Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke, 2007) is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever had the pleasure of finding on a syllabus. A self-avowed “experiment” (1), Stewart explores ordinary affects–“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” (1-2)–through a thoroughly nontraditional and ambitiously creative project, partially (auto)ethnographic, partially philosophical, fully poetic.
After a brief and more conventionally academic introduction, the bulk of the thin book is a cluster of vignettes, parables, little stories and partial fictions–scenes, really–that themselves are experiments in forcing an impact with ordinary affects. Stewart authors a careful and stinging assemblage of encounters, contact zones, sudden surges of sensation, the impact of intensities, the banal circuits of the ordinary that can become suspended or radically opened up in the flash of a moment, the endless hum of the present, and the prescient and almost haunting attention we all invariably pay, in the quotidian duration of our lives, to seeking out the sensation that something is happening.
Ordinary Affects feels best read while plunged into a gentle circuit of movement within the ordinary, for reading it provokes a shiver-inducing attention to, well, the ongoingness of the ordinary. By that I mean the way a single moment can feel so heavy it is literally deadening, or it can sizzle with the potentiality of becoming-otherwise; or, strangely, both and more.
I particularly enjoyed reading it today, on the subway, interspersed with short walks on my afternoon itinerary through the city. There is a certain entitled subject-position form of voyeurism in public transit, the kind that enables someone to watch the world taking shape in its surroundings, to fixate on strangers, imagine a life for them and produce a privately held biography of them. These flickering moments are often broken by the return of a look, the intolerable intimacy of eye-contact on a moving subway car. I love to look at people, but I am frequently undone by a return of eye-contact: my whole intellectual enterprise swells with anxiety and then melts away in a mudslide of shame. Still, there is something fascinating about it, something that resonates.
I thought about two performers on the train today, as I was hurtling back to Brooklyn, who entered the car and started playing a corrido while simultaneously pacing the length of the train, ready to accept donations for their performance. Unlike other substitutable stranger-bodies, these two bodies were already overdetermined by their visual presentation in a cultural, linguist and ethnic scene calibrated to one commodification of the self available in the neoliberal regime of the global city. Still, that doesn’t change the structure of the ordinary encounter they entered into with the other bodies in the car: it was still a question of an inaccessible, transitive impact with two others. I thought about all of the people in the car–maybe two dozen or so–each of them authoring, simultaneously, a private story about the two bodies. Some of the stories would be long, some short; some detailed, others foggy and inattentive; some of them would relate to the bodies along vectors of similarity; others, along vectors of difference. I thought about each of those bodies then leaving the car, continuing on in the circuit of their ordinary days. Who would make mention of the two singing bodies on the train to other people in their lives, passing on the encounter? Where would these two bodies network out, in a web of sensation and intensity predicated on only visual and musical registers? What kind of sociality was constituted in the intimate public sphere of the subway car?
Fleeting questions, really, for they reciprocate the transitive feeling of an encounter. There aren’t any obvious answers to them. But the encounter left an impression. A positive one, too. It captured a certain feeling of the ongoingness of the ordinary that made it a little lighter and a little more bearable.