Atmospheric Walls

There was quite an atmosphere. It might be electric; it might be tense. It might be heavy, light. Maybe an atmosphere is most striking as a zone of transition: an upping, a downing. The laughter that fills the room: more and more. An occasion is being shared; the sounds of glasses clinking; the gradual rise of merriment; we can hear things get louder. Or a sombre situation: quiet words, softly spoken; bodies tense with the effort of holding themselves together by keeping themselves apart. The sound of a hush or a hush that follows a sound, one that might interrupt the solemnity, piercing through it, turning heads.


We might describe an atmosphere as a feeling of what is around, and which might be all the more affective in its murkiness or fuzziness: a surrounding influence that does not quite generate its own form. When an atmosphere is tense, those who arrive into the room can “pick up” tension, in becoming tense, a way of being influenced, a way of receiving an impression, whether or not they are conscious of being tense. When feelings become atmospheric, we can catch the feeling simply by walking into a room. In describing an atmosphere, or in becoming conscious of an atmosphere, we give this influence some form.

Do we always pick up feelings in quite this way? Consider the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s book, The Transmission of Affect: “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’” (2004: 1). Brennan writes very beautifully about how the atmosphere “gets into the individual” using what I have called an “outside in” model, also very much part of the intellectual history of crowd psychology and also the sociology of emotion. However, later in the introduction she makes an observation, which involves a different model. Brennan suggests that “if I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an “impression” (a word that means what it says).” (6) I agree. Anxiety is sticky: rather like Velcro, it tends to pick up whatever comes near. Or we could say that anxiety gives us a certain kind of angle on what comes near. Anxiety is, of course, one feeling state amongst others. If bodies do not arrive in neutral, if we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation. This second argument suggests the atmosphere is not simply “out there” before it gets “in”: how we arrive, how we enter this room or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. To receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.

So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point. The pedagogic encounter is full of angles. How many times have I read students as interested or bored, such that the atmosphere seemed one of interest or boredom (and even felt myself to be interesting or boring) only to find students recall the event quite differently! Having experienced the atmosphere in a certain way, one can become tense: which in turn affects what happens, how things move along. The moods we arrive with affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods. Sometimes I arrive heavy with anxiety, and everything that happens makes me feel more anxious, whilst at other times, things happen which ease the anxiety, making the space itself seem light and energetic. We do not know in advance what will happen given this contingency, given the hap of what happens; we do not know “exactly” what makes things happen in this way and that. Situations are affective given the gap between the impressions we have of others and the impressions we make on others, all of which are lively.

Even when atmospheres as shared, they are angled. In my own work I have been very conscious of this, troubled by this: how when atmospheres seem thick and palpable, like something that can fall and settle, almost like pollen in the air, that people can still experience that atmosphere very differently. My experience of social experience seemed a little at odds with some of the models of the sociality of emotion which stressed how feelings are transmitted, rather smoothly, between bodies. I wanted to write from this “at odds.” I wanted a model of emotion that did not assume social = shared or same. There are political as well as intellectual reasons for this: otherwise those who do not share a feeling, or who are assumed as the cause of the loss of shared feeling, would register as anti-social. In politics and everyday life, this registration happens; we know this. The feminist killjoy herself comes up as an anti-social figure. We can challenge what we know. I want a way of thinking the social that includes this anti, or that even ups this anti; the anti is part of how we relate to each other, not the absence or end of a relation to another.

There was one time, which I still remember very well, because it was so tense. It makes me feel tense just to remember this time; to remember a feeling can be to experience that feeling. It was a dinner with people who did not know each other very well. I picked up that tension through the sharpening of voices, the fidgeting of bodies, the loaded nature of comments. Everything seemed pointed! It was excruciating. When I came home, the person I was with said she did not notice any tension at all. It is like we were in a different event. An atmosphere can be how we inhabit the same room but be in a different world. Some might be more attuned to some things, some bodies, some sounds. Attunement helps us to explain not only what we pick up but what we do not pick up. It is important to add here: the distinctions between subject and object or between right and wrong perception do not work here. I do not think it is the case that one of us perceived things rightly; another of us wrongly; that one of us projected her feelings onto a situation, another of us did not. Situations are orientated; bodies are orientated. When we lean a certain way, an event too appears a certain way. An event has a tilt. Perhaps in being anxious before an event, about an event, you are going to hear what you anticipate; and not hear what you do not. Perhaps certain sounds become more audible; others less so. If you are relaxed, you might hear different sounds. What you hear is in what happens, which is not to say (it is not to say) that we hear everything that happens. We cannot exhaust an event, or grasp it fully; this is partly how we can understand the intensity of tension, an experience of an event can itself be in tension.

Attunement does not simple happen; there is a history at stake, or a timing, often experienced as a having been here before, even in the mode of anticipation (anticipation is often an attention to a before, a before can be an affective lodge) in how we become responsive to some things and not others; how we learn to be affected and not affected by what and who we encounter. A stranger is created, I have suggested, as the body to whom we are not attuned. When a body to whom we are not attuned arrives, it can create a disturbance.

This is how: an atmosphere can surround a body, in the how of an arrival. An atmosphere can be achieved over time; an atmospheres can become a technique, a way of making spaces available for some more than others. I noted in Willful Subjects (2014) as well as On Being Included (2012) how diversity is offered as a welcome, a way of saying to others, those who embody diversity, often bodies of colour, come in. Welcome derives from wilcoma and is what I call a “will word,” combining “will” with “guest.” It implies: a guest whose arrival is in accordance with will. To have your arrival be in accordance with will is a particular form of arrival. Whether you are coming (or going) is made dependent on someone else’s will. If you come in, you are acquiring a debt (a willing debt). Diversity is often experienced as the willing acquisition of debt.

But to be welcomed does not necessarily mean you are expected to turn up. What happens when a person of color turns up? We are noticeable, and the effects of this are as tangible as an atmosphere: “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me” (Ahmed 2012: 40-41) They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference. I have called this labor “institutional passing.” As a woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently” (Ahmed 2012: 158). Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.” Some forms of difference become legible as trouble, as if you are only different in order to cause trouble. The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate not necessarily by becoming white, but by being more alike. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation. Diversity work is thus often atmospheric work: you have to try and eliminate the tension caused by your own arrival.

But think about this: how when you are arrive into a room, and there is a sense of discomfort. Maybe it is shared; maybe it is not. Maybe you feel a discomfort because of what you sense. I think whiteness is often experienced as an atmosphere. You walk into a room and you encounter it like a wall that is at once palpable and tangible but also hard to grasp or to reach. It is something, it is quite something, but it is difficult to put your finger on it. When you walk into the room, it can be like a door slams in your face. The tightening of bodies: the sealing of space. The discomfort when you encounter something that does not receive you.


Feminist of colour scholarship and activisms have long attended to rooms as moody containers; as saturated by histories that surface in the atmospheres that surround some bodies, hovering, a thickening of air. I have drawn often on this quote from bell hooks, as it has so much to teach us. Let me share it again: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000: 56).

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another, who comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere (or we could say sharing the experience of loss is how the atmosphere is shared). As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things which might mean for some not even being able to enter the room.

Feminist killjoys too: how often we ruin an atmosphere. To become assigned a killjoy is to be the cause of the loss of shared merriment. When we willingly receive this assignment, we are willing to be this cause, which is not the same thing as making this cause our cause. We learn how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Perhaps atmospheres are shared if there is an agreement in where we locate the points of tension.

Racism can be experienced as a storm, a “violent disturbance of an atmosphere.” Just recall Audre Lorde’s description of racism as weather. She notes: “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone” (1984: 160). We come up against it. We are shaped by what we come up against. Think also, with Marilyn Frye, of the press in oppression: “The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce” (1983: 54). A body pressed by what she comes up against; a pressing and pounding against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening. For some bodies to stand is to withstand. We can be exhausted by the labour of withstanding. This is why I describe social privilege as an energy saving device, less effort is required to maintain a standing.

Racism is a storm in the sense that brown and black bodies appear to cause the violent disturbance of an atmosphere. Perhaps there is nothing more disturbing than being the cause of a general disturbance.

It can cause a disturbance just to turn up. It can cause a disturbance to bring certain things up. I have become aware over the past years how atmospheres surround certain words, hovering, a thickening of air. Racism: a word with an atmosphere. When you bring it up you are heard as stirring things up. I have had numerous examples over the past years when I have been talking about racism and I have been heard as making an accusation; as charging someone with something. And that’s how we receive yet another charge (it is rather electric): we are charged with charging someone with racism. As Fiona Nicoll has argued, “the very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004, np).

If we have to live with the consequences of what we bring up, no wonder sometimes we decide not to bring things up. As I discussed in my previous post, “A Killjoy in Crisis,” sometimes we do want to become the cause of the loss of a connection because we experience that connection as warmth. Sometimes, of course, we become this cause, whatever we say or do.

We also learn: an atmosphere can be how a body is stopped, how some are barred from entry or stopped from staying. Atmospheres can be an institutional wall, a way in which some are stopped without being formally stopped; a way in which some are stopped even when they appear to be welcomed. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels acknowledge how social exclusion often works through atmospheres, as a polite way of excluding or eliminating some bodies. They write: “Society behaves just as exclusively as the state, only in a more polite form: it does not throw you out, but it makes it so uncomfortable for you that you go out of your own will” ([1845] 1956: 129). I used this quote in the first chapter of Willful Subjects (2014) as it has much to teach us about the intimacy of force and will: how you can force someone to leave by making things unbearable for them to stay. Discomfort becomes a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out will without resistance, or with the will of others). Take the example of employment: the relation of employer to employee. Power can work through incentives: you might be given an incentive to leave your job (in the form of voluntary redundancy) which basically amounts to a choice between leaving with an incentive and leaving without one. You might leave “voluntarily” or “willingly” as it would be worse to lose the incentive. When willing is a way of avoiding the consequences of being forced, willing is a consequence of force. Willing might be a way of “coming off less badly” given that force.

Atmospheres: how you can be made to leave as if “out of your own will.”

We need to describe these mechanisms.

An atmospheric wall: can involve conscious decisions and collective will. People can “in effect” turn their backs to form an atmospheric wall, a way of preventing some from staying. Or an atmospheric wall can be the effect of a habituation: someone who arrives would stand out, would not pass in or pass through, and the difference becomes uncomfortable by virtue of being a difference at all.

Indeed in my discussions of institutional walls in earlier posts (see here and here) I stressed that what makes these walls so hard is that they only appear to some, and not to others. It might appear that you can enter; there might even be a tagline that supports this appearance. Minorities welcome! A wall is a technique: a way of stopping something from happening or stopping someone from progressing without appearing to stop this or stop them, even by appearing to start something or even by appearing to allow them to progress. But you arrive, and it becomes uncomfortable. It is so uncomfortable, that you are not willing to stay. The discomfort can be tangible to you, like a thing, a wall, which you know is right there because you have just knocked into it. When you leave you do so willingly; it appears that you have left in accordance with your own will. Even if they made it hard for you, even if a they appears as a hard, they do not encounter that hard.

Light, airy, bright, white.

An atmosphere that is light for some might be heavy for others. When you are not accommodated by an institution, you feel it as weight.

Heavy, down, dark, brown.

And what is even harder here: how we can be brought down when we bring things down. Frantz Fanon taught us, how the light brightness of whiteness is experienced by those who are not white, whose being is a being in relation to what they are not. He taught us how racism becomes an atmosphere around the black body that can be experienced as a relation to one’s own body, as dislocation. Fanon describes: “And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. The real world challenged my claims. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness. The body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty. (Fanon 1986: 110-11). A third-person consciousness: a consciousness of being an object, being it, thing; not being to the one who is being. This consciousness of being an intruder to being, of being dissected by the white gaze, manifests as an “atmosphere of certain uncertainty.”

When whiteness becomes a surrounding, as a mood or influence, you feel surrounded. You can feel surrounded by what you are not. A “not” can become a moody container. Your body can even become the cause of your discomfort because it causes other people’s discomfort. You wish for your own disappearance, a wish to pass can be a wish to wish yourself away. Your relation to the world becomes a crisis. You are thrown. The atmosphere is no longer “out there” or “in here,” it confounds the very relation between “here” and “there.”

And: diversity work becomes willful work when we are willing to be the cause of disturbance. Perhaps we can only do this work, this work of agreeing to stand out and stand apart, this disturbing work, when we work with others.

Together: what a storm.

Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2012). On being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham:
Duke University Press.

Brennan, Teresa. (2004). The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Fanon, Frantz [1952] (1986). Black Skin, White Masks, trans. C. L. Markmann. London: Pluto.

Frye, Marilyn (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg,
New York: The Crossing Press.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1956). [1845] The Holy Family Or Critique of Critical Criticism . Foreign Languages Publishing House: Moscow.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004). “‘Are you calling me a racist?’: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereigity,” borderlands, 3, 2.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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3 Responses to Atmospheric Walls

  1. Michael says:

    I love how this reads when read alongside “imposition.” ( It’s an interesting mix of atmosphere as created and the subject (the imposer upon atmosphere).

  2. Pingback: Evidence | feministkilljoys

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