Market Empire and the Positive Affects

A note from Elspeth Brown on the study of positive affects in producing commodity relations.

Helen Bennett photographed by George Platt Lynes, c. 1938. Harry Ransom Center, GPL collection, Box 2.

Several of us involved with The Photographic Situation—myself, Thy Phu, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Ann Cvetkovich—have just returned from the American Studies Association annual meeting in Puerto Rico, where we collaborated with Laura Wexler on a roundtable concerning ‘photography, affect, and empire.’ In my short presentation, I wanted to think through how positive affects—love, longing, desire—are central to the history of U.S. market empires, and the role photography has played in producing the “look of love” in commodity relations. A lot of the excellent writing on affect and photography has focused on negative affects and/or political violence, such as Thy’s work on the S-21 photographs, Shawn’s work on lynching, Laura’s work on U.S. imperialism in the Phillipines, or Ann’s recent work on depression. This work is inspirational and indispensable. Yet the history of the U.S. has been, historically, as much about market hegemony as it has been about military violence and the colonization of peoples. For an empire built on market relations more than on sovereignty, U.S. business culture has required a different affective register, one based on the positive affects of desire, longing, and aspiration, as well as the violence of military rule. So in my ten minutes, I wanted to highlight the dystopic side of the ‘positive affects’ in producing and sustaining U.S. market empires, and the essential role photography has played in smuggling in imperial market relations through the Trojan horse of commodity pleasure.

And to complicate my scenario still further, I want to think about how queer relationality has been central to the production and maintenance of U.S. market empires. My examples are drawn from the history of fashion photography, which has been a queer industry since Baron de Meyer was hired as the first paid staff photographer for Conde Nast in 1917. Specifically, in the ASA presentation, I focused on the work of George Platt Lynes in the late 1930s and 1940s, when he was making two main bodies of work: fashion photographs for Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar, and gay male nudes for private circulation among friends and queer kinship networks. My presentation concerned the relationship between these two sets of images, in the effort to think though the dystopic aspects of the positive affects when tied to strategies of soft empire: the international garment trade.


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