"Sexual Sovereignties" Guest Writer: Ben Bascom

Monday, March 10, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
“Sexual Sovereignties” 

Written by: Ben Bascom (English)

Zoe Leonard, "Observation Point," 2012

[On March 7, 2014 the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies organized a talk by Ann Cvetkovich (University of Texas, Austin) entitled “The Sovereignty of the Senses.” Below are reflections of the talk by Ben Bascom, a doctoral candidate in English and student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism.]

Ann Cvetkovich began her talk by narrating a moment of misremembering. She had thought she had written “the sovereignty of the senses” in her most recent book, Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), but upon returning to the section where she developed that idea she realized the exact phrasing was different. What she had written was instead about “forms of felt sovereignty that consist not of exercising more control over the body and senses but . . . of ‘recovering’ them from the mind or integrating them with it.” A few pages before, and building from Jacqui Alexander’s notion of the relation between “radical self-possession” and decolonization, she had written that the “sovereignty of the sensory or embodied self is not necessarily about claiming land but about claiming a relation to a place or environment as a way of grounding the self.” These moments that underscore the relation between affect and the self became the starting points for a current project that combines indigenous studies and diaspora studies to articulate the relation between sovereignty and the senses, which, as Cvetkovich argues, will endeavor to reimagine democracy as an embodied collectivity.

To call this a “rethinking” does not fully convey the work Cvetkovich presented. Revising Lauren Berlant’s sense that sovereignty as a concept produces a “militaristic and melodramatic view of agency,” Cvetkovich offers a queer reorientation, as she calls it, that remains focused on the sensory and affective components of “radical self-possession.” Desiring to bring forward the complicated history of the uses and deployment of “sovereignty,” particularly in the context of indigenous studies, Cvetkovich follows Joanne Barker’s work which highlights the ways in which sovereignty has been problematized, contested, and rearticulated by indigenous peoples. The mode of sovereignty that Cvetkovich discusses could, as she mentions, be thought of as a way to further reconsider Berlant’s “good life” or Sara Ahmed’s “happiness.” Aligning her project with the work of Mark Rifkin and Mel Chen, however, Cvetkovich seeks to think about ways to reclaim the body and embodied experience, which makes her attention to indigenous critique particularly significant for, as Jodi Byrd reminded the audience during the question-and-answer session, one cannot think of embodied sovereignty outside of histories of colonialism and territoriality.

Cvetkovich’s conception of sovereignty also builds on the work of Audre Lorde, who, she argues, privileges feeling over reason while refraining from entirely separating the two modes of experiencing

the world. Citing “The Uses of the Erotic,” Cvetkovich drew attention to the particular way in which queer women of color have reclaimed an expansive and affective erotics in order to make claims to “radical self-possession.” The erotic, for Lorde, provides an affective politics that become the foundation for imagining and creating new worlds, building relations that are attuned to a capacious view of the senses. A queer politics is a sensory politics, Cvetkovich argues, and so we might begin by thinking about how reorientations in space configure queer ways of seeing things.

In imagining an affective politics that draws upon and revises queer theory, I find it of note that Cvetkovich concluded her talk by analyzing art installation work, specifically Zoe Leonard’s “Observation Point.” This piece models itself as a massive camera obscura that projects an inverted view of an outside scene into the installation space. The projected view is often quotidian, depicting the comings-and-goings of a street intersection, but Cvetkovich found herself allowing the senses to reorient her in the room. She then, in describing her experience, discussed how her descriptions of the artwork modeled themselves on Heather Love’s descriptive reading. The close-but-not-deep reading, Cvetkovich argues, allows for emergent and new attachments to living and nonliving things and beings in the world.

Zoe Leonard’s installation piece, Cvetkovich continued, creates new forms of collectivity that are connected to reorienting sense perception. Specifically, Leonard’s work stages the difference between “this is how it is” and “this is how I see it,” two key ways of imagining experience that are tethered to affective politics. It seems as if Cvetkovich is trying to argue for more nuance regarding the subjective and objective split that these differing observations imply. Basing her analysis of queer affective politics on the visual and tactile dimensions of installation spaces, Cvetkovich values the experiential spaces and events of such works for how they cause people and bodies to experience intentional space and think about the body’s sensing mechanisms.

I began this post by referencing a misremembered phrase that provided the title of Cvetkovich’s new project—“the sovereignty of the senses”—along with the actual wording in the earlier book that, in a way, inspired it. This is perhaps a strange way to leave an electronic trace of this event—beginning by noting a reported case of misremembering. But there was something affective, and perhaps affecting, in Cvetkovich’s act of describing that what she thought she had written was actually different from what her exact words had been—a misremembering that is now inscribed in (electronic) print, and available for critical perusal. But sometimes the feel of memory is just as significant in determining the course of a body’s research trajectory than the printed artifacts one leaves behind.


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