Encountering Affect
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Encountering Affect

Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions

Ben Anderson

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eBook - ePub

Encountering Affect

Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions

Ben Anderson

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About This Book

Since the mid-1990s, affect has become central to the social sciences and humanities. Debates abound over how to conceptualise affect, and how to understand the interrelationships between affective life and a range of contemporary political transformations. In Encountering Affect, Ben Anderson explores why understanding affect matters and offers one account of affective life that hones in on the different ways in which affects are ordered. Intervening in debates around non-representational theories, he argues that affective life is always-already 'mediated' - the never finished product of apparatuses, encounters and conditions. Through a wide range of examples including dread-debility-dependency in torture, ordinary hopes, and precariousness, Anderson shows the significance of affect for understanding life today.

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Chapter 1
Affective Life

1.1 Hope and Other Affects

This book is about precarity, optimism, emergency, pressure, debility-dependency-dread, morale, boredom, urgency and greed. It is about the sensibilities, concepts and theories needed to understand how these and other affects relate to and become part of social-spatial relations. And it is about the connections between affective life and processes of mediation. It is also about hope.

1.1.1 Events of Hope

For 17 days families, friends and then a global media audience waited. Trapped in the emergency shelter of a collapsed mine 2,300 ft into the earth, 33 Chilean miners waited to be rescued. During this period, hope was kept alive and lost, given and received. The first images of the men gave hope to the families who waited in the self-titled Camp Hope as the ordeal went on. Hope was described by NASA experts in human confinement as a resource that would enable the miners to cope deep in the earth. Here is how Carola Narvaez, the wife of Raul Bustos one of the trapped miners, expresses her hope in the context of a previous disaster, an earthquake, they had survived together:
In the earthquake we just had to keep on living, we had our lives … this is the same. It is producing much anguish, isolation, fear. But we’re alive. My husband is alive down in that mine and we will have another happy ending.1
In his inaugural address to the University of Tübingen in 1961 the Marxist process philosopher Ernst Bloch, speaking in the shadow of Nazi Germany, asked a simple question about the event of hope: can hope be disappointed? His answer was yes, to be hope it must be disappointable. Hopes and hoping open up a point of contingency in the here and now. Indeed:
[h]ope must be unconditionally disappointable … because it is open in a forward direction, in a future-orientated direction; it does not address itself to that which already exists. For this reason, hope – while actually in a state of suspension – is committed to change rather than repetition, and what is more, incorporates the element of chance, without which there can be nothing new (Bloch 1998: 341).

1.1.2 Atmospheres of Hope

A new American president speaks at his inauguration. Employing the prophetic voice of the Black American church, and revitalising the future-orientated promise of the American dream, the audience regularly interrupt President Barack Obama’s speech with a refrain: ‘yes we can, yes we can’. Originally a slogan of Latin American and US–Mexican borderland unionism (Saldanha 2010), the refrain energises the crowd who call it back to Obama. Near the start of the speech, amid the cheers, cries of agreement and tears of the crowd, Obama evokes a moment of hope amid danger, a moment of promise amid the tangible and less tangible signs of crisis and defeat:
Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.
As Obama delivers the defiant line ‘They will be met’ the crowd cheers. Perhaps relieved that President George W. Bush is gone, perhaps overjoyed by the occasion, perhaps delighted to see a black American finally become president, the crowd will be characterised by participants and commentators above all else as hopeful. Perhaps this atmosphere is replicated in the many sites that host inauguration parties and events. Churches, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and coffee shops all show the inauguration live and are animated by cheers and tears as atmospheres are formed and deform, catalysed by Obama’s reassertion of the American dream and the democratic promise.

1.1.3 Knowing Hope

Every month since 1967 The Conference Board,2 a US business membership and research association, has released a monthly ‘consumer confidence index’. Designed to measure the degree of optimism about the economy as expressed in aggregate patterns of spending and saving, the index establishes trends in consumers’ affectively imbued relation to the future. Writing in November 2010, a research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – Sylvain Leduc – notes that economists are worried about the US economy:
Indicators of consumer confidence have been at depressed levels in recent months. Business sentiment is also low, reflecting uncertainty about US fiscal policy and the perception that economic weakness may be prolonged. This lack of confidence raises the risk that pessimism can become entrenched and self-reinforcing, further dampening the nascent recovery (Leduc 2010: 22 November).
Influenced by Keynes’s (1936) comments about the role of ‘animal spirits’ in driving economic activity, economists have long debated whether confidence is an independent economic variable and thus a ‘business cycle driver’. Although there is no consensus as to whether confidence is cause or effect, optimism regarding the economy is nevertheless measured, presented graphically, and trends identified and discussed.3 Through household surveys focused on present and future spending and saving, changes at the aggregate level of the ‘degree of optimism’ of a population come to be known and tracked. For example, The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index is based on a survey of 5,000 US households. Questions asked include: What are your expectations for the general employment situation in six months (better: the same: worse)? What are your expectations for your personal income in six months (higher: the same: lower)? On the basis of the consumer confidence index and other surveys, action may be taken to respond to or attempt to change consumer optimism or pessimism. Markets may react, monetary policy may be changed or businesses may boost investment.
The three examples are on first impression about a similar relation to the future – hope or optimism – albeit in diverse contexts: disaster relief, political speech and macroeconomic policy. I begin this book with the three scenes because they each exemplify a specific way in which affective life takes place and is organised. In the example of the trapped miners, acts of hope open up a moment of difference in the context of a shared situation of misery and suffering. Hope is kept alive, if only just, and the suffering that marks the present is disrupted, if only momentarily. In the second example, hope is akin to an affective atmosphere, simultaneously absent and present, material and immaterial. Passing between bodies, a sense of possibility appears to infuse President Obama’s inauguration as crowds cry and cheer. The sense of possibility became a structure of feeling: pressuring and limiting how Obama’s subsequent actions were related to, later folding into disappointment. In the final example, hope is named, known and rendered actionable. Relations to the future are translated into an index. Techniques are deployed by economists to know optimism and macroeconomic policy may change in response to aggregate fluctuations in collective mood. In this case, collective optimism is the target and focus for an intervention in the hope of increasing aggregate demand in an economy teetering on the brink of catastrophe and faltering in the midst of a crisis.
How might geographers and other social scientists encounter these and other ways in which affective life happens? How to understand the ways in which affective life comes to be temporarily organised in relation to social, political and other processes, forms and forces? In addressing these questions the book outlines a distinctive analytics of affect orientated to three ways of encountering and understanding affect. The three ways are exemplified by the scenes of hope with which I began the book. Affect is: an object-target in the example of consumer confidence; a bodily capacity emergent from encounters in the rescue of the miners; and a collective condition in Obama’s inauguration. Understanding the ongoing mediation, organisation and surprise of affective life involves addressing questions specific to each understanding of affect: how is affective life an object-target for specific and multiple forms of power?; how do bodily capacities form in the midst of the encounters that make up living?; and how do collective affects take place so that they become part of the conditions for life? The book explores some of the concepts, sensibilities and techniques through which we might address these questions. To this end, the book gathers together insights from a range of theories of affect. It does not comprehensively review every theory of affect and emotion in human geography, let alone in the social sciences and humanities.4 Such a task is probably now impossible, given the sheer range and variety of affect theories. Instead, I explore a number of concepts that have struck me and stayed with me. Concepts that have offered me particular ways of understanding the imbrication of affect with everything from the War on Terror through to listening to music. In doing so I outline one specific way of relating to and understanding affective life that coexists alongside other theories of affect and emotion. But first let us step back and examine why considering affect matters…

1.2 Promises, Imperatives

In an essay first published in 1995, Brian Massumi (2002a: 27) articulated a ‘growing feeling’ that affect was central to understanding what he termed, after Ernest Mandel (1978), ‘our information- and image-based late capitalist culture’. Writing 17 or so years later, it seems as though this ‘growing feeling’ has crossed a threshold to become something close to a starting point for recent theory. Patricia Clough (with Jean Halley) (2007) has identified, rightly I think, that an ‘affective turn’ has occurred across a range of social sciences and humanities (see also Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Blackman and Venn 2010; Greco and Stenner 2008). Naming a real world referent, a concept and something close to an ethos, the term ‘affect’ has been used to describe a heterogeneous range of phenomena that are taken to be part of life: background moods such as depression, moments of intense and focused involvement such as euphoria, immediate visceral responses of shame or hate, shared atmospheres of hope or panic, eruptions of passion, lifelong dedications of love, fleeting feelings of boredom, societal moods such as anxiety or fear, neurological bodily transitions such as a feeling of aliveness, waves of feeling … amongst much else. In human geography alone the term has been used to understand a wonderfully diverse range of geographies; fathering (Aitken 2009), popular geopolitics (Carter and McCormack 2006), landscape relations (Wylie 2009), new forms of work (Woodward and Lea 2010), race and racism (Lim 2010; Swanton 2010), alcohol (Jayne, Valentine and Holloway 2010), obesity (Evans 2010), dance (McCormack 2003), war and violences (Ó Tuathail 2003), therapeutic landscapes (Conradson 2010; Lea 2008), animals and other non-humans (Greenhough and Roe 2010; Roe 2006) and technological life (Ash 2012; Kinsley 2010), to name but some.
Given this diversity, I begin with a simple affirmation, one that is at the heart of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (2003) influential discussion of affect. In the conclusion to her essay on shame and the novelist Henry James, Sedgwick (62) describes one affect – shame – as a ‘kind of free radical’. By which she means that shame ‘[a]ttaches to and permanently intensifies or alters the meaning of – of almost anything’ (62). Always insisting on the plural – affects rather than the singular affect – Sedgwick’s writings bear witness to and express the combinatorial complexity of shame, love, paranoia and other affects.5 Her deceptively simple starting point is one shared with the recent work cited above on affect in geography; the freedom of the affects to combine with more or less any aspect of life. This means that there can never be a carefully bounded affectual or emotional geography separate from other geographies. Summarising Silvan Tomkins, Sedgwick opens up work on affect since:
Affects can be, and are, attached to things, people, ideas, sensations, relations, activities, ambitions, institutions, and any number of other things, including other affects (Sedgwick 2003: 19).
In thinking of affects as ‘free radicals’ coursing through life, Sedgwick’s work invokes the dynamism of affective life, whilst never forgetting that affects do become attached to … almost anything. Affects are constantly infusing embodied practices, resonating with discourses, coalescing around images, becoming part of institutions, animating political violences, catalysing political communities, and being known and intervened in, amongst much else. Or to return to the three examples I started with, affects such as hope may become part of global media events, forms of political speech or macroeconomic policy. Cutting across the separate domains we habitually organise the world into, affects are not the special property of any one domain of life (economic, cultural, and so on) or functionally distinct sector (law, medicine, art, etc.).
However, the term ‘affect’ is curious. Unlike emotion, mood, feeling and passion, affect is not part of the standard Euro-American lexicon. Its origins are in the third person description of affective states by psychologists, although its genealogy or history remains to be written (Ngai 2005; Dixon 2003). Its current popularisation cuts across a range of theories, each of which varies in how they conceptualise what affect is and does, how the relations between affective life, space and mediation should be conceptualised and what form an affective politics can and should take. There is also a range of notable antecedents that any work on affect is indebted to; principally feminist work that troubled the distinction between reason and its opposites, cut the naturalised link between women and emotions, and showed how and why emotions matter (Lloyd 1984; Rose 1993; Anderson and Smith 2001). The affective turn is not new. Its condition is the dictum that the ‘personal is political’, and it is enabled by a long tradition of feminist scholarship on emotional life. This means that any book entitled Encountering Affect has to deal with what might seem to be a paradox. On the one hand, a deeply ingrained Euro-American version of emotion assumes that emotions, affect, feeling and other modalities cannot be directly known. Something about the class of phenomena is assumed to exceed deliberative thought.6 On the other hand, numerous theories of affect can now be found throughout the humanities and social sciences, at the same time as diagnoses of what Greco and Stenner (2008: 2–5) call ‘The Affective Society’ multiply. Invocations of unthinkability have been accompanied by a proliferation of attempts to name the unnameable, to think the unthinkable, to represent what is supposedly, from some perspectives but by no means all, non-representational.7 So the problem is no longer that emotions, affects and feelings have been downplayed, silenced or marginalised, as feminist work on emotion first rightly identified and insisted (Lloyd 1984). Rather, there is now an extraordinary proliferation of versions of what affect is and does (see Thrift 2004a; Seigworth and Gregg 2010 for summaries), a return to marginalised or forgotten approaches to affective life (Blackman 2012) and intense differences around the question of what affect is and is not (see Hemmings 2005).
Some of the differences between affect theories will be discussed in the book. For now, though, it is important to note that it is not enough simply to invoke the term ‘affect’ or ‘emotion’ for any ‘non-rational’ phenomenon. Different uses of the terms come freighted with more or less worked through assumptions about life, processes of mediation and how they interrelate. Nevertheless, what is shared across diverse affect theories is a sense of urgency, the sense that understanding the dynamics of affective life matters for how geography relates to life and living. The reasons given are various and contradictory: spaces and places are made through affect (Bondi, Davidson and Smith 2005); affect and thinking are always-already imbricated with one another (Connolly 2002); affects ‘stick’ to bodies and as such attach people to inequalities (Ahmed 2004; Boler 1999); it is through affects that subjects are constituted by and constitute worlds (Davidson 2003; Wylie 2006); representations function affectively (Latham and McCormack 2009); it is at the level of affect that the real effects of forms of power are felt and lived (Thrift 2004b); and affects open up thinking to the dynamics of non-organic life (Clough 2008), to name but some of the reasons why the ‘affective turn’ has commanded such attention. The promise is of a worldly geography engaged with life, one that pays close attention to the subtle, elusive, dynamics of everyday living and touches the textures of social life. When gathered together, what these promises suggest is that the turn to affect is an injunction to orientate inquiry to life and living in all their richness. In learning to attend to the vagaries of affective life, the techniques and sensibilities that compose human geography and the types of politics that animate the discipline might change.
But if the ‘affective turn’ seems to promise much, it has also been framed as an imperative if geography is to learn to respond to how contemporary forms of power, and their specific violences, work on and through affect. Understanding affect might promise a more worldly geography, but it is simultaneously an imperative if geography is to remain relevant and engaged with this world and its threats and promises. The imperative to understand how forms of power function affectively also emerges from diverse sources, some of which involve diagnosing the contemporary condition, others of which involve broader claims about the relation between affect, the political and life. The affective turn emerges from: a concern with the intimate textures of everyday life and the marginalising or silencing of specific experiences (often gendered or raced) (Probyn 2005; Ahmed 2004); f...

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Citation styles for Encountering Affect
APA 6 Citation
Anderson, B. (2017). Encountering Affect (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1486061/encountering-affect-capacities-apparatuses-conditions-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Anderson, Ben. (2017) 2017. Encountering Affect. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1486061/encountering-affect-capacities-apparatuses-conditions-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Anderson, B. (2017) Encountering Affect. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1486061/encountering-affect-capacities-apparatuses-conditions-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Anderson, Ben. Encountering Affect. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.