Spaces, the Virtual, and my Ramblings about Affect

These are thoughts; and although I remain apologetic to the reader, I gave fair warning in my inaugural entry that these moments of writing, these ‘events’ are not often meant to have clear meaning.

 What is space? Can space act on us as much as we may act on it? I’ve been tackling these two, rather un-complex questions. Seemingly simple. Seemingly. I’ve also just started reading Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual and I have to wonder: all those autonomic responses, all those interstitial ‘spaces’ of the touch and the perception, all those moments between the event and the perceived—these intensities that we call affect—we greet as social scientists with a sneer. Most of the illustrious folks in physics deal with the quanta, with the unseen and seen, and what lies between these two ‘worlds’—if indeed they are two separate, distinct things. And here I am, as a social scientist, asking myself ‘what is space and does it matter to social movements?’

            I can answer with a resounding YES! and suggest, like most other social scientists, that space means everything to a movement. We need space in which to talk about ‘what matters’ to us. In an increasing climate of privatized space, we have no more areas in which to meet—our spaces of resistance have become more and more limited. But then we confine the investigations into why these spaces are diminishing to political scientists of urban policy—and we restrain our intellectual ebullience and curiosity for what happens within these spaces. Or how these spaces retain, in what Graham Harman and others have attributed to them, agency. I know many who (and I would assume a rather small amount of readership here) would read this have the distinct obligation (really obligation) to decline that objects have agency—or that space may have some kind of action upon us.

            Consider some words from folks like Latour:

‘What may appear really shocking in such a definition of association is not only the strange new meaning it gives to ‘social’ but also the unusual place offered to so-called ‘natural’ objects. And yet both ends of these chains, the social and the natural, have to be dissolved simultaneously. This symmetry is rarely understood by those who define Actor-Network Theory as a sociology ‘extended to non-humans’—as if non-humans themselves had not undergone a transformation as great as those of social actors.’

            Here, Latour envisions a ‘social’ world where human and non-human actors co-act upon each other. Where their ontological frames are not as distant as (social) scientists claim them to be. On the one hand, along this chain, are subjects who supposedly act in isolation of their objects, these objects that they create or manufacture. On the other hand, again along this chain, Latour suggests that nature is occupied by nothing but objects. Yet, in the discover of nature, haven’t subjects redefined the substance they have discovered. If I may take a parable with which most seem familiar: Didn’t Adam, by naming his pets in Eden, change those things he named forever? And conversely, what acted upon Adam (I bet it was Eve!) to name such and such this or that? A tree, now being a tree, has certain properties insofar as we can reference another thing that has properties against which we can judge the properties of that tree: its color, smell, shape, etc. Isn’t it an act of hubris to suggest that objects remain distant, untainted and ‘natural’ whereas humans are agential beings capable of isolated, purposive alterations to ourselves only, our separate ontological world? As if those objects around the human don’t act upon him/her, push her/him to name in this way or that—or coact in this way or that.

            And when non-human things act upon us, don’t we have responses—are we clear upon what these responses consist? Here’s Massumi:

‘What is being termed affect in this essay is precisely this two-sidedness, the simultaneous participation of the virtual in the actual and the actual in the virtual, as one arises from and returns to the other. Affect is this-two sidedness as seen from the side of the actual thing, as couched in perceptions and cognitions…Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them.’

            Massumi, in this brilliantly concise yet vague definition (for even I am still unclear as to the extent of affect, as to the limits and intensities of it) begs us to look deeper into the question of sensation and the register, the ‘real’ register for these sensations (the autonomy of affect, in his words). Elsewhere, Massumi brings in the experience of sensation, and uses affect as the medium for exploring the ways that sensation and intensity and all those other ‘human’ ways of cognizing various states of being. Our bodies are surfaces upon which many stimuli occur, but our brain processes those stimuli at different rates—rates that differ not only individually, but from the moment of the ‘event’ of touching to the moment it is registered as a touch. What happens between that moment. Is the information being transmitted lost? Is there an overflow point? Do sensory data get jumbled and meshed and thrown into an un-non-conscious wastebasket never to be dealt with again? I’m not that far into Massumi’s book, so I couldn’t begin to speculate—but I would assume not. I would assume that this lag (I believe certain experiments have clocked this time lag at .2 seconds, this lag that Massumi calls the virtual) is constitutive.

            Now, what causes stimuli? What acts upon us? If Latour and others in his ‘flat ontological’ school are correct, then all sorts of objects and non-human things act upon us and, through their own extended agency, belong in our social world as much as any other subject. And, if we trust Massumi and other affect theorists (and Latour I believe is no disbeliever in affect; if anything, he’s a bit skeptical of theories that suggest things exist in pre-social or pre-discursive conditions) suggest that the touch of our flesh or the image caught by our eyes (our sensory organs for sight) and the moment of its perception by the brain lags, and that contained within that lag are quanta of data that disperse, lodge, dislodge, explode, implode—in effect act upon us—then there can be no doubt that space, where we gather, how me mediate and intermediate our experiences within and without ourselves, is a coextensive, often constitutive process.

            So when my trans* activists and queers enter a space, how does it act upon them to bring about an excess, or a dearth, of spirit—of that activism that defines the rejection of hierarchy and the embrace of change? Can that space move us to resistance, or contain within it the projection of affective economies of silence, of only potential action, of stasis?


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