutter and lassitude of the work day is punctured in an instant and I am moved along that shining edge of reclamation.
As I write the moon sinks towards the foliage and I scramble for the words to fix that moment of looking, of sudden feeling, struck like a match along the incandescent seam of memory.
'[For Foucault] the body site is less an object of analysis and more a rhetorical gesture - a trope - that justifies the textual analysis that he conducts'
The tree was tall and perfectly symmetrical, the shape of an inverted heart. It was on the point of losing its leaves, turning a mottled brown with the season. It looked immaculate in every detail and as though almost imperceptibly it had stopped living while the world went on around it. But it was quite alive, turned inward and retreating down its veins, shedding itself, letting go, falling away, not gripping or grasping. Like thinking withdrawn into the body, suspended along networks of fluids, tissue, organs, intestines and bones. Thinking no longer in the order of expectation or wishfulness, no longer reaching out, hooking and fluttering. A body that no longer addresses other bodies. A body that no longer signifies, or represents. A body exposed but folded inwards, no longer leaking from its surfaces, disappearing into the world. Its surfaces dissolve, relinquished. A body feeling itself, rounded off, smooth, brushing the air. Taking the world in like a lung, and releasing it. Significance vanishes; the body, given, but not held. It holds its own weight, it lets it go.
When I come back this way next week I will see the tree again, tall, symmetrical, pared back to its perfect bones.
This is beyond death, beyond time, beyond language.
Everything in her pushes this blackness away. But it holds her down, screams at her, repeating its slogans.
I cannot endure this.
I cannot endu
I c n ot
Then a moment breaks loose, one amongst others. The black seems to purr at her, arching its back. She strokes it, and begins to feel calm. She sees light where there is none; movement where there is only stillness. Her thoughts are clearer for the lack of light. She hears the sound of herself.
And she starts to think. Letter by letter words appear, like glow worms on the walls. Words that did not exist before, thoughts born of this cave. They leave the walls and whirl round her, then fall like snow to the floor.
Flakes torn from intimidation, flares wrenched from the night.
Anne Brewster is a Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She teaches fictocriticism and creative writing. She has published fictocriticism recently in the journals Salt and Cultural Studies Review (Australia). Her other main research area is whiteness and white readings of Australian Indigenous literature. She has published several books in this field including Reading Aboriginal Women's Autobiography (1996) and Literary Formations (1995) and has co-edited, with Angeline O'Neill and Rosemary van den Berg, an anthology of Australian Indigenous Writing, Those Who Remain Will Always Remember (2000).
Hazel Smith is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Creative Communication,
University of Canberra. She is co-author of Improvisation, Hypermedia
and The Arts Since 1945, Harwood Academic, 1997, and author of Hyperscapes
in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference, homosexuality, topography,
Liverpool University Press, 2000. Hazel has also published two volumes
of poetry, two CDs of performance work, and numerous multimedia works.
More details of her creative work are at www.australysis.com.
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Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady