Affect: Deviation

I would like to begin this post with a picture of my nineteen-month-old son, who is graciously napping while I write this. I would like so to begin, but I won’t because of the afterlife of net images, because of the ‘who knows to what purpose’ it might be put, because of the ‘who knows what embarrassment’ I might cause in future. So instead I’ll use this  to stand in for that picture, a trick repurposed from Michael Taussig’s non-representation of a sacred image and its replacement by an empty box.  

While Taussig’s empty box was a means to make known what needed to remain unknown, a way to show the reader the power of an image while simultaneously remaining true to the injunction that such images not be shown to outsiders, I translate this gesture into a means to make private what I simultaneously want to acknowledge. The feeling of that sleeping son is not unruly affect in opposition to the disciplined space of this writing, but is rather a deviation, an acknowledgement that we think and do ‘by way of’; deviare, we go by way of something, something ‘turns us aside’. The image is a spacing of life that makes me deviate, both in the sense of how I think and do by way of such images, and in the sense that to continue with life in the online world that this essay inhabits, I have to think of ‘deviant’ ways of expressing what must be but at the same time cannot be directly represented.  

If theorizing such moments as affective make up “an invitation [. . .] to think about this force and the way it passes between bodies”, in Danilyn Rutherford’s description, then it is also worth reiterating that affect is not sequestered in the intimate, the presubjective, or the resistant. Our forms of communication are always mediated, as William Mazzarella points out in his own meditation on affect. We are always called on in stereo, as it were, in two channels, one that intimates and the other that declares, one that describes and the other that exhorts. It is the felicitous act of communication that makes the two appear seamless, indeed, natural. Affect does not mark the ‘becoming’ to structure’s ‘being’, it is rather a name for that channel of intimacy that is a universalizing gesture’s necessarily correlate. It is this sense of affect that is arresting to me, as it asks us to listen to the pauses, the intimate-public strategies of being linked to but not entirely subsumed by something.  

Lauren Berlant has named dissociation as one such affective strategy. Dissociation is a “living in ellipsis,” a pausing of the play button, a stopping of the recording of action and effort that seems particular appropriate to a culture of self-management. I can easily imagine the importance of the ellipsis for office workers who zone out, blank out, fade in and out of conversation that becomes a defense against the zealous husbanding and curating of life. Looking at such moments in an affective register, it seems to me, requires following how such ‘disassociations’ are being rebranding and made anew in precisely the way that Richard McGrail wants us to consider the structure-in-becoming of language. Doing so, dissociation becomes a strategy of diversion that “is not only defined as damage or defect in relation to a norm but leads to a flourishing” in what Berlant calls “a life-affirming world recession”[paraphrasing here on Berlant’s AAA talk]. The power of affect, for me, is in its opening up of what is taken for granted as oppositional, abnormal, and often self-harming to the question of ethics, if ethics is understood as the pursuit and definition of a good life in relation to moral injunctions. It takes up precisely non-spectacular, everyday, and continuing comportments and stiches them to the ‘big’ questions of belonging to and endorsing any particular world.  

It would be too lazy, dear readers, to read the  as an intimate moment inserted into and playing against the structure of thought, a heart as against the head, the domestic against the academic. Nor is the  an inscrutable something marked by its blackness as against the transparency of the text. Put the three dots of this text together and you have an ellipsis, which is meaningful but not filled in with meaning. It is in the suspension of image, its simultaneous presence (because I told you so) and absence (because I fail to show it), that something arresting is happening, marking both the demand to pay attention and the failure to meet that demand. What if this essay were not online and I had started with the image? It would be a jumping off point for talking about how all thought and action goes by way of something, in this case, the thought of a sleeping child. But that story is folded here into a mediating public that is seemingly boundless and enduring, the public online. For me, this makes the question of affect not only a question of public address, but also a question of relating to and living in the space of the present, a project that calls forth deviant ways of simultaneously addressing and ignoring worlds that we inhabit but may not fully endorse.

Sareeta Amrute is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. She works on questions of race and labor in knowledge economies. She is currently completing a book manuscript tentatively titled, Color Coded:an ethnography of Indian IT workers in Berlin's new economy. For more on Sareeta’s work please visit her faculty website.  

Mazzarella, William (2009). “Affect: What is it Good For?” in Saurabh Dube, ed. Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization. London: Routledge, pp. 291-309. 

Image by Creativity 103