Tears, Affect, and Subject Trouble
What follows is a response to Sarah Juliet Lauro’s article on crying in the Huffington Post “Here Come the Water-Works: (Un)professional Tears.” Lauro asked for reactions and comments on Twitter and since I do have an interest in affect, I want to respond to her interesting article. Responding academically to what is obviously a personal article may seem like overkill but it is the only way I can work through the important last paragraphs of Lauro’s piece.
I find Lauro’s article admirable in its everyday application of affect theory, thinking through how we feel every day, in typical situations. Affect is often used synonymously with extreme, which I think is wrong. Lauro articulates well how our everyday experience is shot through with affect. For this reason, I recognize myself in what Lauro writes, although I do not find myself do easily moved to tears. This is more a result of gender differences, upbringing and cultural environment, I hope, than a lack of sensitivity on my part.
Lauro identifies, quite astutely, how our affective responses (in her case crying, but I think any response) comes from what she calls ‘border trouble,’ a difficulty in reconciling the outside with the inside, in either direction – ie. a situation does not conform to how I wish it would be, or that I do not match up to what the outside world expects of me. Lauro also points to the flawed nature of language, as well as feelings of the sublime. In my vocabulary, our immersion into the world is always already aesthetic and affects not limited to sublime objects or moments, but I think Lauro would agree with this point.
Border trouble is exactly right, then, and I think that Lauro’s distinction between real and fictional is also not necessary but more a force of habit, a cultural discernment which should fall by the wayside in most discussions of affect. It is only when we filter affect through our cognitive perceptions that emotions emerge which put our responses at odds with how we should feel. This ‘should feel’ is a cultural imperative, a demand that we distinguish not just between real and fictional but also act rationally in job interviews and do not cry in museums. Affect, however, designates what is beyond and prior to this cultural imperative, affect comes before thought, tears come before the judgement that tears are inappropriate. We are, therefore, not entirely ourselves.
Here we find the only niggle I have with Lauro’s otherwise insightful piece: she emphasizes the self too much. Her last paragraphs are filled with ‘I cry,’ ‘I feel,’ ‘my tears’ and so forth. Lauro’s argument is also that her self overflows its borders, in other words that there is an excess of self which extends into the world. I agree that affect is inherently excessive and that our own affects can overflow, but I also believe that we are overwhelmed by the affects of others. Lauro herself argues as much in her description of crying at her job interview, where “all these kids crowding into my head with me” – other subjects impinge on us, much like object impose on us and that is what I would call affect, when our subjectivity is overwhelmed by the Other subject or object.
In this openness, the ‘I’ is dissolved because there is no longer a distinction between ‘my’ feelings and ‘your’ feelings but instead a vacillation between two end points of a spectrum. While some may argue that this is a total dissolution of the subject, affect theory suggests more an inherent openness to the Other, which enforces a different view of people than the traditional liberal, individualistic conception so dear to Western thought. What affect theory teaches us is that some of my experience is not mine.
The strength of Lauro’s argument is that she points out the longstanding denigration of the body and emotions in Western culture and thought, where is it improper to be overcome with emotion. Even this expression ‘overcome with emotion’ reveals the possession associated with being emotional, suggesting the cultural antipathy we have against emotions and affects. I recognize that there in affect theory is a distinction between affect (pre-conscious) and emotions (cognitively filtered affects) but in the vernacular, there is no real distinction. Lauro points out this fundamental antipathy by revealing the prejudices and judgments that she encounters and yet insisting that we are all emotional and affective animals.