Obstruction, by Nick Salvato

The idea of barriers to work being benefits leaves Robert Eaglestone wondering if he missed the joke

June 16, 2016
Frame of animation from Beavis and Butt-Head cartoon
Source: Rex

This book is about obstructions to academic work – I’ll get to these in a moment – but fails to mention “irritation”. Indeed, so irritating is this book that I wondered if it was supposed to be a joke that I’ve totally failed to get.

Performing and media arts scholar Nick Salvato is interested in “affects”. In an illuminating essay in N+1, the historian Gabriel Winant explains that affects are “the way social life makes itself felt, leaving deposits in individual people, which we then process into our own emotions”. “I feel terrible” is an emotion, he says, but “this makes me feel terrible” is affect, “making explicit and external something otherwise tacit and internal”. It’s all the rage in the humanities, most famously in Laurent Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, a 2011 study of how positivity and hope can, in fact, prevent flourishing.

Salvato has – as he might say – “torqued” affect back to explore what obstructs scholarship: embarrassment, laziness, slowness, cynicism, digressiveness. While these appear to be impediments, each, he argues, has its benefits. Embarrassment can be interestingly reworked (his example is Tori Amos’ adaptations of her first humiliating album); laziness resists instrumentalisation (because, not yet written down, ideas are still fluid, demonstrating Dean Martin’s languid sprezzatura); slowness can be reflective and creative; cynicism demands a responsiveness to particular situations (“being the fly in the ointment requires a simultaneous gingerliness in doing it on the fly”); digressions can be interesting (obviously, for academics). Why so infuriating?

While every discipline has its own specialised language, and complaints about the argots of the humanities are usually made by those with an axe to grind, and despite the populist origins of the examples Salvato uses (a Beavis and Butt-Head spin-off! TV fansites!), Obstruction often crosses far into obscurity and unnecessary complexity. This speaks to a lack of clarity of thought, as does the range of reference. While a challenging eclecticism is rewarding, Obstruction touches on so many texts that it seems inconsistent and lacks detail (gosh, can you really draw that conclusion from Arendt?). And while much work in the humanities begins in informal conversations and everyday life, too much recollection of barroom discussions or housework – even discussing affect – is just self-indulgent. (An exception here is Salvato’s too-brief account of maintaining his department after terrible budget cuts: momentarily, many different obstacles to academic work appear.)

Finally, for a book claiming to interrogate norms, Obstruction is oddly normalising. To suggest that, say, we cringe with embarrassment when we admit liking an artwork is to enforce a norm (we should/should not like this) while only seeming to question it. But surely, these days, we can admit to liking both Eat Pray Love and experimental poetry, both 2000AD and Hannah Arendt without cringing?

But along with all this, Obstruction is irritating because Salvato can, against the grain of his work, make points clearly: for example, he writes (digressively!) that “surfing” the net is a terrible metaphor. Instead, we should say we “stroll” the net – a word that brings not only the flâneur-like quality of browsing to mind, but also links to “scroll”, “troll” and “roll” (over in one’s mind, but – as in rock’n’roll – with a sexual connotation).

Of course, it’s ironic to find all these obstructions to Obstruction, and perhaps that’s the joke. If so, the book has all the flaws of any good joke that just goes on too long.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London.

By Nick Salvato
Duke University Press, 280pp, £69.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780822360841 and 60988
Published 23 March 2016

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