Blog Post

Blog Diss: LTP Situation Within Fields (Affect Theory)

Here's the final version (for draft one) of my Affect Theory Field.

Revision history, for those interested: Thus far, just minimal changes at stylistic and mechanical levels.


Definitions within the fields of affect theory, even of its core site of focus, are complex and contested. Lauren Berlant (2011) understands affect as distinct from emotional experiences and expression. Depicting her approach as “formalist”, Berlant describes optimism not as an emotion, but as something that “manifests in attachments and the desire to maintain them…a structure of relationality” (13). Clare Hemmings similarly notes that affects are “states of being, rather than…their manifestation or interpretation as emotions”, and that affects are capable of being “transferred to a range of objects” (151) in ways that also distinguish them from the psychoanalytic concept of drives. Eric Shouse’s article, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect”, maintains an even stricter distinction, arguing that “feelings are personal and biographical, emotions are social, and affects are prepersonal” (par. 2). In her critique of particular branches of affect studies, however, Ruth Leys questions this type of absolutism, noting how such approaches risk framing affect as “noncognitive, corporeal processes or states…absent of intention or meaning” (437). My own work is influenced both by the importance and value in differentiating between affect and emotion as well as an awareness of the limits of such distinctions. I have chosen to consistently use the term affect (rather than moving between affect and emotion) within this document and beyond it.  However, my intent is to also draw attention within the dissertation, whenever useful or possible, to in what sense I am using the term. For instance, in moments when particular affective attachments appear more openly in tension with subjective affective experience and expression, it becomes analytically and politically valuable to make those distinctions apparent. At other moments, however, what is at stake seems to be an unwillingness or inability to determine such divisions. My hope is that at such points, using affect as a kind of umbrella term can account at the level of language for affect’s own instability and multiplicity.

Much like the field’s key terms, the so-called ‘affective turn’ in recent scholarship is a site of struggle and debate. In humanist and cultural studies inquiry, the focus on affect is a relatively recent phenomenon. While there is some agreement (Hemmings, Leys) about the foundational role of particular voices and debates, the turn itself is hardly singular or uni-directional. Indeed, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth’s Affect Theory Reader tracks no less than eight “regions” (6) of recent work in affect theory, ranging from biologist and posthumanist approaches to humanities-based rejections of the “linguistic turn” (7) and examinations of subjective and intersubjective experiences of normativity and embodiment. They suggest that ‘the’ affective turn might more accurately be understood as “affect in turns” (19), or a series of interdisciplinary and multi-focal examinations of affect.

My project proceeds from this historicization of the field, with particular emphasis on one of the regions Gregg and Seigworth identify (or, to be more precise, two sub-sections within this area). Feminist, queer, and critical race scholars are all explicitly invoked under their description of affect theory that focuses on “hard and fast materialities” (7). Such work, they note, emphasizes how affect “can…provide a body (or...collectivized bodies) with predicaments and potentials for realizing a world that subsists within and exceeds the horizons and boundaries of the norm” (7).

This region of work, centering upon the role of affect as both enforcing and challenging normativity, is further divided into two sub-categories for my purposes. The first analyzes the histories and political potentiality of specific affective conditions. Several recent interventions in this area have emphasized the personal, aesthetic and political value of negative affects, and the limitations of previous emphasis in affect theory on promoting and sustaining positive ones. Anna Potamaianou’s (1997) psychoanalytic study, Hope: A Shield in the Economy of Borderline States, for example, suggests that borderline patients frequently experience hope not as a mode of resistance, but as a means of halting meaningful transformation (2). Heather Love’s (2007) Feeling Backward, itself heavily influenced by Ann Cvetkovich’s (2003) seminal work on the political potentiality of trauma, An Archive of Feelings, similarly suggests that queer historiographies have been limited by an emphasis on affirmation. Love calls instead for a “politics that allows for damage” (162), one that builds upon historical and contemporary sites of queer injury rather than attempting to erase or deny them. Sianne Ngai’s (2005) Ugly Feelings further insists upon attention to the aesthetic role of negative affects. Suggesting that affects such as “envy, anxiety, [and] paranoia” (2) function as “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political” (3), Ngai argues they can be “recuperate[d]…for their critical productivity” (3).

Each of these works, then, shares an interest in how the regulation of affect, particularly the valorization and enforcement of positivity, is aligned with projects of normalization. While Sara Ahmed takes up specific affects (such as the feminist killjoy as a useful response to demands for happiness) (2010), her work also considers affects at the structural level. In “Affective Economies” (2004a), she contends that rather than originating from and deliminited by the boundaries of individuated subjects, affects, like capital, attain force and meaning through their circulation. Her (2004b) monograph The Cultural Politics of Emotion extends this claim, noting that it is not only that affects circulate like capital, but that they undergo a process of fetishization analogous to Marx’s description of commodities. “It is not so much emotions that are erased,” she argues, “but…the process of production or the ‘making’ of emotions” (11).  Affects thus become “‘fetishes’…through an erasure of the history of their production and circulation” (11). Her approach, then, is as much a methodological claim as it is an argument about the role of any particular affective conditions. Critical engagement with affect, for Ahmed, requires not only a tracking or categorization of affects, but attention to the conditions and effects of their circulation at specific moments and within particular spaces.

Lauren Berlant’s approach furthers this structural take on affect by treating it entirely as a formal mode of relationality. I separate her work, particularly Cruel Optimism (2011) into a second sub-section from the other texts influencing my study, because it is concerned not with bodies that feel optimistic (though they might) but rather the conditions of attachment that wed contemporary subjects to the myth of the capitalist ‘good life’, even (and perhaps especially) when it is clear that this ideal is unrealizable.  Treating affect exclusively as a structural mode also leads Berlant to slightly different conclusions about action than is found in other approaches. She looks not toward specific affective conditions as sites of resistant potential, but toward fantasy, a willingness to “distort the present on behalf of what the present may become” (263).

Like with the linguistic divisions I discussed at the opening of this section (and for many of the same reasons), my goal within my own work is to blend the two approaches. While I proceed with particular attention to Berlant’s reminder that an affective attachment “might feel any number of ways” (13) to specific subjects, her reminder that it can also be “awkward and threatening” (263) to imagine around and beyond particular affective attachments suggests that to deem resistant only those acts which confront entire modes of relationality is to restrict the category of meaningful political action to those already benefitting from some form of normative privilege. Foregrounding negative or non-normative affects and expressions, then, not only recognizes the potential connectedness of these acts with broader challenges, but also the need for political action to account for varying levels of precarity, to look ‘backward’ in Love’s sense of the term even while concentrating on altering the present and future.

Two other regions identified by Gregg and Seigworth also shape the countours of this study, though more implicitly than those I have discussed thus far: the first is described as an engagement with the “intimately interlaced” relationship between human and nonhuman entities, particularly approaches emphasizing embodiment and its extensions (6).  The second “is found in…nonhumanist…generally non-Cartesian traditions in philosophy, usually linking the movements of matter with a processual incorporeality” (6). Mark Hansen (2006) and Brian Massumi (2002), both influenced by the Deleuzian branch of affect studies, are cited as respective examples of each. The two are influential thinkers in affect studies, and are also among some of the earliest to consider how affect impacts and is impacted by digital mediation. While building upon this focus, however, my emphasis on feminist, queer, and critical race-focused discussions of affect seeks to contribute to efforts calling for a complication of the role of the body in both thinkers’ work. Specifically, critics have noted a tendency to separate embodiment and cognition (in the case of Massumi) (Leys 437) and bodies and media on the other (in the case of Hansen) (Clough 214). Accounting for digitally mediated affect as material, I am suggesting, requires a conception of what Eugence Thacker calls the “informational” or “biomediated” (15) body, which exists at the intersections of psychic, social, and material processes.



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