Uneven Surfaces and Happening Non-happenings: Navigating the Ordinary of Sexual Trauma
by: Freya Johnson , June 14, 2021
by: Freya Johnson , June 14, 2021
When Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for a sexual assault alleged to have taken place more than 35 years previously, she ticked many boxes of ‘credibility.’ She is a white, middle-class American with an upstanding academic background, and is a professor of Psychology at Palo Alto University. After her testimony in September 2018, she was lauded across the press as a credible and compelling witness. (Moore 2018; Horton 2019; Sweetland Edwards 2016) The answers she gave before the Senate Judiciary Committee were thorough, thoughtful, and worth listening to. Yet the strength of the testimony, and the swathes of abused bodies that galvanised in support of her, were ultimately not enough to dampen Kavanaugh’s nomination. There was a delay to the confirmation vote, sure. And, when pressed, Republican Senator Jeff Flake called an FBI investigation which brought forth two further allegations against Kavanaugh (although allegedly quieted several more). (Sweetland Edwards 2016) These motions were an aggrievance to Kavanaugh, but they were not a deal breaker. He took the oath of office on 6 October 2018. (Stolberg 2018)
This is nothing we have not heard before. If the seeming immateriality of an account—it happened a long time ago, all the details cannot be remembered—can be leveraged to give a guy’s career a leg up, well, you can bet that is what will happen. (See Baird 2016 on Ched Evans; Hunt 2016 on Brock Turner; Schambelan, 2019 on ‘nice guys’) There are multiple forces at work here. Perhaps the best understood ones include the historical legacy of the term ‘rape’—what it means, what it includes—and how deep it runs in cultural narratives today. Rape, in this legacy, is a knife-in-an-alleyway event, and the trauma of it would, without fail, feature certain hallmarks: physical injury, fear of death, evidence of struggling. (See Freedman 2013 esp. chapters 1 & 2) Match that with historical figurations of women as the Parthenos or Lolita-nymphets—simultaneously vulnerable to and responsible for their abuse—and it is clear that the patriarchy lurks as more than a spectre. (Pomeroy 1995: 8; Bell  2002: 23)
However, less well understood is the force of trauma and sexual violence as affective scenes. That is what this article is interested in—affective lability, and the difficulty that comes with trying to determine what happened. Trauma and violence slip and shift. Trauma might be sharp, or it might be dull and drawn out. Violence might be something that sleeps next to you every night. It has always been like this, of course, but things seemed simpler back when rape was legislated as a crime that stole honour from a man and his property. Today, there is gestural recognition that it is not quite so simple, and so the questions abound: where is the line that should never be crossed? What does the line look like? What is true and what is pretend? What is rape and what is just bad sex?
These are questions that have been asked for a long time, now. You could argue that the failure to answer them in absolute terms stems from the continuing prevalence of legacies, the rape myths and misogynies that play out in the courtroom, on the TV, at home. That would not be untrue. But one could also argue that absoluteness (this side of the line, that side of the line) is the wrong thing to be looking for in the first place. There is no absolute when it comes to trauma and violence—there is only fuzz and chaos. So if proportionate response—‘perfect’ memory, vagina torn to shreds, lots of tears and general distress—is what is needed as proof of harm, then that is what needs to change.
In any case, we should not forget that validating abuse claims via box-ticking is an exercise that often fails to honour its own terms. Blasey Ford ticked a hell of a lot of boxes. Whiteness and academic accolades aside, she was equal parts vulnerable and assertive in her testimony. (Lewis 2020) Distressed, upset, but certain. ‘One hundred percent,’ she replied when asked how sure she was that it was Kavanaugh who had attacked her. (Sweetland Edwards 2016) She framed her answers carefully with an academic tone, to remind audiences of her expertise. Given the glow she cast herself in—a light which must be recognised as facilitated by her status—there was really little more she could have done. And if she can’t get there, who can? How many boxes need to be ticked before you can be sure you are believed? It seems that gaining utter credibility as a sexual violence survivor is a false crescent. The act of box-ticking is perfunctory — you’ll fail anyway. It casts a sobering shadow for prospective claimants who don’t tick nearly as many, or even any, of the same boxes.
An unfortunate coincidence becomes visible once trauma and sexual violence begin to be thought of as affectively labile, because that very lability dovetails with everything that is thought to be known about women: they are unstable, chaotic, unreliable. (See King 1998 on Hippocrates; also Conaghan and Russell 2014 on rape myths) Of course, the pressure to be clear about something that is not clear is greater if you are already figured as an unclear yourself. It is very easy to start feeling, in a Kafkaesque way, that you are losing grip of the details you thought you were sure of. Andrea Long Chu explains this, somewhat paradoxically, with remarkable clarity: ‘sexual harm is constituted by the impossibility of its being proven,’ she writes, ‘not knowing what happened becomes part of what happened.’ (2018)
In other words, the imperative to determine what happened is a catch-22 stranglehold. You struggle to find the words because when whatever happened happened maybe you were asleep. Maybe you were drunk. Maybe you hadn’t said no in the beginning. Maybe you’d sent him a text a week before. Maybe you slept in the bed with him afterwards. Maybe your friends told you not to worry. Those fractures ripple through your body—little hairlines of weakness. But the longer you stutter over identifying something that is necessarily fuzzy, the easier it is to gaslight you as unreliable. And, going on Blasey Ford’s example, even if you do find the words, it might not be enough anyway. You’re a woman, after all.
For want of a better technique, this article offers a language for approaching the fuzziness of what happened. It seems like a stretch to look for words to counter a problem of words, but the words I use are chosen in recognition of the fact that affective scenes are always in a state of composition. I describe the affective lability of trauma and sexual violence as an ‘uneven surface.’ By ‘surface,’ I mean a thin sort of affective membrane that can be shared and felt across and between bodies. It is a membrane of sensation, and hovers just at the level where encounters become narratable, and it is uneven because it flips and changes. Following Long Chu again, affects often do not resemble the events from which they were generated. (2017: 304) What you sense might not correlate with the moment in the way that you think it should. You might feel agitated in a seemingly calming atmosphere. Or a shift in pace of conversation might feel like flooding for you, but barely register as residue for another. Explaining what you sense, or sensed, can be like trying to catch a moth—you backtrack, hesitate. Swipe out again. No, it was this. No, it was that. Its slippery unevenness catches you out repeatedly.
That unevenness is an Achilles heel, because it invites acts of what I call ‘smoothing.’ The urge to ‘make sense’ of things, to code moments into this or that, takes hold. And, in the context of sexual violence, that urge is particularly politically charged. In the next section, I discuss two smoothing spaces: TV, and rape and sexual assault trials in the courtroom. Although rarely in its traditional analogue state these days, ‘TV’ is still the name we give to the screen we stare at. And it is a vessel through which—in consuming a multitude of genres—our normative perceptions are orientated and guided, whatever use it to watch: reality shows, binge-worthy box sets, or films.
Both spaces encourage a culture of smoothing logics (you wanted it/you didn’t want it) which can be leveraged against women and their seemingly-naturally chaotic femininity. Revealing the chaos of trauma would threaten to undermine that convenience. This is a difficult claim to navigate, and Long Chu is right, ‘affect is a lousy substitute for evidence.’ (2017: 303) But trauma continues to collapse because it fails to stand up to the way that it is imagined. Something’s got to give, because the only thing that can be proved as consistent in trauma is inconsistency.
The language of uneven surfaces gives way to another term: the ‘happening non-happening,’ which I talk about in the final section of this article. Happening non-happenings are my attempt to describe affective points of transition. They are moments that accrue enough of a density for you to be able to say ‘I felt that.’ They do not come into sharp focus as such, but they reach the tip of your tongue. I think a lot of people will be familiar with these moments—they leave you feeling stuck because you cannot quite fold them into the narratives that usually help you make sense of life. They temporarily escape the usual reference points leaving you, as Lauren Berlant says, ‘dogpaddling around the same space.’ (2011: 199)
When it comes to the imperative to determine what happened, the happening non-happening is a really useful tool. I use it to question what comes to qualify as a happening in the first place. Do moments have to slot into meaningful narratives in order to count? And, further to that, do those narratives have to be consistent with each other? ‘Violence,’ Long Chu writes, ‘is rarely realistic.’ (2018) What she means by this is that it doesn’t necessarily produce the narratives and objects that would usually be considered politically admissible for evidence. From the sight of the wrecked car, we can deduce that something has, in fact, happened. But the wrecked woman is very different. She might not even seem that wrecked. Does that mean that nothing happened?
I also use the happening non-happening to ask what might be possible if we stay with the sense of stuckness that comes with it—if we give the transition some pause instead of rushing to describe the aftermath of a traumatic episode. Staying stuck with the happening non-happening creates some space to navigate the moment on your own terms (if you can find them), before someone tells you that it wasn’t so, or that it was something else (‘yeah so I am sorry if you felt like that, but it didn’t happen that way’). This space is particularly important for those whose bodies and voices are more silenced and more invisible than others. Stuckness, then, becomes a form of protest. It is a quiet protest, but a protest nonetheless. It is a decision to stay still, or rather, refuse to move.
Smoothing Uneven Surfaces
‘Real rape’ is an idea that gets bandied around a lot. As a term, Susan Estrich used it describe how, in the legal context, women are framed using notions of protection and control—rape is committed by a stranger, not a family member, and chastity is what determines credibility. (1987) And, above all, devastation needs to be clear, as if Norman Bates just pulled back the shower curtain. ‘Real rape,’ then, catastrophizes trauma and sexual violence. To be considered legitimate, what happened needs to be shockingly, horrifyingly real. Everything below that falls out the window into nothingness.
In truth, trauma and sexual violence slip below the bar of reality because they are really ordinary. This is not the same as saying they are not awful —they are—but awfulness does not have to feel as acute as a punch in the face. It can be pretty low-level. It can be something that temporarily escapes your notice. You can catch yourself looking for its overwhelmingness only to realise that it is far more underwhelming than you could ever have imagined. In fact, after whatever happened happened, ‘what [might be] overwhelming is not that everyday life has been shattered but that it hasn’t been’. (Long Chu 2017: 310) This is part of the uneven surface: the surprise that comes when something is not that surprising. You did not expect grief to feel like this but, now that it is here, it is not totally unbearable.
Those nuances and affective inconsistencies are why describing the surface as uneven is useful. It provokes questions around what the ordinariness of trauma actually feels like when you pay attention to it. We do not often look closely at the ordinary, as it is thought of as being pretty mundane, routine. The same. You get up, you do this, you do that. Your entire day might pass by in a single monotone, and you describe it as ‘meh.’ But the ordinary is actually full of recesses and spikes, slights and pauses. Quiet crises. A lot of trauma and sexual violence sits at this surface. There are acute events, sure—bloodshed and ruined bodies. But much of it is not like that. And, as difficult as that can be to get your head around, what is even harder is trying to explain it. You might feel you have to really overcook the details just to get it to register—stuff quivers off, lost in translation.
This communication disconnection is a symptom of unevenness. The surface of trauma is shared: moments stretch between bodies, but that does not mean that what is felt is felt the same, or described the same, by another. If the air is thick you might say you could cut it with a knife. But the other bodies in the room might not feel that thickness like you do. Feelings, Sara Ahmed writes, are not things that simply exist ‘before the utterance.’ (2004: 13) If the air feels thick to me, it is not as though that thickness was there anyway, whether or not I was in the room. And I cannot take it and pass it on to someone else. Thickness, as a feeling, comes about because of the responsiveness between me and the other bodies. It generates the uneven surface upon which all of us in the room can say that we felt something. Once it is there, it becomes a set of moving reference points—you recognise how you feel the thickness in relation to yourself, and how you feel it before others. So it is not, as Ahmed says, the emotion that circulates as such—rather, it is the objects (the social, the individual/psyche) of the emotion. (2004: 11 & 105)
Thinking feelings in an ‘emotional contagion,’ or ‘outside in,’ kind of way (something you can have, something that you can catch and pass on) flattens, or smooths, that unevenness. (Ahmed 2004: 10) It is never a simple case of just saying what happened and having it corroborated. But that urge—a demand to know what is being talked about in a way that makes sense—takes over. The uneven surface disappears all guarantees. Framing trauma and sexual violence as catastrophic is a low-hanging fruit—an effort to get some tangible weight on the intangible. It is also something of a double bind. On the one hand, it is a panicked response to the chaos of the world. Sites of catastrophe are certainly easier to describe in big terms: ‘I heard a bang, it was loud! She fell to the floor—I called the police!’ They conceal the ‘everydayness,’ as Ann Cvetkovich describes it, of the uneven surface—of experiences that ‘[don’t] appear sufficiently catastrophic because [they don’t] produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones.’ (2003: 3) On the other hand, trauma-as-catastrophe conceals the very unexceptional precarity to violence that is experienced by bodies. This is especially important for bodies for whom that precarity is much greater, and it is important also for sites of trauma, like incest, that still get overlooked. If the only thing that anyone ever looks for is an injured body, then a lot will be missed. And if ‘stranger danger’ is the only threat that is perceived, then other threats, such as the one sitting on the sofa with you, will be missed, too. The more these indicators are bypassed, the more unlikely it seems that ‘that sort of thing’ will happen. Violence becomes something that takes place ‘out there.’ Not in here. ‘Not in this house’. (Wilson 1995)
Keeping sexual violence at arm’s length is what I call a smoothing logic. These logics play out all the time through different registers, and they smooth the uneven surface of trauma. They decide what trauma is, how it feels, where it takes place—and whether it takes place at all. On top of that, they decide which bodies are worth grieving or sympathising with.
Rape and sexual assault trials in the courtroom are sharply visible as a smoothing space. In cross-examination, lawyers introduce sexual histories, preferences, behaviours ‘on the night in question’ (and the nights following) to smooth over the complexities of turbulent, uneven accounts. The lack of biting, the lack of screaming, the decision to sleep in the same bed as the defendant afterwards: all are banana peels upon which to slip, discrediting the attack. (Smith & Skinner 2017: 450 & 455) These techniques were a favourite for Robin ‘knees-together’ Camp, the Canadian Federal Court judge who in 2014 asked a complainant ‘why didn’t you just sink your bottom down into the basin so that he couldn’t penetrate you?’ before later stating that ‘sex and pain sometimes go together’ and acquitting the defendant. (Rizvic 2018; Woolley 2017; Fine 2016 [full transcript pdf]: 407) In 2017, after having acquitted the defendant for a second time at a retrial, Camp was removed from the bench. But, in an unsurprising plot twist, he won his bid to be reinstated in 2018. (Heidenreich 2018)
Over the years, I have come to hate the word ‘just.’ Just this and just that. ‘Why didn’t you just push him away?’ ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ As if those logics are self-evident. ‘Just’ is a word that smooths. It mellows every question, making it sound as if there will always have been an easy option. In 2016, an 18-year-old woman was unable able to ‘just’ get herself out of the situation she found herself in Pamplona, Spain, at the annual running of the bulls festival, which has a reputation as a hotbed of sexual assault. (Rebello 2018) She was cornered by five men in the lobby of an apartment building, and orally, vaginally, and anally raped. (Beatley 2019)
Going back to box-ticking, you would have thought that this young woman ticked a lot of boxes—more, even, than Blasey Ford. The rape had not taken place long ago, she was treated for wounds after, and there was CCTV footage. But, as it turns out, the video evidence was not enough—or rather, the video evidence was her downfall. The defendants were not perceived to have used violence to coerce her, and the complainant was seen as relaxed into a submissive state with her eyes closed. (Barry 2019) And what was seen as admissible for evidence was heavily skewed against her. The defendants’ social media history was largely ignored while the complainant’s own was scrutinised. In the period following the attack, she had holidayed with friends, and had worn a ‘provocative’ T-shirt—evidence of ‘life as normal’. (Beatley 2019) The defendants were initially acquitted of rape and found guilty instead of ‘sexual abuse’—nine years to serve instead of twenty five. (Jones 2019) That said, after widespread demonstrations, in June 2019 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict and increased the men’s sentence to 15 years. (Valdivia 2019; see Navarro & Coromina 2020 on digital feminism)
Like feelings, trauma is not something that exists independently of you or me. It does not just attach itself to a body, giving off dramatic signals that are recognised by everyone in the same way. It comes into being as it is sensed, and the uneven surface stretches out. Saying that it is separate from the ordinary makes it sound like it is from ‘out there’ when, actually, it is inseparable from and constitutive of the ordinary. So the fact that the survivor of what has come to be known as the La Manda or ‘wolf pack’ case continued after the rape with ‘life as normal,’ means nothing, really. Trauma, like much of life, is an everyday endurance. It can feel like you are completely out of control and yet, somehow, you still put one foot in front of the other.
Lauren Berlant has written on what she calls the ordinariness of ‘crisis’ which lifts trauma from its exceptionalist logic, describing it instead as a process of unfolding change that we mediate, manage, and navigate. (2011: 10) Her claim is that we need to view traumatic events as relations of precariousness to a present that is historically imbibed with systemic subordinations. (Berlant 2011: 10) But trauma-as-catastrophe, particularly in humanities and psychoanalytical work, is markedly ahistoricising and depoliticising. An influential line can be traced through Freud with his theory of the protective shield—which represents a barrier that all bodies are thought to have, with trauma being the result of a shocking stimulus to that barrier—through to Cathy Caruth, for whom trauma is an experience so overwhelming that it detaches the subject from their experience of it. (See Freud  2010: 35-54; also Caruth 1995 & 1996) What is seen to be the dissociative nature of trauma keeps, as Caruth claims, subjects locked in a process of trying to access an inaccessible past. Yet, if we follow Berlant (2011: 81), this does not really add up, because the subject is always, necessarily, saturated by an historical present. Crisis is not waiting around the corner to pounce on you. It is embedded in already existing conditions so, when it appears, it is not a temporal surprise but an ‘amplification of something [that was already] in the works’. (Berlant 2011: 10)
In responding to crisis, it is not as if you are separated from the ordinary—you just sort of figure out how to carry on. And it is not simply a case of keeping up appearances or conforming to gestural economies, although that is important. You demonstrate a remarkable capacity for adaptation as the impact of trauma plays out—’treading water’, not drowning. (Berlant 2011: 81) Berlant writes that ‘even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it.’ (2011: 10) It can feel really dislocating simply because you don’t get dislocated—which, in part, accounts for the difficulty of determining what happened. Systemic oppressions, of which trauma and sexual violence are but two, are intimately connected to what Berlant calls conventions of ‘the good life’—whiteness, capitalism, heteronormativity: they are intimately connected because what produces the oppressions are the conventions. (2011: 11) And we remain attached to those conventions, even though they repeatedly fail us.
When looked at in this way, smoothing logics are not only a response to the demand to ‘make sense’ of the incomprehensible. And they are not only techniques for gaslighting women. They are also expressive of an attachment to conventions that, come what may, we stay collectively invested in. The La Manada case sparked a wave of social media that split the Spanish public down the lines of ‘rape or consensual sex?’. (Beatley 2019; see Aurrekoetxea-Casaus 2020 on Twitter and rape culture) The seemingly relaxed body, the closed eyes, the survivor’s ability to carry on with ‘life as normal’—all ruptured the image of violence as ‘out there,’ with its self-evident objects and indicators. It is a threat to the good life that is imagined—the idea that things are probably alright, really. ‘We are not Saudi Arabia,’ said Francisco Serrano of the right-wing party, Vox, suggesting that ‘real’ threats take place or come from further afield. (Beatley 2019)
Smoothing logics come in repetitions, like filing down an edge. Exposure to repetitions of what counts as nothing, or a small thing, can make you feel like maybe you shouldn’t make a fuss. La Manada galvanised an enormous feminist response—protests in the streets—but it was matched by an equally large resistance that amplified, with shrugged shoulders, the ‘it is what it is’ sexually provocative nature of the festival itself. ‘People come here to fuck,’ so basically, don’t come if you don’t wanna fuck. (Beatley 2019) In other words, women need to stop getting their knickers in a twist (and keep them on). It is a smoothing of the nuances of both the event and the survivor’s responses, such that the complexity of the world is able to ‘walk all over you’. (Long Chu 2018) And it pushes the general air-wafting belief that ‘most men aren’t monsters. Most things aren’t rape’. (Long Chu 2018)
The television is a more diffuse and less exclusive smoothing space than the trials that take place in the courtroom. Because of its own smoothing logic, I thought about describing it as ‘a place where affective dreams go to die,’ but that is not true, exactly. TV smooths over the affects that I am concerned with, but it generates many others—it is a major player in affective economies. (Zarzycka & Olivieri 2017: 528; Papacharissi 2015) As huge numbers of people watch the same things, collective senses can be fostered and shared—within the living room, between houses, in the workplace. You would think the capacity of TV to affectively mobilise people in large groups would hold a lot of potential for forming resistance (to capitalism, to the good life). And it does, but—as Theodor Adorno warned us back in the advertising frenzy of the 1950s—TV adheres to ‘the almost unchanged ideology of middle-class society’. (1954: 219) People stay attached to it, even though their lives do not actually correspond with its promises. What gets belted out onto the screen, then, are aesthetics of that ideology.
On the TV are scenes of ordinary domesticity which, in real life, are marked by unevenness—the crises and trauma. On-screen, that surface is smoothed into zones—the white heterosexual protagonist couple whose coffee habits, working days, and consumer subjectivities feel familiar. It plays out as routinely background noise in order to make way for The Dramatic Event, which is the sort of drama that might happen in real life (a dead body, an enemy from the past) but becomes larger than life on-screen, accompanied by the usual crescendo and cliff hanger formula. And while we are fixed on the drama, we fail to notice things like patterns of gaslighting in the story, or the skewing of sexual narratives for male pleasure. I am thinking here of shows like Bloodline and Ozark, where big stories about bad people dwarf everyday crises to the point where they seem not to be happening. And shows that perform the newfound ‘wokeness’ do it as well. Orange is The New Black, to name one, has come under scrutiny for—in the name of drama—inflating the crimes for which the majority of women in the U.S. are imprisoned, while simultaneously under-representing the poor conditions of the penitentiaries themselves. (See Caputi 2015 on stereotypes of the prison; Enck & Morrissey 2015 on audience identification; Irwin 2017)
In these shows, a sentimental rhetoric is fine-tuned. The Dramatic Event encourages the sense that violence takes place somewhere else and, while we are focused on it, we register the quieter scenes of systemic violence as nothing more than vanilla smooth. TV thus mediates an attachment to the idea that the world is not conflicted, despite showing scenes that say otherwise. (Cvetkovich 2012: 167)
I draw a link to Berlant’s ‘slow death’ which, as a paradigmatic example of our attachment to conventions of the good life, describes how capitalism offers up forms of comfort which are immediately gratifying but ultimately bad for us. (See Berlant 2011: 95-121) Berlant talks about the prevalence of junk food as a systemic pressure upon an already vulnerable population, which can be likened to the literal ‘one more episode’ bingeing of the public on narratives of sensational dramas. (2011: 115) And we also turn to the addictive ‘feel-good’ category, which is such because there are so many problematic objects that we can relate to (The Notebook, Love Actually), and in which drama is focused through relationship breakdowns.
People often say that they want to watch something they can ‘just zone out to,’ but the conditions for such zoning include exposure to figures that we feel comfortable with, even though they are bad for us. These are figures that reinforce racial and gender bias, and smooth over ‘small’ moments of friction and violence. We gawp at Luther’s sensationally aggressive behaviour without registering that he inhabits the trope of the violent black man struggling to navigate a just life in a sea of white people. We swoon over the love of Bella and Edward in Twilight because of the attention we are willing to give to abusive and unhealthy partners. We consume repetitions of men pursuing women in a Patrick Bateman flexing in the mirror kind of way and call it sex, not rape.
Like a noxious gas, we inhale the smoothing logic of television, becoming dumbly apathetic to violence in a way that conditions ideas of what happened, and what did not happen. This comes down, Long Chu writes, to the ability of television to produce believability. The curveball here is that believability is not a case of reproducing reality. (2018) Long Chu writes that TV negotiates the believable by balancing the ‘squishy sentimentality’ of the ordinary with imaginary, high-impact events that ‘interrupt, like meteors, the atmosphere of everyday life.’ (2018) It is that comforting zoned background noise, punctuated by The Dramatic Event—we know that vampires aren’t real, but Twilight mediates the phantasmatic with the relatable (abusive) storyline of Bella and Edward.
And sexual violence, Long Chu goes on, is not exempt from TV’s believability structure. Because in real life ‘violence is rarely realistic,’ on TV it needs to be dressed up. (2018) Long Chu points towards the show Big Little Lies as an example which, despite its best woke intentions, presents rape as a case of proportionate response, what she describes as a ‘pattern your eye could follow’ (‘hard’ evidence, discrete events, Nicole Kidman’s husband being ‘revealed’ as a rapist and pushed down the stairs). (2018) This is all so that it can sit within the ‘lush folds of Emmy-nominated cinematography’. (Long Chu 2018) It leaves everything else looking pretty flat—like it is not so bad after all.
On the TV, what is believable is not what is real. In real life, what is real is uneven, jumpy, chaotic. The consequences of repetitively witnessing such a rupture is that we take our TV-square eyes and carry them over the threshold to the everyday, looking at our own lives in a similar way. Smoothing becomes a practice of creating stories that carry, like a wet sponge, a certain weight. They become meaningful because we index and cross-reference them with things we have seen, things we have talked about: recognition is key to real life believability. I remember seeing a woman at a party once who was dancing in the most carefree way. It was really beautiful, actually. But then I heard the gossip that she’d been raped the previous day. And everyone was twittering saying why on earth was she dancing, how could she be dancing? Simply with the rhythm of her body—a rhythm for coping with chaos—she gave her believability away.
A Happening Non-happening Is…
The event is not self-evident: it will not announce itself. But we expect it to, or hope that it will, because that would ease the stress of trying to articulate it. We have a tendency to simplify the excess of life which is, as Brian Massumi warns, a reductive empiricism that cuts off the affective feed of shifts that continue whether or not we can make sense of them. (2002: 1) The affective feed of trauma and sexual violence sits well outside of the believability structure. It does not really matter what takes place: your experience of it will not necessarily correspond with ideas of its magnitude. Something ‘big’ might feel like a trick of the light, and simply evaporate. Something ‘small’ might sit in the pit of your stomach for years. There is often a sense that you are somehow missing the forest for the trees.
I have mentioned ‘small’ things—like a slight or an uncomfortable atmosphere—and how they get smoothed over to dissipate their event status: you get told by a terse, persuasive voice that ‘it is nothing,’ and so it cannot possibly feel that bad. It cannot feel that bad because small things are just not that big a deal. ‘Big’ things get smoothed over, too, as long as others are able to recognise what is happening by measuring it against things they have seen before. Things like raised voices and slammed doors—witnessed by everyone at the party—will trigger responses: ‘that was horrible, you must feel awful,’ even if you actually feel pretty unperturbed. Big and small are points of reference that do not fit the way encounters are experienced. The uneven surface disappears all guarantees of making sense, which is why political viability becomes difficult and smoothing steps in. It is why it is so hard to understand how the woman was dancing after having been raped, when rape is so big.
Qualifying trauma shouldn’t have to take place through ‘big reveal’ procedures, or by laying out boxes to tick for believability. Bodies should not be marked as unreliable because their responses don’t match up with the scene of the crime. Things come to count as events more quickly when they are accompanied by the melodrama that we look for. But the stuff in between stands as a threat to our attachment to specificity, which is something we demand when describing in sequential, spatial, and chronological terms what did or did not happen. Fuzz and chaos get kicked to the curb.
You can point your finger in a few places when looking for something to blame for the constant squeezing of life into distinct material zones. Whitehead (1948), and Bergson ( 1944) blamed science, so did Deleuze and Guattari, who also blamed psychoanalysis and capitalism. (See  2008 and  2013) I blame these too, plus pop culture: it is frustrating to live in a world that demands to know, beyond reasonable doubt, what happened, without stopping to consider that a happening might not be that simple to explain. And women have drawn the short straw because the chaos of life matches their own stereotyped chaotic tendencies, making it harder to give credit to the uneven surface.
Happening non-happenings are a way of taking some of that pressure off; they heighten sensitivity to the moments that are smoothed over, which are the kind of moments that might escape your notice because they are difficult to recognise. They also highlight the fact that singling out acute points of recognisable violence sets up a straw man for attack. You were raped, so why would you dance? The rape becomes an awkward, inauthentic focus when it is lifted from its affective backdrop of smiles and sighs, adjustment and resistance, keeping on with keeping on. And it is all because it is easier to defeat than the real argument.
Happening non-happenings are tricky to pin down because they are moments of immanence, not recognition. They are a way of trying to catch affective points of transition in the act—and their slipperiness is evidence that we can never really catch up with life as it unfolds. Because it is a non-referential moment, a happening non-happening will feel like a sense that something is going on even though it is not, or has not yet stepped into the genres and trajectories you usually anticipate. It might leave you scratching your head. For a second it remains outside of—or immanent to—the patterns of the reproduction of life. Let us say that what is sensed is a glance. Facial expressions are usually read and indexed according to a chain of signification: a face that seems happy because of a new job, or a face that seems sad because of the loss of a loved one. (Deleuze & Guattari  2013: 196) But this particular glance escapes the indexes. It is imperceptible—it triggers a sweat, an unease, a loss of words. This is the point at which trauma is experienced in its purity, without expectations or attachments. It functions: you sense it as traumatic even though you do not recognise its state, scale, or characteristics.
This is what Deleuze would call a moment of pure potential—a glitch before it is captured and coded. (1968 : 272) It could go any which way: it bubbles at the uneven surface before you can grab hold of it to describe it. Like trying to hold water in your hands, or trying to remember a dream, you end up stuttering and losing it more quickly the harder you try to make sense of it. You might ask why it is worth giving something so indeterminate any attention at all—it does not really mean anything, after all. But that is precisely the point. When what happened is snatched away from you and folded into existing meanings—either exceptionalist logics or ideas of nothingness—you lose the ability to feel it through on your own terms. A lot of violence and its ensuing trauma is very quiet, an unsolicited address or touch. You felt it, you know the moment took place, but as you scramble around looking for how to explain it someone inevitably cuts in with ‘are you sure that is how it happened?’ and the sensation-fizzling is immediately dampened. Before you know it, what happened didn’t really happen.
At the risk of facing charges of overcomplicating things, or being told that it is ‘all in your head,’ happening non-happenings are a way of blurring the universalising assumptions that violence happens ‘out there’ and that trauma feels predictably catastrophic. They are not representable because they have a ‘thisness,’ which means they are differential only to themselves. They make it possible to say that what you sensed was traumatic without the pressure of having to qualify that trauma by likening it to something you or others might have felt before. (See Deleuze  2004 on singularities: 116-133) And this is important because it is an acknowledgement of the capacity of moments to affect you whether or not they become tangible things heavy with representation; as Massumi says they ‘operate[s] even when [they don’t] pass fully into action’. (Evans 2017) So when it comes to narrating what happened, all of its weird contours and contents are relieved from the pressure of having to match up with the kind of qualities that people think are legitimate.
The irony is that the imperative to present a smooth, linear account actually prepares the ground for total disjuncture. We saw this with the La Manada case: physical, vicious rape caught on camera but disqualified because the complainant was not screaming. Not everything teed up exactly, and so the baby was thrown from its semiotic bathwater. The account needs to be so airtight, so impermeable, despite the fact that it is built on an affective surface that is anything but. Stability, or attempts to create stability, do not work.
What comes to count as an event has been a philosophical headache for a long time. In a world attached to stability—to the idea of spatial and temporal boundaries—it always feels more certain to look at an object in the present moment than it does to recall something that went on the day before. (See Bergson  1944 on duration: 1-109) In continental philosophy, there has been a big push against the idea of the event as a sort of staccato punctum, a defined object in a defined time. For Deleuze, the event emerges continuously. (See Deleuze  2004 on the event: 169-176) There are no gaps or interventions, just an ever-changing process. Berlant also thinks the event in terms of process, although her endeavour is phenomenological rather than ontological, and she is more interested in the event’s rubble fallout and reverberations. (See Berlant 2008; also Berlant 2011: 10; Schaefer 2013) For Berlant, the event is secondary to its political trajectories, which are then lived out by bodies. What follows is a ‘stretched-out present’ that carries the event historically (rather than it having actually ended) and is navigated by bodies through any number of affective orientations—it might feel like nothing, or it might feel like everything. (Berlant 2011: 2)
This is where the importance of the connective tissue between what happened and the body becomes visible, and where happening non-happenings come into their own. It is not intended to take away from the acuteness of sharply violent or intensely traumatic moments, but to place them within an emergent present—an ordinary crisis—and avoid calling them containerised events. When Blasey Ford was asked ‘tell me what happened that night,’ that is what the Committee were looking for: an ‘out there’ event rather than the stretched-out, uneven and embodied experience of it. Attached to archaic expectations fed by temporal genres (the present, the past), they wanted to know the event’s concreteness, and to assess Blasey Ford’s ability to recall it.
It sounds pretty idealistic to say that the event should not have to be brought before others for judgment, and that we need to aim for a world in which just saying ‘this happened’ would be proof enough. But still, I think a lot more can be done to give credibility to how unspeakable trauma and sexual violence are. And I do not mean unspeakable in the Caruthian sudden rupture from consciousness kind of way. They are unspeakable because it is so difficult just to stay upright on the uneven surface that it is not surprising you get tongue-tied. So long as ‘truth’ continues its wild goose chase after stability, whatever you say about abuse ‘will always sound like a lie’. (Long Chu 2018)
The future of the political use and viability of affect is a long, but important, conversation. For Berlant, affect is the missing arterial link between ‘big’ stuff like institutions and regimes, and the body’s experience of them. (2011: 4) There is nowhere near enough attention paid to how we affectively negotiate and live out the different ways in which power is disseminated. We remain attached to smoothing ‘it either is or it isn’t’ logics, follow structures of believability (with all of its catastrophe and contingent styles of response), and are dumbstruck by cultural aesthetics (TV, mass media). You could say that focusing on slippery stuff like the happening non-happening just confuses things, but that cannot really be the case when everything is slippery anyway; affect is already at work shaping trajectories of what did or did not happen, and what is or is not trauma. Happening non-happenings are simply a way of zooming in on trauma’s uneven surface without pretending that it is anything other than ineffable.
I want to position happening non-happenings as a sort of alibi for the incoherence (or ‘unreliability’) of narratives. It is a bit of a crude aim, but it fundamentally highlights the crux of the problem which is that, mostly, women just are not believed. They are not believed because violence and trauma are poorly understood, and because ‘proof’ is a genre—affectively shaped and smoothed—that guides what gets counted and what gets left out. The happening non-happening, then, helps lift the heavy mattress of melodrama and screaming, under which sexual trauma lurks with all of its lingering, cobwebbed remnants. Trauma and drama just are not the same thing. (Long Chu 2017: 309) They can go together, but they do not have to. And saying that they do only casts a long shadow under which survivors feel compelled to figure out how to carry on with life whilst trying to cobble together an account dramatic enough to be considered bona fide.
Because happening non-happenings are moments where conventional zones have not yet condensed, they yield a sense of stuckness. By way of closing, I suggest that this stuckness can be used to lay the groundwork for political change. It would not be revolutionary or landslide change—it is more about calling attention to the uneven surface and hoping that it starts conversations. The happening non-happening might be as quick as a double take, or it might leave you perplexed for hours. Either way, it is a temporary estrangement from the world that can enable perspective about something that is almost impossible to gain perspective on. Namely, what needs recognising is ‘that a mismatch between affect and event’ is really the only thing that characterises ‘what trauma feels like’. (Long Chu 2017: 313) Berlant describes the way that the stretched-out present is sensed and shaped as an ‘impasse’—the conventional zones are not clear because you are in the middle of the transition, waiting for the next signpost. (2011: 199) Deleuze would call this a threshold—you hesitate because the way things usually play out halts, and you are not sure where you are. (See Deleuze & Guattari  2013: 271-360) The sense of stuckness is an opportunity. It is the delay in knowing where moments are leading that helps you to start chipping away at new habits of thought.
Happening non-happenings occur all of the time, but mostly slip by unnoticed. But the more they are noticed, the more they can stand as political interruptions. It might seem a little weak and anticlimactic to get to the end of this article and simply suggest something that is effectively caught in your throat could have any subversive capacity, but that is the quietness of affect. And that it breaks with drama is kind of the point. At the level of the ordinary, complicating understandings of violence and trauma can be used to resist the imperative to determine what happened—both on your own terms and in front of others. Stuckness can, then, resist smoothing the uneven surface. That is not to say that smoothing will not take place anyway: it will. Like a snowball, moments always gather size by being folded into words, behaviours, and gestures. But what can start to be changed is its contours: they do not have to reinforce normative lines, but encourage other ones instead.
Moving forward, I want to mobilise stuckness as a way to approach the multiplicity and fluidity of traumatic experience, crossed as those experiences are by the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Smoothing has a sharper effect on some bodies more than others, and navigating the uneven surface is not the same for all, if any, of them. Believability, and visibility, are harder to achieve when your body is already less visible. (See Million 2013 on gendered violence of colonialism; and Patterson 2016 on queering sexual violence) Drawing on this, I want to explore stuckness as a technique for affective survival—to highlight the endurance of bodies for carrying on in the ordinariness of trauma. I want to open bodies up to the possibility of working through the specificities of experience, relatively free of smoothing logics. It is not a clean slate, of course, but when normative expectations are reduced, it becomes possible to expand how trauma and sexual violence are conceptualised. When violence is no longer considered larger than life, it is easier to see how it creeps through the ordinary, and is marked by different historical oppressions. Lower levels of reporting, lower rates of punitive justice, and disproportionate exposure to violence in the first place are some of the effects of those oppressions. De-centring trauma from smooth catastrophe, then, will help conversations at the margins to take place.
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