It’s the shoes. Do you see them? Amid the crowd chaos and red stop signs and cameras and flying bodies there are four empty shoes–three mid-screen and one bottom left. When I came to this picture, I had already seen the tweets and FB posts and Yahoo trending news. I knew a car had plowed through counter-protesters in Charlottesville, even though the driver and death and the number of injured were as yet unreported. The picture was not “news”, then, but something more like evidence. It slotted into my jazzed-up affective state like an amplifier and transmitter, boosting my affective signal and catalyzing my body to post and repost my feelings and reactions. Somehow those four shoes were corpses to me. They stood for death real and intended. They stood for the shock of a violence so unexpected that at least two people ran out of their shoes.

The blood pouring from civil society Saturday challenges the echo chambers of identity politics–or it can if we let it. Bigotry and fascist white supremacy are woven into the fabric of civil society and those of us shocked by it all (white folks, that is) need to own our complicity in it. This post is an attempt to see the “public sphere” that formed around the events of Saturday as a wounding that can reorient white Americans to see ourselves and what we take for granted about “the public” differently, differently enough that we orient ourselves, our discourse, and our practices to antiracist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-antiSemitic, and anti-Islamophobic labor.

For some years now I have wanted religion scholars to rethink the public sphere—to attend to the ways that our sense of being a self, and our sense of being a polis and of being a demos arise today through media, particularly that broad canopy we condense into the moniker, “social media.” These social technologies of public co-existence work in ways to produce publicness, but they depart from familiar narratives of the public written by Rawls and Habermas, and also stray from Anderson’s “imagined communities” driven by print media.

Instead, our public is threaded and bolstered by what I call “affective technologies of mediation in a digitally global world.”

By this phrase I want to evoke how subjects—citizens and noncitizens—construct, enter into, and react against temporary interconnections with each other on a minute-by-minute and hourly basis. These temporary interconnections are conjoined and sustained by web-based media platforms that compress time and space more profoundly than newspapers or television, and that circulate affects in ways that position subjects not as knowers but as feelers, as the clickers of click bait, the posters of repostings that keep affective response moving, flowing until the moment dissolves into other constellations of mediated interconnections.

This mediated flow of affects operates as a network in Latour’s double sense of the term, both as the material infrastructure (servers, software, cell phones, apps) and as that which flows through the infrastructure (affective). This mediated flow of affects also operates as a technology in Foucault’s sense of a matrix of practical reason. In my still-new theorizations, our public today, quite contrary to that articulated by Habermas or Rawls, is a multiply mediated, affective technology; that is, it is a matrix of practical reason dispersed through multiple material networks that enable and accelerate the circulation of affects.

  Chances are, any one reading this posting experienced this affective matrix of practical reason last Saturday as the events in Charlottesville unfolded. But, see, our language needs to change. The events in Charlottesville are materially tied to the media events responding to Charlottesville. An event and its reactions are no longer separable enough to allow for “commentary.” Even this blog posting is not a commentary on the events in Charlottesville but on the event of the events in Charlottesville, on what “Saturday, August 12” was, at least for some of us.

Our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Reddit scenes delimit public address as the kind of affecognitive discourse Foucault calls “dramatic”; it is the discourse of theater and spectacle. Indeed, Foucault’s entire point about the importance of Kant’s odd sense of Publikum in “What is Enlightenment” is that “public” means for Kant quite precisely the stage or platform on which a certain kind of drama can be staged or performed, where a certain kind of scene can be seen. This staged drama is a kind of normative punctum, an event that functions as a gauntlet thrown down within the boundaries of the Publikum and for the sake of its continued maintenance. Kant’s Publikum establishes and legitimates the infrastructural means by which certain statements can be deployed freely, and it is the very free deployment of these particular (normative) statements that establishes and legitimates the Publikum’s infrastructure.

Making a scene in public may enact the freedom that feeds autonomy, but it is not for Kant itself a representation of Enlightenment. This distinction is important because unlike the pointillistic quality of public interventions, enlightenment is a slow process with an oscillating rhythm that conjoins the systole of sociality to the diastole of historical development. To draw out this rhythm, Foucault distinguishes pedagogical discourse from the dramatics of autonomous action. The drama of autonomy is both preceded by pedagogy and followed by self-reflection, thereby showing inextricable developmental and historical links between the government of others (by teaching them) and the government of self (daring to know for oneself). These two pedagogical moments—being taught and teaching oneself—are hinged by the interruption of public, dramatic discourse as we saw in Charlottesville, or like any event that rips the fabric of everyday life and, by claiming or debating the proper face of universality, exposes the bloody wounds of particularity on the skin of public tissue.[i]

It also is important that for Kant, the significance of the Revolution does not lie in the bloody events of the Revolution itself. “What is significant and constitutes the event with demonstrative, prognostic, and rememorative value,” Foucault writes, “is not the exploits and gesticulations of the revolutionary drama itself.” Rather, “[w]hat is significant is the way in which the Revolution exists as spectacle, the way in which it is greeted everywhere by spectators who are not participants, but observers, witnesses, and who, for better or worse, let themselves be caught up in it” (17).

Today, under the technological aegis of social media, we could restate this “significance of the Revolution” as the material dynamic that constitutes our very publicness: not the bloody action on the streets, but the entranced witness of the spectacle; not activism, but absorption. Foucault foregrounds a specific phrase used by Kant to describe the affective register of witnessing, a register that Kant associates with the sign of real human progress. The phrase is: “a sympathy of aspiration which borders on enthusiasm” (18).

As we saw with the event of the events of Charlottesville, what matters for our sense of publicness and our sense of the possibilities of social transformation–what matters, that is, in the sense of what holds the bodies and actions of the persons involved and what holds and disperses the significance of their material presence and actions–lies not with the punctum of any particular action (not even that one man driving that one car through a crowd), but rather within the crucible of splayed, saturated, relayed, and defensively diverging affective reception that unfurled multiply and nonlinearly in graduated and unpredictable ways.

From Foucault’s reading of Kant it is clear that the material and institutional factors that generate the circulating ground or ‘stage’ of the Publikum are necessary but not sufficient conditions for sustaining a viable ‘public sphere.’ The license to demonstrate, the police and national guard presence, the Constitutional guarantees of the right to assemble and the right to free speech are thus necessary but not sufficient conditions for a viable “public.” The tissue of publicness also requires that readers and spectators “sympathetically,” that is, affectively, absorb and rearticulate the “aspirations” of the dramatic discourses unfolding before their witness.

What Foucault sees (through Kant) as acts of autonomy, truth telling, and revolution, I would rewrite as the rapid threading of publicness through affective technologies of mediation. Through social media, the affecognitive lineaments of our enfleshed social life are dramatized in a flash. The spectator-bodies may refuse this public moment; they may ignore it, seek to kill it, refuse it, counter it, or redeploy it; but for publicness to thrive, its witnesses must absorb events with the tingling affective sympathy that the events are making claims (however contestable) about our shared human conditions of flesh, life, and precarity. To me, this relationship between the image, sound, word or body of the public event, and the body of the spectator positions the flesh of the citizen as a crucial node or switch-point in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.

On 8/12/17 I saw and participated in just this relationship between the images, sounds, words, norms, and bodies in Charlottesville, and the words and images of the witnessing spectator-bodies. I felt palpably how the flesh of citizens function as crucial nodes and switch-points in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.


[i] I worked through Foucault’s lectures on Government of Self and Other a year before reading Katrin Pahl’s lovely book, Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2012), but her argument about the Phenomenology resonates strongly with my reading of Foucault’s Kant. Especially in her Chapter 2, “Pathos,” Pahl argues that Hegel offers a theatrical ‘staging’ of ethical life that requires the presence of both an audience of others and the agony of self-reflection after the passionate public display.