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Precarity's Forms


Writing matters if objects of analysis are to be understood as emergent forms with qualities, intensities and trajectories that can be described or evoked. Writing is not epiphenomenal to thought but its medium. As it sidles up to worlds, disparate and incommensurate things throw themselves together. As it attunes, spatial and temporal dimensions come into play; writing skids over surfaces, pauses on a detail, grows capacious or pinched.  Here I write four very different scenes of precarity as a form that accretes, accrues and wears out and one that takes place through attachments, tempos, materialities and states of being. Such objects of analysis register the tactility and significance of something coming into form through an assemblage of affects, routes, conditions, sensibilities and habits.

Cultural Anthropology has published other essays on cultural theory, writing and affect. Please see, for example: Michael Fisher's "Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems" (22.1); Akhil Gupta's and James Ferguson's "Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference (7.1); Thomas Csordas's "Somatic Modes of Attention" (8.2); George Marcus's "The End(s) of Ethnography" (23.1); Joseph Masco's "Survival is Your Business: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America" (23.2); and Lochlann Jain's "Cancer Butch" (22.4).

About the Author

(courtesy of her faculty profile at The University of Texas at Austin):

Katie Stewart writes and teaches on affect, the ordinary, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment. Her first book, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an "Other" America (Princeton University Press, 1996) portrays a dense and textured layering of sense and form laid down in social use. Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007) maps the force, or affects, of encounters, desires, bodily states, dream worlds, and modes of attention and distraction in the composition and suffering of present moments lived as immanent events. Her current project, Atmospheric Attunements, tries to approach ways of collective living through or sensing out. An attunement that is also a worlding.

These works are experiments that write from the intensities in things, asking what potential modes of knowing, relating or attending to things are already being enacted and imagined in ordinary ways of living.

Gillian Bolsover, "A boy jumps off the diving board at Barton Springs in Austin, TX.." July 13, 2009 via .  

Links of Interest, Recommended by the Author

Interview with the Author

fixBuffalo, "557 East Utica - Buffalo, NY." July 25, 2012 via fixBuffalo.

Can you describe how has your writing been received by other anthropologists? After reading, for example, Ordinary Affects, has anyone asked, “OK, so what? What’s at stake here?” If so, how would you respond?

People love it or hate it. The reactions are visceral. I’m trying to help open questions and forms of writing of all kinds in order to more adequately address the intensities and impacts of force on ordinary life. This involves rethinking and expanding the possibilities and limits of the political. What’s at stake here is nudging academic thinking into some kind of vague alignment with the world.

Surely not all aspects of socio-cultural life are “incommensurable” or “emergent.” Indeed, some social forms are not precarious at all, but are extremely durable and remarkably hard to change (heteronormativity, race, sexual difference, one’s habitus, one’s habits of desire, for example). Yes, all of those “things” are constantly in-motion, too, and hence are subject to (potential) change (failure). But it’s not very often that one encounters “radical change” around core aspects of identity and desire. How do you account for the persistent durability of certain social formations like sexual difference and race in your work? I ask becomes sometimes, after reading your work, I come away with the sense that the social world is far more fluid (and, hence, easy to transform) than it may be. Perhaps I should rephrase: Sometimes I wonder if talk about “emergent forms” overplays the “agency” card and elides the very real, violent power of normative regulations that do a wonderful job of quashing emergent forms as soon as they pop up. Does your analysis/writing account for the durability of regulatory norms?

Seriously? Foucault and Nietzsche gave us strong conceptualizations of the intimate relations between knowledge and power. In doing so, they focused intellectual projects on the conditions of emergence of new forms that have been built into the conduct of life. The coming into being of forms in the details of daily life moves beyond the tired, grinding oppositions of fabulated/real, structure/agency. Structure is prismatic. It takes place as singular events saturated with everyday violence. It is not just violence, in other words, that is the event of power but much less dramatic, equally devastating forms. Politics is not reducible to a communal consciousness or a neatly conceptualized ideology but takes place as intensities of all kinds and in various registers. Agency is not the clear and intentional act of a subject but an energetics.  Instead of attending to the opposition of categories, ethnographers might try to hold attention to the pressure points of the compositionality of life in situations of all kinds. This is where new structures of attention already being laid down in microbiopolitics, new sensory registers, and the systematic engineering of affect are begging new political question. Anthropologists could help us attune to what’s happening in the lived frictions of knowledge and power. But that means giving up a flat world seemingly somehow simply imprinted with concepts, categories, and normative orders.

Part of what was at stake in Writing Culture was a critique of orientalist and ethnocentric understandings of cultural difference that had been/are par for the course in anthropology. In this sense, it was a critique of how knowledge helps consolidate and reproduce “Western” hegemony. Writing otherwise would, presumably, not only give us a far more empirically rich account of what’s going on in an encounter, but could also be used to critique that hegemony. Do you feel like your writing has political consequences in terms of critiquing orientalism and ethnocentrism? What are your thoughts on the relationships between writing and cultural critique? Do you think your writing performs the kinds of critiques an author might make in otherwise dull and static writing? Is your writing performing something of an ideology critique of ideology critique?

To the extent that critique has established hardened ruts and blind reflexes that preclude an adequate description and engagement with ways of living, I’m against it. Evaluative critique should not be used a fundamental bottom line necessity of thought. It’s not enough. To seriously consider the potential – good and bad – of what’s happening requires a generosity towards the world and a curiosity. There’s always more there than what a model or description can hold. But writing can be an opening (or not).

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Discuss what Stewart means when she writes that "Writing could be a way of thinking." In the context of both her article and of Writing Culture, what does it mean to say that writing is a way of thinking? Does this statment challenge the notion that writing is an instrument of representation or a technology of recording "positive" data? If so, does this article change the ways we think about both writing and reality?

2. Consider Stewart's use of rhetoric. How does her writing style open new avenues of research and analysis? In other words, how does her attention to detail and her careful presentation of cultural practice turn seemingly mundane sites (e.g., a weekend at a pool) into analytically rich objects?

3. What does her writing style teach us about "culture" that traditional social scientific writing can't?

4. In your own words, describe Stewart's understanding/definition of culture, emergence, and precarity. What's at stake in these definitions? How are the related to practice and temporality? And what are the political consequences of thinking about culture and temporality in this way?

Florida Center for Instructional Technology, "Letter Writing." November 12, 2012 via Clip Art Etc.

Further Reading:

Agee, James. 1966. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Ballantine Books.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. London: Athlone Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1988. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Endurance and Belonging in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sedgwick, EveKosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke Univeristy Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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