A Giant Rant About Failure Followed by the Actual Assignment

Just to get this out of the way, in class we were asked what we hated about Berlant’s writing (for those of us that were bothered), and though I’m no enemy of complexity or difficulty per se, what does bother me is suspiciously full-sounding, but indecipherable and empty writing. While I do appreciate parts of the essay, I’m really bummed-out by moments like this: “We realize later that the image of children wandering around may emanate something the man identifies with or wants to be near, a wandering, purposeless fogginess, that privilege of of childhood confirmed by the beautiful, almost subdermal quietness of Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack” (emphasis mine, 214). Okay, so we are reading an essay deeply invested in an interpretation of the body and the way the body reflects and responds to the environment in which it operates. In such an essay, a soundtrack of “subdermal quietness” might be one thzt operates beneath the “grimace” of the neoliberal subject. Perhaps its quietness operates on the level of musculature, shaping and sustaining the grimace through its refusal of dynamism. It could really work for Berlant, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t for a number of reasons, the first is that the focus on the “visage” or the affect as seen has been central to the consideration of affect theory found in the essay. Secondly, “subdermal” in this sentence is modifying the quietness of the soundtrack, which makes very little sense to me because if the soundtrack is having a subdermal effect (one we can feel under our skin) I would tend to associate that phenomenon with loudness. Third, if subdermal quietness is a quietness that is connected to affect theory it could equally well be understood to mean an effect that fails to become rise to the affective because it remains hidden by the visage. Lastly (and this is simply the last of the ways I am going to mention of the sentences failures, not the last of its failures), writing that the music is “almost” subdermally quiet makes even less sense. From what angle does it almost reach subdermality? Does it not quite penetrate the skin? Does it not quite pass the muscle/fat/cartilage/bone underneath the skin, remaining trapped in a sub-subdermal zone? I mean honestly.

The biggest issue I take with this essay (and those similarly written), is that it passes the realm of clever metaphoric play and enters into a very real parody of itself. A parody that really does damage to introducing new and interesting ways of thinking about the body in a politically-viable or engaging way. Instead, to me at least, it appears as an attempt to drape a veil of defensive and perplexing faux-coherence (through the use of associated descriptors) over an already worthwhile argument. Perhaps this deflationary move fits neatly within our course’s concerns (an unavoidable self-sabotage perhaps?), but I find it off-putting in the extreme. There is no sin in difficult writing that is a by-product of the argument’s inherent complexity. However, needless interpretive roadblocks signal–again, to me–a unnecessary complicity in the upkeep of the “expert” class of academic professionalism that Halberstam so usefully identifies as suspect.


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