Affect Studies, part 1

One of the annoying things about having a Ph.D. is that you’re supposed to now be capable of teaching yourself. I am trying to teach myself affect theory for a new project, and I would much rather take a class and have someone tell me what to read and how to understand it! Alas, that’s not an option, so I will just have to muddle through making and taking my own affect studies crash course.

Affect, by the way, is a fancy word for feelings and feeling-like things—moods, attitudes, dispositions, etc. In literary criticism, affect can be a way of talking about the feelings of characters, writers, readers, or what Sianne Ngai calls the “tone” of literary texts—a feeling that can’t necessarily be located in a particular “person” but that pervades the work itself.

One of the problems with affect studies, as Patrick Colm Hogan points out in “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism,” is that there’s affective science, the study of emotions by cognitive scientists and psychologists, and then there’s affect theory, the study of emotions by humanists and social scientists. And the two don’t exactly get along. The former is more interested in creating a logical, empirical, and explanatory account of how affect works, a project that often involves categorizing the dimensions or functions of various emotions. The latter, Hogan argues, is influenced by psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic understanding of the self—unconscious drives, a conflict between id and superego, the psyche mapped in terms of forces that can flow or be blocked—and its goal is political critique.

My takeaway is that affective science is more concrete and definitive but more boring; affect theory is more exciting but also loosey-goosey, and half of it is pretty much incomprehensible. Also, it has entirely too much Deleuze and Guattari for my taste. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to assign myself A Thousand Plateaus, and I am not feeling it. I have an emotional blockage that I can’t fully explain when it comes to D&G.

Inspired by my friend Steve, who blogs reviews of nearly every book he reads over at Science’s Less Accurate Grandmother, I’m going to try to blog my way through my affect studies readings as a way of keeping myself accountable. “Review” might be too definite a word; let’s go with “impressionistic annotated bibliography” instead.

A good place to start seemed to be the 2010 Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Duke University Press). This is the collection that contains two famous and influential essays, Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Objects” and Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism.” I had encountered Ahmed’s and Berlant’s work before, but I think I got more from these essays by reading them in the context of the larger collection.

This is a long book, and so I’m going to annotate it in parts. I am under the impression that the collection is an important one for affect studies, and I was pretty daunted by the introduction, titled “An Inventory of Shimmers” (the title comes from a Roland Barthes quote). The editors tell us, on page 1, that

Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.

I find myself really confused by writing like this. I’m not sure this definition would mean much to anyone who didn’t already know a fair amount about what affect is. So what are these authors after?

I think what’s going on here is this: the authors see affect, or feelings-plus, not as something that an already-well-defined human subject has, but as a free-range emotion out in the world that sometimes sits with, or sticks to, us as individuals, before going off on its merry way. Also, affect is not something that happens in a vacuum but is about relationships of objects—we feel emotions toward certain things or because of them or in sympathy with them. Feelings are contagious, and can pass between individuals (“bodies”). They’re always in flux and, over time, vary in intensity or even in whether they’re there or not.

But the writers, I’m guessing, don’t want to privilege human subjects over other kinds of bodies (animals, plants, things, etc.), and, as part of theory’s “nonhuman turn,” they don’t really even want to perpetuate the idea that we can clearly distinguish between subjects and objects. Thus people become “bodies,” and nonhuman things can also be described as “bodies,” all made of the same matter. I think this is why so much of the writing in affect studies is so confusing. Language is not made for this kind of thinking. Language is clearest to us when human actors are the grammatical subjects, and objects or abstractions the grammatical objects. “People have feelings about things” is clear, but for most current theorists, it’s philosophically objectionable. So we get “affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body” instead.

Why, then, am I bothering with affect studies if I find myself so stymied by its idiom, with all its neologisms and abstractions and nominalizations and everything that Joseph Williams told me not to do in Style? Well, partly because I think that the study of feelings really is politically important. We aren’t rational beings. We don’t weigh goals and consequences and choose actions that are mostly likely to be in our self-interest. We follow our feelings, and our feelings can be so easily swayed by so many things. The 2016 election wasn’t a contest of reason or a choice between different policy outlooks. It was never about facts; it was about gut feelings and mob mentality and who made you feel good by including you and excluding others.

And partly it’s because I want to study feelings about animals in my next project. I don’t think our relationships with animals are rational either. Whether it’s the love we have for our pets, the indifference we feel toward meat animals, or the disgust we feel about vermin, we might try to rationalize our feelings or lack thereof toward animals but it’s always a post hoc rationalization. We feel what we feel and we work backward from there. Given how resistant people usually are toward any challenge to their rationalizations about animals, the cases where these affective relationships change—where, for instance, the disgust or irritation toward vermin is transformed into a positive attachment—are even more interesting.

I’ll be back later this week with notes on some of the chapters from The Affect Theory Reader!

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.