Affect, Noise, Silence, Protest: Ambient Citizenship

Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago

Intensely political seasons spawn reveries of a different immediacy. People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face. In these times, even politicians imagine occupying a public sphere where they might just somehow make an unmediated transmission to the body politic. “Somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people,” President George W. Bush commented in October 2003, echoing a long tradition of sentimental political fantasies soon to be followed by condemnations of the “filter” by the Presidential Campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin and circumnavigations of it by Barack Obama. What does it mean to want to dismantle “the filter”? Bush seems to be inverting the meaning of his own, mixed metaphor. As Jacques Attali and Michel Serres have argued, a filter separates out noise from communication and, in so doing, makes communication possible.

Yet Bush’s wish to skirt the filter pointed to something profound in the desire for the political. He wanted to transmit not the message, but the noise. He wanted the public to feel the funk, the live intensities and desires that make messages affectively immediate, seductive, and binding. In his head a public’s binding to the political is best achieved neither by policy nor ideology but the affect of feeling political together, in the absence of which, as we have recently seen in the health care town hall meetings, great dramas of betrayal are felt and staged. The desire for the political that relies on noise confirms to the mass cultural listening audience that it already shares an affective environment; its senses have already provided an experience of a better world that exists right here, right now, in a fold more intimate and secure and just as real as the world made by the media’s distortions.

What exactly is the problem with “the filter”? 24-7, the contemporary filtered or mediated political sphere in the U.S. transmits news from a new ordinary created by crisis, in which life seems reduced to discussions about tactics for survival and who’s to blame. The filter tells you that the public has entered a historical situation whose contours it does not know. It impresses itself upon mass consciousness as an epochal crisis but without a name, unfolding like a disaster film made up of human-interest stories and stories about institutions that have lost their way. It is a moment on the verge of a post-normative phase, in which phantasmatic clarities about the conditions for enduring collectivity, historical continuity, and infrastructural stability have melted away, along with predictable relations between event and effect. Living amidst war and environmental disaster, people are shown constantly being surprised at what does and does not seem to have a transformative impact. Living amidst economic crisis, people are shown constantly being surprised at the amount, location, and enormity of moral and affective irregulation that comes from fading rules of accountability and recognition. What will govern the terms and relations of reliable reciprocity amongst governments, intimates, workers, owners, churches, citizens, political parties, or strangers? Nobody knows. The news about the recent past and pressures of the near future demand constant emergency clean-up and hyperspeculation about what it means to live in the ongoing present amongst piles of cases where things didn’t work out or seem to make sense, at least not yet. There are vigils; there is witnessing, and testimony: but there is not yet a consensual rubric on offer that would shape these matters into an event. The affective structure of the situation is therefore anxious and the political emotions attached to it veer wildly away from recognition of the enigma that is clearly there toward explanations that make sense, the kind of satisfying sense that enables optimism for enduring.

This uncertainty was the filter that Bush wished to bracket. His yearning for a politics of ambient noise, prepropositional transmission, and intuitive reciprocity sought  to displace the filtered story of instability and contradiction from the center of US sociality. It also wishfully banished self-reflexive, cultivated opinion and judgment from their central public-sphere function. In short, his wishful feeling was to separate the political from politics as such. In so doing he would cast the ongoing activity of social antagonism to the realm of the epiphenomenal, in contrast to which the affective feedback loop of the political would make stronger the true soul-to-soul continuity between politicians and their public, a much stronger binding than “representation.”

These are not politically tendentious observations. Desiring to ground a sociality above the filter links many in the body politic: the ones who prefer political meetings in town halls, caucuses, demonstrations, and other intimate assemblies to the pleasure of disembodied migratory identification that constitutes mass publics. The non-dominant classes have long produced intimate publics that provide the feeling of immediacy and solidarity by establishing in the public sphere an affective register of belonging to inhabit when there are few adequate normative institutions to fall back on, rest in, or return to. Public spheres are always affect worlds, worlds to which people are bound, when they are, by affective projections of a constantly negotiated common interestedness. But an intimate public is more specific. In an intimate public you encounter stories of survival tactics and of what it has meant to survive, or not. It promises the sense of being loosely held in a social world. You don’t have to do anything to belong, once you show up and listen. You can be passive and lurk in an intimate public, deciding when to appear and disappear, and you can consider the delegation of political attention and emotion the exercise of your sovereign freedom. For in liberal societies, freedom includes freedom from the obligation to be political—that is, to be politically conscious or politically active. For many this means that politics is usually something overheard, encountered indirectly and unsystematically, through a kind of communication more akin to gossip than to cultivated rationality. But there is nothing fundamentally passive or superficial in overhearing the political. What hits a person encountering the dissemination of news about power has nothing to do with how thorough or cultivated their knowledge is or how they integrate the impact into living. Amidst all of the chaos, crisis, and injustice in front of us, the desire for alternative filters that produce the sense—if not the scene—of a more livable and intimate sociality is another name for the desire for the political.

What does it mean want to be with the noise of the political, rather than the speech of it? What does it mean to think of the political as something overheard? What does it mean when, as in silent protest, people enter the public sphere in order to withhold from it the very material—speech oriented toward opinion—that animates its world-making and world-building effectivity? The longer version of this talk rethinks publicness by looking at some cases in which the body politic in the politically depressive position tries not to reenter the normative public sphere organized by reflective opinion while seeking a way, nonetheless, to maintain its desire for the political. It will argue that the new crisis ordinary is engendering peculiar forms of something like “ambient citizenship.” In ambient sound we dissolve into an ongoing present whose ongoingness is neither necessarily comfortable nor uncomfortable, avant-garde nor Muzak, but, most formally, a space of abeyance. Ambient citizenship is a style appropriate to the impasse of the present that can only be encountered as degenerating, excitable, and delivered by chaotic external forces, without being, exactly, open. It characterizes a mode of being that moves around recursively in an environment gathering things up, changing the relation between what the senses collect and the constitution of political imaginaries and practices. It opens up a different somatic domain for encountering the political and its subjects.

[This essay is based on a talk delivered at the mini-plenary “Keywords:The Public Sphere, Public Culture and Reasoned Public Choice” of the 59th Annual ICA Conference in Chicago, May 22, 2009. The piece comes from the author’s forthcoming book Cruel Optimism.—ed.]

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