Our co-editor Alfie Bown reviews the latest publication from radical independent London publisher and collective Different Skies, who aim to move people at the level of affect to enact political change for the Left.
Alisait Cartwright, Hannah Meszaros Martin, J. W. Siah and Geoff Tibbs (eds.) Sixteen Summers: Different Skies 4 (Different Skies, 2016) 240pp.
This month, after nearly four years, my co-editor and I closed our project Everyday Analysis, a collective blog and book series of cultural and political critique. The blog had specialized (as its title obviously implies) in the analysis of everyday things, with a focus on the un-interrogated feelings (or affects) produced by everything from politics to videogames and advertisements. Our initial aim was to bring critical theory together with all aspects of life. As a result, we published some pretty quirky stuff including Derridean analyses of old tortoises and Hegelian readings of Nyan Cat.
Our principle reason for closing the project was the new political climate in which we find ourselves in Europe and the US today. Today, it seems, something quite different is called for. The lightheartedness associated with such articles felt acceptable in 2012 as a way of revealing how political everyday life can secretly be, but today, such an approach seems to neglect the need for serious immediate and direct engagement with politics, a politics which is now quite obviously inseparable from the everyday. Another collective who we met through our work, Different Skies, are working towards giving writing a political future and have a clearer answer to these problems: writing must engage politically with the production of feelings.
Today’s is political a climate which Georgio Agamben has recently described as one of stasis. It is a moment in which the old has gone but the new has not yet emerged, a moment of political opportunity as well as potential disaster. Srecko Horvat recently used Antonio Gramsci’s famous line to describe the political climate we are in:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
A lot of old things are dying, and the Left should not look back to its past, or its imaginary past, as the Right tends to do, but look forward into the future as yet unborn and look for ways to influence what is to come. Sixteen Summers, the latest publication from Different Skies, aims to work towards a future for writing without nostalgia for older forms. At the same time, there is nothing futurist or postmodern about their work. Sixteen Summers is a collection which contains much of the writing of the past – using conventions of academia, poetry, short-story and novel writing – but reworking these modes to respond to new political needs.
Different Skies describes itself as ‘a home for hybrids’ and as ‘a space for writing that falls between the political, the critical and the creative.’ Their latest and most significant collection contains poetry, essays and stories, as well as pieces which involve all and none of these forms. These contributions come from around the world and engage with a ream of social and cultural issues quite disparate from each other, but which are always political. Even the poetry in the collection – such as Stephen Bochonek’s ‘Unemployed’ does nothing as silly as celebrate the beauty of words and experiences because it is too busy forcing us to reflect on how political every experience and use of language is. The academic(ish) pieces include editor Geoff Tibbs’s essay on the comedy of Tommy Cooper which is critically sharp enough to compete with an academic book on comedy but which never falls into the traps of the ‘university discourse.’ The creative writing in the volume includes the excellent short story ‘Medieval Tourist Centre’ by Merlin Fulcher, which humorously imagines the state of Canterbury Cathedral in 2050 and the experimental finale by Skye McDade-Burn, ‘Playground’, which demands new reflection on institutionalized society.
Perhaps the most important piece comes at the very back of the book, where we find something of a manifesto for what the Different Skies project is all about. Here they say that writing is about ‘moving people,’ which is of course a creative writing cliche heard at many middle-class writing classes and literary festivals. So far, so bourgeois, to create some accidental poetry of our own. But for Different Skies this means something quite different. ‘To put in another way,’ they write, this means ‘to fight a battle at the level of affect.’
‘Affect’ is a psychoanalytic term preferred to the word ’emotion’ by Freud and his followers because whilst emotion implies feelings that come from within us, affects are feelings produced on the boundaries between interior and exterior. Whilst emotions are apparently our own, affects are political feelings produced in us from and by a variety of discourses and structures. Further credit is due to Different Skies for not invoking the strictly psychoanalytic history of this term. Without mentioning psychoanalysis, they give a definition which works just as well as Freud’s:
Affect is something in between emotion, sensation and ideological atmosphere. It cannot be reduced to either form or content.In a sense it is both at the same time, in that an event has an affective charge well before it splits into form and content – like the wall of sound coming off a demonstration, or a baby’s smile.
The sound of protest and a baby’s smile affect us, operating on us as subjects and producing feelings and sensations. Yet, these feelings are not innocent but ‘ideological’. If writing, then, has the power to ‘move us’ and effect us affectually, then writing must have a great political responsibility. Writing must not just be about politics but it must be aware of its own political affectiveness, of how and why it ‘moves us’ in the directions it does. For Different Skies then, it is no longer enough to praise a text because we find it ‘moving.’ On the contrary, what matters is the politics and ideology of these movements.
For me, the Right have long been the masters of ‘moving’ people, and rightwing ideologies are once again winning the battle at the level of affect across Europe and the US today. It feels hardly necessary to give examples and Donald Trump will probably suffice. What I take from Different Skies, then, is a much needed call to arms for the Left, which must use the power of language to effect people affectually in alternative ways. It may also be about admitting that language functions in such a way and that our feelings are all political. Whilst the Right likes us to think in terms of emotion, affect could be the ally of the Left.
Get a copy here.
Alfie Bown is the co-editor of the HKRB and the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and The PlayStation Dreamworld (Polity, forthcoming).
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Wasn’t there another book, besides the Pears novel, that you were assigning to me?