Reading Summary: Kathleen Stewart on Ordinary Affects

Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Coming from an anthropological perspective, Stewart seems to have taken up the affective turn by denoting the more recent move from the discursive exploration of the everyday to a figural representation of the affective intimacies and intensities that accumulate in ordinary moments of living.[1] Stewart argues that her book avoids the academic conventions of “demystification and uncovered truths,“ what Sedgwick would call a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and “tries to slow the quick jump to representational thinking and evaluative critique… to find something to say about ordinary affects by performing some of the intensity and texture that makes them habitable and animate” (1, 4). Thus, what is evident is Stewart’s work from the start is an interest in embodiment, experience and the role of emotions in producing and sustaining social and political formations and attachments (see video).

According to Stewart, 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 are “a drifting immersion that watches and waits for something to pop up” (2, 95). Furthermore, ordinary affects “do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures” (3). If we remember back to the introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, Seigworth and Gregg argue that affect represents both a threat and a promise to cultural theory. Similarly, Stewart notes how ordinary affects can turn on us in often unexpected ways: “Lodged in the habits, conceits, and the loving and deadly contacts of everyday sociality, [the ordinary] can catch you up in something bad. Or good” (106). Such position highlights the unpredictability of everyday experience and suggests that ordinary affect is felt as an ambivalence that registers a sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity. To this effect, what ordinary affects cannot do is remain still, for even in still life there is motion, forces that attract and repel and urge us into being and being with each other: “The ordinary is a moving target… Not first something to make sense of, but a set of sensations that incite” (93).

Last week, we read Butler and de Lauretis to develop a sense of what the affective turn was critiquing and the theoretical approaches to the problem of subjectivity that underpinned these works: Freudian psychoanalysis, Althussarian ideology and Foucauldian systems of power. Distancing herself away from these “paranoid” readings of subjectivity, Stewart proposes a subject that is located in the everyday and banal assemblages: “It’s a dreamy, hovering, not-quite-there thing. A fabulation that enfolds the intensities it finds itself in. It fashions itself out of movements and situations that are surprising, compelled by something new, or buried in layers of habit” (58). Here, what she calls the “affective subject” is the subject who drifts through scenes and scenery and lets life wash over, feeling strangely empowered, embodying “a collection of trajectories and circuits” (59). Formed by the bringing together of intensities, surface sensations, perceptions, and expressions the subject is “a thing composed of encounters and the spaces and events it traverses and inhabits” (79). Therefore, Stewart attempts to account for the fleeting, ephemeral currents and themes that make contemporary life liveable, coherent, and nearly unbearable.

In its structure, Stewart sees her book as an “experiment” in cultural theory. It is told in a series of short, often fragmented, stories or anecdotes, most of which are rooted in ethnography, Stewart’s own experiential, witnessing, and transcribing presence told in the third person. To do this, Stewart takes up several everyday objects of analysis, including everything from gambling, getting your dishwasher fixed, walking down the street, shopping at Walmart or dollar shops to stapling journal articles together, “rising up” on eBay or flash mobs. These reflective fragments subvert the assumption that thought can comprehend experience so fully that it can claim to have explained it. In her own words, “there is never any real effort to determine what, exactly, such things are” (69).

Writing through the third person pronoun, Stewart distances the authorial voice in order to foreground the provisional status of narrative and identity. In Stewart’s own words: “She is not so much a subject position or an agent in hot pursuit of something definitive as a point of contact; instead 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” (5). Thus, Stewart is (questionably) able create the critical distance rigorous academic scholarship requires and this is something explore in Cvetkovich’s work on depression, which we’ll turn to next week.

Buy it on Amazon, here.


[1] Stewart traces “affect” to its Latin root, which means “to move.” Following Deleuze, she describes affects as “the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of continual motion” (2). They are “not so much forms of signification, or units of knowledge, as they are expressions of ideas or problems performed as a kind of involuntary and powerful learning and participation” (40).

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