What are the main arguments in Sara Ahmed's "Affective Economies"?

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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.

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In her 2004 Social Text article, Sara Ahmed argues for an understanding of the social placement of emotions. Rather than view emotions as the private domain of individuals, Ahmed sees them as circulating between bodies and signs. Emotions enable communication between individuals and collectivities through a process she calls “surfacing.” She explicitly rejects the idea that emotions originate within a person or that they are manifested on the person’s interior. Instead, the author shows that emotions are instrumental in creating the exteriors and boundaries of bodies located within the material world. In other words, emotions do things.

Beginning by analyzing a quotation from an Aryan Nations web site, Ahmed addresses “love” and “hate” as particularly important emotions in both establishing the idea of a person and a nation as explicitly white and exploiting the idea that such a white person is threatened by “imagined others” who can take away what belongs to them or replace them entirely—a threat to the self or the “object of love.” She emphasizes that these contrasts of love and hate are embodied in both personhood and nationhood. Hate is an emotion that binds “the imagined white subject and nation together.”

Ahmed explains the meaning of “economics” along with her definition of “affect.” She uses the term “economies” not just for financial or monetary relations but, more broadly, for a system of values in which ideas or objects are circulated. The affective economy, in sum, is the system of circulation of “signifiers in relationships of difference or displacement.” Other important concepts that she explores are the function of emotions as “binding” people together. This is divided into “sticking” individuals to each other, or “adherence,” and by extension holding a number of people into a collective unit, or “coherence.”

“Economies of hate,” she elaborates, depend on “sticking”. The “backward” motion or historicizing of emotions makes them seem eternal and therefore natural. Closely related is “sliding,” the “sideways” motion by which emotions expand in the present and thereby apply to ever-larger numbers of people. Further elaborating the “economies” idea, she shows its derivation from the Marxist logic of capital: a thing gains in value through circulation. For emotions, circulation encourages people to invest in a concept because it is shared by others. This explains how hate may gain more value than other emotions not perceived as shared. Ahmed carefully notes that her understanding of emotions is distinct from that of psychoanalysis, as she does not identify this economic as psychic. An emotion cannot exist independently in the unconscious; it can only exist through shared identification with others who understand it in the same terms.

“Fear” is another crucial emotion that she explores along with “hate.” They are closely related in their social economic distribution. By associating particular characteristics with classes and nationalities of people, especially by race, “fear” becomes a justification for “hate” as a rejection of belonging. Here she effectively quotes Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the exploitation of fear of blackness through the characterization of emotion as linked to bodily function. The “sideways” and “backwards” motions are connected here as well, in that objects of fear become substituted for each other over time.

Ahmed further explores these ideas in her 2004 book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

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