Monday, November 5, 2012

Eagleburger, Terranova, and Trauma/Ecstacy

My thoughts about Ahmed are all somewhat unrelated, so I’ll just throw them out there:

1. Can we all just take a moment and appreciate how the interview between Lawrence Eagleburger and Peter Jennings captures so much of what Ahmed discusses in The Cultural Politics of Emotion? I could go a million different ways here, but I’ll focus on what is perhaps Eagleburger’s most disturbing statement. In her book, Ahmed described the sexualized way that hatred manifests itself in a desire to penetrate and destroy the other. Ahmed writes:
“The sexualized and milatristic nature of this description [about terrorists] is crucial. Hidden in holes, the others threaten through being veiled or covered. The others who are objects of our disgust must be penetrated and uncovered.  We must ‘get to them’ to ‘get away from them.’ They got too close… but we must get closer, if they are to be expelled” (97). 
Eagleburger expresses himself in very similar terms. It is not enough to just kill the terrorists, Eagleburger says; more broadly we must destroy the homes and wombs that have sheltered them: “We will hold those who have mothered and husbanded these terrorists at least as much responsible as the terrorists,” says Eagleburger to Jennings. Here, just like Ahmed describes, Eagleburger wants to go beyond simply killing the terrorists -- he wants to exterminate the holes (countries) that shelter them, and the people (and orifices) that gave them life in the first place. 

2. I was very interested in how Ahmed talked about how fear and disgust relate to the body. According to Ahmed, disgust and fear can be represented by a shrinkage or a recoiling from the offending object. I wonder, can we extend this image of contracting and shrinking more broadly? This may be speculative, but I think Terranova might point us in the right directionn While rummaging back through Network Culture, I was struck by how Terranova described the reaction of the Internet to 9/11 in very similar terms to Ahmed's description of how 9/11 effected the body:
 “The attacks, in fact, famously brought the Internet to a state of virtual standstill. It was not simply that they destroyed a key communication centre located underneath the Twin Towers, but they also provoked an unprecedented and simultaneous use of the Internet as a way of gathering news, contacting friends, or simply exchanging reactions and opinions. This synchronized assault on bandwidth did not so much paralyze the network as contract it – at first towards the great Internet portals, but successively also in a dense transversal traffic of news and commentary... an activity that whipped the Internet into a kind of electronic frenzy" (71). 
This idea that the Internet itself contracts at such a shocking event seems important, and I don't think it's just a coincidence that Terranova uses such similar language in describing the Internet as Ahmed uses to describe the body. How and where else can we see the Internet - and networks more generally - mimicking bodily reactions to important and powerful affective events?

3. One thing that always annoys me about studying or reading about 9/11 is how the conversation often devolves into people relating their personal anecdotes of where they were that day or how they reacted to the event. But more recently, I’ve come to realize that personal anecdotes are one of the few ways to convey the enormous affective power of a traumatic event that cannot really be summarized by a single narrative.
     So with that disclaimer, let me say that Ahmed, and Berlant more generally, have really helped me understand my own reaction to the attacks as a young fifth grader. In the weeks after 9/11/01, I went through a period of moderate personal crisis: What, I asked myself, would I be doing or thinking if the attacks had never happened? Certainly I was horrified, you might even say “disgusted” by the attacks, but I could not deny the excitement and strange ecstasy I felt during those weeks, where there was only one topic of conversation, and all I saw on television was the repeated image of the planes crashing into the towers. Why was I so excited that such a traumatic and tragic event had interrupted my everyday life? As a fifth grader, I felt enormous guilt over my excitement over the attacks. Why did I desire so strongly to watch the footage of the towers collapsing over and over again? Did that make me, in a sense, glad that it had happened?
         I think Ahmed and Berlant begin to provide an answer for why I felt this way. I think Berlant is exactly right in arguing that we must shift our attention away from the traumatic event and consider more broadly the crisis ordinary that hangs over everyday life. In fact, Berlant argues, major traumatic events can actually provide a form of relief or release from the precarities of everyday life in a neoliberal world. I think 9/11 did this for many people, and it certainly seems to have operated in this way for me. As a child I always disliked cities (they made me feel overwhelmed) and perhaps the image of seeing the city literally crumble to the ground may have helped to confirm or give an image to my sense of distrust and confusion towards heavily built environments. In this way, even as I felt horror, Berlant helps us understand how these moments of horror can also be moments of release, or a moment that affirms the precariousness of everyday life. (I talked to Robert Treadwell Merritt about this earlier today, and he recalled looking at the Twin Towers as young child before the attacks and thinking "those buildings are way too tall." Perhaps, then, Rob and I understood 9/11 in somewhat similar terms.)
         Ahmed's discussion of disgust is also quite relevant here. According to Ahmed, disgust is inextricably tied to feelings of desire: 
"Throughout this chapter it will be apparent that disgust is deeply ambivalent, involving a desire for, or an attraction towards, the very objects that are felt to be repellent. As William Ian Miller has put it: 'Even as the disgusting repels, it rarely does so without also capturing our attention. It imposes itself upon us. We find it hard not to sneak a second look or, less voluntarily, we find our eye's doing double takes at the very thing that disgusts us" (84).
Later, Ahmed writes, "Disgust involves a fascination with the event as an image" (96). Ultimately, in my little fifth grade mind, I worried that I was not grieving properly to the death and horror of 9/11. But as Ahmed shows, disgust, and hatred cannot operated without a certain fascination in the other that is being rejected.

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