Affect

“Affect” names a conceptual problem as much as a tangible thing. As such, it is best understood as an umbrella term that includes related, and more familiar, words such as “feeling” and “emotion,” as well as efforts to make distinctions among them. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the history of the term to the seventeenth century, aligning it with “desire” or “passion” and opposing it to “reason.” Further specifying that “affect” is both a “mental” and a “bodily” disposition, the OED sets in place a persistent ambiguity that challenges distinctions between mind and body. More technical uses of the term emerge from mid-twentieth-century scientific psychology, where “affect” designates sensory processes or experiences prior to cognition and distinguishes such sensations from the cognitive processes that produce emotions (Damasio 1994). Because affect, emotions, and feelings stand at the intersection of mind and body, cognition and sensation, and conscious and …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

Body

As a term that designates the physical or material frame of human and other living beings, “body” has a long career in the language and a relatively brief one as a focus of critical engagement in the study of culture. For Christian theology as for speculative philosophy in the West, the body figures as the devalued term in a structuring dualism of body/soul (in sacred thought) and body/mind (in secular traditions). These dualisms apprehend the body as a material substrate of human life that is fundamentally distinct from and subordinated to the privileged term in the dichotomy (mind, soul), which alone comprehends the human capacity for knowledge and self-knowledge, as well as the repertoire of human sensibilities, dispositions, and affects on which the salvation, expression, or advancement of humanity is understood to depend. In Christian theology as in humanist philosophy, the body turns up on the side of animality or …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

Border

Were we to imagine an earlier iteration of this keywords project—one published around, say, 1989—“border” would most likely have been left off the list entirely, though “margin” or maybe “minor” might well have been included. In the intervening years, as violent border conflicts erupted across the world and as the U.S. government heavily militarized its border with Mexico, the term has become prominent in academic work. Accounting for this shift—understanding the concept’s fortunes, as it were—entails movement among academic concerns, theoretical conversations, and sociopolitical and economic developments over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. To be sure, a loosely defined field of “border studies” has been around in some form or another since Frederick Jackson Turner (1893/1920) argued for the significance of the frontier and Herbert Eugene Bolton (1921) published The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest and …

Ideologies, Methodologies, Places

Diaspora

Until only a few decades ago, “diaspora” was a relatively esoteric word restricted in meaning to the historical dispersion of particular communities around the Mediterranean basin. Since then, it has become a privileged term of reference in scholarship, journalism, and popular discourse, used broadly and at times indiscriminately to denote a number of different kinds of movement and situations of mobility among human populations. Diaspora is a Greek word, a combination of the prefix dia- (meaning “through”) and the verb sperein (meaning “to sow” or “to scatter”). It was used in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Torah prepared for the ruler of Alexandria in Egypt around 250 BCE by a specially appointed group of Jewish scholars. Subsequently, the word came to be employed as a self-designation among the Jewish populations that spread throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenic period.

In recent deployments of the term, it is sometimes …

Collectivities, Methodologies, Places

Digital

In the twenty-first century, we tend to associate the word “digital” with computation, but its origins hark back to ancient times. The term derives from digitus in classical Latin, meaning “finger,” and, later, from digit, which refers both to whole numbers less than ten and to fingers or toes. Digital procedures long predate the development of electronic computers, and we might understand a number of earlier devices or systems to operate by digital principles. For instance, the abacus is a simple digital calculator dating from 300 BC, while Morse code and Braille represent more recent digital practices. What each of these examples has in common—from fingers to digital computers—is a particular use of the digital to refer to discrete elements or to separate numbers. This focus on the discrete and the separate is central to the functioning of today’s digital electronics, which, at a basic level, operate by distinguishing …

Embodiments, Histories, Methodologies

Exceptionalism

Given the significance of the keyword “exceptionalism” to the U.S. American credo, it is certainly ironic that the word is not originally an “American” coinage. Joseph Stalin devised the phrase “the heresy of American Exceptionalism” in 1929 to justify his excommunication of the Lovestoneites from the ranks of the Communist International (J. Alexander 1981; Tyrell 1991). The Lovestoneites were a faction whose leader, Jay Lovestone, had already broken with the American Communist Party over what was then referred to as the national question, specifically the question of whether and how to work with established U.S. trade unions. The Lovestoneites provoked Stalin’s condemnation when they proposed that the United States was “unique” because it lacked the social and historical conditions that had led to Europe’s economic collapse. In sharp contrast, the founders of American studies as an academic field reappropriated the term in the 1930s in an effort to …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Methodologies

Finance

Finance today signals a whole range of ways in which culture, economy, and polity—the very fabric of material and symbolic life—have become interwoven. It maps a terrain where expert knowledge jostles uneasily with tacit understandings of the world, where enormous wealth becomes entangled with everyday poverty, where the future mingles with the present and the faraway with the very near. “Finance,” as a noun or verb, along with “financialization” as a name for the process by which financial habits of thought have become prevalent across a wide array of fields and activities, has meanings and applications that shift depending on usage. This variation renders the term all the more challenging to grasp, even as the calamitous specter of households, businesses, nations, and global markets in default has made private matters of credit and debt objects of public consideration.

One reason for this confusion is that “finance,” considered as a keyword, …

Methodologies, Money, Power

Gesture

In common usage, gesture names the emptiest of social forms. You reach to help someone, knowing already that they’ve got it. Somewhere between reflex and performance, a gesture signals good intentions without the burden of follow-through—we call this a “mere gesture.” At the same time, a gesture can be understood as the smallest, most basic unit of power as it gets made and remade through embodied social relations. A handshake in a back room is only the most obvious example. We raise our hand to speak, or we don’t. We reach out to some and not to others. We return somebody’s gaze, but only if the conditions are right.

In its etymological sense, gesture (from the Latin gerere, to carry or conduct) signals a question of comportment, of how the body conducts itself (Noland and Ness 2008). Critical concern about what gesture conveys—about what kind of meaning it carries—dates …

Embodiments, Methodologies, Power

Law

The word “law” is most commonly used with reference to what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “the body of rules . . . which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members.” It also refers to statements of fact or truth that are based on observable patterns of physical behavior, as in the “law of gravity” and other “scientific laws.” These two uses of the term—a body of rules and an established scientific truth—are related. Liberal legal systems, including U.S. law, claim to be grounded in universal truths, even as they create bodies of rules specific to a particular society or community. The dominant story about the U.S. legal system, as told from the perspective of its founders and those who govern, is that it exists to establish and preserve freedom, equality, and certain individual rights. Law, in this account, is the neutral arbiter of fairness and …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Methodologies, Power

Literature

Derived from the Latin littera, or “letter,” “literature” for many centuries referred to a personal quality (“having literature”) that meant possessing polite learning through reading. To call someone “illiterate” in the seventeenth century did not mean that the person could not read; it meant that the individual was not possessed of learning, notably knowledge of the classics. Any formal written work—for instance, a scientific treatise, a sermon text, a work of philosophy, or an ethnographic narrative—counted as “literature.” Then around 1750, the historical associations of literature with literacy and polite learning began to change. Literacy rates rose, printing presses became more common, and the products of the presses became increasingly varied. Reading styles slowly shifted from intensive reading of a few works to wide reading of many works, authorship emerged as a distinct profession, and printed works were increasingly treated as intellectual property. All these factors undermined the association …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Methodologies
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