Denaturalizing Affect: Analysis of Another Earth

“Why are relations of power so intractable and enduring, even in the face of collective forms of resistance?” (Ahmed 12).

“Within our lifetimes, we've marveled as biologists have managed to look at ever smaller and smaller things. And astronomers have looked further and further into the dark night sky, back in time and out in space. But maybe the most mysterious of all is neither the small nor the large: it's us, up close” (emphasis added, Another Earth)

 

Rhoda, a convicted felon, shortly after her release from prison became a janitor at her former high school. Upon visiting the scene of the accident, where she killed a family; where she killed a wife and child; where she left a husband widowed; where she was not only drunk but intoxicated by the newly discovered “Earth-Two” outside her rolled-down window, she sees John, the widowed husband. She watches him from a safe distance putting a toy by the pole where he lost his family.

Later, Rhoda researches John learns of his lost professorship at Yale University and finds where he lives. Approaching his house, it is night and the mirror Earth is brighter than during the day, reflecting the sun it shares with Rhoda’s and John’s Earth. Rhoda peers in through John’s window. He’s playing Wii. She follows the train tracks home, removes all of her clothes, and attempts to kill herself by sleeping, naked, in the snow. There’s a quick flash of her shaking, her hands turning purple, and her sleeping. The scene ends with Rhoda waking up in a hospital next to her father in an emergency space blanket.

Although several scenes of this film, Another Earth directed by Mike Cahill, holds value in context to Sarah Ahmed’s ideas about emotion within The Cultural Politics of Emotion, what I am concerned with here is the scene described above. The interaction between emotions, bodies, and signifiers is concealed in this scene. Rhoda’s character does not express her emotion overtly. There is no voice-over. She does not talk or listen to John. John doesn’t talk or listen to her. There are no flashbacks to a car accident. In this way, the movement of the camera lens—where it stops, what it passes over, whose eyes the lens suggest to be standing in for—represents interaction, which, furthermore, functions as a method for the concealment of the relationship between emotions, bodies, and signs here. In other words, the camera lens remains, to the audience, a concealed affective economy of circulation, like a current playing into the construction and reinforcement of a social normative about shame—shame as rendering a body vulnerable, helpless, and unlovable.

So while Ahmed argues that emotions are not origins, they, in this scene, appear to function purely on the surface of emotionality to the audience; emotions appear to divert from reason, and originate within the body of Rhoda, and even John (i.e. Rhoda feels pain that is hers, not Johns and vice versa) (169). “After all, life experience involves multiple collisions with objects and others. It is through such collisions that I form a sense of myself (more or less) apart from others, as well as a sense of the surfaces of my body” (Ahmed 26). In sum, what we don’t see, or fail to see about shame as an affective current, is what I intend to investigate here.

In lieu of the seemingly absent affective economy, how do emotions shape Rhoda’s experience, at the brink of taking her own life? Do emotions circulate between Rhoda, John, and a memory of the past us, as an audience, do not currently see? Does she only experience emotion because there is an audience watching her? Emotions, in this context, both exist in a relation between the audience and the film, and in the idea that the emotional current of a traumatic moment has stuck to Rhoda, keeping her stuck to shame. In other words, because the relationship between bodies and signs is not obvious or tangible in the present moment, does not justify a counterargument to Ahmed’s concept that “emotions are not ‘in’ either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects” (10).

More specifically, Ahmed argues that the “stickiness” of emotions “helps us to associate ‘blockages’ with ‘binding’” (91). Emotions stick to bodies and signs (or signifiers) through repetition or circulation, which is a historical process as much as it is a social and economic one. Shame, in other words, brings past historical and social associations as it impresses upon new bodies in a new moment. It is this repetition that can become binding, keeping Rhoda stuck in a moment with hopeless despair. She has not reached a point of playing an active role in transforming this historic impressing of emotions, which is part of the stickiness of the shame Rhoda feels. Her body is bound to wrinkling emotions associated with trauma (i.e. grief, shame, and pain) and Rhoda, as well as the audience does not know how to heal, hence Rhoda’s failed attempt at suicide. So while trauma is something—an emotion, a feeling, a moment, a haunting—it is not so much about what trauma is as much as it is what trauma does that affects not just Rhoda, but the audience as well (e.g. trauma sticks, making the bodies of trauma stuck).

Additionally, the concealment of this “repetition” or “stickiness” of emotion as expressed through an attachment to bodies and signs—what makes Rhoda stuck in a moment of the past—“allows such signs to accumulate value” (Ahmed 92). In other words, it is the concealment of this current that creates meaning, but subsequently, also projects the illusion that emotions may exist within/without a body, rather than being contingent upon movement. Rhoda’s shame isn’t something that originates somewhere within her. Emotions simply don’t do that. Emotions here impress upon the surfaces of a body in a moment where two cars crash into one another, resulting in death. As this moment seemingly fades into the past, emotions keep this history, and histories previously stuck to emotions like shame, alive, affecting the surviving and spectator bodies in the present. Ironically, Ahmed’s comments on stickiness as a collision can be repeated here, “It is through such collisions that I form a sense of myself (more or less) apart from others, as well as a sense of the surfaces of my body” (Ahmed 26).

So emotions are historical, they ripple through time, and consequently, this repetition “seems binding…The repetition of the images of trauma suggests a need to replay that which has yet to be assimilated into the individual or collective psyche” (Ahmed 95). As a result of these affective economies that produce understandings of how to deal with shame, Rhoda is unable to assimilate these experiences into her body as a social, material, and psychic being—which can be conscious or unconscious. In other words, the concealment of the circulation of shame, stuck to her body, keeps her here, at a loss, unable to heal, to weave the socially contingent, dark experience, into her present, ever-evolving self.

Why all this matters, furthermore, is not so much what shame does to Rhoda, a fictional character, but what shame does and how it affects the audience. How does shame affect us through this scene? Shame, in this scene of attempted suicide as a seemingly “something” that originates in Rhoda, is self-indulgent and hopeless, and as an audience member, you “instinctually” want her to move past this shame. More literally, shame, as a social construction, is concealed from our view (of course not without our complicity) and is limited in its very means of movement through affective economies. In other words, this scene reinforces cultural notions of shame: there is no way to heal, only to serve those we’ve hurt; criminals can never recover from the crimes they’ve committed. By taking in these emotions and reacting as we do, cultural norms are reproduced and reinforced.

For Ahmed though, in political resistance to emotional hegemony, “shame would not be about making the offender feel bad,” and thus about resorting to desires of emptiness, helplessness, and hopelessness (198). Shame would not be fetishized as such, as disconnected from the social and historical meanings of, say, the concept of an accident, or disconnected from the possibility of forgiveness from loved ones—beings with respect and love in the eyes of the wrongdoer. Instead,

‘expressions of community disapproval’ are followed by ‘gestures of reacceptance’… Note, this model presumes the agents of shaming are not the victims (who might make the offender feel bad), but the family and friends of the offender. It is the love that offenders have for those who shame them, which allows shame to integrate rather than alienate (Ahmed 198-9).

So Ahmed suggests here that shame (like other emotions) works to reinforce the concept that the victim holds the power; that punishment is inevitable and just; that Rhoda doesn’t deserve to move forward. These conclusions about shame lead a Westernized society right back into itself; it ignores both victim’s and perpetrator’s need for reintegration into the community. In other words, we can change what gets stuck to shame in how we interact with one another in a process of healing.

In conclusion, emotions paint the world and are painted by the world. There is no set way of working through or dealing with emotions; emotions are not separate from one another, let alone from the moments that reinforce and define them. Shame, in the case of Another Earth, is constructed to feel as though there is no way out; no way to be loved sincerely without the approval of the victim. Rhoda is naked, pale, and vulnerable, which constructs the only possible route to heal as through John’s feelings and actions; if the victim can love the perpetrator, both perpetrator and victim can recover. Shame is bound to this impossibility. Shame gathers a binding meaning from what it does to bodies and signs; from what histories are attached to it; from what it makes us believe about emotions. It must be stated outright: the audience’s frustration with an attachment to Rhoda’s character does not go without meaning or context here. As spectators who desire for not only Rhoda’s recovery but our own, it is our responsibility to face emotions as they are—context contingent, circulating, affective economies that change the very surfaces and boundaries they impress upon. This further implies that emotions, connected ever so strongly to power relations, will resist back. So it is the time we face the stunning question Ahmed asks that I begin this paper with: “Why are relations of power so intractable and enduring, even in the face of collective forms of resistance?” (12). It is not until we face this challenge that we will be able to take the uncomfortable measures to heal and assimilate shameful experiences back into the fabric of who we are, both as individual and collective beings. Rhoda’s short essay submission to win a ticket to travel to “Earth-Two:”

“When early explorers first set out west across the Atlantic, most people thought the world was flat. Most people thought, if you sailed far enough west, you would drop off a plane into nothing. These vessel sailing out into the unknown, they weren’t carrying nobleman or aristocrats, artists, merchants…they were crewed by people living on the edge of life, madmen, orphans, ex-convicts, outcasts, like myself. As a felon, I’m an unlikely candidate for most things, but, perhaps, not for this. Perhaps I am the most likely” (Another Earth).