I mentioned “affect” briefly in the last entry. Given its prevalence in contemporary social theory, I felt it worthwhile to introduce the concept more fully.
Leys (2011) identifies a two-fold foundation: first, the “dominant paradigm in the field of emotions”, associated with Silvan Tomkins, in which “the affective processes occur independently of intention or meaning”; and second, Spinozist-Deleuzean ideas about affect. To these, I would add the uptake of “affect” by some governmentality scholars, discussed later.
The Tomkins’ perspective (2008), described as a “Basic Emotions paradigm” (Leys 2011: 439), conflates “emotion” and “affect”, a trend identified as problematic in the last entry. Some in the Spinozist-Deleuzean tradition, most importantly Massumi (2002), insist that “emotions” and “affect” are separate phenomena. Massumi claims a distance from “received psychological categories such as emotions”, describing “affect” as “irreducibly bodily and autonomic” (Massumi 2002: 28; see Shouse 2005). “Affect” is a prepersonal “intensity”, “the human power or capacity to affect and be affected” (Kristensen 2016: 17). In this account, “affects” bypass reason and criticality and seize “the body at the level of neural circuits, the nervous system, the endocrine system or other systems assumed to work independently of cognition” (Blackman 2012: xi).
This view of “affects” as “irreducibly bodily” appears in the work of the geographer, Nigel Thrift, and the policy researcher, Paul Hoggett. According to Thrift (2004: 59), “It has become increasingly evident that the biological constitution of being … has to be taken into account if performative force is ever to be understood, and in particular, the dynamics of birth (and creativity) rather than death.” Along similar lines, Hoggett (2000: 144; see also Thompson and Hoggett 2012), argues that “the body is the original site of the affects and emotions, and that these saturate consciousness”. Emotions, in his view, exist “on the boundary between the psyche and the soma”. For researchers, says Hoggett (2000: 144), it follows that, “With affect, quantitative considerations are dominant, whereas with emotion the qualitative dimension is much more important”.
This (re)turn to the body can be explained as, in part, a reaction against both “rationalist models of the human subject” and post-structuralist and Foucauldian perspectives. The latter, argues Hoggett (2000: 142), provides “us with no adequate way of theorizing agency”. “Agency” here aligns with the intentional, autonomous subject, put in question in a previous Research Hub entry (31 Jan. 2020). Along similar lines, Schaefer (2016; see also Shaefer 2015) argues that “affect theory helps us evade the ‘linguistic fallacy’”, while Sedgwick and Frank (1995 in Wetherell 2013: 352) see it as a counter to “routine anti-biologism and anti-essentialism”.
Its broader appeal can be linked to an attempt to “take a more encompassing view of social action … redirecting attention to the ‘somatically sensed’ body” (Wetherell 2013: 352). It reflects an effort “to offer a dynamic alternative to scientific thinking that highlights stasis” (Kristensen 2016: 12). We can see links here to what is described as the “new materialism” (Fox 2015). Wetherell (Beer 2014) also identifies connections to feminism “which made the ‘personal’ and the process of ‘being affected’ a core social topic”.
A number of theorists query what they perceive to be a presumption of a biological substrate operating in Massumi-associated understandings of “affect”. Leys (2011), for example, sees strong links between Massumi and a Basic Emotions paradigm. Wetherell (Beer 2014) considers “versions of ‘affect theory’ that posit affect as a pre-personal extra-discursive force hitting and shaping bodies prior to sense making” to be “simply unsustainable”. Clarke et al. (2015: 58) are equally wary of Massumi’s (2002) idea of affect as somehow “pre-social”, describing it as “psychologistic or biologistic essentialism”.
Some of these critics have produced adaptations that attempt to avoid “affective determinism” (Kristensen 2016: 11). Notably Wetherell (2013) describes “affect” as a “practice” and develops an affective/discursive variation. Here there are links to discursive versions of “emotions”, seen in the last entry. On this development, note that a decision to characterize “affect” as “practice” leads necessarily to the complex task of theorizing practices (see Research Hub entries 30 Nov. 2019; 31 Dec. 2019).
Clarke et al. (2015: 59) offer what they describe as a “somewhat promiscuous approach to thinking analytically” that can “weave the attention to affect/feeling into our repertoire, rather than succumbing to them”. In this approach they refer to the “danger” of borrowing “the languages of emotions and affect without them making any difference to how actors, processes and relationships are conceived”, leading to interesting questions about their conceptions of “the subject”.
Ahmed (2004: 119) develops the notion of “affective economies”. Her primary target is “emotions”. However, in her account, emotions are not “psychological dispositions”; they do not “reside in a given subject or object”. She describes emotions as “economic” because they circulate “between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (Ahmed 2004: 119).
Ahmed focuses on narratives of fear in the creation of notions of crisis. She gives as an example the fear of the “bogus asylum seeker” and how “words generate effects: they create impressions of others as those who have invaded the space of the nation, threatening its existence” (Ahmed 2004: 122-123). Fear, in this instance, “does not involve the defense of borders that already exist”; rather “anxiety and fear create the very effect of borders” (Ahmed 2004: 128, 132).
Ahmed’s argument leads us directly into, and allows a contrast with, the ways in which “emotions” and “affects” have been linked to studies of governmentality. Bigo (2010), introduced in the previous entry, shares Ahmed’s interest in borders. However, in Bigo’s account, fear does not create borders; rather, borders create fear and “unease”. The key point of differentiation from Ahmed is the emphasis on how governmental technologies (here “borders”) produce “subjects” as particular kinds of subject, described as “subjectification”. There is no “fearful” “subject” prior to the governmental practice of “bordering” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 100).
A significant group of theorists include consideration of “affect” in their reflections on subjectification. Fannin (2013: 278) focuses on “transformations of governmental power in the realm of reproduction” to “incorporate the affective and psychological dimensions of birth”. Fortier (2010) targets “community cohesion” as a form of “governing through affect”, aimed at “designing people’s behaviours and attitudes in the public domain”. Carol Johnson (2010: 495) argues for the importance of a concept of “affective citizenship” which explores “(a) which intimate emotional relationships between citizens are endorsed and recognised by governments in personal life and (b) how citizens are also encouraged to feel about others and themselves in broader, more public domains.”
Other theorists argue that governing practices do more than produce particular “subjects”; governing involves “affects”. Clough (2007a), and Parisi and Terranova (2000), draw upon Deleuze and Foucault to examine the shift from discipline to control as a mode of governing. Says Clough, “Control is a biopolitics that works at the molecular level of bodies, at the informational substrate of matter”:
“The target of control is not the production of subjects whose behaviors express internalized social norms; rather, control aims at a never-ending modulation of moods, capacities, affects, and potentialities, assembled in genetic codes, identification numbers, ratings profiles, and preference listings, that is to say, in bodies of data and information (including the human body as information and data).” (Clough 2007: 27) – dramatised perhaps in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Clough et al. (2007: 62, 74) identify a “rationality of affectivity” that governs through “pre-individual capacities to affect and be affected”.
While recognizing the appeal of this argument, I remain uncomfortable with references to “capacities” and “moods” as if these exist outside of signification. For similar reasons, I am “unhappy” (so to speak) with “affect”.
I mentioned in the previous entry (29 Feb. 2020) that neither Foucault nor Deleuze engaged with “emotions”. “Affect” is clearly associated with Deleuze but not with Foucault.
“Affect” in Deleuze is directly connected to his concept of “desire” (see Gilliam 2018: 192). Foucault explicitly distanced himself from the term “desire” because it seemed to “evoke a psychoanalytic idealism of lack and repression (contra his reversal of the repression hypothesis in the first volume of The History of Sexuality)” (Gilliam 2018: 192). The point in Foucault was not to “liberate” “desire” but to create “pleasures”, a term Deleuze criticized.
Gilliam (2018: 194) argues that the dispute between Foucault and Deleuze over “desire” versus “pleasures” was a matter of semantics. That may indeed be the case. Foucault admitted that “desire” in Deleuze was not used with its conventional meaning. Still he continued to avoid the term. He explained why:
“Deleuze and Guattari obviously use the notion in a completely different way. But the problem I have is that I’m not sure if, through this very word, despite its different meaning, we don’t run the risk, despite Deleuze and Guattari’s intention, of allowing some of the medico-psychological presuppositions [prises] that were built into desire, in its traditional sense, to be reintroduced.” (Foucault 2011: 389)
I have similar qualms about “affect” and on grounds Gilliam (2018: 209) clearly explains:
“Language exists in a discursive network after all, particularly conceptual language. Thus, despite any internal conceptual subversions, the use of a word entails a subtle network of power-relations capable of invoking and/or inviting un/intended misuse.”
Choosing to adopt a specific theoretical language is a fraught exercise, as numerous earlier Research Hub entries illustrate. My aversion to “problem/s” and to “agency” rests precisely on long-standing traditional uses of these terms, uses entrenched in power-relations that concern me. On the same grounds the commonplace view of “affects” as pre-existent bodily capacities leads to my decision to avoid the term.
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