Media @ McGill

Christopher Gutierrez | Anxious Realism: Speculation, Affect and Information in the Ongoing Present

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The recent ‘Affective Turn’ in the humanities has produced an ambitious myriad of texts, ideas and theories that aim to reimagine our ongoing present through the lens of the body, sensation and attachment. This ever-expanding archive, united only through a notion of affect that has, “…no single, generalizable theory…” can be both an awe inspiring, and entirely daunting, source of knowledge for research and scholarship.[1] Emerging from a wildly diverse genealogy that draws together the Darwinian and psychoanalytic, the Spinozian and the phenomenological, queer theory and neurobiology, texts on affect theory regularly straddle disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Contemporaneous to this affective moment, scholarship on the digital world is developing dialogue between the massive quantities of information available to us and our daily lives. As we are increasingly aware of the automatist actors – from financial algorithms and quantifiable metrics to the circuitous loops of communicative capitalism – that shape our relationship to the present, there is a growing sense that both the vast quantity of information, and the tools to cut through this vastness, will be at the center of our developing political projects.

In this dissertation, I propose a theory of anxious realism as an attempt to articulate the space between these two realms. Building upon Lauren Berlant’s work on depressive realism, where the writer’s disposition can operate as both a methodological stance and a barometer for the affective atmosphere of the present, anxious realism is theorized as a particular subject position in communicative capitalism and, simultaneously, a developing heuristic for negotiating this precarious position.[2] By considering anxiety’s dominant position in both popular culture and the academic press, this work is able to use anxiety to illuminate several theoretical and methodological tensions at work in contemporary scholarship on affect theory while simultaneously exploring the political nature of anxiety in everyday life. As anxiety operates largely in the spaces between everyday practice and fantasy, anxious realism is understood then as a mode of attachment to the world, as a method of negotiating increasing access to information, and as a particular disposition for the present moment of financial speculation, epistemic uncertainty and imagined catastrophe.

In the first chapter of this dissertation, I map out a model of anxious realism through a dialogue between Freud’s theories of anxiety and contemporary scholarship on affect theory. Here I address the relatively simple question of whether anxiety can be understood as an affect. The particular issue at work is one of the object of an affective position: where affects are commonly understood to have objects, to be about something, anxiety is typically differentiated from fear as it is without an object and is necessarily vague. By considering Freud’s shifting theories of anxiety, only united by a notion of ‘anxious expectation’ that allows for the anxious subject to attach the affect, born from historic trauma, to an expectant future object, this chapter considers the ways in which affect theory equally revolves around a model of expectation that originates through historical structures. Ultimately, anxious realism is offered as an affect that hinges temporalities by focusing on specific types of historical objects and future aspirations.

The second chapter builds upon this understanding of anxious realism by considering the emergence of anxious objects from a wider atmosphere, and network, of communicative capitalism. Provoked by a widely-circulated text on the future of the novel by Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel”, here I look particularly towards the literary text for a model of anxious realism by offering readings of two memoirs of anxiety (Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety and Patricia Pearson’s A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine)) and several contemporary novels addressed by Smith (Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Tom McCarthy’s C and Remainder, and Smith’s own N.W.). Through these readings, I consider several representations of anxiety to further sketch the vicissitudes of anxious realism before ultimately charting out two fundamental structures at work in the anxious moment and the anxious subject; a quick ideational shortcut through anxiety to a hopeful future, or a repetitive, stuck in place, accumulation of anxious objects.

In the third chapter, I elaborate on these two structures to develop a particular methodological position for anxious realism that is then applied to events in chapters four and five. Here, I consider anxious realism’s ideational structure as a particular corporeal manifestation, as a type of body loop that allows for the subject to feel the imagined future, and I chart this sensation alongside the politics of affect and ideology. Mapping out this manifestation allows for a method that looks towards everyday habituation and routinization to dissuade anxiety, and likewise, seeks out the extraordinary events that break this habituation and reveal an anxious structure at work.

The extraordinary event at the center of the fourth chapter is the June 15th, 2011 riots following the Vancouver Canucks playoff loss. Here the extraordinary is considered as an unintended consequence of the aspirational desires for city and its inhabitants. In order to pinpoint the anxiety related to these aspirational desires, this chapter looks closely at the particular genealogy of Vancouverism as a model for urban planning and at Vancouver proper as a model for urban space. As the ideational fantasy for the city, these images of Vancouver operate as the anxiety provoking speculation forced on the city’s inhabitants. As Vancouverites negotiate a myriad of incalculable risks to stay in or move to the city, all while becoming Canada’s most indebted metropolitan area as the housing market is increasingly the site of financial speculation, the relationship between debt and aspiration is felt in the everyday anxiety of urban space. Viewing the events of June 15th through a wider lens that includes the structures of desire and attachment that bind people to the hopefully future of a city, even in moments of present despair, allows for an understanding of anxiety as a normative structure that ruptures in moments where fantasy and reality meet.

Finally, the fifth chapter further develops the relationship between indebtness, speculation and anxiety charted in everyday life in the city by mapping out the larger forces of financial anxiety that haunt this space. Here I first offer critical readings of two recent films Margin Call and Take Shelter, to consider the specific relationship between financial uncertainty and language. By drawing out the incommunicability naturalized in the overwhelming language of the financial realm, and equally in the duress inspired by this mass information, I then consider the development of heuristic devices and methodological structures used to shortcut this anxiety. Here, I consider the parallelisms between developing methods of analysis for the digital humanities (including Natural Language Processing, Sentiment Analysis and Text Mining) and financial tools (Algorithmic and High-Frequency trading) that are each reliant on automated structures to manage large volumes of information. Pulling together these two automations allows for a final investigation into the mechanizations of anxious realism and reveals a mirroring of communicative capitalism at work in the methods, and techniques, of academic labour.


[1] Gregg and Seigworth, 2010, p.3

[2] McCabe and Berlant, 2011