Here’s a roundtable talk I gave at the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory’s conference at the University of Illinois to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. It’s cross-posted here on the Unit’s Kritik blog, where it was published on September 9.
A few days ago I came across the phrase “mood economy” as a way of describing how “working class youth are privatizing happiness” (the headline of an article in the Boston Globe). “Losing hope of the American Dream,” the headline continues, “a generation hopes for inner strength instead.” Sociology researcher Jennifer Silva, a postdoc at Harvard, has just documented how a whole generation has been locked out of the traditional metrics of success—-graduating from college, getting a job with benefits, marriage—-and is focusing instead on a totally different aspirational vocabulary that can be summarized as “Getting My Shit Together.” Their “definition of adulthood” is now built on “defining and conquering emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, addiction.” Silva suggests that this focus on the self is not only the result of the pervasive influence of therapeutic language in pop culture, but it’s a response to an environment that literally won’t let them grow up.
Now, participants in a forum dedicated to rethinking Marxism are likely to see this development not as an empowering moment of agency but as a kind of pathetic petty-bourgeois backsliding, a mere symptom of the failure of individualism. But the desires of the working classes have only intermittently included hammering through abstract political tracts. Marxists have historically been better at some moods than others: better at sternness, at criticism, at exhortations to solidarity; less attentive to tears and softness, to depression, to aesthetic delight, to things that are funny. Of the many recent works on political affect, I’ll call attention to two that try to engage with these unpromising affects: Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, which links affect to the experience of precarity, of living in a state of permanent crisis that is no longer confined to a nomadic underclass; and also Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling–-although she is trying to reclaim precisely the kind of left-melancholic affect that Jodi Dean, in our conference readings from The Communist Horizon, would have us put behind us.
Phillip Wegner reminds us that Jameson’s figure of “cognitive mapping” is not a map that can be seen all at once, but a kind of narrative unfolding that helps us make connections between the otherwise reified fragments of our experience. I wonder if there could also be an “affective mapping” of late capitalism: and if there were, if it would be considered less (or perhaps more?) politically useful than the cognitive approach that Marxism has so often privileged. Would it seem regressive? Would it seem infantile?
Marxism has a complex relationship with the figure of “maturity.” The possibility of a Communist future comes always at the wrong time, either too early or too late. Marx was worried that Prussia was historically backward when compared with both French politics and with British industrialism, so it would have to somersault forward to catch up (see my article here). And yet, the time he thought was ripe—-the failed bourgeois revolution of 1848—-turned out to be still agonizingly premature. The working classes are never ready, never quite self-aware enough—-until they’ve sold out for Model Ts and cheap televisions and you’ve missed your opportunity for revolution. Are Marxists too mature, too fixed and rigid to respond to what Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity,” or is the fantasy of utopian revolution an essentially childlike stance compared with the “hard truths” of Realpolitik-y policy wonks? Are we destined to live in a world where, according to Jeff Bezos, “All businesses have to be young forever,” while humans, with their troublesome tendency to age, are already obsolete?
Perhaps Marxists should be more playful in imagining what the future might hold. New collectivisms emerge constantly, especially through the internet, and most of them are bonded by some kind of affect. Could there be a cyber-socialism that wasn’t mainly constructed around the national security state? Can ecological thought make peace with a bureaucracy that fosters and redistributes wealth, or is it committed to a zero-growth world? Can the struggle between free choice and a just society be finally resolved by tweaking the “choice architecture” of public regulation, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler promise-—or is there, as behavioral economics tends to suggest, no such thing as a “rational” economy?
One of the reasons I’m harping on the question of affect has to do with the problem of foretelling the future. Do you remember—-and this is a cautionary tale—-cyberpunk? Stories like William Gibson’s & Bruce Sterling’s Neuromancer foretold a world of druggie hackers and chilly dames with mirrored sunglasses surgically implanted into their faces. They invented the concept of cyberspace, and they weren’t wrong about the rogue hackers. But nobody saw that with the invention of Web 2.0—-of Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr—-everybody would use all this information technology to send around pictures of kittens. In the battle between punk and cute, cute won the internet. All the futurists were wrong about this basic fact about human nature, now terrifyingly revealed. So perhaps Marxists, who are always wrong about the future—unless, perhaps, they aren’t—-should integrate temporary wrongness into their theories of history, and permit themselves to experiment. Why should capitalism have all the fun?