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The affect effect

Kathleen Stewart begins her Afterword to The Affect Theory Reader with the sentence “What is, is a refrain.” I take her words to mean that it is through repetition – through sensing and registration – that background “noise” is lifted to significance and that the affects thus generated resonate (literally) through both mind and body. In this article I reflect on what in cultural studies has been proclaimed the “affective turn,” an approach that is also gaining ground in anthropology. The focus on affect can be seen as an attempt to overcome the individualizing and psychologizing effects of the related concept of emotion, to instead direct attention to how “feelings” are generated in dialogue with the world. Two prominent anthropological examples of this trend are the recent monographs by Kathleen Stewart and Yael Navaro-Yashin. To stay with the refrain theme I suggest that these monographs strike a chord through their elegance, repetition and familiarity. As do all good refrains, they have a sing-along quality: they are easy to remember because we already know some of the lines. As good refrains they are not only elegantly written but also repetitive. In contrast to popular culture, however, refrains quickly tend to become old in academic texts. Nevertheless, it is through repetition that the books produce an affective touch.


To say that Stewart’s Ordinary Affects is an extraordinary work is to join a chorus of reviewers, the most prominent of whom compares the book to a miracle and asserts that Stewart “rewrites the social sciences from top to bottom” (Taussig on the back cover). This is a bold claim for a book that rejects grand theorizing and modestly calls for attending to the “affective dimension of everyday life”. The enthusiasm informing the claim is contagious though. Like other reviewers I was touched by Stewart’s talent for animating events and people through description. For example when she describes Carry, a regular slot machine player, the reader feels not only the addictive pull of the machines but also identifies with Carry’s elation and boost of confidence when winning the jackpot twice in a single night. This feeling turns to sad empathy when Carry boosts that she won the jackpot not through chance, but because “she knows the game” (2007: 95-96).

The affective qualities of Everyday Affects rest in its evocative images, spot-on descriptions and its thought-provoking and slightly mysterious sentences.  For Stewart the ordinary is about the “hints of energy” (2007: 70) that come to us in televised clichés, in flights of fancy, or in a fleeting conversation, and that may vanish just as quickly as they appeared. In Stewart’s words “Things flash up – little worlds, bad impulses, events alive with some kind of charge” (2007: 68). The described events, connections, and structures matter to the extent that they are actively imagined and enlivened by people. Affect, Stewart suggests, is about the “animated inhabitation of things” (2007: 16), making up an “animate circuit that conducts force and maps connections, routes, and disjunctures” (2007: 3).

To concretize these rather abstract conceptualizations of affect and animation, it is helpful to turn to Stewart’s discussion of temporality, or more precisely, of how people perceive changes in the flow of time. The notion of the still, defined as “a state of calm, a lull in the action”, is central to this discussion. According to Stewart, life “draws its charge from rhythms of flow and arrest. Still lifes punctuate its significance” (2007: 18-19). Not long after I read this passage I visited the National Gallery’s “Seduced by Art” exhibition, and was drawn to a centrally displayed photograph, by Luc Delahaye, of a perfectly serene and quiet Afghanistan landscape. In the image, blue-grey winter skies blend on the horizon into ash-grey mountains, beneath which lies barren farmland in brownish and greenish shades. Nothing seems to happen here; a few smoke clouds ascend to the sky, that’s all. However, these seemingly insignificant clouds explode in the imagination when reading the title of the work – “US bombing of Taliban positions.” At that moment the “still” extends temporally and the viewer realizes that the photo was taken a few seconds after multiple bombs had done their destructive work, the only visible trace of which are the ephemeral smoke plumes. The work is confronting because it suggests the deceptiveness of peace and quiet, powerful because of the interconnected contrast of the still and the turmoil. And yet, the photograph suggests nothing in and of itself. It is only because of the title “US bombing of …” that the image gains its disturbing qualities.[1] If the image fails to affect without title, might this also be true of Stewart’s own sketches? Her “stills” are certainly evocative. Kids who are asleep on the back seat of the car when returning from a busy day at the lake; love letters hidden away in a box, waiting to be read in the future. They are touching. This is certainly credit to Stewart’s descriptive and literary skills, but the effect is only there because the descriptions resonate with readers’ own memories. For me the sketches are evocative precisely because they prompt images of my parents’ old car with me trying to stay awake on the back seat while returning late from a family birthday; they even made me open the cardboard boxes with pictures and hand-written letters that are tucked away under my desk.

Kathleen Stewart’s work is touching because it elegantly describes familiar worlds, because it activates that which was already passively known or felt. This is no criticism of Stewart’s work. In fact, it closely mirrors her arguments about the working of affect. Moreover, she states at the onset that she aspires and commits herself to nothing more than “speculation, curiosity, and the concrete” (2007: 1). And surely the evocative power of her descriptions is something that more ethnographers should aspire to. Nevertheless, the question remains to what extent her approach also applies to the study of less familiar worlds (that require not only explication but also explanation). Moreover, what analytical gains can be made through a focus on affect above and beyond evocation?


If Stewart manages to bring to life a world that drives not just on meaning and interest, but on its electrification or intensification,[2] Navaro-Yashin pushes the analytical significance of a focus on affect in her monograph The Make-Believe Space (2012). Unconcerned with the kind of Euro-American experiences that can be grasped and felt by most Duke University Press readers without cultural translation or socio-political contextualization, she takes her readers to the aftermath of violence in the little known Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).[3] Navaro-Yashin elaborates on the benefits of adopting affect as an analytical lens: it allows for treating human interiority and the exterior world as inextricably intertwined, and it shows how this intertwining produces publicly emotive charges. Such an angle, she argues, prompts a host of questions that in the past tended to be ignored. By moving beyond a subject-centred approach, it is possible to describe analytically the “atmosphere” of a place (2012: 18), to analyse the merging of the energies of humans and nature (2012: 27), and to consider the affective potentialities of non-living entities. Such issues are very relevant in northern Cyprus where the traces of conflict lurk in decaying buildings, sentiments of loss and regret are “in the air,” and the landscape is imbued with ghostlike presences.

Northern Cypriots are not only haunted by the legacy of a disturbing past, they are also negatively affected by on-going political uncertainties. The key issue is that northern Cyprus has been a de facto autonomous polity since the 1970s, yet the TRNC has never been internationally recognized as an independent state. This results in interesting contradictions. For example, Navaro-Yashin presents the case of a northern Cypriot whose asylum to the UK is denied because as a citizen of the TRNC his rights are expected to be safeguarded by the “North Cypriot authorities,” even though those authorities do not “officially” exist. Paradoxically, Britain “does not recognize the TRNC as a ‘state’, and yet … endorses the ‘law’ and validates the ‘authority’ of the TRNC” (2012: 102). The absence of international recognition also has domestic repercussions. For one, it means that TRNC “state-produced” paperwork is as feeble as the unrecognized state itself. What is the use of identity and ownership documents if they are not recognized abroad? Will these documents retain any value in the future, when the political situation may have changed? Such uncertainties inform inhabitants’ ironic attitudes towards their state’s administrative structures.

These challenges to the “reality of the state” sit on top of a legacy of conflict. According to Navaro-Yashin, the “phantasmatic” dimension of the pseudo or wannabe-state intersects with the “phantomic” qualities of a divided island, of an amputation that cut residents off from their past and severed their relationship to the land (2012: 13-15). In such an environment, she continues, the “fictional and real are not distinct” (2012: 10). To capture these dynamics Navaro-Yashin employs the term “make-believe,” which indicates impermanence, fabrication, fragility, incompleteness, pretence, all of which are suggestive for the ethnographic context she is describing. Moreover, the term resonates with the locally used uyduruk devlet which literally translates as “the made-up state” (2012: 6). But how much analytic work is the make-believe capable of doing? By her own account, the make-believe “metamorphoses from an ethnographically descriptive to a conceptual and theoretical category” (2012: 12). Whether or not she deliberately picked the word “metamorphoses”, it does capture the rather obscure manner in which she leaps from the descriptive to the conceptual and from the idiosyncratic to the universal. As I will go on to argue, this tendency results in missing important analytic opportunities and prevents her arguments from being fully convincing.

Ironically the large leaps are related to the fact that the concept of make-believe suits the TRNC context so perfectly well.  The fit creates a problem because if the make-believe were to be restricted to unrecognized states such as the TRNC, then this would end up suggesting that other states are somehow “more real”. Cognizant of this danger, Navaro-Yashin stresses that she does not “isolate, corner or carve [the TRNC] out as an anomaly or exception because it is an unrecognized state” (2012: 10). To the contrary she emphasizes that the discussed phenomena are “not at all unique to northern Cyprus” (2012: 28) but apply to other states as well. No objection so far – it is hardly controversial to suggest that “make-believe-ness” (2012: 11) has wider applicability. After all, the legal and the political are always about make-believe. This is what Weber implicitly suggested when defining his types of authority, which “rested on the belief” in the legality of rules and the sanctity of tradition or “rested on devotion” to individuals (Weber 1978: 53-54). It is also central in discussions of hegemony, which in the footsteps of Gramsci, explores how people are made to believe or made to accept a given constellation (Mitchell 1990). Navaro-Yashin’s foregrounding of the make-believe concept is an important reminder of the connectedness of material and imaginary; in her terms, “the material crafting is in the making [and the] phantasmatic work is in the believing” (2012: 5). What is problematic is that the claims about the general applicability of the make-believe are not accompanied by an in-depth or comparative analysis of the process of making and believing.

By immediately stressing the “non-exceptional” nature of the TRNC, Navaro-Yashin misses out on the specifics of how people are “made to believe.” This is particularly felt when she rejects “comparisons with other offshoot states in different parts of the world, such as Kosovo … or Abkhazia” on the basis that this “would be a narrow reading of what an ethnographic lens can offer” (2012: 28). Narrow indeed if that would be the only kind of comparison, but to then proceed by rejecting any comparison with “offshoot states” does not only cause another narrowing, but also prevents her from identifying the mechanisms by which the “make-believe” gains or fails to gain believe-ability. The emphasis on the non-exceptionality of the TRNC also surfaces when she emphasizes that “the pseudo-factor in the TRNC” does not make it “more prone to inducing affect” (2012: 32). True enough, but the relevant question is not about more or less affect, but about the different kinds of affect that are being generated. And here the “pseudo-factor” certainly plays a role, as do a range of other factors that could have been identified through systematic analysis and comparison.

Apart from ignoring comparisons with “similar” states, the book also tends to skip the ethnographic middle ground in order to reach straight from specific examples to the meta-conceptual. A good example is the chapter on “make-believe documents.”  For example, inhabitants’ ironic attitudes towards TRNC identity documents are presented as an extension of Hannah Arendt’s observation that bureaucracies have the propensity to “incite excessive and violent emotion” (2012: 96). I take issue not with the fact that she did not quote several contemporary anthropologists writing about identity documents (Kelly 2006; Heyman 1995), but that in doing so she missed the opportunity to analyse more closely how the make-believe is constituted. Moreover, the skipping of the ethnographic middle ground also has the effect of relating phenomena too exclusively to affect, even when her ethnographic descriptions suggest that other frames might be at least as significant. For example, when Navaro-Yashin writes that “Turkish-Cypriots are not lining up to get Republican passports simply because the Republic is a member of the European Union and the passports guarantee international access without visa requirements” (2012: 121), the question it prompts in me is: why not, actually? And why would those reasons amount to “simply”? Here, as elsewhere, the far from trivial material and social needs – the possibility to travel, the ability to receive a salary, to expand one’s influence – are too easily pushed aside in the analysis.


Ordinary Affects and The Make-Believe Space are inspiring books that are or will prove to be influential. They powerfully illustrate the richly textured nature of social life, and they attest to the importance of moving beyond structures and positions, that is, beyond “the grid and its atoms.” These books reveal the motivations, the desires, fears, and tensions that pervade the lived world. They do so without overly psychologizing these energies, but instead understand those to be co-constituted by humans and the surrounding world.  The authors demonstrate the potential of an affective approach for anthropology, and do so convincingly. But while suggesting this possibility, they do not themselves fully exploit the analytic possibilities of affect.

Stewart’s Ordinary Affects reproduces exactly what it describes: it affects the reader by describing the ordinary, in the sense of the familiar. The reader relives scenes, imagines situations, and empathizes with characters that were already known to them, at least at a rudimentary level. The book is able to affect without analysing the structures and positions, simply because it can play on that which is already (intuitively) known about situations. Navaro-Yashin’s The Make-Believe Space also mirrors that which it describes. It creates a framework that is appealing, but like the make-believe it retains a sense of fragility and it invoked, at least in me, scepticism. This may not be of concern to her, because she writes, “knowledge production is another phantasm, another crafting … a make-believe upon a make-believe” (2012: 11). But even though all academic works are fictions in the sense of being constructed, more attention to comparison and the ethnographic middle ground would have made that construction more reliable, the make-believe more convincing.

Stewart has her reasons to prioritize the “ordinary affects that give things the quality of something to inhabit and animate.” But it is important to emphasize that the aspects that she relegates to the second plane – “ideologies happen. Power snaps into place” – are more than epiphenomenal. Organizational and ideological power influences how we are positioned in the world and thereby informs our disposition towards things and situations. I am reminded of the Thomas theorem that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (1928: 571-72). Speaking directly to the notion of make-believe, the statement begs the question what happens when people define situations as not really real (or as unreal) or when they disagree in their definition of situations? In short, the key question is how the real comes to be defined, and analytical attention should thus be paid to the unfolding of the battle over the real. When Navaro-Yashin writes that “what looks legal from one perspective is illegal from another” (2012: 107), does this not also suggest that the kinds of affects that are generated by documents, laws and practices are significantly dependent on the outcome of this? The two books deserve credit for directing attention to ordinary affects and the make-believe, and for illustrating their anthropological relevance. But in order to produce substantive theories that are able to account for variation and to explain specific outcomes, it is necessary to move beyond illustration and evocation, and to ask hard questions about the power relations that uphold the make-believe.


Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphie. 2010. “An ethics of everyday infinities and powers: Felix Guattari on affect and the refrain,” in M. Cregg and G. Seigworth (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, pp. 138-57. Duke University Press.

Heyman, Josiah. 1995. “Putting power in the anthropology of bureaucracy: The Immigration and Naturalization Service at the Mexico-United States border,” Current Anthropology 36(2): 261-87.

Kelly, Toby. 2006. “Documented lives: fear and the uncertainties of law during the second Palestinian intifada,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(1): 89-107.

Mitchell, Timothy. 1990. “Everyday metaphors of power,” Theory and Society 19: 545-77.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2012. The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity. Duke University Press.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2010. “Afterwords: Worlding Refrains,” in M. Cregg and G. Seigworth (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, pp. 339-53. Duke University Press.

Thomas, W. I. and D. S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. Knopf.

Weber, Max. 1978. “Power and domination” Economy and Society vol. 1, edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. University of California Press.

  1. [1]The disturbing quality would have been differently explosive had the title been “Taliban bombing of…” In that case the politico-aesthetic sensitivities would likely have prevented the work from being displayed in the National Gallery.
  2. [2]Bertelsen and Murphie suggest that “affects are intensities” (2010: 139).
  3. [3]Accidentally or not, five of the most recent affect theory volumes (Stewart 2007; Massumi 2002; Navaro-Yashin 2012; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Clough and Halley 2007) have all been published by Duke.

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