To Fix What Is Broken: Affect, Opposition and the Re-Creation of Space in Conflict
He’s packing his things. Calmly. She tries to explain. He says, “don’t talk to me”. She stays there for a second. She tries to look at him, standing at the door, saying, “it’s good that you’re leaving”. No response, he keeps packing. “I’m really glad you’re clearing out, you hear me?” He keeps packing. “You son of a bitch”, she says, while her voice trembles. Trembling even more, she now says, “You’re a fucking son of a bitch, you can’t even look at me huh!” He still doesn’t. She walks past him, grabs a photo of their family and walks away. “Give me that photo”, he says, breathing heavily. She walks to the other end of the room and takes their boy by his hands. “The children are staying with me”, she says. “I’ll pick up their things later.” He informs her. “You’re not taking them, I’m telling you now”, she says. He comes up to them and tries to get hold of his son. “Please let him stay”, she says. “Let him go now”, he says. “Let him stay, you’re acting crazy, let him stay” she says. Calmly he tries to get hold of their son. “Get out for heaven's sake. Out. Get the fuck out”, she yells. And “please!”, she cries. Their son is in the middle. “Let go of him”, he demands strongly. “Let go”, he yells angrily. She cries. “I can’t”, she sobs. “Let him go dammit”, he says angrily while he pulls on his son’s clothes. “Let go of him, let go of him”. Her grip loosens, and he grabs her by her throat. Soft yet terribly loud he repeats his demand. She lets go, and as he hastens out the door with their child in his arms, he leaves her crying.
Often it is a lack of space that forms the origin of conflict. Two people wanting the same spot. Two people too close together for too long. When the lack of space is inflammatory to the creation of a quarrel, the opening up, and the re-creation of space loosens, and calms us down. So far so good. But what does it mean to find oneself in each other's space in the first place? And if so, how to get out unharmed?
He does not talk. He has other things on his mind. He is trying to get his affairs in order. Only being annoyed with her for trying to hold on to their son. She, at the moment, is only emotion. Seeing him slip away from her, reluctant to let her even explain herself.
Let’s ask: what do we see? We see two people in opposition. Two people beyond agreement, beyond argument even. Now, they are just in a different place, wanting a different thing. Using their physical strength, using their bodies -using even the body of their son- to get to their own desired place. Let’s ask: what do we want? Assume that we don’t aspire to this opposition. Assume that none of us wishes for him to grab her by the throat, demanding, by physical threat, to give him what he wants (to let go of his son, to stop crying). Where then, does the opposition come from, be it not from our will?
They have been lovers. They love each other and mean well. They have, presumably, communicated in some kind of successful version in the past, but that ability has become clouded, fuddled away under a layers of accumulated affect. And now they can’t reach each other. He doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore. She has hurt him in their past, by cheating on him, probably, by treating the kids badly. He has hurt her. By pulling away, by closing off, by not reacting, by making her desperate, and by leaving her crying.
Let’s presume that people don’t want to find themselves in opposition, but are pushed that way by their affective responses. If people who love each other don’t want to be in a fight but find themselves in one, could it be possibly productive to think about other conflicts that do not specifically take place in a love-relationship, but nevertheless answer to the same principle, that they are not generated by will, but rather by affect? And if this is so, how could we find a way out? How could we bridge the failure of communication in such a structure? In other words: how to productively take into account the affective dimension in conflict, and re-create space to overcome opposition?
In Brian Massumi’s take on affect, he refers to the Spinozian body that is understood in its capacity for affecting and being affected. These are not two different capacities but always go together (Politics of Affect 3). As such, ‘affect’ denotes a thing’s relationality. It is, in Massumi’s words, irreducibly bodily and autonomic and in that sense refers to a pre-personal state (Parables for the Virtual 28). Where our feelings are constitutive in the revelation of the self, and emotions are constituted in a social setting, affect is our non-conscious way of relating to the world in which our existence as relational being is disclosed. The ‘I’ is no such thing existing in isolation, but always embedded-in. In getting to understand the structure of opposition, the affective dimension of being is useful in that it discloses our existence as relational self. However, the very question we are asking is how this ‘relational self’ nevertheless finds itself in conflict with another. If conflict is intensified by the lack of space, how can we identify the space of one’s own and the boundaries with the space of the other? What exactly resides in between?
He left her crying. He wanted her to stop, to calm down and just let him go. She wanted him to stay, to listen to her and to have him close. But in wanting something from him she only pushed him further away.
In a fight where both people shout for dominance, it is the lust of the dominants desire that, according to Indian theorist R. Radhakrishnan, posits his objectification on the other and names his/her desires as the ‘real’ of the encounter. In such a movement the space between reality and representation is closed up. Radhakrishnan reading of the structure of opposition is especially relevant in what he describes as the ‘paradox of imposing’. When imposing something on ‘the other’, you want him/her to be like you, while s/he at the same time will never be, because to be like you, s/he will simply have to repeat (and fail). The best they (the ones getting stuck on the wrong end of the paradox) can do, therefore, is in Radhakrishnans terms to ‘chip away’.
She wanted him to stay but instead she says that it is good that he is leaving. But she can’t let go of their son and she sobs. He wants to leave and she wants him to stay. Nothing to do about that.
In Radhakrishnans account of the structure of imposing oneself upon the other he uses concepts like desire and lust. He formulates a distinction where lust follows an egocentric and objectifying movement, and desire relates to a radical lack that impoverishes the ego, thus trying to fill that lack. In asking how these concepts are useful in thinking about relations, Radhakrishnan presents to us the bad formula, where ‘my freedom is in my right to objectify you and yours in your right to objectify me’ (328). When we translate this into relational terms, this would tantamount to some kind of cease-fire: where both parties are not really communicating, but have agreed not to fight. They stick to their own space, but refuse to dwell in the space in between, creating a void between the self and other.
The thing with space is that it exists by virtue of its counterpart. Space is the relation between non-spaces. It is the realm between identities and in that sense signifies their relationality. Therefore, to fill up the space is to eliminate relation. By imposing oneself on the other you fill up the space, leaving no room for the other and creating conflict. It is the epitome of the imperialistic act.
He closed up the space between them by not responding, not talking to her. She does so by holding on, and claiming her space: imposing herself on him.
Is anything other possible than a war of position? Is it possible not to both claim space, but find the space where even in oppositional wishes, both can reside? For Radhakrishnan this is possible when:
“Transactions between self and other […] take place simultaneously on two registers: one, where the self is negotiating with the alterity of the world; and two, where different selves are negotiating with one another as one another’s self and other. Both registers are getting played out at the same time with implications for the other.” (326)
This already rather befuddling situation is made even more complicated when Radhakrishnan notes how the ability of each perspective to realize the alterity is perennially disrupted by each gaze’s perspectivism that is engaged in realizing its own symbolic authority (326-327). In looking at the other, we are constantly pushed back in our own space, trying to take the other with us. It is where love meets desire: wanting the other to be like you, while s/he at the same time can never be. It is the classic struggle between love and alterity. However, we do not move out of conflict by stopping to imagine our own ‘real’ but the real challenge and hope lies in the possibility to imagine one’s reality not in egocentric isolation, but in relationally with other imaginings (330). To dwell in the space between.
Maybe you cannot always fix what is broken. Some things will just not last: spaces get filled up and relationships die. Maybe, do all things -in Massumi’s words- ‘live in and through that which escapes them’: the space in between. If that is us, and our self is as fluid as the things we connect with, let’s open those borders and walls, stop claiming each other's space, and live in each other's imaginings.
After studying History, Art History and Philosophy simultaneously in her undergrad, Maaike Hommes is currently finishing her rMA in Cultural Analysis with a thesis on the lust enhancing pill for women. Her research has mainly revolved around formulations of the normal and abnormal, the production of desire and the status of technological intermediation with the female sexual body in relation to global capitalism and advanced technology. Maaike is also involved in the public cultural sector and organizes lectures and debates at amongst others Felix Meritis.
Radhakrishnan, R. ‘Globalization, Desire, and the Politics of Representation.’ Comparative Literature 53.4 (2001): 315. Web.
Massumi, B. Parables for the Virtual : Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC Duke UP, 2002. Print.
Massumi, B. Politics of Affect. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2015. Print.