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Bodily affectivity and psychogeographic terrains: Ruptures of a stressed body – Atlas

Bodily affectivity and psychogeographic terrains: Ruptures of a stressed body

Samantha Dutton

Bodies are sites of opportunity, process, and action; they are drawn to motion, vitality, and magnetism within their environments. A body as a psychogeographic terrain expresses the connection between a form and how it extends, connects, and communicates when registering affect. The malleability of bodies, what they do and what they can become, enables them to stretch and adapt to different contexts, yet when pushed too far, the body flares up, erupts, or freezes. An imbalance or rupture causes the sprouting of boils, rashes, blisters, and unwanted nuisances on the body’s surface. In an intense state of stress, the body is prone to sickness and infection, it craves to be filled or jolted, and it demands more from us as it tries to communicate being enveloped by pressure. These conditions coincide with the environments we place ourselves in; private spaces or one’s bedroom, the boundary between one’s body and the space is blurred, walls are let down, and we show our fragility among familiar and tactile objects of solace. At university, one produces a contained version of oneself because the controlled environment directs the body toward purpose, one must achieve something specific and be someone specific. Bodily affectivity and the limitations of a body, its ability to snap and break when exceeded, is not taken into account in a measurable university environment where gaps in understanding and experience exist.

The notion of ‘brain-body-world entanglements’ draws back from bodies being thought of as mere material ‘things,’ instead this provokes the link between the body’s flexibility, openness, and ‘capacities to affect and be affected’ (Blackman, Immaterial Bodies, 1). The capacities of a body are tested when one is placed under conditions of stress without regulated amounts of work or breaks in routine. The body’s ability to adapt and stretch itself among numerous environments can manifest in one’s own self-degeneration when the boundaries are pushed and exceeded. The notion of a body as fixed, a substance, and an object arises in popular thought because we understand the body to be ‘something that we both have and are’ (Blackman, The Body, 1). Bodies are not regarded as stable and contained ‘things or entities,’ rather they are defined by processes and movement, extension and immersion in their worlds (Blackman, Immaterial Bodies, 1). The body becomes disjointed under pressure; stress can show you are ‘afloat,’ busy, active, and part of the world, yet it can indicate the body being overworked (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 43). In a state of stress, my body is weary, sensitive, and distracted, but stress boosts adrenaline and my muscles tighten; I am motivated or punctured, alone in resentment and an atmosphere of fear. My senses become heightened; slight noises are irritant to me and my body feels uncomfortable, agitated, or my senses become dulled and I am inattentive, distracted, unruly, and continually tired. The body strains when in contact with ‘alien forces,’ it ‘holes up, bulks up, and wraps itself up,’ and either gathers itself together or covers itself (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 113). The experience of stress is kaleidoscopic, it is ‘the rendering of the something you’re in as if it’s a beginning or an end, as if it’s all, or nothing,’ it is an intense bodily state and an attachment difficult to escape once one is inside of it, which can linger and cause damage (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 43; Stewart, Atmospheric Attunements, 450-451).

Affect is a term that conceptualises ranges of experiences that cannot be perceived — it is about feeling, ambience, and flows of energy. Affect refers to signals and the transmissions between us and our bodies, which might be described as ‘non-cognitive, trans-subjective, non-conscious, non-representational, incorporeal and immaterial’ (Blackman, Immaterial Bodies, 4). This includes atmosphere, energies, and micro intensities in which people discover themselves, magnetism and chemistry, and different interactions with stimuli — a lived affect (Stewart, Atmospheric Attunements, 452). Atmosphere is directly and necessarily linked to affect, not as a ‘thing,’ but rather as part of sensations and vitality that transmit among bodies (Blackman, Immaterial Bodies, 4). The relation between affects felt within environments and ‘psychological action,’ which is distributed throughout the body’s ‘nerves, senses, the gastric and perceptual systems,’ establishes social codes about how one must feel in certain spaces and how the body must position itself (10). When experiencing an environment, we are ‘psychically or psychologically attuned’ to affects; ‘a surging, a rubbing, a connection’ occurs that stems from bodies ‘affecting one another and generating intensities’ (Blackman, Immaterial Bodies, 10; Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 128). The ‘charged atmospheres of everyday life’ can be felt within temporal spaces, and when invisible boundaries are broken, one becomes uncomfortable: bodies stiffen, flinch, become static and shift (Stewart, Atmospheric Attunements, 445). Affect renders the atmospheres and forces we live in and live through, and how we ‘reside in experiences, conditions, things, dreams, landscapes, imaginaries, and lived sensory moments’ (445).

The home is an autobiographical and private space that maintains the body’s edges, fostered in the security of one’s treasured belongings. The tactile presence of personal objects transforms the home’s space, revealing the construction of one’s tangible memories and living state (Krasner 63). Objects are ‘materialised memory’ that prompt our memories by touch; the longer we live in one home, the more we accumulate objects and extend this collection of materialisation (41). Books piled in the corner of a room, photographs on walls, medicine bottles, and papers scattered on a desk — these objects construct and settle into passages of one’s life as remnants of the past inherent in them (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 56). Tangible objects embellish the home, intensify feelings of emotional security, and offer a retreat in one’s domestic environment, which support modes of self-identification and self-integration within the home (Stark 14; Krasner 63). As it is an autobiographical space, one is closely entwined with the home until ultimately habitual interaction and a collapse of boundaries with the home turns into a melding of the self and home (Krasner 43). This ‘blending of oneself with the home’ describes one’s body being alert to the spatial mappings of the home, each corner and nook become familiar to the point where boundaries of the ‘self and environment’ disintegrate (43). We curate our domestic environments believing if we rearranged furniture our lives would run better and more productively, this being a reason why our habitats reveal ourselves: disorder, clutter, and hoarding, or tidy and arranged can prove the states we find ourselves in (Stark 8). The things we tuck away or keep close to us in our homes, the tactile and the sensory reinforce ‘domestic comfort’ and coherence of the body (Krasner 15).

Under conditions of stress, the body expresses itself by breaking out with sickness because it is the only response it knows when experiencing forms of pressure. The objects exposed in my bedroom reveal bodily stress that cannot be seen in other locations. On my bedside counter there are three bottles of medicine which were purposefully given to me to relieve symptoms of tension. Stewart states that the self is ‘a fabulation that enfolds the intensities it finds itself in,’ and in a distressed state, my body envelopes its intensities and becomes progressively agitated, restless, and distracted (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 58). The medicine bottles are evidence of not being able to control my body’s sickness and response to stress. ‘Everything is a matter of doses,’ molecules and milligrams, and the regulation ‘of the form and mode of administration, of habit, of praxis,’ ensures wellbeing (Preciado 3). The Vitamin E (D-alpha Tocopherol) I consume daily helps to balance my hormones and immune system, to assist with my cardiovascular system, skin and tissue repair, and to heal wounds. Rescue Remedy is a liquidated form tasting strongly of pure alcohol, bitter and tangy, it is a medicine I consume daily taking ‘five drops under the tongue, three times a day, and half an hour before meals’ as per instruction. When I take Kali Phos 30CH, a sickly sweet tasting pill for nerves, I am also taking the concept of ‘a series of signs, texts, and discourses’ and ‘the technical sequences that produce it in the laboratory’ (Preciado 2). My body becomes ‘hyperresponsive’ in a sick state, touchy, waves of nausea come and go, adrenaline flushes through me, migraines cause me temporary blindness, or I become dull, drained, unfocused and clouded with anxiety (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 58). Trapped in ‘repetitive cycles of ups and downs,’ and dreaming of rest, my body is in a state of ‘becomings, of multiplicities’ (Preciado 3).

In a state of intensity, the body craves to fill itself and consumes more to keep up with its environment. As a result of rigid work routines, insomnia, and low energy from stress levels, my body is sluggish and dull. It calls ‘for sweet and heavy things to match its inner weight, or for salt and caffeine to jolt it to attention’ (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 113). I consume processed food packed with added colours and artificial flavours, which is manufactured in factories and produced to be long-lasting, and as my body struggles to break down the digested sugar, caffeine, and salt inside of me, I continuously consume to fill the distraction, fear, and anxiety. A body is attracted to flows of energy and will follow any lure, swarming around it, gazing, and sniffing at it to soak in its forces, or we ‘hide from it, spit it out, or develop a taste for it’ (70). These modes of attention and connection keep the body moving: ‘the hypervigilance, the denial, the distraction, the sensory games of all sorts, the vaguely felt promise that something is happening, the constant half-searching for an escape route’ (58). This unhealthy treatment of the body becomes visible on my skin as acne breaks out, and my hair and skin become greasy, oiled with remnants of processed fat and sugar. A body is mediated and externalises the products one puts inside of it; the reactive molecular and chemical changes in my body are deliberate, a transformation known to me as my skin excretes oil and bacteria festers. As I consume, I simultaneously become part of a meta-body, subject to capture and control from processes of commercial production: the flow of commerce, clinical studies, pharmaceutical tests, and marketing strategies (Preciado 2).

The skin is a living porous cage that absorbs products one applies to the surface of the skin, and when a sensitive body is met with disagreeable and artificial liquids, textures, and smells, it resists with roughness. Bodies hum, rage up, or deflate in response to how the self is treated (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 75). The skin digests and melds itself with sanitary products: soap, foams, liquids, scrubs, gel, and pastes. Beautifying products cause the skin to attack and resist with allergic reactions: rashes, eczema, dryness, inflammation, flaking, bumps, and bleeding. We respond to body horror with ‘edgy corrections’ as we find ourselves ‘caught up in something’ we cannot remove and get outside of; we can ‘become someone else,’ an ‘other’ or ‘someone who will never be reconciled with themselves again’ (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 75; Malabou 2-3). When my skin comes into contact with artificial and fragrant products, its senses sharpen as something takes form: itchy and irritated patches of red, flaky and peeling skin appears where sweet scents and sticky liquid have touched flesh, and pink bumpy spots emerge from pungent foams and soaps intended to ‘cleanse’ the skin, yet these products strip the skin back, exposing roughness and its edges (Stewart, Atmospheric Attunements, 448). The body expressing ‘something coming into existence’ alters the experience I have with my own bodily space as new forms of pacing, habits, attachments and responsibilities arise, a new process of ‘worlding’ (452). The senses detect modification in body odour and appearance, texture and mass as ‘they move in and through bodies and spaces, rhythms and tempi, possibilities likely or not’ (448).

A university campus has the air of ordinariness, business, and academia — subjectivity, coincidence, and gaps are ignored or occluded — it is a place where everything is data to be processed. This environment is one in which the body is expected to adapt, to become a hybrid of ‘intensities, surfaces, sensations, perceptions, and expressions’ as it is composed of experiences, encounters, events, and spaces it dwells (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 79). There are gaps in experiences and gaps that do not meet, invisible boundaries, excluded emotions and views, and the self often moves according to these gaps, stretching itself into a direction it did not intend (Jespersen and Lal 45; Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 79). These gaps require the process of ‘attunement to worlding,’ which enables one to inhabit various spaces, otherwise bodies can unfold or flatten (Stewart, Atmospheric Attunements, 446). Being emotional and visibly crying at university or in a classroom on campus disturbs the established atmosphere of the space. When I cry at university, not being able to control my emotions, an uncomfortable feeling washes over me: embarrassment and humiliation kick in as I realise knowingly that it is the wrong place to be expressing my emotional status. The university’s projection of authority and studiousness does not coincide in these moments with my body’s vulnerability, and in this condition that has assembled itself from stress, I morph into something unfamiliar or ‘other’ as extreme forces circulate with a pulse of their own (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 64-65). We put on masks in public spaces to hide these edges of ourselves, suppressing emotion and breakdowns for private spaces; lived affect is individual, personal, and interior, yet simultaneously it is collective, atmospheric, exterior, and bound up with environmental fields. When something unordinary occurs in charged environments, we sense its unusualness because ‘something’ is ‘there’ in its affective positing power.

In one’s household, a bedroom is typically a private and secure space for rest, yet my bedroom poses a joining of two different kinds of environments: a room for domestic comfort and a working room. The arrangement of my room enables two specific spaces to collide into one domestic environment; two meters from my bed is a desk where I carry out all of my university work. Stark poses a similar dilemma in constructing one’s personal environment because her domestic arrangement is founded on her living room also serving as her studio (8). In writing about this problem, Stark unfolds the construction of gendered space by looking at how women’s work spaces — she focuses on women’s studio artworks — demand intimacy and physical proximity, where men’s work spaces keep to the public (11). The notion of a ‘housewife’ is used by Stark to illustrate how anxiety ensues when one tends to their own living environment and feels the need to be a ‘novice homemaker-cum-consumer,’ while simultaneously having to pursue a ‘difficult piece of work’ in this space because it is a hybrid of two rooms and mental realms (10). With a desk in my bedroom, an object that demands certain focused interactions and actions to be carried out, personal space becomes a site of tension as I struggle to sleep and stay calm when a reminder of my workload is a few meters away from my bed. Lifestyles pulse around the body, it adapts itself to objects and ‘builds its substance out of layers of sensory impact (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 113). The expectancy of a body is reshaped in a dual environment, and as I push my body to do various things in one room, thresholds and boundaries are blurred; I must attune myself to be in different states, or I must seek another room to escape into and await normalcy (Stark 22). In my bedroom–work room, I am torn between the opportunities for leisure, entertainment, and sleep, shifting between several windows of attention: researching on the internet, using social media platforms, my phone, and writing my essay — the body ‘wants to be part of the flow’ and it cannot be contained or anchored to one experience in a multi-setting (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 112).

Bodies are swayed by their environments. When stressed and pushed too hard, bodies can crack, strain, and stretch beyond the point of recovery — the damage can be severe. Yet, a body knows itself and recovers slowly, taking its time to catch up with the motions and forces of everyday life. The body is a hybrid form, adapting and responding to vibrations and sensations surrounding it. Breaking out with blisters, boils, inflammation, rashes, coarseness and flakiness, colds and flus, and bacteria-ridden skin are various modes in which the body responds to negligence, pressure, attack, and exhaustion. This response of brutality and roughness from the body demonstrates the edges of a body, the festering and emergence of visible signs to tell us something is wrong. The alarming conditions we find ourselves in coincide with our environments, which can rattle us or give us vitality, but once we are inside of these experiences, we struggle to get outside of them. Melding with our homes, private spaces, and tangible treasures is reclusive for the body, a resting place where we strip ourselves back, and at the opposite end, authoritative and controlled environments can make us feel uncomfortable — spaces where we do not want to show our vulnerability or be open.

  1. Blackman, Lisa. The Body: The Key Concepts. English Ed. Berg, 2008.
  2. – – -. Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation. SAGE, 2012.
  3. Krasner, James. Home Bodies: Tactile Experience in Domestic Space. The Ohio State University Press, 2010.
  4. Lal, Pritika, and Jespersen, Alex Wild. ‘U of I: The University as I Experience You.’ Argos Aotearoa, 1, 2014, http://argosaotearoa.org/work/u-of-i-the-university-as-i-experience-you/.
  5. Malabou, Catherine. Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. English ed. Polity, 2012.
  6. Preciado, Beatriz. ‘Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics.’ E-flux Journal, vol. 44, 2013, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/44/60141/testo-junkie-sex-drugs-and-biopolitics/.
  7. Stark, Frances. The Architect & the Housewife. Book Works, 1999.
  8. Stewart, Kathleen. ‘Atmospheric Attunements.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 29, 2011, http://epd.sagepub.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/content/29/3/445.
  9. – – -. Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press, 2007.

Samantha Dutton is a graduate of Screen Production in Auckland and takes pleasure in writing about books, science fiction, and her cat. She has a curious eye for plants and paper treats.