Cultural Studies

The Weekly Read

The Weekly Read for April 1, 2023 is Mendings by Megan Sweeney. Mendings tells an intimate story about family, selfhood, and the love and loss lodged in garments. Sweeney reflects on her childhood entanglement with her mother, her loss-filled relationship with her alcoholic father, and her attachment to the clothes that have mended her as she has mended them. She explores how clothing fosters communication and enables us to cultivate relationships with ourselves and with others, both living and deceased. In dialogue with other clothing lovers, writers, fiber artists, evolutionary biologists, historians, and environmentalists, Sweeney also foregrounds the entwinement of clothing, race, and gender as she considers the ethics and environmental effects of clothing consumption, the history of clothing in the US prison system, and the roles that textiles play as sources of creativity, artistry, and self-fashioning, even within conditions of constraint.

Mendings is a beautifully-illustrated, full-color book. If you enjoy this free online read, you might consider buying a print copy. During our Spring Sale (through April 17) it is 50% off, or only $13.50!

The Weekly Read is a weekly feature in which we highlight articles, books, and chapters that are freely available online. You’ll be able to find a link to the selection here on the blog as well as on our social media channels. Enjoy The Weekly Read, and check back next week for something new to read for free.

The Weekly Read

Cover of Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment by Hi'ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. White title centered and transparent with "the" centered left and transparent white subtitle to the right. Background features a blue tinged picture of girl eating ice cream in front of light blue, purple, pink, and orange/yellow blended background. Author name in all caps in blue along bottom.

The Weekly Read for February 4, 2023 is Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment by Hi′ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. In this fascinating book, Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses. Paige West calls it “a beautifully written, genre-bending contribution that is one of the only truly transdisciplinary books I have ever read.” From now until April 6, you can download it for free.

For a preview, catch Hobart’s interview on Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.

The Weekly Read is a weekly feature in which we highlight articles, books, and chapters that are freely available online. You’ll be able to find a link to the selection here on the blog as well as on our social media channels. Enjoy The Weekly Read, and check back next week for something new to read for free.

Q&A with Hunter Hargraves

hargraves headshot2022 hi-resHunter Hargraves is Associate Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Fullerton. His new book Uncomfortable Television examines how postmillennial television made its audiences find pleasure through discomfort, showing that televisual unease trains audiences to survive under late capitalism, which demands that individuals accept a certain amount of discomfort, dread, and irritation into their everyday lives.

In your introduction, you describe your book as “a historiography of television’s formal relationship to pleasure” (7). In layman’s terms, how would you summarize the project or main intervention of Uncomfortable Television? 

Uncomfortable Television examines why, as television’s key forms, genres, and viewing practices changed dramatically throughout the early twenty-first century, television also began to make us feel more uncomfortable. For most of the twentieth century, TV was popularly thought to be a family-friendly entertainment medium. Audiences found pleasure in the simple setups of a sitcom, for example, and knew when to laugh thanks to the canned laugh track. Or they would watch a police drama and know who to root for, since these programs had clearly defined heroes and villains. In the twenty-first century, however, we derive pleasure on TV from much darker affects and situations. We cringe at irritating and awkward protagonists. We binge series that depict frequent instances of sexual assault and racialized violence, occasionally asking audiences to show some degree of sympathy for these “antiheroes.” As television evolved throughout the 2000s and early 2010s to include more serialized narratives, more high-quality aesthetics, more legitimation from cultural elites, more fan cultures, and more programming in general, it used these changes to mask this shift in pleasure—that’s the thrust of the book’s intervention.

In addition to this historiography, Uncomfortable Television both argues for an attention to affect and performance in television studies and offers a critique of neoliberalism. How do you connect these cultural and political/economic components in your analysis?

With respect to the first part of this—the attention to affect and performance in television studies—it’s partly coincidental: as television changes in the 21st century, affect studies also begins to emerge as an interdisciplinary field, giving scholars across the humanities and social sciences new vocabularies to make sense of cultural texts. Within media studies, most of this engagement with affect tends to focus on film, however, which I attribute to television’s “low” commercial status; at the time, television was thought as formally too uninteresting and too simplistic to merit affective inquiry. I argue that television has always been invested in the production of affect, but its looser narrative structure means that this investment occurs on different terms. In the book’s first chapter, for example, I go even further back and look at the British cultural historian Raymond Williams’ canonical writings on television and on affect—what he calls “structures of feeling”—to diagram how television represents the habits, behaviors, and feelings of everyday experience.

As far as neoliberalism goes, the connection is a little more direct: late capitalism thrives on an uncomfortable viewer/consumer in part because it can offer costly solutions to alleviate this discomfort. Beyond this, however, the changes to society enacted by neoliberalism—the outsourcing of the welfare state to private institutions, the valorization of entrepreneurship despite the precarity it engenders, and the reorganization of consumer society around the individual rather than the nuclear family—all pave the way for the proliferation of discomfort. Targeting the individual viewer rather than the family unit, for example, means that producers are no longer required to make family-friendly content, since narrowcasting has enabled each member of the family to watch different programs on different devices, thus resulting in programming with less restrictions when it comes to profanity, sex, and violence. Television has consistently taught audiences how to adjust to new economic realities going as far back to its popularization in the 1950s, which was strongly connected to the development of a postwar consumer society and the middle-class, suburban lifestyle associated with the “American dream.” Uncomfortable Television argues that postmillennial television has a similar function, teaching its audiences how to live under the anxiety and precarity common to neoliberalism.

978-1-4780-1957-2Can certain forms of discomfort be productive, or otherwise preferable to or distinct from others? How might you distinguish become “uncomfortable” and “offensive,” for example?

Discomfort is tricky to dissect, in part because it is pretty subjective: in your example, what is uncomfortable for one viewer might be offensive to another viewer. (And I acknowledge how my own position as a queer White male influences my readings of discomfort throughout the book.) But because television criticism has expanded throughout the twenty-first century, encompassing blogs, think pieces, podcasts, and social media commentary, I think it becomes a lot easier to map the nuances of audience discomfort. Now, that doesn’t necessarily recoup it as fully productive: in the book’s first chapter, I look at HBO’s Girls and the celebrity persona of its creator, Lena Dunham, who is satirically characterized as an irritating and entitled millennial who just doesn’t have it together. Irritation is rarely thought of as “productive” because it is too minor to provoke serious action. But I read Girls as reclaiming irritation in all of its forms—such as trolling or calling out—as weapons of survival for millennials in an economy stacked against them, which can result in fundamentally strange and contradictory feelings of joy and pleasure.

You assert that “television is a medium fundamentally of the present” (8). Can you expand on this distinction between television and other forms of media and on their differing temporalities/relationships to time?

Within television studies, TV has been historically thought of as a “medium fundamentally of the present” because of its liveness, since for the first half of its history its programming wasn’t easily archivable or replayable, aside from syndication and re-runs. This is why so many of the programs that garner high ratings over the past twenty years—sports and big reality competitions—rely on an unspoiled viewer watching live, despite advances in recording technology. Beyond that, and more relevant to my book’s project, television’s scripted storylines also creep out across several seasons, making it hard to periodize easily. A stand-alone film that moves towards closure more easily reflects its time of production and release, whereas television can tell a story across several years or even decades, making it harder to categorize affectively. One aside I make in the book is that even though shows like Friends and ER were some of the most popular series of the 2000s, their episodic forms are of the 1990s, so that throughout their runs they present a mix of historically-specific affects that isn’t always recognizable at their moment of broadcast. In Uncomfortable Television’s conclusion, for instance, I look at discomfort from the perspective of when a program’s comedic style feels too dated or problematic for the current time. I use the example of blackface in 30 Rock, which audiences enjoyed ironically fifteen years ago but now is considered inappropriate; in fact, series creator Tina Fey pulled episodes containing blackface from streaming platforms following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprisings.

What’s your favorite television show (that would hold up under critical scrutiny, in your opinion), and what is your “guilty pleasure”?

This is hard, since I have so many favorites! Most of my recreational viewing actually falls into so-called “guilty pleasures”; I have a perverse interest in reality television, watching a lot of gamedocs like Big Brother and melodramas like the Housewives. Sometimes I think I became a scholar of television in part to rationalize my love of these programs and to subject them to the kind of critical scrutiny that still accounts for their many voyeuristic pleasures. But as far as more legitimated television goes, I tend to stan series that are invested in narrating the complexity of minoritarian experience—Paramount+’s The Good Fight might be my favorite drama from the past few years.

Read the introduction to Uncomfortable Television for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E23HRGRV.

New Books in January

New year, new books! Check out the great new titles we have coming out in January:

Cover of Wake Up, This is Joburg. The entire cover is a photograph of a Black woman on a street. She stands next to a red traffic light and behind her are a skyscraper and other people. The title is in bright yellow on top of the photo and in the upper left corner is the text Photographs by Mark Lewis, Words by Tanya Zack.

In Wake Up, This Is Joburg, writer Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis offer a stunning portrait of Johannesburg and personal stories of its residents, showing how its urban transformation occurs not in a series of dramatic, widescale changes but in the everyday lives, actions, and dreams of individuals.

Chérie N. Rivers shows how colonial systems of normalized violence condition the way we see and, through collaboration with contemporary Congolese artists, imagines ways we might learn to see differently in To Be Nsala’s Daughter.

In Code, Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan traces the shared intellectual and political history of computer scientists, cyberneticists, anthropologists, linguists, and theorists across the humanities as they developed a communication and computational-based theory that grasped culture and society in terms of codes.

Cover of Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing by Lee Edelman. Cover is bright yellow with lettering in red and black and features an image of a marionette in black professor's garb, holding a pointer.

Lee Edelman offers a sweeping theorization of queerness as one of the many names for the void around and against which the social order takes shape in Bad Education.

Jennifer Lynn Kelly explores the significance of contemporary solidarity tourism in Palestine/Israel in Invited to Witness, showing how such tourism functions both as political strategy and emergent industry.

In River Life and the Upspring of Nature, Naveeda Khan examines the relationship between nature and culture through the study of the everyday existence of chauras, the people who live on the chars (sandbars) within the Jamuna River in Bangladesh.

Drawing on fieldwork in a Chinese toxicology lab that studies the influence of toxins on male reproductive and developmental health, Janelle Lamoreaux investigates how epigenetic research conceptualizes and configures environments in Infertile Environments.

Cover of On Learning to Heal or, What Medicine Doesn't Know by Ed Cohen. The cover is a mint rectangle with a white border. The title is in brown in the center with the word Heal in read. The subtitle lies below and a horizontal line separates the subtitle from the author's name (in captial brown text). At the bottom-center of the page, lies a red snake around a pole.

In On Learning to Heal, Ed Cohen draws on his experience living with Crohn’s disease—a chronic, incurable condition that nearly killed him—to explore how modern Western medicine’s turn from an “art of healing” toward a “science of medicine” impacts all whose lives are touched by illness.

Joseph C. Russo takes readers into the everyday lives of the rural residents of southeast Texas in Hard Luck and Heavy Rain, showing how their hard-luck stories render the region a mythopoetic landscape that epitomizes the impasse of American late capitalism.

Josen Masangkay Diaz interrogates the distinct forms of Filipino American subjectivity that materialized from the relationship between the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and Cold War US anticommunism in Postcolonial Configurations.

In The Spectacular Generic, Cori Hayden explores how consumer access to generic drugs has transformed public health care and the politics of pharmaceuticals in the global South.

Cover of The Specter of Materialism: Queer Theory and Marxism in the Age of the Beijing Consensus by Petrus Liu. Cover is of an abstract creature sitting with its legs folded under it, its left hand raised with a trail of items falling from its wrist. The creature is a collage resembling magazine cutouts. Its head is oddly shaped with large eyes and lips, and a large detached hand adorned with rings rests atop it.

Petrus Liu challenges key premises of classic queer theory and Marxism in The Specter of Materialism, turning to an analysis of the Beijing Consensus—global capitalism’s latest mutation—to develop a new theory of the political economy of sexuality.

In Uncomfortable Television, Hunter Hargraves examines how postmillennial television made its audiences find pleasure through discomfort, showing that televisual unease trains audiences to survive under late capitalism, which demands that individuals accept a certain amount of discomfort, dread, and irritation into their everyday lives.

Lara Langer Cohen excavates the long history of the underground in nineteenth-century US literature in Going Underground, showing how these formations of the underground can inspire new forms of political resistance.

Cover of Vanishing Sands: Losing Beaches to Mining by Orrin H. Pilkey, Norma J. Longo, William J. Neal, Nelson G. Rangel-Buitrago, Keith C. Pilkey, and Hannah L. Hayes. Cover is a photograph of a mining site from an aerial view featuring haul trucks, gray sand dunes, and a turquoise pond.

Travelling from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to South America and the eastern United States, the authors of Vanishing Sands, Orrin H. Pilkey, Norma J. Longo, William J. Neal, Nelson G. Rangel-Buitrago, Keith C. Pilkey, and Hannah L. Hayes, track the devastating environmental, social, and economic impact of legal and illegal sand mining over the past twenty years.

Vincanne Adams takes the complex chemical glyphosate—the active ingredient in Roundup and a pervasive agricultural herbicide—to explore the formation of contested knowledge in Glyphosate and the Swirl.

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New Books in December

As the weather cools and the holiday season approaches, treat yourself to one of our great new December titles!

Cover of On Paradox: The Claims of Theory by Elizabeth S. Anker. Cover features the title in large all-caps blue font against a plain white background.

In On Paradox, Elizabeth S. Anker contends that the faith in the logic of paradox has been the watermark of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century, showing how paradox generates the very exclusions it critiques and undercuts theory’s commitment to social justice.

Piro Rexhepi explores the overlapping postsocialist and postcolonial border regimes in the Balkans that are designed to protect whiteness and exclude Muslim, Roma, and migrant communities in White Enclosures.

The contributors to Turning Archival, edited by Daniel Marshall and Zeb Tortorici, trace the rise of “the archive” as an object of historical desire and study within queer studies and examine how it fosters historical imagination and knowledge.

In Feltness, Stephanie Springgay considers socially engaged art as a practice of research-creation that germinates a radical pedagogy she calls feltness—a set of intimate practices of creating art based on touch, affect, relationality, love, and responsibility.

Cover of Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Music Writiers Tell Their Stories by Willard Jenkins. Cover features pink spotted border on left with purple background to the right. Various sized rectangles across the center feature pictures of hands, somone writing, and instruments. Orange subtitle is bottom-right of images, white title is above, and word US in captial pink. Author's name is below-right images in yellow.

Ain’t But a Few of Us, edited by Willard Jenkins, presents over two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists who discuss the barriers to access for Black jazz critics and how they contend with the world of jazz writing dominated by white men.

In Poverty and Wealth in East Africa, Rhiannon Stephens offers a conceptual history of how people living in eastern Uganda have sustained and changed their ways of thinking about wealth and poverty over the past two thousand years.

Examining a wide range of photography from across the global South, the contributors to Cold War Camera, edited by Thy Phu, Erina Duganne, and Andrea Noble, explore the visual mediation of the Cold War, illuminating how photography shaped how it was prosecuted and experienced.

In Memory Construction and the Politics of Time in Neoliberal South Korea, Namhee Lee explores how social memory and neoliberal governance in post-1987 South Korea have disavowed the revolutionary politics of the past.

Cover of New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair by Jasmine Nichole Cobb. Cover is red with black and white lettering and features a historical picture of a Black woman in a low-cut dress in the middle. Where her hair would be is a collection of black brush strokes so that she looks like she is wearing a large wig or hat. Underneath her image, upside down, text reads "the strange sit-in that changed a city."

Through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness in New Growth.

The contributors to New World Orderings, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, demonstrate that China’s twenty-first-century rise occurs not only through economics and state politics, but equally through its relationships and interactions with the Global South.

Focusing on his personal day to day experiences of the “shelter-in-place” period during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberto Moreiras offers a meditation on intellectual life and the nature of thought under the suspension of time and conditions of isolation in Uncanny Rest.

Cover of Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration, Race, and Urban Nature in Berlin by Bettina Stoetzer. Cover is a photograph focused on a small patch of a yellow flower bush. In the background past the bush is an out of focus bridge with a yellow train on it. The sky is blue.

In Ruderal City, Bettina Stoetzer traces the more-than-human relationships between people, plants, and animals in contemporary Berlin, showing how Berlin’s “urban nature” becomes a key site in which notions of citizenship and belonging as well as racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities become apparent.

Veit Erlmann examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry in Lion’s Share, showing how copyright is inextricably entwined with race, popular music, postcolonial governance, indigenous rights, and the struggle to create a more equitable society.

Rumya Sree Putcha uses the figure of the Indian classical dancer to explore the complex dynamics of contemporary transnational Indian womanhood in The Dancer′s Voice.

In Feminism in Coalition Liza Taylor examines how U.S. women of color feminists’ coalitional collective politics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is an indispensable resource to contemporary political theory, feminist studies, and intersectional social justice activism.

Cover of Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment by Hi'ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. White title centered and transparent with "the" centered left and transparent white subtitle to the right. Background features a blue tinged picture of girl eating ice cream in front of light blue, purple, pink, and orange/yellow blended background. Author name in all caps in blue along bottom.

Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi in Cooling the Tropics, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses.

The contributors to Siting Postcoloniality, edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau, reevaluate the notion of the postcolonial by focusing on the Sino-sphere—the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with China throughout history.

Rupal Oza follows the social life of rape in rural northwest India to reveal how rape is a language through which issues ranging from caste to justice to land are contested in Semiotics of Rape.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

A Playlist for Marcus Boon’s The Politics of Vibration

Marcus Boon is Professor of English at York University, author of In Praise of Copying and The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, and coauthor of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism. His new book The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice explores music as a material practice of vibration in which different historical and geographical scenes, negotiating the political limits of the worlds they inhabit, attempt to creat a vibrational space of individual and collective transformation.

The Politics of Vibration sets out new ways of thinking about what music is. It proposes that music should be thought of as the generation of particular types of vibrational space. The book focuses on the work of three musicians who produce such vibrational spaces—they might seem to belong to very different worlds: Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, Swedish drone composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, and Houston based hip hop originator of the chopped and screwed sound, DJ Screw. What these musicians have in common is an interest in slowing music—and therefore time—down. When you slow music and time down, you start to become aware of space, vibrational space. You also start to exit the dominant time regime—which is where, perhaps surprisingly, the politics of vibration comes in. Following Isabelle Stengers I use the word “cosmopolitics” to describe the kinds of political disputes that ensue concerning the ontology of music. And following my mentor, Catherine Christer Hennix, I consider what kinds of music, sound and vibration are permissible in a society? In other words, what music is allowed to be.

If you are exposed to the richness of vibrational space via music, your sense of ontology changes—vibrational space gathers scenes, musical scenes around it, the way a flower gathers bees in the summertime. These scenes can tell us something about how to live, how we might live, according to what is most valuable, what transforms us. That’s the wager of my book. I’m not sure to capture all of that in a video clip, but it’s all there in probably my favorite film about music, Mani Kaul’s 1983 Dhrupad, an experimental documentary about the Indian Dhrupad masters, the Dagar Brothers:

Composing a playlist for my book is a challenging thing to do because the vibrational spaces in which music’s power unfolds cannot be reduced to recordings or YouTube clips (although those things may play a role!). Nonetheless, recordings can point us in important directions — and as with DJ Screw or the Jamaican dancehall scene that Julian Henriques explored in wonderful detail in his book Sonic Bodies—powerful vibrational spaces can be created around recordings. This is captured wonderfully in John Akomfrah’s 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs about the Black community in Handsworth, UK, for example in this clip of the mighty Jah Shaka sound system:

I didn’t set out to write a book about slow music, but Pandit Pran Nath, Catherine Christer Hennix and DJ Screw all make music that is slow: Pran Nath’s focus on the alaap section of the raga, Hennix’s drones and Screw’s chopped and screwed mixtapes are all concerned with slowing time down and what happens when you do this, something psychotropic, something in which a new kind of space—vibrational space—opens up to perception. That space is not there only for slow music—but slowing things down can help us attune ourselves to its existence.

In terms of a slowed down sound, it’s worth listening to Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher/guru, master of the Kirana gharana, Abdul Wahid Khan. Waheed Khan was a reclusive man and not many recordings by him exist. One of the recordings he made for All India Radio is here:

Singer Salamat Ali Khan said of him that “he would begin to improvise in Lahore, and you could travel to Delhi and back, and he would still be improvising.” According to master sarod-player Ali Akbar Khan, when most singers went to the radio station, they would sing their ragas and go home. Abdul Wahid Khan would continue for another 20 hours or so. Once, a disciple asked Abdul Wahid Khan why he only sang two ragas, Todi, a morning raga, and Darbari, an evening raga. Abdul Wahid Khan responded that he would have dropped the latter, if the morning would last forever.

You can hear Wahid Khan’s style if you listen to maybe his most famous student Hirabai Barodekar — and you can hear it when you listen to Pandit Pran Nath — for example his remarkable version of Raga Malkauns, as recorded by minimalist OG La Monte Young in 1976 in New York:

Note the rich and dense sound of the tamburas—recorded in such a way that minimalism and rock are somehow there even as the recording stays true to tradition. For Pandit Pran Nath music’s core was a matter of practice, of taking care of the voice and of attunement to the raga’s unfolding in the contingency and necessity of the moment. Probably the best way to start understanding Pran Nath’s approach to music is via William Farley’s beautiful short 1986 documentary In Between the Notes: A Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath, with its scenes of Pran Nath practicing in various places outdoors.

Swedish composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, whose work is discussed in chapter 2 of the book, was instructed by Pran Nath to continue her research into the mathematical and other possibilities of vibrational space, as her musical contribution. Her most famous recording, The Electric Harpsichord, made in 1976 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm during her ten day festival of sounds, is apparently built around the scale for Raga Multani—but it exists in a very different sound world to traditional Indian music:

In my years of conversations with Hennix, I gradually came to understand an entirely new kind of philosophy of music that she was setting out—and I try to track that in my book in both the chapter on her sound works, and the chapter entitled “Music and the Continuum.” I can’t really unpack it all here, but fundamental to the book is the idea of target states, something that Hennix discusses: music can aspire to states of elevation, spiritual transformation that are both individual and collective. While many musicians and listeners might agree with that, Hennix has pursued the question of whether there are particular kinds of logic, practice or musical procedure that can generate these states – in fact that for her is a meaningful definition of composition, a “Deontic Miracle” to use the name of one of her bands from the 1970s … “deontic” … a set of logical rules governing an ethics of permission and/or prohibition … “miracle” … something that happens despite its impossibility … “deontic miracle” … a set of logical rules that generate a miracle. You can hear this at work in this 2014 live recording of Hennix’s Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage performing Blues Alif Lam Mim—but you have to listen through and allow the sound to open up and engage you:

While Hennix insists that it is only perhaps a very limited number of musics that actually pursue these ideas with complete rigor—my own feeling is that all music worth the name pursues this kind of “deontic miracle” to varying degrees. It doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of advanced mathematics—it requires the ability to improvise a sonic or vibrational pattern out of the social, political and environmental possibilities of the moment in such a way that it moves people. The idea that there are mathematical aspects to such improvisation is an intriguing one—and in the chapter “Music and the Continuum” I pursue the idea by comparing Hennix’s ideas with those of Guerino Mazzola, whose epic book The Topos of Music presents an expansive and nuanced take on music and mathematics—and through thinking about Julian Henriques aforementioned work in Sonic Bodies, in which he explores the various vibrational bandwidths involved in a successful Jamaican sound system session. From this I develop the mathematical/philosophical idea of a topos as a model for vibrational space—a space in which transformations can happen. I look at different musics, from Philip Corner’s metallophone experiments, to waterfalls, Keiji Haino’s sound experiments, Sri Karunamayee’s impossible singing scales, to raga folk guitarist Peter Walker’s recent performances and the Toronto based Prince cover band Snow in April.

I love this footage of Walker from 2009—a music that is all improvisational nuance and a beautiful example of what Mazzola means when he talks about music as involving a gestural topos, the music not just the notes, but the gestures which are the necessary condition of the sounds that emerge. Indeed: emerges, in the sense that Walker himself looks surprised and delighted when certainly note sequences occur, and sometimes looks towards the audience to see if they heard it too. For listening is gestural too.

Juxtaposing Houston based DJ Screw with Pandit Pran Nath and Catherine Christer Hennix might seem like a strange thing to do. Honestly, these were the sounds that I found myself listening to again and again over the last decade—and it is only when I started to write about Screw that I started to feel the connections and commonalities in terms of a slowed down sound, a radical experiment with time and vibration, and a very underappreciated one, thus also one with its own politics. Screw was a hip hop DJ, and used the variable speed controller on his turntables and cassette recorder to slow the music he played down. Screw created vibrational spaces … they appear like a miracle when he slows things down — listen for example to the stunning mix he made of Erykah Badu’s “Otherside of the Game:”

It might seem like for Screw, whose almost entire oeuvre consists of a series of 300 plus mixtapes, music was “nothing but the recordings,” yet the gatherings of MCs nightly in the “wood room” of his house in south side Houston in the 1990s also generated a powerful vibrational space that was then transmitted to the massed car stereos of Texas, slowing down time under the most hostile and racialized conditions. In terms of long form slowed music, Screw’s most famous track the 37 minute collective freestyle often just known as “June 27th” on the mixtape Screw made for Demo Sherman on his birthday in 1996 has a powerful sense of social space as vibrational space:

These are all tracks about time, about time that gets suspended, stretched, or compressed, as Fred Moten says in his essay “Black Topological Existence,” into a “topological existence” based on “a mechanics of distress”. That’s particularly the case with Screw’s version of UGK’s “One Day”—especially the 14 minute version to be found on Chapter 70, Endonesia, with its reciting of many friends and family deceased, doing time or elsewhere.

Those who want to know more should read Lance Scott Walker’s excellent new biography of Screw, or his oral history of Houston hip hop, Houston Rap Tapes.

There’s maybe no easy exit to space the way the white avant gardes tried to imagine it. But that then is the politics of vibration as someone like Sun Ra meant when he said “space is the place”. In fact, I don’t think there’s an easy exit to space for anyone — powerful though variable chains, mental and otherwise, block this for all of us today, and thus we have music in the reified and packaged state that we mostly experience it as. But music can be and often is a project for undoing this, and that is what the musicians in my book do. In my book, I conclude with some lessons learnt by talking with and listening to Canadian indigenous hiphop crew until recently named A Tribe Called Red, now known as The Halluci Nation. Listen to their synthesis of electronics, sound system culture and traditional indigenous pow wow music, as on “Electric Pow Wow Drum” with its Cree war cry and pow wow rhythms from their first record:

Bear Witness, a member of the crew, reminds us that music sound and vibration emerge from the land, from our own living heartbeats no matter how this is obscured in settler colonial cultures. That is what we mean by cosmopolitics and music as a cosmopolitical practice. We all come to music from different positionalities, and in a sense all human societies improvise the object/event called music out of the environment’s possibilities. This is true of traditional musics—but it is also prospectively true, in the sense that new arrangements, new articulations can and will happen, and our work (and joy) is to amplify and deepen the possibility of those new sounds and the forms of life that gather around them.

You can order The Politics of Vibration for 30% off with coupon E22BOON.

A Playlist to Accompany No Machos or Pop Stars by Gavin Butt

Gavin Butt is  Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, author of Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963 and coeditor of Post-Punk Then and Now. His new book No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Here he offers a playlist to accompany the book.

The Three Johns were one of my favorite bands in the mid-1980s. Hailing from Leeds, this late period post-punk outfit held my teenage imagination because they made beatbox-driven, Captain Beefheart-esque music with lyrics that as a burgeoning young Marxist I really got lost in. My head was full of the fictions etched in lead singer John Hyatt’s sometimes opaque and absurd, other times more directly political lyrics. “Oh the mob expects malnutrition,” Hyatt sings, “Robots are guarding that old ribcage fashion / Flamin’ torches, pick axe handles / Looking down the water-cannon of pop music,” before then going on to chorus “Rock and roll, rock and roll, rock n roll / is an ideological product” and – genius I thought – “Rock and roll is pop music / For the credit card hospital.” I really loved the irony of these lines. The Johnnies were holding up their sullied hands, signalling how the capitalist entertainment business could be treacherous and betray the intentions of even the most ardent Lefty rockers.

TRACK 1: The Three Johns, Sun of Mud, 1984

But I wasn’t drawn to The Three Johns solely because of their avowed political stance, nor even simply because I liked jumping around to their music, usually while drunk. They loomed large for me then because I also knew from reading the NME that two of the Three Johns went to art school. The art connection was unmistakably present on the band’s record covers which featured paintings by Hyatt, drawings by Jon Langford, and work by the post-conceptual British artist Terry Atkinson. Atkinson was then teaching in the Fine Art studios at the University of Leeds where Hyatt and Langford had been his students.

No Machos or Pop Stars explores the impact and significance of UK art education upon the course of popular music around the time of punk rock. Focusing upon the overlooked history of radical art school pedagogy and music in Leeds, the book shows how England’s state-funded education policy brought together art students from different social classes to create a fertile ground for musical experimentation. It delineates the conditions of possibility which birthed The Three Johns alongside Gang of Four, Delta 5, Soft Cell, Mekons, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget and other post-punk, electro-pop and art-punk bands – and ultimately shows the subversive influence of art school in a regional music scene of lasting international significance.

Students at the University of Leeds in the mid-1970s found themselves in a visual art department with an unusually radical outlook. Spearheaded by department chair, and social historian of art, T.J. Clark alongside feminist scholar Griselda Pollock and post-conceptual artist Terry Atkinson, such students were steeped in forms of critical thinking about art that soon found unlikely expression in music. After seeing the Sex Pistols and other punk bands at Leeds Polytechnic in December 1976, soon-to-be-members of Gang of Four, Mekons and Delta 5 started to make music that showed a debt to its art school origins.

TRACK 2: Gang of Four, At Home He’s a Tourist, 1979

‘At Home He’s Tourist’ was conceived and recorded at the same time as guitarist Andy Gill and vocalist Jon King were completing their history of art dissertations on Manet and Carl Andre respectively at the Leeds department. The thematic preoccupations of the song with alienated pleasures (“At home he feels like a tourist / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer”), alongside its “dislocated” musical composition, bears the imprint of social analyses by Marx and Simmel read by members of the band at the time. As Gill has said: “A lot of the ideas that we talked about, that TJ Clark was talking about […] informed the attitudes and words of Gang of Four.”

TRACK 3: Scritti Politti, Skank Block Bologna, 1978

Meanwhile, Green Gartside, then a student of visual art at nearby Leeds Polytechnic, took the link between critical theory and music production even further. Influenced by the conceptual art collective Art & Language, he took it upon himself to read the work of theorists and philosophers not included in the studio teaching of the university’s sister organisation. Staying away from his studio space for long periods of time, preferring instead the sanctuary of the library or his student flat, Gartside sought to inform himself of the intellectual resources to question the habitual beliefs that surrounded art-making in the mid-seventies. After punk, and joined by fellow art student Tom Morley and old friend Nial Jinks, he founded band Scritti Politti which soon took this theorising from art to music. The band’s first single, the dissonant Skank Bloc Bologna, can be heard as a musical expression straining to find the language to represent – and hold together – the tensions and contradictions of revolutionary agency as theorised in the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The song flirts with different musical genres, without committing wholeheartedly to any single one: there is a rudimentary dub feel to the rhythm, to the looping bass and rimshots, but the insistent use of the open “hi-hat” (actually empty metal film cans), the unruly almost maniacally untutored glockenspiel (or what sounds like a glockenspiel), even some anomalous rock fills, create the sense of a rhythm section at odds with itself. This is even before we consider the angular-sounding chords strummed on the guitar which, on beat one, all but obliterate any skanking stroke on beats two and four. This is confusing, our expectation frustrated. Skanking, at least, appears to be at the song’s titular heart.

TRACK 4: The Mekons, Never Been in a Riot, 1979

The Mekons and Delta 5 took the art school preoccupation with formal experimentation in a slightly different direction – to the social form of the band itself. In a bid to eschew the single white male authorial voice, the Mekons decided to sport two vocalists rather than one; on the understanding, presumably, that more than one singer (or leader) secured a greater likelihood of remaining open to dissent and difference, even though effectively resulting in more white frontmen. Similarly, Delta 5 attempted to de-emphasise singular band members and the hero-worship which could follow from it by habitually swapping roles in live performances of songs like Triangle, where Julz Sale and Ros Allen would often switch places between vocals and bass playing. This was also a feature of early Gang of Four performances of tracks like ‘It’s Her Factory’.

TRACK 5, Delta 5, Triangle (John Peel session)

Destroying traditional rock band formats was an important feminist priority in the Leeds milieu. Allen has said: “Bethan (Peters) and I noted that most women who were involved [in rock bands], if they weren’t the singer, they were the bass player. We wanted to play on that by having two basses: Ros was a bass player, and Bethan was a bass player […] We wanted to take the piss out of the fact that nearly every punk band, or band around, that had a female in it, always played the bass.” Allen wanted her bass so deep that “it made you fart” when it came out of the amplifier she further recalls. Playing off a “toppy” bass against a “bottom-y” one became trademark Delta 5 sound.

TRACK 6: Delta 5, Alone, 1980

‘Alone’ was a live favourite and never released as a studio recording. The insistent assertion of a female need to be alone resonated darkly in the context of the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror in West Yorkshire in the 1970s. The late Jules Sale recalled that “the first time that we played it, Andy Gill (of Gang of Four) said afterwards to change it, because it initially ended up on a hysterical note. He said you’ve got to bring it down. So that you’re not this hysterical woman. And that’s one of the best things that Gill said.” This is a recording of a performance at Hurrah in New York in 1980.

TRACK 7: Fad Gadget, Diminished Responsibility, 1981

The pedagogy of the Fine Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic drew more heavily upon European models of early-twentieth century avant-gardism than that at the university. Students who studied there were encouraged to explore the aesthetics of shock and surrealist collage, especially through forms of intermedia or performance art. To aid students in this, Polytechnic facilities included a small sound studio and performance area – somewhat unusual for a 1970s UK art college. Students that used these resources included Frank Tovey, later to become known as electro-industrial music pioneer Fad Gadget, and Dave Ball and Marc Almond who formed pop duo Soft Cell at the Fine Art Christmas Party in December 1979. ‘Diminished Responsibility’, released sometime after Tovey graduated from Leeds on 1981 album Incontinent, continues the ethos of Tovey’s experiments with unsettling drone-based sound continua whilst making performance art at the Polytechnic. Tovey was interested in the power of music and performance to shock and unsettle, and the pulsing sense of electronic unease evident here is enhanced by mechanised and whispering voices, sudden canon and gunshot sounds, and the calls to action of militaristic music and a sergeant major. The horror of diminished military responsibility?

TRACK 8: Soft Cell, The Girl with the Patent Leather Face, 1981

An early demo version of this Soft Cell track was recorded in the Leeds Polytechnic sound studio and engineered in their tutor John Darling’s home studio in Yorkshire. The song lyrically luxuriates in empathic ventriloquy of the song’s mutant heroine: “You can laugh, point at me / They do it all the time / But how would you like it if you had / A face like mine” sings Marc Almond, from the “Girl’s” point of view. The song starts with a note of sci-fi horror but it soon becomes apparent that the true horror here is the treatment the song’s protagonist receives from the normals (“A target for the freaks and creeps / A reject of the human race”). Almond’s vocals are accompanied by Dave Ball’s buzzing electronics and manipulated sounds.

TRACK 9: Graeme Miller & Steve Shill (aka The Commies From Mars)

In the 1981 BBC television documentary A Town Like New Orleans? Miller and Shill appear as The Commies From Mars, driving around post-industrial Leeds in their Morris Minor Traveller. They seem like spirit-guides for that time and place, providing its soundscape in oddball, Casio-inflected DIY electronica. Shill was a fine art student at the university, one-time bass player for art school outfit Sheeny and the Goys, and Miller studied Spanish. They made music together as the Commies but also for the theatrical productions of Impact Theatre Cooperative, of which they were members. This recording comes from the soundtrack recorded by the duo for children’s TV programme The Moomins, first screened in the UK in 1983. The track was released on vinyl by Finders Keepers in 2016.

TRACK 10: Ron Crowcroft, Gogo dancer, 1981

Crowcroft was influenced by Fluxus artists whilst an art student at Leeds and this continued to be evident in the electronic music he began to make after graduating in the early 1980s. ‘Gogo Dancer’’s charm lies in its repetitive, almost roboticized simplicity – all achieved through DIY use of cheaply available electronic instruments and pre-set drumlines. Originally released on a cassette compilation Overarm Delivery, VEC Audio Editions No. 10, 1981, it found distribution through the sharing possibilities of early eighties cassette culture, thereby by-passing the need for record companies to achieve a “release.”

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Jean-Luc Godard and the Shock of the New Wave

Jean-Luc Godard passed away on September 13, 2022. Eric Smoodin, author of Paris in the Dark, is an expert on French film culture and offers this guest post in remembrance. Smoodin is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and also author of Regarding Frank Capra and coeditor of Looking Past the Screen.

“The camera is a living being…unstable…it’s a body trying to keep its balance……and this imbalance is the very sign of life.” That was how Pierre Marcabru, writing in Combat in March 1960, described À Bout de souffle in his perplexed, admiring, and not always positive review of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film. When Godard died last month, he left a body of work that had transformed the cinema, and he was acknowledged as one of the most important filmmakers of the last sixty years. But how was he understood at the very beginning of his career, a career so intertwined with the start of the New Wave, and so connected to a belief, among critics in France, filmmakers, and quite possibly the public, that French cinema had just been unalterably changed?

Despite the extensive bibliography about Godard and his work, the available evidence is hard to come by, at least for film historians working in the United States. Of the Bibliothèque nationale’s vast online holdings, the only daily from the period that readily can be accessed is Combat, which had been founded during the war as a Resistance newspaper, but that despite its interest in politics always gave a great deal of space to the cinema. It’s difficult to generalize from Combat, but the newspaper certainly paid attention to Godard, even before À Bout de souffle opened in Paris, perhaps a sign of the young filmmaker’s place in French film culture broadly.

A clipping from a newspaper article in French.
“A sour, aggressive…razor-sharp film.” Pierre Marcabru’s review of À Bout de souffle in Combat, March 19, 1960.

In Combat at the time, Godard typically would be mentioned in relation to the New Wave and to other young filmmakers, often as one among many and then increasingly as the first among equals. In July 1959, for instance, the newspaper’s headline acknowledged a sort of aggressive attack by a group of new directors and screenwriters; “No Respite for the New Wave’s Assault on Cinema.”  In Combat’s telling, these cineastes—all of them men—“reflected the phenomenon of the New Wave in cinema.” Combat named many of them, the movies they had made, and also how old they were. The list is familiar to us now—Claude Chabrol, 28 years old, Le Beau Serge (1958), and François Truffaut, 27 years old, Les 400 Coups (1959), for example. But it also contains names and films mostly unknown so many years later—Jean-Pierre Mocky, 30 years old, Les Dragueurs (1959), and Claude Bernard-Aubert, 28 years old, Les Tripes au soleil (1959). In this narrative, Godard is very much in the second wave of the New Wave, “among the new names on the horizon” yet to make a first feature, along with Jacques Demy and Louis Malle.

Combat continued writing about these young, exciting filmmakers, including Godard, who by that time had only made some short films. In January 1960, still a few months before the premiere of À Bout de Souffle, Roger Tailleur lauded “a new generation of cineastes,” including Godard but also Marcel Hanoun, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Philippe de Broca, and many others.

By March, though, just a few days before À Bout de souffle opened, Godard and Truffaut had begun separating themselves, at least in Combat, from their contemporaries. The newspaper ran an interview with American producer Sam Spiegel, recently arrived in France, in order to frame the cinema as being in something of a generational conflict. The 58-year-old Spiegel, responsible for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and who was in preparation for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), came from a long line of hardened veterans who believed that, “after D.W. Griffith, the director had died,” replaced in importance by the movie producer. Combat then pointed out, though, that “nevertheless, he had come to Paris to see the films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, those “intellectuals from Cahiers du Cinéma whose theories of…film are…the opposite of his.”

A clipping from a newspaper article in French.
“A New Generation of Filmmakers,” including Godard, in Combat, January 23, 1960.

Just a few days later, À Bout de souffle opened at four very fashionable Parisian cinémas d’exclusivité, the Vivienne in the second arrondissement, the Balzac in the eighth, the Helder in the ninth, and Scala in the tenth. Godard’s premiere stood out as a notable event in the city, even though other films beginning that week point to the astonishing film culture in Paris at the time: Fritz Lang’s Les Contrebandiers de Moonflet (Moonfleet [1955]), Blake Edwards’ Opérations jupons (Operation Petticoat [1959]), and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), among others. Marcabru’s extensive review in Combat seemed to mirror the film itself, a series of jump cuts between emotions and reactions; “À Bout de souffle is a sour, aggressive film…a dry film with a prodigious contempt for human weakness…a razor-sharp film.” Marcabru tried to describe the experience of seeing a film that “comes towards us in fits and starts…the eye and ear never attached to continuity in vision and hearing,” providing us with a “cinema of tensions.”

After the shock of À Bout de souffle, Godard became the great star of the New Wave. Two weeks after the opening, Combat reported that the film had finished second to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), by one vote, for the best French film since September 1959 among the editors of the literary journal La Nouvelle Critique. The next month, Combat told readers that the Ministry of Affairs had chosen À Bout de souffle to represent France at the Cannes film festival, and then, in July, that Godard had won the best director prize at the Berlin film festival. Marcabru himself kept writing about the film, explaining in April 1960, in an article headlined Ethnologie et cinéma, that Godard was actually a sociologist, telling us more about human behavior than any expert in the field.

Combat now treated Godard, not yet thirty, as something of a mentor to other New Wave directors, and as an important model for young, serious filmmakers around the world. The newspaper wrote admiringly of the 29-year-old Jacques Demy making his first feature, Lola (1961), with “the blessing” of his “production advisor,” Jean-Luc Godard. Then, in an enthusiastic review of the just-released Shadows, an anonymous critic confidently explained that the technique of the film “was very close to that which Jean-Luc Godard utilized in À Bout de souffle,” asserting influence even though the director, John Cassavetes, had finished his 1958 film well before Godard had begun his.

A photo of three men filming in a vehicle from a French newspaper article. Two men hold camera equipment, while the third drives the car.
From Combat, April 4, 1960, Godard (in sunglasses) filming Le Petit Soldat in Geneva.

Godard consistently would be used to signify the ongoing health and vibrancy of the French cinema, and the terms here were those of continuity rather than the earlier “assault.” In August 1960, Jean-Louis Caussou reflected in Combat on “The New Film Season,” and viewed it as marked both by a welcome return of “the old guard,” with the opening of Abel Gance’s Austerlitz (1960), and by the spectacular new films by Godard, as well as Truffaut, Malle, and Claude Autant-Lara.

Combat began reporting on Godard’s second feature, Le Petit Soldat, in February 1960, even before his first, À Bout de souffle, had opened. By the time Godard had finished Le Petit Soldat, the film and the controversy around it had become a major news story. The Minister of Information, Louis Terrenoire, who oversaw the French film censorship commission, had banned this film about the Algerian war, largely because of the movie’s depiction of the French army’s use of torture against Algerian liberation fighters. Combat took up the commission’s decision in order to argue against censorship in general, and also saw Terrenoire’s action as the death knell of the New Wave, “putting an end to the ambitions of young directors who wish to bring to the screen something other” than the expected and the conventional.

Even more than Terrenoire, the man Combat named as most responsible for banning the film was Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the time a young member of the national assembly, Le Pen would become the leader of the anti-immigrant, antisemitic French ultra-right, a position now held by his daughter, Marine le Pen.  In 1960, Le Pen père demanded that Le Petit Soldat not be shown anywhere in France or elsewhere, and argued unsuccessfully that Godard himself should be expelled from the country.

A cartoon caricature of Minister of Information Louis Terrenoire.
Godard included his caricature of Minister of Information Louis Terrenoire in his article about censorship. Combat, September 22, 1960

Referring to the scenes that Terrenoire found objectionable, Combat quoted Godard as saying that “the instances of torture last three-and-a-half minutes in a 90-minute film, and therefore do not exceed that which is tolerated in detective, horror, science fiction, or spy films.” Then Combat enlisted Godard to provide a response to the controversy, and the director wrote both dismissively and humorously about the actions taken against his film. Godard insisted, first, that “I don’t think anything about censorship,” but then added that “we must say what we have to say, express what we feel without worrying about…censorship.” He went on that “if we really are of this century, we necessarily pose the problems of this century through stories,” while “censorship…aims to preserve principles fixed in the past.” Godard concluded that censorship is “like someone telling you, ‘I don’t like your belt, it’s shocking, take it off.’” Then, when you comply, “your pants fall down and that’s even more shocking…so you get put in jail.”

In just one year, at least in Combat, Godard had gone from one of many very promising young French filmmakers to a leading spokesperson for freedom of speech and expression. Reading through the newspaper’s reporting on Godard from that period, we can get a sense of the impact of his films, of the intense shock of the new. This is the recurring motif of Marcabru’s review of À Bout de Souffle, and, in fact, of so much of the writing about Godard in the decades that followed. “It is a new beginning of cinema,” Marcabru wrote. “It is crucial.”

Q&A with Donovan O. Schaefer

Donovan Schafer 5a (1)Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, also published by Duke University Press, and The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Study of Power. Schaefer’s new book is Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Examining the reception of evolutionary biology, the 1925 Scopes Trial, and the New Atheist movement of the 2000s, Schaefer theorizes the relationship between thinking and feeling by challenging the conventional wisdom that they are separate.

How does Wild Experiment, which is your second book, build on or diverge from your earlier book Religious Affects?

After writing Religious Affects, I had a lot of people tell me they were convinced by its core argument—that affect theory is an excellent lens for studying the relationship between religion and power. But it also ended up reaffirming a binary that I found troubling: the notion that religion is uniquely driven by affect, the emotional counterpart to secular rationality.

That’s not what I meant to put forward at all. I think affect theory offers what Lauren Berlant calls a “sensualized epistemology,” a way of defining the relationship between thinking and feeling, rather than just building out the study of feeling as a domain radically separate from thinking. So Wild Experiment goes much further than Religious Affects in setting out to show how what we think of as purely cognitive processes—including reason, science, and secular rationality—are determined by affect.

That said, a big part of what the book is up to is making the case that seeing thinking and feeling as connected doesn’t mean that we can’t learn, reflect, and build our understanding of the world around us. Knowledge-making is a process that’s shot through with affects, but as I argue in the Introduction, that’s both why it works when it works and why it gets pulled off course.

978-1-4780-1825-4_prIn your Introduction, and then throughout your book, you are interested in “the emotions that move thought” and “the way thinking feels” (3). Can you say a bit about how your book breaks down the thinking/feeling binary?

The thinking/feeling binary is what I think of as an “ambient” paradigm. It’s not necessarily something that scholars—or anyone else—says or writes down. They don’t have to. It saturates so much of our thinking that it’s everywhere, from academic monographs to social media feeds to chatting at the bar. Even some thinkers who push back on the priority of cognition will tend to reiterate the binary, reaffirming the value of the affective by assigning it priority over cognition. This is a syntax that informs a lot of affect theory, especially versions of affect theory that are most closely associated with the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

That doesn’t at all mean the binary is accepted across the board. The first half of the book is an extended survey of thinkers and literatures that push back on the binary from different directions. Some of that comes from within the Western philosophical tradition, but I’m especially interested in other strands of affect theory (especially as informed by queer of color theory), postcolonial critiques of secularism, science and technology studies, the post-critical turn in literary theory, and academic psychology. My hope is that putting all these conversations side by side builds a conceptual critical mass that will help destabilize the thinking/feeling binary.

In addition to being an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, you are also Core Faculty in the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. To what extent does this book contribute to or borrow from gender/feminist studies?

I realized after I had finished the book that it had actually started in a seminar I took in grad school on feminist epistemologies with Linda Martín Alcoff. That seminar highlighted the limitations of classical epistemologies that focus exclusively on the intellectual dimension of thought. Feminist epistemologists have been interested in how to connect thinking to embodiment for decades. And feminist epistemology, as I read it, is also centrally concerned with the question of how a belief comes to seem like an expression of impartial reason. Feminists wanted an explanation for why skewed knowledges were so effective at defending themselves with appeals to “reason.” What they found is that the composition of any given political rationality is always configured by a distinct set of historical coordinates. Every reason has a genealogy. Some feminists went further, showing that these genealogies were embodied and affective.

I also draw heavily on the longstanding interest among queer and trans theorists in desire, pleasure, and feeling. The version of affect theory I’m most interested in is a direct outgrowth of these central concerns of queer critique. One of the arguments I make in Chapter 2 is that Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, one of the foundational texts in queer theory, has actually been read through a prism that blocks some of its most compelling insights. Foucault spends a huge amount of time in that book elaborating what he calls “power-knowledge-pleasure.” That conceptual structure is foundational to the arguments he makes about science, politics, and sexuality. But it gets surprisingly little attention in the secondary literature, especially when Foucault is read outside of queer theory. One of my aims is to develop the conceptual link between science and feeling that has been of vital importance to queer science studies.

One of the book’s major concerns is race, and you engage with a range of figures coming from Black studies and queer of color theory to develop that analysis. What is “racialized reason”?

I’m interested in the question of how something comes to seem “reasonable” to some people in their time and place, and how oppressive regimes of knowledge are able to fortify themselves by appealing to “rationality.” Why does a racist society end up producing, validating, and recirculating racist science, for instance? I don’t think it’s adequate to say that racists create a well-packaged lie that none of them actually believe and put it into circulation to preserve existing hierarchies. I think racist ideas are genuinely believed by racists, even when they verge into absurdity. What I argue, building on queer of color theorists interested in affect, is that it’s because “reason” is not just the neutral analysis of ideas and information. It’s configured by a set of affective parameters that dictate what feels true. Racist structures of feeling configure “rationality” itself, setting the table for racist ideas to feel true.

This is where the constant Trumpist refrain of “fuck your feelings” comes from. White supremacists are able to present themselves as above the fray of “emotions” because what they call “rationality” has been fashioned within a white supremacist society. Their version of “reason” makes racist ideas feel true. Everyone who disagrees with them is dismissed as “emotional.” Sara Ahmed calls this whiteness as an orientation that is in frictionless alignment with the “white world.” The big lie underwriting all this, of course, is that what they call “rationality” has itself been configured by white supremacist structures of feeling. “Reason” has become racialized through its contamination by racist affects. So what they’re really saying is “fuck your feelings—but protect my feelings at all costs.”

Sharon Patricia Holland’s concept of racism’s “erotic life” has been a huge influence on me, too. Her work opened up for me a way of thinking about racism as something that doesn’t have to be associated with a set of functional or economic priorities. Part of what makes racism as intractable as it is—and why it’s so easy for neo-fascist movements to mobilize racism—is the pleasure dimension of racism that doesn’t necessarily reduce to a calculation of costs and benefits for racists. Constantly framing racism as an economic strategy awards way too much political intelligence to racists. Coming from another direction, Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s challenge to a particular Euro-modern definition of “Man” as that which is autonomous and unaffected is crucial for this project.

You talk about the prevalence of misinformation, and how people are compelled not by what is “true,” necessarily, but what “feels true” given what they have already come to know/believe. How might this insight inform the way that people engage with each other across gaps in understanding and differences of thought or values?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s a global crisis of communication happening right now. One of the dimensions of that crisis, as I see it, is that we still tend to assume that good information always floats to the top, that there’s an inevitable algorithm by which “truth will out.” What I propose, instead, is that we need to see the landscape of information as defined by feeling. That doesn’t mean we’re lost at sea. The work of better understanding ourselves and the world around us is an emotional process—and it succeeds because it’s guided by feeling, what Audre Lorde calls “consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with.” But we also need to recognize that sometimes beliefs are fastened in place because they feel good, regardless of whether they’re true. Conspiracy theory, I suggest in the book, is a perfect example of this. It’s a sprawling set of interconnected beliefs that are embraced—passionately—because they’re the most exciting possible interpretation of a situation. Conspiracy theories flourish in the social media age because they’re pitch-perfect clickbait. They explain the world in ways that are profoundly misleading—but feel good. They’re seductive ideas that people quite literally “want to believe.”

On the other hand, I think we also too often tend to assume that people are either “rational”—if they’re following what we consider the right ideas or evidence—or “irrational”—if they refuse. I don’t think that framing of the problem leads anywhere. The liberal fantasy of a rational public sphere—in which people are always and everywhere persuaded by better arguments, more evidence, more facts—is a myth; but it’s also a mistake to think that someone who isn’t persuaded by new information is fundamentally immune to facts. Both of those framings are ways of mapping persuasion according to the thinking/feeling binary. Being more thoughtful about persuasion means recognizing that persuasion is always about reshaping what feels true for someone. Understanding how that affective landscape is shaped by factors that are extrinsic to the content of what you’re saying to someone is crucial. But it’s also important to recognize that facts themselves are powerful tools of persuasion, especially when we consider how facts feel to people in different contexts and positions.

What do you hope that readers take away from Wild Experiment, if you had to sum it up in a tweet?

The thinking/feeling binary is a construct; it’s a construct with a history, but one that has been extraordinarily successful at presenting itself as a natural division. There’s no thinking that we do that isn’t affectively defined. We always feel our way along. And to understand the relationship of knowledge and power, we have to make feeling central to our analysis. As Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.”

Read the introduction to Wild Experiment for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E22SCHFR.

New Books in October

Fall is in full swing, so curl up with a hot drink, a cozy sweater, and a new book! Check out our October releases.

Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood is John D’Emilio’s coming-of-age story in which he takes readers from his working-class Bronx neighborhood and Columbia University to New York’s hidden gay male subculture and the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s. You can catch John D’Emilio discussing his book at the Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City later this month.

Exploring her attraction to tininess and the stories of those who share it, Barbara Browning offers a series of charming short essays that plumb what it means to ponder the minuscule in The Miniaturists.

Cover of No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk by Gavin Butt. Cover features a group of young people dressed up for a punk showing laughing together.

Gavin Butt tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds in No Machos or Pop Stars, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Butt will launch his book at an exciting event in Leeds this month, featuring performances by Scritti Politti and The Mekons77.

In Fragments of Truth, Naomi Angel analyzes the visual culture of reconciliation and memory in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Canada established in 2008 to review the history of the Indian Residential School system, a brutal colonial project that killed and injured many Indigenous children.

Drawing on the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Health Project, Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present in Black Disability Politics. Schalk launches her book at an event at the Ford Foundation in New York City on October 26.

In Changing the Subject, Srila Roy traces the impact of neoliberalism on gender and sexuality rights movements in the Global South through queer and feminist activism in India. Roy is speaking about her book at The New School and Columbia University later this month.

Filipe Maia offers a theological reflection on hope and the future in the context of financialized capitalism in Trading Futures, arguing that the Christian vocabulary of hope can provide the means to build a future beyond the strictures of capitalism.

Cover of The Promise of Multispecies Justice by Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey. Cover is green with black and white pictures of a plant between wire. Title sits top left in bold white with a light blue line underlinging it. Authors' names sit bottom right in white without bold.

Coming from the worlds of cultural anthropology, geography, philosophy, science fiction, poetry, and fine art, editors Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey and the contributors to this volume of The Promise of Multispecies Justice consider the possibility for multispecies justice and speculate on the forms it would take. The authors have developed a multimedia website where you can learn more about this collection.

In Health in Ruins, César Ernesto Abadía-Barrero assesses neoliberalism’s devastating effects on a public hospital in Colombia and how health care workers resisted defunding.

Jovan Scott Lewis retells the history and afterlife of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and its century-long legacy of dispossession in Violent Utopia, placing it in a larger historical and social context of widespread anti-Black racism and segregation in Tulsa and beyond.

In a new revised and expanded twentieth anniversary edition of his classic book Big Game, Small World, sportswriter Alexander Wolff travels the globe in search of what basketball can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about the game.

AnaLouise Keating provides a comprehensive investigation of the foundational theories, methods, and philosophies of Gloria E. Anzaldúa in The Anzaldúan Theory Handbook.

Nomenclature collects eight volumes of Dionne Brand’s poetry published between 1983 and 2010, as well as a new long poem, the titular Nomenclature for the time being.

In Obeah, Orisa, and Religious Identity in Trinidad, Volume I, Obeah, Tracey E. Hucks traces the history of the repression of Obeah practitioners in colonial Trinidad.

And in Obeah, Orisa, and Religious Identity in Trinidad, Volume II, Orisa, Dianne M. Stewart analyzes the sacred poetics, religious imagination, and African heritage of Yoruba-Orisa devotees in Trinidad from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

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