Affective Geography: Clowns, Spaces and the World’s Smallest Mask

“Thinking Professor,” by Alison Bain. 2010

By Dylann McLean

For geographer John-David Dewsbury (2011), affective geography— which builds out of the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and, later, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (see Deleuze and Guattari 1986) — is about forming linkages or assemblages of (and between) ideas that connect different knowledge systems so as to form new connections and possibilities for meaning. Using the terminology of affect-theory, ideas can be folded together to form assemblages of thought (Dewsbury 2011). This preliminary paper is also an assemblage of thought, as it folds together some of my thinking about the affects of clowns, geographic space and the world’s smallest mask, the red nose. I argue that the clown is the ideal character with which to consider both spatial and human transformation because of its positioning as an archetype— which means it is free from human constraints, but also because the clown is the performing-body: it is humans who wear the red nose.

You may be wondering at this point exactly what I mean by using the words affective geography; how can I talk about geographic transformation when place is generally thought of in terms of simple ‘here and there’ distinctions and space is usually proceeded with a phrase such as ‘everything in its’… What do clowns and red noses have to do with any of this? I am going to begin to assemble my thoughts on these subjects by outlining very briefly what affective-geography is without providing an actual definition because there isn’t one (see Thrift 2004).  What does affective-thinking mean for geographers? I am going to do this partly because we all need to understand the affective-critique of geography, but also because my research is not so much about placing clowns as an object of study within geography as it is about throwing the discipline of geography to the clowns (literally!) and making use of the clown as a tool for re-conceptualizing geographic space.

I want to being with a brief overview of how geographers understand the terms ‘place’ and ‘space’. For geographers, the term ‘place’ has several meanings. ‘Place’ is the way in which we separate one object from another; for example, we are located here rather than over there, so place is ontological. But ‘place’ is also a way of knowing, seeing and sensing the world. So place is also epistemologically and metaphysically conceived and rather far removed from the simple ‘here and there’ distinctions (Cresswell 2004). The geographer, Doreen Massey (2005) notes that ‘place’ in our globalized and interconnected world is often evoked in a grounded sense or, in other words, in terms of localized places with a series of symbolic and political motivations attached. Geographers have used ‘place’ as a means of taming the world’s inherent spatialities: we retreat to ‘place’. In doing so, we, geographers, often unthink it, close it down.

Massey (2005) also notes that the way in which geographers typically conceptualize ‘space’ is also closed down. She argues that the way in which we imagine space—as a surface with cultures, people and places spread out upon it, is also ‘unthought’. So how can we geographers think about place and space in a way that leaves them open to greater possibilities? Well, we can think about these terms in ways that unsettle the neat mappings of representation(s) onto notions of space and place. Geographer’s Nigel Thrift (2008) and Doreen Massey (2005), among others (See Thrift 2004, 2008), have disrupted the neat relationship between “the spatial and the fixation of meaning” or representation (Massey 2005: 20) in part by shedding the language of representation. Without subscribing to established ‘representationalism’ (Lorimer 2005), geographers (e.g., Ashmore 2011; Doel 2000; McCormack 2003, 2008; Pile 2010, 2011; Thrift 2004) are able to focus on the processes and movements at play in space, or affects.

To do this for place we need to think of place in terms of a malleable construct. If I may quote geographer Tim Cresswell (2004: 39) “The work of Seamon, Pred, Thrift, de Certeau and others show us how place is constituted through reiterative social practice— place is made and remade on a daily basis. Place provides a template for practice— an unstable stage for performance…” For space, Doreen Massey (2005) has pushed our thinking in a similar direction. She argues that space, as a malleable construct, is produced through complex inter-relationships. To think of space in these terms is to think of it as something never finished and multiple, but, more importantly, it is to agree that the story of the world can never be fully written and that the future is open (Massey 2005).

Here is a non-geographical but nonetheless affective example that I think will help us to think about open futures and possibilities. I have a little story drawn from Nassim Taleb’s (2010) book The Black Swan:The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, o, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books (1).

In the example above Umberto Eco’s books are all possible affects, each unread book a possibility.

We have already considered what affective thinking does to key geographic concepts such as ‘place’ and ‘space’, so I want to turn now towards understanding affect as it relates to the body. The key point that I want to make here is that affects — in the Deleuzian understanding of the term, are fundamentally different from emotions that can be defined within a known field. Affects are pre-cognitive and partially determine how and in what way bodies can act (Massumi 2002). It has been noted by geographers Bain and Nash (2006) that the research on the body in geography has progressed from definitions of ‘the body’ to examinations of embodiment, and finally to explorations of the role of space in constructing embodied subject. Geographers such as Nigel Thrift (2004, 2008) and Derek McCormack (2008) have looked at the affective body as an elusive, paradoxical, and often hard-to-define object of study that moves in different ways to produce space. To put this another way and quote McCormack (2008:1823) “[s]paces are — at least in part— as moving bodies do”.

Contrary to much of the contemporary scholarship in geography, affective geographers consider the non-psychological or transversal body-subject (Pile 2010; see also Massumi 2002). The transversal body-subject is a difficult concept to grasp; however, Brian Massumi (1992) suggests that to be transversal a body-subject can never be fully embodied in one body. This means that transversal body- subjects have emotions, thoughts, and even forms that are located “between”. For affective geographers,

[t]he body is not used to solicit telling testimony about people’s lives, instead it becomes a device that enables the researcher to reveal the trans-human, the non-cognitive, the inexpressible, that underlies and constitutes social life— albeit unknowingly…. affectual geography’s body is both universal and also prior to its constitution in social relations (Pile 2010: 11).

This view builds upon the central claims of Nigel Thrift (2008) which include that we do not always reflect consciously upon external representations; that intelligibility is distributed and held in a range of actors, including text, images, and bodies; and that affectivity is an important part of our spatial experience.

Enter the clown and…

The presence of clown characters in urban public space opens significant opportunities for interactive encounters that re-configure understandings of space in the city (Joseph 2006). I argue that such transformative spaces of encounter are produced through techniques and actions that are unique to the clown art form and through the particular ways in which this art form can transgress both spatial and cultural norms. The use of the red nose in particular can (un)mask the habitual practices of spatial use.

So how can I make such a claim? Well, it comes back to the way we make sense of the clown— which is not often considered as an object of study in the discipline of geography, but is a much-studied figure outside of the discipline of geography. While such studies offer rich detail about particular historical clown characters and document the social roles of the clown within specific cultural contexts, they are dated assessments of the function of the clown in contemporary Western societies. In general, however, the social and moral roles played by clowns, as well as close relatives fools and jesters, are well documented, and are understood to originate from their marginal yet privileged oracular positions within society (Rémy 1962; Towsen 1976). Clowns, in recognizable form, have been traced as far back as Egypt’s Old Kingdom about 4,500 years ago. In their modern form, there is general agreement among scholars that clowns are embodied expressions of Carl Jung’s (1959) ‘trickster archetype’. The clown’s positioning as an archetypal expression and also as the performer-body help to make the clown an ideal figure for affective-inquiry.

Zoning in on the red nose—the world’s smallest mask as it is often called—we can begin to see with the donning of the nose the transformation of the human subject into something that, while still recognizably human, is also something more than human. The clown is a paradoxical figure, a contradiction if you will that is in many ways similar to its audience, yet an identifiable ‘other’ (Emigh 1996). So, too, do clowns stand out within the context of the circus or the theatrical show because they follow ‘clown logic’, breaking or inventing new rules as they see fit (MacManus 2003). In many ways, I am drawing partly from my own experience as a clown here—the clown’s nose is a great un-masker. The red nose is both liberating and protective. It grants the wearer a disguise while, at the same time, liberating the more raw or suppressed aspects of the self which would normally be controlled. In their 30, 000 year history within human cultures,  masks have been widely used as part of cultural rituals, theatrical productions and within the healing arts (Napier 1986). Like the clown itself, however, not a lot is known or written about the precise origins of the red nose (There is some suggestion that it is linked to the reddish nose of the drunk, who, being drunk, is apt to be foolish).

From my perspective, speaking now as a geographer, the masking of the human form with the red nose and the interactions of the clown can function as a temporary unmasking or raising to consciousness of the habitual practices or social conventions that come together to create space. The oscillation of space between the masked and the unmasked is possible because of the unique clown art-form. In theatrical terms, the clown has no fourth wall, which means the clown acts, or turns as they are called, engage directly with the audience. In urban public space the term ‘engagement’ can be extended to include those individuals who join into the clown antics, as well as those who carefully avoid the clown and continue about their business. Both of these actions can be considered affects, but, more importantly for the present discussion, they function as masking and unmasking moments. Donald McCmanus (2003) notes that the contradictory approach of the clown to things like social conventions, for example, constitute an alterative way of doing— which most clowns call ‘clown logic’.

The temporary break from ingrained patterns of spatial use and social convention that the red nose and ‘clown logic’ affords the clowns and also the audience, engaged or not, exposes for the audience the various habitual practices that make up a space.

If I may highlight this process for you, I shall turn to the University campus. Research on higher education suggests that university and college campus cultures, while each of a distinctive nature, are very much a reflection of the border social and cultural context in which they exist. Our university campuses and the spaces surrounding them are not immune from many of the currents of spectacle-based society, most notably choreographed spaces. In particular, campus spaces are choreographed in such a way that the rhythms and uses of space become ingrained overtime. This, as the work of geographer Tim Cresswell (1996) suggests, means that the habitual practices of and within particular spaces may only become apparent once they have been disrupted or transgressed. When spatial performance is transgressed, the actions of the transgressive individual or group of individuals are interpreted as ‘out of place’, both socially and spatially. This is because space/place are not simple geographical matters but rather complex ideas that intersect with a much broader range of social and cultural expectations (Cresswell 1996).

Research on university campus spaces also suggests that the ingrained patterns of spatial use have only become more pronounced— and this is particularly the case for urban campuses— as the use of/ and need for space intensifies (Griffith 1994). Gulson and Symes (2007) argue that school architecture is not merely background phenomena, and while many educational spaces are fluid and ephemeral, they are constantly being formed and deformed within a ‘determined repertoire of behaviour’.

Enter the U Clown Collective, a group of professionally trained clowns who intervene in and around campus spaces in the Greater Toronto Area. They create a space or set of spaces that are oscillating between being masked and unmasked. The U Clown Collective consists of 16 young clowns who come together, usually in smaller groups, on a fairly ad hoc basis to engage in public clowning. For the young clowns involved, the Collective provides an opportunity to further the development of their clown character (every person’s is unique) by connecting with people. And being clowns, they relish any and all opportunity to cause disruption. Within the spaces of the university, the red noses tend to be in stark contrast to the university population. Because of the potential of the clown to be a polarizing figure— people generally either love or fear them— the presence of a clown, especially in high traffic areas on a campus, can result in some remarkable moments of spatial and human transformation (unmasking) where individuals engage (or not) with the clown and temporarily step out of their role as student, faculty, or staff.

I want to suggest by way of a conclusion that the masking and unmasking of  human as well as habitual spatial practices, and the potential of the world’s smallest mask to affect, indeed transversalize geographic space, is only given strength because of the ways in which we understand the clown and its red nose. It is both masked and unmasked, more or less human, and almost recognizably normal in terms of its dress and actions. The clown plays within the tensions between its archetypal expression and its performer-body. It is between. It is an affective force within space and time that can, through its actions, like Prof. Eco’s library, open us towards greater possibilities.

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Portions of this paper were given as part of ‘Festive fogs the spectacle(s): urban campus culture(s) and the U-Clown Collective’ at the June 2011 meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographer’s in Calgary, Alberta.

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