Toxic Feelings

A Dialogue Between Ann Cvetkovich and Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

In the exchange that follows, artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz along with queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich reflect on the intersections between their recent projects. They have taken feeling and politics as a point of departure, in addition to the relation between past and present, and the productive value of negative affects. Here, they reflect on the category of regret (the focus of this Manifesta Journal special issue), and its implications for their work on toxicity, feeling bad, the politics of passivity, and feelings of ambivalence.


(Ann Cvetkovich)
In my collaborative work with Public Feelings groups, we often start with what seem like minor key words or feelings, such as depression (the subject of my new book), respite, or impasse, in order to explore their genealogies, social meanings, and affective resonances.1 Sometimes the work is associative, and even tangential or impressionistic connections can be productive.
Although I haven’t done much thinking about it, “regret” is a suggestive category for this kind of investigation, especially since it is another form of “feeling bad”, the colloquial term I have used for negative affects.
One of the first things that comes to mind is the question of whether militant women activists from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark “regret” their involvement in violent actions such as the 1981 Brinks Robbery that led to the death of a Brinks driver and two policemen.2 (Boudin was also involved in the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three of her comrades.) I am intrigued by the ambivalent status of radical left militancy and by the feelings that accompany the turn to violence to make a better world. In so many examples, perpetrators (itself a loaded term)—Nazis, sex offenders, slave owners, imperialists, murderers, terrorists—are represented as unsympathetic, and it is easy to project homogenizing and alienating concepts of evil onto them. Because of that, their cases don’t manage to provide much traction on the complex and ambivalent feelings that can accompany acts of violence. The minor archive of radical activists admitting their mistakes, feeling regrets, or figuring out ways to make amends is thus useful.
As a specifically political feeling, regret resembles the forms of disappointment and despair about the failures of activism that I and others have explored under the rubric of political depression. But whereas political despair can be the product of doing what you think are all the right things and still not getting what you want, regret captures the circumstances of having tried something that you now recognize to have been wrong and even harmful to others. The case of the Weather Underground, and more generally the pursuit of militant action for a good cause—such as armed struggle in revolutionary contexts like South Africa, Ireland, and Palestine—is a source of intrigue for radical activists committed to non-violent protest. What happens when you intend to do violence, or when violence that wasn’t supposed to result in the loss of life doesn’t turn out the way you had expected? These difficult cases of the relation between feeling and action make for morally ambiguous stories of uncertain agency that are infrequently told in the popular media.3 We have very few models for what it means to discuss acts of violence or to be a political leader who acknowledges mistakes, because doing so means displaying disparaged forms of public vulnerability. (Gender, sexuality, and conceptions of masculinity are central here, in addition to my interest in whether or not women and lesbians who have committed acts of violence are more inclined to acknowledge feelings of regret.) If we had a better sense of how one might acknowledge a mistake and still move forward, and of how one were able to create a different relation between past feelings and actions and the future, what would concepts such as reparation, apology, atonement, or making amends look like? Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark were, for example, co- founders of AIDS Counseling and Education (ACE) at Bedford Hills prison, and Clark has taught parenting classes, participated in writing programs, and trained service dogs.
The proposal for this special issue of Manifesta Journal places regret alongside nostalgia and shame, both categories that have been of interest for queer affect studies, particularly as the focus of efforts to de- pathologize negative affects and to consider their productive potential. If queer theory de-pathologizes shame, for example, might it also de-pathologize regret?4 Does “de-pathologizing regret” mean that we refuse to regret or that we embrace it? Or perhaps that we can do both simultaneously as a measure of the contradictory nature of emotional life? (I think, for example, of the ambivalent force of Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” in which the world-weary diva articulates a tough refusal of feeling (one that can underwrite forms of historical amnesia) while at the same time indulges in feeling through its refusal, particularly through the mournfulness of vocal sound itself.)
The link between regret and nostalgia is also suggestive because recent theories of melancholy and queer temporalities struggle with the problem of whether to critique nostalgia or claim it.5 When queer theorists and artists seek versions of holding on to the past that retain the negative—ones that don’t abandon the present or the future in favor of an idealized past but instead seize the negativity of the past as a resource for the future—they often try to reject bad versions of nostalgia that, like the sentimental, erase negative affect or whitewash the past. But I am wary of the dismissal of some versions of feeling as being truly bad instead of being useful, productive, or good versions of bad feelings and I thus want to retain nostalgia as a category.
With this prelude in mind, I am curious to know how the term “regret” resonates alongside your work, since for you, as for me, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be a primary category but rather one that is potentially present in the interstices of shame and nostalgia. I understand that these are significant categories for you, including their relation to the category of the “toxic”, whose ambivalent meanings you have been exploring of late.

(Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz):
As you have aptly pointed out, we have worked more on “shame”, which somehow seems to be “part of the family” of regret, since we might regret to have done something which in turn forces us to blush. Therefore regret may be directed not only to dramatic events but also to really small and everyday practices, such as having uttered a wrong sentence or having forgotten to do something. Renate worked on shame in her recent book, Queer Art,6 but has developed the subject more extensively in Aufwändige Durchquerungen, in the context of a queer perspective on labor, which has been an important subject in our common work since we met almost fifteen years ago. Shame indicates that the gaze of others reveals us to be something that we don’t want to be, while we have already experienced or phantasized otherwise. (See also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s7 and Elspeth Probyn’s8 work on shame). Shame can also indicate that we have become someone we want to be on the one hand, but on the other hand that we do not want to be like that by any means. Thus the concept of shame is an effective tool in the field of neoliberal labor, since it is particularly produced by the meeting of contradictory or incongruous demands.
It also seems as if regret is particularly activated under current working conditions. This is another interesting aspect that you characterized in your reports on the “Public Feelings Groups”: That the groups themselves started as a questioning or protest against “professional norms that demand success, productivity, and a seamless public persona”9 and that many participants described a “sense of divided attention” between professional demands and political urgencies. If a person feels responsible for his or her own well-being, happiness or prosperous future, he or she might fear to regret something in the future which is or is not presently being taken care of. One might fear to regret having refused a task, such as working long hours, or giving a certain lecture. Yet at the same time one might also fear having wasted one’s entire life working and not having been lazy enough— that political urgencies or disasters should have been left to the wayside, or that sports and health should have been more of a priority. This kind of ongoing negotiation is one part of a deployment of labor that we call “sexual labor”,10 a term that combines concepts of a performative, repeated production of gender, race and sexuality with post-Marxist and sociological concepts of work and precariousness. Regret and shame both seem to be indications of precarious (and thus of vulnerable) bodies. However, their inner workings are unpredictable since they are both motivated by contradictions. This flexibility and unpredictability opens up the concepts to resistance and de-normalization. Our film, Normal Work,11 refers to the photographs and documents of the Victorian housemaid Hannah Cullwick. Her leftovers from the late nineteenth century are a good early example of those contradictions: Having felt ashamed to have opened her employer’s door to visitors in a completely dirty and dripping dress, she writes that at the same time, she loved dirt as a sign of achieved labor, and obviously as a sign of her masculinity. The permanent crossing of social positions is a very productive deployment but, as Hannah Cullwick’s photographic work shows and as we wanted to highlight in our film, it might also lead to the complete de-normalization of such practices.
We agree that just rejecting the feeling of “regret” full-stop might not work. Maybe not rejecting but multiplying the possible future of regret would be an interesting response. The American performer and artist Bob Flanagan wrote the great poem, “Why?”, which seemed to answer the unspoken question, “Why you are such a pervert and invest your energy in S&M practices?”. In so doing, he seemed to produce a collection of everything in the past that might have influenced his future in a way that could have been regret but… well… it could also have been something else. A short excerpt: “… Because there was so much sickness; because I say FUCK THE SICKNESS; because I like the attention; because I was alone a lot; because I was different; because kids beat me up on the way to school; because I was humiliated by nuns; because of Christ and the Crucifixion; because of Porky Pig in bondage”.12
If we think of regret as something that feels bad because we cannot change the past that unavoidably influences our future, I think our art works might intervene into this complex since they invest a lot into chronopolitics; the politics of temporality.* Our films, such as No Future / No Past particularly reference the politics of Punk, but actually all of our works, look for forgotten queer moments in the past and then rework them in order to create an archive of de-normalizing practices for a livable future. Our recent work, Toxic, refers to the violent history of photography as an instrument of the police and of racist colonial practices. It seems important not to refer to these practices by simply quoting them but at the same time to look for deterritorializing moments where the racist and homophobic impulses weren’t successful, in addition to intervening in the past in a way that may improve the prospects for the future.

No Future / No Past, Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

Installation with two Super 16mm films / HD, 15 min and 15 min, 2011No Future / No Past
Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

Performance: Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Fruity Franky, Werner Hirsch, Olivia Anna Livki, G. Rizo

No Future / No Past is a film installation and part of a series of two films that both work on punk archives from the period between 1976 and 2031 investigating the radical negativity, the self-destructiveness and the dystopia of this past moment.
This work takes another look – anachronistically – at the punk policy of aggressively slating and rejecting the present without ever proposing its own movement as the guarantor of future social justice. Instead of demanding social change, the five performers – four musicians (Ginger Brooks Takahashi/”Men”; Fruity Franky/”Lesbians on Ecstasy”; G. Rizo; Olivia Anna Livki), and a choreographer (Werner Hirsch)–stage and practice outmoded acts and sentiments of the past that have been deemed useless. The musician-performers provisionally take over the positions of four musicians from the punk movement: Darby Crash, Poly Styrene, Alice Bag, and Joey Ramone.


and “Feeling Bad”

(Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz):
We are currently very interested in the term “toxic”. Not only to address the historic and present discourses around toxicity and to introduce the term as a critical instrument, but also to highlight its ambivalence— somehow we use it as an equivalent to “queer”—as a term which is as much bound to violence as it is to pleasure; to a different beat in life and to the de-normalization of certain practices. Let us briefly describe our last film, entitled Toxic.
The film starts without human performers, although it is located in a theatre space, indicated by colorful curtains and a projection screen. Instead of performers, on stage are many huge and small plants, including toxic ones such as winter roses and rhododendrons. The floor is covered with a dirty mixture of old glitter, cigarette butts and pills. The two performers, Werner Hirsch and Ginger Brooks Takahashi, enter first as simple on-screen projections. They are seen in a series of “mug shots” (photographs taken both frontally and in profile at once; a style that was invented to photograph criminals, sex workers, homosexuals and people from the colonies, and was used by the police or in anthropology from the late nineteenth century onwards).
The people photographed are of unclear gender and origin. They wear masks and strange costumes and show off assemblages, referring not only to early ethnographic imagery, but also to queer underground subculture and to street protests. Sometimes the people in the photographs don’t even look human. Though there are references, there is also a certain level of imperceptibility. When the two performers finally enter the stage they seem not to care about the slide show in the background. Werner Hirsch inhales smoke from his cigarette and coughs a cloud of glitter out of his mouth, whilst Ginger Brooks Takahashi takes up a microphone and begins listing off a number of toxic substances, thereby obscuring the categories of environmental catastrophes (the Great Pacific Plastic Patch; radioactive compounds that cross national borders); treatments that supposedly heal (chemotherapy, Xanax); narcotics (cocaine, heroin); and soft drugs (alcohol, cigarettes). The usage of the word “toxic” seems not only to tolerate ambivalences but to produce and enhance them. It refers to bodies, which are permeable, extending beyond the layer of skin that contains them, as Donna Haraway has said, or even better, to “body-substance-assemblages”.13 The doses of the substances are important, but you never know what dose might produce which effect.
Our work on toxicity was initially inspired by a text by Mel Y. Chen, “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections“.14 Chen introduces her topic by showing how the discourses around toxicity currently install racist hierarchies (toxic toys are produced in China, but instead of protesting the toxic working conditions the discourse is more about China’s propensity to poison white children in the West). She further complicates her critique of the discourse by explaining her own condition, (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), which forces her to live her life within the confines of this very discourse of toxic danger. In the end, “toxic” seems to be more about practices and relations, ones between humans but also ones between humans and “animist” furniture for instance. While working on the film installation we came to the assumption that it could be useful to see not only substances—chemicals or parts of plants, among other things—as toxic but the photographic / filmic apparatus as well: its history since the nineteenth century, the technologies, matters, practices, discourses and social effects that are implied therein, in addition to the way we continue to work both in and through them. Yet even if the cinematic apparatus tries to allow for unmediated objectivity and knowledge it might also produce ec/static bodies and queer connections as dirty and uncanny by-products, if you will.

(Ann Cvetkovich):
Although I have not used it directly in my own work, I, too, have been intrigued by Mel Chen’s discussion of “toxic animacies” and was excited to see your use of it in Toxic. Chen’s examples of small children licking toys and the intimacy between her fatigued body and a couch render vivid new theories of affect that underscore how the object/thing world is just as “animated” or alive as human beings are. The porous boundaries between people, objects, and environments make for queer and unpredictable forms of embodiment and intersubjectivity. Although this vulnerability opens up the body to toxic forms of contamination, it is also an enabling condition towards being affected by the world, for forms of “chemical” (or biological) sensitivity are also about being attuned to people, objects, and environments. The “transmission of affect”, to borrow a term from Teresa Brennan, takes place at a sensory level that is not necessarily conscious or cognitive, and it thus necessitates the new accounts of sensory experience provided by recent theories of affect.15
This conception of intersubjective and sensory embodiment is present in my thinking about depression, which I describe as the result of being so overwhelmed or flooded by sensations from the outside world that one is unable to sustain a self. Critiquing the medicalization of depression and pharmacological solutions—the idea that a pill can “cure all”—is important to me. Anti-depressants and their marketing feed the desire to find a drug and ingest it in order to alter the biochemical substrate of felt experience. The list of drugs in Toxic reveals the range of ways in which we seek the assistance of chemical substances, and your work makes me wonder whether “toxicity” necessarily entails notions of the pharmacological. I am interested in new ways of working with the integrated relation between inside and outside, and between body and mind.
As in the case of “regret”, practices of re-description are also central, which are manifested both in writing and in art practices that re-imagine the medical, the political, and the therapeutic in everyday and lived contexts. (Renate and Pauline’s work would be an exemplary case here.) I have, for example, favored the term “feeling bad” over “depression”, because I wanted a term that was open-ended and that wasn’t freighted with the medical connotations that so often foreclose more nuanced stories. This strategy served as a point of departure for The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, my recent film/performance collaboration with Karin Michalski, which seeks to generate multiple vocabularies for feeling bad, including ordinary words such as numbness, dread, and hopelessness.16

Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

Installation with Super 16mm film / HD, 13 min and archive, 2012
Performance: Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Werner Hirsch

The film Toxic shows two protagonists in an undated time, a punk figure in glitter (Ginger Brooks Takahashi) and a drag queen (Werner Hirsch), both of unclear gender and origin. They linger in an environment of glossy remains, of toxic plants and transformed ethnographic and police photography. While the punk gives a speech on toxicity and a performance referencing early feminist art works, the drag queen reenacts an interview of Jean Genet from the ‘80s and blames the filmmakers for exposing her to the police-like scenario of being filmed.As the camera turns and depicts the space-off, the space outside the frame, a question is raised: what happens if the film and photographic apparatus is focused from a perspective of toxicity?

The Politics of Passivity

(Ann Cvetkovich)
We have both expressed interest in the “politics of passivity”, a concept that comes up in the conclusion of Heather Love’s Feeling Backward, which is inspired by the same “Public Feelings Discussions” on political depression that also catalyzed my book.17 As I understand it, the “politics of passivity” is a way of describing conceptions of politics that don’t turn on heroic action or revolution, that make space for quieter, less melodramatic, more ordinary forms of activity or even for states of being that do not look like action. A useful resource for the concept is Anne-Lise François’s theory of recessive action that was laid out in her book, Open Secrets.18 Focusing on Romantic and nineteenth century texts that do not reflect Enlightenment notions of progress and productivity, François identifies scenes of non-action that are emotionally sufficient even when “nothing happens.”
I realize that having started with an image of 1960s revolutionary activism was no accident—it is actually a constant provocation for my efforts to imagine activism in new ways. Neither do I want to play into critiques of revolutionary activism as a regrettable mistake nor do I want to neglect exploring them. They possibly fit under the rubric of regret, and enable new ways of thinking about activism that can include what otherwise looks like passivity, inaction, and mixed feelings.
Perhaps your interest in the non-melodramatic moment in Toxic that appears in the midst of what looks like a theatrical staging of dramatic performance and affect might follow along these lines: the moments that come before or after the performance, or that happen alongside it, or the moments that are articulated in a flat or affectless register. These connect with my own interest in ordinary affects (as articulated by Kathleen Stewart) and especially in questions of how to represent them.19 In Depression: A Public Feeling I turned to memoir because I wanted to explore different ways of writing the non-dramatic moment—the forms of non-activity, such as sleeping in, shopping, going to the dentist, or swimming repetitive laps in a pool, where it seems like nothing important is happening or where things do not add up to anything in particular. As I tell the story, those moments can contain resources for later insight or action, but in ways that are unable to be anticipated and thus do not necessarily have implications for how the moment could be lived differently.
Regret may thus be resisted here, as well as shame or nostalgia—there is no point in thinking about how it might have been different; it simply was. My interest in depression stems in part from wanting to sidestep the relentless demand for productivity under capitalism. As you also suggest above, “regret” takes specific forms under capitalism—sometimes people regret not doing more (not working harder, not getting better results), and sometimes they regret not doing less (for example, working less in order to leave more time for family and for leisure). Either way the condition that produces these forms of regret is the demand for productive results. If we relinquish this demand, what affective experiences and what conceptions of politics might be possible? Furthermore, what forms of documentation or representation could help us to imagine other ways of thinking and feeling?

(Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz):
Referring to your question how to work on conceptions and representations that reject the demand for productivity under capitalism, we would like to come back to our common interest in “ambivalence”.
We think that there is a connection between the politics of ambivalence and queer passivity. You mentioned the moments of “flat” actions in Toxic, for instance. The fact that you have privileged “feeling bad” as an element of concern with the everyday affect and the seemingly less-important distress instead of “trauma” seems to go in the same direction. These kind of actions seem to nourish the different types of ambivalences (for instance between the anti-capitalist moments of substance use and the toxicity and possible normalizing effect of medication against depression) instead of trying to straighten them or to produce a clear position (which often appears to be the most important precondition of leftist politics). We also like Heather Love’s work on “queer passivity” in Feeling Backward, especially her argument that leftist politics produce their own norms, which further render certain politics and abilities invisible or useless and that it might be important to produce an archive of political gestures which are not based on those norms. Our research on the Punk movement (No Future / No Past)20 was particularly concerned with the question of why it might still be useful to aggressively reject the world as it is, choosing to long to destroy it without providing a better alternative. Finally, in your text, Public Feelings, you also mention that negative affect should be seen as a resource for politics rather than as its antithesis. Here, we like Avital Ronell’s neologism “pathivity”, which addresses a way of being passive whilst still moving.21 This matches the idea that agency and passivity are not mutually exclusive.
We suppose that a certain passivity of action also produces a rhythm or pulse that might be an important part of an alternative and anti- capitalist “worlding”; a way to invest in imperceptible politics or politics of opaqueness.

  • 1. See Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
  • 2. See Tom Robbins, “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation”, New York Times Magazine, Jan 12, 2012. Other examples include Katherine Ann Power (who was involved in robberies in Massachusetts that led to the death of a police officer. She went underground and then surrendered in Oregon in 1993), Patty Hearst (the subject of performance work by Sharon Hayes), Bernadette Dohrn, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
  • 3. See Kathryn Bond Stockton’s discussion of the film Heavenly Creatures, in which she argues for the complexity of the affective conditions for murder, which cannot simply be explained in terms of “premeditation” or conscious “motives”. See The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
  • 4. See, most notably, Eve Sedgwick in Touching Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), as well as David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub, eds. Gay Shame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • 5. See Elizabeth Freeman, ed., “Queer Temporalities”, Special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13 (2007): 2–3.
  • 6. Renate Lorenz, Queer Art. A Freak Theory (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012).
  • 7. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” In: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).
  • 8. Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (New York and London: Routledge Press, 1996).
  • 9. See Ann Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” In South Atlantic Quarterly 106: 3 (Durham: Duke
  • 10. See Renate Lorenz / Brigitta Kuster, Sexuelle Arbeit (in German) (Berlin: b_books 2006), Renate Lorenz, “Long Working Hours of Normal Love,” In Normal Love, exhibition catalogue (Berlin: b_books, 2007).
  • 11. See Pauline Boudry, Renate Lorenz, Temporal Drag (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011).
  • 12. Note from the editors: The plural and variegated resonances of chronopolitics are further investigated in Manifesta Journal 14 and 15. See .
  • 13. For a further discussion of such a concept see Lorenz, Queer Art, 2012.
  • 14. Mel Y. Chen, “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections.” In GLQ 17: 2–3 (Durham: Duke
  • 15. See Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
  • 16. Karin Michalski, The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, Film/installation in A Burnt-Out Case, NGBK, Berlin, September 2012. (
  • 17. Heather Love, Feeling Backward (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • 18. Anne-Lise François, Open Secrets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
  • 19. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). On de- dramatized and flat affect, see also Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
  • 20. See
  • 21. Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press,1992).