Chapter 4 – Affect


“Everybody Talks About the Weather, but Nobody Does Anything About It”

Interiority, Dark Appetites and the Desire to Confess
The noises of a public place set the scene as the shot fades from black. Wobbly, droning music overtakes the din of the crowd, capturing the suffocating alienation of the Metropolis where mutual presence is characterized more by mutual separation than social connection.

A floor cuts the frame in half, the low shot focusing on people’s feet as they hurry from one side of the frame to another. Some disappear, their presence reduced to nothing before we know anything about them. Others appear, but not as complex characters in a drama but as anonymous subjects, either to be ignored or simply forgotten. In big red text, the words “NADIE ES INOCENTE” are emblazoned on the screen.

A pair of skinny legs appears, and the film quickly cuts to a backlit character walking up stairs with the same placid determination it takes to safely walk big city streets.

In the next shot, we finally catch a glimpse the character as he moves in and out of the shadows. A young punk in a red cut-off shirt and wild hair boards a train and finds a seat. While the train picks up speed, the disorienting music stops and is replaced by the mechanical clanks of locomotion. The punk stares out the window. His thoughts are broadcast through voice-over.

In a meandering tone, the punk gives a wry farewell to Neza City, a slum outside Mexico City. His excitement builds as he says goodbye to pickpockets, the police, and a no-good government. But even in escape, he returns his thoughts to his gang of Shit Punks (Mierdas Punks). Later, he mentions what he thinks makes them unique. Los Mierdas, unlike other gangs, hold no territory and therefore go anywhere they want to go – ”We have no turf, we go from one place to another. Gangs with turfs chase us or we chase them. It’s all the same.”

This journey provides a loose arc for the otherwise haphazard everyday life of his gang. At times, the dull emptiness of description almost finds meaning. The young punk may have a name: Kara? Yet as he travels, he changes his name to Juanillo, which casts a darker shade of doubt. The train itself offers tempting certainty, as its fixed path seems more determined than the rest of the scene. But dizzying jump-cuts and a disorienting trip through the train after the punk huffs something intoxicating undermine his veracity.

Truth would be wasted in this instance, anyway; Los Mierdas are the children of “No Future.” No one is there to mourn their death, only curse their existence. Perhaps the only bit of truth is found in a phrase said in a moment of indifferent reflection on the train. “Yo no quiero ser nadie. Yo no quiero ser nada.”

A decade earlier, Foucault declared that he was driven by the same motivation: “to get free of oneself” (Foucault, The Uses of Pleasure, 94-5). Yet he did not imagine such an escape to occur when someone leaves it all behind by skipping town. For Foucault, one does not shed oneself by shaking whatever authorities may be after you, joining a different gang, adopting a new name, or taking up a completely different lifestyle. Unlike the ancients who are nothing but their visible public acts, we moderns are tied to something much deeper than mere practices: a private self stricken with the poisoned gift of a deep interior. The product of Publicity and the Spectacle, the deep interiority of the self opens like a crack for Empire to plunge into. Escape is only partial as long as it is haunted by a specific desire – confession.

“Western man has become a confessing animal” (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 59). Foucault says that the centrality of confession in modern life appears as an accident, but those with a careful eye can spot the jurist-priest’s hand in its construction. Confession was not just a strange act to be excavated like a corpse from the decaying pages of confessional manuals in archival tombs, but the invention of a particular technology of politics.

The private inner self of confession boasts a striking architecture built for introspection. In his Confessions, the seminal text on confession, the great jurist-priest Augustine depicts enormous monuments that furnish the depths of the soul. Fields. Wide expanses. Souls are constructed like a lata praetoriae (spacious palace) or aula ingenti (vast court) but without ceilings, open to bask in the light of the Sun (Augustine, Confessions, 10:8:12, 10:8:14). Furthermore, each private structure is erected to direct two movements, inward and upward. Inward, as a container, the soul holds the immense store of memories unique to each soul. And upward, as an opening, its paves a startling array of avenues that all lead toward the heavens. But jurist-priests do not ask their subjects to look inward to trace its every curve, as one comes to know the shape of their body, or study its structure for hidden truths unique to one’s nature, as our contemporaries do. Their obedient eyes must turn in-and-then-up to find a God that shines within the courtyard of those who leave behind the outside world and look in themselves. Yet such exposure does not reward them with the pleasure of basking in fields of glory or even the gift of the truth of the self; searching the wide spaces reveals a divine knowledge – the truth of their sin. The soul shields sinners who follow the jurist-priest from the penetrating eyes of others, deflecting the judge of visible acts by locating inner truth in a deep hidden space only accessible by the self. Yet such deflection comes from opening up the self to an endless form of intimate judgment, the infinite knowledge of God, who not only sees all actions – both public and private – but also hears all thoughts, knows all motivations, and senses all desires. Furthermore, jurist-priests demand that followers bare their soul in the vastness of great courts, presenting every result of the endless searching in-and-then-up, or be condemned to eternal damnation.

Empire, happy to indulge religious fantasies of the infinite, does nothing to impede the ongoing construction of cathedrals to the self. Yet few build the steeples that reach toward the heavens in a vain attempt to touch the divine. The souls of Empire take after Locke’s dark room, sealed off from the Sun (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 11.17). But unlike Locke, who thought like a carpenter when designing windows of perception to the soul, Empire teaches its subjects to be miners that enjoy the darkness. At first glance, souls in the Metropolis appear as dark rooms hidden from the prying eyes of the Spectacle, deep caverns of sensation that subjects flee to for private relief. The Modern State has problems with such spaces, worried that they offered refuge to men fit in action but sick in mind or heart. But with its legions of experts, it expands the priesthood to a broad range of eyes and ears. Doctors, fathers, teachers, and judges benefitted from the invention of confession’s most curious effect, ‘the speaker’s benefit’ – a tool that cuts with the twin blades of truth and power in order to leave a strange wound that pleases the victim as it sears with pain.

If confession is understood not only as a declaration of wrongdoing but as an exclamation of the truth of one’s inner self, confessional utterances do not simply restate facts already found in the world. Rather, confession had to be invented in order to establish a process for subjects withdrawn into their private worlds to still register their existence. Therefore, by attaching the heaviness of judgment, speech is then burdened with real or imagined repression or shame. With the death of God, confession barely seems worthwhile, for hidden barbs do not carry a divine penalty. Yet the power of confession grew in profanation, as the State’s experts found that the measured palliative of clerical absolution can give way to the deep reservoir of inner pleasure unlocked through transgression, which sets aside the marginal comforts of ultimate forgiveness for near endless oceans of masochistic passion delivered by the shame and difficulty of confession. For the compensation of the speaker’s benefit, Empire radiates mixtures of pain and pleasure, producing desires that ease subjects out of hiding through the pleasure of exposure.

Empire’s subjects live in an age of appetites, indulgences that come from the Spectacle piercing the dark folds of the soul’s architecture. The scorching light of the Spectacle sears the soul, not by shining in the courtyard of the devoted or peaking through the dark room’s cracks of perception, but by igniting uncontrollable private passions. The explosion of appetites cannot help but be subversive – it toppled the Eastern Bloc to end the Cold War, recently overthrew North African dictators, and nearly upended the whole world in the 1960s. But despite their unruly nature, Empire usually finds a use for these desires, stoking and redirecting them through the most basic technique of misrecognition: ventriloquization. Confessional admissions are treated as secrets; so charged that only hushed tones or anesthetized clinical terms can prevent their explosion, or in the event of detonation, control its concussive waves. Just as madmen are kept in cages, not for their own protection but to minimize their ability to disrupt others, confession also occurs in a private language behind closed doors. When forced to speak familiarly about themselves with such an estranged tongue, many subjects forget to consider whether the words on their lips are truly theirs or the voice of another. Yet the ritual of confession is not just an expression of dark truths – it is their consummation. And experts of all stripes have developed techniques to implant new appetites. Psychoanalysts use transference to rope in their patients, marketers convince consumers that they have been missing something their whole lives, and politicians whip the people into a frenzy. The confusion further extends to secrecy, as subjects seeking to avoid the penalty of breaking a taboo are to enjoy confession but simultaneously deny that anything was spoken at all. Buoyed by a culture of denial, the Metropolis is filled by anxious residents who spread rumor and half-truth, and despite being unsure of the source, they are eager to pass it on all the same.

The Metropolis is barely more than a swirling circuit for the dark force of appetites. Yet the Metropolis would collapse without Empire, which unfolds the dark depths of introspection in order to extend its far-reaching circuit. Empire demands that all secrets are made public and thus engineers souls that transparently conduct appetites while concurrently uncovering even more subterranean passions. The Modern State is desperate to generate transparency and thus sets the Police to cordon off a scene and suspend all motion until everyone and everything has given an account of itself. But the minimum speed of life in the Metropolis is far too fast for total arrest, however, so Empire establishes transparency in what is left of the Social. The social desire for virtue sets good citizens down the tangled path of their souls as if their liberation depends on every possible discovery. Each descent uncovers what appears to be fragments of truth, which are later confirmed by experts as prized artifacts of the self. As the trips become more numerous, the process drops lower into the subconscious until its is nothing but a habit emptied of shame and giving an account of oneself becomes a custom as regular as any other part of everyday life. This is how Empire makes the profusion of dark appetites synonymous with the public display of preference: by constructing an avenue of satisfaction for taking personal ownership over a passing interest. And this unending stream of difference is why the Metropolis cannot help but be banal. Private rooms are completely exposed by Empire’s compulsion to confess and thus drained of the thrill of secrecy; the soul no longer obscures a dispersed network of thoughts, obsessions, and pleasures but puts each and every one of them on display, open to the prying eyes of the Spectacle and managed by the violent force of Biopower.

The Spectacle’s command over the Metropolis undermines the tempting theory that the modern soul is a refuge. It is not a safe house but a set-up. Fugitive moments in the seemingly private life of the soul appear to move securely between hideouts, but their organization was infiltrated by Empire long ago. In contrast to the soul’s appearance in Empire as a dark room that hides dangerous appetites, its function is far more collective. Empire governs a whole community of souls, as a shepherd tends his flock or a captain pilots his ship, while declaring that the movements of the Metropolis originate from innumerable causes of private origin (Foucault, Security, Territory Population, 123-130; The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 249-250). But this ventriloquism should not be mistaken for an organized conspiracy, as Empire does not give direct orders but simply marshals whatever reactionary forces are necessary to preserve a perpetual present. The soul today enables Empire’s negative operation by taking on the architecture of the waiting room.

The waiting room is an essentially boring space where subjects are forced to give the most insipid account of themselves while waiting for something to happen. Beckett canonizes this practice in Waiting for Godot by satirizing tramps who remain stuck in self-reflection and thus fail to explore humanity’s newfound freedom from transcendent authority. Despite the absurdity of searching for the truth of oneself while waiting, the myth persists. And thus to exist in the Metropolis is to respond to an endless barrage of questions, which inevitably lead to interrogation, supervision, and modification, and often end in punishment and constraint. For some, anticipating the interventions of authority makes the soul a place of anxiety, even if they are unable to determine why or for what reason. But for those habituated to waiting, Empire’s repression of the event is no cause for concern, as the knowledge extracted through interrogation is helpful or even desirable; experts will analyze the material and get back to them with a proper diagnosis, whether it is the cause to their marital strife or which Harry Potter character they ‘are.’ Caught within the trinity of souls – Augustine’s divine courtyard, Locke’s dark room, and Empire’s waiting room – contemporary subjects are unsure whether it is their eternal fate that lies in the balance or just a way to pass the time. What is clear, however, is that Empire has extended the reign of the present by indulging the subject’s dark appetites and strengthening the compulsion to confess. Yet Empire’s creeping boredom is not enough to satisfy all desires; so, just as Christianity secretes its own atheism, with Empire arrives a bottomless passion that renounces any name but nothingness itself.

Nothingness is more than just revolt. Revolt exists as a potential for resistance everywhere and at all times, yet differing forms of revolt exist alongside each State-form. Foucault outlines how the Levelers and Diggers of the English Civil War developed an innovative form of revolt to the Modern State. Rather than rebelling to have their voices heard or to establish a more just society, the Levelers and Diggers called for rebellion as an absolute right based on the categorical and immediate abomination of the social order of the Modern State, which they declared to be the continuation of war by other means, which only their revolt could end (Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 109-110). In the Modern State, then, the radical right to revolt is not based on the liberal principle of good governance but its opposite, an ungovernability that employs historical analysis to argue that the State is nothing but the permanent state of war.

Refusal is how nothingness revolts against Empire. More than a withdrawal, refusal attacks the relations of the Metropolis and everything that they entail. Its aim is to make those relations impossible, sweeping away the Metropolis and Empire with it. Militants used the notion during Italy’s decade-long Years of Lead, looking to subvert the labor-relation through a subtraction that started in Turin’s Fiat plants and magnified across society through the 1970’s. Workers unwilling to struggle with management for command over their own power developed a strategy for what they did control, the productive capacity of labor. The gamble was that without production, management would wither away and die. The strategy of refusal thus rejected the aspect of Leninism that replaces capital’s party-form with its own, and it instead revealed a force of life that exists outside the workplace and beneath the streets (Tronti, “Strategy of Refusal”). The conflict simmered and grew too hot for the otherwise sympathetic population when the Red Brigades assassinated Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro, which allowed the State to launch a punishing anti-terrorism campaign that destroyed the movement and imprisoned thousands.

It is through the refusal of interiority that the soul is incorporated into the strategy of nothingness. The refusal of work can be easily modified to consider Empire’s domination of the soul. Work has not disappeared in the Metropolis, but it is no longer limited to the factory. As Empire makes work a general condition rather than a clearly defined activity, work becomes an activity centered on the soul. Everywhere one looks in the Metropolis one finds the soul at work. Less obliquely, however, refusal pits nothingness against interiority itself. Under the terrifying gaze of the Spectacle, the interior of the self may appear natural or simply inevitable, but Foucault’s genealogy of the self reveals ancient conceptions of the soul that lack private secrets. To the extent that Seneca or other ancients imagined themselves to have a conscience that engaged in personal reflection, it held no secrets and was meant only to enhance public life (Foucault, “Technologies of the Self”, 35-7). Yet the ancients hold no clues for resistance to Empire, only the notion that humans have the capacity to exist without the interiors to which the residents of the Metropolis have grown so accustomed.

The refusal of interiority comes into its own when it uses the landscape of the Metropolis against Empire. First, it begins with subjects that embrace the dark desires of the soul, as they peddle in the most potent form of power. And every tool has an infinite amount of possible uses, many of them contradictory. So once a tool is released from its expected function, it is free to become a weapon. Second, the soul becomes a form of struggle when it is rewired to disrupt the circuit of social conductivity. Self-righteous fugitives flee their habitat to the dark recesses of the soul only to bare its contents in an attempt to gain salvation. The enemies of Empire do not change their habitat but instead change their habits, using the soul to invent novel ways of revolt. And third, the struggle transforms into revolt when refusal begets nothingness. Nothingness will reign when the soul annihilates the transcendental conditions that enable all interiority. In this sense, nothingness is not the indulgence of destructive appetites but the making-possible of new ones. Such is the state of war against the perpetual present; at a certain moment, nothing becomes everything. And it is the freeing capacity of nothingness that makes it antagonistic to Empire.

Feel Tank, An Experiment in Negative Affects
“I don’t want these things to happen, they just do,” murmurs Rita, a character in Joyce Carol Oates’s
Foxfire. A tragic girl, Rita could not help that terrible things always seemed to happened to her. Her brothers and other boys exploited her. The abuse would begin with teasing and sometimes ended in worse. To speak of a milder incident: one time when she was seven, her brothers yanked off her panties and hoisted them in a high tree for the cruel satisfaction of the neighborhood boys. Every time she apologized in a detached and matter of fact way, as if each injustice happened around but not to her, like the weather, totally absent of anything about her – her body, her status as a female.

One day it all changes. Rita and three other high school girls cram in a small room on New Years Eve Day 1953. Led by Legs (“First-in-command”), they form a blood-sisterhood. A girl gang. (FOXFIRE IS YOUR HEART!) Foxfire quickly develops a taste for revenge. They feast on the joy and pleasure that follows from breaking through the shame and disdain of long submitting to absent and alcoholic fathers, lecherous teachers and uncles, and ruthless boys and brothers. Separately, the girls felt suffocated. But together, they are delirious with life.

Foxfire’s bond is underwritten by love even if it is fueled by vengeance. When others would feel regret or remorse, or guilt and sin, they simply scream FOXFIRE BURNS & BURNS and FOXFIRE NEVER SAYS SORRY! And the way they tell it, there is no reason for you to feel sorry either. As Maddy writes of their notebooks, Foxfire’s actions are no doubt crimes, yet “most of these went not only unpublished but unacknowledged – our victims, all male, were too ashamed, or too cowardly, to come forward to complain.”

Yet it is not the crimes that define them, it just adds to their strength. Simply being together, even before undertaking their campaign of justice, the girls began their migration from forgettable girls to figures of history. Foxfire was already on everyone’s lips. Their mere presence bred curiosity and suspicion. But they truly command respect once they begin striking against the men who left them hurt, alone, or vulnerable, and it is this respect that allow the girls to finally embrace the distrust for adults and boys they had long privately nursed.

There is much to say about the history of Foxfire. Tales of youthful exuberance or irresponsibility that lead them astray. Explanations on how FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD and FOXFIRE FINANCES seal their sad fate. But these distract from Foxfire’s agonizing truth: the path of liberation and escape winds through negative affects and not around them. For revenge can serve as the greatest act of love.

Perhaps there is an unavoidable complicity between all the girls who weather the daily assault of patriarchy like a bad storm. Their innermost feelings well up, some given expressed through grief or outrage, but more often, they are nursed in seclusion. Can this shared secret turn ugly feelings into outright conspiracy? Or even more importantly, turn revenge into collective liberation? Most sober-minded critics find ugly feelings unfit for something as noble as shared liberation. Confirming critic’s skepticism, few political projects outwardly declare that they draw their strength from envy, irritation, paranoia, and anxiety. Furthermore, most actions taken on behalf of these emotions are quickly marked within public discourse as hostile, destructive, and uncontrolled. Yet Sianne Ngai argues that although these negative affects are weaker than “grander passions like anger and fear” and thus lack an orientation powerful enough to form clear political motivations, the unsuitability of weakly intentional feelings “amplifies their power to diagnose situations, and situations marked by blocked or thwarted actions in particular (Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 27). From this perspective, ugly feelings are blockages – cruel replacements that inspire only enough optimism to discourage the search for a better alternative. Diagnosing such feelings should avoid what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls a paranoid reading, which takes pleasure in the suspicious search for sources of discontent and its subsequent exposure, but rather a reparative and transformative reading driven by hope and surprise (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123-151). The embodiment of reparation, she suggests echoing Melanie Klein, is a depressive attitude that drains the shock and anxiety of surprise. This approach proposes that once the world appears as fundamentally ambivalent, with the good always hopelessly tied up in the bad, one sheds paranoid anticipation and becomes open to surprise stripped of the dread that comes with always waiting only for bad news. The key is to prevent the clinical tool of a depressive attitude from blossoming into the clinical blockage of depression.

Depression is a real danger, however, a cause for concern for the ongoing feminist project ‘Public Feelings.’ After decades of battle against Empire by means of queer activism, the AIDS crisis, anti-racist advocacy, electoral campaigns, and anti-war mobilizations, these feminists undertook a program of diagnosis and self-care. The positive valence of a depressive attitude seemed lost as all that seemed possible was full-blown depression. Recognizing collective burnout, they questioned dominant diagnostic paradigms, which look for causes in neurochemical imbalances or damaged psyches. Hardly convinced by solely clinical explanations for their shared anxiety, exhaustion, incredulity, split focus, and numbness, they began investigating how the already-alienated life in the Metropolis was compounded by the trauma of national crises, beginning with 9/11 and continuing with the war in Iraq, the Bush reelection, and Hurricane Katrina (Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” 459-468). This is not to say that they find psychiatry or psychoanalysis wrong or counterproductive, but these feminists were determined to turn feelings into collective forces against Empire; and from that struggle, Feel Tank Chicago was born.

Feel Tank Chicago seeks access to political life through the affective register. The project names their malaise ‘political depression,’ which they define as “the sense that customary forms of political response, including direct action and critical analysis, are no longer working either to change the world or to make us feel better” (Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” 460). To further their investigation, Feel Tank holds conferences, exhibitions, and International Days of the Depressed. As a camp celebration of depression, they dress in bathrobes and protest with banners, signs, stickers, and chants emblazoned with slogans diagnosing the environment of hostility produce by Empire: “Depressed? It Might Be Political”; “Exhausted? It Might Be Politics”; or just “I Feel Lost” (Zorach, “Make It Stop,” 2). Contrary to cynical ideology’s denunciation of those who are apathetic as complicit with the status quo, political depression identifies Empire and not selfishness or individual illness as the cause of apathy. Causes for this suffering are numerous and easy to identify – the racism of white supremacy, the exploitation of global capitalism, the sexism of patriarchy, the degradation of the environment, and the violence of heteronormativity to name a few – while the course for their abolition is not readily apparent. Political depression thus demonstrates how Empire spreads depression like a fog, cloaking adequately political alternatives in the everyday life of the Metropolis. One such blockage is the traditional politics of think tanks who manage technical flows by drawing on ‘whiz kids’ computer models, policy expertise, and insider connections to craft politically-relevant briefs. The effect of reducing politics to this form of government is cataclysmic: it reduces time to a perpetual present whereby politics is nothing but the art of compromise. In such a world, the status quo is all that is visible and thus reigns supreme. The group has found a less restricted route through the Metropolis as a ‘feel’ tank, which works to turn private feelings into a public resource for political action. And to this end, Feel Tank operates in the nexus of activism, academia, and art. Such an approach reveals different paths to politics, animated by perspectives that still imagine alternatives to the Metropolis and are careful to avoid those channels long mastered by Empire.

By making depression political, Feel Tank also challenges a deeper and more pervasive blockage: the interiority of the subject. With its attention to the affective dimension of politics, Feel Tank upsets the dark room of the self that is cynically manipulated by policy analysts and liberal political theorists. Affects point to a circuit of power whereby external forces impress themselves on the biological imperatives of bodies, which makes emotion an emergent quality of the interrelational exteriority that constitutes the Metropolis even if a necessary biological component exists in the body. And although a certain body may be predisposed to depression, its affective cause emerges as a political event in the life of the Metropolis. Identifying such a cause may be difficult, as depression often arises due to something as diffuse as bad weather or accumulative time spent in an adverse environment, but it is in this sense that patriarchy appears as a storm and Empire as a desert. It can therefore be said that affect not only demands that the emotions of subjects count as politics, but it also demands a political account of emotion exterior to subjects; as Ann Cvetkovich writes, politicizing feelings requires “the same historicization that is central to Foucauldian and other social constructionist approaches to sexuality” because “Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis applies as much to affect as sexuality, warranting a skeptical approach to claims for interiority or emotional expression as the truth of the self” (Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” 462). Feel Tank experiments, such as “Psychological Prosthetics,” reveal that affects can be treated to a large extent as external to the subjects that feel them. Even visualizing fatigue as an object and treating it as such coaxes people to explicitly connect their internal feelings to external problems (“if Psychological Prosthetics™ were to make you custom-designed set of luggage for your emotional baggage, how large should it be? Would you like to send it off to someone?”) (Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, “Psychological Prosthetics,” 3).[1] When this notion is expanded, its political conclusion is decisive: affects do not reveal the truth of a subject’s private life and are often merely a habituated response to Empire’s twin forces of Biopower and the Spectacle. This point may confuse those who imagine affect only as a tool of liberation. But only those who mistake Empire for its authoritarian cousin the Archaic State of conquest would think that the State only grows through crippling paralysis. This is not to say that Empire has stopped using its most effective instrument, fear, especially since the general environment it creates in the Metropolis is no doubt to blame for political depression. But the difficult truth is that any State-form that incorporates the liberal pole of governance also expands its oppressive control through the inspirational force of positive affects. Although social movements may draw on affect as a form of power, so does the Social State. Positive affects swirl through both the vortex of Zuccotti Park and the high rises of Goldman Sachs. Negative affects are caught at work at temp jobs but also at feminist conference panels. Like the ambivalence of any other form of power, affect is not a virtue but a diagnostic.

Treating affect as a point of disagreement is one way to maintain its ambivalence, and a crucial aspect of that disagreement is the struggle over happiness. Sara Ahmed contends that because happiness has been historically given as an emotional reward to women for submission to gendered demands, especially those of the family, the struggle over happiness “forms the political horizon in which feminist claims are made” (Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 59). Her complication of happiness enhances the contemporary utilization of Baruch Spinoza’s account of affect whereby affective connections with a body are either joyous or sad, with joyous affects being those that increase the capacity of the body and sad affects being those that are destructive to the body. Whereas such a Spinozism intends joyous connections to be virtuous regardless of context, his account of affect theorizes the capacity of objects to evoke feelings of pleasure or disgust in subjects. Furthermore, in the alienated world of the Metropolis, the ability for objects and bodies to evoke pleasure in subjects is not always beneficial, as most of its residents are consumed by dark appetites they know to be against their best interest. Objects of desire’s ability to bruise subjects, their uncanny talent for wounding people but also teaching them to enjoy that wound, does not reveal the true nature of the soul; it merely confirms the indelible power of connection. And the world is not at a loss for connections, as today is not the age of sad passions but of the masochistic contract which Empire seals by fusing the cruel thrill that comes from exploiting others with the self-destructive delights of being oppressed, bossed around, hopelessly addicted, completely dependent, and knowing your place, creating a split subject that desires happiness but only experiences pleasure. Feminism’s project is to end the tireless pursuit of pleasure, which Ahmed argues begins through becoming a killjoy. Killjoys initiate a revolt against the promise of happiness through “acts of revolution” and “protests against the costs of agreement” (213). Feminist killjoys complete their revolutionary conversion when they abandon happiness and embrace affects as troublemakers. The face of their struggles may appear surprisingly common – queer novels that end on a sad note, or spoilsports who ruin the atmosphere of a room – but their aim is transformative: to not satisfy already existing tastes but to establish new ones. This requires dismantling the current architecture of the soul and the construction of a new one. Killjoys thus open escape routes from the Metropolis that “open a life” and “make room for possibility, for chance” by not only wanting “the wrong things” that Empire has asked us to give up but to “create life worlds around these wants” (20, 218). Yet such openings are only visible to those who have given up on the illusion that positive affects draw out the best in people.

What ultimately characterizes a troublemaker is how they live life. For the troublemaker, life is not about survival but escape – escape from the causes of suffering, escape to a better world, and most importantly, escape as a form of struggle. The troublemaker dreams of freedom by imaging politics as a utopian space where “we could possibly go somewhere that exists only in our imagination” (Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 2). Yet this freedom is without shape, as it is only the notion that things must change. Such belief is founded on the revolutionary demand to live a life without compromise, and in doing so, it sees demands to imagine a world after the revolutionary break as collaborating with the reactionary forces of the present. And it is this veiled desire for something better than motivates the dreamer to gamble the transient pleasures of the present for the ecstasy of permanent revolution. Audre Lorde powerfully distinguishes her own dreams of liberation from her mother’s focus on happy survival in her autobiographical biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. As a young child, she was often caught in the tension of a racially-mixed neighborhood of Harlem. While walking with her mother, the tension literally spilled over onto the streets and she was spit on by racist whites. She grew to hate the throaty sound of men clearing their throats because she knew it would most likely end in a disgusting mark on her coat or shoe. But her mother, quick to explain the randomness of the event, would deflect the importance of race by complaining about the “lowclass people who had no better sense nor manners than to spit into the wind no matter where they went” (18-19). Although she was convinced by her mother, the memory of the event always nagged her. Years later, noticing a decline in the pervasive but seemingly random behavior, she asked her mother, “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much the way they used to?” (19). She immediately realized her mistake after seeing the pain in her mother’s face. Rather than admitting that she was helpless to prevent her young daughter from being spit on, her mother used the only protection she knew: to change reality, or at least her daughter’s perception of reality. Despite the complicated relationship she has with her mother’s classism, Lorde does not seem to begrudge her mother’s quietism. What the event ultimately demonstrates is a deeper distinction: the difference between escapism as a compromise with the present and political escape as the struggle for freedom.

Negative affects are thus to be seen as weapons in the struggle against Empire. Anger, frustration, disdain, and envy are reasonable reactions to the hostile environment of the Metropolis. But when subjects soberly manage those negative affects, they are privately treating symptoms and not publicly addressing their external cause. As Feel Tank shows, those affects can become a resource for political action when the private space of the subject is emptied and feelings are made public. But these affects are also revolutionary, as they imply their own escape: by signaling a bad reaction to a toxic environment, negative affects speak to a cause outside the interiority of the subject as the source of general discontent – a cause that can be changed. Yet ugly feelings are not enough if they are only employed to battle the oppressive conditions of everyday life in the Metropolis just to live to fight another day. To become truly antagonistic to Empire, then, troublemakers must combine negative affect’s motivational force with a refusal of interiority and utopian struggle. For negatives affects may serve as motivation for a better world (FOXFIRE BURNS AND BURNS), but they generate black holes of misery unless subjects refuse to blame themselves for negative affects (FOXFIRE NEVER SAYS SORRY!) and maintain a revolutionary trajectory without compromise with the present (FOXFIRE NEVER LOOKS BACK!).

SPK, Making Illness Into a Weapon
“Everybody talks about the Weather… We Don’t” read an advertisement launched in 1966 that depicted a train from the German national rail service plowing through the snow. The message: regardless of bad weather’s obstructions, Deutsche Bahn always powers through.

But in spite of its clever reworking of Mark Twain’s quip, “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” Deutsche Bahn was soon plagued by weather delays, which led to a chilly Germany reaction and gave rise to a new joke: “Have year heard this one? German rail has four enemies: spring, summer, fall and winter.”

Within a couple years, the slogan reemerged with an explicitly political valence. A new spate of posters arrived bearing the same slogan, “Alle Reden vom Wetter… Wir Nicht.” But this time, the phrase appeared on a bright red background above the faces of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Made by the German SDS, it elevated the original poster to world-historical proportions: regardless of capitalist obstructions to revolution, Marxist socialism will power through.

Yet the German SDS would suffered a similar fate. Peaking a few months after the posters were designed in 1968, the group met extreme government resistance and was unable to mount an effective opposition to the German Emergency Acts, which led to its ultimate collapse in 1970.

As the black clouds of repression gathered, other groups emerged. Waging a New Left revolt against the so-called Auschwitz Generation, post-68 militants had one goal: agitation. Among them, one of the most innovative forms of agitation came from the Socialists Patients’ Collective (Socialistisches Patientenkollektiv), a radical mental health group at the University of Heidelberg. Convinced that illness is a necessary byproduct of capitalism, they developed a radical form of therapy – agitation therapy – whose therapeutic effects were found in pitting one’s mental illness against centers of capitalism. In that way, SPK was determined to “turn illness into a weapon.”

By externalizing the cause of one’s condition, SPK’s agitation therapy echoes an important question: If the subject no longer has the truth of an interior to confess, about what does the subject speak? Moreover, if they refuse the idle chatter of the waiting room that Mark Twain so despises, is there a form of talk that is itself a form of action?

A history of the subject without an interior might be constructed backwards. Such a discussion could start with queer history, which seems to lend itself to this backwardness, as its twentieth century stories are full of personal loss, social detachment, and fragmented community (Love, Feeling Backward, 146). No doubt such backwardness has ample company, as Benjamin wrote that the angel of history has his open wings caught in “a storm blowing from Paradise” that propels him into the future facing backwards, so that all he can see are the horrors of what has already occurred (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 257-8). A similarly backward-focused subject would also feel the full force of the catastrophe, which is pregnant with “shyness, ambivalence, melancholia, loneliness, regression, victimhood, heartbreak, antimodernism, immaturity, self-hatred, despair, [and] shame” that lead more often to failure than satisfaction (Love, Feeling Backward, 146). Yet failure is the point of such an orientation. In contrast to work that focuses on transforming negative affects (understood as blockages, traumas, and the cessation of movement) into positive affects (empowerment, capacity, power), a backwards history identifies negativity as an antagonism generated within the Social. And when this antagonism reemerges, feelings that were previously wished away or ignored reappear, and the gag order on negativity is lifted. When telling the history of failure, however, one speaks of projects that fail to complete their aims. And because most politics is built on positive projects, especially those premised on pride and achievement, the spark of pure revolt rarely burns bright – but it can still be found.

A good place to search for the politics of fire that will engulf the soul is in the home. For, if “the soul is the prison of the body,” then Locke’s dark room is not only the prison of the soul, but has served as a private place of torment for women (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 30). As Claire Fontaine maintains, when Virginia Woolf illuminated the dark rooms of The Social, all she found society to be was a conspiracy of men:

conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist, childishly intent upon scoring the floor of the earth with chalk marks, within whose mystic boundaries human beings are penned, rigidly, separately, artificially; where, daubed red and gold, decorated like a savage with feathers he goes through mystic rites and enjoys the dubious pleasures of power and dominion while we, “his” women, are locked in the private house without share in the many societies of which his society is composed (quoted in “Human Strike Within the Field of Libidinal Economy,” 145-146).

So even as Empire’s unfolding of the Social into the sprawling exteriority of the Metropolis scatters the markings, the home – wherever it appears – still serves as a private place of torment kept separate from the space of politics. Its violence remains unique because contrary to the worker, whose spaces of production are public and thus has a social infrastructure widely written about by scholars of politics and labor, the housewife at home is marked by isolation and enforced privacy. And the symptoms of such incarceration are severe. As Adrienne Rich explains, “the worker can unionize, go out on strike; mothers are divided from each other in homes, tied to their children by compassionate bonds; our wildcat strikes have often taken the form of physical or mental breakdown” (Rich, Of Woman Born, 30). Locked in such a lonely place, many captive souls can hardly imagine rebelling against anything or anyone except themselves.

Yet it is precisely rebellion against oneself that may offer escape. And perhaps that liberation arrives through the failure and incompleteness generated by negative affects. The power of negative affects does not seem to draw from interiority even if Empire makes it appear so. Rather, the negative circulates through a radically exterior path. By way of Hitchcock’s The Birds, recent queer theories suggest an escape from the violence of the home, especially after the forces of the negative takes flight. The advertising slogan Hitchcock devised, “The Birds is coming,” gives the film a sexual dimension. Taking the license to perform a sexualized reading, one must then consider how the birds enter the scene: as an excessive, interrupting force that upsets the heterosexual aim of the film (Edelman, No Future, 129-133). In particular, the film’s lovebirds, Mitch and Melanie, are not only distracted but their attempts to consummate their love are prematurely disrupted by birds that keep coming without meaning or explanation; as Leo Bersani would note, the birds are not an enjoinment to come together (Homos, 129). Rather, the birds point to a power outside oneself so potent that it empties the home and threatens all imaginable futures (or at least those of the domestic couple). To be clear: the antisocial force does not emerge from the pleasure of any particular identity, as if it was a singular source found in either the dark recesses of the home or patiently received while queuing in the waiting room of the Metropolis. If anything, the swarming birds feed on the same destructive power that surges through Empire as it unfolds the remains of the Social – not the product of an identity, no matter how deviant or transgressive, but the undoing of any and all identities. Dependent on the anti-normative power of unfolding, however, Empire also opens itself to attack from the damaged, failed, or abandoned subjects that litter the Metropolis.

Looking backward, the Socialist Patients’ Collective, a militant group in Germany from the 1970s, provides an interesting example of the power of failure. According to the SPK, illness itself is resistance. Recounting a passage from anti-psychiatrist D.G. Cooper, SPK found the potential for alienated life to make its mark on history:

there is the story relayed by Bruno Bettelheim in The Informed Letter (1961) about a girl who, in an extreme moment of insight, recognized and broke out of one of the most formidable piece of alienation in all human history. This girl was one of a group of Jews queuing naked to enter the gas chamber. The SS officer supervising proceedings heard that she had been a ballet dancer and ordered her to dance. She danced, but gradually approached the officer and suddenly seized his revolver and shot him. Her fate was obvious and it was equally obvious that nothing she could do would alter the physical facts of the situation, namely the extermination of the group. But what she did was to invest her death with an intense personal meaning that at the same time expressed an historic opportunity that was tragically lost in the massified process of the extermination camps (Cooper, Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry, 40).[2]

Knowing that their own illnesses were enabled them to make a similar intervention, SPK began “multi-focal expansion” based on the theory that every mentally ill person is a compact point of focus of society, and that the effects of illness can be released back into society through agitation (SPK, Turn Illness Into a Weapon, 74).[3] Acutely aware that society was just as afraid of illness as violence, SPK undertook an exploration of how illness is “life broken in itself” (10). Confident that “illness as a destroyed labour force is the grave-digger of capitalism,” which they state geometrically in the formula “illness = internal barrier of capitalism,” they promise to make “all persons fall ill at once” in order to collectively exhaust humanity’s potential to take part in capitalist production (84; trans. modified). Although they saw many different reactions to capitalist alienation, SPK imagined alienation to be fully generalized as a shared condition that makes every subject feel at least some illness of a sort and thus establishes a common strand for collective revolt (9-11). Knowing that illness was not oriented exclusively toward revolt, they sought a dialectical explanation for its reactionary and progressive moments. In its reactionary moment, they argue that illness as a “destroyed labour force” is repaired “in order to continue its exploitation” by means of a healing process that only performs simple “repairs of the labour force” to return “the ability to work” (84).  But in it progressive moment, illness expands, “starting from the affects of ill people (that means starting from those ones who have become conscious of their suffering),” through the liberation of “energies that when released will turn sufferers into activists”; a release “as an explosive material, an intensification, that will smash the ruling system of murder” (65; trans. modified). For SPK, agitation thus unlocks the progressive moment of illness as collective organization focused in protest.[4] SPK thus shows how Empire produces numerous antagonisms that populate the Metropolis. And thus the concept of illness produced by SPK still threatens Empire, not in terms of a mass organization or even focalized expansion, but as an antagonism that spreads through the fabric of the Metropolis.

In short, the positive task of the SPK is much like that of Feel Tank, which is to turn the inside out by reconnecting internal feelings to external problems in order to short-circuit their cause. On the level of the self, such a rewired circuitry externalizes negative affects and attenuates the destructive impact of interiority by distributing misery throughout the shared space of politics. But negative affects continue to burn cold when locked away inside the isolated depths of victimized subjects or even shared among accomplices like a million tiny daggers. In contrast, the SPK’s externalization process intensifies negativity rather than dissipating it, cultivating the force of incapacity that channels power through refusal. In particular, it refuses to make the subject receptive to negative affects. And in refusing to bear even a single negative affect, this politics of fire turns the dark interiority into a weapon against its own very existence, consuming the pain of affliction as its cause recedes. Yet the repressive powers of Empire lie ready to neutralize subjects that grow too intense for the Metropolis. This was the downfall of SPK. After a few turbulent months in 1971, an SPK member committed suicide, dozens of SPK members were jailed, and SPK was evicted from the University of Heidelberg, which lead to the SPK dissolving to protect its patients (xvii-xviii).

As an organization, SPK unfortunately ended in failure. Yet failure need not spell defeat. As the blistering storm of Empire beats down on subjects, it is destroying the interiority of subjects. Yet subjects willing to weather the storm have already given up the refuge of the soul and are undertaking a refusal of the interiorities imposed by Empire. Though they do not abandon interiorities completely, refusal allows these subjects to refashion their dark appetites from tools of Empire to weapons for its dissolution. The black clouds of patriarchy often transform their appetites into negative affects and the subsequent pain of isolation, paranoid, or depression, even when the subjects know the true cause of their suffering. Yet it is those negative affects that form the basis of revolt. Troublemakers have shown that they can use their detachment to reorient blame, interruption, and destruction and direct the torrent within the Metropolis. And embracing such a struggle is painful, taxing, and promises to end in failure, but surviving in a hostile environment is not enough. The path out of the desert has never been more certain, for “it isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 8). As the severity of the weather increases, these opportunities for escape spread. With each additional downpour, a new reservoir of emotion collects. With time, the angel of history will look back on the refusal of interior in the revolt against Empire as just another catastrophe. But let’s hope that instead of horror or failure, he finds joy.

[1] The full Psychological Prosthetics luggage questionnaire asks: “How big is your emotional baggage can it fit in a backpack, do you need a hand truck, or a moving company? Is it toxic, explosive? Do you share it with others? Does it get smaller if you share it, or larger? How do you get rid of it?” Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, “Psychological Prosthetics,” 3.

[2] The reference to Naziism is not hyperbole for SPK was agitating against what some in Germany called “The Auschwitz Generation,” which formed a cultural and political hegemony that had not found much distance from National Socialism and even included many former Nazis.

[3] The foco theory of guerrilla warfare was conceived by Régis Debray, though he attributed it to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Foco unifies all three of Mao’s stages of guerrilla warfare in a single movement whereby the role of the vanguard is not to seize state power but to stoke a popular insurrection through armed struggle. For more on the original concept of the foco, see the subsequent chapter and Debray, The Revolution in the Revolution?.

[4] For a more personal description of SPK’s activities, consider former member Magrit Schiller’s account in Remembering the Armed Struggle, “I immediately put my name down for one-on-one meetings, which were called ‘individual agitations’ in the SPK. During the meetings, I had a great need to talk first of all about me, my life up to now, my insecurities, my fears and my search for something different. At the beginning, this was the only reason I went to the SPK several times a week. During all of this, it became clear to me that my loneliness and sadness and the many problems I had with myself were not my personal and inescapable fate. … I realized that there were lots of people who felt the same way I did, that there were social and political reasons for many things that made people suffer… After a few weeks, I felt at home in the SPK. I took part in several working groups, put together flyers with others, and printed them on our small machine. I felt good about things and I worked eagerly. We had an old record player on which we repeatedly played the ‘Ton, Stein Scerben’ song ‘Macht kaputt, was euch kaputtmacht’ [Destroy what is destroying you] and sang along with passion to the texts that expressed exactly how we felt about life. There was always something going on. Small or larger groups of people held heated discussions about the latest events, the situation in the world, books or personal questions. We prepared protest actions and demonstrations” (21-24).


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