Review: Depression: A Public Feeling

Depression: A Public Feeling. Ann Cvetkovich. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 278.

Depression: A Public Feeling takes strides away from the prevailing, Western model of depression as a biochemical ailment and toward the claim that depression is a socially and politically constructed feeling as well as a rational response to the of the world rather than a tragic disease. As such, the book posits that depression cannot be definitively bound by textbook definitions or standardized treatments like pharmaceuticals and therapy. Instead, Cvetkovich encourages alternative methods of coping – though not necessarily curing – depression or the lived experience of feeling bad. These coping mechanisms depend largely on creativity, which she characterizes as movement (21), and ordinary habit. Through these suggestions, Cvetkovich offers descriptive options, rather than a prescriptive cure for living with and adapting to depression.

In the spirit of defying conventions, Depression is presented in two parts, the first of which is a personal memoir that details Cvetkovich’s experience with depression at the end of graduate school and her entrance onto the job market. Her early reference to what “Lauren Berlant calls the ‘unfinished business of sentimentality’” establishes part of the motivation behind the inclusion of her memoir (8). Her feminist and queer engagements with depression comprise the “affective turn” that she makes in the book, which highly values the personal. This turn is of particular importance when she argues that politics does not exist as something “out there,” but instead impresses us at an affective level, often contributing to feelings of depression. The remainder of the book adheres to the genre of scholarly writing, but through her diverse archive, even the more academically conservative sections of the text continue to resist dominant conventions of detached, obscure criticism.

Cvetkovich personally invests herself in the project and product of the book at the outset of the introduction, tracing its inspiration to her dissatisfaction with available depression memoirs and her refusal to confine her understanding of depression to the medical model that has so long claimed it. Depression is thus framed as a kind of self-help book for those living with depression, but who are dissatisfied by the drugs and therapy offered to remedy the feeling. Once the motivation behind the book is outlined, Cvetkovich details some keywords for the remainder of the book, including perhaps the two most important: “depression” and “creativity” (14). For Cvetkovich, depression encompasses a range of experienced bad feelings, manifested as numbness, anxiety, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Creativity – the kind that she values as a remedy for depression – consists of activities often thought of as creative (like knitting, for instance) as well as activities more subtly inventive, like swimming or going to the dentist. For Cvetkovich, creativity denotes any activity whereby you engage with its processes; as a result, most movement can be creative if you focus carefully enough.

The book’s memoir portion follows the author’s struggles in the transition years between graduate school and a teaching job, as the stresses of academic life trigger insomnia, bouts of crying, and a nearly paralyzing sense of hopelessness. In one anecdote, the stress paired with a sense of guilt over not being enough of an activist in the midst of her scholarly work all combine to numb Cvetkovich to the point of being unable to sense severe pain, which should have indicated an injured ankle (30). To combat her depression, she begins to take comfort in routine activities. Habitual dentist visits, along with swimming, provide her with something easy and ordinary on which to focus her attention. While she acknowledges that each individual with depression will need to find their own soothing activities – the dentist is hardly for everyone, after all – her general claim is that mundane undertakings can help reconnect the mind to the body. Following from her argument, it is the disconnection of mind and body that causes depression, perhaps explaining why intellectuals are so prone to the condition in the first place.

Since Cvetkovich is determined to extract depression from typical medical or biochemical designations, her distaste for pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy sometimes feels adamant. One may be inclined to read her experience as exaggerating the standard stresses of an academic career and neglecting so-called clinical depression with its more mysterious origins. Her treatments – which often ask the “sufferer” to spend extra energy focusing on mundane tasks – are largely only available to individuals with the privilege to set such time out of their day. As such, both the origin of Cvetkovich’s depression and the methods that she uses to combat it come from a position of white, relative socioeconomic stability. But in spite of these caveats, one must not forget that the genre is that of a memoir. The experiences that she chronicles are personal, partial by necessity, and meant to push the reader from viewing depression as a systematic or easily categorized experience. While depression may, in fact, be a biochemical condition and medical treatment could help to alleviate it, Cvetkovich uses the memoir genre to suggest alternative ways of understanding depression outside of this medical model.

Moving into the critical portion of her book (Part II), Cvetkovich brings together a varied archive, with one chapter of historical investigation, one that considers the relation between depression and racism, and a final chapter on ordinary habits. The first chapter of Part II takes up the concept of acedia, or spiritual dissatisfaction, to move depression away from purely secular conversations. The example of one medieval abbot who placed palm leaves on the floor of his cave each day only to set them on fire once the floor was covered represents the sort of habitual activity that Cvetkovich prioritizes in combatting depression (112). While religious ritual may serve a spiritual final goal, Cvetkovich reads it not as an action with the purpose of productivity, but as a performance to soothe the soul, thus alleviating depression.

The book then moves to a discussion of racism and the way social conflicts produce widespread depressive affects. Since Cvetkovich is limited to her own perspective, inevitably engaging with racial history from a white and somewhat privileged lens, the chapter feels continuously tense. It would have been helpful to see Cvetkovich tease out her assertion that African diasporic art and crafting culture can be adopted across cultures to combat depressive feelings, since the potential of cultural appropriation appears acute at times. However, there is something useful about taking into consideration the very distinct “form of sadness” that a group outside of one’s own personal experience has had to address (115). After all, Cvetkovich’s persuasive claim that certain types of depression caused by racialized experience go largely unattended in medical discourse further supports her argument against exclusively medical and diagnostic models.

The final chapter of the book brings the focus back to Cvetkovich’s engagements with feminist and queer criticism and its investment in the mundane in order to consider how “ordinary habit” can be of benefit in dealing with depression. The book’s images of crafted installation art mirror the juxtaposition of Cvetkovich’s own genre-bending (Plates 1-14). The practice of elevating a craft like knitting to the level of installation art complements her own elevation of the memoir genre to the realm of the more respectably intellectual genre of the critical essay. By loosening the stringent boundaries between high and low art, Cvetkovich helps to re-prioritize what could be considered “unofficial” methods for solving problems and pushing past impasses, like those that either cause or are caused by depression.

Cvetkovich’s epilogue functions not to make totalizing or sweeping claims, but rather as a reflection on the book as both process and product and the creative power of writing as one method through which to deal with depression – the first section heading of the epilogue even asks “Is This Good? Does This Suck?” (203). Returning to the monograph’s title, Depression seems rather self-explanatory. But the Public Feeling that exists after the colon expresses much of what Cvetkovich accomplishes through the book: depression should not be reduced to an isolating affect, and is best combatted through communal efforts (see Fig. 3.9b). If depression is continually misrepresented as an independent ailment contained in the brain’s biochemical processes, treatment will be misguided and fail to recognize the social nature of the condition.

Hannah Widdifield

Review: Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 195.

The cover of Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity features a black-and-white photo of artist Judith Scott embracing her sculpture. This image shows the attachment of the artist to the art object, the varied textures that create the sculpture, and an affect that is “mysterious, or at least multiple in quantity” (23). These multiple possibilities are difficult to put into words. For Sedgwick, the photo “conveys an affective and aesthetic fullness that can attach even to experiences of cognitive frustration” (24). The fullness of the picture anticipates the fullness of the collected essays that she describes as “a project to explore promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy” (1). This book offers critical methods inspired by Silvan Tomkins’s ideas of affect to push against Foucauldian views of power and their “hermeneutics of suspicion” and explores the inexhaustible possibilities “beside offers instead of “for” or “against.” The notion of “beside,” essential for affect studies, is used to show how texture and affect are joined together phenomenologically. Sedgwick examines works by Henry James, J.L. Austin, Silvan Tomkins, D.A. Miller, and Judith Butler among others to illustrate her claims about the relationship between touching and feeling. These essays navigate the waters of performativity, affect, and pedagogy in an attempt to locate a middle space Sedgwick sees as a way for thinking beyond binaries.

In her first chapter, she explores shame and performativity in Henry James’s The Art of the Novel. She identifies shame as an affect “peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating” (36). Shame allows Sedgwick to better describe Henry James’s theatrical performativity, which “negotiate[s] the intersection between absorption and theatricality” (44). She finds that these “misplaced middles” highlight the “explicitness of James’s particular erotics” of queer performativity (52, 61). This performativity recognizes shame as a component of its creation and its potential transformation, enabling a new way to discuss identity politics. Addressing Tomkins’s differentiation between drive and affect, Sedgwick says, “In contrast to the instrumentality of drives and their direct orientation toward an aim different from themselves, the affects can be autotelic” (19). This distinction sets the stage for how Sedgwick sees shame working as an affect throughout this text. Shame in her personal essay about fainting at a demonstration in Research Triangle Park is placed beside what she sees as the other main ambition of the demonstration, smuggling. These “twinned ambitions” do not offer “clean distinctions between constative and performative, or between reference and embodiment” (32). The lack of clear demarcations between reference and embodiment suggests the middle and, in this example, offers the body as one site where these ideas might converge.

In her second chapter, Sedgwick examines Austin’s How to Do Things with Words to discuss words that are on the periphery of the performative. She coins the term “periperformative” to discuss utterances that are not “explicit[ly] performative,” but which are “about performatives and, more properly, they cluster around performance” (68). Sedgwick situates these periperformatives spatially, suggesting that they are near and around performatives. Through this spatialization, she hopes to open avenues of possibility for pushing interpellation further. She says, “In contrast to the performative, the periperformative is the mode in which people may invoke illocutionary acts in the explicit contexts of other illocutionary acts” (79). While the performative involves direct utterances, the periperformative relies on the unspoken. Austin’s performatives, such as “I do,” “I dare,” and “I swear,” lead directly to action, they make things happen (70). By contrast, periperformatives establish a different relationship at the spatial level, the situation is expanded beyond “I” and “you” to “I,” “you,” and “they” (72). The context of the situation when someone says, “I dare you” is generally understood to be between the person speaking and the “you” being addressed. Periperfomatives happen when “I dare you” becomes “I wish I had dared you.” Instead of an explicit vocal act, the periperformative highlights the context of that act, not just looking at the action, but what surrounds it. Ultimately, this chapter contributes to Sedgewick’s overall argument by offering periperformatives as a way to examine a middle ground that focusing on just performatives does not allow.

Sedgwick continues her discussion of shame by examining the work of Silvan Tomkins in her third chapter, “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold.” Written with Adam Frank, this essay examines Tomkins’s structural idea of shame as an affect motivated by internal and external systems in reaction to the strange. Sedgwick places Tomkins’s affective shame beside Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis” (98). For Tomkins, shame is the perfect example for discussing affect theory because shame is felt by the individual, expressed bodily, and perceived by others. Tomkins lays out his theory in two parts; first, all perceptual information has to be examined for its relevance to the affect, second, it has to have a set of mechanisms in place to either avoid or diminish that affect’s impact (115). Tomkins complicates the dichotomy of cognitive and behavioral response by theorizing a humanlike machine unable to learn because it would be incapable of error. The ability to be wrong and to feel shame at error acts as a motivational force for learning (108). Sedgwick situates this discussion of shame as transformational in “its failure to ever renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain” (117). As an affect, shame is a bodily reaction that is triggered by error, but it is not tied to the object that triggers it. The object of shame remains on the periphery of the subject, and thus acts as a motivator for change.

Sedgwick’s fourth chapter deals with paranoia and the hermeneutics of suspicion.  Paranoid practices are shown to be tools that seek a path to “true knowledge,” which relies on suspicion as a default practice. Paranoia is characterized by being suspicious all the time, by constantly anticipating bad news, and by “being a strong theory of negative affect” (130, 136). As a framework of thinking, a “strong theory” (an idea borrowed from Tomkins) is abstracted and comprehensive, but reduces actual spatial and situational awareness (145). The paranoid reader thus misses the middle in superimposing suspicion on everything. By contrast, a weak theory is localized and non-abstracting; because of its smaller scope, it better promotes richer individual understanding. Here, Sedgwick writes against the demystification of meaning through a paranoid framework alone. One of the traits of paranoid reading is the shift from the physical to the cerebral. This reduction of the body erases the motivational drives of affects such as shame and allows paranoia to be established in opposition to surprise. Sedgwick champions a “reparative” model of reading that asks the reader to let go of the model of reading that doesn’t allow for anything new to be experienced and instead be willing to “experience surprise” (146). The reparative reader is therefore one open to surprise, attentive to the rich description of a moment, and willing to be affected at the physical level.

The collection ends with an examination of Buddhist pedagogy, which in its exploration of selfhood, uses many tools that she advances in her discussion of affect. She learning what is already known as a way of finding knowledge (167). Belief or disbelief in this knowledge is less important than knowing itself. Locating the self in a space not anchored by binaries, she says creates a space for questioning that transcends self. She defines this space as, “Wish? Somewhere, at least, liberated by both possibility and impossibility, and especially by the relative untetheredness to self” (179) The “untetheredness” that she discusses in this section offers a temporal and spatial freedom that, by the end of this collection, seems to have been the point all along.

Touching Feeling ultimately offers a view of knowing that is not confined by binaries. By sharing her own personal experiences, Sedgwick also offers insight into how these shifting modes of thinking can be used outside of academia. The autobiography threaded throughout the text offers a way in and a reprieve from the sometimes dense language of critical theory that she works “beside.” Through the examination of the affect of shame, performativity, and paranoia, Sedgwick brings into focus the middle space between confining binaries of knowledge. This focus demands freedom from dualistic thought about knowledge, how it is learned and how it affects the body.

Melinda Borchers

Review: Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism

Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. Todd Cronan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 324.

Artworks produce an expansive spectrum of affects, whether these responses emerge in a single observer or a general audience, are generated by prehistoric art forms or contemporary works, or are encountered in a sanctified museum space or in an ordinary public venue. Todd Cronan opposes this seemingly normative perspective through a philosophical and art-historical lens, decrying “affective formalism,” the modern and postmodern critical movement that regards an observer’s affective response to art as integral to the piece’s meaning (27). Cronan goes against this tendency by calling for a purposeful consideration of artistic intentionality.

Cronan bases his project on avant-garde artists’ dissatisfaction with representation, which modernist figures found insufficient to portray their experience of reality. Henri Bergson and Henri Matisse, in particular, share a desire for a form of expression that allows the unmediated communication of one’s self to another. While putting both figures in conversation is not novel within art history, Cronan approaches works by Bergson and Matisse through a new angle. He concentrates on Bergson’s theoretical and Matisse’s personal debates involving representational and antirepresentational forms. Cronan contends that an artist’s intentions largely speak to an artwork’s meaning. He limits his argument for intentionality to the realm of art because of the affective-inducing visuals normally attributed to high-art aesthetics. Cronan’s resistance toward affective formalism is grounded in the unjustifiability of emotions, as observers’ sensations cannot be controverted. In other words, affective responses create differing meanings with no way to choosing one interpretation over the other. By accessing an artist’s intentions through textual materials and biography, a sense of art’s meaning can be obtained. Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism’s mission is clearly stated in the title. Cronan’s clear language and intense self-awareness demonstrate the implications in disregarding intentionality. Affective formalism, according to Cronan, has been detrimental not only to art’s meaning but also to the viewer, as its “logic traded meaning for security, which is a higher price than we should accept” (5).

Cronan situates his analysis in opposition to twentieth-century thought in art history, which privileges affect-centered interpretations for determining meaning. In line with Roland Barthes’s “The Death of Author,” contemporary criticism deems intentionality a limiting, inaccessible substance—that “secret, an ultimate meaning” isolated from observers and even the artists themselves (Barthes, cited by Cronan 4). Cronan does not assert that there is one absolute meaning to an artwork that can be uncovered through artist’s intentions. He also mentions that artists, like Matisse, acknowledge the changing quality of their aesthetic aims through their process of forming art. With this, intentionality is a site for supportable and disputable interpretations, functioning as a way to discern meaning. To demonstrate his claims, he takes to task theories by major art historical scholars, such as Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, and contests their views on affective encounters with art. In turn, the subjective perspective of the viewer is still a concern but is not Cronan’s target. Affect as a meaning-making entity is a public occurrence but, more importantly, an academic phenomenon as well.

As an example, Cronan examines Bois’s “On Matisse: The Blinding,” which discusses the ways in which Matisse’s art is an aesthetic, affect-generating instrument. For Cronan, Bois’s reading cannot be debated, as it assumes that the beholder’s reception determines the work’s meaning. Bois’s argument “avoids any unverifiable assertion about the artist’s intentions to produce those response” (3). Although intentionality is ultimately “unverifiable,” Cronan notes that “verifiability is not the point with meaning” (4). He connects intentions’ lack of verifiability to emotional reactions’ unsubstantiated nature. Yet, the difference between intention and affect is that sensory responses cannot be debated, and, thus, their relevance to the art’s meaning cannot be determined. In addition, Cronan holds that intentionality is accessible through writing and biography, whereas an observer’s perception is inaccessible outside of individual interiority. His reasoning is that artist’s intent more precisely measures a work’s meaning than a beholder’s sensations because intentions are text-based and debatable. Intentionality is not a limitation but rather a way to interpret art in a productive manner. Cronan proposes that meaning can only emerge from arguable concepts, and intentionality is the crux upon which art can be examined and challenged in conjunction with other analytical and affective methodologies.

Cronan’s call for more intentionality in criticism works as a totalizing concept. If an observer’s affective reaction to art does not coincide with the artist’s intention, the emotional response appears incorrect. Cronan’s handling of Matisse evidences this potential problem. While Matisse wrote of his desire to communicate directly with his audience through his work, Cronan opposes this notion by looking at how Matisse’s art and writings “reflect on the problems of representing oneself to another” (2). The practice of analyzing artist’s intentions should not assume that the artwork perfectly aligns with the artist’s intentions. Cronan notes that an artwork should not be evaluated by whether or not it corresponds with an artist’s aim. At the same time, he addresses the risk of studying intentionality as a psychological practice. Cronan marks that he is not interested in Matisse’s psychology and calls his own project “antipsychological” (12). At the same time, his analysis and discussion of intentionality relies on Freudian theories of “unconscious intentions” and “primary identification” (13, 168). While his endeavor does not take a psychological approach, his use of psychoanalytic materials would seem to belie his self-description.

Cronan’s introduction, “Modernism against Representation,” provides an overview of modernism’s struggle with representational and antirepresentational forms, affective formalism’s nature, and his manifesto in favor of intentionality in art history. His first chapter, “Painting as Affect Machine,” traces a genealogy and history of affective formalism. This chapter outlines the “affective turn in modern art” through writers and theorists, such as Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Charles Baudelaire, Bertolt Brecht, and Roger Fry, and through artists, such as Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Nicolas Poussin, and Paul Gauguin (15). Chapter 2, “Freedom and Memory: Bergson’s Theory of Hypnotic Agency,” explores Bergson’s complex philosophies of freedom, ontological memory, and hypnosis. Bergson’s theories of hypnosis allow Cronan to conceptualize art’s hypnotic effects on the beholder and the inseparability of intentionality from the artist and her work. Cronan links Bergson’s views on hypnosis to Matisse, as they directly speak to the latter’s conception of hypnosis’s relationship with art. Chapter 3, “The Influence of Others: Matisse and Personnalité,” chronicles Matisse’s written accounts of his anxieties about art’s hypnotic power over his own act of creating art. According to Cronan, Matisse conceived of a highly personal self called Personnalité, which worked to guard his interiority from outside influence. Yet he also believed “his self was not his, not his alone” (164). Cronan explores Matisse’s contradictory conception of himself as an artist and as a self through his paintings and writings.

Chapter 4, “Matisse and Mimesis,” then offers close readings of Matisse’s early works from 1895 to 1917 and relates these works to biographical information about Matisse. Cronan traces the artist’s negotiations between artistic attachment and detachment from his work and the world. Cronan claims that Matisse’s art marks “the limits and power of expression as a mode of understanding,” meaning that art’s expressiveness fashions connections and disconnections among the artist, the artwork, and the beholder (220). This creates a communicative network between the artist and the viewer through personal similarities and differences. Cronan’s conclusion, “From Art to Objects: The Case of Paul Valéry,” discusses the critic and poet Valéry, whose work both supports intentionality and conveys an anti-intentionalist message. Valéry’s beliefs mirror those of Bergson and Matisse. While his theories influenced affective formalism, Valéry’s work, according to Cronan, also resists his advocacy of viewers’ responses as meaningful practices.

Cronan’s work is provocative in its aim to access meaning through intent. His arguments against affective formalism are clear in formulation, yet analyzing intent finds its value in its application to certain cases rather than to general concepts. Cronan’s methodology analyzes a specific artist, philosopher, and aesthetic moment that lends itself to an intention-oriented reading. But many practical questions arise. How do scholars access artistic intent if the artist did not document her goals? Is there an effective alternative to intentionality outside of affective formalism? What if the artist expresses the desire for her work to resist intention-based readings? Can art still be considered art if its author did not see it as such? But even with these qualms, Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism promotes artistic intentionality carefully yet forcefully. His critical efforts are risky, and he is open to possible skepticisms and counterarguments about his argument. Perhaps ironically, Cronan’s admirable endeavor to access art’s meaning through intention feels like a struggle, an affective act that finds its significance in his intention and in his readers’ reception.

Brooke Clark

Review: The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics

The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Jane Bennett. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 213.

Disenchantment is conventionally attached to modernity and ethical thought. Yet, Jane Bennett finds that detachment is not so easily attached to modern life. Her book, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, illuminates the enchantment of the contemporary world by uncovering the everyday attachments that diversify and enrich life. From the onset, she explicitly avows her aim to interrogate two problematic principles of modern thought: the disenchantment attributed to modernity and the non-affectivity ascribed to ethics. The first point of modern life’s disenchantment not only presumes but also neglects the existence and potential of “affective attachments” in the everyday world (3). For Bennett, the ordinary does not in itself generate affective enchantment but can most frequently be found in everyday human and nonhuman matter and its countless, interconnecting attachments. Humans’ active relations with material objects is Bennett’s focus for accessing enchantment in modern life. In turn, disenchantment assumes disengagement from the material world, and enchantment, by contrast, imagines affective engagement with the wondrous nature of matter. As for the non-affectivity of ethics, Bennett contends that feeling is vital to the “enactment of ethical aspirations,” hinging upon multiple emotional and physical bodily responses, acts, and maneuvers (3). The Enchantment of Modern Life thus reasons that the affective experience of daily enchantment and consequent attachment to the material world will produce ethical outlooks in accordance with this positive perspective. The text does not say what social or political changes would occur, but rather how productive, ethically driven change can transpire. Bennett’s political project and vibrant language generate a valuable reconsideration of human engagement with the modern world and celebrate affective relations and ethics.

To situate her analysis, Bennett defines enchantment as “a state of wonder” and a temporal and physical “suspension” that emerges from “active engagement with objects of sensuous awe” (5). The two stages of pleasurable surprise and an uncanny-infused disruption must occur for an enchanting experience and attachment to take place. In Bennett’s rendering, enchantment comprises a dissonance of linearity and physicality generated by an unanticipated simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity with the material world. While enchantment may appear to coincide with Kant’s sublime, Bennett notes that enchantment can arise from minor experiences and objects and, more significantly, can be brought about through “deliberate strategies” (4). Enchantment’s object is not limited to the natural but can be artificial and intentional as well. Enchantment resides in both the human and nonhuman and their intermixing. To illustrate enchantment, Bennett brings together ordinary and extraordinary material objects—from a GAP advertisement for khaki pants and ladybug-plant relations to Franz Kafka’s ape-man Rotpeter and a robot-pet toy. While the enchantment of the extraordinary may be more obvious, her readings of everyday and not-so-everyday objects are carefully detailed—familiarizing and unfamiliarizing both object categories.

After theorizing enchantment, Bennett explains her critical method by briefly discussing Kafka’s background-object-focused approach. In the vein of Kafka’s The Trail, where the tale is told through surrounding objects, Bennett takes a similar approach: to illustrate enchantment through seemingly extraneous, everyday objects and human attachments to them. Bennett’s study invokes modern texts by Kant, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Marx, as well as classical philosophies from Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Paracelsus, alongside contemporary thinkers, such as Deleuze, Guattari, and Latour. Bennett illuminates how minor objects can be read through major, philosophical lens. The temporal span of her resources also speaks to the significance of enchantment and matter across various contexts. Bennett’s formalistic interpretation helps communicate her engagements with diverse philosophies in a single chapter, yet her chapters offer different views of enchantment rather than a progressive narrative of it. Bennett analyzes enchantment in various frameworks and scenes, providing a multifaceted study of modernity’s enchantment and ethic’s affectivity.

While Bennett does not provide an introduction, her first chapter, “The World of Minor Experiences,” asserts her call for an enchantment-driven world vision and ethical actions that ensue. Chapter Two, “Cross-Species Encounters” examines the enchanting nature tied to “interspecies and intra-species crossings” and the ethical implications of such enchantment (17). Chapter Three, “The Marvelous Worlds of Paracelsus, Kant, and Deleuze” discusses Paracelsus’s concept of enchantment as contingent upon a “teleological” world perspective (46). However, Bennett diverges from this by offering Kant’s and Deleuze’s celebratory, world-without-design view which aligns with a modern version of enchantment. In Chapter Four, “Disenchantment Tales,” accounts of modernity’s disenchantment by Max Weber, Hans Blumenber, and Simon Critchley are summarized and contrasted to Bennett’s “alter-tale,” which follows a matter-centered conception of modern enchantment (57). Chapter Five, “Complexity and Enchantment,” turns to three minor stories by Henry David Thoreau, Latour, and chaos theorist Ilya Prigogine to account for the power of matter to fascinate. Using Kafka, Bennett shows not only how nonhuman objects can enchant but also how social organizations and governmental bodies do so as well. Chapter Seven, “Ethical Energies,” traces affect’s indispensability to ethical considerations and actions. The concluding eighth chapter, “Attachments and Refrains,” connects enchantment to political and social theory in order to expound upon the vast, possible imaginings of enchantment’s affective and ethical dimensions.

Exemplary of Bennett’s method is her reading of GAP’s advertisement for khaki pants in Chapter Six, “Commodity Fetishism and Commodity Enchantment,” which looks at how commodities enchant, not only as a commodity fetish but as an everyday example of matter’s mobility, vitality, and agency. Bennett recognizes affect as a centralizing force in commodity culture and proposes that consumerism’s affects are not always already negative. While she notes that commodity culture is inescapable in modern life, its enchantments bear the potential to yield an ethically conscious participation in capitalism. For Bennett, GAP’s 1998-1999 commercials for khaki pants spotlight the secret life of objects through the pants’ and the pants-wearing bodies’ propelled movements and energizing “morphings” (112). Bennett shows how the aesthetics of the camera’s movements and the music create an atmosphere for the simultaneously human/nonhuman and frozen/dynamic quality of the pants and their wearers. In turn, the animated material of the pants becomes indistinguishable from the human body. The khaki pants’ ontological entanglements with human bodies produce an enchanting affect, which, ultimately, “violate[s] an order ranking humans incomparably higher than animals, vegetables, and minerals” (114). The affect rendered by objects’ liveliness demonstrates human “affective attachments” to life. With this material consciousness, “more just and more ecologically sustainable” ways for consumer culture can be fashioned (113). In this chapter, the potential of enchantment to stimulate positive ethical awareness in modern life is rendered most explicit and applicable, illustrating affect’s ethical power.

While Bennett provides an effective definition of enchantment, her diverse categorizations of enchantment go unaddressed. At various moments, enchantment is described as a state, a mood, a feeling, and an affect. The nuances between these categories go unexplained, resulting in a conflation of these terms. Perhaps these different terms help demonstrate enchantment as an ever-wavering sensation—identifiable in characteristics, unidentifiable in type. Yet, Bennett’s unspecified uses of enchantment’s multiple classifications somewhat conflict with her detailed treatment of enchantment’s description. Overall, this shortcoming does not detract from her general message, and, more importantly, the text itself provokes several intriguing questions. Can one become desensitized to enchantment? Are ethical responses to enchantment always positive? Or are there potentially negative consequences to this process? Can ethics be disrupted by too much affectivity? Can these material “affective attachments” also be brought to bear on inter-human relations, which might locate enchantment in the body? What about humans who do not have privileged access to those designated everyday objects? How can they access Bennett’s proposed affect of enchantment? What other affects are possible between and among human and nonhuman attachments? Even with these questions, Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life offers an innovative reading of ordinary things and their attachments that finds ethical productivity within affects rather than separate from them.

Brooke Clark

Review: The Promise of Happiness

The Promise of Happiness. Sara Ahmed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. ix + 315.

“You should do what makes you happy.” Why were so many of us raised under this mantra? This question, among others, is one of Sara Ahmed’s chief concerns in The Promise of Happiness (2010). Situating her analysis in affect and feminist cultural studies, Ahmed seeks to complicate happiness, a concept that has, until recently, been considered fairly innocuous in psychological and philosophical circles. Ahmed, however, advocates for a “happiness turn,” or a turning away from the institution of happiness in order to better recognize those who have been marginalized by the force of its overwhelming cultural dominance. She asks us to consider what actually makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. Why do we assume that happiness is the ultimate goal for which we should strive? And, if it is obtainable, what exactly is happiness? In asking these and other questions, Ahmed offers scholars a space in which to conceive of discrimination and heteronormative privilege as products of happiness.

In Chapter 1, “Happy Objects,” Ahmed grounds her reading of happiness squarely in affect theory. Ahmed claims that “Happiness involves affect (to be happy is to be affected by something), intentionality (to be happy is to be happy about something), and evaluation or judgment (to be happy about something makes something good)” (21). After staking this initial claim, Ahmed then systematically makes her case for the affective state of happiness. Pleasure, she argues, does not arise from “good things,” but good things are instead a product of the repetition of our pleasure. After we experience this pleasure of the thing – are affected by the thing – we then deem the thing “good” and orient ourselves around it. “Pleasure creates an object,” Ahmed argues, “even when the object of pleasure appears before us” (25). Additionally, when a separate thing becomes associated with the original “happy object,” the happy object incites further pleasure and thus increases the original object’s affective significance. Ahmed contends that, in this way, each time we remember the happy object as the cause of pleasure, the object takes on its own life as a “feeling-cause” (28). We then begin to expect pleasure from happy objects or even the mere proximity to happy objects; it is in this expectation of happiness that Ahmed points to the “promising nature of happiness” (29). The happy object, though, is not merely a thing we experience individually. According to Ahmed, as objects become inundated with affect, they become “sites of personal and social tension” (44). Objects thus become spaces around which we, as social groups, orient ourselves. Our tendency to orient ourselves around happy objects is especially significant, Ahmed argues, because these affective sites allow social groups to share in a process of turning toward, of making a thing good. Ahmed’s primary example of a shared, compulsory happy object is the family. Because it is both legislated and inherited, Ahmed contends the family operates as “both an object (something that affects us, something we are directed toward)” and a thing which “circulates through objects” (45). The family unit only survives if social groups work for its survival, which first requires an orientation toward the family as a happy object for which we should personally and socially desire.

In the second chapter, Ahmed begins an analysis of political figures who disrupt the dominant mode of shared familial happiness. Drawing on what she calls “unhappy archives,” Ahmed principally focuses on the ways in which feminist killjoys, unhappy queers, and melancholic migrants problematize the notion that happiness is life’s goal. In “Feminist Killjoys,” Ahmed centers her discussion on the figure of the happy housewife. Ahmed traces the history of the happy housewife through such canonical texts as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in an effort to counter claims that the happy housewife, as she were, was a “feminist myth” through which feminists cast the figure of the housewife as “‘other’” (53). In each of her chosen texts, Ahmed argues, women’s happiness is dependent on the happiness of her family and her success as a wife; only Eliot’s Maggie, whom Ahmed calls a “troublemaker” considers an alternate narrative for her happiness. Ahmed is quick to point out, though, that she is not offering feminism as solution to the happiness of women. Instead, she says, feminist killjoys allow women to rethink the happy objects which have, until now, been provided as models of happiness and “participate in the widening of horizons in which it is possible to find things” (69).

In Chapter 3, Ahmed looks at “unhappy queers” in her effort to reclaim unhappiness and its critical role in queer genealogy. Ahmed relies primarily on Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness and the film If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) in her effort to reconsider how queer fiction and cinema assign and situate unhappiness as well as the ways in which these genres can provide distinct accounts of queer unhappiness “rather than simply investing its hope in alternative images of happy queers” (89). Ahmed specifically focuses on queers who have been marginalized by traditional heteronormative social structures which promise happiness in the family. She argues that queerness and happiness have been imagined as entities that cannot exist together. Rather than promote the happy queer – “the right kind of queer” – who surrenders unhappiness to become socially acceptable, Ahmed advances the idea of being “happily queer” (106, 115). If one is happily queer, Ahmed argues, one is able to simultaneously “explore the unhappiness of what gets counted as normal” and claim one’s own happiness (117).

Following her analysis of feminist and queer subjects, Ahmed ends by examining the melancholic migrant. Ahmed locates her reading of happiness, nationhood, and citizenship as manifested in migrant life and imperial history. According to Ahmed, once-imperial nations ask migrants to forget memories of racism in order to bury racism; while it is not eradicated, it is not entirely present either. Happy immigrants, then, such as the heroes of films like Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and East is East (1999), are those who willingly assimilate. The immigrant who remains attached to origins thus functions as a ghost, “haunting” Western cultures and consistently dredging up hurtful racist pasts (148). Ahmed calls these melancholic migrants “affect aliens,” who refuse to accept the nation as the “good family” into whose arms the migrant must be received and willingly go (148). The melancholic migrant, instead, holds on to a conscious history of racism and exposes the unhappy cracks in the good family’s foundation. Like feminist killjoys and unhappy queers, the melancholic migrant serves to destabilize normalizing trends of happiness and reclaim and repurpose unhappiness.

Ahmed concludes The Promise of Happiness with a discussion of futurity. In response to critiques that queer theory offers no hope for the future, or rather no hope in the future, Ahmed finds in this negative space a way to be conscious of one’s alienation from happiness and ultimately accept “the freedom to be unhappy” (195). Here, Ahmed embraces hope as an anticipatory affect oriented toward the future. Hope demands imagination about what is always already ahead and registers the anxiety we feel about the “becoming actual” of a possibility (182). Drawing on Children of Men (2006) and The Island (2005), Ahmed takes special pains to point out that unhappiness should not replace happiness as an aim, but rather that happiness should no longer function as a telos for all human existence. In dismantling happiness, queer theory thus seeks to explore how this seemingly benign norm creates exclusionary narratives.

In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed offers both queer and cultural scholars a unique perspective from which to examine issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia woven seamlessly into the fabric of our societies. By locating happiness – oft considered a universal – in affective objects, Ahmed provides a new lens through which to examine inequality and how inequality is mapped onto bodies. Her arguments against happiness further extend the critical conversation regarding figures who may, at times, be left out of the queer conversation. Can we trouble the happiness of the single white male? Does Ahmed’s embrace of unhappiness allow queer and cultural scholars to radically re-figure bodies who, for many centuries, have been favored by happiness normativity? Ahmed’s concept of happy objects also presents innovative ways to approach Western culture’s obsessive desires and mass consumption of goods. How do we fetishize happiness? In what ways does fetishizing happiness manifest itself in our corporeality? In what ways do we commodify happy objects for production and subsequent consumption? The Promise of Happiness leaves us perhaps with more questions than answers, but Sara Ahmed has offered an analysis that will surely be invaluable as affect studies moves forward thanks to its relative accessibility and wide-ranging applicability.

Kimberly A. Turner

Review: Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Steve Goodman. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 296.

As a composer, producer, and DJ, Kode9 has been an influential figure in global trends in electronic music of the last decade. His London-based Hyperdub label and webzine are positioned in a widening nexus of transnational media and resonating bodies, proliferating in and mediating an ongoing flux of international dance styles. The label’s key figures – Burial, The Bug, Flying Lotus, Laurel Halo, and Kode9 himself – are popular innovators in dubstep, grime, and a slew of related musical subgenres. Ostensibly centered in the United Kingdom, these producers work in a broad expanse of global cultures, proffering intersecting vectors of affective sound.

In a transverse embodiment, Kode9 is Steve Goodman, theorist and writer of the compelling recent book Sonic Warfare. Informed by Goodman’s varied experiences in electronic dance music cultures, the work is a welcome contribution to sound studies. Drawing more from affect and social theory than from musicology’s sociolinguistic focus, the book navigates the porous realms of music and sound, examining their collective affects and vibrational ecologies. En route, Goodman highlights the ontology, rather than epistemology, of affective sound, situating his analysis in the larger contexts of political and military power, as well as “viral capitalism” (xix). The book’s pivotal force is Goodman’s notion of a “military-entertainment complex” in which sound producing, recording, and amplifying devices with techno-militaristic origins are repurposed to other social or artistic uses (xv). Developing the work of Friedrich Kittler, Goodman examines the proliferation of military optical, audial, and storage devices, including tape decks, VHF, and loudspeakers. These materials, and their further (mis)uses in sonic warfare, speak to modernity’s war-mediated condition. Goodman seeks to address a perceived lack of nonrepresentational sound in recent theory, arguing for and enacting a transdisciplinary methodology to theorize sonic cultures beyond a simplistic silence/noise binary.

Goodman’s experimental text is built from 34 overlapping, honeycombed chapters, each of which focuses on a distinct political event, theoretical concept, or musical subculture. The chapters are atemporally schematized, each headed by a discreet date and theme. The book’s structure deliberately unfolds at once in the past, present, and (virtual) future. Goodman’s dystopian sci-fi bent and offbeat organization reject a chronological or historical narrative of sonic warfare’s technologies and techniques, instead emphasizing a multiplicity of potential entries into the text. The shape Sonic Warfare takes, then, offers a textual “discontinuum” as a figure for the fluid exchanges between vibrations in the bodies, objects, and architectures of urban spaces (xviii). By focusing on the intermodal and ecological, Goodman problematizes sound studies’ anthropocentric and phenomenological modes of critique.

Goodman aims to theorize a “(sub)politics of frequency,” and affect is the key player in his formulations (p. 83). In Sonic Warfare, affect’s vibrational mode is relational – between bodies and objects – and serves as a binding ontological force. Through collective vibratory relations, sound can generate affective tonalities, such as good or bad “vibes,” dread, ecstasy, or fear. Goodman’s interest in African diasporic musics, particularly bass-heavy genres like dub, dancehall, and other Jamaican sound-system styles, lies in their capacity to generate powerfully resonant atmospheres. These turbulent atmospheres are sub- or micropolitical in that they are intensive and collectively individuating. Goodman notes the obvious ambivalence that arises in such a conception; crowds of bodies are no less easily produced and extensively motivated by political or military forces than they are “centripetally” moved to collective sensation by music (11). Indeed, the continuum along which such mobilizations slide figures heavily into Goodman’s theorization of the military-entertainment complex.

In keeping with its interdisciplinary aims, Sonic Warfare deploys an expansive range of theoretical and philosophical approaches that are applied to a broad archive of texts. Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy provide a crucial backdrop to the book’s theorizing of transatlantic sound. Drawing from the former’s notion of Afrofuturist music, Goodman articulates a sharp critique of early twentieth-century futurism of the Marinetti/Russolo stripe, rejecting its masculinist technological progressivism. Against this unilinear telos, Sonic Warfare remains open to virtual futures that Goodman locates in the fluid diasporas of Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” (34). The Black Atlantic is a key spatial configuration for diasporic musical styles and embodied rhythmic assemblages. With Eshun, Goodman emphasizes the potential latent in plural, polyrhythmic, and “cyclically discontinuous” strands of Afrofuturist sound (61).

Chapters 15-22 contain a key discussion of sonic warfare’s ontological foundations and serve as the book’s theoretical center. Here, Goodman’s training in continental philosophy comes through most clearly, as he builds his arguments from an eclectic ensemble of thinkers. Alongside an interesting discussion of De Landa, Serres, Bachelard, and Lefebvre, as well as the more obvious Bergson and Massumi, the book’s most striking discussion is of the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s notoriously difficult process metaphysics become a foundation for Goodman’s notion of affective tone’s coming into being. From Whitehead, Goodman draws a concept of “actual entities” as the basic constituents of experience (91). These actual entities are characterized by their being constituted in nexuses of other actual entities which both feel and are felt. In such a view, subject and object partially dissolve into their mutual relation, which in turn is part of a wider continuum of relations. Goodman “recodes” this relational metaphysics through rhythm as a way to potentially conjoin “discontinuous entities of matter,” a material yet transensory process (98).

Goodman persuasively elaborates his concept of rhythm as a nexus in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s topology of “immanent material processes” (115). In this way, he is able to theorize rhythm as resistant to, rather than characterized by, regularized metrical form. Taking the philosophers’ “war machines” as a further point of departure, Goodman speculates on rhythmic figures as at once bodily and sonic. Unlike military machines, which are necessarily violent or conflict-oriented, these sonic war machines can take a range of formations. In advancing this concept, Goodman makes productive use of Eshun’s slippery term “rhythmachine,” which describes the sonic capture of an affective sensorium within which bodies can be collectively mobilized. The rhythmachine works in and on bodies in an amodal state, ontologically prior to sensation, in which bodies as transducers of vibration are networked in surpluses of feeling. Here, Goodman stresses the polyrhythmic tendencies of Black Atlantic diasporas as beyond (or arising out of) the literally arrhythmic noise that Deleuze and Guattari theorize. He allows for the emergence of time in rhythmachines as rhythmically and durationally syncopated, or pulsative. It is hard not to read this portion of the text as influenced by Goodman’s direct experience with the aesthetically mobilizing potential of rhythmic dance music. His view reclaims a sense of dance, collectivity, and rhythm that is subordinated in the Western avant-gardist traditions emphasized in the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Given its rich theorizations, Sonic Warfare is often unclear about how and toward what collective mobilization occurs. Sometimes it appears that Goodman has specifically aesthetic aims in mind when he writes of the rhythmachine, but, as he acknowledges, a theory of sonic warfare is inextricable from a theory of political power. It remains an open question whether or not syncopated dance rhythms have the capacity to desensitize or to drive populations toward, say, capitalist modes of consumption. To account for this problem, Goodman wants to reroute sonic war and rhythm through the Black Atlantic’s particularly affective and often fraught diasporic musics. Still, agentive human bodies are strangely absent in his discussion. Urban dystopia’s slums and denizens seem mere figures for systems of power, rather than populations of voiced subjects. Minor objections aside, this view is apparently an outgrowth of Goodman’s desire to play down anthropocentrism in favor of a richer ecology. Further, it allows him to more deeply theorize complex layers of affective sound as relational, collective, and themselves potential objects of further feeling.

Goodman’s broader aim of developing a theoretical account of sonic affect is certainly a goal worth pursuing, and his work rewards the close reader. Despite an almost dizzyingly wide-ranging analysis, moments of welcome clarity frequently come through. In chapter 27, Goodman discusses the predatory virology of contemporary marketing, foregrounding the earworm’s addictive, irritating hook. He makes his point incisively: “branding theory has already moved on to invest in the modulation of emotion by nonverbal means, signaling a mutation of capital logic into a more subtle colonization of memory” (148). That modulation of affective tonality takes place preemptively and militaristically speaks to the high stakes at work in a politics of frequency. By the same token, Goodman grants in the book’s final chapter that a fuller discussion of the relationship between power and affective sound in vibrational ecologies requires a greater emphasis on language and political economy. At the very least, Sonic Warfare draws attention to the need for a more encompassing theorization of audio virology and its behavior in global technoculture. One hopes that Goodman continues to explore the intersecting realms of theory and musical practice in his future work.

  Benjamin Oyler

Review: Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity

Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Anahid Kassabian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. xxx + 151.

Music plays softly, an unnoticed soundtrack to your shopping experience. A radio hums on the counter, the counterpoint to your kitchen labor. You catch a snippet of something from your neighbor’s headphones on the metro, or have a brief moment of musical recognition in your car on the way to work. Sounds unregistered, sounds forgotten, sounds to which scant attention is paid. Such are the shifting objects – the shifting sounds – of ubiquitous music, and such is the focus of Anahid Kassabian’s book, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Working explicitly against a close-hearing model, Kassabian attempts to take it all in, accounting for what she thinks is an important moment in the history of sound.

Kassabian is a wide-ranging scholar of film and popular music whose work has increasingly trended to sound studies. In Ubiquitous Listening, she develops her novel theoretical frame over a tidy yet dense series of cases. The book’s six chapters each encircle a single area in the broader field of sound in culture, ranging from the deeply personal to the diffusely public. Kassabian’s background in film music surfaces most clearly in chapters on Armenian video artists, TV musicals, and noise and narrativity in recent Hollywood movies, but her theoretical applications are broad, encompassing an impressive range of more or less related subjects in clear, supple prose. She is interested in affective potentialities that traverse disparate media and argues that sound, despite its ubiquity, has been an undertheorized aspect of cultural life. Even with a heterogeneous archive, Kassabian is precise in her aims: to establish a new theory of listening that is capable of rethinking the theoretical foundations of sound and subjectivity.

Contemporary subjects inhabit a world of mixed media and haptic technologies, a world saturated with sound and touch. Ubiquitous Listening argues that, unlike in older models of bourgeois or Enlightened subject formation, modern subjectivity is an ongoing process of transpersonal (even supra-personal) change. The dominant theoretical model here is the notion of “distributed subjectivity,” a sort of Deleuzian assemblage but with a distinctly audial character. In arguing for distributed subjectivity as a kind of “field,” Kassabian draws out the nodal quality of contemporary relations between humans and technologies (109). Allowing for subjecthood as an element in a distribution or organization of unequal objects lets Kassabian attend to identity and affect as both felt in the body and as something more socially entangled. That is to say, she wants to drastically widen the lens for evaluating musical feeling, shifting focus toward inattentive or half-attentive subjects and things in dense networks.

Attention is a key fixture in her theorization of distributed subjectivity. The book argues for an expanded concept of musical experience, one that stretches into realms of musical sound that are not the focus of our attention – affective sounds that, as Kassabian suggests, are crucial to ongoing processes of change. Kassabian argues that ubiquitous music is so omnipresent in contemporary culture that it often escapes notice. Whereas musicology has been motivated by discrete musical objects or scores, and media studies has emphasized the interpellating image, sound studies must account for phone music, car music, advertising jingles, Muzak, and background music, the everywhere music that suffuses daily life. Ubiquitous Listening probes these forms, arguing that somewhere between partial attention and affective response, distributed subjectivities come into being (xxiv).

The best of the book’s chapters are those with the broadest scope, reflecting the theory of distributed subjectivity’s wide applicability. The first chapter, titled “Ubiquitous Listening,” examines contemporary media cultures and technologies by looking at how background sounds in commercial spaces have, since the 1980s, been foregrounded. Kassabian marks a change in the kind of music used in such spaces from “elevator music” to music by “original artists” (5). Her discussion draws heavily from Mark Weiser’s idea of ubiquitous computing as it has been developed in institutions like Xerox PARC and the MIT Media Lab. Like all-present interactive computers – from tablets to smartphones – ubiquitous music has become phenomenologically sourceless, nonlinear, and yet structurally essential to our lived spaces. In terms of these developments, Kassabian outlines two counterhistories – one industrial and one critical – of what she calls functional music. The former traces the commercialization of Muzak and satellite radio, while the latter follows the emergence of ambient (art) music through Erik Satie, John Cage, and, later, Brian Eno. The takeaway is that these shifts reflect changing conceptions of where, how, and what music is foregrounded, which in turn reflects new kinds of listening. Kassabian invokes Ola Stockfelt, arguing that ubiquitous music’s prominence problematizes not only the very idea of background music, but whether musicology’s text-context-reception model is still of critical use. The book brings these elements, along with a brief but fascinating typology of recently-developed music apps, together into a crucial research imperative: to more fully address the quantity and ubiquity of music and how this ongoing, everyday affectivity shapes subjectivity.

The humorously titled last chapter, “Would You Like Some World Music with Your Latte?,” addresses ubiquitous music in retail environments. Kassabian focuses in this chapter on Starbucks Coffee, its affiliated record label, Hear Music, and the prominent “world music” label Putumayo. The chapter elaborates a history of “sonic branding” and “affective marketing” in Starbucks stores and retailers of Putumayo recordings, arguing that both have worked hard to eliminate critical or “unpleasant” elements from their products, thereby making them accessible to particular “life-style clusters” (92-97). While the book is concerned with these forms of commodification and cultural representation, it largely sidelines ethnomusicology in favor of interrogating “listening processes and moments of subjectivity” unique to Starbucks and Putumayo (92). Kassabian offers a survey of musicological literature on world music, but emphasizes that this scholarship has largely ignored the relationship between affectivity and subjectivity. The book identifies what it calls “distributed tourism,” whereby individuals figure into distributed subjectivities via world music recordings (101). In such “postmodern cultural activity,” the local space inhabited by a listening body – the “here” – becomes part of a network with the “there” of the recording, putting the listener in two places at once (102). Unlike other postmodern theorizations of spatial collapse, Kassabian maintains that the distinction between here and there is crucial to this new form of tourism. Starbucks and Putumayo peddle commodities that enter into irreducibly complex, coextensive relations, reflecting a main feature of postmodern life in economically-advanced countries.

True to affect studies’ interest in the personal, two of the book’s chapters examine music and film in Armenian diasporas, a subjective field of which Kassabian herself is part. In chapter two, the book homes in on Armenian women video/installation artists, situating their artistic practices in larger discourses about Armenian nationhood, diasporic life, and audio-visual studies. In a fascinating analysis of non-synched sounds in these art films, Kassabian analyzes how nonnarrative music, sound, and image interact to create affective responses implicated in more complex questions about Armenian identity. Chapter three relates Kassabian’s changing relationship to Armenian jazz fusion, beginning in her university days and covering a nearly 30-year period. This multifaceted, even conflicted, discussion accounts for processes of subjective becoming related to Kassabian’s experiences with live and recorded Armenian music at different points in her life. Here, the topic is the personal as related to the public and the diasporic. Kassabian reflects on her affective, bodily experiences with Armenian music in its fluctuating relations to her awareness of her own identity. The book uses these themes to explore the more abstract idea of de-centered individuals within networks of distributed subjectivity. Kassabian wants to maintain the power of subjectivity as an element of life in diaspora (and other cultural formations) while stressing its distributing in and mutual constitution by networks of persons and things.

Ultimately, Ubiquitous Listening offers its readers a concise and invigorating look at the entanglements of bodies and technologies in contemporary culture, outlining new modes of thought about how these structures inform – and are informed by – their constituents. One of Kassabian’s strengths is her ability to shift quickly from concrete to abstract and vice versa. She takes pains to summarize and clarify her main lines of thought at the end of each chapter and in the book’s brief conclusion. In the final pages, Kassabian stresses that above all she is interested in changing notions of what listening is, how it affects us, and the role of aurality in subject formation. She suggests that her study is an early step toward a widening field that would more fully address sounds and subjects through theories of affect, attention, and listening. For scholars attentive to affect’s aural configurations, this short book offers stimulating and compelling explorations in unexplored regions of sound in culture.

                                                                                                                                  Benjamin Oyler


Review: Cruel Optimism

Cruel Optimism. Lauren Berlant. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Pp. vii + 342.

Cruel Optimism ends with neither pure cynicism nor hope; instead, Lauren Berlant offers ambient citizenship as a mode of “political action as the action of not being worn out by politics,” specifically, politics in an era that she describes as being in constant crisis (262). Berlant gets to this conclusion through an argument that describes the current living environment as ultimately cruel. Defining cruel optimism as desiring what actually hinders one’s flourishing, Berlant charts the way that culture circulates and transmits affects that call us to associate in intimate public relationships that do not produce fair dividends. A Marxist-Feminist stance informs the central critique in Berlant’s readings of these relationships, which focus on the inevitably failed reciprocity between citizens and their interlocutors in neoliberal cultures. Cruel Optimism is a fitting successor to The Queen of America Goes to Washington City and its argument that engaging with the nation and its monuments will offer insight or understanding is ultimately delusional. In both works, Berlant points to the effort subjects expend to be good citizens and to pursue “the good life” as well as the failure of meaningful reciprocation from political or economic structures. Berlant’s latest book develops this theme through a systematic study of desire and performativity, examining the links they provide to public and private (but still shared) affects. Cruel Optimism, while incredibly dense and complicated, is a productive marriage of three textual approaches: affect-oriented re-description, Marxist and biopolitical critique, and formalist aesthetic analysis. Berlant’s delicate balance throughout is itself an argument for the trifecta of affect studies, theoretical critique, and aesthetic appreciation. For these reasons, Cruel Optimism deserves praise beyond its general acclaim as a study of affect, for providing an affective methodology that engages with aesthetics and formal conventions.

Central to Berlant’s argument is her claim that genre organizes historical moments and makes these moments more understandable and therefore easier to attach to. Referring emphatically to Fredric Jameson, Berlant views genre as ordering and making tangible the utter disorganization produced by capitalism. Aesthetics plays a large part in this process. In outlining her interest in generalization, Berlant claims that aesthetics calibrate us for our relation to the world. She writes that “it provides metrics for understanding how we pace and space our encounter with things, how we manage the too closeness of the world and also the desire to have an impact on it that has some relation to its impact on us” (12). This impulse to “manage,” as well as the “success” in doing so, grounds Berlant’s critique: what is cruel about contemporary life is our ability to slog through it hoping that as long as we do everything right things will get better. As an alternative, Berlant offers the “impasse” as a moment of temporal slowness. Relating this notion to genre, Berlant explains that “Genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold … The waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates” (6-7). In Marxian fashion, Berlant suggests that the fragmentation of genre and the rise of the impasse offer moments for individuals to recognize the ordinariness of crisis in neoliberal times as well as their own patterns of constant readjustment.

While chapters one and two serve as extensions of Berlant’s introduction, they are highly textured in their readings and moments of clarity. For example, in her critique of capitalism’s method of evaluating people based on productivity and success, Berlant clarifies that “Our cruel objects don’t feel threatening, just tiring” (31). Berlant reads a poem by John Ashbery and suggests that we are exhausted by our inescapable need to calculate; here, “it matters how much an instance of sentimental abstraction or emotional saturation costs” (35). In Chapter Two, Berlant, further advancing her marriage of Marxist and affect theory, makes surprising claims about how affect works. Berlant argues that “visceral response is a trained thing, not just autonomic activity. Intuition is where affect meets history, in all of its chaos, normative ideology, and embodied practices of discipline and invention” (52). Berlant suggests that what we feel and what we know about the world are fundamentally linked: “The story of how attachment to reproducing the intelligibility of the world nudges affective forces into line with normative realism is also the story of liberal subjectivity’s fantasies of individual and collective sovereignty, the public and the private, the past’s relation to the future, and the distribution of sensibilities that discipline the imaginary about what the good life is and how proper people act” (52-53). Berlant suggests that affect theory is the natural inheritor of ideology critique. While tying affective and Marxist analysis together could be seen as stripping basic emotional freedom from subjects (even our bodily responses are predetermined by capitalism), Berlant’s argument makes sense and is strengthened through her specific claims about genre and aesthetics. That is, genre is a form that embodies affective contracts. She explains how we understand the contemporary moment based on its genres (reminiscent of arguments about “scripts”) and participate in “affect management” to coordinate our responses appropriately (93).

Chapters three and four further develop Berlant’s framework, providing exemplary readingsof cruel optimism through the notion of the “slow death.” Chapter Three, perhaps the most invested in biopolitics in a book that consistently invokes Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, unpacks arguments on agency to claim that sovereignty “is a fantasy misrecognized as an objective state” and that we generally understand this ideal mimetically through our understandings of the sovereign state (97). Berlant offers “slow death” as a method for theorizing how capitalism circumvents agency and perpetuates non-living by creating subjects too busy with re-producing life. In Chapter Four, she suggests that neoliberal interpellation is not just a one-stop process: “It’s not just ‘Hey, you!’ but ‘Wait up!’” (125). Slow death produces feelings of lagging that verge on panic, which we deal with by engaging with optimistic attachments, only slowing us further. As Berlant explains, one might eat to feel a sense of control over one’s life and to sustain life, but obesity becomes a cruel consequence of such an attachment.

Chapters five, six, and seven engage more directly with readings of public spaces than the previous chapters. Still focusing on desire, Chapter Five and Chapter Six outline how normativity is aspirational, but that this goal is for an affect of normalcy that is never actually attainable (176). Additionally, these chapters link the previous chapters’ interest in failed reciprocity to questions of ethics and justice. Since these chapters explore the breakdown of a putatively clear system of investment and return, Berlant can further explore the impasse as a genre of the historical present that absorbs other genres without having any defining characteristics of its own. Mapping this genre by re-describing aesthetics and their affects shows the “glitches” or “hiccups” of aspiring to the good life. Chapter Seven then offers ambient citizenship, “a mode of belonging … that circulates through and around the political in gotml and informal ways, with affective, emotional, economic, and juridical force that is at once clarifying and diffuse” (230). Berlant begins this chapter by quoting George W. Bush’s on his desire to speak to the American public without a “filter” (223). Ambient citizenship takes seriously the idea of de-filtering the political space. Berlant sees ambient citizenship and ambient art as a powerful force with the ability to refuse the reproduction of political, social, and economic exhaustion. She suggests that attention to the affectsphere – the ways in which affect circulates and influences those within the sphere of relationality – of the historical moment has the possibility to inhibit the generalizing of the contemporary moment into a perpetual genre of crisis. Berlant critiques this type of crisis because it creates rationales wherein the good life can be understandably postponed, and suggests that the new method of political engage should be a “lateral politics” because such a posture has the ability to slow down the process of political engagement as to better see its cruel and coercive tendencies.

Cruel Optimism is a difficult work that is technically complicated and extremely self-referential. However, unlike Berlant’s ungiving neoliberalism, investment here does produce a return. In order to grasp the project of Cruel Optimism, one must be prepared to add to Berlant’s framework with each chapter, depending on mastering and remembers the preceding writing. In other words, Cruel Optimism is itself incredibly exhausting. However, Berlant’s methods – particularly her ability to bring together affect-oriented re-description, Marxist and biopolitical critique, and formalist analysis – make the text a valuable resource for thinking about the relationship between these distinct approaches. Ultimately, Berlant’s bold claims on affect’s subordination to cultural structures of knowledge are not to be underestimated and are sure to provoke productive reactions and conversations.

Jill Fennell


Review: On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Sara Ahmed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. x + 243.

What is the opposite of being included? For Sara Ahmed, it means being excluded or out of place. Ahmed’s book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life takes a critical look at how higher-education institutions seek to provide that “place” of inclusion via their incorporation of diversity. Ahmed makes it clear that at the center of this examination of diversity is the issue of race and the inclusion of racialized bodies into academia as an act of both legal compliance and possibly performative commitment.

“Are you Aboriginal?” (2). This simple but charged question posed to Ahmed by two police officers vividly captures the affective mood of intrusion, exclusion, and policing that govern the text. In her introduction, Ahmed reveals that her book was inspired by a brush with racial profiling in her hometown of Adelaide, Australia. Ahmed lived this moment as “an experience of not being white, of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognized as ‘out of place,’ the one who does not belong” (2). Ahmed contrasts this aggressive ordeal of being singled out for her race with the uncomfortable occurrence of being included because of her race as part of a “race equality group” at Lancaster University. This latter encounter with “diversity” drives Ahmed’s book into its analysis of institutions, institutional racism, and the process of inclusion.

The strength of On Being Included lies in the ease with which Ahmed uncovers, deconstructs, and names that which seems so routine and normalized within academia. In part, this awareness stems from Ahmed’s research, which focuses not only on her own encounters with diversity but also on her interviews of diversity practitioners across universities in the United Kingdom and Australia.

At the center of Ahmed’s project is the concept of the university as an institution, which she discusses at length in Chapter One. Ahmed finds that universities are not stable but in a continuous process of being “instituted” via practices such as recruitment and employment. One of the results of these practices is the overwhelming presence of white bodies within academia as administrators, students, and faculty. Via this continuous process of assemblage and reproduction, whiteness becomes the norm. In this manner, the white body appears unmarked and invisible within the university system while the minority body is always a stranger and marked as other. Ahmed explains that institutional whiteness came uncomfortably to the fore with the passing of equality legislation such as the British Race Relations Amendment Act (2000), the Equality Act of 2006, and most recently, the Equality Act of 2010. These laws prompted many universities to “institutionalize” diversity via the creation of diversity offices, committees, coalitions, and the hiring of practitioners of inclusion.

These laws serve as a backdrop for Ahmed as she explores the role of the diversity practitioner within academia. In her interviews with various diversity officials, one of the main images that kept cropping up in conversation was that of the university as a brick wall. Indeed, many diversity practitioners expressed that they constantly felt like they were coming up against a brick wall in their attempts to introduce diversity into institutional culture. For Ahmed, this phrasing emphasizes the uncomfortable intimacy between the university, minorities, and diversity officials within the largely white space of the academia.

In Chapter Two, Ahmed explores how despite its resistance to “diversity,” the institution has come to appropriate the term. Ahmed begins by explaining that the word diversity has come to replace more contentious ideas such as “equal opportunity” and “anti-racism” (52). Indeed, Ahmed finds that this term is currently used precisely because it is ambiguous – it can mean almost anything. Ahmed notes, “The absences of an agreed-on meaning for diversity can mean that it can be defined in quite different ways” (79). Many diversity practitioners admit that its lack of negative connotations allows them to reach more individuals, establish more conversations, and enact more institutional cooperation. Thus, diversity’s “positive affective value” becomes a useful tool that allows diversity administrators to chip away at the brick wall of academia (67).

But Ahmed also notes that some diversity officials approach the term with suspicion. One reason that some diversity practitioners dislike the term is because of its connection to the recent “corporatization” of the university (52). For many practitioners of inclusion, administrators circulate the term diversity because it increases the market value of the institution by giving it a “diverse” image. This use of diversity rhetoric is problematic because it can create what Ahmed calls the “lip service model of diversity” (58). According to one diversity worker, the term “allows people to get away with thinking ‘oh everybody’s different,’ and really kind of ignoring barriers which are oppressing” (71). For Ahmed, the positive halo of diversity is a double-edged sword: it lessens institutional resistance but allows for the university to ignore actual issues impacting inclusion such as recruiting minority students and providing them with support systems. Indeed, this positive “enjoyment of diversity” by the university can even lead to the symbolic consumption of minority bodies by the institution (69). Ahmed explains how the “cultural enrichment discourse of diversity” can be used as bell hooks says to “liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (69). For Ahmed, the affective value of diversity is important to consider especially when examining the communities and worlds it assembles.

In Chapter Three, Ahmed further explores the connection between diversity and the current performance culture prevalent in academia. Ahmed begins her chapter by discussing Jean-François Lyotard’s description of “use” within the institution. As Lyotard says, “The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or the institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’” (84). This question of utility is the crux of Ahmed’s discussion of diversity as a performance within the academia. According to Ahmed, universities can simulate the appearance of diversity simply via the creation of “documents” such as mission statements and equality policies.

While these official papers do sometimes provide the opportunity for increased collaboration and can increase awareness, they can also be used to create a paper “trail” (97). This creation of papers for the sake of documentation aligns directly with audits set in place by organizations such as the British Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). These associations “measure” diversity by examining institutional race equality policies, processes, and plans. Based on the results of these audits, universities are then ranked in terms of who is “doing” diversity well and who is not.

In Chapter Four, Ahmed explains that this audit system is problematic in that it can result in documents replacing action, what she terms the “tick box” approach (113). This question of genuine rather than empty performance of commitment is central to diversity officials, whom Ahmed describes as constantly attempting to reach “hearts and minds” of those in academia (113). Ahmed explains, “For diversity workers to reach the heart and minds of an institution would mean … that diversity becomes part of how the institution feels and thinks” (113). For these professionals of inclusion, commitment beyond mere compliance is their goal for individuals within the university, particularly those with power and influence such as senior leadership. These “diversity champions” are instrumental in changing the “habits” of the institution by giving diversity greater currency within academia and creating assemblages around the issue of inclusion.

Ahmed notes that diversity practitioners “start with the commitment of leadership because this commitment is more likely to affect a sense of commitment in others” (133). However, this “affective model” of diversity has its downsides. For Ahmed, the location of diversity within individuals or even within groups such as diversity committees often fails to translate to institutional commitment. Rather, these individuals and units “allow the refusal of a more collective sense of responsibility” (136). As with the documents mentioned in Chapter Three, this model of diversity can potentially replace meaningful institutional commitment. Despite this possibility, Ahmed ends her chapter by reiterating the importance of the diversity practitioner to push the university from “lip service” to genuine commitment.

Throughout her book, Ahmed exposes the ways in which the discourse of diversity obscures real change via performances of commitment and compliance. In her final chapter and conclusion, Ahmed examines the inability of diversity to produce change by examining the missing piece of the puzzle: racism. Unlike the term “diversity,” which is readily accepted and circulated by the institution, “racism” is avoided, denied, and met with outright hostility.

Ahmed expands the scope of her archive to the realm of cultural studies to make a powerful point about racism and the racialized bodies who experience it. For these marked individuals, racism becomes a burden they have to deal with and let go in order to be included into the “fold” of white institutional culture (183). Ahmed explains, “People of color are asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to ‘give way’ by letting it ‘go back.’ Not only that: more than that. We are asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures” (163). This request to “embody” diversity can result in the problematic archiving of people of color by academia as a sign of compliance. Ahmed says, “Bodies of color provide organizations with tools… We become the tools in their kid. We are ticks in the boxes” (153). Although Ahmed sees the potential of diversity work to transform institutional culture, she urges people of color and practitioners of inclusion to keep working to break down the walls of exclusion and inequality in academia. Ahmed ends with the following words: “Don’t look over it, if you can’t get over it” (187).

Victoria Ruiz Hernández

Review: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect

Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Mel Y. Chen. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 312.

In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Mel Y. Chen examines animacy, defined in the linguistic sense as “the quality of liveness, sentience, or humanness of a noun or noun phrase,” in order to change the way we humans situate ourselves in terms of sexuality, race, and ability in the United States (24). They examine the hierarchical structure of animacy in order to contribute to disability studies, queer of color scholarship, and critical animal studies. They trace the movements in this “feral” archive to situate animacy as a mediating force between the human and inhuman, the animate and inanimate. They hope to foster a consideration of how “matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways” (2). By invoking their knowledge of cognitive linguistics, and with the aid of several self-created diagrams, Chen offers a new way of looking at the intersectionality of animacy, affect, and politics.

This book is organized into three parts – “Words,” “Animals,” and “Metals,” each of which contains two chapters that deal with specific attributes of animacy. The first section deals with dehumanization, the second with queering animality, and the third with metals (12).  This organization deliberately reflects the hierarchy that Chen seeks to destabilize by using animacies as the defining concept of their book. Their project ultimately succeeds in destabilizing these animacy structures, but the sheer size and variety of their archive at times diminishes the biopolitical lens through which they examine it.

In the first chapter of “Words,” Chen reflects on objectification and dehumanization, for which they provide a Marxian framework, using insults as examples. Of note for their overall project, their deconstruction of “macaca” and “turtle’s egg with zero IQ” demonstrates the abjection of the subject. These examples, they say, are “deeply imbued with affect” because they provoke an emotional response by deliberately relating the person being insulted first to an animal, and then to a human idea of a complete lack of intelligence (40). Furthering this point of blending of rational human and instinctual animal, Chen revisits the idea of language as proper to humans and suggests that language’s “absent materiality” is based on misconceptions about thought and cognition. Ultimately, they end this chapter by suggesting that animacy is the motivating factor behind the words and their affective resonance beyond simple signification.

Chen then examines the word “queer” and how its meaning has become “deadened” by losing some of its signifying power. In terms of the materiality of language, “queer” is both animated and de-animated. It is animated by its use and discussion in queer of color, trans, transnational, and disability scholarship, and deanimated by its depoliticized, inert national identity in the United States. “Queer” is a demonstration of how language linguistically employs animacy and inertia. Chen uses this word to mark any connections that destabilize the heteronormative hierarchy.

In the “Animals” section, Chen directly questions ecologies as “imagined systems” of animacy hierarchies in which animals are excluded from language, specifically examining human-animal relationships, “racialized animality,” biological sex, and gendered ways that animals are identified and discussed (90). The third chapter features a scattered archive: the character of Fu Manchu described as feline, a common stereotype of Chinese men (highlighting the ways that those seen as Other are racialized, animal figures); the case of Travis the chimpanzee, which occurred in 2009; and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century advertisements from the United States that made the raced body animal. Chen concludes by asking the reader to treat this chapter as “an invitation to consider queer animality…as a site of investment…morphing time and raciality” (122). This direct address is a rhetorical tactic that Chen employs often throughout to organize the main points of their argument and highlight the questions that they are hoping to answer. This is one of the main strengths of the book; by framing their work in terms of the questions they are attempting to answer, Chen allows the reader to follow the connections they make between their case studies.

Chen’s fourth chapter talks more explicitly about the “proper boundaries” that surround both nonhuman animals and humans (128). They mention Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I am” and his gendering of the cat who gazes at his nakedness, as an example that highlights the “fear” that a sexless animal can inspire (148). Domestic animals have to be gendered in order to establish proper boundaries for them. Chen also discusses Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “body without organs” to coin the notion of “animals with/out genitals” that have mixed affectivities (155). There is repulsion against a boundless being without genitals, but there is also hope for the self-made human. Chen then explains the different “trans-” in this chapter emphasizing their role in cultural production. They gesture to the biopolitical implications of biological sex of animals that are spayed or neutered, but never really makes explicit what those implications might be for transness as it relates to animacy.

The final section on “Metals” offers an examination of two: lead and mercury and how they manage, without being animate, to animate global discussion of specific types of human and animal bodies. Chen starts with a discussion of the lead poisoning scare in the United States, in which toys made in China were reported to contain high traces of lead, and thus poisoning the white, middle-class American children. The globalized nature of the toy industry was blamed, and although China is not the only place where lead comes from, it was identified as the source of the contagion. This fact solidified the national identity of the United States as against China’s “yellowness,” “biosecurity failure,” and the “possibility of terrorism” (172). The rhetoric of toxicity and contagion spread through conversations about lead poisoning stressed the way child bodies get poisoned, usually through licking. In their examination of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine toy at the center of the “lead panic” in 2007, Chen analyzes the train’s, and thus lead’s, journey to the white, middle-class child in the United States. This journey demonstrates how lead can contaminate healthy, human (racially imagined as white) bodies and drag them down the animacy hierarchy. Lead, in turn, becomes animate, given agency to infect bodies. This section is particularly convincing in its examination of the visual rhetoric that both China and the United States employed in discussing lead.

The last chapter of this section incorporates Chen’s own experience of illness, caused by mercury toxicity, to highlight “poisoned affect” and how it deconstructs the subject/object positioning of the toxin/intoxicated (195). They analyze their mercury poisoning alongside ideas of queer sexuality, mapping “intoxication” as an affective state that is unstable and uncertain between bodies. This altered affect is demonstrated by the author’s search for comfort after a day loaded with toxic hazards. When returned home and greeted by their lover, they wonder who they found tactile comfort with: their lover or their couch. In these moments of uncertainty, they are able to recognize both bodies as offering comfort, and although they suggest that confusing the two is “inexcusable,” they are able to intimately connect with an inanimate object (203). They thus demonstrate the porous nature of animacy. Even what we consider toxins, which are always surrounded by negative affects, are better understood as certain conditions that generate effects that are not always so easy to pigeonhole as negative.

In the afterword, Chen discusses the BP oil spill and Miyazaki’s film Ponyo to illustrate how essential it is to establish a framework of animacy that “encodes forces without being beholden to the failing categories of life and nonlife” (227). Ponyo provides them a very explicit example of the movement of the animate and inanimate. The titular character Ponyo is a fish who wishes to become human, undergoing a transformative process that concludes with her being human but still connected to the ocean. By ending with Ponyo, this archive foregrounds the need for new materialisms right now by offering a film that shows the ocean and its inhabitants in relationships with humans across animacy hierarchies.

Ultimately, Chen’s analysis of their archive suggests rather than insists on biopolitical, racial, and queer affective readings; because of this lack of insistence, a reader might lose the thrust of their argument along the way. There are times in the text when examples that illustrate the points Chen makes overshadow the arguments themselves. However, they make it clear that their argument is not just rhetorical. The hierarchical model of our culture needs to be replaced by structures of feeling that respect difference without marking it as less.

Melinda Borchers