- Notes on Atmosphere
What difference does an atmosphere make to an environment, a situation, or a horizon of possible action? If getting a handle on this question is tricky, it is in no small part because atmosphere itself names something elusive and vague: What kind of being does it have? And where exactly does it reside? Deriving from the Greek atmos, vapor or steam, combined with sphaira, ball or globe, in its basic sense the word refers to the envelope of gas surrounding the earth or any other celestial body.1 Used figuratively, it has a much wider reach, indicating the characteristic tone or pervading mood of a surrounding environment or object. Its referent varies in ontology, but in ordinary speech we attribute atmospheres to a variety of things, including spaces, situations, individuals, societies, historical epochs, objects, and artworks.2
But for all their seeming haziness, atmospheres have real effects. They alter the kinds of things that can be said in a space, the kinds of actions that are thinkable, and the modes of sociality that are possible, and I want to suggest that we have still yet to fully recognize and attend to their importance as social and political phenomena of everyday life. A persistent atmosphere of hostility can cause someone [End Page 121] to drop a class, leave a community, or participate in a protest or a strike. Atmospheres play a role in shaping our "motivational propensity," "the means by which masses of people and things become primed to act."3 Take the case of "toxic atmosphere," a common enough expression. US employment laws include protection against harassment resulting in an environment that "a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive."4 But atmosphere is a term we use to designate precisely what cannot be reduced to a set of discrete, easily identifiable actions that would count or be readily provable as harassment. It names something more nebulous. No one in the office or at the party says anything explicitly rude or does anything overtly hostile, and yet it might be quite palpable that someone is unwelcome.
The difficulty of recognizing the effect of atmospheres seems related to the term's ambiguous ontology: it is difficult for what is in the air to attain the status of evidence because it only tenuously attains the status of fact.5 Created by a myriad of interacting elements—objects, bodies, relations, affects, colors, sounds, smells, speech, and so on—the atmosphere of an office or a classroom or a situation is difficult to pinpoint or localize, and thus always verges on fiction. How can we prove or even show what an atmosphere is like to someone else who has not felt it? And of course, how we feel it will depend on who we are, our relationship to others, our familiarity with certain cultural codes, and so on. Hence the ease with which claims about environments experienced as damaging or hostile for certain groups of people—women, minorities, students, workers—can be subject to doubt or simply dismissed by others. And so too invoking atmospheres in theoretical or analytic discussions appears tainted with irrationality or mysticism.6
In pointing to the necessity of taking atmospheres seriously, I join a growing number of scholars in a variety of fields—including philosophy, cultural studies, legal theory, geography, architecture, and urban studies—who have recently turned their attention to this concept.7 I draw on a range of perspectives to consider atmosphere in its philosophical, social, and political dimensions, which are often split off from one another in discussions of the topic. Given the capaciousness of atmospheres themselves, composed as they are of [End Page 122] myriad interrelated elements, discussing them requires a similarly capacious approach. In particular, my interests here are twofold. First, I want to examine how creating and manipulating atmospheres in retail and commercial settings have become features of contemporary capitalism. Corporations have long recognized and exploited the efficacy of atmospheres in affecting behavior, but these on-the-ground developments in managing and monetizing "mood conditioning" have largely been ignored by affect theorists.8
Second, given that atmospheres dispose us toward certain actions and make certain attachments...