The Autonomy of Brownsville

The cars on the road zoom past, playing music aloud. The street art continues to shine beneath the heat of the summer sun. Brownsville is more than statistics and selective statements: it is sights and sounds and senses that interact in complex ways to create a multitude of affects.

In his essay, “The Autonomy of Affect,” Brian Massumi explains that “affect is synesthetic, implying a participation of the senses in each other” (35). This means that no singular sense can provide a good conception of Brownsville: the music defines it just as much as the art and the buildings. But this also means that the sight becomes sound and the sound becomes sight. For example, this art work may only be considered visual but subconsciously, one can hear this picture of an adult—most likely a father—helping a child in planting a tree: the voice of the father and child speaking to each other, the gentle sound of their hands gathering the soil, and the sound of the leaves rustling mildly in the wind.

This artwork could also be reflective of the values of Brownsville: their value for preserving the environment and for being actively involved in making their neighborhood look beautiful. It may also reflect an importance of family and community in Brownsville, but it is true that this artwork in itself has the potential to create numerous affects such as empathy or apathy: one may walk past the artwork, only taking it for a “half second” (Massumi 28) or one may be moved by it or stop to examine it. Notably, however, these affects are distinct from emotions, because they “follow different logics and pertain to different orders” (Massumi 27). There is a complexity to affect: there is no “straightforward way” that we can connect “content and affect” (Massumi 24): the poverty of Brownsville does not necessarily create dullness and sorrow; it can also create spirit and hopefulness.

Very importantly, the poverty of Brownsville importantly points towards the historical and systemic context within which it is situated.


An observation of Pitkin Avenue helps with developing this understanding greatly: a quick look at it reveals a wealth and infrastructural disparity when comparing Brownsville to the rest of New York: the cracking paint, the seeping walls. At the same time, it continues to be vibrant and colorful, cars and shops playing music aloud. But Brownsville’s poor infrastructure and vibrance, such as “passivity and activity …. could be seen not as binary oppositions or contradictions, but as resonating levels” (33). Affect theory allows us to see the passivity of the activity–the liveliness, the people frequenting shops–as well as the passivity–continued economic and social disparity–in Brownsville. This approach then allows for a deeper perspective into the affect of Brownsville instead of imposing a singular narrative of either dreary doom or rose-tinted beauty upon the neighborhood.


Works Cited

Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique, no. 31, 1995, pp. 83–109.

~ by Sania Irfan on October 13, 2019.