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Overview


Ordinary Affects is a singular argument for attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life and the potential that animates the ordinary. Known for her focus on the poetics and politics of language and landscape, the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart ponders how ordinary impacts create the subject as a capacity to affect and be affected. In a series of brief vignettes combining storytelling, close ethnographic detail, and critical analysis, Stewart relates the intensities and banalities of common experiences and strange encounters, half-spied scenes and the lingering resonance of passing events. While most of the instances rendered are from Stewart’s own life, she writes in the third person in order to reflect on how intimate experiences of emotion, the body, other people, and time inextricably link us to the outside world.

Stewart refrains from positing an overarching system—whether it’s called globalization or neoliberalism or capitalism—to describe the ways that economic, political, and social forces shape individual lives. Instead, she begins with the disparate, fragmented, and seemingly inconsequential experiences of everyday life to bring attention to the ordinary as an integral site of cultural politics. Ordinary affect, she insists, is registered in its particularities, yet it connects people and creates common experiences that shape public feeling. Through this anecdotal history—one that poetically ponders the extremes of the ordinary and portrays the dense network of social and personal connections that constitute a life—Stewart asserts the necessity of attending to the fleeting and changeable aspects of existence in order to recognize the complex personal and social dynamics of the political world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Ordinary Affects works superbly as a challenge to prevailing norms of social and cultural research and as an effective call to surface, to the mundane, and the ordinary. . . . At their best, [these vignettes] are as fascinating as a short story by Raymond Carver, though they show an intellectual lineage with figures like Walter Benjamin, Michel Leiris, and Michael Taussig .” - Craig Campbell, Space and Culture

“In this short, insightful book, Kathleen Stewart probes a dizzying range of scenes and structures of ordinary life in America. With keen ethnographic attention to American cultural detail, Stewart exposes the multilayered forces, surges, blockages, and intensities that shape and invent the affective texture of, and complex public feelings pervading, disparate but familiar places and vehicles of the American dreamscape: supermarkets, cars, malls, highways, subdivisions, small towns, motels, railroads, and so on. . . . Stewart contributes great insight for revising theoretical and methodological approaches to ordinary life and culture and, in so doing, provides an overdue and important entry on the meaning and uses of affect for anthropology. The appearance of Ordinary Affects augurs well for new and productive forms of ethnographic inquiry and cultural study.” - David Staples, American Ethnologist

“Stewart’s ethnographer’s eye and attention to concrete, lived experience give us an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of America at the end of the twentieth century/dawn of the twenty-first. . . . The power of Ordinary Affects is simply this: it asks us to attend to our own networks, to linger on these moments of tension and communion rather than assimilating them quickly into our own personal, private narratives.” - Megan Savage, The Indiana Review

“Rather than simply theorizing about cultural poesis, Stewart performs it. . . . Stewart is a gifted storyteller. Her tales are written in the third person, which alienates the author from herself, creating the requisite critical distance rigorous academic scholarship requires. Equally important, however, this narrative format casts readers in the role of affective ethnographer to Stewart’s extraordinarily ordinary stories, awakening us from the stupor induced by far too much torpid academic prose and engendering a new form of critical intimacy.” - Sara L. Warner, Feminist Theory

“This is hardly conventional ethnography. It pushes ethnography to the brink and beyond, scoring high in poetics and resonant voice. Ordinary Affects is to ethnography what slow food is to American cuisine. Savor it.” - Elizabeth L. Krause, Anthropology and Humanism

Ordinary Affects is an extraordinary work of finely observed aspects of everyday life in contemporary America. It is a beautiful book about waking life, being awakened to life, and the fear and desire rippling on the surface of people’s ordinary movements through space. Radical yet familiar, it is a profoundly pedagogical book.”—Lauren Berlant, author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

“Anything but ordinary, this book rewrites the social sciences from top to bottom through its bleak and beautiful honesty as to the human condition and the conditional nature of our language and concepts. How the author has been able to step outside of the bubble we call reality so as to render reality is a miracle, yet one we might all aspire to on reading this.”—Michael Taussig, Columbia University

“Full of resonating stories, encounters quirky in their unapologetic ordinariness, and murmuring objects, this book takes me into the thick world of the everyday in the U.S.A. Intent on critique or explanation, too many scholars hardly know how to experience, much less think, such worlds, and so regularly give them Big Names like Capitalism and Modernity and Neoliberalism. Ordinary Affects sounds the depths and shallows of intimate, particular worlds crucial to finding our way in the tidal basin of contemporary culture. Here are accounts of lives in plain sight, but only if we cultivate the deceptively hard practices of slow looking and off-stage hearing. Kathleen Stewart touches the marrow of things by nurturing an oblique and unrushed sort of attention, one alert to the bio-luminescence generated in ordinary living taken seriously, without which we are in the dark in politics, philosophy, and cultural theory.”—Donna Haraway, University of California, Santa Cruz

Craig Campbell

Ordinary Affects works superbly as a challenge to prevailing norms of social and cultural research and as an effective call to surface, to the mundane, and the ordinary. . . . At their best, [these vignettes] are as fascinating as a short story by Raymond Carver, though they show an intellectual lineage with figures like Walter Benjamin, Michel Leiris, and Michael Taussig .”
David Staples

“In this short, insightful book, Kathleen Stewart probes a dizzying range of scenes and structures of ordinary life in America. With keen ethnographic attention to American cultural detail, Stewart exposes the multilayered forces, surges, blockages, and intensities that shape and invent the affective texture of, and complex public feelings pervading, disparate but familiar places and vehicles of the American dreamscape: supermarkets, cars, malls, highways, subdivisions, small towns, motels, railroads, and so on. . . . Stewart contributes great insight for revising theoretical and methodological approaches to ordinary life and culture and, in so doing, provides an overdue and important entry on the meaning and uses of affect for anthropology. The appearance of Ordinary Affects augurs well for new and productive forms of ethnographic inquiry and cultural study.”
Sara L. Warner

“Rather than simply theorizing about cultural poesis, Stewart performs it. . . . Stewart is a gifted storyteller. Her tales are written in the third person, which alienates the author from herself, creating the requisite critical distance rigorous academic scholarship requires. Equally important, however, this narrative format casts readers in the role of affective ethnographer to Stewart’s extraordinarily ordinary stories, awakening us from the stupor induced by far too much torpid academic prose and engendering a new form of critical intimacy.”
Megan Savage

“Stewart’s ethnographer’s eye and attention to concrete, lived experience give us an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of America at the end of the twentieth century/dawn of the twenty-first. . . . The power of Ordinary Affects is simply this: it asks us to attend to our own networks, to linger on these moments of tension and communion rather than assimilating them quickly into our own personal, private narratives.”
Elizabeth L. Krause

“This is hardly conventional ethnography. It pushes ethnography to the brink and beyond, scoring high in poetics and resonant voice. Ordinary Affects is to ethnography what slow food is to American cuisine. Savor it.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341079
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 409,815
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen Stewart is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America.

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Read an Excerpt

Ordinary Affects


By Kathleen Stewart

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4088-1


Chapter One

Ordinary Affects

Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment. Committed not to the demystification and uncovered truths that support a well-known picture of the world, but rather 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.

This book is set in a United States caught in a present that began some time ago. But it suggests that the terms neoliberalism, advanced capitalism, and globalization that index this emergent present, and the five or seven or ten characteristics used to summarize and define it in shorthand, 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. They work not through "meanings" per se, but rather 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 and 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. They are 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 hardwired, shifty and unsteady but palpable too. At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, as well as 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, coexisting 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 to 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 in which a reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and noncoherent singularities. They miss how someone's ordinary can endure or can sag defeated; how it can shift in the face of events like a shift in the kid's school schedule or the police at the 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 here 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. In this book 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 anew the approach to the ordinary 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; 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.

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.

Walter Benjamin's 1999 Arcades Project is one model of this kind of thinking: his nomadic tracing of dream worlds still resonant in material things; his process of writing captions to found fragments and snapshots gathered into a loose assemblage; the way his thought presses close to its objects in order to be affected by them.

Roland Barthes's S/Z and A Lover's Discourse are models too: his attunement to the movements, pleasures, and poetics of language and things; his sense of the expansive, irreducible nature of forms of signification; his attention to the fragments that comprise things; his notion of the punctum-the wounding, personally touching detail that establishes a direct contact.

Leslie Stern's The Smoking Book assembles an array of brief ficto-critical stories united only by some mention of smoking, embedding theory in the situations encountered. The result is a mass of resonances linking precise moments and states of desire through a single, thin line of connection. It leaves the reader with an embodied sense of the world as a dense network of mostly unknown links.

Michael Taussig's My Cocaine Museum and The Magic of the State and Alphonso Lingis's Dangerous Emotions and Foreign Bodies also serve here as examples of ficto-critical efforts to perform the intensity of circuits, surges, and sensations.

D. J. Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir is a surreally realist chronicle of Lakewood, California, which in the 1950s was built, overnight, as the "world's largest" subdivision. Like the subdivision grid, Waldie's memoir is constructed out of tiny bits of personal narrative, hometown tales, and moments in the history of real estate development, all held together with the mortar of a singular though widespread form of ordinariness.

David Searcy's Ordinary Horror brilliantly performs the attachment to fantasy that arises out of mundane sights and situations. Many other novels, such as Edward Jones's The Known World, Ian McEwan's Atonement, or Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, produce scenes of a world saturated by jumpy attunements.

Finally, Lauren Berlant's mode of thinking and writing on the affects of the present moment serves here as a direct inspiration and source of insight. In her work, the academic concept becomes something new and promising. Embedded in the intense and complex affective attunement of her writing, her concepts of the noncoherent, the incommensurate, and the scenic, as well as of attachment, intimacy, exhaustion, and the unlivable but animating desires for rest or for the simple life have sent me back to rethink scenes over and over again.

DOG DAYS

It's been years now since we've been watching.

Something surges into view like a snapped live wire sparking on a cold suburban street. You can stare at it, transfixed by its erratic thrashing. Or you can shake it off fast and finish your morning walk as planned, eyeing the thing as you pass on your way to the dog park.

At the park, there is talk, and the dogs run around madly, as if recharged.

The flashing up is real.

It is delusional.

The dogs take to sleeping in nervous fits and starts. They throw one eye open, raising a single eyebrow in hard surprise. They cower under legs for no good reason and whimper at the sound of branches brushing up against the bathroom window in the still of the night. But with a simple, reassuring look and a murmur in the ear, a kiss on the head, or the glimpse of a tail running by, they're off again, stretching their legs in sheer pleasure.

RUNNING IN ORDINARY TIME

Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things.

It grows wary and excited.

There are all the details of getting the rent money together or of home remodeling, getting messed up and recovering (or not), looking for love (or not), trying to get into something, or trying to get out of something you've gotten yourself into, shopping, hoping, wishing, regretting, and all the tortures of exclusion and inclusion, self and other, right and wrong, here and there.

The ordinary registers intensities-regularly, intermittently, urgently, or as a slight shudder.

We wish for the simple life that winks at us from someone else's beautiful flowerbeds. We flip off other drivers, eye strange or delicious characters on the subway or the street. We scan the headlines, read the luscious novels and sobering memoirs two pages at a time before falling asleep at night. We lose hours at a time disappeared into some pleasure or obsession, or flipping hamburgers or filing charts all afternoon to the point of literal senselessness.

Attention is distracted, pulled away from itself. But the constant pulling also makes it wakeful, "at attention." Confused but attuned.

We're busy if we're lucky.

For some, the everyday is a process of going on until something happens, and then back to the going on.

For others, one wrong move is all it takes.

Worries swirl around the bodies in the dark.

People bottom out watching daytime television.

Schedules are thrown up like scaffolding to handle work schedules and soccer practice or a husband quietly drinking himself to death in the living room.

We dream of getting by, getting on track, getting away from it all, getting real, having an edge, beating the system, being ourselves, checking out.

But first we take the hit, or dodge it.

A LITTLE ACCIDENT, LIKE ANY OTHER

Modes of attending to scenes and events spawn socialities, identities, dream worlds, bodily states and public feelings of all kinds.

None of this is simply "good" or "bad" but always, first, both powerful and mixed.

She's in a café in a small West Texas town. A place where ranchers hang out talking seed prices and fertilizer and strangers passing through town are welcome entertainment. The sun is going down and she's halfway through her fresh-killed steak and her baked potato when a biker couple comes in limping. All eyes rotate to watch them as they move to a table and sit down. Their hair is tousled, their clothes rumpled and torn. They talk intently, locking their startled eyes. When she walks past their table on her way out, they raise their heads to ask if she's heading out on the west road and if she can look for bike parts. They say they hit a deer coming into town and dumped their bike. The deer, they say, fared much worse.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Ordinary Affects by Kathleen Stewart Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

acknowledgments....................ix
Ordinary Affects....................1
references....................131
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