On our public and private moods.
Into the Feel Tank
This mood we’re in: stuck, anxious, alone, desperate for an exit ramp, even to another bad stop on the same old highway. COVID, climate, chaos—or is it capitalism that’s trapped us? We meet broken institutions with our same old behaviors, expecting a different result, the Einstein definition of insanity. And still we say: keep hope alive. Hope! The one word on the Obama posters: it’s more urgent than experience; it was Oscar Wilde’s explanation of second marriages. Recovery, then repetition, from our Vietnam war to Iraq to Afghanistan. Disaster nostalgia. Feelings more powerful than reason. The charismatic Chicago scholar Lauren Berlant called it Cruel Optimism.
Donald Trump’s Emotion Machine is taking a dip this radio hour in Lauren Berlant’s Feel Tank. Not Think Tank, because the late Professor Berlant in a famous and influential hot-house of emotional studies at the University of Chicago decided that our politics—and our personal relationships, our path to happiness, are all fogged in by feelings we mostly misread. Our stumbling blocks are past attachments to fantasy and false hopes. Recovery, if it comes, is in saying goodbye, and moving on. Welcome to Affect Theory, as Lauren Berlant embodied it: it’s touchy-feely and literary, not scientific. Above all it’s intuitive: akin to reading a roomful of people for emotions like anger or affection before anyone’s spoken, identifying a mood or movement in the crowd. Our three guests fell under Lauren Berlant’s spell as students, years before Berlant’s death this summer of a rare cancer, at the age of 63. What the students typically remember is the moment when they felt Lauren Berlant was getting personal: writing, or talking to them, about them.
Author of The Equivalents.
Author of Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse.
Author of The Masses are Revolting.