Reflecting on Affect and Urbanism

Here we have a guest post by Lisa M. Hoffman, Professor of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma, who was visiting NUS from December 2017 until January 2018.

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Recently I spent a month at ARI as a visitor from University of Washington Tacoma, Urban Studies. While I was there, I presented as part of the ACTIVATE! seminar series, which offered me the opportunity to think in more detail about the role affect plays in shaping identities and social relations. Taking affective relations seriously also shifted the register through which I was understanding subjectivity, collectivity, and contemporary forms of governing.   The paper was based on my anthropological fieldwork with volunteers and nongovernmental/social organizations in a port city in northeast China.

The questions I asked revolved around how expressions of responsibility, caring, and notions of a healthy life shaped class-specific identities – as some scholars of affect have argued, they “do things” (see Ahmed 2004; Richard and Rudnyckyj 2009).  As urban inequalities and other social problems have increased in cities across China, more individuals have been moved to help others identified as “in need”.  This could be a child with health problems and no financial resources or an elderly person with no children nearby to help them or even the local environment impacted by air pollution and litter.  Expressions and practices of care and responsibility shaped middle class identity such that affective enactments were incorporated into social differentiation and class distinction.

Significantly, public enactments of care, an increase in citizen volunteers, and an official emphasis on citizen “duty” to help others coincided with restructuring of the urban welfare system.  In other words, as social services have been moved from the socialist work unit to the community (shequ 社区) and society (shehui fuli shehuihua 社会福利社会化), citizens have also been asked to step up and do their share.  The cultivation of responsibility and compassion for others is then a critical part of urban governance and helps to stabilize reforms in the welfare system.

While I argued it is important to think of enactments of care and compassion as social facts and not simply as a false amelioration of inequality or the expanded securitization of society, these practices do embody a kind of “curious double”, to use Andrea Muehlebach’s term (2011), in which citizen responsibilization and socialist state welfare disintegration are stabilized, as meaningful and authentic socialities may also appear. Many volunteers spoke about the friendships and connections they made when volunteering and showing care for strangers, suggesting the possibility of alternative socials at the same moment we see a stabilization of profound political economic restructuring.

 

References:

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22(2): 117-139.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2011. “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy.” Cultural Anthropology 26(1):59-82.

Richard, Analiese, and Daromir Rudnyckyj. 2009. “Economies of affect.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15(1): 57-77.

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