Bodily in/capacities: limits of collective belonging?

Although I was very much caught in the intimate atmosphere described above, I faced the limits of collective belonging at another event targeting the divorced or separated. At the latter event there were two couple therapists acting as experts. It emerged from the questions posed to the therapists that there were people at this event who had just undergone break-ups and who were in great pain. I noticed that I too felt a little sad and occasionally had tears in my eyes. I cannot know whether this was due to some sort of affective resonance among us all, or my embodied attempts to fit in, or my being touched by the therapists’ talk. However, when we moved on to a breathing practice, I noticed that my embodied experience was different compared with that of the participants who were undergoing a break-up process:

We all stand up. One of the therapists jokingly says that we do not have to touch each other or anything like that. She says this is similar to a mindfulness or yoga exercise, not exactly like either of them, but this exercise borrows elements from that kind of practice. We close our eyes and breathe deeply. The situation reminds me of yoga and my breathing is effortless. [-] I am slightly amused by the fact that this mindfulness and belief in breathing and the like, this is now so widespread that even therapists rely on it. However, when the therapist asks us how we felt, a woman in front of me replies - to my surprise, perhaps - that a pressing feeling had emerged around her chest or neck, and another woman echoes her. I understand that those of us who are recently divorced or separated felt in a different way than I did,

and that their breathing wasn’t as easy as mine. (Field notes: event targeted at the divorced or separated, 2016)

Despite the way I interpreted the situation in my field notes, I cannot know for sure how the actual embodied responses differed, or whether my own experience was really shaped by my not being in the midst of a separation project (perhaps it was about my association with yoga practice, which does not have much to do with the arrangement of intimate relationships). In any case, I remained unmarked by a pressing feeling. Affects can both draw us together and force us apart, and can signal a lack of any intersubjective connection (Hemmings, 2012; Juvonen and Kolehmainen, 2016; Seigworth and Gregg, 2010); here my lack of a certain embodied feeling appeared to mark the limits of shared mood or atmosphere. It was not about different meanings given to our breathing or to our embodied responses; our bodies became affected in different ways in this situation.

Further, this example illustrates how a body's in/capacities to affect and to become affected are the result of relations - not only of relations here and now, but also of past relations and relations to the past. I was able to relate to embodied feelings of break-up pain through my past experiences, but I remained untouched by any pressing feeling. In this way, my personal history became part of the affective assemblage and knowledge production, highlighting the temporal dimensions of affective assemblages and how they are constantly in flux. The affective relations within an assemblage may also comprise traces of the past and should not be understood in ways that exclude embodied, psychic and intangible experiences. This example also shows that human accounts - field notes included - can tell us about situatedness within assemblages rather than about individual reactions (see also Youdell and Armstrong, 2011: 145; Fox and Alldred, 2015: 409). The differences in bodily states indicate that the human bodies that participated in the breathing exercise were simated differently in the assemblage. Further, this exemplifies how similarities and differences are made, unmade and remade through affective atmospheres. Rather than seeing difference/similarity as a question of predefined, fixed and stable subject positions, we can understand difference and similarity as temporal products of shifting relations.

However, regardless of the differences in how I and some other people felt, I was still a part of the production of a situational affective atmosphere, doing the breathing exercise and trying to comply. Especially as this was an event that focused on separation, it felt ethically sound and respectful to those undergoing the process of separation to sense the atmosphere and be wary of causing any discomfort. My fieldwork indeed points to the myriad ways in which researchers participate in the co-production of atmospheres, from participating in activities that are designed to engineer a certain kind of atmosphere to simply being present.

Failing to feel it: on attempts to manipulate affect

On some other occasions when the atmosphere has not caught me, I have associated my not soaking it up with the way the particular event has been organised. For instance, while attending a seminar on well-being which also addressed

Affective assemblages 53 relationships and sexuality, I became awkwardly aware of the commercial aspect of the event. There were two keynote speakers, introduced by a host - a man named Larry - whose presentation did not feel ‘natural’ to me, one reason for this being his use of language that I interpreted as being (overly) formal. Larry also introduced the two speakers, who entered the stage and started to discuss and debate different topics linked to the theme. However, I soon started to get the impression that the situation was highly scripted:

Their lines sound memorised and play-acted. Somehow this situation feels pretty lame. (Field notes: seminar on well-being, 2017)

This experience offers an example of the ways in which ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ atmospheres are valued. Atmosphere is often thought of as being about something genuine or authentic, in contrast to staging, which is seen as artificial or simulated - even though people's experiences of environments are actually manipulated in many ways (Bille et al., 2015). Here my ‘lame’ feelings stemmed from a judgement concerning what I assumed was a staged situation, since the debate did not sound like a real debate but rather like a well-rehearsed play. Whereas the examples discussed above of getting caught in atmospheres point to intimacy, closeness and proximity, here the apparent staging highlighted the distance and hierarchy between the speakers and the audience and worked to distract me.

Further, this seminar is an example of how affective labour is invested in creating atmospheres. Whereas earlier capitalist production processes were connected to the production of material objects, contemporary commodities increasingly take the form of information, services, care, communication and affect, which all play central roles in new forms of labour (Hardt, 1999; Hardt and Negri, 2000, 2005; Lazzarato, 2004). In other words, the creation and manipulation of affects are forms of immaterial labour (Hardt, 1999), and this is what human investments in creating atmospheres are all about. Nevertheless, engineering atmospheres is an essential form of capitalisation upon affects. From the perspective of affective labour, then, it seems that affective labour which becomes ‘too’ visible produces the effect of inauthenticity, which in turn makes the situation appear staged. It was perhaps too obvious that the organisers had made preparations to produce an entertaining event, and their labour was ‘revealed’ as if they were trying to manipulate an atmosphere too forcefully.

My interpretation of the situation resulted in a distanced evaluation, which perhaps also made it challenging for me to let my body become affected. This illustrates how analysis emerges over time, and not only after fieldwork: before research begins, during live research encounters, and afterwards (Ringrose and Renold, 2014). Here my interpretation of the atmosphere at the time itself became an important part of the experience, which emphasises how atmospheres also challenge the dichotomy of experience/interpretation. It is essential to understand that atmospheres work in/through us, and this highlights that data can be viewed as alive - as active matter with which researchers may engage in open-ended ways (MacLure, 2013; Dernikos, 2018), even though data is often mistakenly regarded as stable, passive and raw (see also St Pierre et al., 2016). Even thoughmy analysis has centred on the ways organisers and experts invest in creating atmospheres by various means, such as by organising practices of proximity/dis-tance and intimacy/detachment, atmospheres cannot be reduced to being human-made, and nor can they be endlessly manipulated, as experiences of failing to get caught in an atmosphere indicate.


In this chapter, I have engaged with the issue of affective atmospheres in therapeutic engagements by drawing upon a study of relationship and sex counselling in Finland. Using my own researcher-body as a site of research, I analysed 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 at various events. By drawing upon assemblage theory and new materialist ontology, I have proposed that the exploration of atmospheres offers novel insights into therapeutic cultures, as it makes it possible to move away from human-centred notions of the therapeutic, such as the preoccupation with the self. Affective atmospheres stress how situational and material therapeutic practices operate in/through both human and non-human bodies. Further, therapeutics in itself can be seen as an ever-becoming, vital assemblage of a variety of situational and material practices, objects and things -an aspect that has been much ignored in previous studies. In the majority of studies on therapeutics, the focus has been on top-down approaches which stress how therapeutic discourses are mobilised to govern populations (Salmenniemi, 2017; Kolehmainen, 2018). Approaches of this kind do not acknowledge the lived, networked, relational and embodied experiences that therapeutics are about. The investigation of atmospheres shifts the focus from the self to the collective, from advice-giving to experience, and from governmentality to lived experience.

Therapeutic cultures have been criticised for severing the self from communal relations and fostering an atomistic individualism where the self is cut away from meaningful social and political content (see Illouz, 2008). However, my analysis of affective atmospheres at various events related to relationship and sex counselling speaks to the importance of understanding the therapeutic realm through collective experiences too (see also Perheentupa in this book). The therapeutic ethos does not only manifest itself in the blossoming of psychological discourses as resources for making the self, in the popularity of private counselling sessions, or in the growth of self-help technologies; many kinds of collective or public events also form an essential part of the therapeutic realm. In this way - and even when they employ individualistic discourses - such events also provide concrete arenas for collective experience. To register an atmosphere is to sense a connection, which may feel therapeutic in itself; and to fail to catch it may intensify feelings of non-belonging, rendering one more vulnerable. I hope that future studies will elaborate further on how collective atmospheres contribute to the therapeutic.


  • 1 All the names in this chapter are pseudonyms.
  • 2 This work was funded by the Academy of Finland project Just the two of us? Affective Inequalities in Intimate Relationships (grant number 287983).


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