Theorizing Affect through Everyday Fragments: A Review of The Hundreds by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart

The Hundreds by Laurent Berlant and Kathleen Stewart is an assemblage of one hundred hundred-word poetic prose musings on the affective complexities of life in the contemporary United States. In each hundred, the authors bring their expertise in literary, cultural, and anthropological theory to take a more creative and tentative approach to theorizing affect, one that is always open-ended and unfinished, one that projects a situated voice, refusing to claim itself as all-knowing or morally authoritative. The authors seem keen on messing up certain conventions of scholarly writing. The book holds no formal introduction or conclusion, but a one-page “Preludic” explains how the concept for the book arose from a writing workshop on public feelings in Austin, Texas (the city in which Stewart lives and teaches). The written exercises in the workshop proposed to “[follow] out the impact of things (words, thoughts, people, objects, ideas, worlds)” (ix).

Dispersing what would be a solitary introduction, the authors sprinkle their reflections on the project, and on processes of thinking, writing, and editing more broadly, throughout each hundred: “We write to what’s becoming palpable in sidelong looks or a consistency of rhythm or tone….Words sediment next to something laid low, or they detour on a crazy thought-cell taking off….The Hundreds is an experiment in keeping up with what’s going on….What draws affect into form is a matter of concern” (4-5). The text oscillates between poetic meditations on writing’s capacity to draw affective nuances into relief and imaginative takes on the worlds that surround the authors. A woman chain-smokes on a sidewalk; middle-aged men at a New Hampshire Wal-Mart hang back from the register while their mothers pay; a car breakdown in south Texas leads to schmoozing with truck drivers and other gas station dwellers. A scene of hoarding is titled “Collecting.” Marc Augé’s theory of the non-place is invoked in the quotidian description of an airport terminal. “Friendhating,” a numbered list, invites unmediated reflections on the narrator’s friendships from figures like the one “who is fighting to stay attached to things on the verge of dead” to the “Marxist candy eater” (97). The index of the book contains similar poetic exercises by Black performance studies scholar Fred Moten and American cultural ethnographer Susan Lepselter, as well as a “Not-Index” by Andrew Causey and C. Thresher, containing drawings and indexes that read more as playful gestures to noteworthy moments within the text than as neutral citational notes to direct the reader. This section renders the text all the more collective and interactive, as if creative responses by friends and colleagues are just as integral to the project as are Berlant’s and Stewart’s original exercises.

Though sites, scenes, and practices are portrayed in iterative streams of consciousness, the authors’ quick, colorful, fragmented storytellings do not operate in political or theoretical vacuums. Representations of suffering, and resistance thereto, suggest desires to dream and enact other worlds and worldly orders. One scene depicts a toddler daycare worker sneakily eschewing temporal protocols prescribed by absent bosses, allowing temper tantrums to persist for twenty rather than fifteen minutes before phoning parents. Mundane chatter at a Chicago YMCA lays bare the city’s hierarchies and segregations. “Utopian Capitalism” describes the excess of Disney World. One scene details the life of a friend who “makes $28,000 a year and DebtBuster is helping him pay $5,000 in parking tickets” (73). These fragments evoke critiques, if subtle ones, of authoritarian structures of labor and racialized forms of physical and symbolic violence. Yet, contrasting moralizing activist rhetorics that construct binaries between compliant and insurrectionary subjects, the authors’ curiosities will them to find unruliness in the everyday musings, affects, and small acts of refusal of differentially, and complexly, positioned subjects.

The poetic prose chaotically moves from scene to theory to scene, but with a tempo that congeals and balances the descriptive storm. The end of each hundred serves as a moment of textual relief, a cognitive and spacial break from the next scene. Litanies of citations rest at the bottom of each page. At first glance, these fragments seem to function as references and homages, if indirect, to the thinkers who have most influenced the authors. The canon: Foucault, Barthes, Sedgwick, and so on. But it then becomes clear that everyday material and cultural objects serve as much of a referential purpose as do influential scholars of critical theory. A baking scene gone awry parenthetically cites Four Boxes of Cranberry Bread Mix alongside Clough and Massumi. Tomatoes and The Built Environment are rendered scholarly sources.

Though Berlant’s and Stewart’s ways of looking and listening draw on Marxist, feminist, critical race, and queer theories, the act of so intimately situating their own experiences and understandings as upper-middle class, white subjects runs the risk of representing very particular records of US life, thereby reproducing the dominance of whiteness in the field of affect theory so poignantly highlighted by Claudia Garcia-Rojas. “Once” describes the “mundane forms of care” that formed within the emergent “middle class” of the 1950s (38). The narrator of this hundred, presumably Stewart (though the text never marks which author is in the driver’s seat), continues to reflect on the “dream house” by the lake that her partner’s parents built in 1952, filled by the minute details of its seven closets and food inventory in the basement freezer. Though this narrative fragment might playfully critique the consumerism and conformism of post–World War II US culture, differentially-positioned readers might notice that it implicitly represents whiteness and financial stability as universal. Further, for the breadth of theorists that the authors reference, important Black feminist theorists of affect like Audre Lorde and bell hooks are either absent from or scarcely scattered throughout the text. Fred Moten’s indexical contribution might mask the citational absence of predecessors in his field like Saidiya Hartman. Though citations of mundane objects and phenomena raise questions of authorship and theoretical canons, the authors’ choices to cite vegetables and architectural styles above thinkers like Lorde and Hartman instantiate their tendency to follow, rather than deviate from, dominant currents of affect theory centered around whiteness. Viewed in this context, the project might uphold the canonical imaginaries that it aims to critique.

Despite these citational failures, I read the tone of these situated narratives as earnest. I hear the authors’ genuine concern with holding and thinking with all of the contradictions of a diverse, complex, and oppressive world, even if this totality exceeds what their particular ways of looking can possibly represent. These writing exercises reposition oft-sidelined modes of thought, redrawing the definitional boundaries of theorizing. They “hear Affect Theory” in conversations with Ty, a body builder at a local gym. “Ty’s got a theory of everything and has a lot to say” (118). They interpret last night’s dreams as “good social theory,” while “the feeling my body’s holding” is satirically rendered “bad theory” (128). The book’s disorderly narrative structure throws together a beautifully cohesive portrait, a thoughtful anthology representing an episteme of knowledge as embodied, writing as always in-process, and social theory as something provisionally approached, not definitively attained.

Marshall Hanig

Marshall Hanig is a graduate of Wesleyan University, where he earned his degree in American Studies and co-produced the public radio show/podcast Anarchy on Air. Raised in Los Angeles, he now lives in the Boston area. He can be reached at mhanig [at] wesleyan [dot] edu.