Tuesday, August 14, 2012

surface affects


We went camping on the North Olympic beach a few weeks ago. We came with the intention (in the phenomenological sense) of coming in contact with objects that make us happy. The way we entered the beach as a zone of happiness was with an angle supported by good memories: walks in the hard January wind, watching an atavistic brother climb escarpments like a cutter hoping to feel something, drinking out of tin cups around a drift-wood fire with friends who we met in landscapes of similar power up above Lake Issyk Kul. We like the high Olympic coast because it feels good; we associate it with the wild and infinitely mysterious. Here we are treading close to Kant’s definition of the sublime, and the effect of this is something which takes away our happiness. This is because, as Neitzsche tells us, “a reason is sought in persons, experiences, etc. for why one feels this way or that” (354 in Ahmed 40) and as soon as reason casts its shadow over our feelings our feelings are diminished. Happiness can only be performed when it is sustained not by how we ought to feel but by those more automatic experiences of proximity to unassimilated objects of desire. Here we have affect, which as Sara Ahmed puts it, “is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (29). Affects are what lies between senses and feelings; they are what desire and revulsion are made of. 
I’ve been making my way through the Affect Theory Reader over the summer. So far Sara Ahmed’s chapter on happiness has made the biggest impression. Using figures such as melancholic migrants she points out that normative claims made for happiness (neoliberal American Dreams, nuclear families and so on) sometimes fail to deliver the happiness they promise. Instead minorities encounter homogenous ideals that promise levity but are packaged with ethnic and racial humiliation. She suggests that the sort of “bad feelings” these experiences inspire “are seen as orientated toward the past, as a kind of stubbornness that ‘stops’ the subject from embracing the future. Good feelings are associated here with moving up and moving out. The demand that we be affirmative makes those histories disappear by reading them as a form of melancholia” (50).

Jenn, as always my fixed star, discussed this with me as we walked down the beach toward the Chilean Memorial where Alfred Jensen, his wife, his young son and a crew of 17, succumbed to the ocean on November 24, 1920. Along the way we looked for trash from Fukushima where 15, 867 souls on March 11, 2011 were swallowed by the waves and refuse was spit back by currents, we met a dead deer along the way, soft with rot, there was an eagle in a tree high above the rocks. We had heard that there were inscriptions in the rocks along this shore marking places where the people whose land we now occupy used to encounter whales – something that I’m sure brought them much happiness when it went well. There is a deeper happiness when you get close to the surface of things and see the traces of pain and pleasure they contain and express. I’m implicated in the colonization of this landscape and the political economy that pillages it, but, as Foucault put it so well, “do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant.” There is still happiness in resistance; paraphrasing Deleuze, no reason to despair, just find new weapons.