World of Feelings: Ghassan Hage, Bruce O’Neill, Magic Steven and the Affective Dimensions of Globalisation

1 August 2017

Known affective dimensions of globalisation

On the panel for the launch of Ghassan Hage’s new book, Is racism an environmental threat? (Polity, 2017) the author and academic Tony Birch observed that ‘the thing about Ghassan is that he always turns up at the right time’. For Birch, Hage’s was a timely and useful book, one that offered clarifications precisely relevant to the questions and problems raised within Birch’s own research on Indigenous knowledge and management of climate change. Birch also mentioned that he ‘loves Ghassan’, and that his wife loves Ghassan even more. ‘Tell Ghassan I love him’, Birch matter-of-factly quoted his wife as saying. The crowd smiled. The funny thing about feelings is that they’re improbably funny. I don’t know Ghassan Hage personally but my impression on the night was there was real love for him in the room. I was also struck by the notion that love and good timing were probably more linked than I had realised: we love those who come at the right time. And I thought that the love in the room held an unusual political significance.

In his book, Hage investigates the possibility of a fundamental mechanism shared by both racism and environmental degradation. Hage notes that the feelings associated with both are not accounted for by the standard explanation of capitalist exploitation:

We can easily say that colonist racist exploitation reproduces and legitimates the very wild, unchecked, and inhumane capitalism that governs overexploitation of nature. Nonetheless capitalist exploitation, for all that it explains, keeps unexplained at least one large facet of both crises: their affective dimension. (68)

Hage delineates two key expressions of the affective dimension capable of guiding us to the ‘fundamental mechanism behind racial and ecological exploitation’. The first of these global affects is the sense of being besieged that is demonstrated by the language of ‘flows,’ ‘floods’ and ‘waves’ in public discourse on the (so-called) refugee crisis. The second affective dimension Hage raises relates to affects of ungovernability, and ‘the dreams of exterminability associated with them’. According to Hage,

The imaginary figure of the Muslim as wolf exemplifies the figure of this frustrating object, around us but escaping us, in the realm of our governable sphere and yet ungovernable: the other that continuously threatens our desire to feel in control of our environment. It generates in us a very particular set of affects associated with the threat of loss of sovereignty. The more an object’s ungovernability endures, the more it haunts and threatens us. (81)

Hage advances from this point to describe the ways in which each structure of feeling functions in a ‘generalised domestication’, an instrumentalist mode of existence or habitation predicated on the fantasy of viability: ‘What best defines this mode of existence is that it struggles to create a world where the most salient quality of everything that comes into existence is that it “exists for” something’ (83).

It is an illuminating account of the roots of global exploitation, but analysis of this explanation lies beyond the focus of this essay. Instead, my inquiries are compelled by Hage’s suggestion that we know very little about the affective dimension of globalisation, its moods and its temperaments. Hage’s assertion that affective realities could be experienced globally, though certainly unevenly, prompts my consideration of a third key affective dimension of globalisation, namely: boredom. Like the floods of besiegement and the haunting of ungovernability, boredom is plainly pervasive, perhaps the affect most inseparable from consumerist modernity. As Bruce O’Neill suggests in The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order (Duke University Press, 2017), boredom proliferates specifically in response to capitalist processes:

The global, this book argues, is more than a geographic scale or material set of flows. It is a feeling that shapes ordinary life. And for millions of people in Romania, and for tens of millions more in similarly positioned societies across the globe, this feeling is about slowing down rather than speeding up. Boredom captures the way a brutally competitive global economy affects those it discards in pursuit of ever-greater profitability and efficiency. (5)

Conducting extensive ethnographic work with members of the homeless people of Bucharest, Romania, O’Neill finds from the emic perspective that in the transition to postcommunism, the disenfranchised experienced unprecedented levels of boredom. Crucially, O’Neill’s respondents make a point of clarification: in their immiserating poverty they are not deprimat (depressed); instead, ‘they were observably and self-consciously bored (plictisit)’ (4). For O’Neill, the accounts he was offered by these respondents were not unprecedented, but they resonated ‘with an alternative tradition for thinking about boredom, one that ties boredom to poverty, solitude, and despair’ (4), rather than boredom as the tradition of idle bourgeois privilege. Reminiscent of Hage’s account of generalised domestication, several of O’Neill’s respondents drew from racist rhetoric to explain their decline in living standards. For instance,

Victoria did not attribute her homelessness to general economic instability, a fuzzy legal and political landscape, or diminishing state protections. Instead of being pressed by shifting historical and economic forces, Victoria made sense of her descent into homelessness by mobilizing a familiar racism directed toward the Roma, the so-called gypsies. (89)

Ultimately, studies such as O’Neill’s show how boredom is generated in the tension between belonging and exclusion represented by the site of the ‘home’, a site rendered particularly unstable by the displacing effects of the capitalist system.

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