by Daniela Meneses Sala
In March 2020, the government announced that individuals in England were allowed to leave home only for the purpose of shopping for basic necessities, medical needs, travelling to work where it could not be conducted from home, and for “one form of exercise a day – for example, a run, walk or cycle”. As a result of this and other regulatory decisions, including the closing of public bathrooms, a new kind of cultural event was born: lockdown walks. In my case, during the months that followed, daily walks consisted of going up and down five or six blocks in my residential London neighbourhood for thirty minutes. The new rules not only altered the possible routes and lengths of my walks, but they also altered the streets I followed. Filled with the threat of the new disease, they were now emptier, quieter, sadder. It was during one of these walks that I saw it: a key hung on a string to a pole. And this made me stop.
Photograph of a keychain by the author.
In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett tells us: “if we think we already know what is out there, we will almost surely miss much of it” (2010: xv). Her book can be read as a warning of what we miss when we do not listen to the affect sticking to non-living objects. I use the term ‘listening to affect’ purposefully here, drawing from Tina Campt (2017), who has explored how some affects cannot be seen, but “require listening instead – for their affects register at a frequency that is felt” (31). Many of us, myself included, might have been used to walking the same neighbourhood streets, thinking we know them all; or not thinking about them at all. But then the pandemic came to shatter our worlds, our routines, our neighbourhoods, our streets. Although quotidian yet not quite, lockdown walks emerged as a new site of openings. In thinking of walks as openings, I am alluding to Stephanie Springay and Sarah Truman, who in Walking Methodologies… argue that what they call ‘queer walks’ “create openings where different kinds of awareness […] can unfold” (2018: 14-15); openings where the binaries of human and non-human, nature and culture, are blurred (8, 14-15) and the affective makes an appearance (6).
A queer lockdown walk. It was there that I encountered the key that hung on the pole.
Since then, I cannot stop from noticing the multiple objects lying in my neighbourhood streets that carry the same noises. A sign, protected from the rain by a plastic bag and securely taped, alerts that foxes have been born in the area and asks drivers to remain attentive. A bracelet, perhaps too small for a grown-up, placed on a ledge as it patiently waits for its owner. A post-it, informing passers-by that a key has been found and ways to retrieve it.
Photographs of objects found on lockdown walks by the author
What am I connecting to, what am I being draw in to, what am I touching, when I encounter these objects? I go back to my encounter with the key on the pole. When I came across it, I encountered an object with a history: a history of care. A person had found it, and, foreseeing the possibility of contact with the other (the person who had lost it), had carefully (lovingly, perhaps) place it somewhere safe. I was not the individual who that person had in mind, but in encountering the key, I encounter them. I encounter their care, perhaps their love. My body was moved, my body felt drawn to that other body, my body felt the touch of that other body. It is hard to describe the solace provided by touching or listening to a care object amid the pandemic.
Trying to make sense of why I could not stop thinking about these objects — and how much they had affected me — I turned to the work on new materialism, animacies and affect. In Vibrant Matter, Bennett (2010) also writes about what happens when we reject the ‘life/matter binary’ (xviii) and are open to seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and felling the vibrant vitality of (nonhuman) things (ix). She conceptualises vitality as “the capacity of things — edibles, commodities, storms, metals — not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii).
Mel Y. Chen’s work on animacies allow us to further expand on Bennet’s concept of vitality. Chen (2012) begins from the premise that traditionally, animacy has been associated with the hierarchy human-animal-vegetable-mineral (98). Chen argues that instead of assuming that this hierarchy is a clear-cut one that signifies a specific categorisation, one should start questioning the capacity of a thing to “affect -or be affected by” (5 and 30). For Chen, this means focusing on “the multiple factors of animacy”, such as, but not exclusively: “sentience, movement faciality, speech, and action upon something else” (229). By focusing on the failings and ‘leakages’ of the traditional hierarchy of human-animal-vegetable-mineral, Chen points to the ways animacy blurs and challenges it, the ways in which “animacy can itself be queer” (98). While Bennett had referred to the “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (2010: 6), a reading through Chen would challenge that use of ‘inanimate’ and argue that the fact that those things ‘produce effects’ already indicates that they are animate. Such a reading, I argue, would also conclude that the affective vibrancy Bennett explores is less of a vibrancy that refers to the fact that non-human things are “at one moment disclosing themselves as dead stuff and at the next as live presence” (2010:16), and more about a vibrancy that is the sign of the animate making itself heard. And a vibrancy, I would add, that resonates closely with Campt’s exploration of the ‘frequencies’ of affect (2017: 31).
Among the ‘multiple factors of animacy’ that make objects vibrate and that challenge the
life/matter binary, is affect: an emotion that circulates socially through affective economies and ‘sticks’ to some objects (Ahmed 2006 and 2014).[i]
A key, a pole, a string: with Bennett, Chen and Ahmed they can be thought as objects vibrating with animacy, as also care. But, in carrying the presence of another person, in carrying its caring touch, the key was loud with something else: fear. I felt this clearly when, after weeks of encountering care objects, it was me who saw a key on the floor of my neighbourhood. What would it mean for me to pick it up and to put it on a ledge? Would I be at risk touching it? Would I be putting its owner at risk?
Photographs of objects found on lockdown walks by the author.
In Animacies, Chen also (2012) addresses lead, a material that would be at the bottom of the traditional animacy hierarchy, but that through history has been animated by the harm it can cause to people’s bodies (187, 203-206). As I write this, I cannot help thinking how strange it would have sounded a little more than year ago to bring up lead to think about an encounter with a key on a West London walk. Not so much during pandemic days, when seeing an object that has been clearly touched by another person reminds us of the potential virus. In turning to Chen and Ahmed to explore the fear vibrating in the object, there is also the necessity to discuss the racist histories that fear carries with it. Ahmed has pointed out how “fear opens up past histories of association” (2014: 63). Chen (2012) has underscored how the fear of lead was shaped by histories of oriental panic (159 and 170). The echoes are evident: the fear of coronavirus has also ben racialised and become another instance of the oriental panic. While we must think about what and who is feared, we also must understand about “which bodies fear”, how “fear is felt differently by different bodies”, and how it shapes people’s relations with space (Ahmed 2014: 68). Because although fear is social, not all bodies fear the same or the same things — and not all bodies have the same relationship with illness and sickness. The coronavirus has made this clear. We have heard discussions about what bodies face more risk due to, for example, age or pre-existing conditions. And we have also seen which bodies — depending on class, race, nationality, sexual identity and orientation — have less access to protections, which bodies do not have the luxury of working from home, and which have to work in unsafe environments. Thus, while fear makes “bodies shrink back from the world in the desire to avoid the object of fear” (Ahmed 2014:69), not all bodies are subjected to the same risks when encountering an object that has been touched by a hand that placed them on a ledge, on a pole, on a string. And not all bodies get to shrink back as much as they need to.
Pointing the attention to the ways bodies fear places me as one of the privileged ones: not only am I going through this pandemic in the UK, but I also have no health conditions that heighten my risk, and in being able to still study and work from home, I have relative power in deciding when to go out and for what. The possibility of having had had the virus already as my symptoms seemed to indicate at the time (although it does not guarantee that I will not get it again) has also helped lessened my own fear of COVID. Given these factors, in my encounter with keys, post-its and signs, fear, although present, did not feel so amplified to foreclose the possibility of listening to other affects. And so, in the context where a virus has made hugging, kissing, holding hands, brushing against strangers in a crowd dangerous, I felt a caring touch. A touch (a sound) that might not have been originally destined to me, but it still reached me. A touch that might not have included the skin of another human, it still caused an impression in my body. It moved me. This has led me to think about touch as an instance of the haptic. In Listening to Images, Campt defines the haptic as “multiple forms of touch”. The skin becomes then “only one conduct” of the touch, a touch that goes to include seeing, hearing and listening (2017: 72 and 100). I was touched by a care object, in a way that did not require skin contact: I was ‘sonically touched’ (Campt 2017: 72) by the affective frequencies of the care object.
It could be argued that what was touching me was not the key and the string and that these objects were only acting as mediators for the people who put the key there in the first place. I would instead respond to this with Bennett, who addresses it when discussing the possibility of someone telling her that in being affected by her encounter with a vibrant assemblage, she was being moved by the people who had left those things there. And while she says that this is indeed a possibility, she also introduces a different answer: “But what if the swarming activity inside my head was itself an instance of the vital materiality that also constituted the trash?” (2010: 10). What I think she does here is underscore how the question of finding the ‘true origin’ of affect relies on a false premise: the erroneous thinking that objects cannot be animated.
As the city starts to reopen slowly, my walks are still different than they were before the virus. And I do not know if they will ever be as they were. I can only hope that whatever shapes they end up taking, I never again think I am sure of what I will find. And that I never forget those objects that touched me in moments where I needed it the most.
Daniela Meneses Sala is a Peruvian journalist, specialising in gender. She is an MSc Gender (Sexuality) candidate at the LSE. Her work is published in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, and in Comité de Lectura, an independent media outlet. She has previously published an article on a movement against the so called “gender ideology” in the journal Anthropologica and is currently working on a project led by researchers of the Global Health Department (LSE) and the Centro Internacional de Estudios Políticos y Sociales (CIEPS-Panamá) on the gendered impact of sex-segregated COVID-19 social-distancing policies in Panama.
This text came from initial work done for the GI422 course, so I would like to thank Jacob Breslow, Clare Hemmings and Emma Spruce. Emma in particular challenged me to focus on the fear and danger carried by care objects. I also want to thank Leticia Sabsay, who provided useful guidance in thinking about the topic and suggested I use the term ‘care objects’.
Ahmed, Sara (2006). Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, Sara (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Second Edition. Edinburgh University Press.
Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Brooks, Libby (10th June 2020). “Closure of public toilets causing anxiety, distress and frustration across UK”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/10/closure-of-public-toilets-causing- anxiety-distress-and-frustration-across-uk
Campt, Tina (2017). Listening to images. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Chen, Mel Y (2012). Animacies. Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect. USA: Duke University Press.
Held, Virginia (2006). “Care as Practice and Value” In: The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford Scholarship Online.
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[i] I believe that while Sara Ahmed’s reading of affect does not necessarily follow exactly what Bennett and Chen understand by affect, it is however a productive way of thinking through their ideas of vital materiality and animacy. Thinking affect alongside Ahmed also enables something that is clearly present in Chen’s work (2012:197): affect is not something private, or something that takes place from the inside out.
There is, however, one caveat in my turn to Ahmed: as Chen points out, some examples that Ahmed presents in her work seem to maintain the traditional animacy hierarchy, but my reading in this essay does not maintain this hierarchy. Chen (2012) takes up a section of Queer Phenomenology (2006) to point out the difference between their thinking:
“Ahmed’s reading thus takes the deadness and inanimacy of that table as a reference point for the orientation of a life, one in which the table is moved according to the purposes and conveniences of its owner. And while it would be unfair to ask of her analysis something not proper to its devices, I do wonder how this analysis might change once the object distinctions between animate and inanimate collapse, when we move beyond the exclusionary zone made up of the perceptual operands of phenomenology. The affective relations I have with a couch are not made out of a predicted script and are received as no different from those with animate beings, which, depending on the perspective, is both their failing and their merit.” (209).