“What's an encounter with anything once it's seen as an incitement to composition? What's a concept or a theory if they're no longer seen as a truth effect, but a training in absorption, attention, and framing?”1 In short, how can we conceptualize in contact? Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart seek to answer these affective musings in The Hundreds—a provocative collection of 100-word pieces to “keep up with what's going on” (x) through compositional poiesis, a reimagination of how we might participate and experiment in writing form, affective coupling, and generative worlding.
Originating as a series of ethnographic experiments in which each story is constrained to 100 words (or multiples thereof), Berlant and Stewart document ordinary life—the banal, commonplace, and repetitive—as a way of amplifying its resonance in a written environment. Together, the pieces comprise a poignant frenzy of sentences that fold into one another, reminiscent of the “analytic, observational, and transferential ways we move” (x): a cascading Rubik's Cube of “words, tropes, infrastructures, genres, rhymes and off-rhymes, tonal flips and half-steps this way and that” (x). What results is a captivating, albeit odd, transformation that moves the mundane world into new social, material, and aesthetic ways of living and interacting.
There are stories of strange dates, angry neighbors, carnival sweets, and highway infrastructure; a “New Ordinary” (17) of Google versus grammar; and a commentary on utopian capitalism vis-à-vis Disney World (“A week in the World licenses a perceptual machinery already in full swing in the built environment it helped inspire”) (68). One particularly enjoyable piece recounts a week's consumption of protein smoothies whose flavors punctuate the affective aura of the day: “[T]his exhausted morning's Vega Energizing Smoothie was an especially dreadful prospect, reminding me that the verb ‘to stomach’ shows that bodies have not only their own ideas but also radically autonomous sovereign tongues” (87).
The book is certainly an inventory of ordinaries—a catalogue “in following out the impact of things” (ix)—but more so, it is an unusual exercise in thoughtful creativity; in crafting, editing, and assembling our material and written objects. As Berlant and Stewart reflect in the opening prelude, “The process has changed our writing, and much else” (ix). Indeed, the book offers a kind of voyeuristic intimacy that thoughtfully comments on the fleeting traces and permanent fixtures of affective interactions that structure our everyday lives. In fact, in a recent lecture at the City University of New York, Berlant and Stewart mused that “people matter, as well as pets, domestic objects, signs, travelling smells, and atmospheres: everything's a leftover, and every leftover a potential event. We learned to think of emerging form as a conceptual mode.”2
Even the index of The Hundreds is a purposefully creative deviation from compositional norms. As Berlant and Stewart admit, “Indexing is the first interpretation of a book's body” (ix); yet, rather than adhering to a standard taxonomic form, the authors invited Andrew Causey, Susan Lepselter, Fred Moten, and Stephen Muecke to partake in an experiment of paratextual expectation. The book forgoes a traditional index to challenge our impulse to skim—not just the words on a page but the objects in our lives—by crafting four index alternatives (“Index,” “Not-Index,” “The Index,” and “Untitled”) and even leaves us with blank pages for us to participate in our own indexation. Causey, Lepselter, Moten, and Muecke, all cited for their ingenuity in bending traditional literary forms, forewent the expected citational politics of academia in favor of a deeply introspective reading of both text and object: a practice aimed toward establishing object continuity across context, representing, again, the work of generative worlding. In so doing, Berlant and Stewart remind readers that The Hundreds is a deliberately thoughtful endeavor.
This series of 100-word pieces, together with the reinvention of the index, is a much-needed affective intervention across the humanities. The Hundreds reminds readers, both in and out of academia, that our ordinary observations and everyday reporting of events can in fact be extraordinary; that critical theorization can be illuminated by creative practices and the questioning of form and process; and that experimental writing can generate kinetic registers of new sensations for old objects. The frenzied chaos and unpredictability of each story is surely freeing and a direct commentary on repurposing the ordinary: “You can look around where you're sitting now and know that what's there isn't all of it” (135).
Perhaps the most invigorating contribution from The Hundreds is its meta-meditation on collaboration within world-making. As Berlant and Stewart explain, “In collaboration, there's a meeting of minds that don't match but aspire to stay open to each other and in sync, not only with each other but with the force and implication of encounters.”3 This series of speculative enquiries is unlabeled, inviting readers to wander through and across each story unsure of whose voice is the primary narrator, though the answer is inconsequential. Just as Berlant and Stewart collaborated to write this project, we too are coauthors in its journey. It is a vulnerable practice in brainstorming—in writing a story toward something generative. As they explain, “Hundreds do things with movement, pattern, and concept; hundreds stretch out a scene, hold up a world's jelling, and register change, which is not the antithesis of chains. … We, too, make tracks for potential sync” (117). Ultimately, The Hundreds calls for a recalibration of form, process, and theory toward a new ordinary—of writing, of reading, and, of course, of being.