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Unruly Affects: Attempts at Control and All That Escapes from an American Mental Health Court

By Jessica Cooper

Cite As:
Cooper, Jessica. 2018. “Unruly Affects: Attempts at Control and All That Escapes from an American Mental Health Court.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1: 85–108.


Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in mental health courts in the San Francisco Bay Area, this article juxtaposes the fixity that defines the legal concept of jurisdiction with the itineracy of homeless individuals judged by criminal courts. I assert that jurisdiction is an attempt at control: by invoking jurisdiction, courts attempt to fix people and objects within time and space so as to yield a narrative of liberal accountability for which defendants can be held responsible. Rather than assume the vantage point of the law, I stick with Harriet, a person who was homeless and subject to a mental health court’s attempt at control. Moving away from the law exposes when state attempts at control fail. Claims to jurisdiction reflect the state’s reliance on control through a particular chronotope of linear time and divisible space. In differently configuring time and space as cyclical and unbounded, Harriet confounds the law’s attempt at control. Further, the state’s invocation of jurisdiction as a concept that fixes time and space produces unruly affects, or coordinates of relation that escape a rule of law presenting itself as rational. Harriet’s relationships with others reflect and enable her escape from state control: they inhabit an affective atmosphere that is produced by the law’s own chronotopic terms, but that reject the individual accountability that the law understands as a product of claims to jurisdiction. In paying attention to missed encounters between Harriet and the court, this article reveals and theorizes moments in which power escapes its own terms and enters a social, deindividuated, affective sphere.


affect; law; jurisdiction; social control; state power; subjectivity; homelessness; mental health; criminal courts; United States