In my last post, I suggested we can generate “sweaty concepts” through the labour of describing the situation in which we find ourselves. To describe our own bodily situation is to give an angle on something: description is angled. An angle here is not simply what is mine, or something I have, but is a way of thinking of the intimacy of bodies and the worlds they inhabit. Since writing that post, I have been wondering more angles; they have come up often in my writing, even when they are not the explicit object of my attention. In this post I want to pull out how the question of angles came up in Queer Phenomenology (2006) and The Promise of Happiness (2010).
Why angle? It is a word with a queer history. The word “angle” derives from Old French angle “angle, corner,” and directly from Latin angulus “an angle, corner,” a diminutive form from PIE root *ang-/*ank- “to bend” (cf. Greek ankylos “bent, crooked,” Latin ang(u)ere “to compress in a bend, fold, strangle). An angle is a bend in a line.
In Queer Phenomenology, I explored angles, by thinking through the implications of a queer moment in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception:
If we so contrive it that a subject sees the room in which he is, only through a mirror which reflects it at an angle at 45 degrees to the vertical, the subject at first sees the room “slantwise.” A man walking about in it seems to lean to one side as he goes. A piece of cardboard falling down the door-frame looks to be falling obliquely. The general effect is “queer.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289)
A “queer effect” is when the world no longer appears “the right way up.” By discussing a number of spatial experiments that “contrive” a situation so that a subject does not see straight, Merleau-Ponty asks how the subject’s relation to space is re-orientated: “After a few minutes a sudden change occurs: the walls, the man walking around the room, and the line in which the cardboard falls become vertical.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289) This re-orientation, which we can describe as the “becoming vertical” of perspective, means that the “queer effect” is overcome and objects in the world no longer appears as if they were “off-centre” or “slant-wise.” In other words, Merleau-Ponty considers how subjects “straighten” any queer effects and asks what this tendency to “see straight” suggests about the relationship between bodies and space. He answers this question not with a model of space as determined by objective coordinates (such that “up” and “down” exist independently of one’s bodily orientation), but as being shaped by the purposefulness of the body; the body does things, and space hence takes shape as a field of action: “What counts for the orientation of my spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 291) By implication, the queer moment, in which objects appear slantwise, and the vertical and horizontal axes appear “out of line,” must be overcome not because such moments contradict laws that govern objective space, but because they block bodily action: they inhibit the body, such that it ceases to extend into phenomenal space. So although Merleau-Ponty is tempted to say that the “vertical is the direction represented by the symmetry of the axis of the body” (2002: 291), his phenomenology instead embraces a model of bodily space, in which spatial lines “line up” only as effects of bodily actions on and in the world. In other words, the body “straightens” its view, in order to extend into space.
In light of Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of queer moments, we can re-consider the relation between the normative and the vertical axis. The normative dimension can be re-described in terms of the straight body, a body that appears “in line.” Things seems “straight” (on the vertical axis), when they are “in line,” which means when they are aligned with other lines. Rather than presuming the vertical line is simply given, we would see the vertical line as an effect of this process of alignment. Think of tracing paper. When the lines on the tracing paper are aligned with the lines of the paper that has been traced, then the lines of the tracing paper disappear: you can simply see one set of lines. If lines are traces of other lines, then this alignment depends on straightening devices, which keeps things in line, in part by “holding” things in place. Lines disappear through such processes of alignment, so that when even when one thing becomes “out of line” another thing, the “general effect” is “wonky,” or even “queer.”
The vertical axis is itself an effect of being “in line,” when the line taken by the body corresponds with other lines that are already given. The vertical is hence normative; it is shaped by the repetition of bodily and social actions over time. The body that is “in line,” is one that can extend into space, at the same time that such spaces are effects of re-tracing those lines, which is another way of describing “extension.” Things as well as bodies appear “the right way up” when they are “in line,” which makes any moment in which phenomenal space does “line up” seem rather “queer.” Importantly, when one thing is “out of line,” then it is not just that thing that appears oblique, but the world itself might appear on a slant, which disorientates the picture, and even unseats the body. If we consider how space appears along the lines of the “vertical axis,” then we can begin to see how orientations of the body shape not just what objects are reachable, but the angle on which they are reached. Things look right, when they approach us on the right angle.
By implication, then, some “angles on things,” do not appear as angles, as bends in the line, which is not to say they are not in some way already bent (you only have to straighten what is already bent). I observed in the conclusion to Queer Phenomenology, how we can become what disorientates the picture, a body out of line. In one footnote, Merleau-Ponty refers to Stratton’s Vision without Inversion, to provide both an analysis of the way in which orientation happens, and what happens when it fails to happen. As he puts it: “We remain physically upright not through the mechanism of the skeleton or even through the nervous regulation if muscular tone, but because we are caught up in a world. If this involvement is seriously weakened, the body collapses and becomes once more an object.” (2002: 296, emphasis added) The “upright” body is involved in the world. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. To put it simply, disorientation involves becoming an object. It is from this point, when the body becomes an object that Frantz Fanon’s (1986) phenomenology of the Black body unfolds. We learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than others, as its takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience. It is not just that bodies get directed in specific ways, but that the world is shaped by the directions taken by some more than others.
From Frantz Fanon, we learn about the experience of disorientation, as the experience of being an object amongst other objects, of being shattered, off being cut into pieces by the hostility of the white gaze. Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach. At this moment of failure, what is “here” becomes strange. Bodies that do not follow the line of whiteness, for instance, might be “stopped” in their tracks: this does not necessarily mean you are stopped from getting somewhere, but it does change your relation to what is “here.” The world does not recede, when you become the stranger, the one who stands out or stand apart. Things might even become oblique for you, even if the feeling of being a stranger has become a familiar feeling. Disorientation can thus move around; it involves not only bodies becoming objects, but also the disorientation in how objects are gathered to create a ground, or to clear a space on the ground. If your arrival can disturb the whole picture, it can be disturbing for the one who arrives.
This is how we generate a queer angle, when we offer a description of a body that is not lined up, or a body that is not at home in the world. We disturb a picture. When I call for more description (more “sweaty concepts”) I am calling, really, for a queering of the angle from which we do conceptual work. A queer angle gives us a different handle on what is going on. This has been the case in my own work on affect and emotion. In The Promise of Happiness, for example, I raised some questions about the use of “atmosphere” as a shared feeling that is “out there” and then “taken in.” Consider the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s book, The Transmission of Affect: ‘Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and “felt the atmosphere”’ (2004: 1). Brennan writes very beautifully about how the atmosphere “gets into the individual” using what I have called an “outside in” model, also very much part of the intellectual history of crowd psychology and also the sociology of emotion. However, later in the introduction she makes an observation, which for me also involves quite a different model. Brennan suggests that “if I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an “impression” (a word that means what it says)” (6). I agree. Anxiety is sticky: rather like Velcro, it tends to pick up whatever comes near. Or we could say that anxiety gives us a certain kind of angle on what comes near. Anxiety is, of course, one feeling state amongst others. If bodies do not arrive in neutral, if we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation. This second argument challenges for me Brennan’s first argument about the atmosphere being what is “out there” getting “in”: it suggests that how we arrive, how we enter this room or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. To receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.
So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point. The pedagogic encounter is full of angles. How many times have I read students as interested or bored, such that the atmosphere seemed one of interest or boredom (and even felt myself to be interesting or boring) only to find students recall the event quite differently. Having read the atmosphere in a certain way, one can become tense: which in turn affects what happens, how things move along. The moods we arrive with do affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods. Sometimes I arrive heavy with anxiety, and everything that happens makes me feel more anxious, whilst at other times, things happen which ease the anxiety, making the space itself seem light and energetic. We do not know in advance what will happen given this contingency, given the hap of what happens; we do not know ‘exactly’ what makes things happen in this way and that. Situations are affective given the gap between the impressions we have of others and the impressions we make on others, all of which are lively.
Think too of experiences of alienation. In The Promise of Happiness I suggested happiness is attributed to certain objects that circulate as social goods. When we feel pleasure from such objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap. If we are disappointed by something that we expected would make us happy, we generate explanations of why that thing is disappointing. Such explanations can involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this, what is wrong with me?) or a narrative of rage, where the object that is “supposed” to make us happy is attributed as the cause of disappointment. Your rage might be directed against it, or spill out toward those that promised us happiness through the elevation of an object as being good. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.
Going back to how I have used angles eventually gets me to the “affect alien.” Of course! And the feminist killjoy is not too far behind. She too is a queer angle, when we describe the world from her point of view (I am in this her: I am this her) we are offering a very different account of that world. To be more specific, we end up with a different model of the sociality of affect when we give killjoy more room by describing how she enters the room. We might stress not so much how affects pass smoothly between proximate bodies, but how they involve blockages, deviations and perversions. We might recognise that feelings can be shared in a situation (it can be a tense situation) but also that feelings can be “in tension.” Indeed, things might become more tense, when feelings are in tension.
Thinking of the feminist killjoy as an angle reminds me that descriptions are difficult when it is difficulties we are describing. We might assume we can be “in the room” and describe what is going on. But we can be in the same room and feel like we are in quite different worlds. This feeling of difference can be about how you relate to what comes up: you might share an experience of something “coming up” even when you do not share what is brought up. For example you might be in a meeting but you are new to a department. Someone will say something that triggers a reaction: there is a heightening of tension audible from an increase in sound, bodies tend to fidget when they become tense. You don’t know the histories at stake in what has been said but you can hear those histories. One time I was in a conference in Paris, and people were speaking in French (not surprising!) and I could tell when race was the topic of conversation: it was like someone turning up the volume of the television: “turning up” as “heating up.” I turned to my neighbour whenever this happened to ask if people were talking about race. They were.
What interests me here is how histories can become atmospheric. Angles are also about our relation to these histories. A woman of colour does not have to say anything to cause tension. She can just turn up and things tense up: a body can become a reminder of histories that are disturbing, which disturb an atmosphere. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (56). It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Atmospheres can thus become techniques for making spaces available for some bodies, and keeping others out: how better to exclude people than by inviting them in but making them uncomfortable. Then if they leave it appears they do so in accordance with their own will. Comfort becomes a form of emotional work as well as diversity work: to stay you might have to work hard to make others comfortable with the mere fact of your existence.
A queer angle is generated when we describe the world as experienced by bodies that get in the way of an occupation. Disciplines too are occupied. One more thing: if our disciplines are populated by bodies who are at home, who are in alignment, then this will shape the kinds of knowledge generated (as well as the knowledge not generated). To queer disciplines would require we populate them with bodies for which they are not intended. No wonder equality can register as “becoming tense.”
Brennan, Teresa. (2004). The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin
Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.