Affective assemblages: Atmospheres and therapeutic knowledge production in/through the researcher-body

‘We did something in a different manner, and the whole atmosphere changed’. Thus concluded one of the speakers at a relationship enhancement seminar after having encouraged participants to shake hands with somebody previously unknown to them and to thank them for being there. However, although experts in (or organisers of) relationship and sex counselling occasionally address the importance of sustaining a sound atmosphere at home in order to maintain a good couple relationship, it is relatively rare to hear them comment on the atmosphere of an ongoing event. Graham1 was an exception with his comment about the relationship enhancement seminar. He was one of the experts who spoke at the seminar, and he invested a great deal in activating his audience, using various means from urging couples to hug to making people jump up and down. These efforts seemed to aim for the co-production - intensively performed by both Graham and his participants - of an affective atmosphere, which speaks to his recognition that an appropriate atmosphere was essential to the organisation of a successful relationship enhancement seminar. It also highlights how atmospheres, although individually felt, belong to collective situations and reach beyond individual, autonomous subjects (Anderson, 2009; Seyfert, 2012). Whether acknowledged or not, atmospheres are a significant part of human experience. In what follows, I propose that affective atmospheres are important for understanding therapeutic cultures, especially in collective events that concentrate on relationship and sexual issues.

This chapter engages with the issue of affective atmospheres in therapeutic cultures by drawing upon a detailed study of relationship and sex counselling in Finland. I first became interested in atmospheres because of the ambivalences I encountered during my on-site participant observations as a feminist scholar. During those observations, I from time to time found the relationship or sex advice being given at some events personally or professionally problematic but this did not necessarily prevent me from experiencing the atmospheres of the events in question as warm, entertaining or safe. For instance, I encountered disruptive moments because of a firm reliance on gendered stereotypes, such as the idea that men are sexually active and women sexually passive, or a persistent renewal of heteronormative values, such as the equation of intimate relationships with heterosexual marriage (see Kolehmainen, 2018). I have also had an academic interest in the study of atmospheres and moods since working on a research project on affective inequalities in intimate relationships, which aimed to develop and work with methodologies that provide better access to affect as an embodied experience (see Kolehmainen and Juvonen, 2018)? I assumed that by paying attention to my own bodily states, I might be able to better work with affect in its embodied form. Here I seek to elaborate on these ambivalences by analysing them and other-personal experiences of atmospheres during fieldwork, thereby giving them status within the affective processes of knowledge production.

The theoretical premises of this chapter are rooted in assemblage theory, which highlights the connectivities between objects and bodies. Assemblage theory is a way of mapping how things come together and what the assembled relations enable to become or block from becoming (Ringrose and Renold, 2014: 774; De Landa, 2006). As I focus on a certain kind of assemblage - that of an atmosphere - the concept of affect is fruitful for mapping how different objects and bodies come together-in situated experiences of registering, engineering or sustaining an atmosphere. The concept of affect offers a means to explore relations between different kinds of bodies - human, non-human, organic, non-organic, artificial and imaginary (e.g. Kolehmainen and Juvonen, 2018; Lahti, 2018; Seyfert, 2012) - that play an essential role in affective atmospheres. Further, affect foregrounds bodies’ capacities to affect and become affected (see also Deleuze and Guattari, 2004; Massumi, 2004). Indeed, it is bodily in/capacities that make atmospheres possible in the first place. Hence, rather than being located within individual human bodies, the processes of affecting and becoming affected emerge in and through encounters between bodies and things (Kolehmainen and Juvonen, 2018). The fact that we are capable of sensing an atmosphere indicates that we become affected by other bodies. However, we also contribute to the affecting of other bodies, no matter whether this is through conscious effort or not.

Focusing on affective atmospheres, this chapter attempts to move away from human-centred notions of the therapeutic which manifest themselves, for instance, in a reliance on the concept of the self. Previously, the self has been placed at the core of the analysis of therapeutic cultures, which promote an orientation towards the self and employ psychological discourses as resources for selfhood (Furedi, 2006; Illouz, 2008; Madsen and Ytre-Arne, 2012). The growth of therapeutic cultures has further been linked to the cultural tendency towards individualisation, which gives prominence to lifestyle gurus and personal advisers, who act as the new cultural intermediaries of the self (McRobbie, 2009; Wood and Skeggs, 2004). This has been seen as overlapping with neoliberal tendencies, which emphasise the ability to self-monitor, self-regulate, selfdiagnose, make choices and transform oneself (e.g. Oullette and Wilson, 2011; Swan, 2008). While these perspectives have captured several essential features of contemporary Western society and its inclination towards the psychologisa-tion of everyday life, therapeutic cultures nevertheless entail elements that are not best grasped by this kind of framework. In this chapter I approach atmospheres from the perspective of new materialist ontology, which shifts the focus of analysis from the feelings of individualised subjects to impersonal flows of affect through assemblages (see Youdell and Armstrong, 2011: 145). In particular, I mobilise a non-human-centred concept of atmosphere that does not start with an T but invites us to pay attention to the transpersonal, the intercorporeal and the more-than-only-human. The chapter aims to use the lens of affective atmospheres to map how situational and material therapeutic practices operate in/through both human and non-human bodies.

Feeling (with) the field: ethnography in the study of affective atmospheres

In what follows, I will use my own embodied sensations and affective experiences to analyse the experiences of soaking up atmospheres, moving in/out of affective atmospheres, feeling the limits of collective belonging, and failing to ‘get’ the atmosphere when conducting fieldwork. However, rather than understanding my orientation as a form of autoethnography, I see it as an attempt to open up new insights into relations within assemblages, as my ultimate interest is not in the self. Yet even though atmospheres are best understood from a relational perspective that does not privilege the human subject, they cannot be academically addressed without some sort of rooting in the human body. As Robert Seyfert (2012) points out, affects are conventionally seen as located within an individual subject or body, or else they are seen as atmospheric forces that operate externally to the body. On the one hand, if we believe that affects are individual, we fail to account for their collective and trans-subjective nature. On the other, if we think that people are simply caught by atmospheres, we risk seeing individuals as passive objects with very little agency. Nor do conceptualisations of this kind explain why different people can experience the ‘same’ atmosphere in different ways - not every individual body is always affected in the same way. The way forwards, then, is to think of affect as the effect of the interactions and encounters of individual human and non-human bodies (ibid.). Of course, some definitions of atmosphere (such as ‘transpersonal intensity’ or ‘the transmission of the other’s feeling’) emphasise human presence, whereas others (such as ‘a sense of place or environment’) put more weight on non-human actors or elements. However, atmospheres should be seen neither as residing outside human bodies nor as simply human-made.

For the purposes of this chapter, I draw upon my study on relationship and sex counselling practices in Finland. I consider my study as an affective ethnography, a term which refers to the style of research rather than to a mechanistic method (see Gherardi, 2018). In particular, I focus on analysing my fieldwork notes from 40 events (2015-2017) that ranged from relationship enhancement seminars to a tantric workshop and from events catering to the recently separated to variously themed lectures by experts. These events were collective, public or semi-public occasions whose venues ranged from public libraries to fairs and from religious gatherings to hotel facilities. The events I attended varied a great deal: some were organised by national organisations and employed counselling professionals from psychotherapists to certified couple counsellors as experts; others were part of spiritual, religious or commercial activities and often relied on lay experts. Several events catered to couples who wished to nurture their relationships; others, for instance, targeted those who were recently separated, those who were interested in well-being in general, or those who worked with relationship or sexual issues in their day-to-day professions. It was common to all the events that they did not address particular issues faced by single clients or specific couples, in contrast to private counselling sessions. This conforms to a wider shift in widespread therapeutic cultures: it is no longer just ‘sick’ selves but also ‘healthy’ selves who are addressed as potential clients or customers (Ouellette and Wilson, 2011; Swan, 2008). In relationship and sex counselling, this is manifested in the shift from divorce prevention to the nurture and care of relationships (Maksimainen, 2014), which makes it possible to address collectives and groups - and further facilitates atmosphere as a part of therapeutic culture.

Affective ethnography is especially suitable for the exploration of affective atmospheres, as it allows using affect as a resource - enacted through the researcher’s embodiment - in the research practice (Gherardi, 2018). Moreover, participant observation allows the researcher to sense, experience and read atmospheres onsite. Social-scientific studies on atmospheres have been relatively scarce, and exploring atmospheres poses a huge challenge to social-scientific enquiry, as atmospheres are often fleeting and barely perceptible (Bille et al., 2015). Of course, from a methodological point of view, the task of investigating atmospheres (or perhaps, investigating with(in) them) is challenging. However, participant observation allows us to shift the locus of knowledge production from after-the-event narratives to ‘the social as it happens’, in a way that makes it possible to explore the atmospheres themselves rather than their descriptions. Atmospheres cannot be felt in retrospect, so they need to become registered in the field. Feeling (with) the field shifts the focus from ethnographic ‘knowing’ to relating and experiencing, thereby departing from the dissociated and objectifying gaze of the knower in modern science (see Bryld and Lykke, 2000; Coleman and Ringrose, 2013; Law, 2004; Stewart, 2017). Atmospheres can become ‘known’ through the personal sensation of feeling them, rather than through the distanced gaze of a researcher. Hence, the study of atmospheres makes it evident that researchers are always already part of the assemblages they seek to study (e.g. Fox and Alldred, 2015: 400,2017:20). Since there is no binary between a bodiless atmosphere and a body (Seyfert, 2012), the researcher is never outside an atmosphere, regardless of how they feel or whether they register the atmosphere. Hence, to explore atmospheres is to reject binaries of subject/object, researcher/researched and knower/known in a very concrete way.

In practice, I have chosen to experiment by using my own researcher-body as a site of research, as a means to address affective atmospheres. As Lisa Blackman (2015) writes, affect is disclosed in atmospheres. However, affect is not an entity that can be captured as an it or a thing; thus, no method can straightforwardly prove or provide evidence for what affect is (ibid.). The methodological question then remains: how can we work methodologically with the concept of affect and actually ‘operationalise’ it to find ways of understanding how affect works in the social

(Ringrose and Renold, 2014: 773)? One way affect works in the social is through atmospheres: atmospheres highlight how affect operates on us in divergent ways, rather than being external to human subjects (Colebrook, 2002: 39; Seyfert, 2012). In order to analyse such operations, I have integrated my own researcher-body into the research practice. By using my own researcher-body as a site of research, I have been able to produce embodied-affective data (see also Knudsen and Stage, 2015). Embodied-affective data refers to data that foregrounds the embodied experiences of affecting and being affected. It is indexically linked to the bodies ‘in’ affect -the researcher and participants (Kinnunen and Kolehmainen, 2019; Knudsen and Stage, 2015; Walkerdine, 2010). Here, embodied-affective data refers to data that is produced by my researcher-body as the latter is affected by atmospheres - and of course also affects them through my on-site participation. My reflections of having a body ‘in’ affect do not, of course, limit themselves to conscious reflections or fieldwork notes. However, I rely here on my fieldwork notes, which document affects in several ways, from accounts of personal feelings to sensing shifts in atmosphere, and from shifts in textual styles to reflections regarding affects and the interpretations given to them by experts, participants or me.

When bodies are conceptualised as trans-subjective, intercorporeal and capable of both affecting and being affected by other bodies - rather than as singular, autonomous and human-only - the exploration of a researcher-body may help to produce knowledge of affective relations within and of assemblages, rather than of subjective experiences. In this way, foregrounding a researcher-body is not a means to re-centre ‘I’ or human subjectivity, but is one way of providing an alternative viewpoint from which to consider situatedness within assemblages (see also Fox and Alldred, 2015: 409). Indeed, affects are not a lens onto ‘truth’ or reality, and this also holds true when we consider the researcher's bodily states (see also Hemmings, 2012; Pedwell and Whitehead, 2012). Researchers have different capacities for ‘reading’ atmospheres, as indicated in instances when researchers guess wrongly what other people are feeling or are otherwise incompetent in interpreting how other people experience atmospheres (see Wetherell, 2012: 146). Different bodies can also become affected in different ways in the same situation (Seyfert. 2012). Hence, I also attempt here to implicate myself (as a researcher) within the research process and to analytically explore my own affective investments in the subject under investigation (see Blackman, 2015: 25-26). Taking situatedness within assemblages into account opens up possibilities for exploring the power relations inherent to atmospheres. From the perspective of situatedness, then, it becomes possible to attune to how social inclusion and exclusion become orchestrated through atmospheres (Bille et al., 2015: 36), and how these processes get entangled with social differences, among other issues.

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