It seems not insignificant that the cult film Donnie Darko is set in the final stages of the Bush-Dukakis election campaign, which had the twin effects of inaugurating the Bush presidential dynasty and making “liberal” an insurmountably derogatory term in American politics. Donnie’s gift of seeing into the future is, at least superficially, a reaction to his medication for “emotional problems”. But the count-down to his apocalyptic date with a giant bunny-rabbit also coincides with the demise of any remaining hope for a certain kind of progressive Left politics. With the options for escaping a conservative small town life fast disappearing, an impenetrable theory of time-travel appears to offer a plausible reprieve from Donnie’s destiny. As we learn very early in the movie, however, even time-travel cannot offer salvation: Donnie, like a particular idea of America, is doomed.
Strangely representative of cultural studies’ theoretical preoccupations, Donnie’s character is unavoidably implicated in an omnipresent therapeutic culture while also demonstrating good taste in 80s music, an attraction to mischief and a fitful enthusiasm for saving the world. In the context of this editorial, the film acts as a useful retrospective archive of the moment when “affect” came to wide attention as the key site for politics in the United States. Donnie Darko documents the rise and spectacular fall of Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a charismatic motivational speaker and incidental kiddy-porn ringleader who makes a fortune with his book, Attitudinal Beliefs. Cunningham’s converts find liberation by freeing themselves from their own fears, for according to his paradigm, there are only two features of the “energy spectrum”: fear and love. The trick to a successful life – and good grades – is to choose the “Right-eous” path of the latter (Gregg and Fuller). But as the film develops, the audience slowly comes to realise that no one will avoid the truly terrifying fate that is Grandma Death’s secret: everyone dies alone.
Donnie Darko encapsulates the overwhelming nature of adolescent angst which gravitates between the “indifference of terror and boredom” and which Lawrence Grossberg has claimed to be “the most powerful and pervasive affective relations in everyday life” (184). Donnie and his peers aren’t just subject to the petty tyrannies of high-school; the film’s plot allegorises a much wider cultural shift. As Grossberg argued extensively throughout the 1990s, the strategy of new conservatives has been to conduct a political agenda at the level of affect, or what today we might recognise as “the battle for hearts and minds”. It succeeds by colonising the very mood, imagination and hope of a citizenry. When Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is fired as English teacher at Donnie’s school – the result of a moral values campaign against a prescribed textbook – she says of the students: “We are losing them to apathy. They are slipping away”. Karen conveys despair and anger at this prospect, only to be met with the headmaster’s rebuke: “I am sorry that you have failed”. Here the apparently naïve optimism of a brilliant teacher is subject to the same indignant script her students face: individualised torment for a structurally ingrained lack of hope.
Grossberg has consistently urged that cultural studies intellectuals recognise scenarios like these as the perniciously mundane locations where the fight for the future is waged:
When the very possibility of political struggle is being erased – not because the scene of politics (or the public sphere) has disappeared in some postmodern apocalypse, but because there is an active attempt to use popular discourses to restructure the possibilities of everyday life – the political intellectual has no choice but to enter into the struggle over affect in order to articulate new ways of caring. (23)
This issue of M/C Journal reveals some of the many ways this objective continues to be thwarted in the current political climate and in contexts which veer to varying degrees from the mainstream political situation in the United States.
In the lead article for the issue, Shane McGrath makes the point that the politics of compassion are far from straightforward in an era of “compassionate conservatism” but that they are noticeably straight (see also Berlant). One of the most important distinctions he asks us to make is to “recognise and affirm feelings of compassion while questioning the politics that seem to emanate from those feelings”. The essay that follows is a helpful explanation of the theoretical legacies behind “Feeling, Emotion and Affect”. Eric Shouse provides an introduction to the vocabulary that many writers for this issue share and in some cases challenge. “The importance of affect”, Shouse claims, is that “in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her non-conscious affective resonance with the source of the message”. This is precisely the difficulty of forming any rational model of political opposition to apparently personable leaders like Bush, or concertedly “ordinary” leaders like John Howard: a diverse population will often interpret a manifest message through a quite different set of unconscious criteria.
Anne Aly and Mark Balnaves offer an example of this kind of affective resonance in their article, “The Atmosfear of Terror”. Chilling riots around Sydney’s southern beaches in the week of this issue’s production lend added pertinence to their reading which argues that attitudes towards Muslims in Australia are “less to do with the actual threat of a terrorist attack on Australian soil and more to do with….reprisal for the terrorist attacks” that have already occurred elsewhere. Describing a quite different and highly intimate experience of fear is Lessa Bonniface, Lelia Green and Maurice Swanson’s essay documenting their work developing HeartNET, a Website devoted to discussion amongst heart patients. This collaborative project is part of an Australian Research Council linkage grant and illustrates how cultural theory can be tested and extended in productive partnerships with the wider community.
Megan Watkins’s eloquent essay on the affects of classroom practice shares a similar attention to corporeality in the way that it highlights the neglected bodily dimensions of learning and motivation, while Glen Fuller’s “The Getaway” offers a quite different example of the ways that our bodies can surprise us by betraying disciplines we may not have consciously registered. Two further essays by Beth Seaton and Margaret Hair have the specific purpose of drawing attention to affective relations otherwise suppressed in the landscapes around us, reflecting upon the ethics of acknowledging past and present trauma.
The issue then embarks on a series of exciting new approaches to popular media, in Anna Gibbs’s article on the hypnotic properties of television, Leanne Downing’s introduction to the politics of “eater-tainment” accompanying block-buster films, and finally, Gregory Seigworth’s affirming reading of indie darling, Sufjan Stevens. In a fitting gesture given the imperatives Grossberg sets out, Seigworth considers the significance of Stevens’ live show in terms of an “affect of corn” that he submits as one humble exercise that might help to “redeem a future for the present”.
In the amount of time since the issue’s conception “affect” has moved from being regarded as something that “cultural studies has always been crap at” (Noble) to “the new cutting edge” (Hemmings) while for some it has become “that word I never want to hear again” (Sofoulis). As Elspeth Probyn notes in the contribution that closes the issue, witnessing a cherished theoretical interest become fashionable can be bemusing and disabling – what I hope these essays demonstrate is that fashion need not relinquish usefulness.
This issue of M/C Journal involved some tough editorial decisions due to a remarkably high number of submissions. I thank all of the writers who offered work for consideration as well as those who responded so enthusiastically to my invitation. Thanks also to the referees who gave their time and expertise and the correspondents whose patience was doubtlessly tested in the finishing stages. I am particularly indebted to Laura Marshall and Neysa Ellison-Stone for their excellent and speedy copy-editing.
Finally, the stunning cover image for this M/C Journal is “Collage” by Jane Simon with stills from Undiegate, a Super-8 film by Marian Prickett and Jane Simon (Melbourne, 2002). Its rich texture, exciting juxtaposition and overriding implication of possibility couldn’t have been more fitting my hopes for this issue.