Here’s a talk I gave at the “Affective Tendencies” conference at Rutgers University in October 2010. It deals with the concept of “solidarity,” which remains at the center of the politics of indebtedness.
Let me begin with a series of simple questions: how do we ever find, or make, a sense of solidarity with others? What explains the feeling that, sometimes, a connection with one person enables us to make a connection with two, three, ten, many others? Is that just a narcissistic illusion? Or is it rather a feeling that every encounter might offer us a chance to touch upon what we all have in common? Or to put this in another way: what does it feel like to be in common with others, to be a communist? Obviously it’s not just a matter of finding a communist and asking her how she’s feeling. There is every reason to doubt that there is some specific communist feeling or emotion, even though there is every reason to suppose there is a relationship between what we are here trying to understand by “affect” and what is now being called “communism,” a necessary relationship working both ways: an affective dimension of communism and, perhaps more obscurely, a communist dimension of affect.
As a shortcut into these questions, I want to read the first page of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Here it is:
In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.
He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, although as likely as not he was a Communist. There was both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone—any man, I mean—to whom I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian raised his head and said quickly:
I answered in my bad Spanish: ‘No, Inglés. Y tú?’
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hope he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Rather than reading this scene in psycho-biographical terms, which would question Orwell’s ability to recognize and process the inner upheaval caused by this encounter, I think it would be more productive to take the text at its word, shifting the focus from the person to the situation. For this is a description of something more extraordinary than an unexpectedly strong affection for a stranger: the encounter takes place in, and comes to stand for, a whole revolutionary moment, in which the task of destroying the old social order creates a “special atmosphere” where everybody must find and develop new kinds of relationships. In the time I have here, I would like to draw your attention to various components of this peculiar encounter, which can stand as a kind of placeholder for a much larger discussion.
Whatever else they do, revolutions manifest themselves as a kind of shared collective feeling, or a series of such feelings, which take on a life of their own precisely insofar as they seem to condition life anew, from the outside. Orwell arrives in Barcelona when “the revolution was in full swing,” where businesses have been collectivized, civil power has been seized and broken up, and class distinctions are being expunged from everyday life, starting with the disappearance of bourgeois clothing. “All this was queer and moving,” Orwell remarks. (9) His decision to introduce his description of this state of affairs through the vignette of the militiaman should be understood as an attempt at seduction: we enter his picture of the transformed society through a moment of immediate, unguarded pleasure. The erotic charge lasts only a moment because it is treated as a figural element in a text aspiring to be literal: the evocation of emotion orients us within a situation that we might otherwise be unable to imagine. It leads us toward the concrete. And for that reason this is the most passionate moment in the whole book: as soon as Orwell acts upon his commitment and actually joins the militia, things starts to go a little bit awry. That is when the retrospective tone creeps in: we learn that the revolution had in fact already peaked before the story begins, and that it had been thoroughly defeated by the time the tale can be written.
Everything begins with the sighting of the Italian militaman. Orwell’s description starts with a close-up of his head and shoulders, and gravitates toward the face. When he reaches the eyes, affect flashes up: what “moves” Orwell so deeply is the way this man’s facial expression indicates what he might do, what he is capable of: its qualities are immediately understood in terms of potential actions, which Orwell imagines in both aggressive and submissive terms. But despite his imposing presence, the man doesn’t exactly belong here, he is “obviously” lost, unable to situate himself in the world of the officers’ table because he cannot read their map. He may be capable of physical courage and selfless sacrifice, but not strategic thinking. In spite or perhaps because of this ambivalent complexity, Orwell again expresses his affection, stumblingly, as if it still comes as a surprise to him.
When the militiaman at last takes notice of Orwell, looking for someone like himelf, Orwell disappoints him. Both of them are foreigners in Spain, and they remain foreigners to each other. They do not exactly communicate: they exchange verbal identity tags and keep their distance. Now it is Orwell’s turn to look stupid, which he seems to think makes them equal again. But when it is time to part company, they can still share the “very hard” handshake, a simple gesture, a momentary touch after the possibilities of looking and talking had been used up.
And yet, strangely, that is enough: it is enough to send Orwell into lyrical flight, and it is enough because he wants nothing more. The hope for full reciprocity between them is accompanied by a wish that the encounter will never be repeated. Thus the bond between them is sealed. Indeed a certain kind of repetition will carry on, because, as it turns out, encounters like this were happening all the time. This will not be the only one after all. Here Orwell’s prose acquires a kind of impersonality, speaking not only for himself and the militaman, but for more or less everybody else. The moment passes too, and the memoir turns to its proper subject, the history of the Spanish disaster. What are we to make of the way this episode ends? Is it supposed to offer something more than an illustration, something more like a lesson? To be faithful to such an encounter requires neither constraint nor promiscuity. Its intensity does not depend on its brevity, like an amorous glance held nostalgically as an image of happiness. Nor does it depend on any kind of renunciation. There is nothing unfinished here: it is a picture of fulfillment which, having happened once, reminds us that it remains possible. It is enough, and it is a start. It is enough because the affect has passed, and the trace it leaves behind is the capacity to be affected, a heightened ability to anticipate and produce fortunate encounters, to enter that “special atmosphere” of liberated social life.
Before we can try to extract any broader theoretical propositions from this text, we have to notice two places where the description gets snagged: first, where Orwell suggests that this militiaman had face of an Anarchist, even though he must have been a Communist; and second, when he hastens to point out that his surge of affection is seldom sparked by a man, presumably because it happens with women quite often. Both snags concern the logic of Orwell’s look. I’ll take the second one first. He tells us “hardly know[s] why” his feelings are differentiated by sex, but that seems beside the point. What he loves in the militiaman is their solidarity: not his, not the other’s, but the solidarity of the situation that circulates between them. Yet he can know that only in retrospect: having learned when enough is enough, one also learns that affects cannot demand satisfaction from the bodies they pass through. The drama of looking, talking and touching is the closest Orwell can come to acknowledging that liberty, equality, and fraternity might travel along sexuated circuits.
More difficult to reconcile, at least in this context, is the difference between anarchist and communist. Homage to Catalonia is celebrated as an anti-Communist classic, the book that articulated the theme of a Communist betrayal of the left in Spain. By the time Orwell wrote the book, “Communist” was for him a synonym for treachery and mendacity. And so how are we to understand his affection for someone who looks like an Anarchist but is probably really a Communist? The placement of this episode at the threshold of the book strikes me as a way to emphasize the contingency of defeat of Spain: we feel, even if we can’t quite know, that the experience was not destined to end badly. Once again, we have to treat the militiaman as a kind of allegorical figure marking the possibilities of the situation, before its antagonisms break out. Perhaps the task is precisely as he says: we must be able to look like anarchists, in the way we engage others affectively, but we must really be communists, committed to construction of durable bonds. Today Orwell’s opening scene will engage us only insofar as anybody still wants to revisit this problem, to have it both ways, where the euphoric and fleeting energies of a revolutionary movement confront the need for some binding force in order to keep going.
There is, I think, a special value in approaching this supreme political problem through the notion of affect or emotion. It is fairly easy to recognize how affects can be liberating precisely because they are shared; but it is harder to see how they can acquire enough consistency to change a situation. If, as Alexander Kluge has put it, “every emotion believes in a happy ending,” it is hard to shake the feeling that some happy endings are better than others. That is why theorists as different as Spinoza and Ernst Bloch recognize not only that every affect displays an anticipatory character, but that our thinking about affects can propose criteria of perfectibility. Or to be more precise, they both show that there exist trustworthy affects that allow for the steering, selection, reorganization and even perfection of the others. For Spinoza, this perfectibility consists in the separation of affects from the debilitating thoughts of external causes (the wrong kind of anticipation) and their reordering according to the dictates of reason (where one increases one’s capacity to be affected). Bloch’s typology offers a similar distinction: on one hand, the “filled” affects, which merely “ask for fulfillment in a world at all points identical to that of the present, save for the possession of the particular object desired and presently lacking;” and on the other hand, “expectation affects,” which aim “at the very configuration of the world in general or (what amounts to the same thing) at the future disposition or constitution of the self.” (Jameson in Marxism and Form, 126-7.) Evidently Orwell wanted to describe the composition of affect from the perspective of Utopia, despite everything else he would go on to say in this book. This moment offered him a truth from which he never recovered. In the end, it is not that hard to feel like a communist; everybody knows the drawing power of such affective compositions. It is harder to feel their staying power: for that we need words, images, bodies, spaces; we need each other.