Cluster 15 Arrivals and departures: why there are no neutral perceptions of spatiality

by kajsakorner

fakepassThe lack of context has been a problem within in the sociology of emotions, where the use of e.g. questionnaires neglects how the setting is affecting the respondent (the body), according to Thrift (2007).  In the chapter Spatialities of feeling Nigel Thrift (2007) outlines four approaches to how affect can be understood. The first one is an apprehension of

“affect as a set of embodied practices that produce visible conduct as an outer lining.” (Thrift, 2007:175).

He explains this approach as concerned with describing the appearance of emotions within the everyday life, and seeing affect through the lens of processes and bodily conditions contextualizes emotions (Thrift, 2007). I think this can partly be compared with how Ahmed regards affects. Ahmed (in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010) do not regard affect as a separate entity. Instead, she stresses the messiness it involves; “the unfolding of bodies”; “the drama of contingency”, and how the proximity of objects touches and moves us (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:30). I interpret Ahmed as presenting a contextualized theory of affect, where affect cannot be studied as a separate object detached from its setting or “background”. Or I could apply Donna Haraway’s term “situated knowledge” (Haraway, 1991), and say that Ahmed situates affect by acknowledging its personal history.

Ahmed’s contextualized idea of affect can be compared with what I acknowledge as a decontextualized version of affect presented by Eric Shouse (2005) in his essay Feeling, Emotion, Affect. Shouse (2005) states the importance of separating feeling, emotion and affect in order to clarify what affect is. He describes, among other things, affect as a non-personal feeling; the “body’s capacity to act”; and “a non-conscious experience of intensity” (Shouse, 2005). I think that the separation of the three terms makes it difficult to understand what affect is or could be, because it deprives it of its own context: the subject and the different parts that will interact and form each other.

In the chapter Happy Objects (in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010) Sara Ahmed discusses affect by discussing what happiness is. She considers

“happiness as a happening, as involving affect (to be happy is to be affected by something), intentionality (to be happy is to be about something), and evaluation and judgment (to be happy about something makes something good).” (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:29)

She asks “how we can  theorize positive affect and the politics of good feelings.”, and suggests an approach to affect as something that is “sticky” (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:30).

“Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects.” (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:29)

I think that Ahmed’s description of affect as something “sticky” shows that it is interconnected with previous personal experiences but also the setting. Who I am will form how I will be affected, which in turn will form my perception of the world.

So what does Ahmed mean by “sticky”? Departing in Teresa Brennen’s work (The Transmission of Affect, 2004) Ahmed discusses what it means to “feel the atmosphere” when entering a room (in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Ahmed refers to, what she states as, two partly contradictive arguments presented by Brennen: 1) the atmosphere is something that will get into the people when entering the room, 2) “If I feel anxiety when entering a room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an ‘impression’” (Brennen 2004:6 in Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). I understand the latter as a feeling of e.g. anxiety will influence my impression of the atmosphere when I enter a room or space. Ahmed means that the first argument leaves atmosphere to something that is in the room by itself. While the latter makes anxiety “sticky”, because “it tends to pick up whatever comes near.” (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:36).

Ahmed (in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010) describes stickiness, e.g. anxiety (a feeling), as something that will angle my arrival or perception of a room. Therefore, she means that a body’s arrival into a space will never be neutral. She argues for that Brennen’s initial argument about the atmosphere being something that is just there, and that will get into us when entering a room, questions Brennen’s latter statement and instead Ahmed suggests that

“we may walk into a room and ‘feel the atmosphere’, but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we migth say the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point.” (Ahmed in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:37).

I think that Ahmed’s theory of affect deepens her queer phenomenology, because it expands the notion of what orientation and position might include. In her queer phenomenology, she turns the focus toward the “background” of the object in order to understand the phenomenology of it (Ahmed, 2006). She means that the background should not be taken for granted. Instead, it should be the center of our attention along with the body perceiving the object. The background is where we should look when trying to grasp the phenomenology of an object. Why? Because, according to Ahmed (2006), the background is familiar and familiarity might govern how we “inhabit certain rooms and not others”: how we orientate ourselves. She means that in order to understand the phenomenology of an object we have to: perceive its background, trace the arrival of it as well as “the arrival of the body that perceives” it (Ahmed, 2006:38). She suggests an “ethno-phenomenology” combining ethnographic descriptions of objects with phenomenology: “How did I or we arrive at the point where it is possible to witness the arrival of the object?” (Ahmed, 2006:39).  I understand Ahmed as following: affect is what defines or decides from which angle I will enter and perceive a space or encounter an object. It therefore will form what position I will take and how I will orientate myself in space. My context: background or history, together with the context of the space or object will form my affect toward and impression of a space. In line with this reasoning, there will be no neutral bodily encounters with space. Instead, it all depends of from where I arrive, but also how I will departure. Moreover, if I return to Thrift’s comment on how a questionnaire might ignore or cancel out the setting. Using Ahmed’s terminology, I could say that the questionnaire angles how I should perceive the setting or how I should be affected.



AHMED, S. 2006. Queer phenomenology : orientations, objects, others, Durham, Duke University Press.

GREGG, M. & SEIGWORTH, G. J. 2010. The affect theory reader, Durham [N.C.], Duke University Press.

HARAWAY, D. J. 1991. Simians, cyborgs, and women : the reinvention of nature, New York, Routledge.

SHOUSE, E. Dec. 2005 Feeling, Emotion, Affect, M/C Journal, 8(6). Retrieved 14 May. 2013 from <;.

THRIFT, N. J. 2007. Non-representational theory : space, politics, affect, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ;, Routledge.