Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There is Nothing Turbulent about Apathy

Many of the works we have covered so far have attempted to show the contours of a new politics that “could be” or “might happen”; from Terranova and the zero degree of the political, or a call for a common passion; to Berlant and ambient citizenship, or how we can engage the present differently; to Ahmed and the cultural politics of emotion, or how emotional scars and discomfort can be both generative and productive. In Thrift’s “Turbulent Passions,” he is thinking through how the masses can re-materialize democracy by calling forth a new type of action; a counter-politics of affect with an emphasis on “small things that are neither apologetic nor cramped, on hope and also on a certain aggression, on the forms of struggle and organization as important in their own right, on understanding diversity as a strength in composing will, on the importance of political timeliness, on new forms of piety, and on a thoroughly healthy anxiety about losing the future” (pp. 252 -253). This is where Thrift lost me. I am not clear about his vision of a new politics that “could be".

What I believe Thrift is articulating (like Jameson) is that we have lost our political ability to act, and instead, we are being acted upon—by corporations, by political systems, and by affect that is consumptive rather than productive, passive rather than passionate. That is, our actions are circumscribed by anxiety, compulsion, and obsession. In order to regain our ability to act, Thrift is considering a new type of action that is linked not to individual activism, but to common passivity: a com-passion in the masses based on a biopolitics of imitation. But what exactly does this type of action look like? Thrift suggests that what compels somebody to action is rooted in our human propensity for mimesis (p. 238)—that action is not the product of calculative rationality or conscious processing, but is subject to semi-conscious automatisms that align subjects together through common affect (“imitation-suggestion," p. 252). In other words, we are compelled to act through our affective connections to the masses. 

Thinking through many of Thrift’s arguments, like our corporeal vulnerability, our discomfort in taking up the challenges of being (pp. 242), our overwhelmed bodies that are constantly enrolled in lousy, cul-de-sac equilibriums, our auto-feelings, our susceptibility, and our lack of agency, there is often an anti-democratic sentiment lurking in the background of his argument; that the demos are easily manipulated, unable to pay attention, unwilling to sustain engagement in political issues, lazy, etc. For me, thrift painted a picture of common apathy, and there is nothing turbulent about apathy. What exactly does this new form of action look like if it is linked to passivity? And how does this form of action work to combat everyday apathy, even amidst a time of “great political passions” and the emerging and fading collectively effervescent masses?

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