Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”


Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.”

Camp is especially hard to talk about because it is not natural – “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.

For Sontag, the draw to talk about Camp seems parallel to how Kant describes the sublime (think of Ngai?):

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

Though I am speaking about sensibility only — and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous — these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)

Again, Sontag’s insistence on some sort of consistency appears Kantian:

Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . .

The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.

In her “jottings,” Sontag argues that Camp is an aesthetics not of beauty, but of artifice and stylization. “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content… disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” Camp is not simply a way of seeing (Kantian/idealist), but also a quality that inheres in objects: “the camp eye has the power to transform experience,” but only certain objects will work. Among the objects Sontag names are Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley, “The Enquirer,” Bellini’s operas, women’s clothes of the twenties, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

Visual decor, fashion, and furniture are particularly amenable to camp (think Mad Men’s surfaces…). “Camp is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

“Most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and unpretentious way. There is a sense in which it is correct to say ‘It’s too good to be Camp’… Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all though… some art which can be approached as Camp… merits the most serious admiration and study.”

Nature cannot be campy (think of this vs. the sublime). Camp often has an element of naivete, however, that might be called “urban pastoral.” Camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Art Noveau is a perfect example because it “convert[s] one thing into something else… the Paris Metro entrances.”

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility… the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo… a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”

Camp also favors “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms… movie stars.”

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks… To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It’s the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

“Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing’… Life is not stylish. Neither is Nature.”

“The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century… Gothic novels… caricature, artificial ruins… Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.”

This sounds quite a bit like James Wood on hysterical realism or Jameson on postmodernism – how might artifice work differently, though? As other than nostalgia? She pics the 18th century for “that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry… conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character… continuing wanly through 19th century aestheticism… emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement.”

“Art Nouveau is full of ‘content,’ even of a political-moral sort… also… a disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision… what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.”

“The Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”

“To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”

“Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

Sontag’s examples for such seriousness include the Tiffany lamp, Busby Berkeley, and other musicals.

This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat. Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp. The films of Hitchcock are a showcase… When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials -… North by Northwest — the results are forced and heavy-handed, rarely Camp… Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish… The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers… Gaudí’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal — most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia — the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

Eisenstein’s films are seldom Camp because, despite all exaggeration, they do succeed (dramatically) without surplus… The same for Blake’s drawings and paintings, weird and mannered as they are. They aren’t Camp; though Art Nouveau, influenced by Blake, is.

Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.

Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive.

Such temporal distance as is necessary for the Camp lens would be interesting in comparison with postmodernity and nostalgia:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment — or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.

Thus, things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt… Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself. [January Jones in Mad Men]

Camp exhibits an essential flatness (of character):

What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.

Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.

There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.

For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result…This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only “fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility — is being revealed.

And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.

The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary “avant-garde” art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted.

It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste ishomosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap… homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp… The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.

Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.

Camp is (to repeat) the relation to style in a time in which the adoption of style — as such — has become altogether questionable. (In the modem era, each new style, unless frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.)


The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the Tishman Building aren’t Camp.

The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.

Deleuze & Guattari: from “One Thousand Plateaus”



The chapter is a narrative of the Wolf-Man, who “knew that Freud knew nothing” and that his new name for himself would be “reinscribed as patronymic” 26. Speaking of the hysteric versus the neurotic, “Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says” 27. (Think of how this compares to making the female body into synecdochic surfaces…)

“On the verge of discovering a rhizome, Freud always returns to mere roots” 27.

“The proper name can be nothing more than an extreme case of the common noun, containing its already domesticated multiplicity within itself and linking it to a being or object posited as unique” 27.

“For Freud, when the thing splinters and loses its identity, the word is still there to restore that identity or invent a new one. Freud counted on the word to reestablish a unity no longer found in things. Are we not witnessing the first stirrings of a subsequent adventure, that of the Signifier, the devious despotic agency that substitutes itself for asignifying proper names and replaces multiplicities with the dismal unity of an object declared lost?” 28.

“It was already decided from the very beginning that animals could serve only to represent coitus between parents, or, conversely, be represented by coitus between parents… [not the possibility of ] the call to become-wolf” 28.

“In becoming-wolf, the the important thing is the position of the mass, and above all the position of the subject itself in relation to the pack or wolf-multiplicity… I am on the edge of the crowd, at the periphery; but I belong to it, I am attached to it by one of my extremities, a hand or foot. I know that the periphery is the only place I can be, that I would die if I let myself be drawn into the center of the fray, but just as certainly if I let go of the crowd… difficult to hold… to take a walk like Viriginia Woolf (never again will I say, ‘I am this, I am that’)” 29.

“Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see… the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd” 29.

“The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization” 30. (the novel?)

Why does Freud reduce all to the One, especially when he seems to see libidinal and other multiplicities? “Let us return to the story of multiplicity, for the creation of this substantive marks a very important moment. It was created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics, to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state, to cease treating it as a numerical fragment of a lost Unity or Totality… [or one] yet to come” 32. (Also thing about this in terms of fragmentation and the real!)

“There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages. We say that the assemblage is fundamentally libidinal and unconscious. It is the unconscious in person… types of interpenetrating multiplicities that at any given moment form a single machinic assemblage, the faceless figure of the libido” 36.

“Castration! Castration! cries the psychoanalytic scarecrow, who never saw more than a hold, a father, or a dog where wolves are, a domesticated individual where there are wild multiplicities” 38.


In language, “the compulsory education machine does not communicate information; it imposes upon the child semiotic coordinates possessing all of the dual foundations of grammar (masculine-feminine, singular-plural, noun-verb, subject of the statement-subject of enunciation, etc.)” 75-6. “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience” 76.

“Language does not operate between something seen (or felt) and something said, but always goes from saying to saying… Hearsay… the first determination of language is not the trope or metaphor but indirect discourse. The importance some have accorded metaphor and metonymy proves disastrous for the study of language… merely effects… a part of language only when they presuppose indirect discourse” 77.

“There is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation. Yet relatively few linguists have analyzed the necessarily social character of enunciation” 79-80.

“The major and minor mode are two different treatments of language, one of which consists in extracting constants from it, the other in placing it in continuous variation” 106.

“One should bring forth the order-word of the order-word… There are pass-words beneath order-words. Words that pass, words that are components of passage, whereas order-words mark stoppages or organized, stratified compositions. A single thing or word undoubtedly has this twofold nature: it is necessary to extract one from the other – to transform the compositions of order into components of passage” 110.


Deleuze & Guattari name two axes:

“Significance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies… A very special mechanism is situated at their intersection. Oddly enough, it is a face: the white wall/black hole system. A broad face with white cheeks, a chalk face with eyes cut in for a black hole… The face is not an envelope exterior to the person who speaks, thinks, or feels [because it helps us read speech]… Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability… In film, the close-up of the face can be said to have two poles: make the face reflect light or, on the contrary, emphasize its shadows… the face is a visual percept that crystallizes out of ‘different varieties of vague luminosity without form or dimension’ ” 168.

“The face is part of a surface-holes, holey surface, system… the face is a surface: facial traits, lines, wrinkles… the face is a map… The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body… when the body has been decoded and has to be overcoded by something we shall call the Face… the entire body can be facialized, comes to be facialized as part of an inevitable process… horrible and magnificent. Hand, breast, stomach, penis and vagina, thigh, leg and foot, all come to be facialized. Fetishism, erotomania… no anthropomorphism… not by resemblance but by order of reasons… Everything remains sexual; there is no sublimation, but there are new coordinates” 170.

“The inhuman in human beings: that is what the face is from the start… Sartre’s text on the look and Lacan’s on the mirror make the error of appealing to a form of subjectivity or humanity reflected in a phenomenological field or split in a structural field. The gaze is but secondary in relation to the gazeless eyes, to the black hole of faciality. The mirror is but secondary in relation to the white wall of faciality… [not] an approach based on part-objects… not fundamentally organs without bodies, or the fragmented body; it is the body without organs, animated” 171.

(It is interesting to compare the link between this and racism to Ngai’s chapter “Animatedness.”) “How do you get out of the black hole? How do you break through the wall? How do you dismantle the face?” Whereas the French novel is critical of life, the Anglo-American novel is creative of it 186.

“They know how difficult it is to get out of the black hole of subjectivity, of consciousness and memory, of the couple and conjugality. How tempting it is to let yourself get caught, to lull yourself into it, to latch back onto a face… the wall of a signifier… But art is never an end in itself; it is only a tool for blazing life lines… [not] taking refuge in art… but instead sweep[ing] it away with them toward the realms of the asignifying, asubjective, and faceless” 187.

“The white wall of the signifier, the black hole of subjectivity, and the facial machine are impasses, the measure of our submissions and subjections; but we are born into them, and it is there we must stand battle. Not in the sense of a necessary stage [Kant’s aesthetics?], but in the sense of a tool for which a new use must be invented. Only across the wall of the signifier can you run lines of asignificance that void all memory, all return, all possible signification and interpretation. Only in the black hole of subjective consciousness and passion do you discover the transformed, heated, captured particles you must relaunch for a nonsubjective, living love in which each party connects with unknown tracts in the other without entering or conquering them, in which the lines composed are broken lines” 189.

“Set faciality traits free like birds, not in order to return to a primitive head, but to invent the combinations by which those traits connect with landscapity traits that have themselves been freed from the landscape and with traits of picturality and musicality that have been freed from their respective codes… The uncertain moment at which the white wall/black hole black point/white shore system, as on a Japanese print, itself becomes one with the act of leaving it, breaking away from and crossing through it” 189.

“There are no more concentrically organized strata… no more face to be in redundancy with a landscape, painting, or little phrase of music, each perpetually bringing the other to mind, on the unified surface of the wall or the central swirl of the black hole. Each freed faciality trait forms a rhizome with a freed trait of landscapity, picturality, or musicality. This is not a collection of part-objects but a living block, a connection of stems by which the traits of a face enter a real multiplicity or diagram with a trait of an unknown landscape… Thus opens a rhizomatic realm of possibility effecting the potentialization of the possible, as opposed to arborescent possibility, which marks a closure, an impotence” 190.

“Beyond the face lies an altogether different inhumanity: no longer that of the primitive head, but of ‘probe heads’; here, cutting edges of deterritorialization become operative and lines of deterritorialization positive and absolute, forming strange new becomings, new polyvocalities. Become clandestine, make rhizome everywhere, for the wonder of a nonhuman life to be created” 191.

Compare all of this to hysterical realism, the postmodern novel, the jagged, “cutting” edges of faceting interspersed with ‘faces’ that may conceal but are part of the act of fiction (vs rhizome – only lines).


The refrain is territorial: the bird song 312. “Sometimes one goes from chaos to the threshold of aterritorial assemblage: directional components, infra-assemblage. Sometimes one organizes the assemblage: dimensional components, intra-assemblage. Sometimes one leaves the territorial assemblage for other assemblages, or for somewhere else entirely: interassemblage, components of passage or even escape. And all three at once. Forces of chaos, terrestrial forces, cosmic forces: all of these confront each other and converge in the territorial refrain” 312.

“The T factor, the territorializing factor, must be sought elsewhere: precisely in the becoming-expressive of rhythm or melody, in other words, in the emergence or proper qualities (color, odor, sound, silhouette…). Can this becoming, this emergence, be called Art? That would make the territory a result of art. The artist: the first person to set out a boundary stone, or to make a mark. Property, collective or individual, is derived from that even when it is in the service of war and oppression. Property is fundamentally artistic because art is fundamentally poster, placard… coral fish are posters… expressive qualities are necessarily appropriative and constitute a having more profound than being… not the indication of a person; it is the chancy formation of a domain” 316.

“The territorial assemblage continually passes into other assemblages…. In the intra-assemblage, sexuality may appear as a territorialized function, but it can just as easily draw a line of deterritorialization that describes another assemblage; there are therefore quite variable relations between sexuality and the territory, as if sexuality were keeping ‘its distance'” 325.

“The problem of consistency concerns the manner in which the components of a territorial assemblage hold together… different assemblages hold together [to each other], with components of passage and relay… the clearest, easiest answer seems to be provided by a formalizing, linear, hierarchized, centralized arborescent model… This kind of representation, however, is constructed of oversimplified binarities… in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form or correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within” 327-8.

“There is no beginning from which a linear sequence would derive… ‘there is growth only by intercalation’… a distribution of inequalities… a superposition of disparate rhythms… with no imposition of meter or cadence” 329.

“Not only is concrete [literally the material] a heterogenous matter whose degree of consistency varies according to the elements in the mix, but iron is intercalated following a rhythm; moreover its self-supporting surfaces form a complex rhythmic personage whose ‘stems’ have different sections and variable intervals depending on the intensity and direction of the force to be tapped (armature instead of structure). In this sense, the literary or musical work has an architecture: ‘Saturate every atom,’ as Virginia Woolf said; or in the words of Henry James, it is necessary to ‘begin far away, as far away as possible,’ and to proceed by ‘blocks of wrought matter.’ It is no longer a question of imposing form upon a matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces. What makes a material increasingly rich is the same as what holds heterogeneities together without their ceasing to be heterogeneities… intercalary oscillators, synthesizers with at least two heats… The territorial assemblage is a milieu consolidation, a space-time consolidation, of coexistence and succession. And the refrain operates with these three factors” 329.

“First, individual atoms can enter into probabilistic or statistical accumulations that tend to efface their individuality; this already happens on the level of the molecule, and then again in the molar aggregate. But they can become complicated in interactions and retain their individuality inside the molecule, then in the macromolecule, etc., setting up direct communications between individuals of different orders. Second, it is clear that the distinction to be made is… between two group movements… one group tends toward increasingly equilibrated, homogenous, and probable states… the other group tends toward les probable states of concentration… Third, the intramolecular forces that give an aggregate its molar form can be of two types: they are either covalent, arborescent, mechanical, linear, localizable relations subject to chemical conditions of action and reaction or to linked reactions, or they are indirect, noncovalent, machinic and nonmechanical, superlienar, nonlocalizable bonds operating by stereospecific discernment or discrimination rather than by linkage” 335 (FACETING)

The authors consider classicism (lacks a boundary between itself and the baroque), romanticism (lacks a people), and the modern (cosmic, disparate).

“This synthesis of disparate elements is not without ambiguity… Sometimes one overdoes it, puts too much in, works with a jumble of lines and sounds… back to a machine of reproduction that ends up reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds. The claim is that one is opening music to all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that prevents any event from happening… A material that is too rich remains too ‘territorialized’… one makes an aggregate fuzzy, instead of defining the fuzzy aggregate by the operations of consistency or consolidation… a fuzzy aggregate, a synthesis of disparate elements, is defined only by a degree of consistency that makes it possible to distinguish the disparate elements constituting that aggregae (discernibility). The material must be sufficiently deterritorialized to be molecularized and open onto something cosmic, instead of lapsing into a statistical heap. This condition is met only if there is a certain simplicity in the nonuniform material… sobriety” 344.

(The word choice of effacing is interesting here, as is heap – Jameson!). The authors emphasize that this is not teleological progress and

“should not be interpreted as an evolution, or a s structures separated by signifying breaks. They are assemblages enveloping different Machines, or different relations to the Machine. In a sense, everything we attribute to an age was already present in the preceding age… Fuzzy aggregates have been constituting themselves and inventing their processes of consolidation all along… The most we can say is that when forces appear as forces of the earth or of chaos, they are not grasped directly as forces but as reflected in relations between matter and form. Thus it is more a question of thresholds of perception, or thresholds of discernibility belonging to given assemblages” 346.

“So just what is a refrain? Glass harmonica: the refrain is a prism, a crystal of space-time. It acts upon that which surrounds it, sound or light, extracting from it various vibrations, or decompositions, projections, or transformations. The refrain also has a catalytic function: not only to increase the speed of the exchanges and reactions in that which surrounds it, but also to assure indirect interactions between elements devoid of so-called natural affinity, and thereby to form organized masses. The refrain is therefor of the crystal or protein type. The seed, or internal structure, then has two essential aspects: augmentations and diminutions, additions and withdrawals, amplifications and eliminations by unequal values, but also the presence of a retrograde motion running in both directions… from the extremes to  a center, or, on the contrary, to develop by additions, moving from a center to the extremes” 349.


“Smooth space [felt] and striated space [fabric] – nomad space and sedentary space – the space in which the war machine develops and the space instituted by the State apparatus – are not of the same nature… the two spaces in fact only exist in mixture: smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” 474.

The authors give the example of felt, “an entanglement of fibers obtained by fulling (for example, by rolling the block of fibers back and forth)” rather than by a gridlike weaving or intersection, which “is nevertheless smooth, and contrasts point by point with the space of fabric” 475. Other textural oppositions: crochet/knitting, patchwork/embroidery (the patchwork in Faulkner’s Sartoris).  “An amorphous collection of juxtaposed pieces that can be joined together in an infinite number of ways: we see that patchwork is literally a Riemannian space, or vice versa… the quilting bee in America, and its role from the standpoint of women’s collectivity” 477. Here the authors are more explicit about the way in which the rhizome and its relatives are less phallogocentric and more gynocentric.

“In striated space, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to points: one goes from one point to another. In the smooth, it is the opposite: the points are subordinated to the journey; inside space conforms to outside space: tent, igloo, boat” 478 (FACETING!)

“This is where the very special problem of the sea enters in. For the sea is a smooth space par excellence, and yet was the first to encounter the demands of increasingly strict striation… [the first] of all smooth spaces… to undergo a gradual striation gridding it in one place, then another, on this side and that” 480. (Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce)

“It was a decisive event when the mathematician Riemann uprooted the multiple from its predicate state and made it a noun, ‘multiplicity.’ It marked the end of dialectics and the beginning of a typology and topology of multiplicities… unlike magnitutes, they cannot divide without changing in nature each time… [Bergson’s] duration is in no way indivisible, but is that which cannot be divided whtout changing in nature at each division [Xeno’s paradox]” 483.

“All progress is made by and in striated space, but all becoming occurs in smooth space. Is it possible to give a very general mathematical definition of smooth spaces? Benoit Mandelbrot’s ‘fractals’ seem to be on that path. Fractals are aggregates whose number of dimensions is fractional rather than whole, or else whole but with continuous variation in direction” 486.

I’d like to think about poetry and films as “more than a line, less than a surface” (Von Koch’s curve, made by “pointing” segments of a line ad infinitum) and novels and television series as “more than a surface, less than a volume” (Sierpensky’s sponge, successively and infinitely “hollow”) 487. The first has shape, but not dimension (time!), the latter has dimension, but not volume (actuality). This model renders smooth space as “a flat multiplicity” that “does not have a dimension higher than that which moves through it or is inscribed in it” 488. There are six features of this smooth space, of which the last is:

“A smooth, amorphous space of this kind is constituted by an accumulation of proximities, and each accumulation defines a zone of indiscernibility proper to ‘becoming’ (more than a line and less than a surface; less than a volume and more than a surface)” 488.

This is opposed to the ‘weave’ of striated space: ”

“the more regular the intersection, the tighter the striation, the more homogenous the space tends to become… homogeneity did not seem to us to be a characteristic of smooth space, but on the contrary, the extreme result of striation” 488.

“What interests us in the operations of striation and smoothing are precisely the passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces. Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth spaces: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller. Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” 500. (Frost, ice.)


The conclusion is structured as a short review of the previous sections, annotated with marginal numbers to reference the source sections for the ideas. “At the level of pathos, these multiplicities are expressed by psychosis and especially schizophrenia. At the level of pragmatics, they are utilized by sorcery” (fascination?) 506. “Mechanosphere” 514.

Heather Love: “Feeling Backward”



“The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants” 1. The project of the book is to look back at the painful, moving stories of queerness rather than only “affirming the legitimacy of gay and lesbian existence” 2. “The turn to the negative in queer studies was also the result of a deep intellectual engagement during this period with [Foucault, who] describes the ways that dominated groups may take advantage of the reversibility of power… discourse produces power ‘but also undermines and exposes it'” 2. For example, as homosexuality (“inversion”) was translated from religious taboo and legal violation into the discourse of illness, it became possible for it to ‘speak in its own behalf'” 2.

The contradiction of queerness as “delicious and freak… is lived out on the level of individual subjectivity; homosexuality is experienced as a stigmatizing mark as well as a from of romantic exceptionalism” 3. It also exists between celebrity gays and lesbians and the real violence and inequality of the everyday. Love is concerned with the deep emotions that painful texts (like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness) stir in us; even if the project of queer studies has to be to affirm, for Love, it seems it also has to be to dwell in the affects of pain and damage, to turn “attention to several late 19th and early 20th century literary texts visibly marked by queer suffering” 4. Whether vague or explicit, the texts of Pater, Cather, Hall, and Warner are all engaged in “feeling backward,” the “painful negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality… an account of the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia” 4.

The backward-looking image of the text is drawn from Lot’s wife, who could not but look back at the loss of the city as a consequence of sin 5. Like “trope,” which means a turn of the “word away from its literal meaning,” Love will turn characters and phrases out of context “to create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline both the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” 5. Inherent in modernity’s insistence on progress are also its failures and regressions 5. Aesthetically, too, “the new” is prized alongside nostalgia, primitivism, and melancholia in modernism 6. Queerness is “a backward race,” “a past,” a confrontation with death for Love 6.

“Backwardness has been taken up as a key feature of queer culture. Camp, for instance, with its tender concern for outmoded elements of popular culture and its refusal to get over childhood pleasures and traumas, is a backward art” 7. “I also consider the backward feelings – shame, depression, and regret – that they inspire in contemporary critics” 8. If queer critics seek to “reach back and save” isolated artists, what happens when those texts “resist our advances”? 8. Horkheimer and Adorno “discuss the danger of lookng backward in The Dialectic of Enlightenment… the allure of the Sirens… [is] ‘losing oneself in the past'” 9. What saves Odysseus is that “even as he looks backward he keeps moving forward… an ideal model of the relation to the historical past: listen to it, but do not allow yourself to be destroyed by it” 9. (This also has some kinky implications – the S&M/bondage of history?)

The integration of queer life into the mainstream may come on “the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it – the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others… the temptation to forget is stronger than ever” 10.

For Love, Raymond Williams “offers a crucial link between cognition and affect” in Marxism and Literature in describing ‘structures of feeling’ – “the idea that feeling flows naturally from the subject and expresses the truth of that subject” 11. Since “literature accounts for experience at the juncture of the psychic and the social,” it is a privileged example for Williams 12. Love also pauses to consider Wendy Brown’s idea of “Left Melancholy,” where a “crisis of political motivation” also entails a focus on traditionally nonpolitical affects like shame and melancholia 12. Love also mentions Ngai, whose affects expressly do not inspire political action, but are rather, as Ngai herself writes, “diagnostic” 13. Critics such as Warner, Sedgwick, and Crimp have suggested the shared experience of shame and the shamed as a potential space for collectivity 14. Love wants to expand the “bad feelings” that seem apolitical and consider how they might be transformed into action regardless.

Love calls on Butler’s questioning of the term ‘queer’ in “Critically Queer,” where Butler suggests that the term queer itself will have always to be turned and queered to remain questioning, relevant, though for Love, it should also be aware of the past it is staging and overcoming 18. In other words, for Butler, we must not linger in the history of injury implied in the word. “D.A. Miller suggests a way to think about the relationship between the queer past and the queer present in terms of continuity rather than opposition or departure” that focuses on “the indelible nature of ideology’s effects” – the “before and after” of gay experience, in which “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame,” even for those individuals who did not themselves experience events such as Stonewall 19-20.

Love, like Berlant, calls on Lacan’s description of love as failure, and in Freudian terms, “homosexuality is often seen as a result of a failure of maturation or a failure to overcome primary cathexes, and it has been associated with narcissism and infantilism as well as with incomplete or failed gendering… as selfishness… fleeting and doomed” 21-2. Here, “homosexuality and homosexuals serve as scapegoats for the failures and impossibilities of desire itself” 22. Lee Edelman, “recommends that queers embrace their association with the antisocial, while still pointing to the antisocial energies that run through all sexuality” 22. Rather than the antisocial voiding the future, Love focuses on failures of the social and ambivalence toward the future through a look at the past 23.

Love is skeptical of the systems and structures of psychological readings, and aligns herself instead with Sedgwick’s idea (in Touching Feeling) of “a swerve away from ‘paranoid’ toward ‘reparative’ reading… from exposure as a reading protocol… toward the descriptive rather than the critical” 23.

“Foucault’s legacy to queer studies is most closely allied with his critique of identity and his development of the method of genealogy…[in homosexual love] the best moment of an encounter is when you are putting the boy in the taxi… a historical real that is always receding, always already lost” 24. “Though bad feelings have been central to the history of queer experience and queer feeling, there is little room for them in the contemporary climate… While I do not argue for the political efficacy of any particular bad feeling in this book, I do argue for the importance of such feelings in general. Backward feelings serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world… It is true that the small repertoire of feelings that count as political – hope, anger, solidarity – have done a lot… not nearly enough” 26-7.

Love advocates for the term queer because “rather than disavowing the history of marginalization and abjection, I suggest that we embrace it… Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage… it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present” 29. “It is this disposition toward the past – embracing loss, risking abjection – that I mean to evoke with the phrase ‘feeling backward… It may in fact seem shaming to hold onto an identity that cannot be uncoupled from violence, suffering, and loss. I insist on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead'” 30.

Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.

Silvan Tomkins: “Shame & Its Sisters


INTRODUCTION: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

“Tomkins considers shame, along with interest, surprise, joy, anger, fear, distress, disgust, and, in his later writings, contempt… to be the basic set of affects. He places shame, in fact, at one end of the affect polarity shame-interest, suggesting that the pulsations of cathexis around shame, of all things, are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world. ‘Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both.’ … The emphasis in this account on the strange, rather than on the prohibited or disapproved, was congenial with our motivating intuition that the phenomenon of shame might offer new ways of short-circuiting the seemingly near-inescapable habits of thought that Foucault groups together under the name of the ‘repressive hypothesis'” 5.

“Tomkins’ resistance to heterosexist teleologies is founded in the most basic terms of his understanding of affect… ‘It is enjoyable to enjoy. It is exciting to be excited. It is terrorizing to be terrorized and angering to be angered. Affect is self-validating with or without any further referent'” 7. [resistance to teleologies of pyschology]

“By the cybernetic fold [1940s to 1960s] we mean the moment when scientists’ understanding of the brain and other life processes is marked by the concept, the possibility, the imminence, of powerful computers, but the actual computational muscle of the new computers isn’t available… part of our aim is to describe structuralism not as that mistaken thing that happened before poststructuralism but fortunately led directly to it, but rather as part of a rich moment… a gestalt (including systems theory) that allowed it to mean more different and more interesting things than have survived its sleek trajectory into poststructuralism… the early cybernetic notion of the brain as a homogenous, differentiable but not originally differentiated system is a characteristic and very fruitful emblem of many of the so far unrealized possibilities of this intellectual moment. The cybernetic fold might be described as a fold between postmodernist and modernist ways of hypothesizing about the brain and mind” 12. [the ‘evocative lists’ of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness]

Tomkins “locates in the body some important part of the difference among different emotions. ‘Undifferentiated visceral arousal’ is in no sense less biologically based than differentiated arousal… [but is less Darwinian and] more thoroughly imbued with a Cartesian mind/body dualism” 19.  Sedgwick suggests that reading maps the affect of shame: lowering of eyes and lids, hanging of the head, etc 20. Why shame?

“Shame and theory are partially analogous at a certain level of digitilization… shame involves a gestalt, the duck to interest’s (or enjoyment’s) rabbit. Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush. Similarly, only something you thought might delight or satisfy can disgust. Both these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust… recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame, as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body, can turn one inside out – or outside in… shame is characterized by its failure ever to renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain” 22-3. [surfaces – think of Ada!]


“Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind. The combination of affect and reason guarantees man’s high degree of freedom” 37.

“In the case of the sexual need, man enjoys a still greater time freedom compared with his need for air, food, and water… sexual deprivation is biologically tolerable… It is only when intercourse is not frequent or when abstinence is total that sexual excitement and fantasy can play a central role in personality. It is only when an absence of drive satisfaction can be biologically tolerated, as in this case, that a drive can assume critical importance in personality development” 47.

For Tomkins, Freud confuses drive and affect.

“Freedom of intensity of affect: Drives characteristically increase in intensity until they are satisfied, from which time they decline – gradually in eating, more rapidly in drinking, and most rapidly in the orgasm. In contrast, the intensity profiles of affect are capable of marked differentiation. Interest may begin in a low key, increase somewhat, then decline in intensity, then suddenly become very intense and remain so for some time… The rate at which affects develop intensity can vary as a function of the rate at whcih the perception of the object evoking affect increases. This latter rate may be learned or unlearned” 50-51. [think about Linda Williams’ observations about the disruption of this narrative of sexuality!]

“Freedom of density of affect: By affect density we mean the product of intensity times duration… an affect of high intensity but limited duration has equal density with an affect that is low in intensity but more enduring” 51. [think about this in terms of surface vs depth!]

“The recollection of past affect does not necessarily or even characteristically evoke the same affect. The affect which is evoked is either more intense, more enduring, more rapidly increasing in intensity, more dense, or less intense, less enduring, increasing in intensity more slowly, less dense. One of these sets of alternatives is affect sensitization, the other is affect desensitization or habituation… the affect evoked may have a longer duration but at a reduced intensity, or an increased intensity but for a briefer period of time. These are consequences when the affect evoked is the same affect that is remembered. The distinction between original affect, remembered affect, and the affect evoked by remembered affect is clearest when what is evoked is a different kind of affect than the remembered affect” 53.

“Affect-object reciprocity: The first freedom between affects and objects is their reciprocal interdependency. If an imputed characteristic of an object is capable of evoking a particular affect, the evocation of that affect is also capable of producing a subjective restructuring of the object so that it possesses the imputed characteristic which is capable of evoking that affect… It is this somewhat fluid relationship between affects and their objects which offends human beings… and which is at the base of the rationalist’s suspiciousness and derogation of the feeling life of man” 55.

“Freedom of substitutability of consummatory objects: Finally, the drive system has a limited degree of substitutability of consummatory objects. Quite apart from the restrictions of appetite of food, liquid, and sex objects, which are learned, hunger can be satisfied only by a restricted set of organic substances, thirst by a restricted set of liquids. Sexuality has a greater freedom of possible satisfiers since almost any object which is not too coarse in texture might be an adequate stimulus for stimulating the genitals, although the number of maximally satisfying possibilities is much more limited… the same affect may be enjoyed in innumerable ways… The prime example of substitutability of objects is found in art… To the extent to which human beings become addicted to specific satisfiers, either in the case of drives or affects, substitutability of objects declines… food… a lover may find there is no other love object than the beloved… there is no other city” 59.

“Freud’s concept of sublimation is quite innapropriate for drive satisfaction per se. One can eat only food, breathe only air, and drink only liquids. The concept was illuminating only with sexuality – the one drive which is the least imperious of all the drives, the drive in which the affective component plays the largest role, the drive in which activation of the drive even without consummation has a rewarding rather than a punishing quality… An erection in males or a tumescent state in females is more pleasant than painful” 60. [Freud’s idea of sublimation is that healthy transformation of a drive into something harmless, which is necessary for the functioning of society.]

Tomkins also notes that in order to control our affects, we often have to “imagine ourselves” back to a particular feeling to recreate it or to quell another 62.

“Affective responses have a low arousal inertia with respect to stimuli over which the individual usually has little control, high arousal inertia with respect to self-initiated stimuli which initiate affective responses, and high or low maintenance inertia depending on the specific affects over which the individual has little control. In other words affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all… alien to the individual.. the primitive gods within the individual” 62.

“It is of fundamental importance to the understanding of the nature of a human being that we differentiate those aspects of his personality which vary because they depend upon the variable winds of doctrine and circumstance and those characteristics which are inherently human, whether learned or unlearned. We call these General Images… centrally generated blueprints which control the feedback mechanism… their generality among human beings… there is so high a probability that they will be generated that we may for the most part regard them as inevitable in the development of all human beings… 1) Positive affect should be maximized 2) Negative affect should be minimized 3) Affect inhibition should be minimized 4) Power to maximize positive affect, to minimize negative affect, to minimize affect inhibition, should be maximized” 67.  [this is tied to human capacity for memory and perception]

“We are suggesting essentially that the idea of God, omniscient and omnipotent, is a derivative construct. Man first conceives of the ideal of himself as all-powerful because he has wants which he cannot entirely fulfill. He wishes to live forever, but he cannot… He wishes to experience perpetual joy, but he cannot. Nor can he ever defend himself entirely from distress, from shame, from fear, from hostility… all secular revolutionary movements must destroy the image of God and restore omniscience and omnipotence to the state and to society” 72.

“If an individual is haunted with a chronic sense of shame for sexual exploration, then the idea of power becomes necessarily tied to the violation of the constraints which originated the taboo… sexual excitement [then] requires an exaggerated shamelessness or power to undo, reverse, and deny the power of the other to evoke shame for one’s sexuality… a reveling in shame” 72.

[non-sequitur: look up case of man who died on ‘balanced diet in Johns Hopkins hospital after subsisting on a self-selected diet beforehand.]

“We will use, wherever possible, a joint name which includes the most characteristic description of the affect as experienced at low and as experienced at high intensity, follwed by the component facial responses:


1. Interest-Excitement: eyebrows down, track, look, listen

2. Enjoyment-Joy: smile, lips widened up and out


3. Surprise-Startle: eyebrows up, eye blink


4. Distress-Anguish: cry, arched eyebrow, mouth down, tears, rhythmic sobbing

5. Fear-Terror: eyes frozen open, pale, cold, sweaty, facial trembling, hair erect

6. Shame-Humiliation: eyes down, head down

7: Contempt-Disgust: sneer, upper lip up

8. Anger-Rage: frown, clenched jaw, red face” 74.

If reading is shame-humiliation, viewing film is naturally fear-terror? Recall also Williams and others on how sexual pleasure would look more like 4 or 5 than 1 or 2 (horror film).

Frederic Jameson, “Video” & “Film”

1993: Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious

Jameson begins with the idea that “with the extinction of the sacred and the ‘spiritual,’ the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping and convulsive into the light of day; and it is clear that culture itself is one of those things whose fundamental materiality ias now for us  not merely evident but quite inescapable” 67. The word media thus denotes for us 1) a form of aesthetic production, but also 2) a technology or specific machine and 3) a social institution 67. A paradox:

“…the written text loses its privileged and exemplary status at the very moment when the available conceptualities for analyzing the enormous variety of objects of study with which ‘reality’ now presents us… have become almost exclusively linguistic in orientation. Media analysis in linguistic or semiotic terms therefore may well appear to involve an imperializing enlargement of the domain of language to include nonverbal – visual or musical, bodily, spatial – phenomena; but it may equally well spell a critical and disruptive challenge to the very conceptual instruemtns which have been mobilized to complete this operation of asismilation” 68.

Jameson claims that we were “warned” by the “cleverest prophets” (probably Adorno) that the “dominant art form” of the century would be film – but why has literature had more innovation, even “intelligently and opportunistically absorbing the techniques of film back into its own substance” 68? The first two eras of film – silent and sound – are latticed into problems of the mass audience and mass culture, respectively, preceding the real auteur innovation of te 50s (Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini) 69. Neither film nor literature, Jameson claims, any longer speak the rich allegory of the times – instead, it is video: “commercial television and experimental video… ‘video art'” 69. If film is large and mesmerizing, it is not different enough from TV and video art to constitute a “satisfactory translation” between cousins 70.

Jameson mentions Raymond Williams’ “total flow,” [so feminizing] which obliterates distance and memory, since TV does not leave haunting images or impose temporal structure for Jameson 70. (Again, interesting to note how this has changed with “quality TV” as well as the decline of the TV set.) For Jameson, we can get at commercial TV through video art, in the same way we get at language through experimental poetry: by seeing it as pure possibility, divorced from restriction and convention 71. He locates boredom as “a defense mechanism” – again one thinks of Ngai’s “Stuplimity” 72. As an example, interestingly, we are asked to imagine the “timeless immoble mask” of a static face on our TV screen lasting 21 minutes, according to our TV Guide 72. For Jameson, this is comparable to the photographic subject’s head being clamped into place for the necessary time of late-19th c photographs or the literature of Roussel (Beckett?), with the infinite description of objects – but here in video art, dateable to the late 60s (Paik)/ early 70s (Snow?) we have “the machine on both sides… the machine as subject and object” – the camera looking at us as we are clamped into place 73.

If film, even documentary, presents a particular kind of constructed or fictional time, video art operates more on “real time,” the uncomfortable time of boredom – when compared to TV, it’s interesting then that “out of the rigorously nonfictive languages of video, commercial television manages to produce the simulacrum of fictive time” 75. Video art makes its form this seam of space and time. All the materials of the videotext he examines are degraded:

“If we think of the various quoted elements and components – the broken pieces of a whole range of primary texts in the contemporary cultural sphere – as so many logos, that is to say, as a new form of advertising language which is structurally and historically a good deal more advanced and complicated than any of the advertising images with which Barthes’ earlier theories had to deal. A logos is something like the synthesis of an advertising image and a brand name; better still, it is a brand name which has been transformed into an image, a sign or emblem which carries the memory of a whole tradition of earlier advertisements within itself in a well-nigh intertextual way” 85.

“The matter grows more complicated… when we realize that none of these elements or new cultural signs or logos exists in isolation: the videotext itself is at virtually all moments a process of ceaseless, apparently random, interaction between them… between signs for which we have only the most approximate theoretical models… a constant stream, or ‘total flow,’ of multiple materials, each of which can be seen as something like a shorthand signal for a distinct type of narrative or a specific narrative process” 86.

Jameson reduces the multi- to the binary here – the dialectic, the opposition of subject and predicate 87. It is “Benjaminian ‘distraction’ raised to a new and historically original power” 87. ”

The postmodernist text – of which we have taken the videotape in question to be a privileged exemplar – is from that perspective defined as a structure or sign flow which resists meaning, whose fundamental inner logic is the exclusion of the emergence of themes as such in that sense, and which therefore systematically sets out to short-circuit traditional interpretive temptations (something Susan Sontag prophetically intuited… in Against Interpretation)… it will be bad or flawed whenever such interpretation proves possible” 92.

“Yet another way of interpreting… would seek to foreground the process of production itself rather than its putative messages, meanings, or content” 95.

“Once upon a time at the dawn of capitalism and middle-class society, there emerged something called the sign, which seemed to entertain unproblematical relations with its referent… literal or referential language… came into being because of the corrosive dissolution of older forms of magical language by a force which I will call that of reification, a force whose logic is one of ruthless separation and disjunction… that force… continued unremittingly, being the very logic of capital itself. [After modernism] reification penetrates the sign itself and disjoins the signifier from the signified. Now reference and reality disappear altogether, and even meaning – the signified – is problematized. We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage” 96.

1993: Film: Nostalgia for the Present

“When the notion of the oppositional is contested, however, in the mid eighties, we will know a fifties revival in which much of this ‘degraded mass culture’ returns for possible reevaluation” 280. The small town (the setting of the 50s) has lost its autonomy and become part of a chain. The Nietzschean position is that “period concepts finally correspond to no realities whatsoever” 282. Jameson’s example is Dick’s novel about a fake 50s village in Russia in the 90s. “The novel is collective wish-fulfillment, and the expression of a deep, unconscious yearning for a simpler and more human social system and a small-town Utopia very much in the North American frontier tradition” 283. This is cognitive mapping distorted. “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future,” but “a perception of the present as history… a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it” 284. If the future film turns into mere realism, as the Dick novel does for Jameson, and we are divorced from history, why do we subsume all styles all the time now?

“It is by way of so-called nostalgia films that some properly allegorical processing of the past becomes possible: it is because the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images that new and more complex ‘postnostalgia’ statements and forms become possible” 287.

This occurs in the unlikely meeting of high-gloss nostalgia film and B-grade punk film.

“Thus these films can be read as dual symptoms: they show a collective unconscious in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt, which seems to reduce itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past” 296.

“Dick used science fiction to see his present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts. The two 1986 movies, while scarcely pioneering a wholly new form (or mode of historicity), nonetheless seem, in their allegorical complexity, to mark the end of that and the now open space for something else” 296. [alas, no, The Help]


Jameson claims himself as one who neither loves nor disavows postmodernism. The novel is the weakest link in art, while poems are not bad, and video and film are quite good. He appreciates improvements in food and other areas. When we compare two eras, as we always do, we compare the modes of production, occurring as contact between reader and text. Jameson concludes by arguing that capitalism’s unprecedented freedom in our era will lead to a new international proletariat and a return to older forms of labor – it is only a matter of time, since postmodernism is “a transition stage” between 2 forms of capitalism (think of how Kant and Schiller imagine aesthetics…). He says that his “cognitive mapping” was a mere rephrasing of ” class consciousness” for a new world. “The rhetorical strategy of the preceding pages has involved an experiment, namely, the attempt to see whether by systematizing something that is resolutely unsystematic, and historicizing something that is resolutely ahistorical, one couldn’t outflank it and force a historical way at least of thinking about that” 418.

Fredric Jameson, “Culture” (Ch 1, “Postmodernism”)


Jameson begins by stating that the present time (the eighties) is obsessed with “a break…. the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement” that occurred in the late 50s or early 60s (significantly a period we still seem to be making ever more movies and TV shows about, in fits of continued ‘nostalgia’) 1. For Jameson, this remains confused in literary and artistic production – a “new aesthetic of textuality,” but is crystallized in architecture (re: Brideshead’s exhausted representations of old architecture?) 2.

Postmodern architecture performs for Jameson: it “stage[s] itself as a kind of aesthetic populism” that effaces the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture… that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Levis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School… this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch” 2. Whereas modernism “quoted” from pop culture – think Ulysses – postmodern works “incorporate” this “into their very substance,” an odd statement not least because it’s questionable what Jameson would mean by substance here 3. The third stage of capitalism is no longer about industrialism and class struggle, but is purer, so that “every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” 3. Postmodernism, too, should be conceived for Jameson “not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant” with “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (reminiscent of Foucault on sexuality 4.

Though Jameson acknowledges that Stein, Roussel, and Duchamp seem to be postmodern avant-la-lettre, he holds that this does not account for the social history, the canonization of the modern (and even its appropriation), by the bourgeoisie 4. He also acknowledges that the postmodern is already incapable of shocking us with its obscurity and sexual content. This brings to mind Ngai’s idea of “stuplimity,” which both locates Stein and Beckett as “postmodern” writers, but also claims that the alternation between shock and boredom is key to the contemporary affect she describes.

Aesthetics are now fully bound to the economy, and this is one reason Jameson prefers the example of architecture, closely tied in its production to global corporations 5. This leads him to explain why the postmodern must not be swallowed into periodization as “modern” – it is not historically coterminous and  as a system, it does not actually obliterate heterogeneity, though Jameson is willing to interrogate the difficulty of the “‘winner loses’ logic”:

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree hloses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed… perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself 5.

The postmodern’s “hegemonic norm” actually highlights “genuine difference” for Jameson, protecting us from the myopic vision of our own time as uniquely ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ 6. The postmodern is “the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses – what Raymond Williams has usefully termed ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ forms of cultural production – must make their way” 6. Its features are 1) a “new depthlessness… both in contemporary ‘theory’ and… the culture of the image or the simulacrum, 2) a flattening or weakening of historicity through ‘schizophrenic’ Lacanian structures of syntax, 3) a “return to older theories of the sublime” in “a new type of emotional ground tone,” 4) a whole new technology tied to globalization, and 5) a mission of political art as it has shifted in multinational capitalism 6.

Jameson begins by discussing Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s shoes (over and against its “copiou[s] reproduc[tion] – re: Benjamin), with its “hallucinatory surface of color” as “an act of compensation” for the darkness of labor under capitalism 7. Secondarily, Jameson offers a Heideggerian reading, in which the meaningless material (Earth) is elevated through art to the level of aesthetics, society, and history (World) 7.  This is a kind of “laying bare the device,” through which aesthetic mediation uncovers the truth of the object, and again, this is partly through the materiality of the painting itself (again re: Benjamin) 8. Both readings are hermeneutical, says Jameson – they can be abstracted to larger meaning, whereas Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” cannot. Warhol’s shoes are not “a heterosexual pair” like Van Gogh’s, but a collection of single, odd “dead objects” 8. They are fetishes, decontextualized from their original materiality and unable to be material in art either, because they are like X-ray photographs, reproduced and flattened and sprinkled with a sealing veil of golden sparkles, expressive of the return of the repressed, “decorative exhilaration,” but also “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” (an idea Ngai resists in “Stuplimity”) 10.

This is not to say there is no emotion here, but that art does not “look back” at us, and that other Warhol subjects “like Marilyn Monroe – …are themeselves commodified and transformed into their own images” (though Jameson does not gender this, he probably should) 11. Essentially, the art of anxiety, such as Munch’s “The Scream,” is predicated on a division of the inner self and the outer world, “the outward dramatization of inward feeling” 12. This is connected to the poststructuralist critique of depth models of hermeneutics: 1) the dialectical essence vs appearance, 2) the Freudian latent vs manifest, 3) the existential divide of authentic vs inauthentic, and 4) the opposition of signifier and signified – itself already unraveled 12. For Jameson:

“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures… [suggest that] here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth” 12.

Jameson cites the tall, flat Wells Fargo Court in L.A., which “momentarily transforms the solid ground on which we stand into the contents of a stereopticon… as fateful as the great monolith in Kubrick’s 2001,” an idea that really reminds me of Linda Williams’ concept that if the original film was concerned with panorama, the new one is concerned with height (contemporary examples: think Avatar’s cliffs vs. The Master‘s painted-scenery of flat “depths,” as opposed to old Westerns or Abel Gance’s Napoleon) 13. As opposed to Ngai, for Jameson anxiety and alienation are purely modernist affects: “This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation” 14. In other words, it is no longer the world that is fragmented, as in modernism, but the subject. 

Like Benjamin, for Jameson this means the end of individual style, and the “emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction… a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well” – not so much the end of feeling as its depersonalization, as well as the accompaniment of euphoria to its expression 15-16. More concretely, this signifies

“the waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory… we now inhabit they synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” 16.

If parody is modern (despite the “inimitable” modern styles  – Faulkner’s long sentences, Lawrence’s natural imagery, Stevens’ evasions of certain syntaxes) because these “ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself” and are “willful eccentricities,” then pastiche is the province of the postmodern (though what about The Waste Land?16. “Modernist styles become postmodernist codes” for Jameson, layered atop the many codes of jargon, idiolect, and regionalism, since “advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” 17. Pastiche is instead “blank parody” – a “linguistic mask” with no humor or satiric impulse that “cannibalizes” past styles by attaching “neo” to them 17-18. It is characteristic of “consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles'” 18. For Jameson, as for Guy Debord, this is where “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed,” becomes useful, since “the image has become the final form of commodity reification” 18.

Instead of Lukac’s historical time in the novel, we now face a “libidinal historicism,” seeking to assimilate “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” leaving us with “nothing but texts” 18. In the nostalgia film,  for example, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” (he cites George Lucas’ American Graffiti – “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire”) 19. The nostalgia film sees the past in “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image… by the attributes of fashion” – he cites Barthes’ Mythologies 19. In this sense – in the “remake,” “retelling” or “historical fiction” of today, “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” 20. Even stars, then, are flatter – an absence of “personality” makes them more like character actors displaying past styles of acting, and the most common setting is small-town America, eschewing the high-rise features of multinational capitalism as well as older features of civilization. This seems related to the idea of “suture” – it all “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some external thirties, beyond real historical time… the pastiche of the stereotypical past” 21.

“We seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience,” Jameson claims 21. An exception for him is the work of Doctorow, namely The Book of Daniel. Ragtime, for Jameson is “a seemingly realistic novel” that is “a nonrepresentational work” combining “fatnasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram” 23. Jameson seems to find it positive that the novel “short-circuits” traditional interpretative techniques and “imposes” a reading mode where we must sort out real historical figures from fictional representation (reminds ME of Pynchon… why not Jameson?) 23. Here, history returns as the proverbial Freudian repressed – form replaces content as a means of communicating affect and meaning, since the “waning of content is precisely [Doctorow’s] subject” and the historical novel “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes ‘pop history'” 25.

In Genette’s terms, if the subject has “lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent expereince,” then representation becomes “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory” 25. Ngai will use this image in “Stuplimity,” but one wonders how Jameson’s notion of these “privative features” of postmodern art (more kindly called textuality, ecriture, or schizophrenic wriitng 26) pushes against T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land“I have shored up these fragments against my ruin” – likely in the loss of the subject who still believes in the possibility of a ruin to be staved off? In Lacan’s terms, schizophrenia is “a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” 26.

I’m interested in thinking of this in terms of faceting – not as a chain, but as a three-dimensional structure. In Derridean terms, “Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier” – akin to differance 26. The signified is then a “meaning effect… a mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” 26. This “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is for Jameson tied to psychic and linguistic ‘health’ – if we cannot understand and express 3 temporalities in language, “the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” 27. This reminds me not only of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but ironically enough, of the slogan Jameson decries: “The medium is the message”! 27. Jameson cites Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, which is where he locates the affect of euphoria in the loss of reality: “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” 27. I want to read this! It seems gendered, as well as connected to reading, to surfaces, and to faceting.

Related to such euphoria is the reappropriation of previously clinical terms for humor, irony, and even joy (one thinks of paranoid, schizphrenic, manic, stalker, obsessed) 29. He calls reading a kind of zoom lens, thinks of such verbal change as making meaning into the decorative, and explains photorealism as an effect of a world in which the real objects of art were not the things themselves but photos – the realism is the simulacrum 30. Criticism thus stresses “the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art… now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds” 31. This seems ripe for considering that we might join but not suture these elements, since Jameson does identify the positive value of collating multiplicity: “In the most interesting postmodernist works, one can detect a more positive concept of relationship, which restores its proper tension to the notion of difference itself… new and original way of thinking and preceiving… an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” 31. (Note: is the very impossibility related to old ideas of the sublime – thin Ngai’s stuplime?)

Jameson locates the euphoria of “the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape” in automobile wrecks, new surfaces, and commodified urban squalor (makes me think of Ballard and tours of squatters in Berlin) 33. Art divides the body from space (empty bathrooms as installations vs. simulacra of the body) to form an aesthetic of “derealization,” in which “the world… momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin” 34. Jameson connects this to camp, calling it a “hysterical sublime” 34. Whereas for Kant, the sublime alternates between awe and terror as the mind seeks to comprehend that which is at first beyond comprehension, now he looks at this more as dead objects, as technology turning back against us in its inert forms, haunting us in its covering of nature (Auden, Silko) 35. He periodizes capitalism: 1) 1840s steam power = market capitalism (realism), 2) 1890s electric power = monopoly or imperialist capitalism (modernism), 3) 1940s nuclear power = postindustrial or multinational capitalism (postmodernism) 35. (Even the polyglot words of the third phase are conglomerations!)

Jameson differentiates the potential for movement in the old technology and architecture (think the ships of Le Corbusier – this leftist emphasis on motion reminds me of Lukacs) from the static outer shell of the computer or television, “which articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself” 37. These are “machines of reproduction rather than of production… narratives which are about the processes of reproduction and include movie cameras” 37. One can imagine what Jameson would say now abut reality TV, as well as the true flatness of the iPhone and the iPad, the new computer called “Surface” from Microsoft, machines which almost efface themselves visibly as machines. For Jameson in 1984, architecture “remains… the privileged aesthetic language; and the distoriting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture” 37. (Note: calling it “mesmerizing” and “fascinating” is interesting because repetition/phallus roots.)

This leads to a “high-tech paranoia” – both the feeling that these machines are synecdochic stand-ins for a large, incomprehensible network (connected to the idea of the sublime?), but also the fear that that complexity cannot be overcome or understood by the “normal reading mind” (he cites cyberpnk – William Gibson, I think Neal Stephenson) 38. Our spatial creations, then, have outgrown the capacity of our minds, as if we wish to “expand our sensorium” to “impossible dimensions” (related to Kant’s free beauty?) 39. They speak the vernacular of the city, but do not aesthetically raise its tone? (Re: Adorno and the elitist’s complaint – these buildings do not seek to lift up the rest of the city, as in the modernist project). The Westin Bonaventure in LA reflects the city back, has 3 “backdoor” entrances on 2 different levels, none of which go to the lobby, and seeks to be a miniature city, Jameson argues.  (Think about this in terms of suturing off? Also vs. the arcade – infinitely enterable and exitable, where you always see the structure in the glass as well as through the glass both directions). The reflectivity of the “glass skin” repels all, giving distorted images of surroundings even as you can see out and the Other can’t see in (makes me think of Byatt, and glass/all reflective of other and/or self) 42.

Thinking of elevators and escalators as narrative movements in the building, Jameson claims that these symbolize and institutionalize movement, rather than just allowing it (Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”?) 42. You are either slowly moving against your own pace or shooting vertically up or down into another contained space, all covered in colors, streamers, and the indecipherable four corners of the hotel, which discourage orientation. In other words, we can never get our Kantian distance, because we are always overwhelmed by the spectacle (one wonders why we are so shamed by our looking and seeing – is it erotic in some way?). This is like the limits of fiction, too? Jameson politicizes this by claiming the inability to talk about war now (always?) 44. Surface and symbol are problematized in that the machine can no longer represent motion when inert, but must actually be represented in motion (video?) 45.

Though Jameson concludes that it would be an ethical mistake to accept the “delirious camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world,” it is equally problematic to trivialize it in comparison to “the ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms” 46. Like Zizek, for Jameson, the world of images erases past and future into images of cataclysm on the personal and social levels 46. Even though the postmodern is essentially negative, we are all embedded in it, and if it is historical, we cannot moralize it away:

“Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once… grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought… at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race and the worst… dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together” 47.

(This reminds me to think of Byatt’s “agnosticism” somewhat. Note: weird that Jameson says we are “submerged” if this aesthetic has no depth in his framing of it.) Jameson wonders: if there is no outside the system, and the relative autonomy of the arts is no longer, what can be done? Like Foucault on power & sexuality, the irony of proliferating sexual discourses is somewhat akin here to the irony of proliferating theoretical paradigms 49.  If, for Jameson, the promise of capitalism’s hugeness is the hugeness of potential social change, how is this not like an apology for technology and globalization, which he warned us against 50? He concludes that leftists should be less afraid of the pedagogical function of art, letting go of their fear of the bourgeois reaction to modernism 50.

Jameson ends by imagining “cognitive mapping” 51. If ideology toggles between the imaginary and the real (Althusser, also like Foucault, where sexuality toggles between power and pleasure?), then art needs to be able to situationally represent the individual in relation to the vast totality, and this is cognitive mapping (“to cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international class realities” as well) 52. It seems Jameson is imagining something that will  toggle experience and knowledge, orienting the individual in her surroundings 53.  If ideology is imagined and science is real (both of which fit into Marx and Althusser’s models), then in Lacan, we also have the symbolic, and Jameson looks to political art to fill this role somehow. Perhaps sadly and ironically, it seems Google Maps or GPS or a smartphone quite literally solves this problem, but in a mode so deeply imbricated in capitalism that it can hardly be seen as a solution. Does it, however, enable the end of postmodernism and the rise of the New Sincerity? And why did Occupy fail if all this is true?