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Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look

On the first page of The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that “the right to look is the right to the real”– in other words, looking and being looked at in such a way that the autonomy of both parties is emphasized, and their existence is mutually acknowledged. In explicit dialogue with Frederic Jameson’s statement that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”, Mirzoeff is interested in how the right to look corresponds with the right (and ability) to be seen: for a struggle, person, or goal to be legitimized. An equal response can only happen when there is an exchange between people that is “mutual, each person inventing the other” (1).

The opposite of the right to look is visuality, which is a nineteenth century concept of the visualization of history. Visualization is used as an arm of power. It allows the association of power with authority to appear natural, and forecloses the ability to imagine other realities where power is communal or within the hands of someone else. Visuality has three key steps, which Mirzoeff returns to throughout the book: classifying, separating, and aestheticizing. It operates by categorizing individuals, removing their ability to identify with or cohere politically with each other, and then making this situation seem right or natural– “aesthetic”.

Categorization is key not only in dividing people from each other, but in deciding which categories are legitimate enough to be recognized in the first place. In his fifth chapter on imperial visuality, Mirzoeff notes that classifications of “civilized” and “primitive” originate at the same time as the new science of statistics, which allows for the conception of a normal (c.f. Davis). All subjects excluded from the normal entered the state of “imperial exception”, which legitimized extreme punishment of racialized and colonized subjects under the guise of “exceptional authority” (197).

He expands on visuality’s function as an extension of authority through examining the use of oversight in controlling enslaved people in Haiti/Saint Domingue. Oversight visualizes authority through the drawing of maps, as well as through more immediate forms of surveillance like watching over work processes. It also uses natural history to taxonomize people through racial categories and plants through the lens of “natural” vs “unnatural”, which was subverted by the widespread fear of poisoning among the overseers and plantation owners, whose own knowledge of the terrain and flora of Haiti was often lacking. The taxonomizing, observing, and enforcing of slavery used surveillance to sustain the plantation complex, and continues to shape the military-industrial complex in the modern day.

Aside from the parallels of his sections on imperialism with Davis’s observations about normalcy and disability, Mirzoeff’s work is also in dialogue with WJT Mitchell, whose argument that words and images are not distinct or separable he emphasizes. He mentions this in order to note imperialism’s interest in placing words above images, or making language the greatest mark of civilization and the determiner of civilized vs. primitive (15). His last chapter especially resonates with Shane Denson’s work on previsual reactions to new media technologies and “drone technologies” that exacerbate the separation between an operator’s actions and their results; Mirzoeff notes in his introduction that postmodern counterinsurgency “produces a visualized authority whose location not only cannot be determined from the visual technologies being used but may itself be invisible” (20). In both cases, this results in fragmentation and a continued justification for counterinsurgency. RGT’s emphasis on mutual staring fits in here, too, as they both reach the similar conclusion that for change to happen, there must be a mutually constituted and beneficial look that acknowledges both participants’ autonomy, whether it is a look or a stare. Finally, he mentions Barthes in his discussion of “realism”, which has two parallel definitions: the first, what is literally seen and reproduced via photography and other forms of technology (i.e. the realism of visuality), and the second (countervisuality) which reframes how reality should be understood. For Barthes, reality is an “effect”; for Mirzoeff, reality should be changed in order to delegitimize authority and use our efforts instead to further the survival of individuals and the planet.

WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

Mitchell argues that we are experiencing a “pictoral turn” which is actually a return to pictures as an interplay between people, institutions, and looking. It is the realization that spectatorship is as important as reading, and that images are not subservient to text. He believes that the best way to combat growing surveillance and propaganda images is with critique, and so his book is an attempt to explore the specifics of that critique: the nuances of pictures and how they relate to words, power, and surveillance. There are no “pure” arts, and pictures and words, while there are important distinctions between them, words and images are almost never totally separate. The only issue is that we still don’t know what pictures are, and how they affect the world. His initial definition of the picture is a concrete object that contains images, but as he admits throughout the book, the category can be much more complex.

Most of the middle of this book is taken up by defending the ability of images to function as importantly as text has usually been thought to. Pictures can create their own theory, as in pictures that show images being created like Las Meninas. If pictures can theorize their own nature, they can also help us to undiscipline ourselves and stop separating words and images. The importance of images as theory (as opposed to visual language that posits the truth as imageless) can be seen in the work of William Blake, as well as in photo essays that separate word and image and in doing so make sure that one is not seen as subservient to the other.

In this chapter on essays, he troubles “the aestheticizing response to what after all is a real person in desperately impoverished conditions”, in reference to Evans’ photos of people in the Great Depression. This strikes the same note as Sontag’s thoughts on war photography. However, Mitchell thinks this problem can be subverted by the way image and text are separated in Evans’ essay, preventing the reader/viewer from completely internalizing the subject and is in fact an ethical stance that gives its subjects privacy. Another essay he looks at in this section is Camera Lucida, which he argues is a rare example of an essay on photography that is also a photo essay. This is because Barthes’ images are not illustrating the text, but are given co-equality, sometimes not receive textual commentary, and even when they do not being reduced to examples for the text. Barthes is not mastering the photos, and he can’t take them; he’s an observer.

The last part of this book brings together Mitchell’s theory of images with his perspective on modern power dynamics. He expresses image power through two terms: illusionism, which is the power of suggestion or deception towards a subject, i.e. the spectacle (an ad), and realism, which is the power of surveillance directed at an object or a subject made “objective”, and which relies on an interchangeable “normative” subject, i.e. capacity (bureaucracy).Spectacle is an ideological form of realism, and realism is spectacle’s bureaucratic and disciplinary manifestation. The telescreen of 1984, and by extension the television, brings together illusionism and realism, offering propaganda and convincing arguments while also acting as a tool of surveillance. As he says in his first chapter, “[technologies] are altering the conditions under which human vision articulates itself” (24). This eliminates the boundary between the public and private sphere and decreases the resonance of usual oppositions (mass market vs avant garde, art vs camp, etc.), foreclosing possibilities for resistance. There is also a new “transparency” to images, as seen in the Rodney King beating and footage, which is made of “accidental” or non-professional images, as opposed to the smooth scheduling of other television, which is not opposed to transparency but helps enable it. He argues that this is a sign that we are moving from interpreting visual images to changing them, establishing a similar shift to that Denson identifies from cinema to post-cinema. This new visual culture has the potential to be used in service of “soft” fascism, but it might also be used for more critical images of the public sphere (369).

One main way he sees modern art creating this critical space is through destructible art, which is made to be destroyed or to be unmarketable. Although a lot of art resists this, and even more fails at it, there is the potential for self-destroying art to bring back the lost oppositions and re-organize the public vs. private issue. As he reminds us, the public is built on its exclusions, even when it is aesthetically inclusive (i.e. the statue of liberty in a country that disenfranchises women). Public art, while it has been said to be intrinsically violent, is based in either doing or representing violence; often it obscures the violence it is doing by appearing passive or static, while television foregrounds and exaggerates it. In addition, public art aspires to cinema; it wants to be photographed. This leads into a discussion of the contrasting visuals of the Vietnam War and Operation Gulf Storm, which were on the one hand focused on the human body and on the other focused on computerized images.

Mitchell describes his stance in the conclusion as a “de-disciplinary effort”: if literary studies wants to deal with media and mass culture, it can’t simply add it on to the existing framework. Instead, we have to find a new way of looking at images. He ends with the statement, “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, this may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). This is a pretty good summary of his stance towards contemporary media. Like Sontag, he is concerned about the potential for new media to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, and (to a limited extent) commercialization. However, he is much more interested in the importance of critique: if we can critique images, we can learn from them. He does not believe that we gain power over pictures by understanding what they are doing, but does believe in the investment in a “negative critical space” that reveals how little we still know about pictures and how they are ultimately, for most people, uncontrollable– which is why determining how they are used as an expression of power is vital.

A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms

This is one primary text I am using that doesn’t contain an explicit mention of sorrow or melancholy. I am mainly interested in it because of its associations with earth and the extended descriptions of decomposition it contains. I am interested in these things because the first is intimately tied together with melancholy in the medieval period, and the second provides a compliment to issues of metabolism that other sources I’ve read have discussed at length (Denson, Conner). Digestion of the human by the non-human is used to conjure up a memento mori, an “I was once like you” that is more personal because the reader is seeing the Body go through this process in real time. Even if the Body is not melancholy, the poem encourages melancholy reading by guiding the reader through someone else’s process of contemplation on mortality and suggesting that everyone should do something similar while alive. I would like to suggest, and perhaps go on to argue, that the melancholy of this poem is there, but it lies in the way it wants to be read and the emotions it wants to evoke.

Like the wound man (via Orlemanski), the Body while exceptional in her beauty and grotesqueness is not specific, her beauty is taken for granted by the poem and only gets three lines of description (and her decomposing body gets none, until the worms describe it). While I think her gender could prevent her from being a figure of the everyman, I’m not sure that it does. It seems as though the narrator of this poem is able to identify with her just fine, despite the (presumed) gender gap that exists between them.

This poem is very concerned with the mechanics by which the worms ingest the body, and melancholy is intricately tied to digestion. If you eat the wrong thing, your mood can shift and you can become unbalanced and/or melancholic. The worms are obviously delighted at their meal, but they do say that if they could smell or taste, they would never eat the Body, because she is disgusting. There is no opportunity for distinction, and yet the Body is what they choose: they are following a certain kind of taste (preference) that is presented as natural. This sequence not only unbalances the setting of the human above the non-human, by suggesting that human dominion over animals is limited to the time they are alive (and further reduced because humans are plagued with fleas, mice, and stomach illness for their whole lives), it also presents an intricate picture of digestion that is reframed as cleaning. The Body’s flesh is “nothing but clay”, suggesting that this cleaning is also a metabolizing process where the worms turn her into earth– at least, until the last Judgement, when she’ll be reconstituted.

The worms are clearly not affected by their food, and the Body doesn’t seem to be melancholy, nor does the speaker when he wakes up. So why am I interested in this poem? I think it provides a particular medieval example of a similar phenomenon to what Daniels identifies in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and an example of Middle English poetic affect in a similar way to On Husbondrie. Obviously it is a case of religious meditation on death, but I think one of the things that makes this poem so compelling is its atmosphere of loss and temporariness, which is underscored by these very vivid descriptions of decay and digestion. We don’t get interiority from the speaker, but we get a ton of matter. Additionally, the speaker is escaping a plague, which is 1) probably a pretty bad situation for him and 2) a disease thought to be caused by an imbalance of melancholic humors, like leprosy.

I should link Karl Steel’s post on this poem here, especially this observation: “if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder”. The Body is flesh that has to un-associate herself with mere flesh, at the same time as she is linguistically an organized whole, putting her at odds with her name. This post comes to the same observation that I have, that the body in the tomb functions as a sample body for the reader to learn about and thereby observe their own. However, the narrator interacts with Body specifically as a woman’s body, with all the attendant sexualization that contains.

If the Body is both a figure aware of itself and distinct from an essential soul, if it is between things, then what kind of emotions is it allowed to have? Similarly, if the worms are an (animal) unit positioned as a central figure, what emotions can they feel? I think maybe this is the wrong question. Both of these figures tell us what they are feeling, kind of, but they don’t show us. Rather, the atmosphere of this poem is one oriented towards sorrow, and I think although its overt message is one of holy sorrow and contemplation, it also has a deeper current of despair.

Generations of Feeling, Barbara Rosenwein

In her book Generations of Feeling, Barbara Roswenwein is interested in providing a history of emotions that crosses the medieval/modern divide, giving us a genealogy of different ways of conceptualizing emotions. While she explicitly wants to follow this over the medieval/early modern divide, in order to show that concepts like rationality have a much longer history and are not exclusively modern, she implies and even states that her goal is to do the same for contemporary (20th/21st c.) modernity, too. She centers her analysis around what she calls “emotional communities”, groups of people who have their own feelings and ways of expressing those feelings. “Generations of feeling” are the ways that those feelings are passed down from one group to another, in a process that she likens to genomic change in cells. I wonder why there are so many (medieval and modern) bodily metaphors for emotion and the emotional resonances/affects of new media.

Central to her discussion of emotion is the concept of rhetoric. She goes so far as to say that there is no difference between felt emotion and expressed emotion, because even private emotions involve interpreting yourself to yourself (9). She uses William Reddy’s concept of “emotional regimes” to cement this: he argues that political groups have been in charge of sublimating and tamping down emotions, and deciding who can feel what, meaning that political regimes determine emotional norms and who lies outside of them. This concept ties back in to the social body, a medieval, early modern, and modern concept, which I think is especially useful when thinking about the “health” of the body politic– if the “head” determines what emotions the “body” can feel, what impact does that have?

Rosenwein’s ultimate goal is to use small communities to map out the ways emotions were passed down and used even as they changed over time. Her trajectory begins with Augustine, who breaks with the Stoics in identifying pre-passions and passions as both being in the realm of emotion. Human reason, which separates animals from people, allows humans to examine their own emotions and turn feelings like desire (bad) into longing for God (good). This is the first point when all or nearly all emotions have the potential to be good; human will is the determining factor in whether an emotion is good or bad. This thread is picked up by Aelred in the 1100s, who was convinced by Augustine’s idea that emotion could be divinely inspired. Aelred’s intervention (as Boquet notes) is the idea that emotions are natural; that humans are not at fault for having them, and their value is in how they respond. This uses Augustine’s concept of human will while also even more explicitly separating feeling from intent; action is more important than feeling in a divine sense. Aelred’s emotional community (and maybe emotional regime) was focused on convincing other monks to regulate their emotions and value love and friendship.

The third figure in this nexus who is interested in emotions as something that can be controlled is Alcuin (c.800), a deacon from York who wrote the therapy manual Virtues and Vices for Wido, a count and miltary leader in Charlemagne’s court. The manual was a guide to the emotions, and was translated into over 140 editions. Synthesizing Christian and pre-Artisotelian Stoic thought (though it also dovetails with Aristotle), the manual is largely concerned with negative emotions like sorrow and anger, and argues that because people are able to change their emotions when they wish to, they are responsible for managing them. One example that demonstrates his approach is that of sorrow: good sorrow is sorrow that does something, as in sorrow that contemplates Christ’s passion and makes the supplicant more holy, but bad sorrow is for nothing and does nothing. This example is extremely important for my own continuing question– what do we do with melancholy that doesn’t do anything, both in the context of a story and on an individual level?

On the other hand, Rosenwein uses Margery Kempe as an example of someone who cultivates an emotional regime that is outside the norm. In her estimation, Margery’s excessiveness and focus on public emotion let her create a scattered emotional community of just a few sympathetic people. Her emphasis on despair and (holy) joy as interconnected and mutually reinforcing feelings was at odds with the “normal” courtly atmosphere of the fifteenth century. Rosenwein goes on to argue that melancholy was the reigning emotional regime of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, although not everyone experienced it, a shift she sees as connected to Margery but filtered through a Protestant lens. I both am interested in this claim and have a hard time buying the connection, mostly because I’m not sure Margery’s (not huge) renown and/or her gender would have been a great starting point for the scholarly melancholy that permeates the early modern period. As I noted in my earlier post, despayr and sorrow are two different things, and Margery’s coverage (at least now) tends to emphasize her sorrow.

(She also makes a related claim that I want to remember— that “a whole society does not become melancholy without the claim bringing some advantage” (319). I know this is about scholarly melancholy and prestige, but uh… climate despair?)

I found Rosenwein’s connection of feelings’ evolution to cell division resonant with several other things I have read, notably with Shane Denson’s concept of metabolic media. In her conclusion, Rosenwein claims that “emotions are reused and redeployed, not invented” (320). This seems like a great argument against the “normal is modern” claim that I have been yelling about since forever. It also made me think of Amy Hollywood’s use of Derrida’s concept of differance to comment on how traditions change over time; they are the same but with a difference, which is what makes them distinctive. Traditions can’t always remain the same, even if they are done in the same way for centuries, because the location, time, and people participating are different. I wonder if she believes the same is true of emotions. If you experience despair in the medieval period, is that or can that be the same as experiencing despair in a linked emotional community now?

I am also interested in how this concept stacks up with Rosenwein’s earlier writing, particularly the essay of hers I read in Crying in the Middle Ages. In that, she takes up Margery Kempe’s despair and ends by essentially saying that modern media (i.e. Twitter threads) can’t capture the same depth of feeling as Margery’s book. I was confused by this then and I am even more confused by it now, after reading this book that seems to suggest such a direct connection between medieval and modern feeling (and even states that its aim is to connect the two more explicitly than ever before.

Lisa H. Cooper, “Agronomy and Affect in Duke Humphrey’s On Husbondrie”

I am really excited about this article, because it brings together several things I want to write about more: labor, ecological/material viewpoints on literature, and affect. This essay’s project is to examine the poetics of this commissioned manual, “On Husbondrie”, and how its translation into Middle English from Latin affected its affect (ha). Cooper argues that this translation is rooted in affects that are material, visual, and often non-human, and that its “affective ecology” makes it an ideal place to explore the interconnectedness of humans and plants in medieval literature. Moving from Latin to English has increased the affective force of this poem, and allows the translator to do different things than the original poem: center the experience of Duke Humphrey, but also aiming to turn practicality into “fruyt” as a poem.

She begins by identifying a central issue in affect studies, the tendency to not specifically define what “affect” is when you refer to it. She argues that agronomy manuals (and this one in particular) contain what Sianne Ngai identifies as “tone”, the tenor or orientation of a work that slips between the reader’s feelings and the text’s feeling and ends up constituting a “web” (or, for Connor, an ecology) of affect between different people or things. In going through the poem, she identifies moments when this web is most present, for instance the recurring theme of poetry’s meter that is pulled from the “prosis black” or the arrangement of colored text on the last page that looks like a prepared garden. (She also cites Sarah Kay on animal skin as part of her argument about the text being intrinsically connected with agriculture in a material way). The text ascribes feelings to plants, refers to them as children, and generally makes humans and plants interconnected.

She also says something that reminds me a lot of Carol Rawcliffe’s note about astrology requiring extremely specific information in order to be successful: agronomy is “taking the right action with the right tools at the right time” (79). While it is obvious from Connor’s argument that literature and agriculture are both “affective labor”, that they are being compared in the text, I see a way that medicine can be included here too, or at least personal well-being. If plants and people are inextricably tied up with each other, then their well-being is dependent on each other (and the well-being of the person is dependent on ensuring the well-being of the plant, in that it needs particular conditions to be “happy” and thus produce food for people).

I appreciated her nod to the difficulty of determining what affect is, but I was still shaky on what she meant by affect even after her lengthy explanation. I guess my best summary of her stance is that affect is an “ecology” that is between the reader and the text and occasionally in both, and it generates feeling (something which she does ascribe to the medieval period, unlike others like Boquet who do emotions history, because of its potential to communicate materiality as well as medieval definitions of fele (many, or inquire into). Using Ngai’s concept of tone, “an artifact’s disposition”, between the reader and the text, she argues that the text’s affect represents the ecology between humans, plants, and animals, and that the Middle English text (in the language and linguistic choices, and its centering of Humphrey’s role as a figure shaping the text) increases this affective force. I am more and more interested in Humphrey as someone who Hoccleve, Lydgate and this anonymous translator were all working for, and I wonder if there is a collection of the things he commissioned over his lifetime or if anything has been written about his collection as a whole.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sontag’s essays on photography revolve around the question of what photography is, and what it does. While photographs seems like reality, they are actually more like paintings: they don’t reflect reality, they reflect the “real”, or the interpretation of reality that their photographer has shaped and captured. Unlike other forms of art, photos are only enhanced by the passage of time; their effects (like bloom, shadow, etc.) are less important to their overall effect than distance and time, which are what make a photo truly “surreal”. However, surrealist photos that rely on their content for effect are not actually surreal; or rather, every photograph is surreal, because every photo is creating an artificial world.

Photography as a way of making the world more available to us, going along with making others’ suffering and lives in general more available, feeds into the function of photos as consumable objects. Photos can be aesthetic or they can be informative; either one can be used to serve capitalism by making peoples’ image consumption make them believe 1) that images and reality are the same, and 2) that their choice between images is actually freedom. While Sontag does not think photography is art, she does think that it makes what it photographs into art, which is its unique quality. However, even as a legitimate aesthetic technology, it carries with it the problem that photos subvert reality, a process she thinks is getting worse over time. If we consume too many images, the implication is, we will no longer be able to distinguish reality from images, and will live entirely in the image-world.

I found her essay titled “Melancholy Objects” most interesting. Building on her discussion of Surrealism, which relies on assemblages of objects that produce meaning (or alternately, dispassionate photography that gives everything equal meaning), she argues that photography in America makes everything into a relic. Giving examples including the photographing of native tribes’ dances which were staged for the camera, she notes that the act of photographing something is often artificial. She argues that inventories of America are suffused with loss, because they are anti-scientific efforts to take specimens that stand in for the whole, but in taking specimens they (their authenticity, and therefore their power) is destroyed. In turning the past into a “consumable object” (68), it’s made into a fantasy. The Surrealist taste for fragmentation makes photographers into collectors interested in the past, photographing what will be (and already is) gone and can’t be preserved. I am very interested in her idea of an inventory of objects as making up a collection of loss, which I see as connected to the “too-muchness” of Burton’s writings on melancholy and to a certain extent other approaches to writing about melancholy like Avicenna. The sourcing of multiple different explanations that contradict, cross over or bleed into each other gives the illusion of a reality, while in Burton’s case it just makes the reader go through a reenactment of melancholy, and in Avicenna’s it does… something else.

Rufus of Ephesus, On Melancholy

Some of them [melancholics] imagine that they do not have a head. We saw something of the sort close to the city of Kairouan. We burdened his [the patient’s] head with a qalansuwa (tiara) which we made of lead and put on his head in place of a helmet. Then he realised that he had a head. – Ishaq Ibn Imran, On Melancholy

Ishaq Ibn Imran calls Rufus of Ephesus’s work “a pleasing book on melancholy”. In it, Rufus identifies three subtypes of melancholy, but focuses on one: hypochondria. “This disease starts out in the region beneath the rib-cartilage [i.e. the hypochondria] and at the [cardiac] orifice of the stomach… Yet, one could have derived this name for them [‘hypochondriacs’] from a term denoting the faculties of the soul” (Yaqb al-Kaskar, Compendium on Medicine). Rufus’s position, as with Galen’s, is that there are two main reasons for melancholy: a disposition, and a disease (or innate and acquired). The introduction to this edition seems to make the “disposition” seem almost fashionable, a la Daniel, but I don’t see (at least here) that melancholy is a fashionable disposition to have.

Melancholics believe things because their bodies back them up. For example, they might believe that they have no head because their head feels light. As opposed to the belief that melancholics are wholly surface and no substance, or that their beliefs are unrelated to their bodies, Rufus believes that the body and the mind affect each other. Also, when melancholy “settles” (as in leprosy or other disorders) there is no melancholy; melancholy is a result of black bile being diffused in the blood. The head and stomach are connected through the esophagus; the diet makes people melancholy, and what happens to the stomach can affect the head. Ingesting emetics and purging is the best remedy.

People who are scholars and spend a lot of time thinking are predisposed to melancholy. ‘Noone who devotes too much effort to thinking about a certain science (ilm) can avoid ending up with melancholy.’ How can we be certain,
if we are obsessed by illusions, that this description does not apply to us?” (Miskawaih, Epistle on the Soul and the Intellect). Melancholy is tripartate, as Galen believed; however, Rufus names only hypochondria (windy melancholy), not head or body melancholy. Galen’s thinking in the 300s is influenced by Rufus in the second century. He also influenced Ishaq Ibn Imran, whose On Melancholy was later translated by Constantine.

I am most interested in Rufus’s focus on digestion and links to mental health. I also think the case studies that close out this collection of fragments are going to be useful in illuminating what the treatment of melancholy actually looked like (and they are interesting to read in their own right). For example: “The reason for his illness was the constant contemplation of geometrical sciences; he also had social intercourse with kings.” The testimonials also make me wonder how the physicians’ claims that they have cured patients of their melancholy through songs and food measure up to the experience of chronic melancholy in the classical period (statements like “for the rest of his life, no attack recurred” (73)).

Torok and Abraham, Introjection vs. Incorporation

Building on Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”, “Introjection vs. Incorporation” critiques Freud and Melanie Klein by exploring the origin of “fantasy”, which they define as the opposition to reality. There are two broad ways of dealing with fantasy: Introjection is “casting inside”, the subconscious replication of attitudes or beliefs, and/or the development of metaphors to understand and deal with a loss. Incorporation is the “fantasy of nonintrojection”: the wish to incorporate the other into the self, so as not to have to deal with loss. This is tied to the “refusal to mourn” Freud notes when talking about melancholy; like incorporation is a refusal to introject loss, melancholy is a refusal of mourning.

Torok and Abraham’s project in this chapter is distinguishing between introjection and incorporation, “as we would
distinguish between metaphoric and photographic images, between the acquisition of a language as opposed to buying a dictionary”. Introjection means moving from literal to figurative loss, while incorporation refuses this and remains literal. Incorporation occurs because an object which cannot be communicated has been lost; unable to speak or name the loss, the individual can’t introject it. “Inexpressible mourning erects a secret tomb inside the subject” (130). In summary, introjection is necessary and desirable, incorporation is not. If introjection is the metaphorization of loss, incorporation is anti-metaphor; it destroys the capacity of words to be figurative.

In the second half of this essay, they move on to critiquing Freud’s argument in “Mourning and Melancholia”. Incorporation seeks to repair the ego object in the sufferer’s memory, when the object has done something horrible; as they can’t divest from this object, neither can the melancholic from their respective object, and in both cases the ego destroys itself. They argue that the only state in which incorporation can be revealed to the outsider, taken out of its “crypt”, is in manic-depression, an idea which comes from Freud. They disagree with Freud’s origin of melancholia as being in the unconscious and based on aggression towards the love-object, and are drawn instead to his imagery of melancholics hiding a wound. Melancholy only happens when the ambivalence towards the love object has no (“real”) cause, when prior to the loss things were good and there was actually no ambivalence; in a way, melancholy makes its bearer travel back to that time. Additionally, melancholy does not happen when the “crypt” is intact. It must be shaken by a hint that the loss has really happened, and then melancholy ensues. They then go on to note that the “phantom object” that exists for the melancholic does not hold aggression towards them, but loves them; preserving this (and therefore preserving the ego) becomes the highest priority.

I am continually interested in metaphors of interfacing with the world that relate to digestion, and incorporation provides another one: ” in order not to have to “swallow” a loss, we fantasize swallowing (or having swallowed) that which has been lost” (126). They give the example of a child learning to request food through language: “Introjecting a desire, a pain, a situation means channeling them through language into a communion of empty mouths. This is how the literal ingestion of foods becomes introjection when viewed figuratively” (128). Literal becomes figurative, and the loss of the mother as a permanent extension of the child is successfully dealt with. Failure to engage in language becomes the failure to introject; like Freud’s melancholic, engagement with others is key.

They go on to talk about mouth work and necrophagia (!) as ways of dealing with loss and avoiding incorporation, which it seems is to be avoided at all costs. Necrophagia is anti-incorporation because it is physically removing the possibility for incorporation, and denial of the loss, to occur: the body is gone. I am not clear why in this particular situation the absence of the body would prevent incorporation, when in others it doesn’t, but it is an interesting thought. Again, this makes me think of the disputation between the body and the worms, and makes me wonder if there are examples of medieval poetry where people think about eating their loved ones in order to make something therapeutic happen. I also think about the Cannibal of Qemer, which is concerned with preventing the injestion of people (albeit people who are not connected to the cannibal and don’t need to be introjected).

This essay was a lot more pleasing to read than Freud for me and has some stunning phrases (cryptophoria, for example, the state of having a fantasy of incorporation that turns into a psychic secret). However, I am left with the same feeling of unease at the way it speaks about the subjects of psychoanalytic therapy, maybe even moreso than with Freud.

The Melancholy Assemblage by Drew Daniel

In The Melancholy Assemblage, Drew Daniel claims that melancholy in the early modern period constitutes an epistemological-affective assemblage, a collection of factors that is always plural; it emerges in individuals and yet is also a “social and material assemblage of bodies being together” (15). In being both interior and exterior, melancholy can be recognized but not explained, faked but not verified. Being melancholy occurs when it is recognized; “one signature from someone”, the self included, can make it happen, but can’t prove it.

Daniel begins with an outline of the landscape of melancholy in Early Modern England, arguing that it was a back-and-forth between two approaches; the Galenic, which diagnoses melancholy as an illness and a medical condition, and the Aristotelian, which is associated with scholarly seriousness and treats melancholy as an affectation, orientation, or gift. The attempts of writers like Richard Burton to synthesize these two approaches, and the lasting tension between them, help to explain why there is such an interest in verifying melancholy, and why melancholy is still so present now.

He goes on to note that melancholy is cumulative: Hamlet is a collection of actions and feelings that make up a melancholy person, a melancholy assemblage in one individual. I am also compelled by his prompt to consider London itself (30) a melancholy assemblage, fashioned by plagues and print-capitalism. His point is that there are many ways to express melancholy as catalogues of symptoms, collections of social, physical and political factors. This squares with premodern disability theory and the social model: there is not one unified experience of disability, but many individual, localized experiences made up of social and political and medical factors. In summary, melancholy is:

  1. the melancholy body as a legible site for interpretation
  2. the social network that makes the melancholy body available for diagnosis
  3. a text (like Burton’s) that puts fragments together to create the affect of melancholy, or force the reader to read melancholically
  4. A community or audience that participates in the feeling or knowledge of others, identifying with and also being skeptical of the melancholy they see.

Melancholy assemblages can be bodies, symptoms, texts, communities, and relationships between them. It is made of too-muchness, overproductions of social knowledge which can then become subject to scrutiny.

Melancholy is always in danger of being faked; each time we encounter someone exhibiting the signs of it, they are subject to scrutiny. In a similar way, anyone claiming to be melancholy has to be verified to make sure their melancholy is genuine. When Hamlet claims “that within which passes show” (with Daniel claiming the “that” is melancholy), others see his outward form and diagnose it as misplaced grief; he, and the audience he shares his asides with, are the only ones with access to the truth, and the audience’s access is only partial.

Taking a cue from object oriented ontology’s claim that anything (thoughts, or faked thoughts) can be matter, melancholy is “matter” in the early modern period because it depends on something which doesn’t literally exist (black bile) but which is an important, literal part of experience. Melancholy is a “fugitive matter” which is a medical reality, a social fake, and a modern fashion all at the same time (240). In early modern thought, it is an epistemological effect that cannot actually be seen but which is constantly felt and identified. This helps to explain its current power: because melancholy can’t be located, it persists and currently defines a sorrow at the world’s transience, or a social commodity, or a scholarly affectation, or….

Melancholy is an interplay between depth and surface. It is also a profoundly social emotion, because it requires being recognized, by the self or by another person (or in the case of a play, by the audience). The melancholy subject has an affect that can never be completely known, but can be seen. He covers melancholy posturing/propping as a convention signifying melancholy, which prompts the viewer to decide if the emotion is genuine; the use of (melancholic) asides in Hamlet to allow audiences special insight into melancholy without revealing it (despite the implied association of the aside with truth, and that of melancholy with untrustworthiness) and asserting that melancholy comes between the public and the private; and reads Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as a text that uses “melancholy structure” to curate “too much” and make the reader follow along by “melancholizing”, i.e. making the experience of reading the work mirror the experience of melancholy. In all these cases, a reader or author is given some amount of perceptual experience with melancholy, an “intimacy with the unknown” (154) that then has to be unpacked.

Daniel is especially useful to my project because he provides me with a foundation from which to assert that medieval melancholy as an aesthetic does, in fact, exist. He briefly goes into an investigation of contemporary styling of early modern melancholy, which he identifies in the Lars von Trier film Melancholia and in black metal “melancology” (a theory connecting melancholy to extinction and to an earth hostile to life, which is very useful for my interests in apocalypse fiction and the imagined medieval, as is the note on p.72 that melancholy is associated with the center of the earth). This investigation is brief and never quite explains why these are specifically resonant with early modern melancholy, although it’s clear why they are connected to humoral theory. However, he specifically stops short of identifying other modern melancholies that are especially connected to his subject material, or of asserting that the relationship between the contemporary and the early modern is melancholy itself. The closest he gets is the note about “the ambivalent terms of survival offered to the past by the present” (235); i.e., when we look back at the past, it is tempting to either try to assert dominance over it or use our contemporary outlook to change it. While this is a judgement about our relationship to the past, it stops short of claiming anything about the affect of melancholy and its relationship to the early modern period.

There are also several collections of affect that I want to track as I begin my project, including his idea of accumulative “melancholy structure”, and his compelling question “how does melancholy speak?” (i.e. can melancholy participate in discourse?). I am most interested, though, in continuing to investigate the transmission of ideas about the medieval period through the lens of melancholy, and feel more confident in asserting that melancholy has had affective potential even in the medieval and early modern period, in addition to its Galenic, humoral status.

Discorrelated Images by Shane Denson

This book was my first (purposeful) departure into cinema studies since reading Lynda Nead in undergrad. It is also a book about new media (useful for my other work as a freelancer writing about new media), and about the affective and aesthetic potential of invisibilized technology. Its central focus is how the move from cinema to post-cinema has been a move from visual culture to post-visual culture; from visible technologies like animation to seamless, microtemporal, non- or post-visual concepts like compression video that cause viewers to have an affective response without being aware that they are, in fact, having a response. The sub-processual nature of discorrelated images is what makes them different from regular, visible images, and worth distinguishing from them.

The first half of this book is spent defining and exploring the concept of discorrelated and/or dividuated images and their importance in separating cinema from post-cinema/new media (chapters 1 and 2), and explaining how post-cinema’s discorrelated nature has meant a change in media’s temporality (chapter 3). Discorrelated images are images (within cinema or other new media) that

1) confuse the typically stable subject and object of media,

2) remove images from their previous correlation with human subjectivity, or with norms of human perception and embodiment

and 3) separate images (or affective phenomena) from sensory perception– aka a dividuated image.

New media is future-oriented and able to anticipate, though not predict, and make multiple plans based on predictions; this contingency has changed media’s relationship to time. As the temporality of media has changed, its relation to individual subjectivity has also changed, making us anticipate without realizing it, and exerting forces (i.e. Netflix) that purport to offer customization but in fact standardize our experiences to be like those of others.

This all builds to what Denson calls the metabolic model of systems, his way of explaining how new media works in relation to human subjectivity. The interplay between technical substrates and aesthetic forms in media, or previsual things that influence you/ontology vs phenomenological experience, means that the image becomes separated from the visual or perceptible (68). This separated image (deviduated image) is pre-visual, technological, substrate; its relationship to the organized visual form is not separate, nor is it a one-way street. Denson uses the Luhmannian example of the ear, which is a substrate (tool) to tone (“I heard the sound with my ear”), but a form to music (“I have a good aesthetic sense”). Form can be influenced by substrate; you can be influenced by something even if you can’t see it. The opposite is also true, as substrates can be reshaped by and anticipate reactions to forms. “Experience is not on the side of form”, Denson writes, “as opposed to a technological substrate on the other side; rather, experience is precisely that which is at issue in the difference between substrate and form” (65). His question of whether imperceptible affects– glitches, compressions, microprocesses– “belong” to form or substrate (experience/subject or technology/object) is refuted by the nature of discorrelated images as images that defy traditional subject/object and pre/post-visual binaries. This is where the metabolic model comes in; Denson imagines a mutually-impactful model that reshapes the input/output, consumption/production, digestion/excretion binaries of traditional media through the destabilizing of the subject/object and substrate/form. This destabilization allows him to put to rest theories that separate substrate and form, and those that privilege substrate over form and “material knowledge over phenomenological experience” (62). It also places discorrelated images within the ecosystem of technology as a whole, emphasizing their creation (and often dissemination) by and between machines rather than humans. If cinema is all about conscious visuality, post-cinema is pre-visual and sometimes non-visual, and felt at the level of the body rather than the conscious mind; post-cinematic metabolism is not perceptible and changes over time, affecting how we experience our ecosystem and the discorrelated social, political, and environmental agencies of our wider lives (50).

The second half of this book aims to explore parables about technology in the new stages of cinema, attempting to make sense of discorrelation’s impact on the world. Chapter 4 is about robots and posthumanism, and the role of edge detection (“seamful” productions where we, or a computer, can see the “edges” of things) in mediating between human perception and invisible tech processes happening around us, moving us from a visual to a non-visual culture. Chapter 5 argues that the shock of post-cinematic horror comes from discorrelation, using glitches and surveillance tech as well as social media and other familiar technologies to transmit our collective anxiety about the discorrelation of subjectivity and image (and the resulting lack of faith in the fidelity or fixedness of images in general). Systems like unmanned drones, which encourage the separation of individual from their actions (what Denson calls “drone logic”), have invaded all our psyches, and it is only by imagining a more collective existence that we can push against it.

Chapter 6 is about the end of the world, and was the most interesting digression for me. Denson begins by claiming that “post-cinema is involved centrally in the mediation of an experience of ‘the world without us’…anticipating and intimating the eradication of human perception, post-cinema is therefore ‘after extinction’ even before extinction takes place” (194). Discorrelated images are therefore suited to make sense of events with too many micro-temporal parts to be consciously dissected; namely, the Anthropocene, but also (potentially) the end of capitalism. If the apocalypse is an image without an observer, then it is the epitome of discorrelation. And the “absolute presence” abstracted from subject/object temporality (Sobchack) of new media is also the subjective experience of discorrelation, a sense of mismatch between human capability and machinic images and their temporalities. Therefore, the space (expanded to be global) and time (contracted to be fractions of a second) of post-cinema combine into an interest in issues of planet-level importance, where images become discorrelated from human perception and redirected towards a global scale.

This is also where I take the most issue with his argument, specifically with the points he offers to defend the discorrelated image as *uniquely* apocalyptic. For instance, that the photograph began to commemorate death in the nineteenth century (though paintings, books, etc. did so for a long time before that) before moving toward the “anticipatory” frame of new media. To be clear, my problem is not that discorrelated images have a unique take on apocalypse narrative, but that they are based in a lineage of film that is essentially post-cinema or even post-eighteenth century. This gets at a larger question that I have for the whole book: can discorrelated images be retrieved in non-modern sites, or are they always married to computer technology? After all, Denson frequently talks about things like stones and paintings being “tools” or having non-cognition (Hayles). It’s clear these are different from post-cinema because they’re not invisible or instantaneous, but are there examples of tools that are? Denson explicitly says that the post-cinematic media infrastructure must be tied to the geologic period of the Anthropocene and industrialization, but is this true?

Weirdly, I think about the medieval “Disputation between the Body and the Worms”, which is concerned with noticeable and sub-perceptual change as well as normative discourses on the body. Processes of decay are obviously visual, but they are also previsual and metabolic, and in a way they are naturally future-oriented, though in a way that is tied to nature and not technology. One of my questions going forward is whether the aesthetics of discorrelated images must always be confined to new media and computer technology (dividuated drone cameras, robots, etc.) or whether there is a place in premodern thought to consider pre-visual processing of information. I also see a lot of Mark Fisher in the discussion of “lossy” formats that disintegrate individual film strips into continuous images, and of the “Seances” film series that produces micro-films only made for one viewing before they disappear.

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