Blog Post

Extended Reading Notes: Love, Labour, and Revolution Online

What an intense few weeks! Statement of Research Plan is finally submitted, and now straight on to the Long Thesis Proposal! To remind everyone, this will be the longer document (maximum 50 pages, so ten times the length of the Statement).

My intention is to submit a draft of the LTP to my supervisors by May 1. This relatively quick timeline means there’s going to be a ton of writing and reading for me in the next few weeks. To that end, I’ve challenged myself to blog daily for the next month. Sometimes the posts will be elaborations on my reading notes, attempts to engage with and place into dialogue the mountains of stuff I’m reading at the moment. Others will be bits and pieces of the LTP itself as it comes together. I’ll keep them as clearly marked as I can (for the sake of my sanity and that of my supervisors!), but I welcome comments and questions on any and all of this material.

Today’s post is dealing with my readings on affect, as well as gesturing toward the questions that will shape my explorations of digital communities and projects in the coming weeks, and years!

 

 

This week, in the thick of my reading about affect, I’m stuck on the unexpectedly (at least to me) complimentary work of Lauren Berlant and Heather Love (and Melissa Gregg, but I’m pretty perpetually stuck on everything she writes.)

Gregg’s 2011 monograph Work’s Intimacy takes up the ways in which contemporary labour, particularly those forms that rely heavily on networked digital communication, is increasingly forming an intimate relationship with members of its workforce. The computer has moved into the bedroom, phones and tablets into beds themselves, and she argues that this spatial shift (among many other trends) is inseparable from an affection and longing for these devices, and the labours they embody.

What Gregg describes seems to me the ultimate and (perhaps) most disturbing extension of the rhetoric of loving what one does: an erotic attachment to the conditions and technologies of labour itself. And it’s also important for Gregg that the intimacy of technological, (mostly) white-collar labour is particularly appealing to women. Her ethnographic study demonstrates a dual tendency of women to feel gratitude for the opportunity to work at home (often rooted in the desire/need to spend more time caring for family members and performing domestic labour), at the same time as this paid labour becomes a desirable reprieve from those same domestic and familial demands. What is popularly termed a ‘work/life balance’, then, might, for many women, be more accurately described as an erotic attachment and vacillation between two forms of work, sustained by the unique, yet connected types of alienation endemic to each form.

Heather Love’s work, however, reminds us that revolution might involve similar dynamics. In Feeling Backward, she argues that “one’s relation to a collectivity might be based on the model of erotic love” (145). Like both Berlant and Sara Ahmed, however, Love’s project is not concerned with constituting revolution through exclusively positive affects. Indeed, particularly for queer subjects, for whom intimacy is so frequently bound up with loss, Love’s central claim is for the need of a politics that “allows for damage” (162), for revolutionary subjects with “a kind of hope without reason, without expectation of success” (143).

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be struck by what felt like a strong resemblance to Berlant’s conception of cruel optimism. Her 2011 work describes this as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (24). The cruelty of these attachments, she goes on to tell us, is not only in their existence, but in our inability to imagine detachment from them. Even when we realize their inaccessibility, it is the loss of these objects experienced as unbearable, not the objects themselves. Politics itself can become such a site of affective attachment, particularly when we distinguish between politics as a site of collectivity and alignment and what she calls the political, which is characterized by antagonism (252). Though Heather Love’s work is not explicitly brought up in Berlant’s text, then, there seems a powerful resonance between them: we desire politics, even revolution, in much the same way that we desire our own labour, and to potentially the same cruel ends. Yet, for Love, it is only in the explicit recognition and embrace of this cruelty within revolutionary projects that those bodies that have suffered most might see themselves within demands for a better world.

I take from considering these three together, then, an emphasis on how capitalist relationality weaves together revolution and work, pleasure and oppression, and situates them at the centre of erotic, social and political life. I’m also struck by something I wouldn’t call false-consciousness, but (for want of better phrasing) the challenge of ‘feeling out’ both politics and works. When alienated labour feels like love, and revolution feels like (and is) work, and attachment to and detachment from both can feel so acutely painful, it’s entirely unsurprising that it’s increasingly hard to sort out what’s what. My interest in the digital is thus not in how particular tools or platforms embody and direct affective labour exclusively toward revolutionary or capitalist ends, but rather in how the ‘playbour’ that structures so many online experiences uniquely dwells in a space that recognizes the two as always already conjoined.

As I consider this further, I am also at the point in my research where I have the privilege to turn more directly toward my stated domains of study—piracy, crowdfunding, blogging and fandom. My plan over the next several weeks is thus to consider the conjoined affective and erotic conditions of revolution and labour within the context of particular sites and platforms. Those thoughts will be provisional, even moreso than those on the theory, because some of that work has been with me for several years now. But the erotic role of both explicitly capitalist labour and revolutionary or resistant acts feels right now like a huge part of what’s at stake, particularly in the relationship I’m considering between piracy and fandom.  So stay tuned for this, and keep the comments coming here, on Twitter and in any other forums!

 

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2 comments

Interesting connections you're drawing here, especially between Love and Berlant.  One thing I wonder about is the temporal orientation of affect in this connection.  There's a contrast in the titles of these two books: Feeling Backward and Cruel Optimism.  Love's attends to the difficult past of queer suffering while and Berlant's attends to a more future-directed optimism.  Or that's at least one way to read it.  What's the temporality of affect for the purposes of your project?

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Thanks, Nat, for an awesome question. Temporality is indeed a factor that distinguishes these two, and yet it also doesn’t, too. Love, for example, is arguing for ‘backwardness’ at the same time as her secondary claim is about making explicit alliances between ‘past’ and ‘present’ queer subjects, and a methodological argument about present approaches to queer historiography.

Similarly, Berlant is making a case of the importance of the present and for “presentist genres” at the same time as you’re exactly right, she’s describing cruel optimism as a painful orientation toward and fixation on the future, and resistance as something that’s so often predicated on historical forms of privilege.

So perhaps what I’m getting at in a rambling kind of way is a distinction between the temporality of the objects they’re looking at (which are very different) and the methods they’re using to approach them, which seem to share an interest in critiquing firm temporal divisions and the types of erasures they can promote. As far as my own work, I would definitely say I follow Berlant in a focus on objects that are intensely present; while claims about the ephemerality of digital media at times seem to accomplish their own kind of fetishization or disavowal (of materiality most of all), I do think there is something that’s generally important about the speedy temporality of digital stuff, the way that present so quickly becomes past.

Yet I think (or at least hope) that methodologically I’m making an argument for a kind of ‘backward compatibility’. That is, while digital mediation creates particular effects that are sometimes quite unique, an emphasis on backwardness and historical relationships to other iterations of the same struggles is part of what I hope bridging affect and digital scholarship might accomplish.

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