(Ab)Using Brian Massumi

This post is a revised version of a short paper from the ‘Emotions Work in the Historical Past’ workshop, University of Melbourne, November 13, 2014.

Posted by Grace Moore

On Thursday September 13, 2001 Diana Pharoah Francis of the University of Montana Western posted a message to the Victoria list server, in which she said:


As I’m going to teach my Victorian class today, I plan to talk about the Indian Mutiny. I have been struck by the US response (personal rather than national) to the attack. In particular, as I try to make some sense of it for myself, I was thinking about how the British must have reacted to the news of the mutiny. I have been a member of the postcolonial listserv, and a number of people there have pointed out that the US foreign policy is largely responsible, and how did we expect them to react? It gets at the complexity of the issue, even as I can hardly bear to hear it.*

Francis, like many working in the humanities, turned to her work as a means of making sense of what had happened in the United States just two days before, and also possibly out of a need to make it meaningful in a time of crisis. Her posting led to a sequence of responses in which a number of Victorian scholars—some of them highly distinguished—played out their responses to 9/11, sometimes in a highly emotional manner. One contributor followed a tirade with the words, ‘I will no doubt apologize for this outburst in a week or so…’, unable to stop himself, all the same.

I recall, at the time, feeling a great sense of pathos, peppered with despair, when reading some of these messages. On the one hand it seemed as though the scholarly rigour of the list had been compromised or contaminated through attempts to tease out transhistorical parallels, while on the other I experienced deep discomfort in watching list members deal with their shock and grief in this semi-public manner. More than a decade on, these messages have stayed with me in a way that the—sometimes hundreds of—other posts I receive from the list-server each week have not. And over the last couple of years, that issue of the transhistorical parallel has become a type of intellectual sticking point for me, as I’ve leaned on Brian Massumi’s work on the ontology of threat to explore literary—and sometimes literary-historical responses to bushfires.

To date I’ve used Massumi for two projects. The first is a co-authored piece on John Kinsella’s 2013 poem ‘Bushfire Approaching’, a work that uses fire in the Western Australian wheatbelt as a means of exploring broader issues of climate change and extinction. The second is an exploration of emotional responses to arson in Anthony Trollope’s 1872 novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil and a handful of short stories about arson from the nineteenth-century Australia periodical press.

Massumi’s essay, ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’, has been incredibly useful for both pieces because of its exploration of trauma and what he calls the ‘anticipated threat’. The annual seasonal menace of the bushfire makes Massumi’s work on the fear of future catastrophe a near perfect fit for the work I’ve been engaged in, with its heavily traumatized characters and cyclical disasters. He writes:

Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, it is still not over. There is always the nagging potential of the next after being even worse, and of a still worse next again after that (53).

Taken in isolation, this analysis seems to lend itself perfectly to a reading of JS Borlase’s bleak little story, ‘Twelve Miles Broad’ in which an act of arson leads to a dramatic suicide, causing the survivors to abandon their home because they can no longer live either with the memories that it evokes or with their deep fear of future bushfires. Massumi writes beautifully of what he calls the ‘smoke of future fires’, reading the fire alarm through the semiotician Charles Peirce as an ‘index’ which ‘acts upon the nerves of the person and force(s) his attention’ (64). For the survivor of a fire who returns to the site of the home, there are usually two possible responses. One is what the fire historian Tom Griffiths has identified as a type of willed amnesia, in which the memory of the fire is contained by casting it as a freak event, something unnatural that can never happen again. The other is to live in what Massumi identifies as a state of heightened arousal, endlessly fearing the next disaster, interpreting the merest whiff of smoke as a signifier of impending catastrophe.

My major stumbling block is that Massumi is not, of course, writing about bushfires in the late nineteenth century, nor is he concerned with the West Australian wheatbelt. Rather, his work is engaged very specifically with the climate of paranoia, uncertainty and terror which followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. His theories of anticipated disaster were formulated in response to the visceral fears of New Yorkers in the days and months that followed that terrible September day. A world in which white powder signified anthrax and in which when a plane crashed in New York City two months later, a witness was quoted as saying, “I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke and I just thought, ‘Oh no, not again’.”

Massumi, then, is and is not a perfect fit for my research and, while I continue to use him, I’m troubled by a sense of scholarly irresponsibility in using work that is so politically, historically and geographically specific to unpack responses to very different forms of fire. The question which began at the back of my mind, and which is pushing itself increasingly to the forefront is, ‘Does trauma “translate”?’, or can there be such a thing as a transhistorical emotion?

Ann Kaplan’s Trauma Culture a 2005 work that she describes as a ‘belated’ response to 9/11 offers me some legitimacy here and it is to Kaplan that I am indebted for the idea of emotional ‘translation’. Kaplan herself is a New Yorker and writes very movingly and personally about her traumatized reactions to the two smoking towers. Kaplan is mostly concerned with what she calls ‘quiet trauma’ (or the very personal), but she argues compellingly that disaster can cause history, memory, time and space to collapse into one another. To support this idea, she analyzes how the terror attacks caused flashbacks to her childhood in the London of the Blitz, bringing long-buried fears to the surface one more, combining with her more immediate trauma and leading to a dread of what the future might hold. Kaplan is not alone here, and New York Holocaust survivors have also spoken of being plunged back into memories of traumas past, while at the same time living with what Massumi terms the ‘ontology of threat’—a threat that is both real, but also manufactured and manipulated by politicians and the media (and I’ve written elsewhere on John Howard’s rather cynical attempts to draw parallels between the attacks of 2001 and the Canberra bushfires of 2003 through his notion of the ‘summer terror’.

What Massumi and Kaplan show us, I think, is that trauma is a very mobile response, in which reactions to the present collapse into those of the past, and in which the suddenness of an event can lead to a type of catastrophic anxiety in relation to the future. Kaplan tells us, ‘Trauma can never be “healed” in the sense of a return to how things were before a catastrophe took place, or before one witnessed a catastrophe; but if the wound of trauma remains open, its pain may be worked through in the process of its being “translated” via art’ (19). Whether trauma is an historically transferrable emotion remains for me an open question that sits uncomfortably alongside my engagement with Massumi.

On an obvious level, we live in a media age, which saturates us with images of disaster—for some this leads to vicarious or secondary trauma, in which empathy for unknown suffers can be overwhelming. For others, over-exposure to disaster leads to a state of anesthaesia, in which it becomes impossible to feel anything. While I can read about fictional and actual bushfire survivors from the nineteenth century, I remain uncertain about what they felt; about whether the fear they experienced in the menacing Australian bush was the same as the terror I feel when a kookaburra cackles through the wilderness. Certainly, while I identify many of my subjects as ‘traumatized’, they wouldn’t have labeled themselves in this way and I find myself endlessly troubled by my own historical situatedness as I try to capture emotions in history. The J.S. Borlase story that I mentioned before ends with the narrator voicing fears for his wife’s endangered ‘reason’, which to me signals deep trauma. Yet in a Victorian context, the mechanisms for dealing and not dealing with this emotional response are so different from those of today, that I must also ask how useful it is to anachronistically impose the term ‘trauma’ upon people and characters of the period.

To end somewhere close to where I began, I want to go back to the Indian ‘mutiny’ of 1857.** It was an event that, like 9/11 elicited highly emotive and very public responses, in which writers and thinkers including Charles Dickens responded to what was essentially a military insurrection that got out of control by advocating mass genocide. The parallels between the events of September 2001 and the subsequent wrath of the Bush administration are tempting here (and I’m using the term wrath with a strong awareness that it is for the most part an historically-bound emotional response). Diana Francis and those responding to her post were mostly able to situate themselves in relation to a critique of US cultural imperialism. The ‘mutiny’ was very much a media event, in which erroneous reporting whipped up a racist furore in England (albeit much more slowly than the real time in which CNN dramatizes disaster). As with 9/11, there were clear signs for those who were willing to see them that some sort of uprising was inevitable. Yet, what makes me pause with both this unwieldy comparison of events separated by more than 150 years, and my application of Massumi, is the question of shame.

Queen Victoria’s immediate public response to events of May and June 1857 was to declare a day of national fasting and humiliation, and more than 150 churches opened their doors to members of the public who wished to humble themselves. For the Victorians, this event was an expression of divine disapproval (and large-scale fires were often interpreted in the same way). The acceptance of shame, if not responsibility, was part of their grieving and healing process and a much more wholesale, visceral and public experience than the way we express shame today. I can say, ‘I am ashamed of British/American/Australian foreign policy’, but it would not occur to me to express that shame through starvation and abjection, actions which are both personal and collective and which might, it occurs to me, be cathartic too.

It is here, then, that I see and feel historical distinctions and an embodied emotional response that is deeply alien. With that knowledge, I need to continue to question the utility and responsibility of myself collapsing disasters into one another, and to accept that the historical emotion might be elusive and inscrutable, even while I continue to chase it.

*I am grateful to Diana Pharoah Francis for permission to cite her post to the VICTORIA-L listserv

**I use this term because this is what the Victorians called the event now known as the first Indian War of Independence.

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