New Book is Out!

I’m late in announcing this, but my latest book, Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Distance and Difference (with Jennifer G. Correa) is now available as a hardback, paperback, and e-book. If you buy directly from Rowman and Littlefield, you can use the following promotional code and save 30%: RLI093

Below are some of the reviews:

Thomas and Correa offer an important empirical study of affective labor’s central role in sustaining two pillars of inequality: racial difference and socio-spatial distance. Noteworthy for its comparative and relational approaches, Affective Labour reveals the entwinements between racism and affect in everyday practices and places.
Paula Ioanide, Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies, Ithaca College

In this theoretically groundbreaking yet remarkably accessible book, Thomas and Correa establish a strong case for why affect should matter to scholars of race and racism, as well as to activists working for social justice. Affective Labour describes the painstaking work of identification, the crafting of difference, and the production of social distance, in effect asking how forms of violence and exclusion become imaginable or unimaginable. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from a college-town bar scene to the US-Mexico border, through the contemporary diversity regimes of predominantly white institutions. The authors then bring the lessons from these case studies to bear on the emergent affective politics of Black Lives Matter and similar radical democratic social movements. In spite of the grimly neoliberal landscapes of difference and inequality it explores, Affective Labour remains optimistic in its evocation of coming into being and the potential for an affect of liberation in progressive politics. ​
Rebecca R. Scott, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Bringing together critical social, cultural and political analysis, phenomenology and original ethnographic research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of affect. Thomas and Correa provide an imaginative and incisive account of how the manufacturing of gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed relations of distance and difference is a matter of affective labour. Through a diverse range of in depth examples – from American nightlife cultures, to University diversity-initiatives, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – the book offers a refreshing and distinctive examination of the affective work of everyday life and its wider critical implications. The analysis offered is at once productively troubling and optimistic: Contemporary forms of affective labour frequently work to reproduce relations of domination, but they also fuel solidarity, resistance and ‘a sense of hope for what can be, despite the reality of what is’.
Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology, University of Kent

Thomas and Correa’s expansive research into distance and difference takes us on an immersive journey into configurations of affective subjectivity – from above and below. Carefully crafted case studies of urban nightlife in Columbia, Missouri, ‘War on Terror’ at the US-Mexico border, diversity regimes in higher education, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, underline why affect should be of critical concern to social, cultural and political theorists. Affective Labour is an original and timely contribution that will have implications for how we approach the politics of difference in the classroom, the polity and on the street.
Christopher Kyriakides, Associate Professor of Sociology, York University, Canada


Excerpt from Ch.2, Working to Laugh (2015)

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Working to Laugh (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

[Chapter 2: Into the Field, p.33-36]

Along the central avenue running east and west, and cutting through the heart of The District, is Helter Skelter. A self-described punk/rock/sci-fi/horror bar, Helter Skelter is perhaps the most culturally eclectic and unique of all of Collegetown’s nightlife venues. The large building that houses Helter Skelter was once the original location of several independent movie theater venues. The first theater opened in 1907, with just over one thousand seats for predominantly viewing silent films. In 1929, a large fire destroyed this theater. It was eventually restored, exchanged owners, and from 1935 to 1985, the building operated as a movie house under several different names, the last one being the most popular. In the early years following its restoration, the theater was ‘invitation only.’ This designation allowed the theater to deny entry to men and women of color during legalized racial segregation, though by the time the theater closed in 1986 both white and nonwhite residents frequented the venue. Unique to the restoration of the theater in 1935 was the inclusion of a balcony, and the only theater in Collegetown at the time used exclusively for feature-length film viewing. The other three downtown venues at the time featured vaudeville acts and other live, performance arts, though they also showcased feature-length films.

Though it may appear odd that a town with a relatively small population at the time would have three theater venues, the context of this period in American popular culture history indicates otherwise. The pre- and post-World War II eras of U.S. history precluded the era of theatre mega-plexes like the now popular Cinemark and Hollywood Movie chains. In 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, over fifty million people were attending movies each week in the United States, at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.[i] These smaller theaters, then, were necessary to meet the public’s increasing demand for film entertainment.

Helter Skelter first opened in 1997 (under a different name) in a small portion of the old theater’s space, with the rest of the building occupied by a sandwich shop and a vintage video-game trading store. The owner/operator of Helter Skelter is Santino, a New Jersey transplant to Collegetown. A self-described ‘wild kid’ growing up, Santino worked as a pipefitter in New York City in his early adulthood. In the late 1990s, opportunities for work as a union pipefitter in New York City became scarce, and Santino relocated to Collegetown, taking a union job at the major University’s power plant. Having a long-held desire to one day run his own bar and tavern, but with overhead costs too expensive on the East Coast, Santino found Collegetown’s relatively cheap real estate market encouraging. He soon quit his job at the power plant to open his dream adult nightlife hangout.

The original Helter Skelter had a much more sinister sounding name. However, local scrutiny of the establishment was often based on perceptions of the original name, with many locals believing it to be connected to the occult, to criminal activities, and to other less-than desirable subcultures. These perceptions led Santino to eventually change the name of his establishment to its current title. Helter Skelter, according to Santino, was inspired by three themes that had a huge influence on his teenage years and through his early adulthood: horror, science fiction, and rock music. Posters of Star Wars and cult-classic B-movies adorn the walls. Novelty skulls and graphics of flames accompany them. Halloween rubber masks are juxtaposed with metal-rock memorabilia, and, in the early 2000s, there was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader stuck to the bar’s door. In an interview with the local paper shortly after Helter Skelter opened, Santino recounted his inspiration for his establishment’s design:

In my childhood, one of the best ways to relax were horror and sci-fi movies…It was kind of escapism. A fantasy world…What seems strange or grotesque to others seems quite normal to me.

Along the shelves above the booths inside of Helter Skelter are dolls and figurines from popular, American horror films: Chucky from Child’s Play, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise, Pinhead from the Hellraiser series, and Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Along the ceiling, the large HVAC system is painted in the image of a giant squid, and the air ducts extending out from it are painted to resemble large tentacles gripping the ceiling. The wall above the front of the bar is painted in the caricature of a nude female demon, complete with a long tail and a sexually suggestive pose. Near the pool table in the back of the bar hangs a large poster from the Rob Zombie-directed The Devil’s Rejects.

In August of 2001, Santino opened a second venue across the street from Helter Skelter, aptly titled Helter Skelter Live. A concert hall meant to be an extension of its sibling, Santino intended to use Helter Skelter Live to showcase the musical underground of bigger cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. Like Helter Skelter, the rock/sci-fi/horror theme resonated in the room. A life-sized doll of Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire-toothed skull were just some of the venue’s décor. However, in just over a year, Helter Skelter Live closed down. A sprinkler system had gone off during a live show, a symptom of the interior deterioration within the building. With little capital or time to invest in repairs, Santino closed the doors to Helter Skelter Live, and instead turned his complete attention to his original bar and tavern across the street. With a desire to continue with live rock music shows, Santino began to devote his weekends to hosting similar bands to the ones he had been bringing in during the fifteen months his live venue was open. Some of the musical acts that have played live at Helter Skelter include: The Misfits, the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Marky Ramone. Santino proudly boasts that even Sebastian Bach, lead singer of hair-metal band, Skid Row, came in one night just to hang out after playing a concert at another venue in The District.

Currently, Helter Skelter serves a rather eclectic demographic, no doubt influenced by its décor and its weekly rotation of thematic entertainment. Monday nights are ‘Geek Night’, with free pool, darts, and board games offered to customers. Tuesday nights are designated for the amateur comedy show that was the focus of my research. Wednesday night is ‘Trivia Night’, and Thursday night is advertised as Collegetown’s ‘biggest and best karaoke night.’ Comics from Tuesday’s live show often frequent Helter Skelter on Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the bar’s activities. Friday night is themed, ‘Dirty Disco’, a mix of 1970s disco music with punk, horror, and sci-fi themed attire worn by customers. Finally, Saturday night is, with few exceptions, reserved for live musical performances by local, regional, and national acts, fulfilling Santino’s desire to provide Collegetown with a taste of the musical underground of larger, urban nightlife.

Though the eclectic nature of Helter Skelter’s weekly offerings would appear to make it difficult to attract and keep a regular crowd, it actually has the opposite effect. Patrons who frequent Helter Skelter state they do so because it is not like the dozens of other bars and nightlife venues within The District. While many of these other venues attempt to cater to the dominant college-aged demographic – White, heterosexual, upper-middle to upper-class, and of similar mainstream cultural tastes – Helter Skelter makes no such efforts. Specials on mainstream beer products like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are not offered at Helter Skelter, whereas they are prevalent at all of the other nightlife venues in The District. Instead, Pabst and Stag products are offered at similar, or cheaper, price points.[ii] The patrons who frequent Helter Skelter on a given night are highly unlikely to frequent the more mainstream venues of The District, precisely because Helter Skelter’s patrons do not identify with mainstream Collegetown culture.

The typical crowd at Helter Skelter is almost exclusively White, but unlike other venues, many of the patrons at Helter Skelter both talk and perform working-class identities. These identities come through in the style of clothing worn, the topics of conversation, and the affinity for the aforementioned Pabst and Stag beer products over the more common Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products, as a matter of working-class performance. Meaning, drinking a Pabst or Stag communicates to others that Helter Skelter is ‘your kind of place’. In addition, staff at Helter Skelter participate in working-class performativity through their verbal shaming of customers who do order mainstream products, including what staff refer to as ‘girlie drinks.’ Young men, in particular, are quickly made aware that, while in Helter Skelter, they should drink generic beers like Pabst and Stag, or whiskey, either neat or mixed with soda.


Working to Laugh

[i] For an excellent edited volume on American film history, see The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon. This four-volume set covers the origins of American film through the contemporary period, with essays by a number of cultural historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of popular culture.

[ii] I found it quite funny when it was pointed out to me by a colleague that the ‘daily specials’ advertised on the drinks board behind Helter Skelter’s bar were, in fact, not ‘specials’ at all. They are the normal prices, but are simply rotated on a nightly basis. So, Tuesday Nights were “$5 Whiskey doubles”, but this was actually the normal price throughout the rest of the week.

Working to Laugh, in a Bookstore Near You!

My book is out! It’s available on, or directly through the Rowman and Littlefield website. If you buy from Rowman and Littlefield, use the promo code “LEX30AUTH15” for a 30% discount.

If you’re unsure about ordering a personal copy, be a good colleague and ask your library to order one!

Working to Laugh (2015)

Thomas, James M. Working to Laugh: Assembling Difference in American Stand-Up Comedy Venues (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

Laugh Through It: Assembling Difference in an American Stand-Up Comedy Club

Check out my newest article, ‘Laugh Through it,’ available online first through the journal, Ethnography


Through an examination of a Midwestern professional comedy club, this article theorizes stand-up comedy as part of the broader affective-cultural assemblage that is nightlife entertainment. Using the Deleuzian notion of assemblage, this analysis builds on poststructural accounts of the dynamic and transient properties of culture, and the relationship between space, culture, and affect. As a specific affective-cultural assemblage, stand-up comedy operates as both constrainer and enabler of racial and heteronormative order through the bringing together of a variety of diverse logics and practices. I argue that stand-up comedy should no longer be thought of strictly in discursive or symbolic-interactionist terms that over-determine the roles of particular agents (i.e. comics). Instead, when described as emergent, transient, and fundamentally affective, stand-up comedy and other cultural forms can be seen for their openness and multiplicity, both contributing to racial and heteronormative order as well as upending it.

On Non-Representational Theory and Inquiry

[Introduction to From Non-Representational Theory to Non-Representational Analysis, currently under review]

Epistemology: A theory of knowledge
Method: A technique for gathering evidence.
Methodology: A theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed.1

The ‘cultural turn,’ brought on in part through the identity-politics movements of the 1960s and scholars’ renewed interest in meaning and culture rather than political and economic institutions, had an enormous impact on how social scientists have approached the empirical worlds they study. The shift toward interpretivism and the focus on how social actors make meaning out of their everyday life became the basis for newly emergent approaches to studying nebulous concepts as ‘culture’ and ‘social’.2 A shift occurred in qualitative methodology from conceptualizing the object of study as a ‘there’ to which the researcher traveled in order to understand meaning, to a more reflective lens in which ‘there’ became a matter of critical interrogation.3

Currently we are witnessing yet another shift in qualitative methodology, brought on in part through the ‘affective turn’, and in response to the crisis of representation which plagued cultural studies and the social sciences in the latter decades of the 20th century.4 This shift, and the reorienting of empirical investigation toward the capacity of the body to affect and be affected by others, constitutes a new methodology for generating a literal and metaphorical body of knowledge. If one of the central questions coming out of the cultural turn was one of representation, or how to represent the various identities pushing for political and cultural recognition, then the new question is how to ‘more-than-represent’.5

In partial response to the deadening effect of cultural studies identified by cultural and human geographers, as well as the assertion that a critical scholarship should do more than just critique, but should fundamentally illuminate the process of emergence, Non-Representational Theory (NRT) was seen as reconnecting social inquiry back with actual materiality as it unfolds.6 The objective of NRT is to shift investigative focus away from analysis which divides the world into ‘reality’ and ‘reality-making, and instead emphasize the transient, immanent qualities of everyday life which, in their ongoing emergence, constitute not just life as we know it but also life as it could be.7 One effect of this movement is that analytic interest is turned toward practice as it is embodied, or those ways in which the body comes to know and generate knowledge about itself and others through movement between and among other bodies. The study of the body is not simply an investigation of how the body came to be what it is – it is an investigation of what the body is capable of producing within a given socio-cultural-political context.

No longer is social-science epistemology a question of sensory observation or interpretative practice; it is now also a matter of immanence and embodiment.8 The emergent field of Critical Affect Studies (CAS), deeply influential to at least a portion of NRT scholars, certainly borrows from the biological sciences, but does so in a manner that refuses to freeze the body as a fixed entity.9 Rather, biology becomes potentiality, or in-excess, as the body is articulated as always extending itself through practices of becoming. CAS to date does not shun discursive methods of critical praxis.10 Rather, CAS brackets the question of what does affect mean in favor of the question, what is affect doing? However, to date CAS finds itself in the somewhat indefensible position of arguing for an analytic attention to immanence and embodiment in social and cultural life, but yet left with methodologies which, rather than describe movement in the moment, instead inscribe those very movements as moments. This continues to be the rub of cultural analysis: we seek to capture the liveliness of culture through methods which compromise the very things which make culture an ongoing process.

Traditional qualitative techniques – here I’m thinking of ethnography and the qualitative interview – encounter two major methodological problems. First, they reify a disembodied form of knowledge production because they reject the occurrences on and between bodies in favor of indexing bodily arrangements for cognitive forms of academic mapping; and second, they neglect the most fundamental effect of affect’s movements: these movements produce. They produce the social, the cultural, and even subjectivity in their movement, not in their definitions.11 Thus it is a shift in methodological focus that I advocate here, from concerning ourselves with operational definitions of what constitutes a body of knowledge, to a concern for actual operations.

Central to the project of both NRT and CAS is how the turn toward affect allows for methodology to open itself up to investigations of immanence and potentiality.12 By blurring temporal distinctions between past, present, and future through embodied habits and relationalities, the analyst can participate in empirical speculation without fear of abandoning a pursuit of valued knowledge.13 The body is no longer a fixed entity, and more than simply a discursive representation. The body is a biological and cultural potential. It is the literal and figurative embodiment of virtuality: a product of fluid, continuous processes from which the social and cultural is formed.14 It is a linkage between past-present-future that is continuous and non-linear in its movement between those spaces. Potentiality, then, is the new empirical material toward which critical studies should turn.

In what follows, I first briefly sketch the emergent field of CAS, which has centered not only the body as an epistemological site of inquiry, but also specifically embodied practices.15 The attention toward embodied practices marks the first transition toward a methodology in which the purpose is to understand what those practices produce both in the moment in which they occur, as well as over time. Next, I turn toward my own ethnographic research on a drag revue to demonstrate how employing a non-representational analysis allows for the researcher to emphasize how bodies become affectually charged within particular cultural spaces, and how social actors respond to competing intensities of affects as they occur. Finally, I demonstrate how NRT provides a blueprint for a new epistemology both independent of and also emergent from its positivist and interpretivist predecessors.16

In doing so, I demonstrate the practical usage of NRT in ethnographic fieldwork, something that its proponents have failed to completely accomplish.17 To date, investigations of affect in critical theory by and large have been discursive analyses of text, reifying the ‘deadening effect’ of cultural studies against which NRT proponents rage.18 Focusing on the embodied practices and their immanent potential, this article accomplishes what those before it have failed to do: to generate a critical methodology of affect that attends to the practices of the body as the focus of social scientific investigation.19

1This is a paraphrasing of the concise differentiation found in Sandra Harding’s, “Is There a Feminist Method”, in Sandra Harding (1987). Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Indiana University Press, p.3.

2Chris Roject and Bryan Turner, 2000. “Decorative Sociology: Toward a critique of the Cultural Turn”, in The Sociological Review, 48(4), 629-648.

3Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein, 1997. The New Language of Qualitative Method. Oxford University Press.

4Patricia Clough, ed. 2007. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Duke University Press.

5For a debate about the use of ‘more than representational’ or ‘non-representational’ to describe this new branch of theorizing, see Hayden Lorimer, 2005. “Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-Than Representational’,” Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), 83-94.

6Hayden Lorimer, 2005. “Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-Than Representational’,” Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), 83-94; also Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison, editors, 2010. Taking-Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography, Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

7Thrift, 2008. Also Anderson and Harrison, 2010.

8Gerda Roelvink, 2009. “Collective Action and the Politics of Affect.” Emotion, Space, and Society, 3(2), 111-118. See also Ben Anderson, 2006.

9For the use of Critical Affect Studies to define a small, but influential, body of scholarship, see Jenny Edbauer Rice, 2008. “The New ‘New’: Making a case for critical affect studies.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94(2), 200-212. For examples of CAS borrowing both concepts and case studies from the biological sciences, see Teresa Brennan, 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press; also see Brian Massumi, 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Duke University Press. Consequently, it should be noted that some very heavy-handed critiques have been laid upon these works for the selective borrowing of particular experimental designs that, to date, have been shown to be quite problematic. For examples of these critiques, see Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard, 2010. “Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the turn to affect.” Body and Society, 16(1), 29-56. Also see Ruth Leys, 2011. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry, 37(3), 434-472.

10For examples of discursive analyses of affect, see Ann Cvetkovich, 1992. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism, Rutgers University Press; and Eve Sedgewick, 2002. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press.

11Bruno Latour, 2004. “How to Talk About the Body? The normative dimensions of science studies.” Body and Society, 10(2/3), 205-230. Also see Lisa Blackman, 2008. “Affect, Relationality, and the Problem of Personality.” Theory, Culture, and Society, 25(1), 27-51.

12Jenny Edbauer Rice, 2008.

13See Ben Anderson, 2006.

14Giles Deleuze, 1994. Difference and Repetition, London, UK: Athlone; also see Ian Tucker, 2011. “Sense and the Limits of Knowledge: Bodily connections in the work of Serres.” Theory, Culture, and Society, 28(1), 149-160.

15For instance, see Nigel Thrift, 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Sapce, Politics, Affect, Routledge.

16For a similar attempt, though outside of non-representational theory, see Patricia Clough, 2009. “The New Empiricism: Affect and the Sociological Method.” European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1), 43-61.

17Though perhaps its greatest theoretical contributor to date, Nigel Thrift’s outline of NRT in both Non-Representational Theory and “Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect” (2004: Geografsika Annaler, 86B, 57-58) does not contain even a generic script for how NRT should proceed in fieldwork. Similarly, there are a number of unique and important empirial and theoretical contributions in the edited volume by Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison, Taking-Place. Yet, the contributors to this volume, including the editors, offer us the end-goal of NRT without the map of how they arrived there.

18See Nigel Thrift and John-David Dewsbury, 2000. “Dead Geographies – and How to Make Them Live.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4), 411-432. It should also be noted that Lawrence Grossberg has spent the past three decades, with some success, attempting to move cultural studies in the direction that Thrift and Dewsbury argue it must proceed.

19The avoidance of a definitional debate deserves clarification. The debate about what affect is certainly has merit – any debate over a concept in the social sciences has the effect of demonstrating its utility or its ineffectivity. However, this debate has been hashed out several times over, in various outlets, conferences, and seminars. Further, asking what affect is reifies that it is something concrete, fixed, and able to be represented; and ignores the more urgent question, of what is affect doing.