Affect is of bodily sensation, as hard to pin down as a chill up the spine, feeling so uncontrollable that it incites laughter to the point of tears. Affect is relational, mobile, and social, unlike the labels we use for emotions described in possessive terms that sound self-contained, such as “I am angry.” Affect is not owned by an individual or nominalized on the page but registers in intensities and atmospheres that agitate a clench of the jaw or excite a campus protest. Affect troubles distinctions between outside and inside, self and object, individual and collective, I and you. To engage “affect” is not an exercise in explication; rather than attempt to define the word, artists and scholars conjure it.
According to Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature, affect is emergent and material, “structures of feeling” not of the past or individually possessed, like ideology or worldview, but actively lived through impulse and tone—“not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought . . . in a living and interrelating continuity . . . social experience which is still in process.”
In the American lyric Citizen, the poet Claudia Rankine fractures her narrative voice, interchangeably using “I” and “you” to evoke structures of feeling that blur the body and the page. In the situations, events, and scenes that Rankine portrays and enacts, social experiences of racialization are affective processes, as racist acts are reiterated in moments of routine and spectacular violence.
In Richmond, Virginia, Confederate statues honoring generals such as Robert E. Lee stand loud and proud on Monument Avenue. At the intersection where Stonewall Jackson sits erect astride a horse of heroic proportions, the recently re-signed Arthur Ashe Boulevard, a thoroughfare renamed after the Black tennis player who could not hit a ball in nearby Byrd Park, cuts across the bronze tributes to Southern Civil War heroes. In December 2019, Kehinde Wiley’s bronze sculpture on limestone called Rumors of War was installed on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. This African American figure with dreadlocks, a hoodie, and ripped jeans also sits astride a horse of heroic proportions, looking back at the monuments of Lee, Jackson, and General J. E. B. Stuart with a forward posture simultaneously stating with its gaze, “I” and “you.”
“Affect becomes publicly visible,” Sianne Ngai states in Ugly Feelings, “in an age of mechanical reproducibility: as a kind of ‘agitation’ or ‘animatedness.’ On one hand, the state of being ‘animated’ implies the most general of all affective conditions (that of being ‘moved’ in one way or another), but also a feeling that implies being ‘moved’ by a particular feeling, as when one is said to be animated by happiness or anger. Animatedness thus seems to have both an unintentional and intentional form.”
In 2006, the president of William & Mary, Greg Nichol, had the Wren Cross removed from its permanent placement on the altar of the Wren Chapel in the oldest building on campus, where the offices of the Department of Religious Studies and classrooms are also housed. This act animated anger moved by possessive claims to the public university’s Christian past, present, and future, which seemed under siege five years after US President George W. Bush declared a global war on terror using the language of crusade. On a website called Save the Wren Cross dedicated to “A Movement to Defend and Honor William & Mary’s History,” alumni vented their agitation in battle cries moved by a sense of belonging. In turn, their statements of anger animate ugly feelings in readers years later, historically contextualized by more recent acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated by White men in Black churches, mosques, and synagogues. R. Greg Paszkiewicz (’94) exclaimed, “I do NOT want everyone to feel at home at W&M. If someone’s religious or political beliefs cause them to think it’s OK to kill all Christians, Jews, and ‘non-believers,’ genitally mutilate their daughters, marry five wives, etc., I don’t want them to feel welcomed.” Beachgirl blogger wrote, “As a graduate of the College of William and Mary, I view the seizure of the Wren Cross and the condescension to allow it out of the closet at the choosing of the secular president as paramount examples of the war waged upon our nation and our culture by anti-Christian agenda-driven secularists . . . This is a war waged to remove any and all symbols of our heritage from view, to place Christianity in a position of servitude, and to weaken our nation.”
In Politics of Affect Brian Massumi remarks, “I think affective expressions like anger and laughter are perhaps the most powerful because they interrupt a situation. They are negative in that sense. They interrupt the flow of meaning that’s taking place: the normalized interrelations and interactions that are happening and the functions that are being fulfilled. Because of that, they are irruptions of something that doesn’t fit.”
After class one day a student told me about moving from Northern to Southern Virginia, close to the North Carolina border. The first day in his new junior high school his teacher asked, in a slow, long drawl that he mimicked, “Where are you from?” I asked how he responded, and he said that he laughed. Later, his father took him to a celebration where women adorned in antebellum dresses paraded down Main Street in front of pick-up trucks draped in Confederate bunting with men bearing shotguns in the cabs. On another day, a student shared that he was called out for not extending empathy to the victims of school shootings during a class discussion. Stray bullets pierced the windows and walls of his elementary school on a daily basis and four of his family members were murdered just after Thanksgiving last year.
I recalled these stories while stuck in a throng of camouflage-wearing white men bearing assault rifles and shields of ammo. Over 20,000 people arrived in Richmond, Virginia, from all over the country on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2020 to protest legislation that would require background checks on all firearm purchases, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others, let localities ban weapons from certain events and government buildings, and cap handgun purchases at one per month. Most of the extremely polite protestors were packing heat outside of the fenced grounds of the capitol building, where the official rally was held and guns had been recently banned. A week prior, FBI agents had arrested members of the white supremacist group The Base, who were planning to use the gun rally to incite a race war. Orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers on army green winter coats surrounded me. The mob launched into a chorus of the Pledge of Allegiance in piercing screams of patriotism under the US flag, the Gadsden flag, the Confederate flag, and the Christian flag. I tried not to bump into anyone and trigger a gun. Over lunch with a friend a few hours later, I laughed until I cried.