Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

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