An Environmental History Magazine

Learning to be Affected and Orientations

Matt Tuggey, 2022

They approached us with a strange confidence, at home on the seafront walkway. The ocean was silent, too tired to drag itself up to the shore with any commotion. My friend complimented them as they approached, telling them that they were beautiful. They were. I crouched down, it felt as if I would be less threatening that way. Perhaps it just looked strange. I asked them why they were out walking on the walkway this afternoon and why they had approached my friend and I so confidently. They engaged in a series of sidelong and backlong glances at my friend and I but remained silent. A few rooks landed around us, regarding us briefly with beady eyes, attuned in some way perhaps to my gestures equalling food and simultaneously propositioning me, to see how I would respond. They left shortly afterwards, leaving my friend and I with our new friend. I complimented their feet, which were lovely. They looked at us again, eyelids flickering down and up and then walked around us, continuing south towards Almedalen and the ferry terminal.


I slowly stood up, joints creaking a little in the cold November weather. “I’ve never had an encounter like that before”, my friend said to me, a sentiment echoed by another couple of people who had watched us as they threw rocks into the silent ocean between their legs, facing backwards. 


I have encounters with ducks like that quite a lot of the time.


Landing on two moving feet

This brief piece seeks to explore Despret’s (2004) writing on learning to be affected. I follow their thoughts on belief as that which makes entities available to one another and to events, following Despet’s interest in how non-human and human animals construct (scientific) knowledge together during encounters. I use my own explorations on foot of the ever-expanding Uppsala Business Park and the various encounters I have had there to think through these ideas. I use a narrative map as a prompt for my discussion. I chose the Business Park, as I am interested in how rapid infrastructural developments alter the ways and the extent to which we are available to be affected and to know with other bodies and things that we live alongside. In a second section of the essay, I use Ahmed’s (2006) idea of orientations and Latour’s (2004) idea of becoming a body to broaden my thinking. I suggest that the ideas of learning to be affected, orientations and the notion of becoming a body are useful to think with amidst our daily interactions with other beings and things. It is through being open and available to encounters that we are both able to know and to become.  


Part One – Learning to be Affected

Despret (2004) talks about the importance of belief within science, and leads us away from questions about belief in terms of what it is (and what we believe) towards questions about what belief makes. Belief, for Despret (2004, p122)), “makes entities available to events”. As I walk through the Uppsala Business Park, I do so with a set of beliefs about the beings and things I encounter. Just as with any scientist, these beliefs can make me available to the co-creation of events and mutual transformation with other beings and things. The question here is not whether I believe something or not, it is what I believe and what this makes me available to. 


What I ‘feel’ and the ambiguity that feelings create are also of critical importance in sparking our interest in the world. The ambiguity and uncertainty generated by the ‘feeling’ body creates interest, or something to inquire after. It is this interest (rather than a disinterested approach) that is paramount in generating our knowledge of the world. As Despret (2004, p127) writes, “the world disposes us to feel, and our body makes the world available”. That is to say, the various things that I encounter affect me and in turn shape the way in which I am affected. Moreover, it is through my affected body that I am able to know. To think of this in terms of wine, Despret asks whether we should think of the wine making us happy or of our bodies making the wine joyous? Learning to be affected by other beings and things, is our basis for knowing the world. We can know the world then, by allowing ourselves to be included as fully as possible and allowing mutual affectation with other beings and things. Approaching knowing through the idea of learning to be affected minimises the reduction of others to being “strange and mute creatures” that we observe as “enthusiastic automata” (Despret, 2004, p131). 

A Walk in the (Uppsala Business) Park

As I walk along the neat tarmaced bicycle paths of the Business Park, witnessing 4 human pedestrians and 500 cars in 20 minutes, I can’t help but wonder what each of us humans are affected and learning to be affected by. Which other beings and things do each of us believe we can know or can come to know us?


I have a 10 year relationship with the land that is now the Uppsala Business park. Sometimes it’s a little tough to not be overwhelmed by how quickly it has changed and how visually noticeable that is. 

During my walk, I noticed used condoms, oak leaves and acorns on the bicycle path. I enjoyed how the well manicured lawn became rough, unkempt grass within half a metre of a perimeter fence that stood rusting and guarding a pre-fab building. I collected data by counting the number of cars passing each minute and by touching the oak saplings, planted in regimental lines. 


These notes and this map were both written some three months after the walk I am writing about here. What did my beliefs make me available to and what were my beliefs? What knowledge arose from my sighting, touching, hearing and smelling of these things? What was so affecting that I write about it here?


Part Two – Orientations and Becoming a Body

Ahmed (2006) writes about our lives as lines being not only the paths we create but the paths we follow. The directions we move in are therefore also the directions that are given a priori and set out before us. Our orientations result in certain bodies and things being within reach and also affect the side of things and bodies we encounter or that are orientated towards us. Given the phenomenological focus in Ahmed’s work, this doesn’t only operate at the level of metaphor (as our talk of orientation often does) but refers to the other bodies and objects that our knowing bodies are directed and orientated towards. To think this through in terms of learning to be affected, what we learn to be affected by and what others and events our beliefs make us available to, is not a simple question of our personal choice. The bodies and things we encounter and even the side of them (both physical and metaphorical) that we might come to be affected by relate to the directions we follow, the paths laid down that we might re-trace. 


Pedestrian Bodies

I’ll think about this first in terms of my choice to walk through the Uppsala Business Park. As one of the (very few) pedestrians, different beings and things are within (and outside of) my reach, compared to the drivers of vehicles. In a vehicle, I am orientated towards other vehicles both oncoming and driving ahead of me in the same direction. My attention is steered towards the actions of my feet and of the steering wheel. These things and the actions of other vehicles and traffic lights in front of me are those that I am attuned to and have learned to be affected by. The layout of the road affects what I face and the beings and things that come into view. 


By contrast as a pedestrian, I have greater freedom to look around and perceive the beings and things that are around me, although the construction of a tarmac path still restricts my movement to a large extent. The security fences that surround properties in the Business Park play an additional role in restricting my range of movement. The point I make here then is that the way we move through places orientates us and puts different bodies and things within reach, within range of our learning to be affected with and by. The used condom, the oak leaf and seed, my tactile encounters with the oak trees, are not things I chose in advance but my choice to walk made these beings and things available to me, in a certain way. I am not claiming that motorists do not learn to be affected by various beings and things, as they drive through the Uppsala Business Park. I am stating that they learn to be affected by different beings and things. Illich (1974) argues that travelling at increasing speed is damaging to our social relations. Here, I argue that the fact that many of us travel at speed both directs and homogenises what we come to be affected by. It homogenises our social relations and the set of possibilities therein for our sociality with non-human others.



Secondly, I’ll think through some of the particulars of touch, given my choice to touch the oak tree, beside the busy road during my walk through the Uppsala Business park. What beliefs were behind me touching the oak tree and being touched by it in return? What did these beliefs make me available to? Marks (2008) refers to the proximal senses (touch, smell and taste) as being largely ignored in our visual-centric culture but also unique in the ways of knowing that they mediate. Ahmed (2006, p8) talks about what is ‘just about’ within reach. They mention that the world is able to make new impressions on us, by our extending beyond what is familiar or to that which is just about within reach. Although in some ways I am familiar with the touch of an oak tree, having grown up with touching and climbing trees, I find myself simultaneously alive to touching other trees. Perhaps it is through having touched other trees that my body becomes alive to the differences between each type (following Latour, 2004). Whilst trees are familiar to me, this particular tree was not. This distinction relied on my body’s ability to articulate the difference between trees.


Puig de la Bellacassa (2017, pp95-100) talks at length about the promise and pitfalls of touch, noting the violence of touch in tandem with its inherent reciprocity (to touch is to be touched). Touch has the potential to make us uniquely available to events, to learn to be affected by other beings and things in different ways. Touch also requires trust. To dare to be affected by other beings and things requires trust, especially when it involves reaching out to that which is beyond the familiar, to that which is just about within reach. Our orientations bring different bodies and things within reach and define that which is ‘just about’ within reach. Depending on our histories of encounters and of touch, this reaching out can mean very different things to each of us. What I mean to say here is that Ahmed’s (2006) notion of orientations is not only helpful in thinking about what beings and things each of us might be affected by, but that reaching out to each of these will feel different to each of us. Daring to be affected is not a simple act, it is an act that is contingent on our histories. 


Becoming a Body

Latour’s (2004) idea of becoming a body might be powerful as a thinking tool in this case. Ahmed (2006) directs us towards thinking about the very orientation of our bodies; what might be within reach and how reaching out might relate to our past experiences. The idea of becoming a body, as we learn to be affected, might highlight our transformation. Transformations that occur through encounters that are the result of the beings and things we are orientated towards at any one time. 


To explain becoming a body, Latour (2004) tells a story about humans who work with fragrance testing kits, developing and becoming a ‘nose’ over time. The perfumes (and the associated network of actors involved in their production) are involved in the becoming of the body. As we are open and affected by other beings and things over time, we become more able at articulating differently in light of difference. By articulating, Latour means that we are both sensitive to and behave differently in the face of difference. 


Although our bodies might be oriented towards certain other beings and things at any one moment, it does not mean that our body has only learned to be affected by those things. During our lives, our bodies become through our encounters with other beings and things. It is through allowing ourselves to be affected that our bodies become more able at articulating our encounters in the world. For Latour (2004), to improve and add articulations is the very essence of good science. They write this in contrast to science as the pursuit of accuracy, which is described as a single, definitive statement that eliminates difference. Following Latour (2004), to be better able to sense and articulate difference is the goal of scientific knowledge production. 


Conclusion – Taking off on two moving feet 

To bring this short piece to a close, I return to the opening story of my encounter with the duck. I do not know what the duck was thinking as they approached us and walked on to greet the rest of their afternoon. I am not yet able to sense and articulate differences between individual ducks. In light of what I have discussed here however, I would argue that coming to know this would require my openness to being affected in further encounters with ducks and would also involve my body becoming, to know this. I can only wonder whether that duck is able to tell the difference between humans. 


Furthermore, I think my belief that the duck was able to experience and respond to my friend and I during our encounter all together made me open and available to the duck’s choices. The excitement and interest, the ambiguity and uncertainty sparked by the approach of another being gave me the possibility of learning about the duck. My openness to being affected during my encounter with the duck gave me an opportunity to notice, respond to and articulate differences in the duck’s behaviour. Becoming able to sense and articulate such differences is part of an ongoing process of becoming a body, as Latour (2004) describes it. Our bodies make the world available to us and the world disposes us to feel. 


In this essay, I have narrated two sets of encounters that occurred whilst I was walking, in the hope that a reader might consider these thoughts, next time they are walking. However, I think that to ask ourselves what we are allowing ourselves to be affected by and what beings and things are ‘just about’ within reach, are useful questions in any encounter. In our daily lives, where much that we might know remains unknown, these questions direct us to pay attention to how we come to know and how we become, as we come to know.  


Finally, this process of reaching out also depends on trust and in turn on our previous experiences with other beings and things. What we might be affected by is not as simple as looking at what is within reach. With what and whom might we dare to be affected? If and when we do choose to dare however, it is through these encounters, through reaching out and allowing ourselves to be affected that the world impresses upon our skin. These encounters themselves are how our bodies become, and how we come to know the things and beings around us. A knowing that arises through our bodies. 

My thanks to Francis Rogers and Josefine Tegerdal for their helpful comments on draft versions of this script, particularly to Francis for their help with the concluding paragraph.

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