A Case for Agitation: On Affect and Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Carla Jones as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesCarla is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, aesthetics and Islam. She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Jogjakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003). Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about visibility and wealth.]


We are living in affective times. At least according to the many journal themes, conference panel titles and other measures of anthropology’s current interests, affect is in the air. This feels relevant for thinking about writing. Feeling seems central to the reasons we write, even if we rarely say that out loud. Feeling in the mood to write, feeling ready to say something, feeling safe to say it, feeling passionately about it, feeling proud of it once we’ve said it, these all undergird the conditions for writing. These feelings contrast with the objectivity of a social science based in data and facts, and we have a now decades-long critique in the discipline about the fundamentally political and subjective nature of knowledge production. But these are also largely positive feelings.

I want to suggest that one of the motivations to write is also irritation. This may seem contrary and cranky. I don’t mean for it to. For me it is empowering. I increasingly find that the nudge that takes me from mental idea to written word is much more than a deadline. It is a feeling that might be impolite. I find I am most in the mood to write when I am agitated.

My research is about gender, style and politics in contemporary Indonesia. These may seem superficial, but in the US Indonesia is far too little known a place, and my predominantly Muslim friends and informants in Indonesia are far too pious to be recognizable to most Americans. The zeitgeists in which my friends in both places currently live frame them as radically other to each other. While they would disagree with each other on many things, I also know they would recognize fundamental familiarities. Most of my friends, in both places, are disappointed with their current political choices. They question their place in an imbalanced class system. They worry about getting ahead. They worry about looking good. They are stressed. They are bored. They worry about their parents, their partners, and their kids. In short, they have lots of feelings and those feelings are often very similar. They often turn to similar sociality to soothe these worries, like cooking, celebrating holidays with family or going shopping.

Affect theory has emphasized that affect is about public feelings, not just personal emotions. Yet it is precisely the public feelings that frame these personal feelings as mutually unintelligible. Public representations of Islam in the US position it as singular and sinister. Indeed, in these depictions Islam is threatening in large part because its adherents are imagined to be incapable of keeping their religious beliefs to themselves. Representations of the US are similarly alien in Indonesia, frequently depicting a place where atheists have great wealth, few kin and empty lives.

If ethnography is the antidote to misrepresentation, then stories about similar families, worries and pastimes can say something humane in a sea of fear mongering. But we also know that anthropology has also relied on categories of difference for its role in translation. Our own stories shape how we see that humanity. I am often asked a simple question: Why did I choose to study Indonesia? Indonesians, Americans, students, family members ask this innocent, reasonable question. It isn’t easy to answer. As I suspect is true for most anthropologists, the answer is a mix of choice and luck. I was lucky to be born to parents who raised me in Southeast Asia (Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore). While I probably would have become an anthropologist, I likely would not have focused on the countries in which I was raised because they were too familiar. As a college student in California, I had little interest in studying the places I already knew. I wanted to study a place that was just unfamiliar enough to still be a bit exotic. My university had an excellent program in Indonesian studies, so that is the place I chose. If I had gone to a different college, I might have chosen another place. Selecting Indonesia was both choice and luck.

Sharing a background story of that sort is vulnerable because it appears to threaten the emotional foundation anthropologists are supposed to have with their research communities. We are supposed to fall in love with a place, a people, and have sentimental explanations for our choices. Yet in spite of my own journey, I only feel more connected to my Indonesian friends’ feelings in the intervening decades. Here or there, when a friend gets married, has a child, gets divorced, loses a parent, these all cause me joy or pain. If I am truly lucky, I am able to be present for some of these events. Small things connect me, too, like being able to wander through a market arm in arm with a dear friend, bargaining and chatting with vendors. Gossiping about cousins and colleagues while sitting in interminable traffic.

These small delights could be enough. The little joys of feeling close to people who, like me, are sorting out life as it comes to them, making sense of the contours as they emerge. But they aren’t enough. It should be sufficient to simply want to relate those recognizable insecurities we all share, but that is rarely enough. Instead, I find that the nothing sends me to the keyboard faster than reading regrettably common and acceptable descriptions of Muslims in general and Indonesians in particular as provincial and anachronistic. No writing block can endure the irritation born of my reaction to radical difference. Being offended and agitated truly is empowering. And if writing is any way a small solution to continued circulation of conventional wisdoms that reproduce exclusions, then maybe getting cranky is good because it produces more writing. I would really like to live in a world where writing about the small things was enough. I would like to find myself in a world where I wasn’t provoked, but until that day comes, here’s to turning to the keyboard. Here’s to feeling.


Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.