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The Psychopolitics of Affect in Halle Butler’s Novels

Bartłomiej Musajew


Drawing on the concept of psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han, this article discusses how the replacement of biopolitical technologies of power by the soft psychopolitical technologies of power is displayed in Halle Butler’s novels. The article starts with the discussion of three psychopolitical models: 1) algorithmic governmentality, 2) therapy culture, 3) emotional capitalism. Then, it shows how these models are played out in Butler’s novels through the presence of characters with undisciplined bodies, and through the disjunction between self-perception and perception by others.

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1Halle Butler’s second novel, The New Me (2019), displays a tension between the paratext of the book and its actual contents. The title, alluding to biopolitically determined self-development discourses, along with the writer’s gender may automatically—in today’s ideological climate—evoke the themes of patriarchal oppression, the subjection of women to the male gaze, and the imposition of strict norms of appearance and behavior. Catherine Lacey’s blurb is an example of such a reaction: “A dark comedy of female rage. Halle Butler is a first-rate satirist of the horror show being sold to us as Modern Femininity.” The novel, however, not only disconfirms this reading, but seems to be an exact inversion of the theme of oppression. Millie, the protagonist, wants to achieve the basic standards of femininity, but cannot do so because her body seems lacking in even the most basic techniques of discipline, which translates into poor hygiene and erratic behavior. Crumbs in her pockets—which she used to consider a statement of her non-conformity, but now feels to be simply pathetic (24)—may be considered an emblem of this tension.

2This tension points to a larger issue, which will be the subject of this article, namely, the replacement of biopolitical technologies of power operating through regulation and discipline by soft, or psychopolitical, technologies of power operating through pleasure, compulsion, and unpredictability. In fact, today’s obsession with all kinds of hierarchies and power structures may be an ideological screen masking this process. Butler’s novels capture this replacement by not only introducing characters deprived of any sense of the realities of their situation and control over their bodies—whose uncontrollable behavior mirrors the unpredictability of psychopolitical governmentality—but also by linking them explicitly with the workings of the market. Before proceeding to their interpretation, however, it’s worth introducing the three models of neoliberal psychopolitics displayed in the novels, starting with Byung-Chul Han, who elaborates this term in the most explicit manner.

1. Three Models of Psychopolitics

3The figurative texture of Han’s Psychopolitics contains repeated metaphors centered around ritual, religion, and performance. He refers to the capital as the new kind of transcendence and the smartphone as the primary devotional object of the Digital. He also compares data to Dada:

Dataism, it turns out, is amounting to digital Dadaism. Dadaism also takes leave of meaningful contexts of every kind. It empties language itself of sense: ‘The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike. Simplicity is called Dada.’ Dataism is nihilism. It gives up on any and all meaning. Data and numbers are not narrative; they are additive. Meaning, on the other hand, is based on narration. Data simply fills up the senseless void. (Han, Chapter 11)

4And, later on, Han uses the metaphor of undead points of presence as representative of digital memory that precludes any narrative or meaning-making. The vision of the neoliberal subject that the reader of the book constructs in their imagination is that of an undead creature performing meaningless gestures of devotion to the Capital, like the movement of fingers on a smartphone screen. The scene of this ritual or performance is a space of aperspectival surveillance where “[d]igital optics enables surveillance from any and every angle. It eliminates all blind spots. In contrast to analogue and perspectival optics, it can peer into the human soul itself” (Han, Chapter 11).

5The way neoliberalism elicits this performance is through emotions or affects, which Han considers roughly synonymous, differentiating them from feelings. While feeling admits duration, narrative account, and objectivity because it is directed towards external reality, emotions, according to Han, produce punctual, situational discharges:

Emotions are performative in so far as they call forth certain actions. As inclinations, they represent the energetic—the sensory, or even sensuous—basis for action. Emotions are steered by the limbic system, which is also where the drives are seated. They form the pre-reflexive, half-conscious, physico-instinctual level of action that escapes full awareness. Neoliberal psychopolitics seizes on emotion in order to influence actions on this pre-reflexive level. By way of emotion, it manages to cut and operate deep inside. As such, emotion affords a highly efficient medium for psychopolitically steering the integral person, the person as a whole. (Chapter 9)

6Han contrasts emotional psychopolitics with biopolitics, which “fundamentally concerns the biological and the physical. All in all, it constitutes a politics of the body in the fullest sense” (Chapter 5). Han links biopolitics with the disciplinary society. On the individual level, biopolitics may be said to work through what Lefebvre—echoing Foucault—calls dressage, that is subjecting the body to a strict discipline to develop deeply ingrained habits. Psychopolitics eschews discipline altogether. Rather, it induces compulsive action by prompting the neoliberal subject to willingly produce endless amounts of data for the sake of transparency, and breaking this data down to the smallest “actomes visible—that is, micro-actions that elude detection by the waking mind. Thus, Big Data could also bring to light collective patterns of behaviour, of which individuals are unaware. This would render the collective unconscious accessible” (Han, Chapter 11). Then neoliberalism uses this data to manipulate the subject on a pre-reflexive level.

7Han’s use of metaphors allows the reader of his book to extend this practice and try to reconstruct the situation of a neoliberal subject in figurative terms, especially since Han himself attempts to create a suggestive image of neoliberalism instead of only analyzing specific phenomena in scientific terms. This task is better accomplished with figurative language, creating a myth of neoliberalism allowing for its totalizing representation. The space of contemporary capitalism can be represented as a kind of Biblical wilderness, an endless, sun-drenched desert of transparent Big Data. The sense of temporality of a neoliberal subject does not allow for any duration or a continuous narrative, being based on sudden outbursts of emotion that end just as abruptly as they begin. Driven by impulses induced on the level of the limbic system, this subject becomes a zombie-like puppet—deprived of cognition, free will and any way of relating to external reality—who performs automatic, autotelic, and completely meaningless gestures as a ritual to the transcendent capital.

8The downside of Han’s allusive style is that many references remain implicit. His book seems to be strongly inspired by the notion of algorithmic governmentality, which he doesn’t elaborate explicitly, based on the already mentioned reduction of human behavior to micro-processes, but also on unpredictability. Shapiro, drawing on the work of Antoinette Rouvroy, says that “algorithms create what might be called a wave-particle subject, one that is simultaneously microscopic and a protean aggregate that is constantly changing through real-time feedbacks.” This kind of subject is thus affected on a level below cognition by mechanisms that feed on constantly changing data.

9Also, while Han uses the word psychopolitics, he does not refer explicitly to psychology as a discourse of power. This issue is addressed by Frank Furedi, who notes in his book Therapy Culture that “[t]he vocabulary of therapeutics no longer refers to unusual problems or exotic states of mind. Terms like stress, anxiety, addiction, compulsion, trauma, negative emotions, healing, syndrome, mid-life crisis or counselling refer to the normal episodes of daily life. They have also become part of our cultural imagination” (1-2). However, this is not merely a linguistic issue. As Furedi writes later on, “[t]herapeutic culture has helped construct a diminished sense of self that characteristically suffers from an emotional deficit and possesses a permanent consciousness of vulnerability. Its main legacy so far is the cultivation of a unique sense of vulnerability” (21). Therapy culture itself becomes what can be called a psychopolitical tool in a different sense from Han’s. While psychopolitics in Han’s understanding operates on a pre-reflexive level, in Furedi’s sense it works discursively, determining the way individuals construe their experiences.

10Therapy culture achieves its aim through inculcating a sense of helplessness and by “stigmatising informal relations of dependence” (Furedi 21), which opens up the self to expert intervention even at the level of basic interpersonal relations. Therapeutic ethos creates a paradoxical situation of withdrawal of the self from the external reality and interpersonal relations, which are perceived as hostile to the vulnerable self, while at the same time making this self entirely dependent on expert discourses in the fundamental spheres of everyday existence.

11The therapy ethos is further exacerbated by a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a term which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick borrowed from Ricoeur to describe the injunction, linked with the domination of critical theory, to look out for the perpetuation by a given text of particular power structures: “In the context of recent U.S. critical theory, however, where Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud by themselves are taken as constituting a pretty sufficient genealogy for the mainstream of New Historicist, deconstructive, feminist, queer, and psychoanalytic criticism, to apply a hermeneutics of suspicion is, I believe, widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities” (125). The dispersal of the critique ethos in everyday discourse leads to a sense of paranoia, in which every act and utterance is read in terms of a hidden agenda. Critical theory in conjunction with therapy culture produce a subject for which any contact with external reality poses a threat.

12Psychology as a discourse of power operates also in another way in connection with what Eva Illouz calls “emotional capitalism.” As a result of growing service and consumer markets, psychology throughout the 20th century has completely reorganized relations in all areas of society, blurring the boundary between what’s public and what’s private. Making the proper expression of one’s own emotions and the recognition and respect for the emotions of others a requirement both in workplaces and in private relations, psychology has institutionalized emotions, turning them into a form of capital. As Rachel Greenwald Smith writes in her book on the link between the emotional engagement promoted by contemporary American literature and the market:

emotions are increasingly understood as resources to develop and manage, rather than as instances of authentic experience that fall outside rational control. In the neoliberal context, recognizing the presence of emotions, in art, in other people, and in the self, does not challenge market-oriented thinking. Instead, feelings frequently become yet another material foundation for market-oriented behavior: emotions are acquired, invested, traded, and speculated upon. (6)

13To sum up, we can discern three models of psychopolitics at work in neoliberal capitalism: 1) algorithmic governance that reduces human behavior to data used to manipulate this behavior on a pre-reflexive level, 2) therapy culture in conjunction with a hermeneutics of suspicion that presents external reality as intrinsically hostile and opens up the self to expert intervention, 3) emotional capitalism that turns emotions into a form of capital. In all three cases, capitalism rejects the values of rationality and bodily discipline usually associated with it, targeting the shadowy realm of the affective and the pre-conscious.

2. Halle Butler’s Jillian and Psychopolitics as Performance

14Halle Butler’s debut work, Jillian, first published in 2015, uses the conventions of comedy—mainly, the disjunction between self-perception and perception by others—to satirize and simulate the workings of neoliberal psychopolitics, which itself operates through this disjunction. Employing the difference between mental states and interpersonal scene, the novel depicts the process whereby a character, driven by psychopolitical mechanisms that manifest themselves in their intimate thoughts, acts out the models of experience and behavior prescribed by these mechanisms in an exaggerated manner. While the character in question may remain unaware of the performative aspect of their actions—which points to the instinctual functioning of these models—these actions elicit reactions from other characters, thus involving them in these performances.

15Before proceeding to the working of these mechanisms, it is worth sketching the everyday circumstances of the main characters, Jillian and Megan, which can be gleaned from several fragments: “During downtime Jillian would look at the internet, but sometimes she would just sit and stare at the wall” (15); “She would sit on the edge of her bed and look at the window, which faced another window of an apartment across the courtyard. Sometimes she had time to shower, but it wasn’t always important” (34); “Jillian got into her own bed and rearranged the bras and other dirty clothes that were mixed in with the covers so there’d be room for her to sit and, later, sleep comfortably” (46); “Her car had little piles of white paper coffee cups and magazines that had been stepped on and twisted into spirals. Everything was covered in a layer of crushed Apple Jacks” (19); “[Her] house smelled like piss” (118); “When she wasn’t hiding around the apartment crying, [Megan] sat on the couch and felt physically hollow. Like she was resigned, but she didn’t know to what” (66); “[Megan] didn’t always shower or wear clean-looking clothes” (108); “She flushed, [and] rewashed her ass and crotch (also a new habit, preceded by a three-year yeast infection)” (32); “There was a wall of salad dressing in a refrigerated shelf that she stared at for five minutes” (93); “[Amanda was] more attractive than Megan because she bothered to groom herself” (25). When Jillian remembers her unplanned pregnancy, she describes her erratic use of birth control: “She’d slip up once or twice, but then she’d take two [birth control pills] the next day, or flush the two or three she hadn’t taken, and then it was like, when she looked at the pill pack, she was up to date” (143). And, when Megan’s friend mentions the twelve empty cans in her bag, Megan realizes that “[i]t was true. Megan smelled like beer and had been trailing a little dribble of lukewarm beer behind her all night” (28).

16What defines the two women is inattention, expressive of the withdrawal of the neoliberal self from external reality. Neglecting their personal hygiene, occupying cluttered spaces, easily losing concentration and staring ahead, both Jillian and Megan give off a disheveled and distraught impression, sometimes exuding a bad smell. They seem completely careless about their surroundings and the effect their presence has on others. What’s interesting, alluding to the beginning of the article, to note as an aside is how Butler both signals and withholds the introduction of a feminist narrative scheme of oppression by deliberately not shifting the blame for Jillian’s pregnancy onto the man.

17Jillian and Megan embody two psychopolitical models. Jillian represents algorithmic governmentality based on unpredictability. Trying to reduce human behavior to single procedures and to constantly recombine them in new configurations, algorithms aim to induce compulsive action, working below the level of awareness. This process finds its expression in Jillian’s irrationality. Oblivious to her circumstances and to the basic laws governing society, Jillian mistakes her dreams for reality, convinces herself of the truth of her own lies, blatantly disregards the presence of witnesses to her actions, and keeps up an almost manic optimism while in increasingly more dire straits. This attitude makes her adopt a dog despite her desperate financial situation. The functioning of algorithms is represented in the book through what Jillian herself calls visualization, that is, a magical belief in the power of mental images to effect actual changes. Jillian acts on the images that pop up in her head and the mood they evoke, images determined mainly by self-help guides and the internet that mediate the mechanisms of the market.

18Megan represents therapy culture and the diminishment of self it causes. Stuck in a loop of misery and self-pity, she is deprived of any sense of agency, convincing herself of being a passive victim of her circumstances. This state is inscribed in her body as it acts out its abjectness, bypassing Megan’s volition. This abjectness has a paradoxical quality. On the one hand, as her body takes control, Megan seems subhuman, deprived of cognition and free will, at one point compared to “a disgusting dead sea creature” (9). On the other hand, her body performs, becoming theatrical. Her face running with mucus in the frequent outbursts of crying transforms into a grotesque mask looking like “a Harlequin Baby,” that is, referring to the skin disease in new-born infants but also alluding to the character from commedia dell’arte (43).

19Not only her face, but also the gestural aspect of her behavior are equally expressive: nodding “maybe a second too long” (52), pointing a finger down and holding “her hand in that position for a little too long” (59), making an “I Dare You face” that “had become stuck, but not without absorbing some of the psychotic torture that was going on behind it” (62), involuntarily “moving her head and shoulders back and forth a little” (53) and laughing to herself. Her protracted or compulsive gestures disquiet others—highlighting her rigidity or automatism—but also turn her body into a pure sign, disconnecting a gesture from its usual function and turning it into a parody.

20The reaction she elicits may be compared to that of the chorus of Oceanids to the frenzied expression, inarticulate sounds of madness, and the woeful tale of Io turned into a heifer in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound:

Chorus: (with cries of dismay)
Keep her away! Keep her away!
Never did I think I’d hear
such alien words. I never thought
my soul would ever be stung like this
by suffering, outrages, terrors,
hard to see and hard to bear.
Alas for Fate!
The sight of Io fills me with fear. (204-205)

21The main difference between Megan and Io is that the former has not experienced any actual trauma. Her abjectness is determined discursively, by the therapy ethos that construes an individual’s life as a string of traumas and by the hermeneutics of suspicion that conditions the perception of external reality as intrinsically hostile, determined by inevitable power structures. At one point in the novel, Megan admits to being a kind of a hypochondriac, absorbing any malady she sees, and reminisces about her migraine and panic attacks (54). Hypochondria can be considered a bodily symptom of the opening up of the self to expert intervention that makes this self porous.

22A few pages earlier (48-49) she criticizes her acquaintance for perceived callousness—a criticism caused to a large extent by envy—comparing her personal website to an ad for a deodorant or laundry soap that induces obsession about one’s smell. These two examples show how the therapy and critique discourses work not only on an ideological level, but affect the functioning of the body, inducing hypochondria and re-configuring olfaction. The critique of the cosmetics industry acquires an ironic character in the general context of the novel: Megan exudes, as has already been mentioned, an actual body odor. While the link is not explicit, the reader can surmise that the perception of personal care products as bound up with capitalism may lead her to justify her lacking hygiene, making her immune to her own smell.

23The critique and therapy discourses in the case of Megan and algorithmic techniques in the case of Jillian make them blind to how they are perceived by others. They turn both women into comic characters, acting out particular scripts automatically, without conscious control and any concern about the external reality. This is visible in the following excerpts.

Annie passed her a Camel and then held out her pink lighter, already lit. Megan had to dip her head into the middle of the conversation, which had stopped, maybe pointedly, to light her smoke out of Annie’s hand. Megan straightened, leaving behind a plume of smoke.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
‘It’s cool. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while, Megan. What have you been up to?’ asked Annie.
Everyone was still being quiet and staring, which didn’t really feel polite.
‘Well, I cut my ass on a knife in the kitchen sink.’ (23)
This really feels like I’ve got a stash supply, [Jillian] thought. She unwrapped the cookie and put as much of it in her mouth as she could and then started laughing.
What the fuck? thought Megan.
Ha ha ha, this cookie is hilarious for some reason, thought Jillian. Mmm, and so good. You know, I heard somewhere that, like, carbs and sugar and stuff can give you a power burst for work. She finished the cookie, washed it down with Crystal Light, and then tested her theory.
‘Oh yeah,’ she said. This woks great.
‘Oh yeah what?’ said Megan. (101-102)

24The presence of both women has a disquieting effect on others. In the first fragment, Megan’s innocuous action of lighting a cigarette for some reason—which the reader doesn’t know, as the scene is focalized from her perspective—stops the conversation in its tracks, causing protracted silence and staring. Instead of defusing the situation, Megan instinctively exacerbates it by referring to her accident. In the second fragment that comes from a section consisting in a large part of Jillian’s interior monologue based on bad jokes and puns, there is a certain ambivalence as to intentionality. She seems possessed by the need to buy sweets and yet at the same time aware of the absurdity of her thoughts and actions. It is as if the poor humor of her interior monologue, reminiscent of Internet memes, worked through its absurdity, inducing hysterical enthusiasm that prompts irrational consumerist behavior, and at the same time providing a satisfaction that comes with ironic self-awareness. In other words, she performs her enthusiasm theatrically while at the same time being possessed by it. This is underlined by the fact how her outbursts of laughing and talking to herself seem accidental and at the same aimed at catching Megan’s attention. The latter explicitly says about Jillian that “[e]verything with her is an act, but she behaves like her acts are invisible to everyone” (161).

25Jillian at the same time performs and seems to be completely unaware of the fact. Images conditioned by the market make her act out, turning her actions into what seems like a fictional performance. This mechanism, called visualization by Jillian, is presented, for instance, when Jillian tries to justify her irrational decision to buy a dog using quasi-logical arguments (18). In this section magical thinking, a belief that things will happen if Jillian imagines them, tries to pass for rational thinking. This ambiguity is emphasized by her dream of becoming a rock star, which she dismisses as absurd, laughing it off; at the same time she considers it an actual choice, providing reasons not to become a rock star. Visualization, like algorithms that seem to promise mathematical precision while being intrinsically unpredictable, prompts a parody of logical reasoning. Algorithms here work through images—conditioned by the market mediated here by the internet, as this is where she sees the dog (10)—that aim to induce compulsive action by evoking a certain mood. Jillian’s interior monologue thus shows how an irrational impulse, manifesting itself as an image, completely reorganizes her thought processes, leading to irrational action.

26The same process is visible in other parts of the novel. At one point, the process of visualization pervades her dream, producing a pastoral image, clearly inspired by TV ads, of Jillian riding a dog through a meadow that makes her decision to buy a pet irreversible (47). This is further reinforced by her imagining handing a white envelope of money to a dog-walker, factoring in the income from an imagined coding business, which she already considers a reality despite the fact she has no programming qualifications (50-51). Elsewhere, the image of an invented car accident makes her believe in it, even acting out her imagined pain by shaking her head and exhaling (89-90). The novel thus shows how unpredictable algorithms, here linked with an irrational economic decision, may operate by the crystallization of fleeting images in the mind that make bodies act out the fictions they represent.

27Megan’s body acts out in another way: by displaying a show of an almost slapstick ineptness, forcing her partner Randy to perform elaborate rituals of care. When Megan tries to sit on the edge of the sink in her apartment, she falls backward, hitting the aluminum cabinets and cutting her buttock on a knife, Randy putting his arms around her and lifting her out of the sink (7). When Randy leads her out of a party, her knees buckle and she palms the ground, Randy having to hoist her up by the arms, “the way people do with toddlers” (29). After bawling uncontrollably in the bathtub, she almost falls as she gets out, not being surprised by this (32), and when she walks down the porch stairs at a party, she does so with difficulty (62).

28Megan’s frequent uncontrollable displays of emotions sometimes assume a grotesque quality, mixing laughter and crying, “with her eyes wide and her mouth open, laughing noiselessly. Then she started crying, which only made her laugh more” (62-63). This makes her look scary to Randy (64). And sometimes she seems obsessed with her bodily functions, which endows her sections with a Rabelaisian quality, for instance when she describes “scrubb[ing] all of her dark, fetid cracks” in detail (32).

29While Jillian performs involuntarily the ethos of consumerist enthusiasm, Megan, on the contrary, performs the therapy and critique ethos. Her thinking determined by the discourses of disease and by a paranoiac hermeneutics of suspicion constantly on the lookout for a hidden agenda, she perceives herself as a victim entangled in a network of ineluctable economic, social, and political forces, and at the mercy of her mental and physical disorders. Her body performs her perceived helplessness, making her lose bodily control to act out her deeply ingrained sense of lacking agency. In both hers and Jillian’s cases, it is psychopolitcal models of behavior that act out, overriding any possibility of conscious control.

30In the novel, behavior sometimes becomes contagious, affecting the bodies of others. For instance, in the already mentioned scene at the end of the party, Megan straightens herself, rolls her eyes, chuckles and says, “Soooo typical, sooo typical,” “not knowing quite what she meant” (30). She involuntarily repeats the rolling of the eyes of her friend Amanda (26), her body parodying both her friend and, in a culmination of an unpleasant party, the general notion of sociability here emptied of meaning. In her office, the beeping of a microwave when Jillian prepares a meal evokes in her mind an image of biological samples and food stored in the fridge side by side melting and mixing (4). Then she sees Jillian peeling the flap of the meal and slapping it on her desk with a practiced gesture (5). Then, thinking about Jillian—the abrupt sounds of beeping and slapping, as the reader can surmise, activated in her mind—she has the already mentioned accident whereby she hits her head on the cabinets and cuts her buttock on the knife. When Randy goes to the kitchen after the accident, after having pulled her tights down, he sees the knife in watery blood and, next to it, a small crouton floating in a teacup. This causes him to dry-heave (8). The repetition of the image, as the watery blood next to a crouton evokes the image of melting from the office, and the motion of pulling down tights that repeats the peeling of the flap convey Megan’s disgust of Jillian to Randy irrespective of her will.

3. The New Me and The Neoliberal Self as Invisible to Others

31The New Me (2019), unlike Jillian, is about the failure to elicit any reaction. In accordance with the dictates of emotional capitalism to unconditionally respect the other’s feelings, the protagonist’s unfriendliness, unkempt appearance, and poor hygiene do not cause any response, inducing a sense of invisibility in her. The multiple narrators and focalizers of the novel are the only way the reactions of other characters can be presented. Thus, while Jillian uses the disjunction between interior monologue and scene to simulate the performative aspect of psychopolitical models, The New Me uses multiperspectival narration to show how emotional capitalism plays out the withdrawal of the self from external reality, turning it from a solipsistic mental state into a reality by making others act as if the protagonist did not exist.

32The beginning of the novel prefigures the tension between self-perception and perception by others with an almost proverbial act of looking that echoes the Biblical “speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye”: “In the windowless back offices of a designer furniture showroom, women stand in a circle, stuffed into ill-fitting black jeans, gray jeans, olive jeans, the ass cloth sagging one inch, two, below where the cheeks meet. They don’t notice this on themselves, but they notice it on each other” (1). The women are seen from a third-person perspective as a cartoonish blur, their hands “gesturing wildly,” their voices “an octave too high,” shifting between “subjects with a rapid ease, words spilling out of their mouths” (1)—a mixture of rapid motion and inarticulate loudness. What stands out from this blur are details that evoke disgust, their hands “lotioned, soft, gummy” (1) writhe like slimy fish, while a “glob of green puree hang[ing] from the fuzz” on the mohair sweater of one of them (2)—the green glob juxtaposed with the hair-like fibers of the sweater—resembles some kind of bodily secretion. However, the motion of sliding a furniture catalog across the table open on a picture of a chrome table—which can be seen only from the vicinity of the group—reveals the presence of a first-person narrator, who, at this moment—as if waken up by the motion from a state of senseless staring—mentions her slick arm pits (2). She then says: “I wonder if I should chime in, tell them that I also think the table sucks, but the words catch in my throat. Impossible to join in, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, not really” (2).

33The problem of perception is visible in the way the women register in Millie’s, the principal narrator’s, mind. They never crystallize into persons, their presence sliding between two poles of indistinctness. At first, they are perceived as a blur, both hypnotizing, completely arresting the narrator’s attention, and irritating in its rapidity and loudness. Then, through the intermediate step of disgusting details, they transform into what can be described as flesh, an engulfing (standing “in a circle”), stultifying presence that makes the narrator aware of her own bodily dimension in the form of wet arm pits. This kind of perception is aligned with the impossibility of establishing an intersubjective space. The narrator, as if cursed by some magical interdiction, cannot utter a word, speaking becoming a physical impossibility (words catch in her throat). She remains invisible to the women, the metaphor of words catching in her throat and the word “impossible” making the barrier between her and them not only mental, but ontological, as if she occupied a separate realm of existence.

34This failure to establish an intersubjective space is mirrored by the remnants of generic conventions that promise some stability offered by compliance with literary norms and by the promise of a plot, but then are immediately nullified. The novel begins with the sentence, “It’s winter in Chicago” (1). This beginning sets up the context for the plot, providing its material environment, and alluding vaguely (as only the time of year is specified, from which weather conditions can be inferred) to the standard novelistic convention: “In many of the novels ‘we know best,’ chapters begin with a mention of the time of day and a brief description of the weather, and end on a parting or departure, if only to bed for the night” (Pióro 62). This vagueness is significant: immediately in the next sentence the mention of season and place turns out to be meaningless as the plot shifts to windowless back offices, doubly withdrawn from the exterior world by the lack of windows and the location in the back. Natural conditions reappear only briefly by the end of the chapter as the narrator walks home “in the dark, in the snow” (3), her “tights sagging. A hole in the side of [her] shoe” (3). This passage echoes both the conventions of naturalism, with its focus on poverty, and of crime fiction. Both turn out unjustified as the narrator, while earning only a small income, can rely on the help of her parents, so the state of her clothes is not strictly conditioned by her economic circumstances. The conventions of crime fiction are evoked and nullified again at the end of the chapter in her apartment, which finishes with the sentences: “There’s someone in the house! I wish” (3). The imagined presence of an unwanted intruder only emphasizes her solitude.

35The next day, on the train, a woman is “completely hogging the train pole, oblivious” in front of Millie (5), only slightly adjusting her posture after the latter pushes her arm hard into the woman’s skull. At work, she notices a “woman, checking her phone in the corner, pretending I’m not here” (8). Later on, while she accidentally knocks down a chair, only some of her colleagues react, half of them ignoring her (23-24). Then she says “Good morning” to one of the designers, who “must think I’m talking to someone else, and that’s fine” (38). “I am momentarily embarrassed by the spectacle, but it’s amazing to me, always, how utterly ignored I am at all times. I feel I should make myself into some kind of a thief or murderer” (118). At one point “[m]en on the elevator talk about their business in loud tones, and instead of feeling like a toad or an infidel, I feel blissfully invisible” (137).

36This sense of invisibility translates into uncanniness. As she gets off the train, on the escalator, “nobody stands on the right and walks on the left, and everything is wrong” (7), space becoming asymmetrical. When her supervisor, Karen makes her take out the trash, the space of the building becomes labyrinthine and blurry, making it hard for her to focus:

Not all the stairs and elevators and escalators go to all the floors. The elevator scheme is disorienting. I get turned around easily, finding it difficult, in general, to concentrate while I’m in this building. It takes me about twenty minutes to find my way back to the showroom. I have a bubbling crying feeling in one the stairwells, and when I finally find the mezzanine again, I want to stop and shove my face full of pizza, but I resist. (118-119)

37Obviously, this invisibility is only perceived, resulting from the empathy institutionalized as emotional capital, which prevents people from commenting directly on others’ behavior and appearance in their presence. In one scene, however, Millie’s behavior elicits a direct reaction:

I circle the park over and over, thinking about my situation. Assessing my life. Where will I go, what will I do?
I almost feel like I’m flying, light and easy.
I walk for maybe forty minutes in this circle, until a woman in a polo shirt with a whistle approaches me, smiling.
‘How we doing today?’ she asks, and I wonder if it’s really that easy to get people to engage with you, if relaxing really is the key to socialization.
‘Seems to me like you’ve been walking around in circles and stumbling a bit for almost the past hour,’ she says. (112)

38This passage demonstrates the ironic disjunction between the self-perception in terms of self-improvement guides—which makes Millie construe walking in circles as an act expressive of her elation and perceive the woman’s approach in terms of a friendly encounter—and the way her behavior is seen from the outside as a vagrant’s. For the first time in the novel she is forced to look at herself from the perspective of the other in full light, noticing herself in her “brown men’s overcoat with the lining hanging out the bottom, sweatpants, and cheap snow boots… and [her] hair still clearly uncombed and freezing in parts from [her] shower, even though it’s mostly underneath [her] dollar store stocking cap” (113). Otherwise, Millie is aware of her unkempt appearance and lacking hygiene, but, like Jillian in the novel analyzed above, she seems also to think that these are unperceived by others. However, even in this passage, Millie ends with a joke: “If only I still had my glasses. It’s amazing what a person can get away with when wearing glasses” (113), instinctively trivializing the issue.

39Mostly, however, the reaction of the other is represented through the interplay of narrative perspectives. This interplay requires the citation of several passages to notice the contrast between the tone and mood of the passages depicting self-perception and those depicting the perception by others. Let’s start with daily encounters between Karen and Millie at the former’s desk:

Karen, the senior receptionist, and technically my supervisor, smiles at me like I can’t tell that she’s faking, and says ‘Hi, Maddie’ and I say ‘Hi!’ but that’s not my name. It’s Millie, not Maddie. I want to go up to her and prostrate myself on her desk, my ribs activating her shitty gold stapler, the one I know she loves so much, over and over, by thrashing, spending staples all over her desk, while I explain to her the difference between Mildred and Madison. (7)
I walk past Karen’s desk, and I smile and wave and say hello, unable to differentiate this greeting from all of the other greetings from the past weeks. (21)
When Millie walked up to Karen’s desk each morning, just to give a monotone and strange hello, Karen wanted to say something about how it wasn’t necessary to do that, but of course she couldn’t, that would be rude, so Karen just widened her eyes a little, as if incredulous, nodded, said hello, and then her mind would turn to what it might take, budget-wise, to replace her quickly and efficiently. (16)
Millie breezed in five minutes later, ten minutes late, and gave Karen a weird smile and wave, and when Millie said “hello” it sounded like a piece of phlegm got caught in her throat, and the second half of her greeting was silent, just ‘he–‘ and a mouthed ‘llo.’ Karen smiled and nodded, then looked down at her notebook. Wheels turning. (19)
I don’t smell so bad this morning, so I approach Karen’s desk and I smile and say good morning, meaning it, because it is an okay morning. She looks up and smiles and forces out a ‘morning.’ It’s all going to be okay. (95)
Millie walked in like a goddamn fucking toad in that terrible duffel coat and her salt-covered boots. Looking at her evoked a kind of smell. (125)

40The same mechanism works in the case of other characters. For instance, Karen thinks of her career with enthusiasm, noting how “[e]veryone had been very impressed when Karen arranged for a replacement through a temp agency” (17), while being ironically called a “go-getter” behind her back (131). Kristin perceives herself in terms of overflowing empathy, “[l]ike maybe the meditation had unlocked level-5 empathy receptors in her brain,” allowing her to pick up “on some kind of collective, gentle human loneliness” (34). She’s perceived as a “choral girl” from the outside: “Two of the designers are rehashing what I imagine is an old conversation. The taller of the two is talking about toxic friendships and friend breakups, when to ease out and when to draw the line. The shorter one nods and gives a choral ‘Yeah’ from time to time” (22). What draws attention in these passages is not so much the distortion of reality when the self is concerned, but its degree. All the characters seem possessed by an optimism verging on magical thinking when their mind is occupied with themselves, disregarding basic facts of their situation. Karen knows that the temp position she arranged a replacement for requires a girl that “can talk, and… owns a skirt and knows how to use a computer” (15) and she is in fact not happy about the result. But then, eschewing all logical reasoning, she jumps to the conclusion that she has performed a feat that will rapidly advance her career. Millie is possessed by a mood of elation while mentioning that she doesn’t smell so bad, which points to her usual neglect of the basic rules of personal hygiene. Kristin, mixing quasi-scientific terms, such as solar plexus and empathy receptors, with commodified spirituality represented by meditation, interprets her sensations as a cosmic sense of oneness with the world. Their optimism spirals out of every bounds of reason in a kind of Dionysian frenzy, reaching the degree of primitive animism.

41This magical thinking, in one respect, is justified. The boundaries of the subject in the novel do in fact become blurry, realizing Kristin’s vision of oneness with the world, but with negative implications. The characters sense the reality of their situation and the way they are perceived on the level of pre-conscious sensations as premonitions. These sensations sometimes cause confused thoughts, in which the character gets a glimpse of the truth, which she then dismisses—in a kind of false unreliability caused by the dominance of psychological discourse—as paranoia, a mental state. For instance, in the already mentioned episode of Millie’s knocking down a chair (23-24), the accident is caused by her noticing Karen looking at her. Karen’s gaze—whose malicious intent she doesn’t consciously know—causes an abrupt movement, Millie’s body registering this intent on a level below cognition. Also, when she receives a task from Karen, she says she has “a paranoid fantasy in which Karen has chosen shredding for [her] to further alienate [her] from the office” (50), which is Karen’s actual motive.

42Later on Millie receives an ambiguous email from her handler at the temp agency, in fact prefiguring her dismissal, which she wrongly interprets as a prospect of getting permanent employment. This causes a strong bodily reaction (76-77), starting with ringing ears, ramping up to a lurching stomach, and ending in shaking. This is accompanied by images of depression in her mind, which she in fact seems to get later on, when she is informed of her dismissal. She says that the message feels like bad news, while thinking it prefigures good news, which it does not. Her body registers this and she gets a premonition of her future, but her consciousness dismisses this as irrationality.

43Later on, in her apartment Millie has a series of flashes of letters “arriv[ing] in the mailbox of [her] mind” (81). The flashes start with a typical paranoiac statement, “they’re coming,” and then, amid emails she will probably not receive, there appears a flash of one she will get from her temp agency later about her appearance, demeanor and odor, in response to a query about the cause of her dismissal. Her body not only registers, but, in an indexical way, signifies the truth of her situation, as the hotness in her crotch and pits point to her filthiness.

44The porous self sometimes gets literally invaded by the other. At one point, she notes a designer’s “shape-shifting performance,” and elaborates on how the ranting woman, by reenacting boring conversations, in fact becomes “the boredom she claims to want to remove from her life and mind, but which ha[s] complete control of her” (22-23), transforming into her boring interlocutors. What Millie doesn’t realize is that she is turning into the next link in the chain by obsessively thinking, like the designer, about interpersonal relations and psychological states while listening to her. Later on, she will imitate the woman’s behavior by talking about her to her friend (30). The presence of the designer’s boring acquaintances, who are only mentioned in this fragment, spreads contagiously, literally turning others into them.

45Kristin’s irrational musings about empathy receptors seem to contain a grain of truth. The neoliberal self—forced to be empathetic by the dictates of emotional capitalism—becomes porous. While there seems to be no successful communication between the characters on a conscious level, the other invades the body, sometimes revealing itself as vague bodily sensations, and sometimes annihilating the self by turning it into the other. The emotional relation between self and other, in other words, comes to mirror the diffuse global networks of the flow of financial capital, which, while based on a fiction of debt and future return from investment, have come to determine almost every aspect of our physical reality.

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Electronic reference

Bartłomiej Musajew, The Psychopolitics of Affect in Halle Butler’s NovelsEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL:

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About the author

Bartłomiej Musajew

Bartłomiej Musajew is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw. He is working on a project about the interconnections between affect and neoliberal capitalism. His research deals both with the embodied experience of ideology and with mechanisms working on a non-discursive level.

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