Staying Beside; Moving Sideways

Hans Demeyer


(This is a slightly different version of a talk I gave at the teach-in ‘The Art of the Strike’ (3 December 2019) at University College London during the industrial action at UK universities in Fall 2019.)


Here’s a phrase I’ve heard and adapted somewhat slightly: ‘Given the falling numbers of students in the humanities/modern languages, one could say that the battle of the strike will not be won there.’ This defeatist statement is a symptom of the condition that Mark Fisher (2009) identified as ‘capitalist realism’: an affective acquiescence with capitalist society and with something that resembles liberal democracy, an identification of cynicism with realism, a self-evident acceptance of an atomized society in which each one of us is singularly responsible to acquire the good life. One might suggest that it is the same condition which makes the number of humanities students dwindle in the first place and which incites attacks on the usefulness of this discipline. After all, if the world is as it is, then one doesn’t need a culture as a living tissue but just an institutionalized archive; if a culture is what it is, then one doesn’t need to critically dissect it but just set it in stone for each person to acquire.

This could be understood as the ultimate end of the process Jean-François Lyotard described in La condition postmoderne (1979). As the grand narratives of modernity lost their credibility, the status of knowledge altered. Knowledge lost its use-value: it can no longer find its legitimacy in truth and justice. Instead, its exchange value, its effectivity within the market, becomes primary. Science needs to produce innovations and efficiencies that work without questioning the whole in which it functions. As a means to management, knowledge is not restricted to the realm of science but affects politics as well. Accomplishment overrides justice. As Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election could not help repeating himself: ‘I get things done’; or as Boris Johnson, his British companion in lunacy, repeatedly proclaimed in the run-up to the 2019 election: ‘Get Brexit done’.

If ‘part of what social theory and art has to do, is to say,’ as Lauren Berlant contends, ‘what is a good life? And how do we go about making institutions and imaginaries that support it,’ then how has the art of the strike been conducted by literary criticism since the sketched demise of social desire? The dominant way, it seems, has been to understand literature as not entirely enmeshed within the structures and relations of society; a relative freedom that has mostly been equalized to a critical distance and that has been alternatively called the autonomy, negativity and/or the sublimity of literature. It is a view of literature as something that cannot be integrated within the hegemonic; instead, literature is seen as subversive, as opening up a space for the emergent.

It has primarily been an ontological project: rethinking and reconsidering the real in such a way that would enable the cognitive realignment that is necessary to take action. This logic has necessarily left the definition of the good life within the mode of the subjunctive. Critical theory’s favorite adverbs have been ‘beyond this element of the status quo’ and ‘towards this alternative’, denoting a spatial and temporal logic of an emancipated world to be materialized in a nearby or distant future that however cannot be imagined (yet). Literary criticism gestures at possible good lives without necessarily expressing a belief about how to live, wagering that its continuous raising of consciousness will guide the way.

On the one hand, this project loses all off its gravity whenever the subjunctive becomes a ‘lovely mood’, which, as Joshua Clover reminds us, is ‘not the mood of historical materialism’ (2016, 4). The subversion, the ambivalence, the absurd, the violence, the ugliness, the incomprehensible, the criticism, the subversion of literature – paradoxically, many critics have found ‘comfort in this discomfort’, as the Belgian philosopher Frank Vande Veire (1997, 211-219) puts it. By emphasizing its worth, the gap literature opens in the hegemonic everyday gets immediately closed. The consensual embrace of literature’s dissensus enacts an attachment to the potential and the possible, yet one that is divorced from the risk of choice and engagement. Politics, in other words, is forgotten.

On the other hand (and probably more recently), the subjunctive has proven to be quite depressing. The irony of this longing for the possible is that it all the more forcefully points back to the ultimate disenchantment of this world. Criticisms of the all too simple bifurcation between hegemony and subversion have therefore been necessary to open a wider space of thought and movement without negating the persistence of this cognitive and affective impasse.

Instead of immediately moving beyond or towards, this space allows for both moving sideways and staying beside the object of inquiry. Taken from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003) and Lauren Berlant (2011), these adverbs are in-between the binary of accepting or rejecting the status-quo and generate a wide range of relations that are not necessarily positive or negative. Lying beside someone in bed or sitting beside someone in the cinema can be arousing, neutral and/or annoying; for a market to move sideways is to be left hanging; for your eyes to go sideways is to be inattentive, an ordinary tic or a way to get surprised.

As a method, it is an instigation to stay besides the ordinary and to not read literature as advocating or falling short of the political analysis we aim to impel upon it but rather to see it as a means to make present and to critically examine the many different and new ways in which inequalities are lived today as a consequence of the progressive precarisation of society. The French sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon (2018) contends that besides social conditions (such as class) lives are increasingly marked by what he terms ‘positions’ or ‘situations’, by chances given or withdrawn, by ordeals faced or spared. These differences shape existences, condemn some to regression and unbind others to accelerations of their trajectories. Instead of social conditions that get reproduced, there are social situations that diversify. Rosanvallon claims that those may produce new forms of undefined and unprecedented communities. The gilets jaunes are a straightforward example of a group that would be difficult to describe solely in terms of social conditions; the price increase of petrol did affect persons from different classes, races and gender not mainly as a consequence of their social condition but of their diverse vulnerable situations – situations that are mostly not addressed by and remain invisible to dominant political discourses.

One of literary criticism’s tasks may be to attend to how writers are already theorizing and representing these positions and relations. Zadie Smith’s novel NW (2013) forms an interesting example. Its four main characters are all born in the same district in London into slightly differing but overall weak social conditions. They ultimately end up in very different social positions, making the impersonal postcode NW the only thing left that connects them. The novel nevertheless demonstrates how nobody escapes this development unscathed: the one who is socio-economically the most successful experiences a very strong sense of derealization. (For a more extensive discussion of the socially conditioned circulation of affect in NW, see: Demeyer & Vitse, ‘The Affective Dominant’ (to be published in Poetics Today, 2021).) Within this precarious society, ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005), such as envy, circulate instead of a relationality that offers recognition of one’s situation: the constraints and hardships the characters live through remain mostly invisible to each other. (Rosanvallon is involved in a similar, albeit sociological project ‘Raconter la vie’; see for instance Le Parlement des invisibles: Déchiffrer la France (2020).)

Although the amount of luck one receives can be decisive, society’s dominant narrative is one of individual responsibility. As a means to question this normative sense of agency in terms of autonomy and sovereignty, effectiveness and assertion, Lauren Berlant speaks of lateral agency. For Berlant, it denotes modes of being and acting which form an interruption in the reproduction of making a self and a life: ‘it can produce an experience of self-abeyance, of floating sideways’ (2011, 116). These are not actions of active resistance nor do they follow the mantra “that everything’s gonna be ok”. They are a relief, a suspension in the here and now that creates ‘a sense of well-being that spreads out for a moment, not a projection toward a future’ or a ‘repair’ (117). They create moments of interruption that do not act as an exposure promising an alternative, but neither do they simply confirm the status-quo.

Could we then think of literature and literary criticism as lateral actions? In the last chapter of Cruel Optimism the term begets another valence. Now the term denotes alternative ways of belonging that allow people to hold on to their desire for the political without however entering its normative modes (those modes which are failing and disappointing people). Instead, its politics resides in the bodily and the affectively, in the enactment of ‘making solidarity’ (260) and being together. Lateral acts create time and space to collectively be together in an atmosphere that strengthens belief in an alternative. As this alternative is still somewhere ‘beyond’ the ordinary and remains unarticulated, the main difference between a lateral politics and one of negativity resides in affect and attitude: less certain, less comfortable and less confident in its effects.

I think of a lateral literary criticism that, borrowing from another language (Wark 2016), is not that much written from a strong position in which abstract (political) ideas recuperate situations and specific literary works, but from a weaker position that prompts us into the pressures and impressions of a situation that demand specific description and interpretation. Literary criticism does not translate the success or failure of a literary work into an allegory of political progress; rather political analysis and literary criticism need to be put in a metonymic relation as each may help the other to arrive at better understanding of the many ways in how one is attached to the subversion or affirmation of normativity in relation to how socio-economic conditions are mediated and expressed. A lateral literary criticism does not offer the self-assured affect that raising consciousness is a good in itself, but it is a particular engagement with the world that can only offer the art of the strike in collaboration with many other types of that engagement.

To end, I would like to read Dutch writer Maarten van der Graaff’s ready-made poem ‘List with Soothing Activities’ (2016; translated by Mia You) that reads like a catalogue of lateral acts. They may not be interpreted strike actions, but they create both time and space and are a reminder of what (life) we want more of.

“List with Soothing Activities”

Here below is a list
of soothing activities
drafted by earlier participants:

arranging furniture
cuddling with a blanket or a cuddly
doing volunteer work
caring for nails
getting fresh air
getting constructive responses from others
going to a film
getting or giving a massage
drinking coffee or tea
listening to music
hanging around a pedestrian area
listening to water
looking at the stars/clouds
rocking chairs
looking at an aquarium
window shopping
working on a project
taking the bus
riding a horse
spending money
sitting in the sun
taking a bath
tearing up paper or fabric
looking at photos
playing with water/soapsuds
reading positive feedback
Solitaire on the computer
looking at people
going to a concert
eating popcorn
eating chocolate
drawing stick figures
working in own nook
visiting others
going for a walk
going to get a haircut
fields of grain