Ordinary Affects and The Ethnography of Everyday Experience

by Thomas Brett

If you are interested in ethnography, a remarkable study that might interest you is Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke U. Press, 2007).  Stewart is an anthropologist who teaches at the U of Texas, Austin, and her book is finely tuned ethnographic study of everyday life–her life, in fact.  One aim of the book is to render in detail the many small things that we observe (and that happen to us) over the course of a typical day to show the reader how “the reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and nonchoherent singularities.”  In this regard, the book is about illuminating “a tangle of trajectories, connections, and disjunctures.”

But what exactly is an “ordinary affect”?  It’s all the little stuff that makes up our intimate lives, and also the public stuff that circulates and is widely shared.  Ordinary affects are an “animate circuit” of energy, something like Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling.  Yet another way to think about ordinary affects is to think about your own everyday experience, especially in terms of those moments when you suddenly realize something is happening (or just happened): a micro-turning point, a significance emerging, a time made present, a potential revealed, a feeling made palpable.

If this all seems abstract (and it is somewhat), then you have some idea of the challenges that ethnographers face when trying to represent, capture, inscribe, or translate their experiences doing field research.  But Stewart reminds us of how powerful ethnography is as a critically attuned yet also (to my eyes and ears at least)poetic rendering of the stuff of culture.  Ethnomusicologists and sound-oriented anthropologists who face the additional challenge of taking about ever-slippery music and sound might really enjoy reading Stewart’s book.  Why?  Because it’s a model of clarity and open-endedness–the right stance, I think, for exploring the ever-shifting contours of human experience.  Stewart’s “vignette” approach to presenting her material faithfully represents how our experiences feel rather than neatly explaining what our experiences mean.  And I like that because it seems like a honest and grounded stance to take.

Or as Stewart puts it in the book’s first sentence: “Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment.”