’Til Death Do Us Part: On Eugenie Brinkema’s “Life-Destroying Diagrams”

June 25, 2022   •   By Alexandra Kingston-Reese

Life-Destroying Diagrams

Eugenie Brinkema

IN A 2011 ISSUE of Cultural Anthropology, Michael Hardt and Lauren Berlant engaged in a spirited exchange about love. At the center was Hardt’s contention that we lack a “properly” political concept of love, in which both reason and passion are deployed to bond us in difference, rescue us from narcissism, and transform our relationships with the world. Love is always “a risk,” he argued, “in which we abandon some of our attachments to this world in the hope of creating another, better one” — why not imagine a kind of political love that could truly provide us the possibility for metamorphosis? Disagreeing with Hardt’s premise more than the proposal, Berlant countered that love has, in fact, long “been floated by so many as a solution — literally, a loosening or an unfastening, a dissolution — to the problem of social antagonism, or fractured community.” One only needs to look to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Leo Bersani, bell hooks, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Melanie Klein, to see how love has been theorized in an array of political contexts for when things go drastically wrong.

Though she doesn’t care much for politics, this formula for love’s work is vigorously at play in Eugenie Brinkema’s recently published Life-Destroying Diagrams. It not only makes the logic between destruction and love structurally obvious — the first section is organized around horror; the second, love — but poses love as the solution to a crucial problem plaguing formalism. Lovers of formalism, she argues, have become too mollified by the arguments of its haters. Her archnemesis is Fredric Jameson, whose call “for a ‘literary or cultural criticism which seeks to avoid imprisonment in the windless closure of the formalisms’” has emboldened others to accuse formalists “of abandoning the world, its misfortunes, its tumults and things.” Formalists, Brinkema argues, have been cowed by requests to make formalism relevant to the world, and their responses have come at the expense of forgetting about form itself. As Maurice Denis argued in his famous 1890 symbolist manifesto, “Définition du néo-traditionnisme,” “it is well to remember that a picture — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Brinkema’s first book, The Forms of the Affects, which cites Denis prominently, argued that a “radical formalism” had the potential to not only open up what film scholars thought of as form — the single tear on Janet Leigh’s face in Psycho’s shower scene, for instance — but that reading for form “would reveal the possibilities of the affective turn.” Dispensing with affect almost entirely in Life-Destroying Diagrams in favor of reading form for form’s sake, Brinkema suggests that horror and love both occasion the opportunity to put a kind of “radical formalism” to the test. Figuring bodies as forms rather than vessels for feeling, horror’s especially urgent terrain “puts the extremest pressure on formalism’s promise, reach, and aporetic limit at the site of extremities: of force, of construction, of thought.” If death is “a limit,” it is also “a way for the text to be.” Binding formalism to the philosophy of horror, in part via a reading of Heidegger’s Dasein, means that reading for form not only attends to the process by which forms are shaped or ordered, but how they relentlessly undo themselves. Form and formalism alike are shown to be relentlessly “restless,” agitating in a dance for new knowledge.

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The problem with formalism for Brinkema — that it is weakened by the way its strategies are exported as a means of addressing other concerns — was precisely the beauty of it for Caroline Levine. In her 2015 book, Forms, Levine decentered form from the literary forms that receive the most attention. Form has never just belonged to the language of aesthetics, she argued, but to shapes, orders, and patterns. If forms come to mean many types of arrangements, a “formalist cultural studies” that attends “to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power.” In both of her books, Brinkema’s forms are similarly extrapolated from the forms of film — grids, diagrams, commas, alphabets, sequence, color, interval, rhythms, repetitions, tables, lists, lines, letters — but they are not forms that take on any political or social function. Brinkema is more interested in a formalism that is “strictly indifferent” to what form affords, as “all affordance formalisms write around the great potential of reading for form, which is precisely that it neutralizes and suspends and disimplicates critical oppositions.” Looking for affordances “everywhere risks a model of textual recovery” in which the aim is to only discover form, operating “at the expense of the ongoing generation of new and unforeseen lines of thought.”

Leaning hard on Levine, Brinkema argues that radical formalism requires the critic to pass no judgment on its ethical or political stakes, or to mobilize formalism for the purposes of other, potentially more socially “relevant,” agendas. And while the word radical usually suggests a radical politics, this formalism is not radical insofar as it is “in thrall to” the political. Showing how indebted instrumentalism is to the language of economics, this formalism requires giving “the critical purchase nothing in return (no profitable allegory, no ethical evaluation, neither social relations nor their improvement, no interest at all to be derived from reading — now rendered unsure and unwise investment).” It requires lingering with the knowledge that all of this may lead to nothing. It requires crossing out the “political,” “social,” and “historical” in the opening lines of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious to replace them with “formal,” as Brinkema does in an epigraph.

But the more that Brinkema claims that radical formalism itself has nothing to do with ethics or politics, the more it seems the ethics of radical formalism is precisely what this is all about. Even though Brinkema makes no mention of it, one wonders what kind of labor conditions would allow such a no-guarantees, not-for-profit reading to take place. In this method, as it was for Hardt, there is something always to, or at, risk. A good risk might be choosing to “risk some loss (of control, interest, profit, payoff).” Radical formalism is, after all, not interested in political arguments that cultural forms have use beyond themselves. Bad risks are those that are morally fraught. “Which is the greater risk,” Brinkema asks, “a fascination with aestheticized violence or a violent fascination with aesthetics”? Which is worse, “a fascination with extreme violence or an extreme fascination with form?” The risks are intertwined, she argues, because fascination so deeply governs horror and love, two conditions that demand the most from our ethics. For this reason, formalists must be careful to abide by the same rules of consent that govern other interactions, whether it is the viewer’s excitement at blood and gore, or the thrill of your lover’s eyes on you. A formalism born out of “unwanted intimacy” seizes everything that is fun about it; because fascination is also “the constant companion” of violence, a formalist must let go a little.

These are interesting political and ethical scales to weigh — ones that seem to bear heavily on Brinkema. A radical formalism that cares only for its own internal stakes and nothing of the world is an exhilarating philosophical provocation but one that metes out real consequences. Some of these questions are well worn, especially those that reinforce the hard distinction between politics and aesthetics. Must a formalist always disclose or denounce her political interests? But what does feel fresh is Brinkema’s suggestion that the extreme eagerness that we readily recognize as politically troublesome elsewhere is also present in apparently neutral cultural pursuits like close reading. In these instances, Life-Destroying Diagrams operates as a cautionary tale of the dangers of being too much, as much as a model for a new kind of radical formalism.

There is some euphoria in following close to the edge, in letting go of control. For Roland Barthes, discarding what we already know is euphoric: “[N]o more anguish of ‘schema,’ no more rhetoric of ‘development,’ no more twisted logic, no more dissertations!” Like Barthes, one of her patron saints, Brinkema strays more toward the territory of a modern-day treatise or exercise in philosophical discipline than the usual critical or film theory. The first page of the book stages a strange encounter between Barthes, Witold Gombrowicz, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Ludwig Wittgenstein that ends with them all adopting various attitudes in response to a voice off-stage exclaiming “EVERYTHING MATTERS” and then “ANYTHING MATTERS.” One can imagine this as the beginning of a joke (four philosophers walk into a bar…); just as easily, as one can see their philosophies setting the style and ambitions for Brinkema’s own approach. She spends a great deal of time excavating form via etymologies, language-games, and diagrams (Wittgenstein), asserting the non-profitability of love (Leibniz), and proclaiming the need to “rejuvenate our problems” (Gombrowicz).

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More than anything, Life-Destroying Diagrams frames itself as a project of rejuvenation. “Our words are tired; they repeat, they are old,” she says of horror studies. Even innovative responses to horror boil down predictably to several questions (including “What is frightening?” and “[W]hy do I take pleasure, satisfaction, rueful glee, wild joy in this revulsion, fright and thrill?”). But the exasperation with horror studies isn’t equally balanced with, some would say, an equally deserving exasperation with love studies. Declaring herself done with the cliché of the neck, she means the neck as the site of feminine vulnerability (Dracula’s bite) and of the shiver, but there’s no mention of the neck as the clichéd site of a loving vulnerability, or an ambition to reorient the form of the couple.

This is not to say that Brinkema’s treatment of love is a straightforward turn to humanism. The love that Brinkema evokes is largely French, largely theoretical, and largely denotes just as much violence to the body as horror does. Several examples in Brinkema’s love filmography come to sound more like the horror films of the first part of the book than the romance-dramas they are. Jessica Hausner’s 2014 film, Amour Fou, depicts the perils of loving too much, enough to simulate the fatal illness poor Henriette Vogel needs to convince her to agree to a murder-suicide pact. The “spare, brutal, even callous incrementality” of Michael Haneke’s 2012 film, Amour, means that, while it might “take the measure of love,” the film “is not about love” but actually about horror. Such is the power of Brinkema’s descriptive prowess that I came to look upon the newly budding platonic love between Dana and Marty at the end of Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) as positively rosy by comparison. By refusing to play the game and kill each other as the ultimate sacrifice to stop the world from collapsing, their simple love for each other’s intrinsic worth surpasses a strategic love for humanity. Refusing to sacrifice the other doesn’t mean survival, but the death of everything.

Love, under Brinkema’s treatment, comes to be just as horrifying as the horror. Where horror breaks, tears, ruptures, love, too, burns, bursts, consumes, whether freely given or freely received. Measurement occupies many of love’s questions: How much do I love him? How much do you love me? If only she loved me just a bit more. If only I loved him just a bit less. If we offer “measured love,” Brinkema suggests, we “offer no love at all.” The greatest threat to love is therefore not its antonyms — hatred, cruelty, violence — but incrementalism. Hedging love “is to subordinate love to the calculated gain of an investment, to partibility, portioning, dissection, interest,” to say nothing of lovers’ own calculations. Underlying this attention is an ethical definition of “true love” informed by Leibniz’s messy theories in which he argued that a lover should not ask for “any pleasure of one’s own except what one can get from the happiness or pleasure of the loved one.” By choosing love, Brinkema adheres also to one of Hannah Arendt’s definitions of love, as “not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.” It is for this reason that love and formalism have a “homological structure,” meaning that the problem with love — modification by measuring, dividing, scaling — is equally the problem with formalism — modification by extracting, demanding, affording. Neither has to be a site of political efficacy.

As Life-Destroying Diagrams proceeds, the furious interconnectedness of plots, forms, scene descriptions, and etymologies makes for riveting but exhausting reading, leaving one to wonder who or what is really meant to be put to the test. As tests go, Brinkema bracingly refuses to spare the reader as much if not more than the films under discussion do. I spent much of the book feeling queasy, just like I did when I saw Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. This isn’t a bad thing — horror makes me squeamish; Brinkema doesn’t — as what she fervently models are the payoffs of investing in discipline, for one’s character and mind. “An admission of love […] would only be seen as weakness,” Zadie Smith once argued of critical pleasure in the academy. If modified by Brinkema, it would surely read: “An admission of full-throated, unadulterated love can only be seen as strength.”

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Alexandra Kingston-Reese is senior lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. She is the editor of Art Essays and author of Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life, both from the University of Iowa Press, and the editor of the journal ASAP/J.