“it might be, it could be, it is …”

Right around this time last year, I wrote about the affective pedagogy embedded in the work of loving the Chicago Cubs, how it might condition a fan to a form of hope disconnected from optimism and expectation.  And I mused that such an orientation might provide a meaningful alternative (really) to forms of forward-looking attachment that leave us perpetually disappointed, individually, and turn us into grasping subjects of neoliberal capitalism.

This year, everything looks different.  Not the neoliberal capitalism part: that’s still there. But the Cubs part, yes.  Last year, the Mets swept the Cubs in the NLCS.  This year, the Cubs are holding their own in the World Series.  This postseason, when people talk about ‘underdogs,’ they are emphatically not referring to the Cubs.  Crazy.

I grew up listening to Harry Caray call Cubs games, and he often narrated the flight of a long fly ball in anticipatory, increasingly exuberant stages: “It might be … It could be …” and then, if the shot cleared the outfield ivy, “It is!  A home run!”  Of course, most broadcasters of that era had such signature lines (my second, charmingly nonsensical, favorite is from Baltimore: “Go to war, Miss Agnes!”).  But it strikes me now that there is something essentially Cubs about “It might be, it could be, it is.”  To the extent that this triptych still resonates for Cubs fans, I suspect that the affective structure I wrote about before, and all of its promise, remains.  img_1863

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Rich Cohen reflected on a lifetime of Cubs disappointments, and speculated that so much might have been different if he’d grown up watching a winning team.  “Maybe,” he wrote,  “I’d have learned to cherish my fellow man and take yes for an answer and accept all the love that’s been showered on me.”  He also suggested that if the Cubs keep winning, Cubs fans will start losing their identity: “being a Cubs fan always meant something and now will mean something else.”

But I’m not sure that affective histories dissolve so quickly.  It’s true that Pollyanna-ish observers might take a still-very-hypothetical World Series win as a sign that good things inevitably come to those who wait, or some other such rubbish.  And it’s also true that lots of ballpark fans have been waving signs proclaiming that the Cubs, and Chicago, “deserve” to win it all this year.

I, too, am enchanted by the story of this postseason, mostly because it makes me feel like things could be other than they are, or have been, like something new is possible.  But “could be” is all I can count on, and really all I want.  “Could be” is the glittery essence of possibility.

And possibility forms the core of this affective magic.  It’s not the same as likelihood or even probability.  Possibility lives in might be-could be suspension.  Caray’s gruff singsong was not “It might be … It will be” or “It might be … It must be” or “It might be … It should be.”  Just might, and then, a few fractions of a second later, a little more surety but still no promises: could.  The very literal-minded might say that such subjunctive hedging is necessary because Wrigley Field is unpredictable, what with the wind and all.  Sure.  But that’s not really the point.

Sometimes, Caray was wrong: might be, could be, isn’t.  But that inaccuracy is as much a part of the field of possibility as other, jubilant, instants of rightness.  Possibility, at its most radical, entails unpredictability.

Contemporary systems of threat-assessment and risk-management expressly target unpredictability (see Louise Amoore’s The Politics of Possibility for a brilliant analysis of this phenomenon): in security, in markets, in human behavior.   Their preferred modes are anxiety, prediction, and preemption.  They cannot abide the space between “could be” and “is.”  Far too risky.  Just an inkling of “might” and they activate, begin engineering the unexpected away.

Obviously, sports fandom operates on a different, and arguably trivial, register.  But at our present, and wearisome, juncture, I’ll take an alternative wherever I can find it.  The Cubs have made it this far; we’re well past “might” and holding our breath in “could.”  “Is” would be awesome.  But if it doesn’t happen this year, there’s always next, or the one after that.

Possibility is endlessly renewable.  And to dwell in it, even for a few weeks in the fall, is to refuse the twin certainties of “won’t” and “will” and all the potentials and pleasures they foreclose.


empathy and the “even worse” in another photo from syria

Just over a month ago, it happened again.  Another picture of a suffering Syrian child and another chorus of certainty that this picture would be the one to awaken the global consciousness, heretofore lacking, necessary to end this intractable, sprawling conflict.

Despite knowing better, I wondered if the teary-eyed optimists were right.  But at the time, busy busy, all I could do was affix a little sticky note to the inside of my planner, as a reminder to post something soonimg_1794.

Of course, many other observers beat me to it, including the newsmedia itself, which shifted into meta-commentary almost immediately, attending far more to the viral circulation of the video and extracted stills of Omran than the story of the airstrike in which he was injured and his home destroyed.  Deviating from the conventional wisdom that graphic images of casualties (especially children) elicit more sympathy from viewers, an article in the New York Times surmises instead that “it may be the relatively familiar look of Omran’s distress that allows a broader public to relate to it.”  Accordingly, it published an curated collection of readers’ responses to the photos.  And it also provided an excursus on its decision to feature this particular photo so prominently, given the steady stream of ostensibly similar images begotten by this conflict.  Ultimately, its explanation of the image’s power is essentially tautological:

One reason the photo of Omran has tugged at so many heartstrings around the world is that the boy — with his innocent stare, just to the side of the camera’s lens — triggers in many a sometimes hard-to-come-by emotion in today’s world: empathy.

The author goes on to explain that this image is ideal for social media: gritty enough to be moving but not so much as to be off-putting.

Other news outlets make a comparison that would have been unthinkable a year ago, intimating that this photo might be more powerful than those of Alan Kurdi.  A commentary published in The Independent describes this new image as “even worse” than the photos of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach.  But of course, when Kurdi’s photo went viral last fall, observers endowed it with a similar comparative advantage.  At the time, it seemed that this photo would succeed where previous representations of the migrant crisis – like the truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway with the bodies of 58 migrants decomposing inside – had failed to elicit widespread compassion.

Daqneesh became the new affective frontrunner, for as long as it lasted.

Even if viewers were legitimately, verifiably moved by the site of Daqneesh’s body, feelings are fickle, and already, there is competition.  Not from any of the countless, and largely unnamed, children featured in the grim litany of new photos from Syria, Aleppo in particular, but instead from a 6-year-old American boy named Alex, who wrote President Obama a letter in which he offered Daqneesh a place in his New York home.  Now, the top results from a Google News search for “Omran Daqneesh” belong to this quixotic show of hospitality. (I’ll write more about this, and its connection to affective criteria for American exceptionalism, soon.)

Since then, the ceasefire has collapsed and the Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has reintensified its aerial bombardments of rebel-held territories.  According to one estimate, 192 Syrian children died in September.

Meanwhile, spectators continued to refine their emotional appetites, while the organizations that feed them insisted that any image powerful enough to gratify them would surely work geopolitical magic at the same time.