In Margaret Atwood’s near-future science fiction novel The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the figure of Baby Nicole props up two opposing political regimes. “‘So useful, Baby Nicole,’ Aunt Lydia observes. ‘She whips up the faithful, she inspires hatred against our enemies, she bears witness to the possibility of betrayal within Gilead and to the deviousness and cunning of the Handmaids, who can never be trusted’” (Atwood 2019: 33). Smuggled across the border from the misogynist theocracy of Gilead to Canada by her Handmaid mother fifteen years ago, she stands there for the success of the refugee programme from Gilead and the liberation it offers Gilead’s women. In Gilead, on the other hand, she signifies the evils of Canada and the potential enemy within of traitorous Handmaids. Her image, still a baby fifteen years later, adorns the walls of the training centre for novice Aunts—the women who uphold Gilead’s regime—where she is prayed for daily. In Canada, her face is held aloft on the placards held by refugees from Gilead and their supporters.

Figures, as “performative images that can be inhabited” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 11), are central to the workings of cultural politics. They are technologies of power that work through the affects: offering spaces for inhabitation and emerging subject positions, stirring up intensities, and fostering attachments and hostilities. In a context where affect and emotion are powerful agents, figures give imaginative and material form to structures of feeling and political formations. Figures mediate power and authority and personify mythologies, generating cultural and political forms of life. The power of the figure of Baby Nicole to harness affects comes from her ability to refer outside of herself: to signify life, innocence, futurity, vulnerability and disloyalty, paradoxically in support of two opposing regimes. Whether individualised, like Baby Nicole, or “types,” like the expert, the whistleblower and the migrant, they are at once social imaginary, media image, archetypal form and locus for public feelings.

Where institutional modes of authority such as the church, state and academy are increasingly questioned and public trust in these institutions declines, figures that challenge these traditional institutions can become new loci for authority around which public affects circulate. In the public sphere, figures such as Jordan Peterson and Greta Thunberg gain authority through their personification of inchoate political and collective feelings, and abject figures like the terrorist, or the benefits cheat, participate in regimes of control, uncertainty and paranoia. They gain traction through reference to master narratives and cultural myths, generating new mythologies in the process. Similarly, figures that were historically a focal point for collective politics, such as the heroic male worker, are losing their grip in an increasingly precarious and fragmented economy.

While the affective power of public figures is increasingly recognised in critical scholarship, little attention has been paid to their theorisation. There is a need for conceptual attention and precision to understand, firstly, how figures operate as affective technologies of power by tapping into public feelings, and secondly, their potential to organise alternative forms of life. This chapter sets a conceptual agenda for exploring the political work that figures do in contemporary cultural politics. Understanding this work is, I argue, a vital aspect of the study of political life: the power of figures to shape public moods demands their urgent theorisation and critical attention, while attending to this power highlights their potential to guide other subjectivities and allegiances. This agenda is based on three initial premises. Firstly, figures are material-semiotic signposts towards ways of knowing, understanding and inhabiting the world. This means that they carry with them, and point to, sets of ideas, feelings and positions: they shortcut to what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling” (Williams 1977). They structure the world by giving substance to cultural ways of being in the world. Secondly, they are technologies of power that work through affective capacities of specifically historied bodies. In other words, they act on our bodies, generating emotional and affective responses and feelings and as such can be mobilised for particular political ends. The bodies that they act upon are already entrained to respond in particular ways: they are gendered, classed, racialised, and embedded in histories and cultures. They buy into certain life narratives, hopes and dreams, and it is in figures’ interaction with already-entrained bodies that their affective work is undertaken. Finally, as a critical practice, figuration involves both invoking and thinking with figures. If we accept the first and second premises, and acknowledge that figures do indeed wield cultural power and that this power works on our affects, sensibilities and emotions, then, as critical scholars, we too can work with figures to bring about change, to question and to amplify other ways of being and living.

This chapter brings three writers whose work engages with the politics of figures and figuration into dialogue to provide a conceptual outline for thinking about the work that figures do. In different but overlapping ways, these three writers exemplify and develop understandings of figures that acknowledge and attempt to explain their cultural power. They demonstrate the importance of meaning making, storytelling and figuration in the shaping of social life; moreover, they begin the work of showing both how this takes place and its implications for understanding the relationship between power, bodies and our imaginary worlds.

The chapter begins with an outline of the concept of figuration in the German literary critic Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, focusing on the power of figures to make stories and narratives “make sense” through their teleological and portentous capacities. It then discusses how figures are understood in Michel Foucault’s four figures of biopolitics in the History of Sexuality 1. In this volume, Foucault demonstrates the part figures play in securing regimes of governance; how they illustrate and exemplify what is counted as “normal” in a particular historical condition. Finally, this chapter discusses how the work of both of these thinkers plays out and emerges as critical practice through the philosopher of science Donna Haraway’s “menagerie” of figurations. By reading the work of these three thinkers diffractively—against and through each other—and witnessing what arises from their interaction, I highlight how each develops conceptual tools for thinking about the relationship between figures and the political making of the world. In Auerbach, we see how figures become attached to myths of redemption, which confirm and reify cultural narratives. In Foucault, we see the emergence of figures as object-targets of biopower, demonstrating how they act as technologies (techniques) that work in the service of particular formations of power. Haraway uses both of these aspects of figural critique to intervene in the world, drawing a series of alternative, feminist figurations that challenge dominant narratives that define the human. Reading these texts together builds an agenda for studying how figures work as technologies of affective power and explores the potential for figures to destabilise normative ideas. This chapter proceeds by looking at how figures have been put to work to dismantle the very symbolic and structural orders that they suture, and it explores the relationship between figuration and affect. Finally, it discusses the cultural and temporal specificity of figurations, pointing to their need to resonate with and reflect existing cultural forms and material practices, and their vulnerability to being seized, or appropriated, like Baby Nicole, for other agendas.

Auerbach: Figuration as Tropic Device

The early twentieth-century literary historian and critic Eric Auerbach provides an important and seminal resource for thinking about the work that figures do. In his magnum opus, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Auerbach ties the practice of figuration to the history of Western literature and representation. His work falls within a German humanistic tradition of literary criticism that understands literature as an expression of lived experience, and as such positions criticism as a dialogue between author and critic: an attempt to live the author’s reality and experience the geist of the work. In Mimesis, Auerbach discusses how the term figura was taken up by the early Christians, notably Augustus, to describe the practice of reading the Old Testament in relation to the New. Unlike allegory, which points outside of itself to an abstract form, figura remains within the realist tradition, referring instead to other forms, or echoes, of itself. In the hands of the early Christian Church, and in Medieval Christianity, the New Testament becomes a “figural, and he adds, carnal (hence incarnate, real, worldly) realisation or interpretation of the Old Testament,” enabling the Old Testament to be read as a precursor of what is to come and tying both together in an overarching salvation narrative of Fall, Sacrifice and Last Judgement (Auerbach and Said 2013: xxi). In late antiquity, the Old Testament’s role became figurative: as a prophetic announcement or anticipation of the coming of Jesus. Auerbach illustrates this through Augustine, who maintains that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigures the sacrifice of Christ. Auerbach thus highlights the “vertical connection” of disparate elements of the Old Testament, enabling its reading as though “God chose and formed these men to the end of embodying his essence and will.”Footnote 1 Here, the figure is central in constructing both ideas of time and historicity through its repetition and refraction across timescales, making connections and links between epochs and tying them together in overarching narratives of redemption and fulfilment. Tragedies were thus seen as trifles in this great scheme: “however serious the events of earthly existence might be, high above them stood the towering and all-embracing dignity of a single event, the appearance of Christ, and everything tragic was but figure or reflection of a single complex of events into which it necessarily flowed, at last: the complex of the Fall, of Christ’s birth and passion, and the Last Judgment” (Auerbach and Said 2013: 317).

By reading one text through another, Auerbach’s resurrection of figural realism insists on the referential and relational substance of figures. Figural representation “establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself, but also the second, while the second involves or fulfils the first. The two poles of a figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or persons, are in temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life” (Auerbach 1984: 53). Figuration connects events, characters and objects to broader narratives. It incorporates them into cultural myths that self-reinforce through their own figuration. In other words, Auerbach demands we take seriously the referential work of figures and how they participate in the production of myths and master narratives of salvation and redemption. It demands that we read texts not in isolation, but in relation to broader patterns, discursive regimes and master narratives. When we do so, we bring to the table those related stories and master narratives and do the work of joining the dots that allows them to fulfil one another, in turn augmenting their cultural power. Auerbach’s figures make sense in their potentiation for future reading and fulfilment. His figures are tropic: they turn towards other figures, objects and narratives. They gesture towards something greater than themselves, acting as both signs and referents in a perpetual play of associations. Unlike metaphor or allegory, they do not represent or stand in for ideas on their own. Rather, they gather the stories to which they refer into a coherent narrative of fulfilment, which is gestured at rather than made explicit, requiring the reader to do the work of tying them together.

Foucault’s Figures as Objects and Targets of Power

Where Auerbach helps us to understand how, in Western literature, figures are caught up in networks of potentiation and referral that produce narratives of time, history and redemption, the work of Michel Foucault demonstrates how figures have also been mobilised in civic institutions and medical discourse as a means of bolstering biopolitical control. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, The Will to Knowledge, Foucault delineates his concept of biopower, drawing attention to the relations, modes of organisation, technologies and practices that produce biopolitical subjectivities and forms of life. The Will to Knowledge addresses biopower as a mode of governing—a political rationality—that focuses on populations as a whole and the managing of life itself, rather than the behaviour of individuals. Biopower involves the management of sex and reproduction, mortality, health and illness. Yet this management is indirect: it does not come from the diktat of a sovereign, but rather is distributed across institutions such as psychiatry, the family, education, and welfare provision. It produces knowledges and practices (technologies) which, among other functions, dictate what is normal and what is deviant. In The Will to Knowledge, he identifies four “strategic unities,” or trends in governance, that emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that produced and organised bodies and sex in the service of biopower (Foucault 1978). These strategic unities were the hystericisation of women, the pedagogisation of child sexuality, the socialisation of procreative behaviour and the psychiatrisation of perverse pleasure. They found their objects, and their targets, in four figures around which they coalesce: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple and the sexual deviant. Emerging from sets of discourses around sexuality, procreation and social reproduction in institutions such as the psychiatric clinic, these four figures appear as personifications of what must be regulated and controlled (sexuality in particular) and in doing so police the borders of what is considered normal and healthy. As such, the four figures occupy spaces at both the centre and the limits of power: they are central to how the biopolitical ordering of sex is organised, yet they also occupy limit conditions. They are troubling to the forces that produce them and are subject to techniques and technologies that create them as figures, that target them as objects, that produce them as subjects and that draw on them to augment the forms of knowledge/power they reproduce.

Although the idea of the figure as a technology of power was not elaborated at length in Foucault’s work, his four figures of biopolitics nevertheless exemplify the work that figures do in relation to power. Foucault’s figures are, on the one hand, the objects and targets, as individuals, of disciplinary modes of biopower and, on the other hand, vehicles for the generation of collective affects that shape bodies, desires and sensations and order sexual and reproductive life. Individual bodies, biopolitically figured, can become object-targets, yet these same figures are also the technologies through which the affective capacities of populations themselves are produced as object-targets (Anderson 2011, Dawney 2018). They emerge at both the centre and the limit of a historically specific set of regimes that produce bodies and desires according to a particular normative order: as an object-target, particular figures can embody abjects, deviants and villains, or heroes, aspirational figures and leaders. They are propped up by the proliferating institutions and practices that modulate pleasures, affects and spatial configurations. As fragile subject positions that both threaten and suture the present, Foucault’s figures not only personalise and give substance to these regimes but also provide ideal types of bodies that become the target of such regimes. On the surface, these figures seem to operate in the service of dominant modes of power over (potestas). Yet by virtue of their limit status, they also expose the contingency of such modes of organisation. This, of course, is Foucault’s goal: it supports his lifelong project to undo—and to reveal as contingent—that which we universalise, naturalise and dehistoricise and, in doing so, to point to the possibility of an “otherwise.” While Foucault, the critic and historian of the present, does not position as his task to think what such an otherwise might look like, he does end this first volume with a hint at the possibility of a “different economy of bodies and pleasures” (Foucault 1978: 159), opening up a space to consider the transformative potential of figures.

In summary, then, we can situate Foucault’s contribution to thinking with figures in terms of his acknowledgement of both how regimes of power can produce and personify figures and, in turn, how they then can prop up these regimes by inhabiting a space at the limits of the normative. As part of his broader project to interrogate the workings of power relations at particular historical junctures, he demonstrates the way in which regimes of governance—such as criminal justice, welfare policy or healthcare—generate figures as targets and objects and, in turn, how these give substance to ideas and values. Above all, Foucault brings the figure to the social sciences, demonstrating its centrality to the analysis of power in modernity.

Haraway’s Figurations as Spaces to Inhabit

Our final companion on this journey through conceptual accounts of figuration is Donna Haraway, who picks up and runs with Auerbach’s insistence on the referentiality of the figure, yet also draws heavily on Foucault’s concern for the ways in which figures are incorporated into regimes of power and play a part in the production of subjectivities. Like the previous two thinkers, Haraway’s figures are more-than-textual: they are material-semiotic, and as such they enact worlds through their material configurations. While all three thinkers acknowledge the power of figures to shape worlds, it is Haraway who explicitly adopts the figure as counter-technology or critical device: she creates figures that trouble binaries, draw on and play with master narratives, and offer alternative stories. Within Haraway’s figurations, we see both echoes of Foucault’s object-targets in terms of the binary figurations that she deconstructs and also of the attention to their tropic capacities and role in storying the present that she takes from Auerbach.

Despite Haraway’s mobilisation of figures throughout her work and, indeed, her assertion that “I feel like I live with a menagerie of figurations” (Haraway and Goodeve 2000: 135), her oeuvre contains very little direct discussion of figuration. Her 1997 book Modest_witness@second_millennium:femaleman_meets_oncomouse: feminism and technoscience most explicitly lays out her understanding of figuration, and its emergence as a mode of critique and analysis can be seen in much “new materialist” cultural studies. Haraway’s figures are closely tied to relations of power, working to reflect, diffract and enact them otherwise (Haraway and Randolf 1997, Haraway and Goodeve 2000). Haraway’s figures have two main features. Firstly, as in Auerbach, they are tropic, referring outside of themselves in a way that troubles certainties and established binaries: “figures do not have to be representational and mimetic, but they do have to be tropic; that is, they cannot be literal and self-identical. Figures must involve at least some kind of displacement that can trouble identifications and certainties” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 10). Secondly, figuration is understood as a mimetic practice that maps our world. It produces stories to which subjects can attach themselves or can gain purchase on life. Her mode of critique is to make a difference in these material-semiotic apparatuses, to unravel their telling and tell other stories in the process. For example, her figure of the cyborg offers a feminist vision of science and technology that operates against both masculinist appropriation of technology and forms of feminist subjectivity that revert to the natural (Haraway 1991).

For Haraway, drawing on Auerbach, figures are “potent, embodied—incarnated, if you will—fictions that collect up the people in a story that tends to fulfilment, to an ending that redeems and restores meaning in a salvation history” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 44). Her recognition of the vertical referential power of figures in producing narratives of redemption emerges directly from Auerbach’s work and echoes his teleological bent. Yet her own figures are playful and subversive. She offers them to the reader as sites to grasp onto the relations of gender, power and knowledge that produce them, but also as positions from which to enact different subjectivities: the cyborg, the oncomouse, the companion species and string figures are all “performative images that can be inhabited” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 11). They are images that do something, that actively participate in the making of worlds. Contemporary forms and logics of life are understood as an “implosion of bodies, texts and property” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 7)—a menagerie where the literal and the figurative, the factual and the narrative, the scientific and the religious, and the literary are always drawn together (Haraway and Goodeve 2000: 141). Haraway offers us a critical practice of figuration that involves paying attention to the production, appearance and work of figures and finding ways of detaching them from salvation narratives. These figurations recognise the forms of domination they emerge from and the boundaries that they shore up. In exposing and disrupting these boundaries, such as the production of the unity of the self that relies on women’s homogenisation and exclusion, her figures provide the conditions of possibility for her ethics of coalition. In response, her figurations are an experimental, playful and creative means for thinking outside of binaries and developing new forms of embodied subjectivity. In relation to technoscience, for example, she writes, “We inhabit and are inhabited by such figures that map universes of knowledge, practice and power. To read such maps with mixed and differential literacies and without the totality, appropriations, apocalyptic disasters, comedic resolutions, and salvation histories of secularised Christian realism is the task of the mutated modest witness” (Haraway and Randolf 1997: 11).

Drawing on Haraway, scholars in feminist science studies, environmental humanities and posthuman thought have developed a distinctly feminist practice of figuration. Like Auerbach’s discussion of the Old Testament as stories that precede and give rise to a new world, feminist figurations operate pre-figuratively: they enact possible futures. For example, Rosi Braidotti’s figuration of the posthuman is imagined as a “conceptual persona, a navigational tool that helps us illuminate contemporary discursive and material power formations” (Braidotti 2019:22). The posthuman works by creating minor knowledge systems and spaces of subjectivity and decentralising the figure of the human. In doing so, figurations like the posthuman embrace nomadic and fugitive subjectivities and question normative, exclusive and static modes of subjecthood. “The posthuman as cartographic figuration is a branch of contemporary critical thought that allows us to think of what ‘we’ are ceasing to be—for instance, the Eurocentric category of universal ‘Man’. It also sustains, however, the effort to account for what ‘we’ are in the process of becoming—the multitude of ways in which the human is currently being recomposed” (Braidotti 2019: 7).

An Agenda for the Study of Figuration: Figures and Affect

Above, I have outlined a short and rather incomplete genealogy of critical work on figures in order to set an agenda for their study. This agenda makes the following claims about the work that figures do and about the contribution that a figurative approach offers to critical theory. Firstly, figures are powerful world-making technologies: in Auerbach through the ordering and of time through Christian theology; in Foucault through their role in producing regimes of knowledge and biopower; and in Haraway through their potential to disrupt structuring orders. This means that we need to take them seriously as objects of analysis. Secondly, as critics we need to consider figures within a broader architecture of figuration to make sense of the stories they tell about the world. Thirdly, there is political work to be done in amplifying minor figures or producing and looking after the figures that we feel can contribute to a better world. Finally, I suggest that analysing the work that figures do and adopting critical and creative practices in relation to figures reveals their vitality and affective force in sculpting worlds: how they lure us towards particular political architectures and provide substance for aleatory and minor ways of being and relating. It is for this reason that we need to pay attention to the affective capacities of figures.

The “affective turn” in the humanities and social sciences has drawn on a range of theoretical genealogies, including the psychiatric/psychoanalytical work of Tomkins, Freud and Sedgwick, and the Spinozist, materialist lineage of Deleuze and Whitehead. In the latter genealogy, affect refers to the capacity of bodies to be moved and to generate intensities in relation to other bodies, objects and ideas (Clough and Halley 2007). In this context, then, the affective capacity of figures refers to their ability to generate feelings and embodied responses in those who encounter them: responses that are tied to emotions such as shame, fear, revulsion, love and joy. In mobilising affective responses, figures draw us in to their narratives, tying us deeper to the stories that they personify. We can see this, for example, in the way that the figure of the wounded soldier is mobilised in the UK to tether affects to discourses of nationalism and militarism (Dawney 2018), or how the figure of the bereaved mother bolsters pressure groups like Mothers Against Violence (Dawney 2013). Figures personalise structuring myths and draw on them for their power: in both these cases, they harness affects through making visible corporeal vulnerability and suffering. Throughout the Christian tradition, religious authority becomes tangible and knowable through embodied pain and wounding, most specifically through the body of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Christ and the Pietà, peppered as they are through the history of Western cultural forms, lie behind the contemporary staging and personalisation of suffering offered through the figures of the mother and the soldier, and it is through these tropisms that they are recognised, understood and their affective power amplified.

If figures operate at the level of affect, then the study of figuration needs to acknowledge the space of encounter: how figures make experience intelligible to subjects in a particular way and how they form the material relations of bodies, texts, technologies and logics that constitute discursive formations. Figures are involved in affective relations with historied, situated publics. They work on our desires and generate intensities, moving bodies by tapping in to cultural myths and undercurrents and acting as loci for affective forces that coalesce around them. This “grip,” or, as Claudia Castaneda puts it, ability to “captivate” (Castaneda 2002), is central to their power. Attending to the grip reveals their vitality and affective force in sculpting worlds: how they lure us towards particular political architectures. Adopting a critical and creative practice in relation to figures in turn provides substance for alternative forms of life. It enables us to ask what desires, anxieties, material insecurities or existential fears are triggered through these figurations, both augmenting what is there already and contributing to the ongoing formation of the social as figures attract and seduce, or alienate, or horrify.

Lee Edelman’s Lacanian polemic on reproductive futurity, No Future, positions the figure of the child as a central organising point around which normative understandings of life and futurity are gathered, positioning the queer as its abject other (Edelman 2004). Through his invocation and analysis of these figures, Edelman effectively demonstrates the play of figurations and the work that figures do: their mutual structuring of normativity and its outside and the centrality of affect to their workings. Via Tiny Tim, the orphan Annie and Peter Pan, Edelman’s figure of the Child underpins the heteronormative order and requires the reproduction of sameness of identity. If the child stands for life of a particular structural order, the queer haunts its outside: the nonreproductive eroticised narcissism that can only be for death and the nonreproduction of the Same. The queer can do no more than reject the child and embrace the death drive. As the part with no part, he (for he does seem to be a he) has no place within the reproductive futurity figured by the child. He must stand with death, to queer the way that life is figured. Whatever our take on Edelman’s argument, what he successfully demonstrates is the power of the figure to embody normative orders and to suture them through their appeal to already existing affective channels stirred by vulnerable embodiment. The familial shaping of affective bodies produces subjects with the capacity to be affected by the Child according to the norms of reproductive futurity. We can see this too in Atwood’s twisted near-future take on reproductive futurity, where it is Baby Nicole who adopts the childish innocence that stands for the future that must be protected, by both sides of the Canadian border and whose power to generate affective attachments is used for political gain.

For Edelman, the politics of queerness is a politics of refusal: to refuse to take part in the conflation of life and familial orderings of reproduction, to refuse to take subject positions that respond to these orders and to refuse the progress-oriented drive for a better world. The queer, as the constitutive outside of reproductive futurity, is defined by lack and by negativity, yet by actively inhabiting that space, by refusing to adopt normative myths and by permanently inhabiting the space of negativity, the queer remains as a spectre that can expose and dismantle the normative object. The figure of the queer in Edelman’s work, as in Haraway’s menagerie of figurations, pushes against these orderings yet is constituted through them. These figures work to produce other subject positions; not as an unspecified otherwise, but to fabricate new architectures of subjectivity that are always a product of those boundaries and binaries that they interrupt. Haraway’s figures are, she claims, a kind of “gift”—she offers them up as templates for ways of life that rely on and generate different narratives. Similarly, Braidotti, in her discussion of the figure of the posthuman, argues that figures offer a “frame for the actualisation of many missing people, whose ‘minor’ or nomadic knowledge is the breeding ground for possible futures” (Braidotti 2019:23).

When Figures No Longer Hold

These alternative figurations, as with all figures, are manifestly unstable. They rely upon, and prop up, particular structures of feeling and these structures move with the shifting ground of the material. Figures may no longer hold; they may be appropriated or subsumed within normative orderings that reduce their radical potential.

By virtue of their cultural and affective power, figures can be radical. Yet, if they work through affective encounters with situated bodies, it follows that they can only resonate in the context of specific historical circumstances. Figures “collect up and reflect back the hopes of the people”—they provide a sense of the possibility of salvation or damnation or conclusion (Haraway 2000). Yet sometimes, we find that their grip no longer holds or that their potential is diminished through their resonation with other public myths. They may not always appeal as they once might: as Michelle Bastian points out, figurations “need to be attractive, productive, and inviting. They need to be inhabitable and to resonate with already existing collective meanings—very difficult criteria to fill” (Bastian 2006: 1030). Similarly, Braidotti highlights the need for figurations to resonate with contemporary bodies: “All figurations are localized and hence immanent to specific conditions; for example, the nomadic subjects, or the cyborg, are no mere metaphors, but material and semiotic signposts for specific geopolitical and historical locations. As such, they express grounded complex singularities, not universal claims” (Braidotti 2018: 34). This is apparent in Bastian’s discussion of how Haraway’s cyborg figure was appropriated through science fiction, Silicon Valley and cyberpunk discourses, shifting away from its original figuration in the service of a pluralist, transversal feminist subject. As early as 2000, Haraway expressed concern that “cyborgs [can] no longer do the work of a proper herding dog to gather up the threads needed for critical inquiry” (Haraway 2003: 4). As Haraway has made clear, much of this appropriation confuses the figure with the referent. In describing what she calls the “distressing half-life of the cyborg,” she notes how the specificity of the cyborg figuration has been diluted and dehistoricised and become a “maddening” way of describing any interface between humans and machines (Haraway 2000). Nevertheless, Bastian rescues the cyborg from technofascism, arguing that its undecidability and multiplicity allows for its “lost” aspects, such as those that highlight coalition, to resurface through counterhegemonic articulations, including US third-world feminism. Figures, as pathfinders for other ways of living and being, work differently in different contexts. This becomes most clear at the between times—the junctures where historical moments give way to others, and the spaces of lag and emergence that appear at these times (Williams 1977). We might understand the contemporary juncture as such a time—sitting within neoliberal architectures, yet holding on to the certainties of the Fordist welfare state. It is at these times when relied-upon figures become co-opted or no longer resonate with lived experience. Lauren Berlant names this an “impasse”—a temporal and spatial moment where incumbent figures and desires no longer work for us, yet remain as impossible and damaging objects that keep us wedded to normative identity positions (Berlant 2011). The anthropologist Anna Tsing has argued that the figure of the abstract worker as a hinge for labour politics no longer resonates in the context of supply chain capitalism, where the decline of the white male union has heralded the rise of the entrepreneurial servant/manager as aspirational figure (Tsing 2009). The lack of grip that the figure of labour holds is a challenge for a labour movement whose very being rests on the production of a particular figure of labour—one that is no longer up to the job. Berlant argues we need new affective infrastructures and, I would add, new figures (Berlant 2016). Yet the myths and narratives that might be better equipped for dealing with the precarious present perhaps need more work and encouragement. If democratic life is indeed subsumed under the metric of the market, then new figures are needed to act as guides towards different forms of subjectivity and collective life.


This chapter has outlined an agenda for thinking with figures through a number of intersecting claims. Firstly, it has highlighted a series of key texts that inform study of the work that figures do in cultural politics, demonstrating how they can be read together to both highlight the cultural power of figures and work with counterhegemonic figurations. Secondly, it has demonstrated the interrelationship of affect and figuration and the need to pay attention to how figures lure and harness affects. Finally, it has shown figures to be labile and vulnerable: their cultural specificity and inherent instability mean that we cannot ever assume their stasis. In tying these claims together, this chapter is both an invitation to think with figures and a suggestion as to how this might be done.

As I have argued throughout this chapter, figures often work as a locus for affects, attachments and public feelings. It is the task of the critic to both identify and recognise how figures shape political and cultural life and to analyse the mechanisms through which this takes place—how the “grip” of figures is established, where their appeal lies, what their world-building capacities are and how they act upon the world. The affective approach to studying figures outlined here has methodological implications too; bridging the space between body and text in this way is no mean methodological feat, nor is it a simple matter to trace figures accurately across their many and varied cultural articulations. Nevertheless, the concept of the figure invites an approach to cultural investigation which refuses to lie entirely within the text or the subject, instead focusing on their mutual composition in relation to wider political structures. A figural critique thus needs to be experimental: it may attempt to inhabit the impossible space between representation and world, or tell stories, or connect seemingly disparate objects. It may work with others to generate new figures or make new sense of existing ones. As critics, we must be aware of our role in the process of figuration and sensitive to the politics of our own intervention: Baby Nicole, like Edelman’s Child and Foucault’s hysterical woman, can be put to work in many different ways, and we would do well to heed Haraway’s contention that “it matters which figures figure figures” (Haraway, 2016:101). Figurations, like many aspects of disruptive, excessive life, run the risk of capture—of losing their radical potential through their incorporation into more dominant forms of imaginary. An approach that acknowledges their shifting relationships to power is essential. It takes work to hold on to the potential of the figure and rearticulate its transgressive forms. In producing and articulating feminist figurations, we need to be vigilant to the extent to which they still hold true and to how they interrupt themselves and each other: we need to take care of our figures.