In the course of absentmindedly running a finger along a surface, and in so doing measuring heat or sensing texture, one might be thought to be ‘being affected by’ environment, space, material; and at the same time and with the same finger one might inadvertently clean the same surface while also leaving a trace of oil from your skin thereby impacting upon, or affecting, that same environment. Is this some form of micro-relationship? How might this moment of simultaneously affecting and being affected by -both equally active states- be recorded and amplified? Minute but nevertheless tangible and vital forms of affect may be unsolicited, involuntary – perhaps this is a form of disinterested or passive affect?
In fields of art making where ‘participatory practice’ implies the audience’s ‘active’ role in producing, for example the production of a subject (the audience themselves?), there’s an increasingly pressing need to qualify the nature of that productivity. This need arises out of a more general demand for our (i.e. a viewer, client, consumer, user, operator, producer, or all of these at once) productive engagement with an infinite variety of fields where people come into contact with other matter, data, people, objects, and subjects. So one question might be about the nature of the active and/or productive relationship between people and things, people and people, and people and materials. Do those relationship generate capital or exchangeable data, and can that data be monetarized? And anyway who’s doing the acting? When does that relationship generate a space of self- or community-realisation, which in turn might have a capacity to liberate or make powerful, or promise ‘mutual-support’ as an outcome, for example? When people are consumers are encouraged to recognise themselves as consumers who should present themselves as products, who really benefits from all that productivity?
With the omnipresence of ‘activity’ and ‘interactivity’, and the time for work-time both expanding and becoming denser, passivity becomes more attractive. The attraction lies in its potential to offer rest, down-time, but also a space for undetermined speculation, a space for potential itself. ‘Active engagement’ used to imply political assertion, partaking in the production of society, investment in change, perhaps even caring for things, people and ideas regardless of whether or not they impact directly upon ones own life. How do we consolidate those positive associations with ‘action’ on the one hand with a desire for passivity on the other? However activity and passivity aren’t mutually exclusive terms, just like subject/object and author/audience. It might well be that in some cases being passive, refusing to act, constitutes, conversely, a form of activity, and vice versa. When tireless activity, self-exploitative working patterns, and the constant assertion of our own subject-hood might seem to define our contemporary landscape, then recognising passivity as vital, generating spaces for passivity, and choosing when or how to adopt a passive position might be increasingly necessary. The question of who can actually afford to practice passivity might then follow, but that stands alongside the question of who can’t.
‘In the era of biopower, what bodies are meant to produce is essentially their own economically productive lives – integrally self-converting into human capital. Life itself has become integrally capital-intensive’ (Massumi, Politics of Affect). The effects of excessively competitive and self-exploitative patterns of work arguably take root in the body. Immaterial or cognitive labour materializes, if anywhere, in or on the body, e.g. skin, eyes, limbs, joints, nerves, hair. Functioning as something of an antidote to a backdrop of ever-present activity or productivity, in the book Technologies of the Self Foucault talks about learning how to effectively take care of oneself, and in discussing this form of care, he quotes Marcus Aurelius, ‘I did little work, and that to no purpose’. So small-scale, seemingly purposeless work, or perhaps work that is done when we’re not at work or not really working at all is upheld as being valuable, and seems to be equivalent to a kind of ‘taking care’. Perhaps this ‘little work of no purpose’ can also be associated with a form of passivity?
There are three areas that I’m linking here - the active and passive nature of ‘affect’, signs of contemporary work on the body, and a notion of caring for oneself and others. I want to consider the ways in which these areas might be co-dependent.