Atmosphere is comprised of affects or precognitive emotional states that exceed the bounded individual. Teresa Brennan defines atmosphere as “the other’s affects” (1), thus requiring the resources of many fields traditionally separated. She writes: “how one feels the others’ affects of the ‘atmosphere,’ has to take into account psychology as well as the social, psychological facts that generated the atmosphere in the first place” (1). When the affects in the atmosphere intensify, they can disable the individual’s own capacity for free choice. Brian Massumi thus writes of the overwhelming terror that arose in the wake of September 11, 2001 as fueling a particular political formation. In “The Future Birth of Affective Fact,” Massumi argues that the “shared atmosphere of fear” was not proportional to the number of “incidents where danger materialized” (Gregg and Seigworth 61). The atmosphere was conducive to a form of government that operated without consent from a public too affectively immobilized to protest. In an atmosphere of fear, says Massumi, the preemptive politics of neoliberalism work more smoothly by continually stimulating while purporting to fight a terror without limits or end.
Such atmospheric manipulation does not have to founded upon negative affects to be problematic. Lauren Berlant shows how optimism itself can cause difficulties as well. Berlant argues that a constant insistence on shared optimism can obscure the harsh facts of reality, causing a “cruel” form of self-deception as well as political inaction. She underscores how “shifts in affective atmosphere are not equal to changing the world” (Gregg and Seigworth 116). The prevalence of economic optimism, which Berlant links to 1980s rhetoric, prevents society from facing the unhappy realities of the present. In this view, atmospheric affects overwhelm judgment, preventing citizens from critiquing the socio-economic practices that thwart human fulfillment.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.
Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.