Political affects in public space: normative blind-spots in non-representational ontologies

Barnett, Clive (2008). Political affects in public space: normative blind-spots in non-representational ontologies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33(2) pp. 186–200.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2008.00298.x


Recent theoretical debates in human geography have been characterised by a preference for ontological styles of argument. The ontologisation of theory is associated with distinctive claims about rethinking 'the political'. This paper draws on an avowedly 'non-representationalist' philosophical perspective to develop an interpretation of ontology-talk as a genre that provides reasons for certain commitments. This argument is developed with reference to recent accounts of the spatial politics of affect in cultural geography and urban studies, and of the neuropolitics of media affects in political theory. The commitments that the ontology of affect provides reasons for are shown to revolve around understandings of the value of democracy. Assertions of the political relevance of ontologies of affect rhetorically appeal to norms that are not explicitly avowed from these theoretical perspectives. The ontologisation of affect depends on a particular settlement of the priority-claims of different families of concepts. The combination of an ontological style of theoretical analysis and an imperative to claim relevance for affective aspects of life in terms of rethinking 'the political' leads to a presentation of affect as an effective modality of manipulation mediated by infrastructures of public space. The ontological presentation of affect therefore forecloses on a series of normative questions provoked by the acknowledgement of the affective aspects of life. While the value of democracy is thrown into new relief by affect onto-stories, the full implications of any likely reconfiguration of our understandings of democracy remain to be elaborated in this line of thought, not least because it avoids any engagement with the principle of participation by all affected interests.

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