Crying in Public, but Something Less Dramatic than That:
Reflections on the Public Feelings Salon At Barnard College
Barnard College, 12 April 2011
In collaboration with Barnard’s Center for Research on Women (BCRW), the Public Feelings Salon, featuring Lauren Berlant, José Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ann Pellegrini, inaugurated BCRW’s new Salon series with a bevy of critical theory, beloved objects, political skepticism, and good feelings all around. In her introductory remarks, Janet R. Jakobsen, BCRW Director and Professor of Women’s Studies at Barnard College, described the evening’s focus on the way “‘public feelings’ [draw] our attention to how and why feelings and emotion…influence politics and notions of social belonging and intimacy.” Jakobsen explained that the salon was organized as a response to Berlant’s own long-time work on these questions. Berlant, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, has been instrumental in the Public Feelings Project, an informal assemblage of scholars and intellectuals that emerged post-9/11 to examine how feelings and desires that are not supposed to be public nonetheless drive much of what happens in public life.
As a way to generate a dynamic conversation, the forum was organized around a shared text. Each of the panelists was asked to read and offer a short public response to Berlant’s 2006 essay “Cruel Optimism”. As Jakobsen explained to the audience, by “cruel optimism” Berlant means the affective impasse encountered when “something you desire is an obstacle to your flourishing.” A once “optimistic relation becomes cruel” when the object that draws attachment “impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.”
José Muñoz, Chair of the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, contrasted his investment in utopianism, a longing for queerness that is “not yet here,” with Berlant’s investment in a call for “maintaining traction in our presentness.” While he identified their divergent perspectives by imagining Berlant “hunkered down in the foxhole of the ‘here and now’” while he “looks for the exit sign for ‘futurity,’” Muñoz identified a common agenda: to describe the “affective work we do to sustain ourselves” in the face of precariousness. Through a discussion of the photographs of Mark Morrisroe, a vital figure in the punk art scene in the 70s and 80s, Muñoz explains that enduring is not a nihilist practice. Heeding Berlant’s insight, these attachments keep us ticking despite abuse in the hopes of a better “good life” not yet available to minoritarian subjects.
The second speaker, Ann Pellegrini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies and Religious Studies at New York University, expanded upon the problematics of the “good life” of heteronormative futurity described by Muñoz. Picking up on language earlier used by Berlant, she stressed that how affects “get laminated to our attachments and…get magnetized…is a political question that comes back to the psychic.” To elucidate, Pellegrini turned to two of her own beloved objects—Freud and musicals, in particular to Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a musical about a single man (Bobby) surrounded by couples—to interrogate our perplexing commitments to these modes of attachments that we need to keep us alive. Pellegrini was particularly interested in the multiple endings of Company. Initially, Bobby rejected the couple form, likening it in his final song to “happily ever after in hell.” Sondheim was ultimately persuaded to write a new ending, a happier one in which Bobby seemed to embrace the couple form as the only way of “Being Alive.” “Alone is alone, not alive,” he sang, in the short segment of the song Pellegrini played for the audience. But, “is this the best we can hope for?” Pellegrini asked. As a counter, Pellegrini wondered whether the audience might willfully resist the new ending, and fantasize alternative ways of “being in company.” As Berlant herself argued, and as Pellegrini underlined, we must attach to objects in the world in order to survive. The political question is what forms might these attachments take? Putting up a slide with the final lines of “Being Alive”—“to help us survive being alive, being alive, being alive!”—Pellegrini called for an “us” multiplied well beyond the couple form. “This is not an ending,” she (non)concluded, “And fuck the reality principle.”
Next, Tavia Nyong’o, Associate Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, spoke of his own “object relation, similar to melancholia,” where one refuses to relinquish an object that is not quite lost but that “yokes [us] to [the] future.” Even with its ongoing appearance as a succession of transformed iterations, the object keeps him “stuck in a world” simultaneously “held open” by the object itself. And what was this irresistible object, this apple of Nyong’s I? A public confession: Nyong’o is a Mac guy, who clings to his attachment by “[replacing] each obsolete object with its successor.” Citing both Steve Jobs’ public battle with pancreatic cancer and how man’s technological prosthetics do not “make us feel godlike,” Nyong’o explained how technology is one of the few objects that men in particular can permissibly have public feelings about, allowing them opportunities to reveal their vulnerabilities. This vulnerability is inherent to the unflinching object-love of Mac products itself, where the future promises a steady stream of cruel objects with new capacities—moving laterally from the desktop to the ipad—produced in potentia. Attending to our attachments to this series of prostheses, Nyong’o suggested that our “unwillingness to let go” of objects that promise to be outmoded by the time we’ve figured out how to use them may in fact allow us to critique how the “present [is] poised to unfold…laterally.” This is, he said, a phenomenon “everywhere experienced but infrequently worked through.”
In her response to this set of opening presentations, Berlant explained that: “Public spheres are affect worlds…We don’t attend them but discover them…[We] have to have them to survive.” Occupied by the questions of “how feelings bind us to people [and things] we do and don’t know,” she wondered, “how do you make a better world,” especially when these attachments are what help us endure and simultaneously keep us from flourishing? As she put it, following Freud, “Nobody ever willingly or easily abandons a libidinal position.” For example, our “attachment to politics is the attachment to being [part of] the collective world.” But she made an important distinction, explaining that “politics” is the place of disappointment, but the “political is where you’re always excited.” She sees the “inevitable loss of our object world…as [an] opportunity to build new, better objects for our future.” This approach would thereby create “new forms of optimism we can trust.” But to do so, we “have to be open to nonsovereignty,” particularly in relation to our fantasies. Referring to Pellegrini’s musical critique of romantic normativity, Berlant called for the valorization of multiple forms of attachments to other humans, “different ways of thinking about what a life is…[even when we] have only one and a half models for what a ‘good life’ is.”
Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.