Margin of maneuverability and atmospheres of hope

Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’
~ Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect


I recently attended a three-day conference in Montreal. It brought together a range of local, national and international practitioners, academics and activists and everyone in-between. The conference followed the progression and format that conferences tend to follow. Plenary openings, individual workshops, food breaks, more plenaries and workshops and so on. Presenters followed traditional presentation formats including PowerPoint, speaking from notes, printed or on laptops and at times speaking off script. Questions were posed followed by responses, more questions, conversations and at times debate. The subject matter was interesting and engaging and the stories and lives that were driving the theoretical and abstract discourses were very real, current, complex and urgent. They were also full of pain, despair, anger, diverse forms of agency, resilience and perseverance.

There was a lot of concentrated presenting and concentrated listening; structures and events were analyzed, digested – rigorously – connections were made, insights presented, struggles dramatized… the stuff of conferences. Overall, as far as conferences go, nothing too out of the ordinary. The script, if one were to narrate a conference, seemed familiar. Comfortable. One knew what to do and expect, broadly speaking.

Towards the end of the conference, however, what had been a rather somber and low frequency event, became something different; if only for a moment. The register shifted. A speaker intervened in a perhaps unexpected way. A ‘no’ was thrown out there; a ‘no’ – a form of resistance or discomfort at the way things had been going – surfaced. It was, perhaps, a collective ‘no’ felt in the lower reaches of the gut; registered as perhaps an affect of discomfort. A ‘no’ emerging from a shared consciousness; a ‘no’ which might have been disavowed or repressed or kept at a distance.

There was quite an atmosphere. It might be electric; it might be tense. It might be heavy, light. Maybe an atmosphere is most striking as a zone of transition: an upping, a downing. The laughter that fills the room: more and more. An occasion is being shared; the sounds of glasses clinking; the gradual rise of merriment; we can hear things get louder. Or a sombre situation: quiet words, softly spoken; bodies tense with the effort of holding themselves together by keeping themselves apart. The sound of a hush or a hush that follows a sound, one that might interrupt the solemnity, piercing through it, turning heads. Hush” ~ Sara Ahmed

The challenge was directed to participants. Look inward. The revolution starts at home. Reflect upon your own complicity in the structures you were critiquing. Reflect on your mode of address, your tone, language and clinical remove; theorizing and abstracting. Your privilege and distance from hotspots of pain and grounded knowledge. Reflect on how this invites or closes doors for participation across a broader spectrum of experience… beyond academia, the court room, the practice setting. Reflect on how your language may cover up, obscure or be complicit in the pain you are addressing. Does your language fall upon experience like smothering ash or does it invite experience into the room? What degree of removal does your language convey; your tone of address, your affect. What emotions did you allow to surface and to speak? What anger? Was it encouraged or shamed, this outrage, if it emerged. What mood did it precipitate? What was the collective uptake, the change in the air, what did it feel like, when feelings became atmospheric? Was there containment? Was there enough of it? Were you greedy for more or did all of this register as a sort of awkward ‘what is happening’ gut feeling, a discomfort and perhaps disorientation. The script was off.


We might describe an atmosphere as a feeling of what is around, and which might be all the more affective in its murkiness or fuzziness: a surrounding influence that does not quite generate its own form. When an atmosphere is tense, those who arrive into the room can “pick up” tension, in becoming tense, a way of being influenced, a way of receiving an impression, whether or not they are conscious of being tense. When feelings become atmospheric, we can catch the feeling simply by walking into a room. In describing an atmosphere, or in becoming conscious of an atmosphere, we give this influence some form” (Sara Ahmed).

As always, Sara Ahmed’s framing, her unexpected interventions and the language she finds to vocalize moments of experience impress me. They lead me to reflect. “We give this influence some form…”, she writes. I want to pause here.

In an article, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, working at Montreal’s SenseLab, attempt to do exactly that: to give the atmosphere ‘some form’.

Here is how. Here is why.

They speak of an “emergent collectivity”— the type of energy palpable in groups learning together, making art together, or building a political movement together. Energy is another metaphor for atmosphere.

The emphasis is on ‘together’; something is happening in the relating, in the ‘spaces between’; something emerges. The individual identity recedes and your ‘self’, your ego, becomes less tightly wrapped around itself. Things happen in consort; could not happen otherwise; happen in the harmonizing together.

Brian Massumi puts it this way: “I think there can be another notion of autonomy that has to do more with how you can connect to others and to other movements, how you can modulate those connections, to multiply and intensify them. So, what you are, affectively, isn’t a social classification – rich or poor, employed or unemployed – it’s a set of potential connections and movements that you have, as a function of those classifications, but always in an open field of relations. What you can do, your potential, is ultimately defined by your connectedness, the way you’re connected and how intensely, not your ability to separate off and decide by yourself. Autonomy is always connective, it’s not being apart, it’s being in, being in a situation that gives you certain degrees of freedom, or powers of becoming, powers of emergence.” (Politics of Affect)

To create and sustain these moments of emergence, this energy or palpable atmosphere, created in togetherness, but also to evaluate the particular mood or feel of the atmosphere – is it oppressive or light, hopeful or tense – is a challenge that Massumi and Manning have taken up.

Here is their approach. In short, the two attempt to “digitally codify offline qualities and affects” by developing an ‘affect-o-meter: “the specific computational mechanism that can turn a quality that hangs in the air into the binary quantities of machine code.” Once codified, these ‘qualities hanging in the air’ would feed into an ‘affective economy’, “an economy that runs on intensities of relations and values those, their process, more than any particular product.” Codified affects or atmospheres would be linked to value and be “tokenized as a unit of the cryptocurrency, and in turn exchanged for fiat money — generating cash.” Whereas fiat money is backed by governments that issue it and rests on an ephemeral collective trust, as opposed to gold bars stored in bank vaults – i.e. money rests only on confidence – Massumi and Manning’s fiat money would be “backed by the confidence [they] could build in [their] ability to keep the creative process going and spin it off into other projects.”

The idea is to think differently about value and economics. Whereas in the standard capitalist economy the qualitative basis for value emerges in the form of ‘externalities’ – “things that affect price but aren’t themselves quantifiable” – such as the perceptions of the quality of life in different neighborhoods affecting real estate prices, the qualitative basis for value emerging in their ‘alter-economy’ emerges from the ‘surplus values of life’. By this, they mean the “qualitatively different experiences of collectivity in action.” The atmosphere as externality or by-product of life; the affect-o-meter registering “the affective intensity of the production of surplus value of life, its ebbs and flows.”


This brings me back to the conference that can now be approached with a new perspective. As Massumi asks, “can strategies privileging an affective approach to events increase our powers of existence? Can they help us act differently, think more actively and feel more thinkingly?” The moment when the ‘no’ surfaced during the conference, the atmosphere changed. Different affects were tapped into.

Whereas we all know more or less what we mean by emotions, affect is something else. An emotion is a “very partial expression of affect. It only draws on a limited selection of memories and only activates certain reflexes or tendencies… No one emotional state can encompass all the depth and breadth of our experience of experiencing… So, when we feel a particular emotion or think a particular thought, where have all the other memories, habits, tendencies gone that might have come at the point? There’s no way they can all be actually expressed at any given point. But they’re not totally absent either, because a different selection of them is sure to come up at the next step. They’re still there, but virtually – in potential. Affect as a whole, then is the virtual co-presence of potentials… we call it our ‘freedom’ and defend it fiercely.”

Massumi speaks of affect then as our ‘margin of maneuverability’ – “where we might be able to go and what we might be able to do in every present situation” – and calls it ‘hope’. Arguing that having more potential available to us implies living a more intense life, Massumi suggests that we work on expanding our “emotional register or limber up our thinking” as a means of accessing all our hidden affects, virtual – in potential – resting beneath the surface.

When the ‘no’ surfaced at the conference, an affect that had been virtual throughout the conference emerged. The challenge to conference participants drew on memories, habits and tendencies that had perhaps not been directly present in the room before. When participants were being asked to face the mirror, to look at themselves, no longer outward facing but inward turning and critiquing, a different emotional register was tapped into. Perhaps there was shame at not having done enough; or anxiety at confronting one’s challenged identity – no longer the protagonist in their story but the question mark – ; or perhaps there was anger or resentment of having been asked to take stock of one’s own disavowed complicity in worldly pain.

If an affect-o-meter would have been present, how would the ‘emergent collectivity’, the energy, atmosphere, mood, created together, have been valued? Would this have been the ‘peak value’ of the conference? Or a low point? My sense is that it would have been, despite the discomfort, valued as a ‘peak value point’ in the conference. There was much cheering, perhaps a collective relief, an exhale; the unspoken had been verbalized, the elephant acknowledged.

As Sara Ahmed writes astutely, “consider the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s book, The Transmission of Affect: “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’”. Brennan writes very beautifully about how the atmosphere “gets into the individual” using what I have called an “outside in” model, also very much part of the intellectual history of crowd psychology and also the sociology of emotion. However, later in the introduction she makes an observation, which involves a different model. Brennan suggests that “if I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an “impression” (a word that means what it says).” I agree. Anxiety is sticky: rather like Velcro, it tends to pick up whatever comes near. Or we could say that anxiety gives us a certain kind of angle on what comes near. Anxiety is, of course, one feeling state amongst others. If bodies do not arrive in neutral, if we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation. This second argument suggests the atmosphere is not simply “out there” before it gets “in”: how we arrive, how we enter this room or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. To receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.  So, we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point.”

This to me highlights the importance of Massumi’s proposal that we practice expanding our emotional register and try tapping into more of our potential affects. The way we experience an atmosphere is connected to how we (can and do) contribute to it. The way we experience an atmosphere depends on how we enter into the room; our “angle of arrival” will impact the way we contribute to and feed back into this atmosphere and its surplus value of life; based on our own feel for it, for what is going on; based on our ability to access diverse emotional states; diverse potential affects.

The moment the ‘no’ surfaced was therefore a moment that shed life on the willingness and ability of the participants, as a collective, to access their ‘not-yet-surfaced’ but potential/virtual sides of their lives. It could have gone wrong. The atmosphere could have soured. The intervener greeted with hostility. This did not happen. Thankfully. In Massumi’s language, perhaps the margin of maneuverability was wide enough to welcome this ‘no’ into the room. Perhaps hope was in the room. And rested not on or within any one individual but emerged and was nourished in the spaces-in-between; in the points of connection, the harmonization, the relating, points of contact, feelings, shared joys and sorrows; rested in the collective experience, in its potential, in its energy.


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