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4 Creative Atmosphere Created

Atmosphere attracts. An atmosphere has it all: oxygen, water, horizon, future, comfort, productivity, belonging, imperceptibility. Above all, it is all there is [1]: life cannot survive outside it. Any venturing outside is premised on the condition that a small chunk of the atmosphere will be taken along, a memento vitae in a glass bowl. Atmosphere spans the geological, the psychological, the scientific, the political, the legal, and appears differently in each one of these. Indeed an atmosphere might appear different even to different individuals. Yet, and although connected to bodies and their affective connections, and occasionally apprehended by consciousness, atmosphere is not a phenomenological entity because it does not depend on apprehension. [2] If anything, atmosphere is preconscious and can only be apprehended post-facto.[3] Furthermore, atmosphere does not engage with the distinction between subject/object, but indeed with the indistinguishability between the two. Finally, atmosphere is properly speaking rhizomatic: it does not begin from one or the other side (subject/object, space/time, consciousness/body), nor does it have a prescribed direction of movement, but rather floats on the common surface of parallel unfolding, which is neither an in-between, nor a synthesis. Thus, I suggest that atmosphere is the excess of affect that keeps bodies together; and what emerges when bodies are held together by, though and against each other.

Deleuze and Guattari have not addressed the topic of atmospheres. We would like to place this atmospheric layer on top of their structures yet in intimate connection to them. In that sense, we suggest that atmosphere is a refrain of a material assemblage which spreads across a collectivity in ways that cannot be accurately predicted yet can be directed. Atmosphere is a little motivating rhythm that is whispered singsong in the ears of susceptible bodies: production, creativity, energy, feel-good, cosy, work-life balance. Or even more ambiguous ones: nationalism, supremacy, consumerism, sustainability. It emerges through the folds of an assemblage and locates itself on its edge, tracing the lines of milieus and holding it all together, an unsung anti-hero. An atmosphere, just as a refrain, is neither necessarily good, nor necessarily bad. It becomes, it alters itself, it succeeds or fails. The difference, however, is that an atmosphere is often engineered—an atmospheric feature that has managed to escape close scrutiny in most of the relevant literature.[4] Milieus, at least according to what we have discussed so far, are assemblages that fluctuate on the plane of reciprocal determination between body and surrounds. Territory is a mark that consolidates the milieu and expresses itself to others across time and space. While both the above share with atmosphere the non-phenomenological qualities of emergence and subject/object indistinction, they are not engineered, at least not in the non-rhizomatic way that an atmosphere might be. This means that atmospheres might well emerge, in the same way as milieus and territories do; and when they do, atmospheres catch on the rhythm and embody the refrain, and extend themselves over and between milieus and territories, glossing them over with a preconscious, fully corporeal desire to belong to the particular atmosphere (or not). Yet, at the same time, this atmospheric emergence can be constructed, orchestrated, directed, even engineered, with specific political, economic or legal objectives in mind and according to specific sensory and psychological affective controls that build on the relations of dominance that have been observed in territories.

The above is a distinctly posthuman understanding of atmosphere and as such requires a modification of the usual definition of affect. An overview of what an affect is and how it can be used in defining an atmosphere is beyond the scope of this text (see Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, 2013). Suffice it to say, however, that the affective discourse must reconsider the usual emotional, sensorial and discursive exclusions. The challenge is multiple: first, to understand affect as an indistinguishable totality of the above elements; second, to take affects, not as phenomenological, human-originating qualities but as ontological, posthuman attributes of an atmosphere. Thus, affect is posthuman in the sense that it neither originates nor ends necessary in humans. An affect is indeed acentral, in that it floats about rather than causally originating in one source. Finally, an affect always exceeds its body of origin, fully given to the way the air moves. This means that affects are always contextualised within an atmosphere, and must always be considered as elements of an atmosphere. So, let me suggest that affect is the sensory, emotional and symbolic multidirectional flow, at the same time in and exceeding a body, that affects other bodies, and in so doing contributing to the emergence of an atmosphere.

It is important, however, to venture even further. Although an affect is rhizomatic (i.e., excessive, acentral and posthuman), it can be manipulated or at least smoothed into a direction. As Franc¸ois Lyotard writes (1993), affects are the libidinal intensities that allow a system to direct desire. In that sense, as the connections between body and world, affects can be exploited and channelled in a predetermined direction that serves consumerist needs, capitalist abstractions, legal obedience and political placation. Or indeed less deleterious directions, such as creative regeneration, innovative thinking, knowledge-accumulation, and so on. [5] The moot point, however, is that one never knows exactly how the directing will work out. Just like anything that ventures outside a given milieu and engages in transcoding, there is risk. Affects may become far too excessive to be controlled. Especially when aggregated in the form of urban atmosphere, they will change in a volatile way. Urban atmosphere in particular is a risky thing, full of incalculable factors. As Nigel Thrift (2008, p. 170) writes, “cities can be seen as roiling maelstroms of affect.” In view of such urban complexity, or what Sloterdijk (2005, p. 948) calls, “a place of enhanced improbabilities”, affective orchestration is not always destined to succeed, even when established techniques of complexity reduction are followed, such as common rituals that enable the assembly of “agents of coexistence in the improbable” (Sloterdick, 2005, p. 948).

On this basis, atmospheres rely on affects, consist of affects and help maintain and direct affects. Atmospheres are (always) affective (Anderson, 2009). At the same time, they emerge in the space of affective excess in two ways. First, in terms of time. Massumi (2002, p. 35) defines affects as “virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them”. An affect can never be fully captured and assimilated—it is both plural ('synesthetic') and future-tending ('virtual'). Massumi uses the virtual here in the Deleuzian sense of horizon of potentiality, of not yet but potentially actualised actuality. The affect's inability to be fully captured, the “escape of affect” (Massumi, 2002, p. 35) is at the same time its ability to capture the virtual. Although firmly rooted in the here of the body, the affect protends to its virtual becoming. Second, affective excess is material: “affects go beyond the strength of those who undergo them.. .Affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 164). An atmosphere relies on the affect exceeding the body of its appearance, since atmospheres establish themselves through imitation or contagion. In her psychoanalytical work on affective transmission, Teresa Brennan (Brennan, 2004, p. 170) has shown through clinical observation how affects are transmitted from bodies and spaces to other bodies and spaces. This is Sloterdijk's (2004) point when he refers to Gabriel Tarde's concept of imitation (1903). Affective imitation spreads like grass amongst the bodies and spaces of these bodies, co-originating in the various milieus and giving rise to an atmosphere.

To sum up, atmosphere is a spatiotemporal and corporeal emergence whose effect on society can be engineered towards specific goals. However, since its emergence and maintenance relies on the excess of affective contagion, there is no way in which one can be certain that the desired effect will be achieved. Atmosphere is, after all, air, gas, vapour, extending in uncontrolled ways and dissolving without notice. It is within these parameters that one can talk about an atmosphere conducive to knowledge or creativity. It is not merely a matter of cosying-up the office space. The act of atmospheric engineering is itself creative, and has to take into account the following issues: first, the emergence of atmosphere is a collective event that relies on prior having taken into account the multiplicity of the milieu that are expected, actually or virtually, to take part in it. This requires an openness to the possibility of different milieus from the ones originally anticipated. Atmospheres evolve in surprising ways and unless one wants to bring in the oppressive presence of legal or peer-pressure coercion (with their own, distinctive atmospheres) or fall into existing patterns of social domination, one needs to be able to deal with affective escape of atmospheres. Second, atmosphere as refrain needs to be edgy yet familiar, catching on existing rhythms and repeating them, while at the same time creating a space of uncanny disjunction, an interval that invites the participating bodies to follow along. Atmosphere as refrain is a promise for further creative lines of flight. Third, atmosphere can only work in concrete spatial and temporal parameters that delineate it. In other words, atmosphere can only work within a territory. To put it even more radically, atmosphere is a process of constant reand deterritorialising, moving along with the affective gestures of the bodies within, as well as anticipating those from the bodies without. Fourth, atmosphere is a totality that operates partly as a net of spatiotemporal affective movements, and partly as a space of exclusion of anything that might destabilise the interior stability of an atmosphere. This means that often atmospheres need to dissimulate themselves as the only space in which the specific event (whatever the main event of an atmosphere might be) can take place. This requires a strategy of dissimulation of the continuity that any atmosphere has with its outside (it is air after all), creating thus what Sloterdijk has called bubbles, namely immune totalities that exclude the outside while inside appearing safe and, in our case, creativity-conducive. Finally, although atmosphere is not an ethical space, it is nevertheless a space where ethical questions arise. Since atmosphere is all there is, it follows that inside an atmosphere there is hardly any space for questioning or resisting. This means that decisions that lead to the emergence and maintenance of an atmosphere must be placed within a milieu that enables horizontal cross-checking and cross-control.

  • [1] Atmospheres are made available as total settings of attractions, signs and contact opportunities” (Sloterdijk, 2004, p. 180).
  • [2] This is explicitly against Gerhard B€ohme's understanding of atmosphere as “the common reality of the perceiver and the perceived” (1995, p. 34). For my objections to this and further atmospheric analysis, see Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2013)
  • [3] Marshall and Marshall's (1879), work on industrial atmospheres points to a historicisation and post-facto assessment of atmospheres, without, however offering the tools to reproduce them
  • [4] See however Choy (2011)
  • [5] See B€ohme (1995), for architectural atmospheric construction and Borch (2011) on the potential of atmospheres for organisations, and more specifically, corporate bathrooms
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