Mobilising Affect: Peacebuilding as an Affective Practice

The term affect (emphasis on the first syllable) affects me (emphasis on the second syllable) rather negatively. I have been dancing around affect theory for some time now, and it’s more like being in a boxing ring than a ball room. I think of affect as a slippery young cousin of semiotics, lighter on its feet and even harder to get a hook into. It’s been around since Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher and lens grinder of Portuguese Jewish origins, whose understanding of affect included “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.” But it’s only really found its way into the limelight of the social sciences in relatively recent years, and it arrived on my radar at a point when I was reluctant to engage with yet another fashionable turn in cultural and social research.

Like semiotics, a lot of affect theory seems to pride itself on taking the obvious and restating it in a way nobody can understand. At least semiotics had the decency to refer to itself by a relatively obscure word, and not hijack one that already has a place in our common sense understanding of how the world works. As we grow, we learn that certain things affect us – sunset on the sea, a paper-cut, Andrex puppies, cruelty and injustice – in the sense that they trigger an emotional and/or physical reaction. Their affect can be once-off or repetitive, limited to the time it takes to blink away a tear or suppress a giggle, or part of a life-affecting sequence of events. We are also aware that people affect one another – through their presence, touch, speech and image – and many of us become conscious manipulators of this from childhood. So why do we need a body of theory telling us this phenomenon exists? Are we not just needlessly picking at the frayed ends of reality, in danger of undoing the whole magic of social relations?

As I consider my own reluctance to wade into these murky theoretical waters, I realise that I am already in them, that my whole life is steeped in affect, and that wilful ignorance is no longer an option. My work over the last two years has been turning more and more towards affect – as shown by my joys in reflexivity and a growing fascination with psychosocial theories. I need to shake off my primary response to the theory of affect, and start plumbing its potential as a research concept. My starting point for this is not the philosophical treatises of Spinoza, nor the late 20th century reprisal of his work by cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari (and their translator, Massumi). Instead, I turn to the lucid prose of Margaret Wetherell, an Auckland-based Professor of Social Psychology whose no-bullshit approach includes something I consider very important: an up-to-date grip on psychological theory. For Wetherell (in an interview given to Theory, Culture & Society in 2014), the affective turn:

reflected an understandable desire for something different in social research – a desire to recognize the way the world moves us. It was exciting (and it was transgressive) to talk about bitterness, envy, joy and paranoia in the same breath as social and critical theory. But it led cultural studies researchers, human geographers and social theorists into becoming amateur psychologists and not doing it incredibly well.

In her book, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (2012, Sage), Wetherell offers a definition of affect that is easily grasped:

By affect, I will mean embodied meaning-making. Mostly, this will be something that could be understood as human emotion.

However, she indicates that affect is useful precisely in understanding those moments where human emotions are ‘nebulous’, ‘subtle’, ‘mixed’ or ‘ambivalent’, and she insists that affect is best thought of in conjunction with practice rather than as a static phenomenon. Her understanding of ‘affective practices’ rests in turn on three core contentions:

  1. Affect is best conceptualised as part of a flow that is dynamic, mobile and contingent.
  2. Affect most often resolves into relatively predictable patterns, but it has the potential to be disruptive, i.e. a force for change.
  3. Affect is both individual and communal: when it is scaled up, affect reveals the workings of power, including the regulation of emotional value and privilege.

(All this is available to read in chapter one of the book, free to download from the SAGE website. There is of course a much vaster literature on affect, some of which I may refer to in later posts, but this working definition already gives us a lot to think about.)

How might the affective turn affect us in peace studies? It is notable that many of the themes suggested by affect theory tend towards negative social behaviour: football hooligans and right-wing nationalism seem to be recurring tropes, as social researchers explore the intersection of identity and citizenship with militarism, patriotism and xenophobia. Personally, I would prefer to explore affect in the context of peace movements and humanitarianism, with a view to understanding what prompts grassroots mobilisation, how are some nonviolent interventions sustained while others fade away, how is affect connected to emotional reciprocity and power struggles (e.g. between victims and perpetrators, or donors and beneficiaries), how affect as a process of embodied meaning-making can be navigated across cultural and gender differences, and what exactly happens when there are ruptures in a system (e.g. when certain bodies become displaced) or in other major contingencies (e.g. the making or breaking of a ceasefire or peace accord)?

It strikes me that there is still a lot of room within Peace Studies for this kind of inquiry. While psychological and psychosocial approaches have made several inroads in the field, this has mostly been confined to the area of trauma and healing, or focused on communities of oppression and reconciliation (Wetherall herself is investigating affective practices in the context of decolonisation in New Zealand). Questions of affect and emotion in peace activism, on the other hand, are often simplistically tied to preconceived notions of social justice or civic duty, encompassed in a somewhat cultic – and often gendered – doctrine of love, and stripped of their potential to reveal the mysteries of ambivalence and Schadenfreude inherent in most peace processes. In other words, people aren’t saints, conflicts (even the most asymmetric ones) seldom boil down to good-versus-evil, and a deeper probing of our emotional behaviours (and awkward research moments) can demonstrate this very readily.

What would be the point of this line of research? The aim is not to discredit the work of peacemakers and peacebuilders (indeed, I tend towards the necessary self-deception that everyone is doing the best they can, as much as they can, all of the time). Nor is it to bring the study of peace into disrepute or to cast aspersions on the hero(in)es of nonviolent struggle. If anything, I think the usefulness of affect theory is in helping to articulate and to answer questions such as:

  • Why did a narrow majority of Colombians recently vote against a peace deal that would have ended five decades of violent conflict?
  • Why do people consuming and producing mass media care more about victims of the war in Syria than the one in Yemen, and even less about the earthquake in Haiti?
  • What has helped mobilise positive grassroots responses to the global refugee crisis, and why has this (so far) failed to lead to a mass movement or tangible policy change?
  • What explains the successes and failures of feminist or queer politics in relation to peacebuilding at the local, national and international level?

What affect does, in each of these instances, is allow us to step into the shoes of the people whose actions make up the response to our questions. It gives us an insight into how they feel and think in response to certain episodes, and how they make sense of their own physical and emotional reactions, thereby illuminating what would otherwise be a largely unconscious or unarticulated process. Ethnographies of peace and conflict rarely capture the full complexity of affect – perhaps because doing so would run the risk of breaking down any semblance of a coherent narrative, or perhaps because affective practices are often reliant on social scripts which are culturally unintelligible to outsiders. However, a deeper awareness of affective practices just might lead to more empathetic peacebuilding, drawing more individuals into the work of caring, recovering and rebuilding after social trauma, and equipping researchers and mediators with invaluable cultural competences.

Something that might be worth a try, anyway.


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