Derksen’s Affections

  • Jeff Derksen and Kathy Slade (Editor)
    After Euphoria. JRP-Ringier Kunstverlag AG (purchase at
Reviewed by Dan Adleman

Jeff Derksen’s After Euphoria is a nuanced and far-reaching essay collection that, in many respects, picks up where his 2009 collection Annihilated Time left off. Drawing on an impressive repertoire of scholarship in cultural studies, critical theory, urban geography, and economics, as well as his own experience as a poet, critic, and community activist, he is still deeply invested in exceptional creative practices—ranging from artwork to protest movements—that antagonize neoliberal notions of space, place, freedom, community, nation, and state. More so than in the previous collection, Derksen, following Henri Lefebvre, interrogates the political implications of conceptualizing urban space as a neutral empty vessel, choosing instead to hone in on the various ways that urban spaces, especially that of his hometown Vancouver, are contoured and worked over by the forces of globalized neoliberal capital. Another shift from his previous work is his heightened emphasis on the visual arts, whose emancipatory potential, alongside other creative “productions of space,” he valorizes with utopian fervor.

In “How High Is the City, How Deep Is Our Love?” the author explores the stakes of loving one’s city and the role that spatializing practices play in configuring the city’s political, aesthetic, and libidinal ecology. Here, Derksen breaks new ground in extending and consolidating a strain of affect theory emerging out of Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling” that inhere to entire “ways of life.” In this pursuit he finds common cause with Sianne Ngai’s recent work on “uncanonical affects” and Sarah Ahmed’s “cultural politics of emotion,” both of which diverge from the more subject-centric strains of affect theory derived from either psychoanalysis (Tomkins, Sedgwick, Berlant, . . . ) or Gilles Deleuze’s Spinozist reveries (Massumi, Hansen, . . . ).

Derksen’s valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of affect in theorizing aesthetics and politics comes in the form of the undertheorized affect of “euphoria,” a term that, etymologically speaking, signifies “to bear an illness well.” In Derksen’s agile hands, this collective structure of delirium signals the intensification of certain forms of excitation, not as an expression of vigor but as a deceptive symptom of the incapacitation of vital systems in towns like Vancouver, which are aggressively marketed as “nature-drenched lure[s] for those global citizens bold enough to lay down some capital in a sustainable city vibrating with the post-Fordist pleasures of investment and tourism.”

In “Art and Cities During Mega-Events,” Derksen brings critical acuity to both the political economy and euphoric rhetoric of global mega-events like Vancouver’s Expo ’86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. The latter, a two-week spectacle that cost taxpayers ten billion dollars (paid for, in no small part, through the evisceration of social services), also involved unprecedented prohibitions on dissent. The Olympic Charter, Derksen observes, undemocratically negates extant freedoms of speech and association by banning any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Across the province, this pernicious form of “zombie governance” galvanized local artists and activists to engender what Derksen views as genuinely creative strategies to subvert the IOC’s dictates.

Here, Derksen brings the term “creativity” into relief as a contested site. In direct contradistinction to the narrow economic sense of the term proffered by Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class (wherein creativity is more or less the exclusive purview of hip, young urban professionals), Derksen advocates for a notion of creativity that emerges out of and impacts the dynamic “production of everyday life.” His survey of creative expropriations and “autogestions” of IOC strictures ranges from Pivot Legal Society’s “Red Tent Campaign” (which set up a homeless “Tent Village” in a Vancouver Olympic Committee parking area) to Ken Lum’s referentless (and therefore unprosecutable) I Said No art exhibition to The Olympic Resistance Network’s postering campaign querying the contradictions between the Olympic Charter’s lip-service to human rights and the IOC’s draconian suppression thereof.

On the issue of discrepancies between the vapid branded messages presented to the media and the odious underlying economic realities of the Olympics Industry, Derksen minces no words about Shane Koyczan’s popular spoken word performance “during the unimaginative opening ceremony, hauling out every retrograde trope of Canadian cultural identity.” For Derksen, Koyczan’s bromide-filled poem about Canada as a polite “experiment going right for a change” deploys the red herring of self-aggrandizing nationalist euphoria to occlude the gaping wounds caused by the systemic ailments whose metastases the Olympics only exacerbated.

In “Citizens of the [World] [Nation] [City] Unite and Take Over,” Derksen considers the modern “globalized city,” which he frames as a locus of both collusion and tension between the “alluring local” and “all-inclusive global” scales. He scrutinizes the interoperation of neoliberalism (the ideology of the primacy and freedom of “the market”) and globalization (the so-called flattening of the world) in such urban “hub[s] of control and management” as post-9/11 New York City. As with his analysis of different interpretations of “creativity,” Derksen narrows his rhetorical gaze on the notion of “freedom,” a term bandied about deceptively by both neoliberal ideologues of “the invisible hand of the market” and neoconservative hawks who tendentiously espouse that America’s opponents despise Americans for their God-given freedoms.

In “The Ends of Culture,” he mobilizes Williams’ pioneering conceptualization of “culture, as a long revolution of process and change,” against American cultural imperialism, such as that exhibited, according to Derksen, by Sophia Coppola’s Japanophilic film Lost in Translation, a movie he analyzes with Žižekian aplomb. Sadly, he is too wary of the groundswell of heavy-handed film criticism that emerged out of English departments in the 1990’s to devote much space to his analysis. But his account of the Americentric fantasy system subtending the film’s problematic figuration of Japanese cultural immaturity cuts like a knife.

Fans of Derksen’s paratactic “socialist one-liner” poetry will find in After Euphoria a rich hypotactic corollary and complement. Even more so than in Annihilated Time, there is, in all of the essays, a delicate and refreshing tension at play between critique as a philosophical-poetic discourse for probing “conditions of possibility” and criticism as a strategy geared towards solving deeply-ingrained societal problems.

This review “Derksen’s Affections” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 140-42.

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