How can we analyze feeling? This question framed “Anthropology and Affect,” a graduate seminar I taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this past spring semester. As January turned into February, we worked through a demanding reading list that focused on the intersection of psychological anthropology, ethnography, and contemporary affect theory. Although we noted the growing evidence of Covid-19’s global spread during our weekly class sessions, we never anticipated that mid-March would find us meeting online via Zoom with the students redistributed across the country.
Amid a historic biological crisis that was equally a social and political crisis, we began reading scholarship alongside a steady diet of news and social media in search of answers, if not therapy. Each new question somehow led us back to where we had started: “How should we feel?” Our original question was now newly urgent. Although we were apart, a compounding array of intense and abstract sensations began to assemble around us: fear, outrage, vulnerability, longing, grief, humor, love.
In short, we were living what we had been studying: affect. In the spirit of this co-feeling, this collection of essays shares a brief archive of the rapidly changing affective landscape of pandemic times.
If the “contagious” quality of public feelings is always political (Stoler 2004), we might pause to note the specific ways those feelings take form and transform in the face of actually contagious disease. In an atmosphere already attuned to the inchoate but visceral sense that “threat is from the future” (Massumi 2010), this viral pandemic—although shocking—also uncannily resembles threats about which we have been warned. Political dissent in North America and Europe in the past decade has framed some fears as legitimate, certain groups as threats, and rendered others invisible, all while reminding citizens that when the crisis comes, they must be prepared to save themselves (Masco 2008, 363). Immigration, terrorism, and cultural symbols have been especially blamed as barriers to an idealized future modeled nostalgically on a past that never fully existed.
Yet a viral pandemic reveals different threats and generates different nostalgias. At a moment when we long for very recent pasts we knew and lived, a virus which needs both hosts and circuits of global circulation now requires us to sacrifice the sociality on which it thrives in order to save ourselves. Such profound existential threat is equal parts terrifying and abstract. Terrifying, for fear is grief even before loss. Abstract, because the possible cost a non-human agent can wreak eludes human imagination. As Juno Salazar Parreñas argues, the space between creatures, including between creatures of different species, is where vulnerability and care coalesce (2018). Given that this pandemic is of zoonotic origin, that intimacy is also a zone of a parallel yet intense danger. That dangerous intimacy finds its sibling in another almost extinct creature: crowds, the thrilling communion of friends and strangers which were once magical because they fused risk and reward.
Persuading us that risk is now the greater reality are our new crystal balls—the genre of graphs, models, and curves—divining the severity and scale of the threat. Hybrid technical renderings of expertise and images, they ask us to feel fear and empathy not simply for individuals, either ourselves or strangers, but for populations (Storz and Wynfield 2020). They demand a response. How do we render care for the collective, the frail, and the non-human (Edmiston 2020)? How might images of disaster that are the “emblem of inadequate response” suggest that survival itself feels like a fantasy (Sontag 1966, 224)? Might this help us understand why witnessing suffering from afar is so enervating (Drolet 2020)? Is there a way to laugh through our tears (Paing 2020)?
Of course, sociality is never simply nourishing. It is also labor. Newly valorized “essential” work, always precarious, is now high risk. With childcare, food preparation, and employed work now happening simultaneously, even those who are able to stay safely at home are realizing the loneliness and fatigue of private sphere labors and the uneven yet essential role of emotional care (Davenport 2020; Jones 2004). While social vulnerability has been a feature of the political and economic restructuring of the late 20th century, psychological vulnerability is a complicated partner in this process. Thinking with Carla Freeman, if feeling itself is the stuff of political and economic life rather than its secondary side effects, then we must wonder if the vulnerability that is always the byproduct of all intimacy might also be generative, might also “produce feelings of possibility,” and might even be desirable (Freeman 2020, 72). If to be alive is to form social bonds, and to therefore experience loss, then the salve is not necessarily self-evident. Is it to form more social bonds, knowing full well those bonds will lead to more loss (Lutz 1988)? If so, how do we cultivate them around the limits of epidemiological threat?
Answering these questions may require new “attunements” (Stewart 2011), some radical, some minute. Calibrating new habits of being human, of being collective, and of feeling alive while protecting life itself may be radical dreams, but they also suggest that the recent past we mourn may not be the one to which we want to return (Cunningham 2020). One way to potentially facilitate those dreams is to consider an early definition of the concept of consent. The contemporary definition describes an individual’s capacity to intentionally grant or withhold rights so as to come into agreement with another subject (Cool 2015). Yet many participants in the conditions that generated their prior lives never consented to those conditions.
By contrast, consentir, consent’s Middle English foremother, describes an ideal state of harmony achieved through co-feeling. Part empathy, part comity, it suggests a portal to articulating our affective needs. Our current moment may be a good time to revisit this mode of consent. Co-feeling may provide ways to find trust after trauma, recognizing that the unpredictable routes affects take could be sites for opportunity as they are for future crises.
I write this during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when I was scheduled to have been in Jogjakarta, Indonesia with dear friends. Instead, I remain at home in Boulder, Colorado. My friends are also quietly sequestered, breaking the fast at dusk and sharing sahur at dawn with a limited number of kin from a large family. Ramadan is typically a pleasurable blend of religious practice and human sociality.
For many Indonesians, a key component of that sociality is through being sosial, a concept that refers as much or more to philanthropic generosity towards those in need as it does to socializing with peers. Although alms-giving is a central component of Islamic practice, voluntary donations are especially important during Ramadan. The Indonesian version of religious charity is therefore in dialogue with a broader obligation to being sosial, which demands acknowledgement of mutuality, of dependence, and of suffering. As of this writing, Indonesia has officially had 18,010 cases and 1,191 deaths, the highest number of deaths in Southeast Asia. More telling, January through April has seen 3,300 more unexplained deaths in Jakarta alone compared to that period in 2019. The annual tradition of returning home at the end of the fasting month has been cancelled by the major religious organizations and President Joko Widodo, disrupting the logic that to love one’s kin is to visit them.
This Ramadan, my friends in Jogjakarta have expanded their charitable giving while limiting their socializing. They are channeling their sosial through a particular young couple in the extended family network who have volunteered to deliver rice, cloth facemasks, and staples to communities in need across the city. At the end of each day, the couple returns home unable to join the evening meal, not knowing whether they have been exposed to the virus. They bear the risk of circulation as a loving act that the entire family, distributed across the archipelago and contributing to the funds, considers essential. Similarly moving examples of mutual aid span time and space, including a recent Irish fundraising campaign to gift US$1.8 million to the Choctaw nation in gratitude for their empathy and charity during the Irish potato famine in 1847. Both instances commemorate the pain that made them recognizable to each other across centuries as victims of biological and political crises.
Yet charity, however essential, cannot replace organized institutional responses, in Indonesia or in the USA. It is telling, then, that even as I worry about my friends in Indonesia, they too send frequent, feverish queries about my and my family’s health alarmed by the news they receive about the situation here, even offering to send facemasks. Pandemic times have reconfigured me as a potential recipient of their sosial. Although the US population is 20% larger than Indonesia’s, it now has over 90,000 deaths. Indeed, many Americans with friends or family in China, including my own family, received care packages of facemasks from them in mid-March. Perhaps one more discovery in our upside-down world is that a lexicon of co-feelings now includes pity.
Our graduate seminar concluded this spring in a state of affective suspension, alternating between hope and melancholy. I am deeply grateful to Olivia Cunningham, Gillian Davenport, Anden Drolet, Paige Edmiston, Clara Lee, Chu May Paing, Lauren Storz and Anna Wynfield for the co-feelings. We invite you to join the conversation.
Cool, Alison. 2015. “Agreeing Together: Comment on Alain Marciano’s ‘Freedom, Choice and Consent.’” Homo Oeconomicus 32(2): 297-300.
Cunningham, Olivia. 2020. “Wanting Nature to Strike Back: Apocalyptic Dreams for a Pandemic.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/wanting-nature-to-strike-back-apocalyptic-dreams-for-a-pandemic]
Davenport, Gillian. 2020. “Good Vibes: The Complex Work of Social Media Influencers in a Pandemic.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/good-vibes-the-complex-work-of-social-media-influencers-in-a-pandemic]
Drolet, Anden. 2020. “Seeing Still Isn’t Believing: Social Distancing and the Labor of Witnessing.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/seeing-still-isnt-believing-social-distancing-and-the-labor-of-witnessing]
Edmiston, Paige. 2020. “Cultivating Resemblance: Moving Strangers on the Internet to Care.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/cultivating-resemblance-moving-strangers-on-the-internet-to-care]
Freeman, Carla. 2020. “Feeling Neoliberal.” Feminist Anthropology 1(1): 71-88.
Jones, Carla. 2004. “Whose Stress? Emotion Work in Middle-Class Javanese Homes.” Ethnos 69(4): 509-528.
Lutz, Catherine. 1988. Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Masco, Joseph. 2008. “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America.” Cultural Anthropology 23(2): 361-398.
Massumi, Brian. 2010. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In The Affect Theory Reader, Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. Durham: Duke University Press.
Paing, Chu May. 2020. “Viral Satire as Public Feeling in Myanmar.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/viral-satire-as-public-feeling-in-myanmar]
Parreñas, Juno Salazar. 2018. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sontag, Susan. 1966. “The Imagination of Disaster.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2011. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 445-453.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2004. “Affective States.” In A Companion to Anthropology of Politics, Nugent, David, and Joan Vincent, eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Storz, Lauren and Anna Wynfield. 2020. “How to Sense a Pandemic: Curves, Models and the Affective Allure of Flattening.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website. May 20 2020 [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/how-to-sense-a-pandemic-curves-models-and-the-affective-allure-of-flattening]
Cite as: Jones, Carla. 2020. “Introduction: Mourning a Moment: Affect and Crisis.” In “Pandemic Diaries: Affect and Crisis,” Carla Jones, ed., American Ethnologist website, May 20 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/pandemic-diaries-affect-and-crisis/introduction-mourning-a-moment-affect-and-crisis]
Carla Jones is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Her work analyzes the intersection of femininity and visibility in contemporary Indonesia.