Dear Cubs, Thanks for the Affective Pedagogy

Watching the Cubs lose to the Mets last week for the fourth and final time, I was more profoundly disappointed than I expected to be.  I wanted to have a reason to watch the World Series, but not only: I wanted to believe that things could be different, that the stars could align in new ways, notwithstanding curses and patterns and decades of the same frustrations.  The game ended just before midnight and as I sat on the edge of the couch reflecting, blearily, on this compounded disappointment, I felt a little knot of sadness constrict in my throat, and then felt it unravel almost immediately and almost completely at a single thought: wait ’til next year.

“Wait ‘Til Next Year” captures the abiding essence of what it is to be a Cubs fan (lovingly visualized in a plucky  documentary by that very title), but it also suggests a way of drawing sustenance from  a hopeless-seeming world, in which the stars cling stubbornly to familiar configurations.

Having recently been up to my ears in affect theory, it’s hard not to think about this doggedness in terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism.”  According to Berlant, “the affective structure of an optimistic attachment invovles a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world become different in just the right way.”  This kind of cruelty, she writes, supplies “the ‘hard’ in a hard loss”; the loss is costly in itself, made more damaging by its violation of the optimistic attachment underpinning it, while that optimism makes the loss more catastrophic yet by compelling a renewal of that fantasy.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 13: A detailed view of the shirt of a Chicago Cubs fan prior to game four of the National League Division Series between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

But I’m not sure that’s what is happening here.   Instead, “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is a gently expectant futurity, unattached to any specific outcome.  The “next year” is perpetually renewable – there will always be a next year, and any next year could be the next year that we’ve been waiting for, or not, but okay – there will be another after that.  The open-endedness of the timeframe means that no one is making any promises, and so offers a way to look forward with minimal risk of disappointment.  And then there is the pleasure of the waiting itself.  The uninterrupted string of next years since the 1908 World Series has conditioned a form of waiting that can be an end, or achievement, in itself; there is no plausible telos other than another next year (guaranteed) and the sweetness of re-encountering that undangerous hope anew.

In this way, I find the “Hey Hey!” and “Holy Cow!” (or “Holy Mackerel!” depending on one’s preference) with which local announcers and fans greet any good Cubs news to be particularly evocative.  These nonsense exclamations, rooted in Cubs history but untethered from any actual signification, suggest a capacity to be surprised, delighted, an openness to a happy event but no reliance upon it, really, to sustain that hopefulness.   753472a28393a574b945ae89162c1d94

Of course, the cruelly optimistic attachments that Berlant considers are much more damaging (to formations like neoliberal capitalism or heteronormative family forms), much weightier than sports fandom.  But undoing those kinds of attachments, if it is possible at all, takes practice, and that practice might take the form of lingering, waiting, in quotidian forms of fulfillment and despair, expecting that each will follow the other as surely as next year will follow this.

taking animals out of context

ozcu9Sometimes, when I am at my very luckiest, my job is simply to think about interesting mediated phenomena.  Recently, I was  interviewed for a story on media fear-mongering about predatory animals:

For most of us that live in urbanized settings in developed nations, the media stands in as our primary (sole?) source of contact with predatory animals, filtering out all but the most remarkable-seeming animal behavior.  My hunch is that in much the same way that newsmedia in particular focus on certain forms of violence among humans, so too does it apportion attention to apparently ‘violent’ forms of animal behavior.  On the other hand, those stories where animals appear simply as objects of sympathy (e.g. Cecil the Lion) don’t help much either, because they also tend to obscure the complexities of all human-animal relationships.  Either kind of story invites audiences to react viscerally and reaffirming the notion that animals are objects for our use and gratification.

in defense of talking about the weather

In “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes talks about the weather or, more precisely, talks about talking about the weather.  For farmers to talk about the weather, he says, is reasonable, because it bears directly on their actions and their labor.  His subsequent analysis implies that for the rest of us to talk about the weather is to partake of a bourgeois pseudo-physis, because for non-farmers, talk about the weather is merely descriptive speech without meaning or relevance.

Here I encounter a dilemma.  I’ve often had the feeling, particularly in my recent rereading of his gorgeous, gritty Mourning Diary, that Roland Barthes knows me better than I know myself.  But I kind of love talking about the weather, and so I’ve been trying to figure out the mechanics of that pleasure.

The big almost-story here on the East Coast this week was the possible approach of Hurricane Joaquin.  It turns out that if we had listened to the European meteorologists and their generally superior modeling systems, we would have known days ago that there was no reason to worry.  But even when the menacing forecasts are given with uncertainty and in the language of “low confidence,” they still have a power and a draw, compelling us to check the weather apps on our phones (I have four), to stay up later to watch television meteorologists prophesy on the news, and to even, occasionally, look up at the sky.

Of course, those of us—like me—who have the incredible privilege of living in sturdy houses and cities with solid infrastructures (by global comparison, even creaking, dilapidated Baltimore is more than adequate in this regard) thus have the privilege of speculating about severe weather without too much fear for life and property.

Those of us—like me—who do not encounter the natural world through our labor, for whom outdoors is primarily a site of voluntary recreation, who generally have the option to stay in if we prefer to, often see, rather than feel, the weather.

From space:
from space

In views that are abstracted and disproportionate:abstracted

And riotously colored:


The people who engineer those meteorological visualities for the public make them pleasurable.  They illustrate the weather lavishly for us.  Our access to these phenomena is intensely mediated, dependent; in this regard, Barthes’s description of our alienation from the natural world is astute.

But this mediation (I think) grounds us more firmly in the natural world, contextualizing us anew within it every time the map refreshes on the screen. To watch the weather is not so much to disconnect ourselves from the world but to access it through a different sensory register, the one we must shift into when we encounter phenomena beyond our reach, our ambit, our defiance.  Certainly, it is possible to talk about the weather idly or emptily.  But when we talk about the weather in anticipation of something extreme, it can also be (I think) a confession of our limited capacities—to know the natural world or to change it—and an invitation for others to keep our humble company in that elemental powerlessness.