History of the Present, a journal devoted to history as a critical endeavor, is edited by Joan Wallach Scott, Andrew Aisenberg, Brian Connolly, Ben Kafka, Jennifer Morgan, Sylvia Schafer, and Mrinalini Sinha. The journal’s aim is twofold: to create a space in which scholars can reflect on the role history plays in making categories of contemporary debate appear inevitable, natural, or culturally necessary; and to publish work that calls into question certainties about the relationship between past and present that are taken for granted by the majority of practicing historians. Read more about the journal in our editor interview.
The Romanic Review is a journal devoted to the study of Romance literatures. Founded in 1910 by Henry Alfred Todd, it covers all periods of French, Italian, and Ibero-Romance languages and literature, and it welcomes a broad diversity of critical approaches. It is edited by Elisabeth Ladenson and published by the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University in cooperation with the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and the Department of Italian.
As we come to the end of a decade, our editors look back at some of the most influential books we’ve published since 2010.
Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director
I’m proud to have worked on a great number of field-changing and prize-winning books this decade, many of which had sway far beyond the academy. The one title that stands out for me is Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake. I’d worked with Christina on her exceptional first book Monstrous Intimacies so knew there was more brilliance to come. I can still picture the room at MLA in Vancouver where I first heard her present In the Wake’s powerful poetic text, compelling at so many layers at once. We were awed by her ability to move from the deeply familial and personal to the scale of world history without losing either the tone or the theory; by the stark realism of her account of Black death; and by the call to live on despite the weather. The book came out in November of 2016, by mid-March of the following year, artist Cauleen Smith had adopted the book’s title for her contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial. I’ve since seen Sharpe’s work deeply engaged by Torkwase Dyson and other artists. Her narrating of the wake, the ship, the hold, and the weather — along with the idea of wakework itself — has been taken up by writers, critics, activists and readers, who felt Sharpe had named something for their lives. This quick recognition —the sense of being recognized, seen, or heard — is unusual and deeply special. The book is an extraordinary gift to our ongoing political moment, one that will resonate for many years to come.
Courtney Berger, Executive Editor
It’s been 10 years since we published Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (January 2010). When I first read the manuscript, I knew it would be important. I knew that Bennett’s generous and reflective way of thinking and her engaging writing style would widen its audience beyond political theory (Bennett’s home discipline). But I had no idea how influential the book would be, setting the stage for a decade of conversation and debate about “thing-power” and the agential capacities of the nonhuman. Bennett’s plea to recognize the influence of nonhuman forces and things in the political realm and to decenter the human resonated with me and many others seeking new ways of thinking about our relationship to our environment. Influential books often provoke debate and this one certainly has done that. But, for me, the books that matter in the long run are the ones that invite me to think with them. Vibrant Matteris that kind of book. Bennett’s ideas have generated critique, disagreement, and reflection, all of which has pushed scholarship in new and important directions. Notably, Mel Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect(2012) builds upon Bennett’s attention to the affective dimensions of the nonhuman material world, but shows us how race, sexuality, and disability have shaped our notions of liveliness and of who and what matters in this world. In The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2017) Kyla Schuller extends this critique, illustrating how the 19th century sciences of “impressibility” and animacy helped to solidify ontologies of racial difference, ideas that have had an often unacknowledged afterlife in new materialist philosophies. Moreover, Bennett’s work has helped to lay the ground work for innovative book series like ANIMA, edited by Mel Chen and Jasbir Puar, which brings queer, race, and disability theory to bear on our understanding of life and matter, and Elements, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Nicole Starosielski, which foregrounds the material elements as lively forces that shape politics and culture.
My task was to name one book of the decade, and as you see, instead I named one book, and two more, and then two book series. Maybe that’s my way of dodging the task. But it also speaks to the expansive and generative quality of books, as they travel, intersect, and influence one another, as well as the vibrancy of the scholarly conversations I’m so privileged to be a part of. I can’t wait to see which books make their mark in the coming decade. . . .
Gisela Fosado, Editor
Gloria Anzaldúa’s brilliant bookLight in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro is a work that is decades ahead of its time. Published in 2015, but written before Anzaldúa’s untimely death in 2004, the book engages feminist and queer aesthetics, ontologies, epistemologies, and ethics, offering a new decolonial vision for our world. It’s a must-read for all feminist scholars.
Elizabeth Ault, Editor
My book of the decade is Kristin Peterson’s Speculative Markets. I arrived at Duke Press in 2012, mere weeks after defending my dissertation in American studies (focused on Black-cast sitcoms of the 1970s). I was pretty burnt out after 6 years of grad school, and feeling a little distant and alienated from the political passion and the joy of intellectual inquiry that had put me on an academic path in the first place. Speculative Markets was one of the first books I got to work on at the Press. Peterson’s book, an ethnography of pharmaceuticals in Nigeria, wasn’t an obvious fit with my areas of expertise. But the book begins with a blistering account of structural adjustment in the global 1970s and 80s, providing African perspectives on the global rise of neoliberalism, which had loomed large in my previous work. Thinking neoliberalism, the durability of colonial forms, speculation, and global anti-Blackness from Nigeria with Peterson introduced me to what cultural and medical anthropology and African studies can do. The book reoriented my perspective, introduced me to new conversations, and reminded me of the power of scholarship. It’s helped me chart the course that has comprised my career here at the Press over the past 7 years, which is why it’s my book of the decade.
Miriam Angress, Associate Editor
One of the books I’m joyful to have worked on is Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering, written by Rosemarie Freeney Harding with her daughter Rachel Elizabeth Harding. The author—an influential civil-rights activist—believed in the unity of all great spiritual teachings, and practiced multiple religions herself; she looked for the compassionate underpinnings of these traditions, such as the link she saw between Tibetan Buddhist teachings and lessons she learned from her mother as they visited dying relatives. Remnants incorporates stories of her civil rights leadership, co-founding an early integrated community center in Atlanta with her husband Dr. Vincent Harding, and working with friends and colleagues including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Anne Braden, Dr. Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman, and Sweet Honey in the Rock singer Bernice Reagon.
Rachel Harding (Associate Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions at University of Colorado) worked with her mother on the memoir for a decade before Freeney Harding’s death in 2004. After that, she excavated her mother’s voice from journals, previously published material, recordings, and her own memories.
Sandra Korn, Assistant Editor
2011 was the year I realized that I was queer, and the year that I officially scrapped my parents’ dreams that I would become a scientist, when I switched my undergraduate major to Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies. It’s also the year that Dean Spade first published Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Lawwith South End Press. Same-sex marriage legalization and hate crime laws covering gender identity were slowly sweeping the U.S. state by state. Yet Dean Spade taught me that waiting for the courts to grant legal equality (the model adopted by the gay and lesbian rights movement) would never be sufficient to address the root causes of violence against trans people across the planet. Instead, Spadeargues that trans liberation requires a grassroots movement, led by trans people most impacted by criminalization, surveillance, and detention and deportation. Duke Press published the second edition of Normal Life in 2015, and this book feels just as necessary as we head into 2020.
‘Tis the season for brand new books! This month, we’re releasing a variety of compelling titles from a wide range of disciplines—art, history, music, theory and philosophy, cultural studies, and many more. Check out these great reads available in December.
Andrea Smith examines the racial reconciliation movement in Evangelical Christianity through a critical ethnic studies lens in Unreconciled, evaluating the varying degrees to which Evangelical communities that were founded on white supremacy have attempted to address racism and become more inclusive.
In Picasso’s Demoiselles, eminent art historian Suzanne Preston Blier uncovers a previously unknown history of the influences and creative process of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of the twentieth century’s most important, celebrated, and studied paintings.
In The Sonic Episteme Robin James examines how twenty-first-century conceptions of sound as acoustic resonance shape notions of the social world, personhood, and materiality in ways that support white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
In Listen But Don’t Ask Question Kevin Fellezs traces the ways in which slack key guitar—a traditional Hawaiian musical style played on an acoustic steel-string guitar—is a site for the articulation of the complex histories, affiliations, and connotations of Hawaiian belonging.
Militarization: A Reader, edited by Roberto J. González, Hugh Gusterson, and Gustaaf Houtman, offers an anthropological perspective on militarization’s origin and sustained presence as a cultural process in its full social, economic, political, cultural, environmental, and symbolic contexts throughout the world.
Originally published in French in 1997 and appearing here in English for the first time, David Lapoujade’s William James: Empiricism and Pragmatism is both an accessible and rigorous introduction to and a pioneering rereading of James’s thought.
With topics that span the sixteenth century to the present in Latin America, the United States, Australia, the Middle East, and West Africa, the contributors to Ethnopornography show how ethnopornography—the eroticized observation of the Other for supposedly scientific or academic purposes—is fundamental to the creation of race, colonialism, and archival and ethnographic knowledge. This volume is edited by Pete Sigal, Zeb Tortorici, and Neil L. Whitehead.
In Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan Patrick Galbraith examines Japanese “otaku,” their relationships with fictional girl characters, the Japanese public’s interpretations of them as excessive and perverse, and the Japanese government’s attempts to co-opt them into depictions of “Cool Japan” to an international audience.
We’re excited to welcome History of the Present to our journals publishing program starting with its tenth-anniversary issue this spring. Joan Wallach Scott and Brian Connolly, two of the journal’s editors, sat down with us to discuss the journal’s resistance to mainstream standards, the kind of scholarship that the journal makes space for, and why joining Duke University Press feels like coming home.
would you describe History of the Present to someone who’s new to the
Brian: I think it’s for people
who are interested and engaged in critical theory in the broadest sense, who
are also interested primarily in historical problems—how to address critically
theorized historical problems across multiple disciplines.
Joan: It’s for people who tend,
in whatever discipline they are part of, to use history to think the
interpretive and theoretical questions that they have. It’s not at all a
journal confined to historians.
founding editors, what need did you see for History of the Present to
exist? What gaps does it fill?
Joan: We felt that the standard
history journals had requirements for what counted as a serious scholarly
article that we were very much in resistance to and critical of. As a group, we
shared an impatience with a certain kind of orthodoxy, both methodological and
presentational—how articles had to look and conform to some standard. We wanted
to provide the space for people who are doing critical work—not only in history—to
publish and not have to conform to the orthodox standards of mainstream
Brian: There was a sense in the historical discipline that it had its moment with post-structuralism and psychoanalysis in the 1990s and that “history” had moved past that. Most of us involved in founding the journal were working with some kind of theory, and we found that others—those who were doing the same kind of historical work we were interested in whether as historians or in other fields—had the same complaints. We wanted the journal to offer an interdisciplinary space for people working with theory, and while post-structuralism was one of our theories, it wasn’t the only one.
Joan: We were sick and tired of
the notion that theory was over, and we wanted to say, no, theory is not over!
It’s critical to the work that we do, and that a lot of people in other
disciplines do as well. We wanted to have a place where that could be okay,
where that could be demonstrated. We also wanted to give an opportunity for
publication to younger scholars doing theoretically-informed work because their
work was being turned down by some of the mainstream journals. It really was a
kind of rebellion.
Brian: Particularly in literary
studies, things like postcritique and surface reading have emerged to say that
critique had its place and we’re trying to find a space after it. As a journal,
we push against that, but we also say that these concerns with critique don’t
look the same in history or anthropology or political theory as they do in
literary criticism. So it reinvigorates the questions around critique.
are you looking for right now in submissions?
Joan:We’re looking for
articles that demonstrate the importance of theoretical thinking for the
empirical work that’s being examined. We’re not anti-empirical at all. The
point is to see how somebody’s theoretical perspective, whether it’s Marxist or
Foucaldian or Derridian or psychoanalytic, is informing the kind of reading
that they do. The articles that get us most excited are the ones where you can
see that operating within the article. The ones least interesting to us are
those that are entirely descriptive: describing a body of material without any
new insight into what it could mean or how you could read or understand it.
Brian: We’re also looking for
articles that think about the relationship between the past and present as
something like a problem—rather than saying “if we just understood the past
this way, then we would understand the present better,” saying that the
relationship between past and present is problematic and complicated and
political and ethical.
special issues are planned for the journal?
Brian: There are two issues in the works that are related to each other, although they weren’t planned that way. One special issue will think about the way that what are called the new histories of capitalism, which emerged more or less around the recession of 2008, called for a rewriting of the history of capitalism. Some of that work doesn’t seem so new, so we hope the issue will look at some of the ways of thinking about the history of capitalism that get pushed to the side.
Joan: It would be a critical
look at what’s taken to be the new history of capitalism.
Brian: The other special issue is
on reproduction and racial capitalism—histories of racial capitalism and how
reproduction gets articulated in those spaces. And we have more ideas for
future issues, like psychoanalysis and history, which wouldn’t just be five or
six articles that theorize psychoanalytic history but would rather show what a
psychoanalytically informed history would look like.
that’s where we distinguish ourselves, on the one hand from historians who are
concerned only with empirical evidence, and on the other hand from pure theory.
We don’t necessarily discourage pure theory essays, but we’re not a philosophy
of history journal. We look for balance between theory and history.
DUP: History of the Present has a team of seven editors, rather than just one or two. Can you talk about this decision and how it benefits the journal?
Joan: We didn’t ever want to
have a journal with one editor and an editorial board. A group of us came
together to talk about founding a journal, and it never seemed like it would be
anything else but the group of us doing it. It means that you get a lot of good
input right away. When an article is submitted to the journal, before it’s sent
out for readers, at least three of us read and respond to it.
You get a
collective take on an article with different sorts of responses, and that makes
a huge difference. The fact that we come at it from slightly different
perspectives, we each have different personal tastes as well as scholarly
commitments and interests, means that an article gets a better reading than it
might from a single editor or managing editor who is saying “this is for us;
this is not for us.”
Brian: It also allows us to work
with authors more. If an article has a kernel of something great in it, we have
seven people to split the labor to help the author develop that. We’re able to
develop relationships that one editor just wouldn’t have time for.
Joan: We have a reputation now
as a journal that makes good articles better through this kind of editorial
there anything else you’d like to add?
Joan: Coming to Duke University
Press is very important to us in our tenth year. In our first year, we won Best
New Journal from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, so it isn’t that
we’ve lacked visibility, or that we haven’t increasingly seen submission of
articles that are the kind we’d like to publish. We do see more and more people
who get what we’re about and who want to be published in the journal—one author
said their dream was to publish in History of the Present!
coming to Duke puts us in the company of other journals that we feel very much
akin to, like Social Text and Public Culture and differences.
differences was our inspiration—Elizabeth Weed, one of the editors, said
we should have a journal to make space for the kind of critical historical work
we’re interested in doing. She and Denise Davis, the managing editor, gave us
enormously useful advice at the beginning. None of us had ever done a journal
Duke brings us into a family that feels more like who we are—a family of
like-minded, critically engaged journals. That’s been tremendously exciting for
us as we enter our second decade.
Brian: Despite the name History
of the Present, we are just as interested in the past as in the present. In
fact, we’re interested in all chronological periods, and we’re also looking to
expand the geographical reach of the journal, to encourage submissions from
people working in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the
Joan: Every once in a while, we
have an article that is immediately relevant to contemporary events—for
example, an upcoming article in our first issue with Duke is about Saudi Arabia
and the war in Yemen. We also have an article about sanctuary, which although
it starts in ancient Greece, is about sanctuary as a political concept. Moving
to Duke, we’re excited for the chance to make some of these immediately topical
articles freely available for a limited period—articles that look at
contemporary issues, but with a question about how they got to be what they are
now and with the assumption that the way they were in the past was different.
Critical Times aims to foreground encounters between canonical critical theory and various traditions of critique emerging from other historical legacies, seeking to present the multiple forms that critical thought takes today. The journal publishes essays from different regions of the world in order to foster new paths of intellectual exchange and reformulate the field by accounting for its regional and linguistic inflections.
The newest issue of Critical Times opens with a special section of memorial essays and testimonies on the life, work, and legacy of Saba Mahmood. The issue also features a group of scholarly essays that reflect on the critical situations of universities in South Africa, Chile, India, and Mexico.
Interested in publishing an article? Critical Times seeks to publish texts that shed light on contemporary practices of authoritarian and neo-fascist politics, nativist and atavistic cultural formations, and forms of economic exclusion, as well as spaces and forms of life where emancipatory social worlds might be imagined, articulated, and pursued. The journal publishes essays, interviews, dialogues, dispatches, visual art, and various other platforms for critical reflection, transnational exchange, and political reflection and practice. For more information on how to submit an article, visit the submission guidelines page.
Summer’s almost over, which means it’s time to start to replenishing your reading list! Celebrate the start of a new academic year with us by checking out this diverse array of books arriving in September.
Acknowledging the impending worldwide catastrophe of rising seas in the twenty-first century, Orrin H. Pilkey and Keith C. Pilkey outline the impacts on the United States’ shoreline and argue that the only feasible response along much of the U.S. shoreline is an immediate and managed retreat in Sea Level Rise.
Brenda R. Weber’s Latter-day Screens examines the ways in which the mediation of Mormonism through film, TV, blogs, YouTube videos, and memoirs functions as a means through which to understand conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, spirituality, capitalism, justice, and individualism in the United States.
Self-Devouring Growth by Julie Livingston shows how the global pursuit of economic and resource-driven growth comes at the expense of catastrophic destruction, thereby upending popular notions that economic growth and development is necessary for improving a community’s wellbeing.
In Under Construction, Daniel Mains explores the intersection of infrastructural development and governance in contemporary Ethiopia by examining the conflicts surrounding the construction of specific infrastructural technologies and how that construction impacts the daily lives of Ethiopians.
Elizabeth Freeman’s Beside You in Time expands bipolitical and queer theory by outlining a temporal view of the long nineteenth century and showing how time became a social and sensory means by which people resisted disciplinary regimes and assembled into groups in ways that created new forms of sociality.
Terry Smith—who is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading historians and theorists of contemporary art—traces the emergence of contemporary art and further develops his concept of contemporaneity in Art to Come through analyses of topics ranging from Chinese and Australian Indigenous art to architecture.
Henry Cow by Benjamin Piekut tells the story of the English experimental rock band Henry Cow and how it linked its improvisational musical aesthetic with a collectivist, progressive politics.
Davina Cooper’s Feeling Like a State explores the unexpected contribution a legal drama of withdrawal—as exemplified by some conservative Christians who deny people inclusion, goods, and services to LGBTQ individuals—might make to conceptualizing a more socially just, participative state.
In Making The Black Jacobins, Rachel Douglas traces the genesis, transformation, and afterlives of the different versions of C. L. R. James’s landmark The Black Jacobins across the decades from the 1930s onwards, showing how James revised it in light of his evolving politics.
William E. Connolly links climate change, fascism, and the nature of truth to demonstrate the profound implications of the deep imbrication between planetary nonhuman processes and cultural developments in Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth.
Cara New Daggett’s The Birth of Energy traces the genealogy of the idea of energy from the Industrial Revolution to the present, showing how it has informed fossil fuel imperialism, the governance of work, and our relationship to the Earth.
This special issue examines the stakes of orienting toward or away from disability as a category and as a method. Building on Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of “orientation” as the situating of queer and raced bodies, the contributors ask how the category of disability might also change how we think of bodies orienting in space and time. Are all paths, desire lines, objects, and interpellations equally accessible? How do we conceptualize access in different spaces? What kind of theoretical and empirical turns might emerge in disorienting disability?
Drawing on feminist studies, critical race studies, and queer studies, the contributors probe the meanings of the term disability and consider disability in relation to other categories of difference such as race, gender, and class. Essays challenge the historicity of disability; push disability studies to consider questions of loss, pain, and trauma; question the notion of disability as another form of diversity; and expand arguments about the ethics of care to consider communities not conventionally defined as disabled.
The issue’s Against the Day section, “Contentious Crossings: Struggles and Alliances for Freedom of Movement across the Mediterranean Sea,” brings together researchers and activists to reflect on struggles against the European border regime. All articles in this section are freely available for six months.
You might also find these recent books in disability studies of interest:
In this revised and expanded edition of Medicine Stories, Aurora Levins Morales weaves together the insights and lessons learned over a lifetime of activism to offer a new theory of social justice, bringing clarity and hope to tangled, emotionally charged social issues in beautiful and accessible language.
In Black Madness :: Mad Blackness Therí Alyce Pickens examines the speculative and science fiction of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due to rethink the relationship between race and disability, thereby unsettling the common theorization that they are mutually constitutive.
Jane Gallop explores how disability and aging are commonly understood to undermine one’s sense of self in Sexuality, Disability, and Aging. She challenges narratives that register the decline of bodily potential and ability as nothing but an experience of loss.
Bridging black feminist theory with disability studies, in Bodyminds Reimagined, Sami Schalk traces how black women’s speculative fiction complicates the understanding of bodyminds in the context of race, gender, and (dis)ability, showing how the genre’s exploration of bodyminds that exist outside of the present open up new social and ethical possibilities.
Our Fall 2019 season is off to a phenomenal start with a diverse range of titles in Theory and Philosophy, African American Studies, Native and Indigenous Studies, and more. Take a look at all of these great new books coming in August!
Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory by Patricia Hill Collins offers a set of analytical tools for those wishing to develop intersectionality’s capability to theorize social inequality in ways that would facilitate social change.
In Animate Literacies, Nathan Snaza proposes a new theory of literature and literacy in which he outlines how literacy operates at the interface of humans, nonhuman animals, and objects and has been used as a means to define the human in ways that marginalize others.
Mark Rifkin’s Fictions of Land and Flesh turns to black and indigenous speculative fiction to show how it offers a site to better understand black and indigenous political movements’ differing orientations in ways that can foster forms of mutual engagement and cooperation without subsuming them into a single political framework in the name of solidarity.
In The Black Shoals Tiffany Lethabo King uses the shoal—an offshore geologic formation that is neither land nor sea—as metaphor, mode of critique, and methodology to theorize the encounter between Black studies and Native studies and its potential to create new epistemologies, forms of practice, and lines of critical inquiry.
Jairus Victor Grove’s Savage Ecology offers an ecological theorization of geopolitics in which he contends that contemporary global crises are better understood when considered within the larger history of geopolitical practice, showing how political violence is the principal force behind climate change, mass extinction, slavery, genocide, extractive capitalism, and other catastrophes. Watch the trailer for the book here.
In How to Make Art at the End of the World Natalie Loveless examines the institutionalization of artistic research-creation—a scholarly activity that considers art practices as research methods in their own right—and its significance to North American higher education.
Leigh Claire La Berge’s Wages Against Artwork shows how socially engaged art responds to and critiques what she calls decommodified labor—the slow diminishment of wages alongside an increase of demands of work—as a way to work toward social justice and economic equality.
In Sounds of Vacation, edited by Jocelyne Guilbault and Timothy Rommen, the contributors examine the commodification of music and sound at popular vacation destinations throughout the Caribbean in order to tease out the relationships between political economy, hospitality, and the legacies of slavery and colonialism.
The Hundreds—composed of pieces one hundred or multiples of one hundred words long—is theorist Lauren Berlant and ethnographer Kathleen Stewart’s collaborative experimental writing project in which they strive toward sensing and capturing the resonances that operate at the ordinary level of everyday experience. We invite you to sample the book by reading four pieces from it.
Every day a friend across the ocean wakes up to suicidal thoughts. Another friend takes a drink to eat clean and another eats a candy bar in bed before washing the sheets, doing laundry naked to ensure soft sleeps.
Another friend chants before going out to her analogy lab. Another hires
retired people to walk her dogs so that she can get to her trainer. Others,
desperate, rush harsh. Many people’s kids climb in. Many pets assert the
dominion of their drives. There’s stretching and the taking of medicine.
There’s accounting and anxious text checking. There’s scanning for bossy
emails and preconceptions. Lists get made. For some, there is breakfast.
Once spring rolls around there is running before the heat and catching
the first shift sitting outside the punk bakery to smoke, drink coffee, and
“break each other’s balls” before work does what work does. I asked them
about this phrase once and sparked a debate about whether it is properly
“break” or “bust.” Whatever, Professor, they laughed, yanking your chain,
busting your balls, don’t take it so serious!
Some people sleep in. Other people wake at the sun. Some people walk
into the house and see only the order in it. Some people serve other
people. Some use the quiet time to do the best things quiet time allows.
Some people waste it, which is not the opposite of using it well. When
I was little I had a task: to make coffee for the adults, measuring out the
Maxwell House, setting the breakfast table. Then I’d leave for school and
my early teachers would let me into the teachers’ lounge. A little troll
doll kid overhearing Allende, Planned Parenthood, and MLK. A confused
and sunny face taking in the voices and the concept of concepts, before
We write to what’s becoming palpable in sidelong looks or a consistency
of rhythm or tone. Not to drag things back to the land of the little judges
but to push the slow-mo button, to wait for what’s starting up, to listen up
for what’s wearing out. We’re tripwired by a tendency dilating. We make
a pass at a swell in realism, and look for the hook. We back up at the hint
of something. We butt in. We try to describe the smell; we trim the fat to
pinpoint what seems to be the matter here.
Words sediment next to something laid low, or they detour on a crazed
thought-cell taking off. I saw a woman standing on a sidewalk, chainsmoking
while she talked to a buff younger man. She was trying to get
him to give someone else a break because he means well or he didn’t
mean it. Maybe her son. “He don’t know no better.” She was hanging in
there, but the whole top half of her black hair was a helmet of white roots.
She was using her fast-thinking superpowers to run a gauntlet of phrases
and get out quick even though we all knew she was just buying time.
A thought hits at an angle. Subjects are surprised by their own acts. But
everyone knows a composition when they see one. A scene can become
a thing after only a few repetitions. At the Walmart in New Hampshire,
scruffy middle-aged men hang back at the register, letting their elderly
mothers pay. The men have a hint of sour and the abject; their mothers
are a worn autopilot. Women talk in the aisles about the local hospital; it’s
incapable; it misreads people, handing out exactly the wrong, killer drug.
The Hundreds is an experiment in keeping up with what’s going on.
Ordinaries appear through encounters with the world, but encounters
are not events of knowing, units of anything, revelations of realness, or
facts. Sometimes they stage a high-intensity tableau of the way things
are or could become; sometimes strangeness raises some dust. This work
induces form without relieving the pressure of form. It pushes and follows
histories out. It takes in signs and scaffolds. If our way is to notice
relations and varieties of impact, we’re neither stuffing our pockets with
ontology nor denying it: attention and riffing sustain our heuristics.
What draws affect into form is a matter of concern. Form, though, is not
the same thing as shape: and a concept extends via the tack words take.
Amplified description gets at some quality that sticks like a primary object,
a bomb or a floater. The image that comes to mind when you read
that (if images come to mind when you read) might not be what we’re
imagining — and we’re likely not imagining the same thing either. Collaboration
is a meeting of minds that don’t match. Circulation disturbs
and creates what’s continuous, anchoring you enough in the scene to pull
in other things as you go.
“Punctum” ought to mean whatever grabs you into an elsewhere of form.
There ought also to be a word like “animum,” meaning what makes an
impact so live that its very action shifts around the qualities of things
that have and haven’t yet been encountered. You can never know what
is forgotten or remembered. Even dormancy is a kind of action in relation.
Think about watching a dead thing, a thing sleeping, or these words.
Think about skimming as a hunger and defense against hunger. Think
about the physiological pressure of itching.
These prose poems come from a long poetic and noetic collaboration.
The project pays attention to the relation of scenes to form, observation
to implication, encounters to events, and figuration to what sticks in the
mind. To convert an impact into a scene, to prehend objects as movement
and matter, retains a scene’s status as life in suspension, the way an extract
in cooking conveys the active element in a concentrated substance
that comes in a small brown bottle. (This is vanilla. This is almond.) The
elaboration of heuristic form on the move points to pattern, patina, atmosphere:
the object world of vestiges that scatters bumpily across the
plane of what is also a vibrant tableau. But we get it: your eyes want a
place to land on. You want to know what happened when the glances
passed or where the train of a dark sentence will go. At different speeds
we move around the effects, causes, and situational membranes. As we
proceed we sift figurative types and object relations, seeking out the gists
of things. Our styles move in proximity to currents. We get distracted
sometimes. This is a practice of tightening and loosening the object-scene
in hundred-word swatches.
(B. Anderson 2009; Diaconu 2006; Fonagy and Target 2007; Ingold 2015;
Manning 2009; Massumi 2010; Quick 1998)
Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is author of Cruel Optimism and The Female Complaint, both also published by Duke University Press. Kathleen Stewart is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Ordinary Affects, also published by Duke University Press.
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