Composing ‘Histories of the Present’

a quick pin, excerpted from Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (p. 63-69):

Here, figures move transversally across spaces, quickly and lingeringly, reflectively and in the flesh, projecting and sensing atmospheres and impacts to which they have to catch up and respond. Sometimes they unlearn, sometimes they repeat, sometimes they surprise themselves, often they just lean numbly or wonderingly toward the next potentiality. Occupying the long middle of a crisis, their ambitious pursuit of an understanding of the presenting situation produces a personal, political, and aesthetic ambit that pushes the on going event into something that has not found its genre (63).

This very need to block the becoming-object of the event is what embeds the affective in the historical. When Foucault talks about eventilization, he refers to a need to move analytically beyond the moment when a happening moves into common sense, or a process congeals into an object-event that conceals its immanence, its potentially unfinished or enigmatic activity. In these narrative histories of the present, a shift between knowing and uncertain intuitionisms enables us to think about being in history as a densely corporeal, experientially felt thing whose demands on survival skills map not the whole world in one moment but a way to think about the history of sensualized epistemologies in the atmosphere of a particular moment now (aesthetically) suspended in time (64).

But what’s personal, local, and sensual about the perception of the historical present often produces skepticism about its historical actuality and exemplarity … (64)

Notably, theorists from Lukács to Jameson and Benedict Anderson, to name a few, have cast historicism via the historical novel as the aesthetic expression of an affective epistemology, an encounter with the historical present via the intensities of its tone, whether emergent, chaotic, or waning. Lukács constantly refers to the “feeling” and the aesthetic “tone” that gets at the heart of the experiential shape of a historical period. Williams, by way of the “structure of feeling,” points to “specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships” and to “elements of impulse, restraint, and tone.” The “structure of feeling” is a residue of common historical experience sensed but not spoken in a social formation, except as the heterogeneous but common practices of a historical moment would emanate them: Williams wrote and interpreted all literary work in terms of the articulation of historical and bodily events. Anderson too uses the historical novel to describe what he calls the feeling of national modernity engendered aesthetically, notably in the Philippines, but generically, in the historical novel, too. Finally, Jameson, famously, marked the shift into postmodernism via the waning of affect in postmodern culture (66).

As I have argued in The Female Complaint, all genres are distinguished by the affective contract they promise: by claiming that certain affects embed the historical in persons and persons in the historical in ways that only the aesthetic situation could really capture, the cultural Marxist take on the historical novel foregrounds affect not as the sign of ahistoricism, but as the very material of historical embedded- ness.18 Critics read these novels for the sense of the historical they provide: history is neither in footnotes, nor in the representation of historical figures or events, nor in style as such, as in the period piece, but in atmospheres (an aesthetic genre). This tradition of the novel points to something barely apprehensible in ordinary life and consciousness. It emerged from the space of time and practice that not only made people historical but made them feel responsive to and shaped by something historical in an atmosphere they’ve lived, whether in the flesh or through mediated inheritances of what is always bodily memory (66).

Anyone schooled in the work of genre will know that it is impossible to comprehend the terms of a cultural discussion among those who left traces without encountering what’s affective (a literary convention, a sense held in collective memory about a “time”) about the aesthetics of that translation. But too often we derive a sense of a time, place, and power through historical archives whose job it is to explain something aesthetic without thinking the aesthetic in the sensually affective terms that conventions of entextualizing always code, perform, and release. Thinking about genre historically bridges the historiography of an entexualized moment and the affectivity gathered up in the evidence that points to the animating situation (67).

The Deleuzian strain in Jameson’s work, which is now elaborated by theorists like Stewart and Massumi, would look differently at the contemporary everyday, as movements within the present demand different dramas of ad- justment and sensual self-development from the capitalist modes of the past. The sensual idiom of this tradition of reading the historical through its affective resonance in a present encounter would have to redescribe the something developing within the geopolitical field that makes itself known as unstable, if not in crisis; in a regime of affective labor, structural relations of alienation are viscerally the opposite, saturating the sensorium while yet monetized, disciplinary, and exploitative. Given the multi- and trans-medial platforms that make contemporary political and intuitive disarray available to more people in diverse kinds of world, old structuralisms of the before and after are inadequate. What constitutes continuity amid the pressure of structural inconstancy? What is the good life when the world that was to have been delivered by upward mobility and collective uplift that national/ capitalism promised goes awry in front of one? What is life when the body cannot be relied on to keep up with the constant flux of new incitements and genres of the reliable, but must live on, maintaining footing, nonetheless? The historical novel of the present provides, as Massumi writes, “an expanded culture of empiricism,” where the “self-activity of experience” provides a kind of “color-patch” of the collective moment (69).


because i sense an activity. in support of worknets (Derek Mueller). or perhaps a project unto itself. will develop this. another day.


how do we compose a historical present in the now? what attachments? attunements?



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