Creating an affective atmosphere: on collective belonging

The first occasion when I paid attention to atmosphere was right at the beginning of my study when I attended a tantric workshop, not quite knowing what to expect (see also Kolehmainen, 2018). When I heard that the workshop entailed active participation, including the task of touching strangers, I felt a little reserved. Still, I soon found myself dancing to the rhythm of the music and giving hugs to other attendees. To my surprise, it was rather fun, and I soon started to find the atmosphere humorous and relaxed:

The tutor says that we can read in books what tantra is and explore self-help guides; however, now we are going to do things and get out of our comfort zones - she tells us how we are going to proceed, how we are going to touch ourselves and other people (oh no! don’t want to!) and how different music is going to affect us.

Then we dance. The atmosphere is relaxed, unconstrained and jolly. (Field notes: tantric workshop, 2015)

As I recall the event, the production of a certain kind of atmosphere was key. It appears as if attending the workshop and soaking up a certain kind of atmosphere would be meaningful in their own right, instead of getting straightforward advice or focusing on intentional self-transformation. However, the atmosphere was not there waiting for participants to enter and feel it (see Wetherell, 2012). Rather, the instructor - a woman named Lily - pulled the right strings again and again: she was energetic and actively activated us. She had chosen a playlist and the workshop design made us participants mingle. At first, we started walking hand in hand. At that point Lily commented T can see that our auras are uniting’, which can be seen as indicating an attempt to create a collective mood. This was followed by some hugging and dancing. In other words, the atmosphere was created step by step, starting with relatively mundane activities that were followed by increasing contact and proximity between bodies. We can see how the (actual, desired or imagined) atmosphere was intensified through the creation of patterns of affective imitation and the mobilisation of several senses: in addition to the movement, there was the music, the touching, the eye contact.

I was caught in the atmosphere most of the time, until the instructor started to talk about how women should not feel ashamed when men looked at their ‘boobs and bottoms’. I felt irritated by her words, and my irritation articulated a rupture in the atmosphere as I felt it and resulted in a moment of feeling temporarily out of place. In any case, I could not help finding Lily’s words problematic, and thus rather than soaking up the collective atmosphere, I became aware of my position as a feminist (scholar) and adopted an evaluative stance towards the way the workshop was now being conducted:

The first group is assigned a task to dance in a sexy way. The second group is assigned to look at the first group dancing. My first reaction is irritation, I immediately think this is a way to teach women how to become objects of the male gaze. Nevertheless, my irritation does not rule out the return of good vibes. [-] A woman seeks intense eye contact with me and dances in a flirtatious way in front of me. (Field notes: tantric workshop, 2015)

This example also demonstrates how atmospheres are ‘regulated’ by moving (individual or collective) bodies and by organising the practices of proximity/ distance. During the workshop, the attendees were actively made into a collective, as our personal boundaries were somewhat blurred by our being made to move in the space and make contact with others. However, when we were divided into two groups, the instructor’s words now suggested the emergence of gendered and sexualised bodies rather than of an atmospheric collective, in contrast to the beginning when she had talked about uniting auras. Of course, we were still groups of ‘women’ and ‘men’ (despite the fact that these two groups were not formed in terms of ‘being’ any particular gender but rather of ‘performing’). If atmospheres are invoked by environments that ‘prime and cook affect’ so as to prepare and induce bodies to perform in certain ways (Thrift, 2009: 88), we might think that here the bodies were quite literally being made to perform in certain ways, from activities such as hugging to gendering and sexualising processes.

However, the good vibes did return, and later the experience of attending this workshop inspired me to rethink the reasons why people invest in certain therapeutic events. For instance, despite the framework which stressed heterosexuality and binary gender roles, a ‘queer’ situation in which a woman approached me in a flirtatious way still took place (see also Kolehmainen, 2018). This in turn made me ponder to what extent people ‘consume’ experiences, atmospheres included, rather than advice, for example. Perhaps the workshop points to the ways in which collective experiences can be experienced as therapeutic in themselves, as they may provide welcome feelings or offer a means of social bonding, for instance. It would be reasonable to assume that people look for affective experiences when attending collective forms of the therapeutic realm such as the various events described in this chapter. Indeed, the experience of affect - rather than specific products - has become an important selling point in Western societies (Skeggs, 2005: 971), and this kind of experience is surely part of the allure of forms of therapeutic culture that are about collective events and favour the emergence of affective atmospheres.

Soaking up an atmosphere: atmospheres as therapeutic

Another example of getting caught in the atmosphere comes from an event that was very different from the tantric workshop, as it addressed separation and featured ‘experts by experience’ as its speakers. Of course, as a sensitive theme, separation is different from the playful tantric workshop. Atmospheres are about norms - about what should be felt (Bille et al., 2015) - and appropriate atmospheres differ in different situations such as these two events. Nevertheless, it is still possible to acknowledge here that the intimate atmosphere was intensified through various means and that it caught me despite the way I felt at the beginning of the event. On the morning of that day I had heard about the sudden death of a friend and long-term colleague, and I was saddened by the news. I had made plans to participate in the event, but I really did not feel like going after receiving this news. However, I had been in contact with the organisers beforehand and felt obliged to show up. I still remember the feeling of not wanting to go there. Perhaps not surprisingly, at first I felt out of place and irritated:

Feeling irritated. [-] My head is congested and a little achy. (Field notes: event targeted at parents who are divorced or separated, 2016)

My remarks in my field notes are quite sour. I made critical comments about how the organisers presented their organisation and related activities, such as ‘they just advertise their own organisation all the time’, and as demonstrated above, I was not feeling well. However, I started to forget my frustration when the first lay expert shared their personal story. When the next experts by experience started to talk, I became so caught in the atmosphere that it felt inappropriate to make notes, and this highlights the challenges the study of atmospheres can pose for a researcher. It might feel intimidating to observe or make notes, as is demonstrated in the following example, a situation where Miriam (a mother) and Jenny (her daughter) gave a talk on divorce:

Mother and daughter [-] are already in front (of us). They sit in armchairs next to each other; the chairs are closer to the audience than before the break. The situation is intimate, so I make hardly any notes but just write things down in retrospect from memory. (Field notes: event targeted at parents who are divorced or separated, 2016)

There were elements which created a sense of intimacy, such as the impression of confidential openness. Miriam and Jemiy spoke about their personal experiences of divorce, Miriam from the perspective of a recent divorcee and Jemiy from the perspective of a daughter of divorced parents. Miriam mentioned a few times in passing that she was ‘certain that the right people are here'. In so doing, she actively addressed us as friends, allies or confidants. Atmospheres (also) come to matter through discourse (see Bille et al., 2015: 36), and the references to the ‘right people’ addressed the audience as a collective in a positive light. Hence, Miriam strongly contributed to the manufacturing of an intimate and warm atmosphere. Both physical and psychological proximity were created as Miriam seemed to talk as if the audience were full of close friends and acquaintances, and she was fairly close to the listeners, as remarked in my field notes. All these elements produced the impression of authenticity, which perhaps made the speakers appear ‘genuine’ people - and genuineness and authenticity are desired features in the assessment of atmospheres (see Bille et al., 2015).

Furthermore, Miriam and Jenny were sitting in armchairs - furniture usually found in living rooms or other cosy environments - which contributed to the making of a certain kind of atmosphere. Practices from interior design, landscape gardening and architecture, such as arranging light and sound, circumscribe atmospheres (Anderson, 2009). Here the armchairs undermined any obvious traces of authority, reaching beyond dichotomies of speaker/listener and expert/layperson. Furthermore, Miriam and Jenny sat next to each other and obviously had a close relationship, as they were able to talk about intimate

Affective assemblages 51 family issues openly as mother and child. Unlike many of the expert speakers at the events I attended, they did not make a PowerPoint presentation, which further contributed to the unmaking of the distance between them and their audience. Although Miriam browsed her phone at least once in order to check the topics they had planned to speak about, all the self-evident symbols of a formal presentation were absent.

However, even though organisers and speakers engineer atmospheres in many ways, they themselves may also become affected by the atmosphere. In this case, Miriam and her husband had divorced less than a year before, after a long marriage, and Miriam was visibly moved, as I could see tears in her eyes. This highlights how bodies are located in a circuit of feeling and response (Hemmings, 2005: 551), capable of both being affected and affecting other bodies. The tears indicated a body ‘in affect’, being already affected - yet they also continued to affect other bodies and to produce a certain kind of atmosphere. Also, the way in which Miriam addressed ‘the right people’ can be seen as an indicator that atmosphere was important for her, raising the issue of how atmospheres matter not only from the perspective of participants but also from the perspective of experts. Even though Miriam and Jenny’s personal motives were not known, the question of whether it is personally rewarding for lay experts to share their insights is still relevant.

 
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