The year 2020 witnessed the wide spread of the coronavirus crisis. The lockdown caused by the pandemic collided with researchers’ schedules, particularly in the field of urban studies. Encounters have been identified as the basic unit of fieldwork and of urban affective politics, as individuals’ emotions and their affects embedding encounters prompt events to transform. What would cities be like, since the ways of encounters have changed? My research mainly focuses on emotional geography.
I initially focused on a puzzling phenomenon in Beijing: In line with a policy aiming at promoting “urban aesthetics”, informal shops along the streets had been closed, counters at house windows along the streets had been sealed, and walls had been built to replace doors or windows in 2018. However, residents complained about the loss of local vitality and cherished the living atmosphere. I was trying to explore how people’s emotions are influenced by this administrative measure.
Due to the pandemic, I had to stay in my hometown, Puyang, which was locked down like many other cities in China during this tough time. Instead I found that the attachment people had towards shops and markets was transformed into fear and anxiety. People were cautious about interactions with others around them since the pandemic broke out. I explored the reasons for this by interviewing consumers via video calls on WeChat which is a social media application allowing people to send messages, make video calls, obtain payments, post photos, and so on. My findings demonstrate that fear creates social boundaries and serves as a way of social interactions. Furthermore, I reflect on how the government creates special atmospheres— a mixture of fear, anxiety, collective sentiment— to manage the city and fight the crisis collectively and intrinsically.
My case study encompasses the street markets in my hometown Puyang, an ordinary city located in the Henan province of China. The city has a population of one million in urban areas and is well-known for oil exploitation. Street markets that used to be like a kaleidoscope for researchers to observe encounters in the city disappeared after the pandemic broke out. In order to control the pandemic efficiently, all street markets were closed except a few authorized ones and as such, people were forced to buy their daily necessities during different time periods. Street vendors were not allowed to run their businesses on the streets and few people hung out outside. I visited supermarkets and agriculture product markets to explore how encounters among people changed before and after the crisis. Rather than communicating with people directly, I observed their body language and gestures. The complex turbulence of affect and emotion embedding into encounters contributed to the changes of human behaviors and actions, as has already been the common assumption among affective geographers (Thrift 2004; Anderson 2006; Gould 2009). These revised research methods provided me an opportunity to explore people’s affect and emotion towards street markets and its relationship to urban politics, which has been ignored by current research.
Fear: emotion makes surface and boundary of social contacts
I first paid attention to the dramatic change of emotion among people, which was observed easily at the beginning of the pandemic. Before the coronavirus crisis, people were willing to look for unexpected things in markets and seemed joyful. In contrast, people tended to express fear and anxiety towards markets after the pandemic broke out. In order to explore the reasons for this change, I contacted interviewees that I had met previously in my field research. As I was forced to stay at home due to government implemented lockdowns, I tried to get in touch with respondents via WeChat.
In our video calls, interviewees recalled how they felt when they encountered strangers in the markets. Some of them told me that they were afraid of suffering from the ‘deadly’ virus, as specialists informed the public that the ‘unknown’ virus is contagious and it is impossible for them to distinguish between symptoms of COVID-19 and the common cold or flu. When encountering strangers in the markets, people were worried about where the strangers around them were from, and whether they might carry the virus. Even when people saw others in the markets, they preferred to gaze at them from afar and keep their distance. People who suffered from COVID-19 became the objects of fear—but so did people who just had coughs or runny noses. If people manifested symptoms, including a cough or fever, nearby strangers’ uncertainty transformed into fear. Even though I was observing participants from afar, via my phone’s video lens, I could clearly see their fear and anxiety through their tone and facial expressions.
At the end of February 2020, fear and anxiety manifested as a sense of exclusion towards people from some high-risk areas. The city was trapped in crisis. In order to respond to the pandemic actively, the government classified areas into three risk levels: high-risk, moderate-risk, and low-risk areas. The criteria was based on how many COVID-19 carriers were living in the area. This meant that not only the carriers themselves, but also all the people residing in these areas were ‘objects’ of fear.
It is through fear that boundaries of social contacts were made in the pandemic. From my observation shown above, emotion is not only an individual self-expression (Ahmed 2014), instead it is constructed by sociality (Gould 2009). The recognition of an imagined fear resulted in the reconstitution of bodily space and the reorientation of bodily relationships.
How does fear make surfaces and boundaries between people? The shift of emotions of encounters results from academic narratives and political discourse. The narratives in the fields of infectious disease and medicine build a collection of judgments which reshape how people imagine the way of encounters. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention explained how Covid-19 spreads: “people who are physically near (within 6 feet) a person with Covid-19 or have direct contact with that person are at greatest risk of infection”. Emotions co-occur with judgments (Prinz 2006). Everybody makes judgments about others around them. If people judge that a rule has been violated, they typically have a negative emotional response—the judgments affect how people feel. Specialists explain the coronavirus as passing from one person to another in close contact, which produces uncertainty as a structure of feeling. In other words, uncertainty shapes one’s feelings. Uncertainty sometimes serves as a “strategy” of feeling to create interior, affective states such as fear, worry, and confusion (Tucker 2017). Even though fear first emerges in our own minds, it operates by “othering” when we encounter another person. The pervading fear of Covid-19 was transferred into a fear of contact among strangers in public spaces.
Atmospheric governance: atmosphere as a tool evokes collectives to fight with the virus
Based on the observations I describe above, I reflected on how local governments have wittingly or unwittingly used “emotional response” as a tool of governmentality. I use the concept “atmosphere” developed by Ben Anderson and Derek McCormack (Anderson 2009; McCormack 2014), and also maintained in relevant discussions in the field of cultural geography in recent years. Negative emotions like fear and anxiety constructed by political and scientific discourse reshape social boundaries and become social forms among people. Emotions towards the virus can be reproduced and circulated through different channels and create atmosphere.
Atmosphere—the mixture of emotion, desire, and affect—plays a vital role in social governance. It enhances the efficiency of urban governance by prompting people to fight COVID-19 voluntarily instead of forcing them. At the beginning of the crisis, a collective sentiment spread throughout the whole country. The “unknown virus” as an “object” became problematic and it was imagined as a horrible “other”. There exists dualistic opposition between human beings (subject) and “unknown virus” (object). Out of fear of the virus, people came together to defend against it. Hate and fear, negative feelings towards Covid-19, created collective affection among people. Slogans and logos used by the government, such as “we are the fighters”, “tough battles”, “a full victory against the epidemic”, are militarized metaphors— they create a militaristic atmosphere. At the beginning of the pandemic, local governments created this atmosphere to fight the crisis. But as time went on, the atmosphere was reproduced and transmitted through non-representational actions, tones, and words by the people themselves. This argument is based on my observations via “Moment” on WeChat where, for example, my interviewees shared articles and expressed views with the titles of “Fighting with the special ‘battle’”. A street vendor Ms Liu who sold vegetables in Wenming market shared an article concerning the importance of wearing a mask. The atmosphere on empty streets reminded her of the SARS disease in 2003 and I was told that: “I never want to see the SARS tragedy again”. The atmosphere during the pandemic evokes memories of SARS which reveals spatial and temporal relationships with 2003. Therefore it enhances the awareness of protecting against COVID-19.
In contrast, I also noticed dynamics in line with Sara Ahmed’s statement that “the emotional intensities of love and hate, then, is the production of the effect of likeness and unlikeness as characteristics that are assumed to belong to the bodies of individuals” (Ahmed 2014). The events taking place in hospitals sparked people’s empathy. Each time when audiences saw moving scenes covered on TV, it created a “We”— a collective identity. The positive attachment created the effect of seeing likeness and then produced an atmosphere full of love and solidarity. People imagined themselves as the “fighters” of this tough “battle,” with all of them taking part. The atmosphere of fear of Covid-19 and of solidarity among comrades interact with each other. Mr. Hou, one of the interviewees, sold frozen food for more than three years in Tianlong market, but had to stay at home during the pandemic. He told me, “I was deeply moved by our ‘fighters’. The doctors and nurses sacrifice spring festival to fight COVID-19. I cannot do anything but stay at home. Even though I cannot make earnings these days, I should be a responsible citizen in this ‘battle’”. When Wuhan fought Covid-19, he posted a cartoon image with the words, “Hot dry noodles, cheer up!” (Reganmian, jiayou) on “Moments” (hot dry noodles are a popular snack in Wuhan). Thus, atmospheres created by the government strengthened acceptance of lockdown policy and maintained social stability during the pandemic.
My argument is, therefore, fear functions as a way of social interaction that created boundaries between people during the pandemic. Without the pandemic, I would not have recognized that people’s emotion and feeling can be modified by discourse and that atmosphere, the assembling of emotion and feeling, can be used as a governing instrument. I did my field work in a limited number of markets as only five markets were allowed to be open in all of Puyang during the pandemic. I found that the emotions of social interaction changed after the pandemic. The shift of emotions of encounters results from discourse and academic narratives which become the criteria of social contacts. Emotions co-occur with these judgments. It is through fear that surfaces or boundaries are made. As all consumers and vendors should wear masks in the markets, I could not observe their facial expressions and even hardly heard what they were saying. I attempted to use WeChat to continue my research. As people were allowed to stay at home, WeChat became a significant channel for friends and relatives to keep in touch as it supports people sending messages, video calls, and sharing and posting articles. I was able to observe the emotions and affect expressed by people freely on this platform. After interviewing some vendors through WeChat and observing their “Moments”, I found people were sharing their emotions with each other and that their emotions were highly influenced by political discourse. Through the video calls, I could grasp their words, tone, and facial expressions. Atmospheres assemble emotion, desire, and affect as tools of governmentality to persuade people to fight Covid-19 together. The atmosphere of fear of Covid-19 and the atmosphere of solidarity among their comrades interact with each other. Thus, atmospheres enhance the efficiency of urban governance.
Hang Wei (Twitter) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Planning and Management, Renmin University of China. She focuses on emotional geography, affective politics, and is currently researching changing emotions, affect and city branding in urban China.
Ahmed, S. (2014) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Anderson, B. (2009) “Affective Atmospheres.” Emotion, Space and Society 2.2, 77–81.
Gould, DB. (2009) Moving Politics: Emotion and Act up’s Fight against AIDS. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
McCormack, DP. (2014) “Atmospheric Things and Circumstantial Excursions.” Cultural Geographies 21.4, 605–25.
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Tucker, JL. (2017) “Affect and the Dialectics of Uncertainty: Governing a Paraguayan Frontier Town.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35.4, 733–51.
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