Knowing More, Knowing Less

By Judy Kuo|October 14, 2016

IN ESSAY

5110118778_6a48bc718e_bImage from Flickr Commons

Understanding resistance, and social phenomena more broadly, has traditionally been the domain of the social scientist who stands above the everyday to bring to light what was previously unknown about our own lives. However with the emergence of affect theory, which takes seriously the bodily, sensory, and aesthetic dynamism of life, the primacy attributed to ideas and therefore the authority of the ‘expert’ has been brought into question.

I argue that, faced with power that increasingly appeals to our bodies and emotions instead of our rational minds, our capacity to ‘know’ resistance is both opened up and constrained. In one sense, we know more, as affect theory highlights ways of ‘knowing’ beyond that of the transmission of information and ideas. This is a bodily sort of knowing, a bodily experiencing, that must be taken into account when thinking about power and resistance.

In another sense, we know less. In breaking down the transcendental realm of ideas, we are faced with the uncertainty, ambiguity and potentiality of an aesthetic world where meaning is both passing and beyond our reach, and where the bodily experience of the ‘now’ constantly evades the totality of knowledge.

How we know ‘more’

The relationship between resistance and power is traditionally categorised as a battle of ideas, as embodied in the notion of democratic debate. This notion means that resistance is about voicing one’s declarations and demands, persuading the public, and achieving ‘consensus’. Yet, as scholars across disciplines begin to taken seriously the aesthetic and bodily landscapes caught up in all forms of resistance, the minute and microscopic acts of resistance actually reveal rich affective dynamisms, encountered in the ‘everyday’ rather than any economy of ideas.

Comedy is based on the ‘capacity for transformation that is built into and vitalizes the performative situation’ (Sharpe, Dewsbury & Hynes 2014, p. 117), precisely because it must act on our affective capacities and the potentiality of imagination, rather than our rationality and economics of logic. In an analysis of Stewart Lee’s comedic performance, Sharpe et al (2014) point to his distinctively repetitive style, in which he delivers the same line over and over, to create an interesting emotional force in relation to political topics. Sharpe et al highlight the way in which the repetition of a specific line modulates the bodies of audience members to become more aware of the variations and magnification of affective significance of the performance, and the form of politics more generally. ‘As the effort to accommodate the sensation and newness of unfamiliar impressions subsides, the body is able to pay attention to other impressions that are more subtle, held within these other impressions, and indeed emergent precisely within the repetition of performance itself’ (Sharpe, Dewsbury & Hynes 2014, p. 123). By emptying the phrase out of its literal meaning, Lee acclimatises his audience to the ambiguity of its affective meaning, playing on the potentiality and anticipation of the audience to disrupt their expectations and change the affective charge of his performance in unpredictable ways.

What is interesting about this performance is the primacy of the sensible in politics, in the affective charge around the form of ideas and perhaps not merely the ideas themselves. Importantly, this points to a form of resistance that challenges the traditionally privileged position of the dispassionate social scientist and the ignorance of the ‘average person’. Instead, in being exposed to such encounters in our embodied experiences, we are already engaging with affect and resistance in unexpected ways in the everyday – and it is precisely the ordinariness of this vitality that traditional resistance scholars have failed to take seriously.

The role of affect in the everyday is also highlighted by Michel de Certeau, who describes the manner in which consumers find their own paths in ‘the jungle of functionalist rationality’, whose desires are ‘neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they developed’ (Certeau 1984, p. xix). Certeau argues that consumers impulsively move and ‘consume’ objects, spaces, and ideas in ways that often confound the predicted logic of consumption, as consumers ‘continually turn to their own ends forces [of power] alien to them’ (Certeau 1984, p. xx). What is distinctive about this theory is the opportunistic, spontaneous, and perhaps even artless nature of this kind of resistance that centres on the impulses of the body. When we find new ways to negotiate and potentiate an environment different to its intended purpose, we animate these ‘tactics’ (Certeau 1984, p. xx). While Certeau is not an affect theorist, his observation highlights the affective capacities of everyday people who desire, feel, sense, and move in indeterminate and unexpected ways. Without needing to negotiate ideas, our bodies simply affect and are affected by nature of their being in the world, constantly opened up and energised by sensation. Embodied living is affect through and through. We do not need a transcendental observer to tell our bodies how to resist. Indeed, that transcendental observer would constantly fall short in grasping the affective forces that transfer from moment to moment.

More broadly, this speaks to an emerging analysis of resistance that centres on the embodied and emotional lived experience of subjectivities and collectives, beyond the rationalist and ‘consciousness raising’ approach to resistance (Hynes 2016b). In the increasing proximity between consumption and the production of subjectivities, power and resistance relate directly to interactions between bodies, the corporeal experiences of sensing bodies, and our emotive capacities, often bypassing our rational ‘consciousness’ (Hynes 2016a; Hynes 2016b). By bringing to attention the centrality of bodies and affects in our lived experiences, resistance (and the understanding of resistance) is no longer constrained to the expertise of Durkheim or Marx. Instead, understanding and engaging with resistance becomes the domain of bodies that individually and collectively experience, enable, and energise power and resistance in every moment.

How we know ‘less’

Yet we must be careful about how we approach this ‘knowing’ and ‘experiencing’, as affect theory underscores a sense of potentiality and indeterminacy central to the vitality of beings that have the capacity to affect and be affected (Hynes 2016c). This is especially important in regards to the relationship between affect and a sense of meaning that is always beyond the present. Affect means potential, force, and transition, and therefore a trajectory in the directions of the future and past – ‘there’ – spilling over the boundaries of the ‘here’ and ‘now’. This sense of time is also embodied in ideas of repetition and form in performance as discussed above.

The potentiality of affect is embodied in events such as the Occupy movement, which is often considered by traditional resistance theorists to be a failure because of its inability to make clear demands and achieve outcomes. However, in paying attention to the affective dimension of Occupy, it is evident that there was something dynamic and energetic about it. In physically occupying ‘meaningful spaces’ of ‘symbolic significance’ in new ways (Wark 2011), Occupy Wall Street challenged the meaning attached to the landscape of the city and opened up the financial district to a new sense of collectivity and new dialogue. The symbolic meaning of Occupy is open-ended and remains contestable today, but what Occupy did so successfully was disrupt the familiarity of the city by transforming its spaces in different ways. By occupying space with the ‘wrong’ sort of people, doing the ‘wrong’ sort of thing, Occupy was able to jar against what is ritualised and familiarised. This is what I mean by a new dialogue, whereby symbols and subjectivities come up against each other in new ways that energise and play to our affective capacity to encounter something new and unfamiliar. In this sense, the indeterminacy and ambiguity of spaces and affects means that it is much harder to say what something is ‘about’ or what something ‘means’ in the traditional scholarly sense. Yet, it seems to inject more and more significance into what something ‘does’ instead.

Affect is a potentiality and energy that permeates and shapes subjectivities and realities from moment to moment, and yet it is inherently excessive, constantly escaping the grasp of systems of totality (such as rationality, economics, or ‘social science’). As Hynes argues, the domain of affect ‘exceeds collective and individual forms, and has an ontology of a “middle” or an “in-between”’ (Hynes 2013, p. 562). It exists in transitions not states (Hynes 2013 p.565). And by virtue of this “in-between”-ness, it has ‘virtual reality in excess of their actualisation in subjects and objects (Hynes 2013 p.571). In this way, potentiality underlies affect in a way that renders it both ever-present and ever-evasive at the same time.

In accepting this open-endedness and indeterminacy of the meaning in acts of resistance, and embracing the continual transience and transformation of the affective dimension of life, we are at the same time ‘opened up’ and ‘exposed’ to the opacity of the indefinite and the infinity of possibility. Indeed, unknowability and potentiality seem to be two sides to the same coin in affect theory. In the study of resistance through an affective lens, knowing ‘less’, then, seems to be another way of knowing ‘more’.

Judy Kuo is a Demos Subeditor 

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Reference List

Certeau, M de 1984, The Practice of Everyday Life’, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Hynes, M 2013, ‘Reconceptualising resistance: sociology and the affective dimension of resistance’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 64, no. 4, pp. 559-577.

Hynes, M 2016a, ‘Consuming’, Sociology of Resistance, Week 7.

Hynes, M 2016b, ‘Bodies’, Sociology of Resistance, Week 8.

Hynes, M 2016c, ‘Affecting’, Sociology of Resistance, Week 12.

Sharpe, S, JD Dewsbury & M Hynes 2014, ‘The Minute Interventions of Stewart Lee’, Performance Research, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 116-125. 

Wark, M 2011, ‘Mackenzie Wark on Occupy Wall Street: ‘How to Occupy an Abstraction,’ Verso Books 3 October 2011. Available from: <http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/728-mckenzie-wark-on-occupy-wall-street-how-to-occupy-an-abstraction>. [Accessed: 5 June 2016.]

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