;On Two Strains of Affect Theory
When one speaks of affect theory today there are roughly two distinct, though often overlapping, strains of thought concerned with affect that may be referenced. I use “strain” to indicate that these different thinkers are not purely isolated from each other and indeed do cross over a lot in their work on affect, but that there are enough differences in emphasis and style to form two different groups of theorists.The first strain of affect theory is comprised of those thinkers who use affect as an ontological description of reality. This strain of ontological affect can often be traced back to Deleuze and his readings of Spinoza, particularly Spinoza’s now famous idea that we do not yet know what the human body can accomplish. This strain then includes many prominent Deleuzians such as John Protevi (Political Affect), Brian Massumi (Parables of the Virtual), and William Connolly (World of Becoming). This strain also includes the contemporary heirs of Alfred North Whitehead’s unique metaphysics of process philosophy, such as Steven Shaviro (Without Criteria) and Isabelle Stengers (Thinking with Whitehead).
The other strain of affect theory, and the one that more readily claims itself by that name, is comprised of feminist and queer theorists focused on affect as naming particular connections between the somatic and the social. For these thinkers affect also often names forms of being such as intimacy, sentimentality, and feeling that have been marginalized and denigrated. This strain is arguably inaugurated by Eve Kosoefsky Sedgwick in Touching Feeling with her essays on the affect theory of the psychologist Silvan Tomkins (also subject of an earlier edited volume Shame and its Sisters) and her call for reparative reading strategies that would counteract what she calls paranoid criticism. Later prominent thinkers who work in affect theory include Lauren Berlant (Cruel Optimism), Sara Ahmed (The Promise of Happiness), Ann Cvetkovich (An Archive of Feelings and Depression), and Heather Love (Feeling Backwards). There have also been edited collections such as The Affect Theory Reader and The Affective Turn.
What exactly is affect and what do these two strains have in common? There is no one clear definition of affect in affect theory. At its most general affect can be defined as a force or intensity that creates a relationship between the body and the world and a relationship that is often outside of conscious cognition. In turning to the language of affect both strains try to get around certain problems that are seen as impossible to solve with only the tools of post-structuralism and the linguistic turn. Many of these thinkers are committed to conceptions of life as consisting of dynamic multiplicities and shy away from any forms of “either/or” thinking. The mind-body problem and tensions between the individual and the social are cast aside as inadequate or outmoded thinking for our complicated world. Instead the thinkers attempt to capture what is happening at every level, from the non-cognitive functions of the body and the automatic responses of the brain to the intensities and forces of the social and bodies politic. Many of these thinkers are also often united in political projects of emancipation and social justice, and the ways that affect encourages and hinders political action.
What exactly separates the two strains then, which I will roughly distinguish between ontological affect and cultural affect? In the strain of ontological affect theory it is affect that names a general property of ontology and the structure of reality as such. Affect is non-anthropocentric even though it seems to infuse much of human life; this is because affect infuses much of everything. Affect occurs between a rock and a flower in much the same way as it occurs between a human and the flower. In his work on Whitehead, Shaviro writes “Even though the ‘thing in itself’ is unknowable, or unrecognizable, nevertheless it affects us, in a particular way. And by conveying and expressing ‘the way we are affected,” space and time establish immanent, non-cognitive connections among objects, between the object and the subject, and between the subject and itself.” In another section he writes “Time and space, the inner and the outer forms of intuition, are modes of feeling before they are conditions for understanding.” Affect in Whitehead names not just the way the subject encounters objects also the general rules of causality itself. The affective life of the subject is only different in a matter of degree from the affective interactions of objects in general.
This does not stop Whitehead from talking in great detail about human cognition and perception, especially in his formulation of aesthetics as first philosophy. In Whitehead aesthetics and our understanding of beauty become central concepts for relationality itself. Shaviro writes “A subject does not cognize the beauty of an object. Rather, the object lures the subject while remaining indifferent to it; and the subject feels the object, without knowing it or possessing it or even caring about it. The object touches me, but for my part I cannot grasp it or lay hold of it, or make it last. I cannot dispel its otherness, its alien splendor. If I could, I would no longer find it beautiful: I would, alas, merely find it useful.” I would also note that for Whitehead, and Shaviro, what makes affect an important explanation of relations is that it allows for novelty and creativity in the relation, so that neither object consumes the other but instead can dynamically lead to a new outcome. As Shaviro writes “Aesthetic experience is a kind of communication without communion and without consensus.”
Of course, other thinkers in the strain of ontological affect do not hold the same acclaim for Whitehead or focus on aesthetics, but in general they do tend to use affect as a way of describing relationality and causality as such, with the human’s affective life being merely a subset of affect as a category. John Protevi, for example, uses Deleuzian ontology of multiplicities and assemblages to “go above, below, and alongside the subject in examining politically shaped and triggered affective cognition: above to the social, below to the somatic, and alongside to the assemblage.” Protevi is as concerned with the affective life of the human subject as Whitehead is concerned with aesthetics, but he also rigorously establishes affect as part of a larger ontological explanation of reality.
What defines the strain of cultural affect theory then? While its predominant thinkers are just as smart and incisive there is less emphasis on systematic thinking, of attempting to place affect as a general category. These theorists are concerned with many of the same issues of attempting to find connections between the body and the social that bypass cognition and how these apparently non-cognitive forces can be shaped by cultural and political forces as well. Much of this work though is more localized, focused on particular kinds of affects and the qualities they engender.
Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism is concerned with the affect of the same name and the ways politically-conceived fantasies of the good life can clash with the material conditions of every day existence. Here Berlant focuses on affect as a way of naming a being in the world that appears to both propel the subject forward and keep it frustratingly in place. Ann Cvetkovich in Depression focuses on the affective life of mental illness and its complicated relationship with social forces like racism and immigration. Both works could be claimed to be part of a whole genre of work on negative affect that also includes Heather Love’s excellent work on negative affect and cross-generational queer history in Feeling Backwards. Sara Ahmed in her excellent book Queer Phenomenology lays out affect as a similar mode of inquiry as phenomenology and explains how both could be used to describe different ways of being in the world. She followed it by looking at the affect of happiness in The Promise of Happiness as an affect both promised and denied to minority subjects and the affective life of racism and higher education in On Being Included.
All of these works brilliantly dissect particular and singular affects with an eye to cultural and social forces and are less concerned with systematically mapping the exact ontological status of affect. There is little interest in putting affect together with scientific theories, as John Protevi and Steven Shaviro do. If there is any engagement with other fields it is often psychoanalysis and attempts to explain why affect is a richer explanation of non-cognitive processes than the psychoanalytic drive (a critique Leo Bersani has in turn taken to task). Much of the work in the cultural strain of affect theory seems to inherit the speculative tendencies of affect first highlighted by Sedgwick. When she first wrote of affect it was as a means to critique paranoid criticism, the constant attempt to define exactly how a particular work was prohibitive and had a hidden core that needed to be discovered and revealed by the critic. Sedgwick instead called for practices of reparative reading that would open up the text to different forms of engagements and drew on the language of affect to describe what exactly a reparative form of reading, that embraces speculation and openness, might be. Theorists from Berlant to Ahmed seem to have kept open that affective promise of speculation even as they often focus on negative affects.
Obviously in many respects it is hard to differentiate between the two strains. In their turn to affect both could be said to be a part of the ontological turn in theory, and thinkers like Brian Massumi, Protevi, and Shaviro are as interested in the cultural and social realms as any Queer or Feminist theorist. An essay of Steven Shaviro’s was included in The Affect Theory Reader for example. Jane Bennett also in some ways may be a figure who crosses over both sides. Though in her book Vibrant Matter she does not invoke any affect theory there is a strong concern with vitalism, ontology, and the inculcation of particular affective responses to objects. The fact that a recent conference devoted to her work was called “A Feeling for Things” may indicate that many people see a kinship between her own works and affect theory. Recording of that conference can be found here.
The feminist theorist Clare Hemmings also sees little difference between the two strands and takes both to task in her critical essay “Invoking Affect: Cultural Theory and The Ontological Turn.” Published in 2005, before many of these works were written, Hemmings puts both Sedgwick and Massumi together as advocating for an ontological turn to affect as a way of escaping the apparent impasses of post-structuralist cultural theory, of the apparent domination by power and the paranoid search for its agents. However, she notes that the impasse in theory is more claimed than proven, and in constructing an impasse that affect theory solves both Sedgwick and Massumi sideline other prominent work – in feminist science studies and post-colonial theory – that also work to overcome the dualisms of prohibition and subversion. Hemmings is ultimately not very sympathetic to affect theory and fails to see exactly what problems it solves or what new avenues for thought it opens, especially if it does not honestly engage with other genealogies of theory that are concerned with the same kinds of questions. Affect theory seems to offer the critic a speculative freedom that is hard to turn down, even if that freedom is ultimately illusory.
Following Hemmings, if it is not even very clear what affect theory is, what is the purpose of claiming there are already two different strains of it? I wanted to write this post in order to point out that even if conceptually it is not clear what defines or categorizes different works on affect, from the position of the reader there do seem to be different kinds of affect theory. Ultimately any difference between the two strains may itself be an affective one, of the reading experience itself. The ontological strain is mostly composed of men working either outside of English departments or focusing heavily on particular philosophers, such as Spinoza, Deleuze, and Whitehead. Hence there is more of an incentive for systematic thinking and exposition of the history of philosophy. Most of the people in the cultural strain are prominent women feminist and queer theorists firmly ensconced in English departments and who often turn to particular textual readings as a means to elucidate the power of affect. Materially it is also noticeable that almost all of these works are published by Duke University Press. The different institutional and disciplinary boundaries of different thinkers concerned with affect would seem to itself produce affective differences in their work, a connection that perhaps proves the usefulness of affect for describing our particular attractions and annoyances with different thinkers. I do not want to claim that either strain has a better definition or use of affect. Instead to read affect theory may itself be an aesthetic experience in Whitehead’s terms, as it lures us in without fully surrendering all of its mysteries.