In "Affective Economies," Sara Ahmed theorizes that emotions drive human behavior at the community level just as much as they do at the individual. She uses this lens to critically evaluate treatment of the "other" by established groups, highlighting the very real consequences of this phenomenon to modern refugees and asylum seekers.
One powerful example Ahmed uses to illustrate this concept is an excerpt of text from the Aryan Nations web site. By using a white nationalist group as an example—an organized group based entirely around racism and the exclusion of others, linguistically framed as a celebration of love for their own kind—Ahmed demonstrates the power of the emotional call to arms at its most insidious.
In her close reading, Ahmed distills their text to reveal the raw emotions underneath: the underlying fear that those outside their ranks are a threat to the livelihood and serenity of those inside, the overarching love for each other as members of the self-defined ideal, and the hate and suspicion of any strangers who may fall outside their narrow definition of acceptable. They use this power of emotion to elevate the ordinary experience to something with a higher perceived purpose and value. As Ahmed puts it, “The ordinary white subject is a fantasy that comes into being through the mobilization of hate, as a passionate attachment tied closely to love.”
She uses the term “affective economies” to describe this phenomenon: the social environment as cohered by a shared emotional experience. She elaborates, “[in] such affective economies, emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments.”
Further, Ahmed argues that emotions need not exist permanently in an individual to have a binding effect in an affective economy, a quality she terms “nonresidence.” Rather, they “involve” the individual. She borrows from psychoanalysis to make this case.
In another demonstrative example, Ahmed dissects the linguistic choices used in a circuit of speeches made by a British political leader. The politician was anti-immigration and used what Ahmed terms “sticky words” to subtly tint his message: “swamped, “flood,” “dirt.” These choices, she argues, create associations around an issue that stoke the fear and anxiety of the listening public.
Fear and anxiety, in general, feature heavily throughout the examples in Ahmed’s article. As she outlines the commonly-accepted distinction between them—that fear is often seen as more concrete, with an identifiable trigger, whereas anxiety is thought of as abstract—she uses affective economic theory to reframe them. The real distinction, she argues, is based on the proximity of the object of fear to the subject.
She reminds us, in closing, of the very real consequences of a fear-based affective economy:
The containment of the bodies of others affected by this economy of fear is most chillingly and violently revealed in the literal deaths of those seeking asylum in containers, deaths that remain unmourned by the very nations who embody the hope of a future for those seeking asylum. This is a chilling reminder of what is at stake in the affective economies of fear.