Ordinary Affects

Ordinary Affects

Book Pages: 144 Illustrations: Published: September 2007

American Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies

Ordinary Affects is a singular argument for attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life and the potential that animates the ordinary. Known for her focus on the poetics and politics of language and landscape, the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart ponders how ordinary impacts create the subject as a capacity to affect and be affected. In a series of brief vignettes combining storytelling, close ethnographic detail, and critical analysis, Stewart relates the intensities and banalities of common experiences and strange encounters, half-spied scenes and the lingering resonance of passing events. While most of the instances rendered are from Stewart’s own life, she writes in the third person in order to reflect on how intimate experiences of emotion, the body, other people, and time inextricably link us to the outside world.

Stewart refrains from positing an overarching system—whether it’s called globalization or neoliberalism or capitalism—to describe the ways that economic, political, and social forces shape individual lives. Instead, she begins with the disparate, fragmented, and seemingly inconsequential experiences of everyday life to bring attention to the ordinary as an integral site of cultural politics. Ordinary affect, she insists, is registered in its particularities, yet it connects people and creates common experiences that shape public feeling. Through this anecdotal history—one that poetically ponders the extremes of the ordinary and portrays the dense network of social and personal connections that constitute a life—Stewart asserts the necessity of attending to the fleeting and changeable aspects of existence in order to recognize the complex personal and social dynamics of the political world.


Ordinary Affects is a contribution to the study of the cultural life of feeling and a theorization of the everyday. . . . Ordinary Affects offers a collection of stories and meditations that speak to such experience and attention, data from everyday existence, as it is lived, that would evade more systemic analysis.” — Tobias Menely, American Book Review

Ordinary Affects transfigures the most banal practices and objects by juxtaposing them to cast new constellations. Stewart’s ability to produce moments of illuminating tension through the careful arrangement of her fieldnotes may not express a single argument nor offer a definitive judgment on American life in the new millennium, but it does produce both shock and reflection in the reader. And somewhere between the thick description of the fieldnote and the flow of the poetic line, she wakes us up – again and again – to the realization that in order to even begin understanding what’s going on, we must first simply take notice.” — Kate Eichhorn, Poetic Front

“Kathleen Stewart observes and lays out scenarios in a frank if fragmentary way, and what emerges is a study that is autobiographical and ordinary, yet also compellingly edgy—as lyrical prose and as unflinching critique in an age of new media.” — Christopher Schaberg, Western American Literature

“Stewart’s pedagogy is deep and performative. As you read the book you become more and more alert to your surroundings. Your skin begins to prickle with the apprehensions of the lives of others, of resonances of care and indiff erence, of anxiety and ease.” — Ben Highmore, Reviews in Cultural Theory

Ordinary Affects works superbly as a challenge to prevailing norms of social and cultural research and as an effective call to surface, to the mundane, and the ordinary. . . . At their best, [these vignettes] are as fascinating as a short story by Raymond Carver, though they show an intellectual lineage with figures like Walter Benjamin, Michel Leiris, and Michael Taussig .” — Craig Campbell, Space and Culture

“In this short, insightful book, Kathleen Stewart probes a dizzying range of scenes and structures of ordinary life in America. With keen ethnographic attention to American cultural detail, Stewart exposes the multilayered forces, surges, blockages, and intensities that shape and invent the affective texture of, and complex public feelings pervading, disparate but familiar places and vehicles of the American dreamscape: supermarkets, cars, malls, highways, subdivisions, small towns, motels, railroads, and so on. . . . Stewart contributes great insight for revising theoretical and methodological approaches to ordinary life and culture and, in so doing, provides an overdue and important entry on the meaning and uses of affect for anthropology. The appearance of Ordinary Affects augurs well for new and productive forms of ethnographic inquiry and cultural study.” — David Staples, American Ethnologist

“Rather than simply theorizing about cultural poesis, Stewart performs it. . . . Stewart is a gifted storyteller. Her tales are written in the third person, which alienates the author from herself, creating the requisite critical distance rigorous academic scholarship requires. Equally important, however, this narrative format casts readers in the role of affective ethnographer to Stewart’s extraordinarily ordinary stories, awakening us from the stupor induced by far too much torpid academic prose and engendering a new form of critical intimacy.” — Sara L. Warner, Feminist Theory

“Stewart’s ethnographer’s eye and attention to concrete, lived experience give us an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of America at the end of the twentieth century/dawn of the twenty-first. . . . The power of Ordinary Affects is simply this: it asks us to attend to our own networks, to linger on these moments of tension and communion rather than assimilating them quickly into our own personal, private narratives.” — Megan Savage, Indiana Review

“This is hardly conventional ethnography. It pushes ethnography to the brink and beyond, scoring high in poetics and resonant voice. Ordinary Affects is to ethnography what slow food is to American cuisine. Savor it.” — Elizabeth L. Krause, Anthropology and Humanism

Ordinary Affects is an extraordinary work of finely observed aspects of everyday life in contemporary America. It is a beautiful book about waking life, being awakened to life, and the fear and desire rippling on the surface of people’s ordinary movements through space. Radical yet familiar, it is a profoundly pedagogical book.” — Lauren Berlant, author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

“Anything but ordinary, this book rewrites the social sciences from top to bottom through its bleak and beautiful honesty as to the human condition and the conditional nature of our language and concepts. How the author has been able to step outside of the bubble we call reality so as to render reality is a miracle, yet one we might all aspire to on reading this.” — Michael Taussig, Columbia University

“Full of resonating stories, encounters quirky in their unapologetic ordinariness, and murmuring objects, this book takes me into the thick world of the everyday in the U.S.A. Intent on critique or explanation, too many scholars hardly know how to experience, much less think, such worlds, and so regularly give them Big Names like Capitalism and Modernity and Neoliberalism. Ordinary Affects sounds the depths and shallows of intimate, particular worlds crucial to finding our way in the tidal basin of contemporary culture. Here are accounts of lives in plain sight, but only if we cultivate the deceptively hard practices of slow looking and off-stage hearing. Kathleen Stewart touches the marrow of things by nurturing an oblique and unrushed sort of attention, one alert to the bio-luminescence generated in ordinary living taken seriously, without which we are in the dark in politics, philosophy, and cultural theory.” — Donna Haraway, University of California, Santa Cruz


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kathleen Stewart is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Ordinary Affects 1

References 131

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4107-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4088-1
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