The Gowanus Canal Affect

Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect expresses her belief that the emotions and energies of people can be absorbed by or can enter directly into each other. She bases her theory of affect on the constant communication between individuals and their environments, whether its physical or social, and the ways in which the environment can affect the individual’s perceptions. Brennan sees affect as “a vehicle connecting individuals to one another and the environment” (19), even though her concept of foundational fantasy, she says, explains how we come to think of ourselves as separate from others and how we tend to think in active and passive terms.

Between my first and second visits to the Gowanus Canal, I had seen two distinct neighborhoods along different parts of the waterway. On my first visit there, I had gotten off near 9th Street – my walk around the neighborhood quickly determined the limits as to where and what I was going to be able to capture. Walking along the Gowanus Expressway, I saw many of the industrial buildings and businesses I had read about online, in addition to a street of construction warehouses and the Department of Sanitation building. 

The Gownanus Canal has always been a significant landmark in Brooklyn’s urban fabric, and in actuality, has largely affected the growth of neighborhoods around the canal. With the Brooklyn cityscape booming in the 1800s, the New York State Legislature saw an opportunity and a need for the construction of the canal; the canal would serve as a center for Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial activities. In turn, the canal brought about new factories and residential communities, truly becoming a key location for industry and residential sewage connections. Between its role as an industrial core and a sewer drop-off, the Gowanus Canal was soon turned into a neglected and contaminated repository. However, “there is no distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment’” (6); in this case, the individual being the community around the Gowanus Canal.  Brennan’s theory of affect truly comes to life when looking at the history of the Gowanus – from its time of service as a hub of activity, to its abandonment in the late 1950s, when New York’s decline of industrial jobs reflected on the state of the canal. 

Similarly, in Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett looks at the importance of affect to politics, ethics, and the way we interact with our ecologies, as well as the manner in which we look at them. Much like Brennan, Jane Bennet pushes the belief in the active/passive roles, however, Bennett puts an emphasis in promoting “more attentive encounters between people-materialities and thing-materialities” (x). For Bennett, by looking at the vitality and the vibrancy of nonhuman matter, we would be able to detect a fuller range of nonhuman powers and acknowledge things as vital players in the world. By looking as the Gowanus Canal as a vibrant ecology, it’s easier to understand the ways it has interacted and affected the change in residencies along the waterway. 

Since the Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund Site by the EPA in 2010, community members have begun pushing for a canal cleanup. Though not visible in the waters of the canal yet, the approval of the canal cleanup is in progress and set to start over the course of next year. This progress is reflected on my second visit to the Gowanus Canal, where I was able to see the more recent environment and changes to the canal that I had read about online. Along Caroll Street and 3rd Street, I saw a more vibrant community than the neighborhood I had seen on my first visit. The new residential were still plastered with “Now Leasing” posters and the nearby Whole Foods boasted clean energy. It seems as though the energies of those pushing for the canal conservancy has in turn brought about a renewed vibrancy in the bigger community around the Gowanus Canal. How will the affect continue to change as I continue to observe Gowanus, those fighting for its cleanup, and how will the problem surrounding this particular ecology change?

A Tugboat in the Distance

Works Cited:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004.

Gowanus Canal History. Gowanus Dredgers., 2019.

~ by liucylu on September 28, 2019.