The Spacing of Anxiety: An Affective Passageway

Is it possible to be annihilated by a place? By a feeling? When a space becomes a place through taking shape in an affect, a decomposition of the self, through the body.  Paralysis.  Crumpling, electrifying, pulling tense, taught.

How is it possible to feel like nothing as space takes shape, its becoming a place, through anxiety, a depersonalizing affect?

I enjoy traveling for its potential for depersonalization– the vulnerability of disorientation in a space in which I am not habituated.  I’m convinced that this is largely a privilege of the West, to feel such access to space, one built especially through settler colonial projects, one reinforced by class access to mobility in a neoliberal age of constant itinerancy and nomadic labor.  I also think that such a level of patterning of environments for mobile subjects participates in a relation of reciprocal causality with the affective constitution of environment as an ecology of competing forces.  For me, I noted on a recent trip out of town, such places are often constituted by anxiety.

There are about an infinite amount of directions I could take spatialization as a proces of anxiety if I wanted to think philosophically–at the top of the list would be Heidegger.  I want to play not with text here, though, but with my own recent experience, a quick archaeology of the spacing of anxiety.  If part of what affects are are thresholds or passages between states of intensity–they are themselves the stuff of the variation of intensity–then I couldn’t help but note those variations during my recent trip to Atlanta.

Passing along the periphery of Five Points, in the center of the city’s downtown, I needed to make a quick transfer on foot between subway lines.  While the train pulled into the station, I made out the outline of the World of Coca Cola in my peripheral vision, a sort of amusement park for the eponymous  ubiquitous soda, one of the major “tourist” attractions of Atlanta, I had casually read in a magazine, I think.  I walked, quickly and aggressively, cutting diagonally through the flow of bodies in and out of the building’s pavilion, feeling the classed impulse to not want to go in.  I frequently marvel at the endurance of the concept of the “family vacation” to such stereotyped places, so overdetermined by a hypercommodified, uniform model of Americana that it seems to me deadening–that, to inhabit that space for too long would end in some kind of death.  As an adolescent I never actually had the experience of such family vacations precisely because of class, but I always imagined that if I had to go to Disneyland, for example, that I would finally try to kill myself.

And yet, for a moment, I felt a tug– an affect, a potential passage.  The thing is, I had been engulfed the night before by something that a lazy therapist might call an anxiety attack: a somatization, a tension, a corporeal arrest built around my diminishment by unfamiliarity, isolation, and disorientation in a new space, without anyone at my side. Space itself, in becoming the place in which I could not seem to locate myself, was a viscous, exhausting, anxious horizon, swallowing me up and preventing me from moving.  I didn’t feel patterned enough, predictable enough, to disengage and relax.  Not because of where I was, mind you, but because I’ve so thoroughly connected movement through space with anxiety about the arrival of the future that anything less than its preprogramming for predictability results in terror.  All this, so that in that moment, the contours of the Coca Cola sign offered a strange, or rather uncanny, relief.  Or just the suggestion of it, a whisper of a hint.  One that made me smirk and laugh, just slightly, and much to my surprise.

The territorialization of space, whether by settler colonialism, the racialized distribution of life capacities through security and policing, the protocols of gentrification, or the more micro-event of a nervous grad student’s anxious tendencies, is a strange feeling.  Being pulled between stereotyped, patterned familiarity and enticing, desirable, but potentially annihilating, mobility.  Passing through, between trains, I glimpsed the transmission of affect, the passageways between worlds, little and grand, in which we live, sometimes together, sometimes alone.

Which made me wonder: am I still that suburban boy, 15, and melancholic but flat; am I the problematic gentrifier from Brooklyn, pursuing a sameness of sensation in a new urban landscape; am I a patient who needs therapy for anxiety; or…what? Where?



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