Quotidianism, Part II: Ordinary Affects
I began this blog under rather trying circumstances (which have yet to be fully resolved as of today).
Part of the driving impulse, however, was also to explore the fledgling field of what has been dubbed by cultural theory and the social sciences the “everyday.” Or, to put it even more precisely, this blog was, and is, an attempt to see how articulating the particulars of my own life, at its most prosaic, within the framework of certain theories of the ordinary and the quotidian might pan out. Frankly, it didn’t. I’d envisaged sketching out a fragmentary record of the theoretics and the poetics of lived moments, enmeshed in the synaesthetic operations of the sensorium (a.k.a the ‘embodied everyday’) … but I got sidetracked by more mundane stuff like writing exhibition reviews and blogging about meals. Not that those things necessarily detract from my stated aims – since the everyday is the point here – but trying to pass off the rojak approach as an intentional interrogation of a necessarily heterogeneous subject seems facile at best, and hopelessly misguided at worst.
The remaining part was simply sheer boredom.
In any case, I’ve recently started reading Kathleen Stewart‘s Ordinary Affects, ordered off The Book Depository (free international shipping deserves a shoutout here). Stewart, who teaches in the Anthropology department at the University of Texas at Austin, is by her own admission interested in “affect, the ordinary, worlding, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement driven by curiosity and attachment.” Ordinary Affects doesn’t purport to be a sustained, theoretical engagement with the prosaic, but its deliberately disjointed presentation of fragments and vignettes of disparate experience is certainly informed by the theoretical literature.
There’s a canny review of the book on Space and Culture.
I think Stewart’s introduction is worth reproducing at some length (minus footnotes and references), if only as a commonsensical mission statement of sorts for the study of everyday life.
(From Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart, pp. 1-6.)
Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment. Committed not to demystification and uncovered truths that support a well-known picture of the world but to speculation, curiosity and the concrete, it tries to provoke attention to the forces that come into view as habit or shock, resonance or impact. Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation. A something both animated and inhabitable.
The book is set in a United States caught in a present that began some time ago. But it suggests that the terms neo-liberalism, advanced capitalism and globalization that index this emergent present, and the five or seven or ten characteristics used to summarize and define it in short-hand, do not, in themselves, begin to describe the situation we find ourselves in. The notion of a totalized system of which everything is always already somehow a part, is not helpful (to say the least) in the effort to approach a weighted and reeling present. This is not to say that the forces these systems try to name are not real and literally pressing. On the contrary, I am trying to bring them into view as a scene of immanent force, rather than leave them looking like dead effects imposed on an innocent world.
The ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life. Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences. They’re things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something.
Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. Akin to Raymond Williams’s structures of feeling, they are “social experiences in solution;” they “do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures.” Like what Roland Barthes calls the “third meaning,” they are immanent, obtuse, and erratic, in contrast to the “obvious meaning” of semantic message and symbolic signification.5 They work not through “meanings” per.se. but in the way that they pick up density and texture as they move through bodies, dreams, dramas and social worldings of all kinds. Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible. The question they beg is not what they might mean in an order of representations, or whether they are good or bad in an overarching scheme of things, but where they might go what potential modes of knowing, relating and attending to things are already somehow present in them in a state of potentiality and resonance.
Ordinary affects, then, are an animate circuit that conducts force and maps connections, routes and disjunctures. A kind of contact zone where the overdeterminations of circulations, events, conditions, technologies, and flows of power literally take place. To attend to ordinary affects is to trace how the potency of forces lies in their immanence to things that are both flighty and hard-wired, shifty and unsteady but palpable too. At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, and more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings. They are not the kind of analytic object that can be laid out on a single, static plane of analysis and they don’t lend themselves to a perfect, three-tiered parallelism between analytic subject, concept, and world. They are, instead, a problem or question emergent in disparate scenes and incommensurate forms and registers. A tangle of potential connections. Literally moving things – things that are in motion and that are defined by their capacity to affect and to be affected – they have to be mapped through different, co-existing forms of composition, habituation and event. They can be “seen,” obtusely, in circuits and failed relays, in jumpy moves and the layered textures of a scene. They surge or become submerged. They point to the jump of something coming together for a minute and the spreading lines of resonance and connection that become possible and might snap into sense in some sharp or vague way.
Models of thinking that slide over the live surface of difference at work in the ordinary to bottom line arguments about “bigger” structures and underlying causes obscure the ways inwhich a reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and non-coherent singularities. They miss how someone’s ordinary can endure, or sag, defeated. How it can shift in the face of events like a shift in the kid’s school schedule or the police at your door. How it can become a vague but compelling sense that something is happening or harden into little mythic kernels. How it can be carefully maintained as a prized possession or left to rot. How it can morph into a cold, dark edge, or give way to something unexpectedly hopeful.
This book tries to slow the quick jump to representational thinking and evaluative critique long enough to find ways of approaching the complex and uncertain objects that fascinate because they literally hit us or exert a pull on us. My effort is not to finally “know” them – to collect them into a good enough story of what’s going on – but to fashion some form of address that is adequate to their form. To find something to say about ordinary affects by performing some of the intensity and texture that makes them habitable and animate. This means building an idiosyncratic map of connections between a series of singularities. It means pointing always outward to an ordinary world whose forms of living are now being composed and suffered, rather than seeking the closure or clarity of a book’s interiority or riding a great rush of signs to a satisfying end. I am trying to create a contact zone for analysis.
The writing here has been a continuous, often maddening, effort to approach the intensities of the ordinary through a close ethnographic attention to pressure points and forms of attention and attachment. Ordinary Affects is written as an assemblage of disparate scenes that pull the course of the book into a tangle of trajectories, connections and disjunctures. Each scene begins the approach to the ordinary again, from an angle set off by the scene’s affects. And each scene is a tangent that performs the sensation that something is happening – something that needs attending to. From the perspective of ordinary affects, thought is patchy and material. It does not find magical closure or even seek it, perhaps only because it’s too busy just trying to imagine what’s going on.
I write not as a trusted guide carefully laying out the links between theoretical categories and the real world, but as a point of impact, curiosity, and encounter. I call myself “she” to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence. “She” is not so much a subject position or an agent in hot pursuit of something definitive as a point of contact. She gazes, imagines, senses, takes on, performs, and asserts not a flat and finished truth but some possibilities (and threats) that have come into view in the effort to become attuned to what a particular scene might offer.
From the perspective of ordinary affects, things like narrative and identity become tentative though forceful compositions of disparate and moving elements: the watching and waiting for an event to unfold, the details of scenes, the strange or predictable progression in which one thing leads to another, the still life that gives pause, the resonance that lingers, the lines along which signs rush and form relays, the layering of immanent experience, the dreams of rest or redemption or revenge. Forms of power and meaning become circuits lodged in singularities. They have to be followed through disparate scenes. They can gather themselves into what we think of as stories and selves. But they can also remain, or become again, dispersed, floating, recombining – regardless of what whole or what relay of rushing signs they might find themselves in for a while.