#ASA2012 panel notes: New Materialisms, Futurity, Speculative Realisms plenary

I’m continuing to post my notes from ASA panels, now that I’ve returned from the conference and have had a chance to fix the most egregious of the typoes.

I’m conscious of the various conflicting ethics around openness, intellectual property, and ownership of ideas in academic discourse. Blogging panel notes seems like a more permanent form of archiving than using Twitter as I usually do, yet it is also one in which it is easier to attribute ideas clearly. If any speaker or audience member who attended this panel or any of the others I am sharing would like me to take this down, though, I will.

Notes are my interpretation of panelists’ ideas and may not be accurate. I would not recommend citing these without contacting the quoted speakers for confirmation first.


New Materialisms, Futurity, Speculative Realisms: plenary panel.

Tavia Nyong’o (NYU Performance Studies)

Dana Luciano (Georgetown English)

José Muñoz (NYU Performance Studies.
Jayna Brown (UC Riverside) can’t make it.

Tavia Nyong’o (NYU Performance Studies) introduces morning plenary: Jayna Brown can’t make it.
All speaking from projects about aspects of new materialisms, speculative realism.

Nyong’o: Dark Fabulations: Queer Ecologies of Blackness

Images of zombie survival kits. Interweaving of disaster preparedness and dystopian fantasy: zombie survival kits as the go-bag Americans are urged to have ready in increasingly frequent event of an emergency. Capital’s role in libidinising the imagination of disaster. We prepare for the actual by reenacting the fictive: Hollywood and comics affect our relation to future survival. The zombie survival kit might really come in handy — but this doesn’t make the zombie outbreak less fictive.

Value of the kit not only its contents but also the process of its assembly: planning to survive the zombie apocalypse with the accoutrements of future dystopic autarky. Overkill? Or the deliberate merging of fact and fiction into a single speculative realism? Less flight of fancy than crash landing into ongoing event: a fabulation.

Genealogy of concept of fabulation. Bergson. Shocking apprehension of death, fantasy of a survival beyond it. Theory of how imagination sees events as mindful personalities. Death, the revenant, a dark vitality. A force animating all living matter: elan vital [missed the name of the scholar whose work on elan vital was cited extensively]. A distributed agency beyond the human — also an internal obstacle to human projection.

Why the affective attachment to the zombie — and through it to histories and memories of slavery in the black Atlantic? Zombie as African practice in new world that has now returned to Africa as part of capitalist accumulation’s violence. Contemporary pop culture zombie seems to have lost connection to former life. First shows up in US culture during occupation of Haiti: zombies brought back from spooky Caribbean islands, plantation slavery’s history a gothic backdrop. Val Lewton’s film, I walked with a Zombie, 1943: a silent rebuke to representations of black men. [title sequence playing in background]. Time image in film, Deleuze: non pictorial idea of time out of joint.

A nurse walks along a beac with a zombie. Carrefour [?] enslaved; what does it mean to walk with him? Withholds illusion of intersubjective gaze; they are co-present but not co-passionate. This walk never appears in the fim but flashes up; will cycle eternally between fictional and real worlds.

Today, slashing and hacking hordes fighting protagonists in films, and zombie marches in cities, make the contemplative walk with a zombie seem unthinkable. Slavery the onto-epistemological other of modernity — must be taken into account in new materialist ways of thinking the human.

The zombie as revenant of the slave (Elizabeth Dillon) requires a hauntology as much as a historiography. Connection to Haiti is the absent center of later zombie outbreaks, from Michael Jackson to OWS. Haiti’s slave revolt as the position of the unthought; the position of the slave wrt modernity, at once foundational and foreclosed unexceptionable and unimaginable. Apophatic [?]: cannot be referred to. Horde as insurrectionary black multutide, zombie in juxtaposition to human, insisted upon yet constantly violated. Conjuring with a dark figure not and yet none other than the figure of chattel — even when zombie is not black, even when living human is.

Zombie survival kit as rehearsal for disaster. This function is not from black cultural memory as it is contemporary capitalism; chronic anxieties and intensities of everyday life. Forthcoming article analyzes zombie performances at Occupy: enacting a time image where chronological time and the arrowing time of eternity meet and interanimate. Here, zombies not aiming to throw capital out of joint but infused with energies of commodity culture. Zombies of the market place are not revolt against contemporary capitalism; they are, Steven Shaviro suggests, a weird modulation of contemporary life.

Shaviro on Grace Jones video Corporate Cannibal. Elusive, indirect presence of blackness in zombie lore. Posthumanist theory tends to vitalize blackness … Jones video shows the human as radically displaced, no stable perspective of vision at al; instead a black monster identifying herself with consumption. Tomkins: Racial Indigestion. In Jones, this gives way to a blackness that is purely topological. Shaviro sees this as exposing the commodity fetish; Jones “turns herself into a thing thereby forcing us to confront ways that slavery and racism turn black people into things … that capitalism turns us all unto commodities or strangely animate things.” Jones as terrorist assemblage? A life giving power flowing from all points on her undulating surface — elan vital in Shaviro’s argument. Yet the black female body remains a racial and gendered vector of energy that revivifies the posthuman. A transracial force affecting ALL? At the same time universalizing excess over identity categories that he nonetheless assigns her. Elan vital as overflow of limits to subjectivity. Shaviro lets us have our cake and be eaten by it too.

What if we approach the corporate cannibal not through celebrity performance but its own speculative origins in enslaved enigmatic Carrefour? Enclosed self rather than a modulating topology? The zombie does not speak, she only moans; the dark universe from her perspective is dumb and blind.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Apostrophe: as projected possibility & as fake moment of intersubjectivity. On addresses to the unborn child: animating the other to affect a return to the self. Seems to reach out to a “you” but is actually a turning back, a realization of something in the speaker, the speaker more or differently possible. Visual and rhetorical apostrophe in Walking With a Zombie marks ways of being white & female in the Caribbean.

Searching for new poetic modes of descriptive prose in new materialism: apostrophes to the material, to stuff. Opening of Vibrant Matter: Jane Bennett’s address to trash that “shimmied between debris and thing”. Ecomimesis leaps out of culture bound specifics of calendar time, human geography; walking with the dead rat to diminish human meanings, open to other possibilities. A shared investment in revivifying the dead without anthropomorphizing. Berlant alerts us to the potential violence of such a poesis. Implicitly, the history of apostrophizing the slave as a thing.

Do we need to delibidinize the zombie? More moments of speculative obscurity, inanicacy, deadness: dark fabulation, dwelling in the shadow of the noncommunicable.

Final form of fabulation: Deleuze, free indirect image. Panels from The Walking Dead (comic source for TV show). Scott McCloud sees comics as especially concerned with apostrophe: panel showing the abstraction of cartoons that can facilitate identification. The face that we look at, the face that we look with. The cartoon looking like the way we feel our faces, as zones of intensity.

Deleuze’s free indirect image: nether objective/establishing shot nor subjective; subject and object are indiscernible. Walking Dead fabulates the zombie using human POV (image of zombies seen through a fence); intersubjective panels, replication shot/reaction shot; and free indirect images that don’t have a single POV but seem to come from the perspective of the zombie horde itself. Through what mechanism of vision is the zombie seeing? What collectivity of living and dead? Not a direct apostrophe of the zombie, which we see in the human haze that projects affects, pasts, presents, futures. The free indirect image is closer to the memento mori in painting: the shocking yet momentary glimpse into our ultimate fate.

Zombie POV disclosed on condition of imagining our own survival. Hints at a darker fabulation where humans do not exist at all, an unseen pastoral vista of the zombie. A place of living without life (Eugene Thacker); an ambient soundscape with the zombie as a herd not a horde; a time and place beyond.

Luciano. Speaking from project Romancing the Inhuman: Animacy and Eros in America, 1910-1940;

Questions around deanthropocentric/inhumanist/posthumanist thought. To what extent does the inhumanist turn lose sight of histories of dehumanization? Her book: focuses on ghosts, rocks, domestic objects. The matter of whiteness that goes unthought in object oriented thought.

“Stuff white people like”: Bill O’Reilly’s anguish at whiteness’s turn to minority, Obama’s relection blamed on people’s lust for “stuff” or things. Vs the ironic blog Stuff White People Like: documenting white middle class search for authenticity via the Other. These are two whitenesses: conservative/liberal? Two divergent patterns of white flight: retreating inward, or turning outward to otherness to return to itself, renewed yet un-dislodged. Both patterns have a long history on the American continent: perpetually spiraling around one another, ordering American racial formations.

Second form of whiteness, outward movement incorporating other, has become dominant form. Aggregating this with questions guiding the roundtable. Can this spiral be swerved? Question “what is the matter with white people” which (when asked by white people) can be a route for self-refreshing rather than transformation, needs to shift to an inquiry into the matter of whiteness.

The stuffness, the matteriness, of both bodies and things — and the history of commodity fetishism. C19 modern spiritualist movement; saw itself as scientific. Often read as continuous with middle class sentimental culture, but phenomena are different. White sentimental body yearns backward to a timeless truth of emotion; spiritualist time is different, filtering itself through science with embrace of the diffuse, capacious, and consoling. An experimental futurism? Often going along with abolition, women’s rights, causes. Molly McGarry’s work: a wild new world opening up to personal, sexual transformations. Yet expansiveness halted at a familiar point, stopping when faced with obdurate bodies of people of color (Cox) — yet spirits of color were welcomed. Seen as ‘kinda queer kinda racist’ – can we think white spiritualism as other than caught in its own contradictions?

Hoping not to liberate some antiracist content from white spiritualism, but wondering about openings to other ways of thought. Bennett in Vibrant Matter talks about connections to a world of vitalized matter; Psychedelic Whiteness and the reinforcement of whiteness in Goan cultures that sought its escape.

White women as mothers and mourners; in spiritualism, as mediums. Bodies as machines where the mechanical and the vital cross. Nervousness discourse: nervousness as minor whiteness. Affectively porous white woman remains a prominent cultural figure: eg discourses of depression, public face of multiple chemical sensitivity. What about the matter of the white female body might allow this porosity, this nervousness, to attach? Cf female reproductive organs, point of panic for purity concerned that white women might reproduce otherwise.
Physiology of white middle class femininity; corsets etc. Disability and capacity’s connection in bodily matters (critique of reprofuturism mentioned, not sure whose).

Matter, energy of channel transmissions. Is what is being channeled spirit, matter, energy, both? The channeling body as physically affected. Belief: is it a true or fake phenomenon? Maybe this matters no more than whether a poem is true; it is a worldmaking activity. Yet materialist approach: corsets and their effects on bodies wearing them were real.

What if they were faking it? Performance, even if disbelieved has material conditions and affects. And the question of mediation: mediation even by human mediums is as thingly as it is subjective. Thingliness is not the same as objectivity. New materialisms need to think with affect theory and media studies where these ideas are considered.
1863 book The Souls of Things: Psychometric Researches and Discoveries (by married couple, missed names). Idea that objects or beings leave traces on things with which they come into contact. Soul not as aspect of spirit but as sedimentation of contact between bodies and matter. Desire to develop a theory of practical and ethical interobjectivity. Vitalized and ethical orientation to the matter of the world.

Autobiography of a boulder: narrates the sensations of a rock, incorporating a lecture on geology: human intellectual control. The rock narrated by female author, Elizabeth, the lecture from her husband. The boulder is intersubjective with other objects, sharing perceptions with ice that touches the rock and with a meteorite it/she meets. The feelings of the specimen remain within the psychometer.

Objects are much more lively than humans in the book. The rock encounters Indians, seen as collective on the warpath; finds more welcome the wandering consciousness of a white explorer. Self-stabilizing whiteness is complicated if we attend to the vibrations of animacy. Struggle with boundaries of human, of matter, does not escape vibrations of race.

Not all excessive embodiments are the same; the corporeal force of the Indian seen as muscular, the white woman’s porosity.

Movement toward a fuller accounting of the eventualization of race.

Closing question: How do certain familiar tools of transformation based on erotic receptivity (becoming undone, jouissance, erotohistoriography) align with whiteness?

Jose Munoz (NYU Performance Studies). From project The Sense of Brown.

Touching the Brown Commons. Brown commons signifies two things: what makes things brown is suffering and striving together but also the ability to flourish. Brown because devalued by world outside their commons. But also brown because smouldering with life and resistance, a common color shared by the commons, of and for the multitude. People and things in the commons are brown because they share the organism that is not solely the organic or natural. Embeddedness in the vast and pulsating social world. Movement, flow, and impulse to love beyond the individual. The moment of contact, encounter, all that it can generate.

Brown people and objects that are human and not human, organic and inorganic. Vastly extended cast of actants. Commons made common because objects, seismograph of brownness, not just a list but an narration that may be precondition for dissidence, defiance, maybe insurrection.

Brown people in a very immediate way: people rendered brown by movement in migratory patterns, by accents that convey a certain distance, by contestation of rights to residency; everyday customs and styles of living that connote a certain illegitimacy. A certain vulnerability to capital’s mechanism of domination. Things are brown by law, vulnerability to xenophobes. People are brown in that they feel differently. Things are brown in that they radiate a different kind of affect.

Brown as homage to history of brown power. A friend to Muñoz: “you are the only white Cuban who uses the word brown” — he especially likes to do that after elections. Brown power followed black power and was followed by red power, gay power, other movements of refusal to dominant systems of thought, insistence on doing and thinking otherwise. Linked to modes of knowledge production that would ultimately congeal as ethnic studies, etc.

Arizona: anti immigrant profiling laws come up and are soon followed by curricular laws. Brown lives and brown knowledge are on the same continuum, the same list that he is offering. Attacks on knowledge production are related to violent assaults on brown lives. Brown thoughts, literature, philosophy, styles of living and being are objects in the same way brown people are and are rendered illegal in much the same way. But brown thought flows through what Fred Moten calls the undercommons of the academy, has and always will thrive in the realms of the fugitive, the immanent realm of brownness.

Brownness is partially known and felt but it isn’t anticipatable. Things can remain mysterious, partial, but still be in collusion. Resists total unconcealment for reasons both strategic and mysterious. Through a speculative lens, brownness is incommensurable; incommensurablility is a virtue.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of being singular and plural; Jane Bennett’s grand concordance of things. Life in the commons is and should be turbulent, never placid, because of enclosures that threaten but also because dissent within is central to what the commons us. Commons are human an nonhuman collectives brought into being by threat of harm. Queer ecologies, including the natural and unnatural world, potential for refusal of and resistance to systemic harm.

Commons often used in history/philosophy as a stand in for nature: the commons giving want to formations of society, being fenced in. Hardt and Negri on the new commons, the biopolitical commons, permeating equally all spheres of life (earth air animal plants languages affects clothes): interdependence, care, mutual transformation. An urban common, a common in the metropolis, the city is a living dynamic of cultural practices. Not just an enclosure of nature but also its own common, a full engagement with the common means living otherwise. Harvey critiques this, unsympathetic to H&N’s argument that race/gender/sexual struggles matter as much as class. H&N take the long view and see queer theory as more than demand for perpetuation of queer identity but rather call to dismantle the structures that call for the terminology of difference. The eventual goal is the dissolution of individual identity in favour of collective becoming. The same goal as brownness.

Why brownneess? Still working through that… but… closed last book arguing that we are not yet queer, the temporal logic of queerness is futurity. Now: we are not not brown, or, brownness persists and endures. Experience of shared harm, a commons brought into being by what Spinoza calls a shared affect of indignation, leading to a thinking and analysis that might assemble a potentially insurrectionist commons. The process of thinking/imagining otherwiseness in face of shared wounding. Trotksy said active indignation is linked with hope. Critical hope, educated desire: not an idle wishing for things to get better, but born in the face of indignation one feels at the harm visited on groups, cultures, ways of life, the planet. Relationships to a vaster circuit as a whole.

Speculative realism / object oriented ontology peppers the language of this paper. These new approaches cited alongside one another but are not as such in dialogue. Harman: objects as distinct [didn’t catch this explanation], Bennett, Timothy Morton (object as weird entity, withdrawn from access but somehow manifest)

Muñoz’s commitment to old materialism keeps him on the side of the relational, yet Harman’s argument that objects blur too easily into one another fascinates. Bennett ends up theorizing relationality; suggests we toggle between things/objects. A need to think about objects together. Nancy: To touch is to caress a subject that belongs to something else but to never master or consume it.

A brown commons an example of a community through the incommensurable. Raiding debates in critical theory that have not said anything about the brownness of things, the brown components of the world. We can’t be surprised that newish theoretical models like speculative realism etc are not interested in minoritarian particularity. But that should not inhibit us. Instead, put this work in a time and place of imaging a brown commons that is simultaneously already existing and not yet here.


Q: on Bill O’ Reilly: the quote was “free stuff” rather than “stuff”… does the idea of free stuff connect all the papers? Looting in the zombie apocalypse; Dana’s paper talked about white poeple wanting stuff. If white people didn’t want stuff, most black people wouldn’t be here. Human and nonhuman distinguished by desire and attachment to different kinds of things. The brown commons makes visible in immigraion discourse––the idea of “free stuff” that elides contributions to material culture.

JM: likes the idea of thinking stuff in relation to objects. An expansive list: O’Reilly’s “stuff” is free services, medical care. Commons is a movement toward free stuff as opposed to enclosure, which makes stuff not free.

TN: Walking Dead in TV and comic is so much about the dynamic of looting/gathering. White protag in first issue generously gives a black man permission to squat a house… Resonating with brown commons idea, the zombie point of view, the horde//herd is closer to a brown common than the surviving human community who are constantly enclosing (at one point they go to a prison). The zombie herd want the free stuff as brains.

JM: delicious vibrant matter!

TN: zombies model a kind of freedom inaccessible to the humans.

DL: freeness and whiteness that moves outward — based on assumption of uninhibited, emancipated, free subject. How did healthcare become a thing? Condenses into objecthood by its very impropriety. Whiteness as a form of property, something you own and don’t want to give up. Wealth to accumulate against other, freer stuff.

Q: To TN: Yesterday’s OOO panel, on object oriented ontology, Shane Vogel’s paper on Calypso cards & commodification of a performance of blackness. How does this work around blackness/zombie-ism, film Sugar Hell, ambivalent relation to black aesthetics that Grace Jones and Michael Jackson have?

TN: Idea that in the moment of one’s commodification one can withhold something: what many interpreters of Grace Jones have said. Both a subject position and an assemblage. Larger genealogy of black engagements with the zombie.

Q: for JM: the sound of accent, of language use, as a “tell” for “brown”?
JM: portal into brownness is US/Latino stuff, but wants to think about brown as coherences, impulses, that can potentially be on a planetary scale, that aren’t limited to regional stuff. The election discourse “browning of America” — a brown mass, a noisy mass. Thinking about how listening invites a different perception of browness.

DL: Lefebvre, rhythmanalysis, sound brings back temporality. Sound enters into you, brings people together, can break into different pulses, alter intensities.

TN: post-election context calls attention to futurities, futures of dehumanization. The survivalist response: fabulation indexes the fear of the looter. Militarized survivalism in full manifestation on Fox News.

DL: panicked whiteness response to election, but not sure that the future of browning America is not still white supremacist.

Q: papers open space for new forms of knowledge, production, resistance.

Final audience comment from Aimee Bahng on speculation: goes back to Latin but also Sanskrit word: “to touch.

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