Ordinary Affects

Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press 2007)

This starts most inauspiciously:

Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgement. 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.

Whooee! It’s going to be a rough ride, with tortured syntax, unconventional semicolons and words that don’t seem quite to mean what one would expect. It doesn’t get any more comfortable, but I persisted because it was a Book Club book, and Book Club books are meant to take me places I wouldn’t necessarily go if I just followed my nose.

A couple of pages in, I decided that even though this is a scholarly work, probably belonging to the discipline of postmodern anthropology, I lack the background to be able to read it in a scholarly manner. Instead, I let it kind of break over me. I read it as if it was poetry. And I enjoyed it. I can’t tell you what it’s about, mind you. It abounds in anecdotes, ranging from a pleasant but odd encounter in a check-out queue to horrific violence, bizarre plane travel incidents to odd things seen from the car. It offers fascinating reflections on public responses to big events – the OJ trials, the Columbine shootings, child care sex abuse scandals, nuclear waste disposal, 11 September 2001. It positively bristles with gnomic utterances that would make great epigraphs for poems (‘The ordinary can turn on you,’ or ‘Dream meets nightmare in the flick of an eye’) or citations in other scholarly works (‘Like a live wire, the subject [which I think here means a person] channels what’s going on around it in a the process of its own self-composition. Formed by the coagulation of intensities, surfaces, sensations, perceptions and expressions, it’s a thing composed of encounters and the spaces and events it traverses or inhabits’).

By chance, the first thing I read after finishing this book was Raewyn Connell’s characteristically incisive essay in the current issue of Overland, in which she says:

Any system of doctrine, any powerful concept, becomes in time an excuse for not thinking: Marxism, radical feminism, deconstructionism, post-colonialism, the lot. … We need harder thinking, not fluffier thinking, about social reality – and that includes rethinking the ideas earlier generations of socialists worked with.

I think Kathleen Stewart would agree with that (even while, being from the US, she might flinch at the word ‘socialists’), but Ordinary Affects deals in something that precedes thought: ‘The ordinary can happen before the mind can think.’ (Let me share with you the pleasure I felt in using that limp word ‘something’ here. It’s a word that Stewart uses often and interestingly, usually in the phrase ‘or something’, as if to insist on the provisional nature of her thinking.) Before we can rethink, we need to re-see, and re-feel, re-attend, and at least part of what Stewart means by ‘ordinary affect’ is what happens when we pay attention, how we integrate, or not, the many influences on our perception, our emotional responses, our unreflective thoughts.

I found myself remembering the only lines I know from the US poet Muriel Rukeyser:

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO FORGET
PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO FORGET
PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO FORGET

The capitals are hers.

If I get a chance I’ll re-read this book, though I expect it will be a matter of letting it break over my head again.

3 responses to “Ordinary Affects

  1. I think you’re lucky. Sandra presently has on her desk a book called ‘Abjectly Boundless”. Its subtitle is “Boundaries, bodies and health work”. I think she must be very clever to be able to read it.

  2. shawjonathan

    M-H: [Typo quietly fixed] Is there a competition for the scariest title, do you think?

  3. Adam Aitken has just put up a thoughtful post about this book on his blog at http://adamaitken.blogspot.com/2010/08/on-kathleen-stewarts-ordinary-affects.html.

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