Notes for Ahmed “Affective Economies”

Hawhee, Rice, Gould, Brennan, and Ahmed embrace an affective ontology in which beings are utterly exposed to an “outside,” and the apparently stable borders between “inside” and “outside” are affectively produced. Brennan and Ahmed offer different interpretations about how affective intensities contribute to boundary production, to the “surfacing” of a “self” and an “other,” an “us” and a “them.”

According to Brennan, the act of projection is boundary-producing: once I project characteristics I don’t like about myself onto you, I stabilize my sense both of who I am and of who you are by establishing a clear distinction between your bad self and my good self.  

For Ahmed, the surfacing of an apparently secure boundary between self and other takes place through an economic circulation of affective intensities. According to her, emotions don’t reside “in me” nor are they forced into me from the outside; rather, emotions “create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds” (117). The circulation of love and hate on the Ayran Nation website is her case in point:

Here a subject (the white nationalist, the average white man, the white housewife, the white working man, the white citizen, and the white Christian farmer) is presented as endangered by imagined others whose proximity threatens not only to take something away from the subject (jobs, security, wealth), but to take the place of the subject. In other words, the presence of these others is imagined as a threat to the object of love. (117)

“I” feel endangered due to some contact that “I” read (interpret) as threatening, and the combined emotion (fear/anxiety) and bodily sensation (sweat, racing heart, etc.) result in my “turning away,” which helps secure my sense of myself as a bounded individual (128). I immediately cast about for the cause of my fear/anxiety, and I assign blame to an object, a “not-me.” “I” am not “that,” that which is fearsome.

But this “I” is already a “we,” as Ahmed shows in her analysis of the Aryan Nation website: the “I” comes into being via its alignment with a “we” that is collected under the signifier “white.”

And because the felt threat to the “white” subject is not inherent in an object, it is free to slide around associatively. Here, the apparent causal object is a collection of associatively linked figures: mixed race couples, immigrants, foreigners, rapists, child molesters, Jewish people, etc. (!), all of whom are thought to “make” the “white subject” feel threatened in some way. That’s the sideways motion: the hate is distributed among figures “who come to embody the threat of loss: lost jobs, lost money, lost land” (118).

There is also a backwards motion. The sideways motion “works to stick objects together as signs of threat is shaped by multiple histories,” Ahmed writes, which “remain alive in the present” (126). The backwards (historical) movement involves a process of displacement: the redirection of an emotion from its original association to another, so that the emotion now becomes attached to a different “cause.” “Objects of fear [or hate] become substituted for each other over time,” she writes (127). This sideways and backwards movement is how bodies of others are “transformed into ‘the hated’ through a discourse of pain” (118).

Ahmed argues that all this displacement and metonymic sliding is possible only because emotions don’t reside in individuals, nor are specific objects the inherent cause of our feelings. The entire enterprise takes place only because we are not bounded subjects sealed off from one another. Emotions are produced through contact, and that contact is what makes us who we are. Borders are not natural but constructed, both psychically and politically. Emotions “involve”—or, let’s say entangle or engage—“subjects and objects, but without residing positively within them” (119). They do so by moving sideways and backwards:

This is what I would call the rippling effect of emotions; they move sideways (through ‘sticky’ associations between signs, figures, and objects) as well as backward (repression always leaves its trace in the present—hence ‘what sticks’ is also bound up with the ‘absent presence’ of historicity). In the opening quotation, we can see precisely how hate “slides” sideways between figures, as well as backward, by reopening past associations that allow some bodies to be read as the cause of “our hate,” or as “being” hateful. (120)

In Brennan, remember, love and other positive emotions (joy, hope) are associated with a life force that dissolves hate. Aristotle also talks about emotions as dyads: some are intensifiers and some are calmers. But Ahmed is doing something else.

Ahmed shows how love can instead function as a way to stick one group together (the object of love) against another group (the object of hate). Both the “us” and the “them” depend on associative identifications. Since the emotion is not inherent in the subject, and the cause for it is not inherent in the object, the situation must be read, its signs must be interpreted, so that the objects of love and hate may be identified and consolidated. Through this identification and consolidation, an identity may be named and loved, and an enemy may be named and hated.

There is not one thing that inherently links a mixed-race couple and an immigrant, and not one thing links either of them to a rapist (for goodness sake). And yet the objects of hate can be associatively stuck together in this way with hate-glue: the more they circulate together, the more stuck they get, and the more affective intensity builds. The more hate builds up against this collective object of hate, the more love builds up for the “we” that is the object of love. “Together we hate, and this hate is what makes us together” (118).

So hate cannot be found in one figure, but it “works to create the very outline of different figures or objects of hate, a creation that crucially aligns the figures together and constitutes them as a common threat” (119). Kenneth Burke will talk about this very movement in the next reading.

So emotions do things—this is Ahmed’s point. They work by aligning “individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments” (119). Her work aims to show how emotions stick figures together (adherence), and so create the effect of a collective (coherence).