Perceiving in the City: The Affect Walk

As we walk through the world, particularly a city, we are always negotiating a bevy of bodies and forces — faces, smells, cars, sirens, pigeons, driveways, street side gardens, trees, leaves, desires, manias, anxieties. We distribute our attention and perception according to an ever differing calculus, lingering here, not there, some there. Perception is not a steady, even flow. It undulates, part of our metabolism, our speed and processing of the world. We are filtered engines that shift depending on who we are and our circumstances at the moment.

Usually, we're going somewhere and consider the path a means to an ends — hence not worth much attention. At times like this, our attention is elsewhere —  where we're going, catching the train, what might happen once we're there. We are adrift in a virtual plane of future possibilities. It's as if a grid of possible worlds were strewn over the streets, our bodies traversing one plane, our attention another. This is not a good or bad thing; it's simply what most of us do most of the time. 

When I am out and about, I often look at the sky, at the curvature of space, at clouds and their drift, glancing down now and again to ensure I'm not about to get run over, step in dog shit, or bump into someone. This is incredible: with one foot I step on pavement, with another, sky. The day becomes infused with a certain cosmic frequency, the hassles of the day dissipating within the ethereal vapors of the universe.

Other times, I'm overcome with something burbling inside me — anxiety, grief, fear. And then I barely notice anything at all, not other people, not the sky, not the train I'm trying to catch. I become a black hole: not even my perception can escape the gravity of my inwardness.  

There are ways of making our way with a contrived focus, a point of interest or whimsy. It could be architectural, following houses and structures that look interesting. It could be a color walk, letting our movement and attention be directed by a color — we walk with blue, with orange, with yellow. This is in fact a great way to steer out of habit, to take a different path than normal, a way to heed the environment rather than the future or ourselves.

And then there is what I call the affect walk. This is my favorite. It asks to heed the affect as you walk, to feel the mood — not of you but of the place you're passing. What's so great to me about an affect walk in the city is that the affect is constantly shifting; in the country, affect is more steady and persistent. Just think about each house — the architecture, all the experience and events new and old, the greenery, the fade of the paint, the inflection of wind and sun and pollen. And then there are the streets, the mood of drivers, a car screeching, a guy sleeping in his van, the honking of traffic, the sight and stench of garbage. There are other people or their absence and how that helps forge the mood of the place.

And then, of course, there's you. To heed affect, you must move out of any deep inward state, shed anxiety and narcissism for a bit. This doesn't mean shedding yourself which is impossible. No, it means leaning into the fray and teem of it all without leaning too far forward into the future (or into your phone) nor too far back into yourself. Sure, you will inevitably do one or the other or both as you make your way. But the affect walk asks for a constant readjustment, realignment, with the world around you, a beautiful balancing act — like surfing, I imagine.

What I love so much about the affect walk is it situates itself, situates you, at an active nexus of forces and bodies. A color walk is cool, sure, but blue is blue. Affect is a conspiracy, a collaboration of architecture, weather, history, human bodies, animal bodies, sound, light, smell. It demands a very special kind of attention that is not external the way, say, a color walk or future date is and not internal the way anxiety is. And it can be done anytime, anywhere — even while going to make an appointment. The affect walk is not the provenance of the flâneur alone. It is there for all, always.

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