Nigel Thrift, gatherings, and light-touch intimacy

One of the things I’ve promised on this new version of my blog is reviews/summaries of scholarly texts that I’ve been working with, so here is my first attempt. Lately, I’ve been really inspired by Nigel Thrift’s work. He’s a UK sociologist geographer (thanks, LB!), working in urban studies, who has been championing what he considers a non-representational theory of urbanity—that is, a concept of the urban that takes into account things like affect, speed, and spaces animated by action. I’ve been particularly interested by his concept of “light-touch intimacy,” which appears in his essay:

Thrift, Nigel. 2005. But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 (2):133-150.

[This essay also forms a chapter in his monograph: Thrift, N. J. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. London and New York: Routledge.]

Thrift begins by noting that there is a long history to the trope of the city as doomed; cities are characterized as rushing toward their undoing, spiraling out of control, or quaking in the shadow of catastrophe. He suggests that there is a thread of misanthropy that subtends all of these accounts, and that a closer attention to the affect of city life show that cities “have a large reservoir of enmity but they also have a surplus of hope, an unconscious hunger for the future as well as the past” (135). His large-scale argument, then, falls into four points, which structure the four sections of the article.

1. Cities are not as precarious as they seem, since their cycles of maintenance and repair also introduce a degree of adaptability.

“Western cities are continuously modulated by repair and maintenance in ways that are so familiar that we tend to overlook them” (134). There has been an appreciable increase in cities’ power to repair and maintain themselves, having to do with the expansion of these industries. While “risk society” and “control society” commentators are hyping the mounting dangers facing cities and the world, “it would be possible to argue that cities are constantly adding new circuits of adaptability” (136).

2. Affect is a crucial element of “human interactional intelligence” (i.e. sociality), and the possibility of negative affect means that sociality does not necessarily mean liking.

In other words, “the kind of empathy required by interactional intelligence does not preclude a good deal of general misanthropy” (139-140). Empathy means being alive to the presence of affect, but that doesn’t mean just being sympathetic to positive affects.

3. Cities bring people and things together, but “they often sit uncomfortably together” (140).

Thrift notes that from the Victorian era on, the intolerance or hatred of fellow city-dwellers is pathologized as failed civility. At the same time, this now-repressed misanthropy re-emerges in a violently-enforced regime of domesticity that is anchored by romantic love. This makes it impossible to dismantle domesticity because people are loathe to give up romantic love, once it has been established as the primary life-affirming and life-sustaining relationship.

4. Rather than a politics of bare civility or love/altruism, what we need is a politics of kindness.

However, he has an unusual definition of kindness. Instead of an “organic emotion,” kindness here means “a social and aesthetic technology of belonging to a situation” (144). In other words, kindness is way of managing the sharing of lifeworlds. Because kindness manifests in small gestures rather than permanent relationships, it doesn’t always require positive affect and “liking.” He also argues that kindness is not merely urban mores, but also something to do with the built environment: “this kindness has to be built into the spaces of the cities” (144). I’m not sure what he’s thinking of here; ergonomic park benches? More subsidized housing?

Thrift points out how community-building projects that enforce intense social intimacy tend to fail precisely because the intensity of these relations produces excesses on both sides of the love/hate binary. Instead, he advocates “lighter touch forms of sociality,” such as what Bruno Latour terms “gatherings” (145; see also Latour 2004)  This involves “systems of intensive encounter” that do not try to construct a utopia, but rather incrementally improve living-together through increases in contact and involvement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also points to the contemporary trend in “relational aesthetics,” as championed by Bourriaud (2002),  where the work of art is located in the social space of the gatherings organized by the artist.

Thrift points to four sites of these “gatherings” that he considers so crucial for making the city more humane (145-6):

  • A. The domain of politics itself. (Especially local, tactical political movements about the urban landscape, such as garbage, parks, etc.)
  • B. Light-touch modes of interaction. (“Rubbing shoulders” and the sociality of crowds—carnal or virtual. Offers a “binding affective force” without an “entrenched understanding of structure or counterstructure.”)
  • C. Friendship. (“A model for intimacy and compassion [that] is achievable.” However, friendships also have fights & bad feelings.)
  • D. Practical affective politics. (I.e., mobilizing affect itself to political ends)

The site of “light-touch modes of interaction” is most interesting for me, in that I work on dancefloor crowds and this lack of an “entrenched” notion of how or against what we come together is also something I’ve described as “liquidarity” (i.e., liquid solidarity, vague solidarity). There’s something about these “partially-engaged, partially-disengaged” (146) gatherings (like the dancefloor) that lowers the (perceived) stakes of sharing space / affect / pleasure and remains vague enough to absorb or bracket antagonisms (on this latter point, see the intro to Berlant 2008).

Thrift closes with this summary argument: “in an agonistic city, where agreement is thin on the ground, a little more kindness may be what we should hope for and what we can get, whereas love is a bridge too far” (147). Was love really what previous urban projects were aiming for? Where is the state in all of this? What if municipal and national authorities don’t want love or kindness, but docility and labor productivity? I understand that Thrift’s use of “kindness” here means something more ambivalent than being nice, but then how is it a tonic for misanthropy and antagonism? How does a politics of “small achievements” accumulate into a campaign that people can feel committed to?

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2008. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du réel.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact ot matters of concern. Critical Inquiry 30:225-48.


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