A critique of affect theory

Ruth Leys, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In this book Ruth Leys looks back at the history of the emotion sciences, including the debates between, on the one hand, Silvan S. Tomkins and Paul Ekman, and on the other, Richard Lazarus and other “cognitivists,” about whether affects are intentional and cognitive, or subcognitive and unconscious. Tomkins, Ekman, and the many affect theorists who followed them (including, notably, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi) insisted that affects are “a set of innate, automatically triggered brain-body behaviors and expressions operating outside the domain of consciousness and intentional action” (335); the cognitivists see emotions in more everyday terms, as conscious, intentional, and directed toward objects. (Notably, Leys says that the cognitivists have trouble explaining the presence of emotions in nonhuman animals who lack language and thus can’t think propositionally, but I’m not sure this is an insurmountable obstacle.)

The argument Leys makes is that affect theorists in the humanities misunderstand or misuse affective science, appealing to its authority to support their own preexisting assumptions without taking into account the many scientific critiques that have been made of the ideas they present as fact. She sees this as problematic for scientific reasons, but also for political ones: ultimately, she sees affect theory as apolitical in its refusal to engage with ideology or persuasion. I’ve heard this critique of posthumanism before, in the edited collection Human, All too (Post)human. By constantly emphasizing the distributed agency of material things, there is a very serious risk that we underemphasize the workings of economic and political power as undertaken by human agents. Leys echoes this in her expression of bemusement with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which claims to be a “political ecology” yet seems to erase actual, human political actors (corporations, politicians, decision-makers) from its description of the world. (I love Vibrant Matter, but I get what Leys means.) We need a little less new materialism, some would say, and a little more old, Marxist-style materialism.

The point-by-point refutation of affect theorists’ use of neuroscience in The Ascent of Affect seems reasonably persuasive to me, although I am not well-versed enough in the technical details to be sure who’s right. On the humanities side of things, I have mixed feelings about Leys’ critique. On the one hand, I share her discomfort with the emphasis in affect theory upon distinguishing affect from emotions, declaring that affect is distributed and pre-cognitive and inhuman, and choosing the dense abstractions of theory over everyday language and ideas (okay, that last one might just be my own discomfort). On the other hand, I am not so sure that affect studies is really so anti-ideological in practice. The work of Sianne Ngai, Sara Ahmed, and Lauren Berlant seems to me to be quite politically engaged, though I’ll admit it is more a description of politics (really of life under advanced capitalism) than an intervention in it. Still, I think descriptive work is important.

Ultimately, I think I may be more compelled by the material history of objects, and the political history of emotions, than in either object-oriented ontology or affect theory in the abstract. I have more time for Marx than Deleuze, I guess. What I’m still unsure about is where Freud fits into all this. Patrick Colm Hogan aligned affect studies in the humanities with a Freudian vision of forces and drives; but, as Leys frames it in her Critical Inquiry article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Tomkins-and-Ekman-style affect is opposed to the outlook of “Freud and ‘appraisal theorists,’ for whom emotions are embodied, intentional states governed by our beliefs, cognitions, and desires” (437). My inclination is to say that Freud still has a lot to teach us about the affective workings of ideology and politics.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.