Gowanus in its Intensity

On my most recent visit to my ecology – the Gowanus Canal – I had Massumi’s words in mind as I walked through the several neighborhoods connected by the waterway. In his long-winded paper, Massumi equates affect with intensity, that is, affects is the intensities that move us, that come together, transform, and translate our states of being (27). Massumi believes that “intensity is embodied in purely autonomic reactions that directly manifest[ed] in the skin” (25). Affects, unlike emotions, appear more on an unconscious level – “it is not ownable or recognizable”, whereas emotions often appears as subjective content, is owned and recognized, and is associated with the social (28). In this third visit to the ecology, I kept these perspectives in mind and looked for the affects that Massumi claims our world is saturated in.

No Dumping Next to the Canal

Operating for over 100 years, the Gowanus Canal has been through the peak of industrialization within Brooklyn and endured years of misuse. Originally built as a transportation waterway, the Canal soon became the dumping grounds of many resident industries. Knowing these factual statements about the Canal – the only difference between my second and third trip – proved Massumi’s words – “matter-of-factness dampens intensity” and interferes with affect – resoundingly true. The first two visits to the Gowanus introduced me to the matter at hand; I accounted eyewitness examples of the grimy toxins that resided in the water, eerily glittering the sun. The fact that I had seen a fully-functional, pedestrian-infested Whole Foods right near the water was shocking. Did these people not know of the toxicity that was vibrantly living in the water? Did the “green” image that Whole Foods promoted itself really cover the fact that the Canal cleanup was still underway, and potentially in trouble? Seeing the industries that had corrupted the Canal residing right next to the Whole Foods was truly affective in revealing the type of situation Gowanus is currently in. Yet, by my third visit, seeing a new patch of grime on a new part of the Canal no longer fazed me. As Massumi would say, the intensity of the affect was dampened. What ran through my head was simply: “this is the result of years of dumping and negligence on the Canal”. Seeing the promotion of so many “green”, “environmentally-friendly” industries and businesses near the Canal should’ve been surprising. Seeing the multiple “no littering”, “no dumping” signs before this third visit, definitely would’ve had a huge affect. However, seeing these parts of the neighborhood was not as affective as it once would’ve been; I’ve read about it in the news, and in my research on the Canal.

The Gowanus’ Sheen

Massumi talks intensely about the concept of the virtual, which he describes as the result of something that happens too quickly to have happened actually (30). It “is the realm of potential” and is “unlivable even as it happens” (31). While there is nothing virtual about the Gowanus’ dirtiness and long history of abuse, the moving body of water provides a virtual experience of the cleanup process. On my second visit to the Gowanus, I had witnessed a large accumulation of grime on the waters near the Whole Foods. I had stumbled upon the dirt jackpot. Yet, I was left to contemplate Massumi’s words on the virtual when I returned on my most recent visit to clear, seemingly clean, water. Had the cleanup happened? Given that I visit my ecology only once a week, this experience left me with the feeling that much of what I experience is prone to change radically from week to week. I am only left with the perceptions of the Canal that are demonstrated during these weekly visits, and am still fully unaware of the ways the Canal are changing on a daily basis.


Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Duke University Press, 2002.

~ by liucylu on October 12, 2019.