In response to the perceived censorship taking place at American university protests in recent years, the conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro likes to return to what has become his catchphrase: facts, he claims, don’t care about your feelings. As pointed out by the those who take issue with trans rights, alongside the demands of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, the sentiment has proven a useful means of aligning conservative values with facts and so-called objectivity, while banishing progressive, liberal ones to the realm of emotional and shrill, non-sense. The implication, of course, is that if facts don’t care about your feelings, probably no one should. By rights, even the word feelings should be pronounced with exaggeration, its e’s stretched out and simpered in palpable contempt.
Thing is, though, facts really do care about your feelings; or, more accurately put, facts are substantially emotional, just as emotions engender effects more characteristic of so-called facts. Recent political upheavals, for example, have shown the incapacity of facts—and of course their handlers, experts—to convince voters, in clear contrast to persuasive emotions like fear, frustration, and rage. This emotionally charged context provided the main talking points of Transmediale 2019, which recently concluded at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Characterised by a (somewhat unfashionable) attention to affect theory, the weekend squared on the convergence of art, technology and politics, and comprised a non-stop sequence of screenings, lectures, performances, and panel discussions; a series of parallel workshops further bolstered the programme, offering opportunities, among other things, to create feminist data sets and explore ‘the ambivalence of cuteness’. Guiding all of it, broadly speaking, was the question: What moves you?
Probably as a way of uniting individual, emotional alterations with broader societal shifts, the festival’s curators borrowed from the work of the Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams, and specifically, what he called a structure of feeling. This mutable concept prioritises emergence and even pre-emergence, and with them, the possibility of change; as I understand it, it might also present a way of understanding emotions, and their capacity to move, in turn. Rather than looking only to tangible manifestations of criticism or revolt, intimations of threat to the dominant cultural order can be parsed by reading between the lines, paying heed to these structures of feeling. In this, individual contemporary phenomena like burnout, boredom, and anxiety function as clues within the wider socio-political context, while they can also be understood as phenomena of something else. Maybe, maybe, they can even prefigure this elseness.
Over the festival’s opening evening, a screening of Emanuel Almborg’s brilliant film The Nth Degree (2018) played on the hour, every hour. Documenting the creation and staging of a play developed through an exchange between two youth groups—from Mid Powys in rural Wales and Hackney, respectively—that gave shape to the Welsh Rebecca riots of the 1840s, and the 2011 riots in Hackney, the film pushed the point of their comparison. Both were responses to dispossession: in the first, to increasing taxation; and in the second, to the brutalising effects of Conservative cuts that disproportionately maligned the borough’s young. In one stunning scene, the young actors hurl invisible rocks at an invisible enemy. Their emotions need no exaggeration. Rather than conjuring up frustration and anger from nothing, they appear to be tapping into a trans-historical, always emergent source. If dispossession is eternal, Almborg’s film suggests that maybe resistance is too.
Multiple crossovers meant that seeing everything at Transmediale was not an option. Choices needed to be made. On Friday, I went with the panel discussion ‘Reworking the Brain,’ which allowed the academic Tony D. Sampson to furnish the audience with a solid and lively affect theory primer, while speculative-design company Hyphen Labs presented a short introduction to their work, which they described as ‘neuroscientific afrofeminism’. Later in the day, poet and academic Jackie Wang’s excellent keynote, Carceral Temporalities and the Politics of Dreaming, explored prison as an ‘institution that structures time,’ along with the kind of rhythms characterising the process of living within with the hulking machinery of American justice. That the presentation was emotional did nothing to blunt its political effect. This could not be said for Software Garden, the saccharine multi-media performance by Rory Pilgrim and others that took place later in the evening. Performers sang, danced and emerged from within the audience as part of something that was probably supposed to be rhapsodic, life affirming, even. I was unmoved. I had also started to discern a dull pain in my chest.
Over the night, the pain got much more intense, meaning I missed out on Saturday’s events due to being stuck in hospital waiting on tests. Finding nothing more than a chest infection, the mysterious illness—something I’m now attributing to having given up cigarettes two days before—was thankfully almost entirely gone by Sunday. The final day began with another keynote, ‘Collective Moods in Precarious Times,’ in which geographer Ben Anderson presented some exploratory research on boredom, ‘the distribution of possibility’ it signifies, and so its implications for change; while the sociologist Rebecca Coleman furnished another introduction to affect theory. Later in the day, the panel discussion ‘Affects Ex-machina: Unboxing Social Data Algorithms’ looked at the problem of online moderation, Facebook algorithms, and the site specificity of harmful content. Playing throughout the day, the film ‘Real Performance’ (2018), a collaboration between writer Grace Philips and artist Laurie Robins, showed the mindless inanity of contemporary corporate language. Two actors perform it to the nth degree, mirroring and empathising to such an extent that nothing gets said, indefinitely. Right before I left, I caught the screening of Stanya Khan’s ‘Stand in the Stream’ (2011-17). Made from six years of footage, all shot by Khan, the film is about the death of her mother, but also, I think, about the death of a particular kind of political life. Its footage concludes not long after Trump’s election. The outside, terrifying and hitherto restrained, has moved inside.
Returning to What moves you? The question implies a lack of control or power: something moves us, rather than the other way around. This lack of agency is often exploited via contemporary digital media, which look to move us, all of the time: our attention—emotions, essentially—transubstantiated via clicks into capital, political votes, or ideally both. Social media, in particular, is made to make us feel a certain way. If we don’t engage enough, it assumes behaviours—withholding likes, or artificially drip-feeding them, for example—in order to prompt us to become more engaged. Without doubt, our emotional states are being engineered and tinkered with on a daily basis. As a result, rather than assuming an a priori, natural validity, it is probably wiser to distrust them. I am left thinking about how we got to a point where the Right gets to monopolise feelings, while disavowing them at the same time. Thinking through emotions, and not just nodding along like afterthought emojis added to the end of a text, Transmediale urged us to begin reclaiming them.
Rebecca O’ Dwyer is an Irish art critic and writer currently based in Berlin