“I’m cold and my muscles are tense,” says one.
“I’m scared, but I like it,” – we hear from the second.
“I feel so proud of myself if I successfully overcome an obstacle,” the third mentions.
You see how different these answers are – all to a seemingly simple question: “What do you feel when you’re cycling around St. Petersburg”?
In his post, Nikolai Rudenko wrote about different ways to describe urban mobility. Describing mobility, however, implies another challenging aspect: to talk about subjective experience. So, how to grasp the sensitive, emotional, affective experience of the city and urban infrastructures?
The links between the features of urban life and human emotion was first elicited in the early 20th century by Georg Simmel in his “The metropolis and mental life”. The big city, Simmel writes, is the space that produces a human of a “special” type. Large-scale urbanization, mass migration of rural residents to cities, crowds of people on the streets and informational overload, all lead to the fact that the human ’psychological foundation’ develops a protection mechanism. Emotional reactions are not unique to the citizens; they are substituted by rational reactions and generate ‘blasé persons’.
If we conceptualize the city as a place that shapes human response to incoming information and produces emotions, feelings and affects, we open up an attractive perspective to study urban everyday life. Usually considered as a background, a minor thing, the sensual side of urban life is indeed manifested everywhere and reveals the functioning mechanics of the urban landscape (Thrift 2004). Interest in how affect, emotion, and feeling form the content of everyday urban life, formed a new paradigm called “affective urbanism” (Anderson, Holden 2008). Insofar as the experience of urban life is rather the experience of our usage of infrastructures (Graham, McFarlane 2015), investigations of affect in relation to the structure and functioning of urban infrastructures becomes relevant.
Affect is an unconscious and preverbal phenomenon that only emerges when an encounter of bodies of different nature – that is not only human but also material objects, ideas, anything – occurs (Massumi 2002). Being pre-subjective, i.e. not rooted in any of the ‘colliding’ bodies, but rather staying beyond them and distributed among them, affect is embedded in the subject and becomes enshrined in the form of emotions, grasped and compressed, and only then it finds its verbal expression. Since a person encounters the materiality of the city on a daily basis, being involved in the usage of urban infrastructure, the latter becomes a domain of deployment of urban policies of affect – the invisible invasions into the routine lives of people.
The politics of affect are a means of distributing and exercising power through emotions and affects, which are (un)intentionally produced by urban infrastructure, the spatial organization of cities, and urban design. The space producer may set a goal to stabilize a particular affect. For example, studies of airports demonstrate how affective landscapes form: bodies open to control move along assigned tracks from space of “fear” and “hope” to spaces that impose consumption and actively produce pleasure, or in other words, from the screening area into the zone of duty free shopping (Adey 2008). Other examples include children’s education and leisure (kindergartens) which are “imitating” a home for children; and the task for the architect is to form a kind of affective atmosphere that corresponds to the “comfort” of his home, through the material environment (Kraftl, Adey 2008). Affective atmospheres, or non-representational modes of communication, modify the possibilities to act and discipline the body as with materiality and spatial organization (Bissell 2010).
People are also involved in the production of affect. Choosing daily routes, they build their own affective landscapes and affect the city as well as the city affects them (Jones 2005). Using an MP3 player while travelling in public transport, they confront the soundscape and protect themselves from the influence of the affective atmosphere (Jungnickel & Aldred 2014). Walking through the ruins of buildings, abandoned factories and the spaces that are usually marked as “dirty”, “scary and “unpleasant”, city dwellers resist sensory deprivation generated in modern Western cities (Edensor 2007). A modern city cultivates the smell of fresh coffee, bakeries and cinnamon, green colors and cleanliness; other smells and visual images (especially those that are strongly associated with poverty) are being pushed out. Public spaces become sterilized, monotonous, non-interactive and predictable. The desire to obtain a different experience by using a kind of anti-infrastructure – a ruin – allows us to look at everyday routines more reflexively (Edensor 2007).
Despite the fact that the material environment is one of the central elements in studies of the affective aspects of urban everyday life, infrastructures are quite rarely the focus of such research. Interweaving urban infrastructures and their everyday usage through affect seems an important aspect to consider when dealing with the subjective experiences of the everyday routines of city dwellers.
Adey, P. (2008). Airports, mobility and the calculative architecture of affective control. Geoforum, 39(1), 438-451.
Anderson, B., & Holden, A. (2008). Affective urbanism and the event of hope. Space and Culture, 11(2), 142-159.
Bissell, D. (2010). Passenger mobilities: affective atmospheres and the sociality of public transport. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(2), 270-289.
Edensor, T. (2007). Sensing the ruin. The Senses and Society, 2(2), 217-232.
Graham, S., & McFarlane, C. (Eds.). (2014). Infrastructural lives: urban infrastructure in context. Routledge.
Jones, P. (2005). Performing the city: a body and a bicycle take on Birmingham, UK. Social & Cultural Geography, 6(6), 813-830.
Jungnickel, K., & Aldred, R. (2014). Cycling’s sensory strategies: How cyclists mediate their exposure to the urban environment. Mobilities, 9(2), 238-255.
Kraftl, P., & Adey, P. (2008). Architecture/affect/inhabitation: geographies of being-in buildings. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 98(1), 213-231.
Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Duke University Press.
Thrift, N. (2004). Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(1), 57-78.