THE UNITED KINGDOM – In the chapter, Affect: Belonging of Alpesh Kantilal Patel’s Productive Failure: Writing Queer Transnational Art Histories, the author explores the definitions of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ whilst taking into consideration various ethnic, racial, and national differences. He aims to examine the role of art and writing in forming and reconstructing these concepts to create a more ethical future. He does so by honing in on the visual misidentification of various ethnic minorities as ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ in light of three major real-world events: The ‘9/11’ World Trade Center attacks in New York on September 11th 2001, the ‘7/7’ London public transport bombings of July 7th 2005 and the subsequent murder of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles De Menezes, and the shooting of Sanford teenager Trayvon Martin on February 6th 2012. Patel argues that at the core of all three events and their social consequences is ‘affect’, or “feeling before cognition”, and looks further into its role in shaping the way we define and categorize the world through visual identification. 

Patel begins by studying visual identification in relation to Jill Bennett’s ‘practical aesthetics’ – a theoretical model which calls for a shift in our critical approach to art. Bennett encourages a new focus on aisthesis, or our sensory experience of our surroundings, of which affect is a key component. Bennett’s ‘practical aesthetics’ was born out of the 9/11 attacks, as she argues that the event challenges the way art history and visual culture operate. (Patel, 2017) Other art historians have noted this and questioned the disciplines’ engagement with the event, including James Elkins who remarked, “What does it mean, I wondered, that visual culture has so little to say about an event so overwhelmingly important and so overwhelmingly visual?” (Bennett, 2012, p.15). In turn, Bennett calls for a new way of seeing – an investigation of aesthetics that crosses the narrow disciplinary borders of mainstream art history and visual culture. one that examines events not in isolation but as an extension of the events that caused them and the effects they have on the world. She also argues that aesthetics uncovers links between ‘action’ and ‘apprehension’, making it a valuable way of studying social relations. In this way, both art and affect inhabit an ‘in-between’ space that gives them the ability to enact change. 

Reaffirming this idea is Amelia Jones’ theory of queer feminist durationality. Jones emphasizes the role of identification in our interpretation and categorization of our surroundings. She stresses on the connection between affect and identification, and puts forth a means of exploring aesthetics that accounts for the role that identification plays in shaping the viewer’s relationship to an artwork. Durationality is powerful because it opens the present to the past and to the future, encouraging us to acknowledge our history in order to avoid further pain and exploitation in the future. 

Patel also draws on Marsha Meskimmon’s theory of affective criticality which links ethics and aesthetics without sacrificing the instrumental role of identity and identification. She suggests that ethics allow us to have some agency in shaping and changing our position in the world. Moreover, she argues that contemporary art can resonate with a viewer and transform the world rather than simply representing it, giving it the ability to create a responsible viewing subject. “Where the response-ability of the subject meets a subject’s responsibility with/in the world, aesthetics and ethics play in harmony”

Patel applies this theoretical knowledge firstly by studying a cartoon by Carter Goodrich, published in The New Yorker a month after the 9/11 attacks. The cartoon depicts a turbaned cab driver sitting anxiously in his taxi which has been decorated with a large amount of American flags and stickers which he has put up to deflect the excessive amount of misidentification turban-wearing individuals have faced as a result of 9/11. Patel argues that the turban, due to the massive circulation of the image of Osama Bin Laden after the event as well as the attribution of the bombings to Middle Eastern and Islamic radicals, became a visual signifier of terrorism. Not only that, but that it implies a lack of US citizenship and ‘belonging’. He argues that these presumptions are made regardless of the ethnicity and religious attitudes of the wearer, and that the consequences of this negative affect extend to an association of terrorism to Middle Eastern and Asian looking individuals as a whole. He cites Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, suggesting that the cab driver in the cartoon is attempting to redirect the negative consequences of multiple dimensions of his identity.

He cites this association of “Asianness” with terrorism as a factor in the murder of Jean Charles De Menezes, a Brazilian man who was shot down by police forces in London after he was falsely identified as a terrorist following the July 7th bombings. Both De Menezes and the suspect he was believed to be were not of Asian descent, but the officers’ and witnesses’ visual identification of them that resulted in his death. Patel considers De Menezes’ memorial and the blurry nature of the image used of him to apply Glissant’s demand for the “right to opacity”. By placing De Menezes’ image in the space before the viewer’s identification of him, the memorial underscores the fact that he was denied his “opacity”. (Patel, 2017)

Patel references this ‘in-between’ space again in reference to Adrian Margaret Smith Piper’s ‘Imagine’, a digital piece which depicts shooting victim Trayvon Martin. Much like De Menezes and the South Asian men who were killed post-9/11, Martin was killed after being visually misrecognized as a criminal.  The almost invisible nature of Martin’s image in the work paired with the target edited on top of it places the work at an “in-between of significations”. It acknowledges the politics and tragedy behind the event that occurred while also hoping for a better future. Patel links all three artworks that he has examined to this notion, saying, “Empowering viewers to embrace this affective position is in fact more powerful than delivering either sharp criticism or blithely offering potentially false promises of the future.” (Patel, 2017, p.202)

Affect: Belonging studies the role of affect in shaping the way we visualize the world around us. Patel argues that art and writing can be more than a “mute mirror” of the world around us. It can mold and transform our perception of it, and achieve change through initiating micro-activism.

Jean Gouders, ‘Oppression? Tradition?’, 2011, The Netherlands, cartoonmovement.

Art’s ability to hold valuable commentary on public life can be observed in political cartoons such as the one referenced in the text. In the political cartoon ‘Oppression? Tradition?’, French artist Jean Gouders critiques France’s banning of the burka, as well as the discussion of banning other religious coverings such as the hijab which is worn by one of the two figures in the artwork. Much like the Carter Goodrich cartoon, Patel examines in Affect: Belonging, Gouders calls into question the visual misidentification of individuals as a potential threat based on their choice to wear religious signifiers such as head coverings. More specifically, he points out the presumptions associated with the Muslim veil in contrast to those associated with that of a nun’s costume. The question Oppression? refers to the belief that the veil is an oppressive patriarchal tool forced upon the women who wear it. Law professor and social justice scholar Sahar Aziz explains that although patriarchy is an issue for people of all faiths in the Middle East, the veil has been adopted by Muslim women as a means of moving about smoothly in their societies and avoiding the harsh judgment and objectification at the hands of men in their pursuit of equal opportunity and status. Moreover, she stresses that many women have felt dignified in wearing the veil in accordance with their religious attitudes and personal beliefs, making it a symbol of liberation rather than control. 

Carrie Mae Weems, ‘Not Manet’s Type’, Photograph, 1997, United States

Despite this, Aziz notes the marginalization Muslim women face and examines the role intersectionality plays in shaping their experience. She argues that headscarved Muslim women experience “intersectional discrimination” which occurs due to multiple facets of their identity including gender, faith, ethnicity, and citizenship. Like the subject of Goodrich’s illustration, the headscarved Muslim woman has to deal with stereotypes that are not one-dimensional. As a result, they face real-world consequences to this negative effect such as challenges in the workplace, potential violence, and harassment. 

Moreover, Aziz notes a shift in the perception of the veil after the 9/11 attacks. This “anti-subjugation” rhetoric was now accompanied with if not overshadowed by a fear of Muslims and a need to protect one’s country from this perceived threat. She adds to this saying, “The most visible target was the “marked” Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Suddenly, her headscarf no longer evoked feelings of pity or confusion, but hatred and suspicion.” This emphasizes Patel’s view regarding the continuous nature of events. The effects of 9/11 continue to be felt today and as a result, the veil now produces an effect of contempt and fear, one that the nun’s veil does not evoke. Similar to the association of the turban with terrorism that Patel discusses, it is due to these affective reactions to ‘Asianness’ that the double standards pointed out in Gouders’ cartoon exist.  

Edouard Manet, ‘Olympia’, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 190 cm, 1863, France.

Affect and the visual categorization that results from it also shapes the art that we have been exposed to and by extension our interpretations of it. This notion is explored in Carrie Mae Weems’ 1997 series, Not Manet’s Type. The series consists of five black and white photographs, each a nude self-portrait, with a text inscription at the bottom. In one of the works, the text reads, ‘It was clear, I was not Manet’s type. Picasso-who had a way with women-only used me and Duchamp never even considered me.’ Weems comments on the exploitation and lack of visibility of black women in art. She draws on Manet as a clear example, possibly referencing his 1863 work Olympia, where he depicts a nude white woman with a confrontational glare. At her side, a black woman who appears to be her servant brings her flowers. The white model and Manet’s depiction of her have garnered attention and praise whereas Laure, the black model in the painting, has been largely overlooked by art historians. She is painted in the background, almost neglected by both the white model’s gaze and the audience’s. In his essay on racism, Victor Burgin touches on this lack of visibility by exploring the way we visually interact with color. He explains that “white” both draws our attention to color while also withdrawing itself as one. White is seen as the “sum totality of light”, while black is perceived to be the absence of it. 

Pablo Picasso, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, Oil on Canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm, 1907, MoMA.

Art historian Francette Pacteau further examines blackness, specifically black femininity in a visual context. She studies Picasso as an example and references the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in particular, citing Picasso’s source of inspiration behind depicting the subjects with faces that resembled African masks. An account states that he had first observed the African masks in a flea market he described as foul smelling and disgusting, deciding then to use them to express the “terrifying aspects of female sexuality”. Thus, the origin of the painting makes an association between the stench of decay and the image of black femininity. (Bloom, 1999) This calls back to a quote by Patel: “my skin color was highly charged – capable of producing a strong affective reaction of repulsion, fear, or contempt on sight in a viewing subject. White skin, on the other hand, would produce no effect at all.” (Patel, 2017, p.193)

It is an effect that is at the core of the lack of visibility and substantial representation that Weems is criticizing in her work. Moreover, it is through presenting herself as the subject of Not Manet’s Type that she cements her ‘right to opacity’ which Patel references in his writing. In her photographs, she celebrates her difference – her right to exist, to simply be without being fully understood. At the same time, she underscores the politics of her real-world experience. By existing in this ‘in-between’ space that Patel references in Affect: Belonging, she encourages the viewer to hope for a more inclusive future.