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date: 22 August 2017

Affect

Summary and Keywords

Affect has historically been conceptualized in one of two dominant ways. The first perspective, which has its roots in psychology and neuroscience, tends to view affect as an elemental state. This tradition is reflected in Silvan S. Tomkins’s theory of primary affects and Antonio Damasio’s theory of basic emotions. Recent extensions of this tradition include the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lisa Cartwright, and Teresa Brennan. The second perspective, which is typically associated with developments in philosophy and the humanities, treats affect as an intensive force. This tradition, whose most famous proponent is Gilles Deleuze, is evident in Brian Massumi’s theory of autonomous affect and Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory. Recent extensions of this tradition tend to emphasize the importance of materiality, or what Jane Bennett has called “thing-power.” A number of scholars working in communication and cultural studies have created a third, hybrid tradition that attempts to bridge or mediate the two dominant historical accounts. This third perspective includes Lawrence Grossberg’s notion of affective investments, Christian Lundberg’s Lacanian-inspired view of affect, Sara Ahmed’s work on the sociality of emotion, and Gernot Böhme’s theory of atmospheres.

Keywords: affect, emotion, Silvan Tomkins, Antonio Damasio, intensity, sensation, materiality, bodies, Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, aesthetics, atmospheres

Approaching Affect

Affect is a complex and often contentious concept. So much so that one is likely to encounter nearly as many conceptions and uses of affect as there are scholars of affect. Seigworth and Gregg (2010), for instance, have identified at least eight “main orientations” toward affect (pp. 6–8). This complexity can sometimes be seen even within a single scholar’s understanding of affect. The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), for instance, held a multifaceted view of affect that entailed two distinct, but related dimensions: affectus and affectio. Spinoza (1992) maintained that a “body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or decreased” (p. 103); affectus is his term for “a body’s continuous, intensive variation (as increase-diminution) in its capacity for acting” (Seigworth, 2011, p. 184). The Spinozian notion of affectus dramatically shaped the thinking of the 20th-century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and his popular view of affect as a force, as a “prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Massumi, 1987, p. xvi).1 But Spinoza proposed a second dimension of affect, affectio, which refers to the particular state of one body’s reaction to another body’s having affected it (Seigworth, 2011, p. 184). The Spinozian notion of affectio underpins many contemporary psychological and neurological understandings of affect as an elemental state, and Spinoza himself associated it with three such states: desire, pleasure, and pain (Spinoza, 1992, p. 141).

For Spinoza, then, affect involves both the intensive force that bodies exert upon one another, increasing or decreasing their capacity to act (affectus) and the elemental state generated by an encounter between two or more bodies (affectio). Lundberg (2009) usefully describes the distinction between affectus and affectio as that between affect as “productive force” and affect as “manifest emotion” (p. 401). Since first proposing this framework, however, Spinoza’s two dimensions of affect have developed largely independent of one another, each becoming its own account of affect. Indeed, consider one of the most well-known academic squabbles surrounding affect. In 1991, the Marxist literary scholar Fredric Jameson famously identified “the waning of affect” as one of “the constitutive features of the postmodern” (Jameson, 1991, p. 6). After making this assertion, Jameson was widely criticized by scholars of the “affective turn” in the humanities who saw not a waning but “a magnification of affect” (see Shaviro, 2010, p. 4). Social theorist Brian Massumi (1995), for instance, argued that, “If anything, our condition is characterized by a surfeit of [affect]” (p. 88).

What outwardly appears to be a disagreement over affect’s prevalence (i.e., its decline or proliferation) is, in actuality, a more fundamental disagreement over what affect is and how best to approach it. Jameson’s and Massumi’s understandings of affect differ both conceptually and contextually. In contrast to Massumi, who—based upon his reading of Deleuze—sees affect as an unqualified intensity, Jameson regards affect as an effect or state (Jameson, 1991, p. 10). Moreover, unlike Massumi, who is generally concerned with affect in “our condition” (i.e., postmodernity), Jameson specifically examines affect in relation to “postmodernism.” Clarifying this distinction, Eagleton (1996) explains: “postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period” that “springs from an historic shift in the West to a new form of capitalism—to the ephemeral, decentralized world of technology, consumerism, and the culture industry, in which service, finance, and information industries triumph over traditional manufacture,” while “postmodernism … refers to a form of contemporary culture” characterized by “a depthless, decentered, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art” (Eagleton, 1996, p. vii).

Thus, when Jameson identifies a waning of affect as emblematic of postmodern culture, he is specifically referring to art in late capitalism, and indeed, his chief examples contrast the works of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch with those of Andy Warhol, the personal styles of high modernism with the mechanical reproduction of postmodernism. I point to the differences in Jameson’s and Massumi’s views on affect because—even as they signal the complexity of the scholarly terrain involving affect—they highlight one possible interpretive heuristic to begin mapping that terrain.

In the case of Jameson, affect is tied to the expressive and representational dimensions of art, to the feelings and emotions that art elicits or, in the case of postmodern art, fails to elicit. From this perspective, affect is an elemental state activated in a human subject by an external artistic object. Jameson (1991) sees a waning of affect because he believes postmodern art is no longer capable of communicating “the [artist’s] outward dramatization of inward feeling” (p. 12). In the case of Massumi, affect entails neither subject nor object but bodily movement, interaction, and the dynamic process of becoming. In this view, affect is an intensive force that all bodies (whether human or nonhuman) exert upon one another. Massumi sees a surfeit of affect because bodies continuously collide and diverge. These two conceptions of affect—as state and as force—are rarely integrated as they once were in Spinoza’s Ethics. To the contrary, they reflect distinct scholarly traditions. In this article, I map these two traditions, reflecting on their histories and assumptions.2 I conclude by looking at some of the ways these traditions have been taken up by communication and cultural studies scholars.

Affect as Elemental State

The view of affect as an elemental state has its roots in psychology and neuroscience. In some iterations of this view, little or no distinction is made between affect and other emotional states. In fact, in the early 1990s, Batson, Shaw, and Oleson (1992) reported that in psychology “most often, the terms affect, mood, and emotion are used interchangeably, without any attempt at conceptual differentiation” (p. 295). In instances where conceptual distinctions are made, affect is sometimes used as a catch all term to refer to a variety of emotional states. Charles Altieri (2003), for instance, defines affects as “immediate modes of sensual responsiveness to the work [of art] characterized by an accompanying imaginative dimension,” which allows affect to serve as an “umbrella term” that includes four basic categories: feelings, moods, emotions, and passions (p. 2). In still other instances, affect is treated as its own core or elemental state distinct from emotion and feeling.

In this section, two leading theories of affect that treat it as an elemental state are explored. The first is psychologist Silvan S. Tomkins’s theory of primary affects, and the second is neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s theory of basic emotions. By his own account, Tomkins (1982) began to recognize the importance of affect in the early 1940s, though at the time, he notes, “affect was in deep trouble and disrepute” (p. 353). Affect’s unfavorable status in academic circles was principally a product of two intellectual traditions: behaviorism and psychoanalysis. In the early 20th century, a behavioral approach held sway in psychology. This approach concerned what could be objectively observed and tested, which according to one of its most famous proponents, John B. Watson, was restricted to the public behaviors and reactions of individuals. Consequently, private behaviors, like thoughts and emotions, were excluded from serious study. Affect fared little better in the psychoanalytic tradition, where Freud subordinated it to the drives, which he believed “to constitute the primary motivational system” (Tomkins, 2008, p, 4). With respect to both behaviorism and psychoanalysis, then, affects were seen as playing an inconsequential or secondary role in human motivation and action.

It is precisely this understanding of affect that Tomkins (1982) questioned and actively sought to overturn. From his perspective, affect is “the primary motivational system,” an “innate biological … mechanism, more urgent than drive deprivation and pleasure, and more urgent even than physical pain” (pp. 354, 355). In support of this claim, Tomkins cites the example of terror as an innate affect. According to Tompkins, one can be terrified of losing their job, being diagnosed with cancer, or being publically humiliated. But in none of these circumstances is terror tied to the drive mechanism, to the “desperate quality of the hunger, thirst, breathing, and sex drives” (p. 355). In his view, it is not the drives that heighten or animate affect, but the affects that amplify drives, which explains why one must be excited (affect) to be sexually aroused (drive), but need not be sexually aroused to be excited (p. 357). Affect, Tomkins further notes, “lends power to memory, to perception, to thought, and to action no less than to the drives” (p. 356).

Based on his research, Tomkins identified nine primary affects, “the inborn protocols that when triggered encourage us to spring into action” (Nathanson, 2008, p. xiii). He arranged these nine primary motivating mechanisms into the categories of positive, neutral, and negative. According to Tomkins, there are two positive affects: (a) interest-excitement and (b) enjoyment-joy; one neutral affect: (c) surprise-startle; and six negative affects: (d) distress-anguish, (e) fear-terror, (f) anger-rage, (g) shame-humiliation, (h) disgust, and (i) dissmell. Over time, Tomkins has reworked some of the affects on this list, but he has consistently described the first seven in pairs that encompass varying intensities of the same affect. Rage, for instance, is an intensified version of anger, while excitement is an intensified version of interest. The final two affects, disgust and dissmell, are protective ones related to food; they work to prevent humans from eating or drinking things that are toxic or harmful. Since affect amplifies “anything with which it is co-assembled” such as drive, motor, perceptual, and cognitive mechanisms (Demos, 1995, p. 53), Tomkins (1981) says that it functions to make “good things better and bad things worse” (p. 322).

For Tomkins, affects are triggered by the increasing, decreasing, or persistent intensity of neural firing associated with an internal or external stimulus. Contrary to Freud, Tomkins did not believe that affects were related to the specific content of an experience such as breast feeding or potty training. Rather, he linked affect to the density (frequency per unit of time) of neural firing. “My theory,” he explains, “posits three discrete classes of activators of affect … These are stimulation increase, stimulation level, and stimulation decrease” (Tomkins, 1981, p. 317). Each affect, he demonstrated, is an analogue of its stimulus. Just as a gunshot is sudden and brief, so, too, is the surprise-startle affect it elicits. Tomkins also found that the level and pattern of neural stimulation associated with a particular affect corresponds to distinct facial displays and bodily responses. The fear-terror affect generates a furrowed brow, frozen stare, and increase in heart-rate and respiration, while the shame-humiliation affect induces eye aversion, head dipping, blushing, and slumping. Since the affect system is an innate brain mechanism involving stimulus and response, Tomkins distinguished between affect and feeling, which he regarded as conscious awareness of an affect, between affect and emotion, which he described as the combination of an affect, a feeling, and memory of previous experiences of the initiating affect, and between affect and mood, which he understood as a persistent state of emotion (Nathanson, 2008, p. xiv).

As is perhaps already evident from the preceding discussion, affect is—in Tomkins’s view—not necessarily cognitively activated (Tomkins, 1981, p. 321), though it possesses the parasitical ability to co-assemble with cognitive, motor, memory, drive, and perceptual mechanisms (Ngai, 2005, p. 53). “It is,” in Tomkins’s (1981) words, “capable of very great combinational flexibility with other mechanisms that it can conjointly imprint and be imprinted by” (p. 321). The three major conjoint characteristics of affect that allow it to function are urgency, abstractness, and generality (p. 321). The trait of urgency means that affect amplifies whatever triggered it, thereby making that trigger or stimulus matter. In fact, nothing matters (i.e., is available to human consciousness) unless it has first been amplified by affect. The trait of abstractness means that affect has no essential or absolute connection to any triggering mechanism, thus allowing it to lend its power of amplification to any trigger. Finally, the trait of generality means that affect has unlimited “transformability or degrees of freedom” (p. 323), thus, making it capable of infinite assembly of various mechanisms. In developing his theory of affect, Tomkins sought to answer no less fundamental a question than, “Why do humans do what they do?”

As with Tomkins’s theory of primary affects, Antonio Damasio’s theory of basic emotions has had a significant influence on the multidisciplinary field of affect studies. But unlike Tomkins, Damasio does not actually employ the term “affect” in his own research. He does, however, credit Baruch Spinoza’s philosophical writings on affect as an important influence on him and acknowledges that affect is often used to describe an ensemble of concepts that preoccupy him as a neuroscientist, namely drives, motivations, emotions, and feelings (Damasio, 2003, pp. 8, 11). Damasio lays out his theory of basic emotions, which is centrally concerned with “being in a state” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 31), across four key works: Descartes’ Error (1994), The Feeling of What Happens (1999), Looking for Spinoza (2003), and Self Comes to Mind (2010). When Damasio first proposed his theory of basic emotions, it was controversial because it challenged the conventional scientific wisdom of the time, which held that cognition and emotion were independent of one another and that the body served the mind. For Damasio, not only is emotion central to cognition, but also the “mind exists purely for the body’s sake, to ensure its survival” (Eakin, 2003).

“Survival,” Damasio explains, “depends on the maintenance of the body’s physiology within an optimal homeostatic range. This process relies on fast detection of potentially deleterious changes in body state and on appropriate corrective responses” (Damasio & Carvalho, 2013, p. 143). But how are changes in body state and corrective responses detected and initiated quickly? The surprising answer, according to Damasio, is emotions. Emotions are “complex … automated programs of actions concocted by evolution,” that is “action programmes” (Damasio, 2010, p. 108); they are triggered by external stimuli related to the exteroceptive senses (vision, hearing, taste, and smell). These experiences can be either perceived or recalled, but the action programs they initiate “do not require deliberation. They are instinctual—that is biologically pre-set” (Damasio & Carvalho, 2013, p. 145). For Damasio, this is very different than how feelings work. “Feelings,” he explains, “are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting” (Damasio, 2010, p. 109). So, while emotions entail innate programs of action (and accompanying changes in body state), feelings involve perceptions of the body and what it is doing. Thus, whereas emotions “can be triggered and executed nonconsciously,” feelings pivot on consciousness (Damasio, 1999, p. 37). “The basic mechanisms underlying emotion,” he goes on to say, “do not require consciousness, even if they eventually use it” (p. 42).

In addition to distinguishing between emotions and feelings, Damasio also distinguishes among three categories or tiers of emotions: background emotions, primary emotions, and secondary emotions. By background emotions, he means something on the order of one’s general orientation, their degree of edginess or tranquility (enthusiasm or discouragement) for instance. Background emotions should not be confused with moods, however, which entail “sustaining a given emotion over long periods of time” (Damasio, 2003, p. 43). In contrast to background emotions, primary or basic emotions refer to the states of fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness. These states are all, according to Damasio (2003), “easily identifiable in human beings across several cultures and in nonhuman species as well” (p. 44). Finally, he discusses secondary or social emotions, which include compassion, embarrassment, guilt, shame, contempt, jealousy, envy, pride, and admiration. Unlike primary or basic emotions, which rely exclusively on the limbic system, amygdala, and anterior cingulate, secondary or social emotions require “the agency of the prefrontal and of somatosensory cortices” (Damasio, 1994, p. 134). This broadening of systems means that secondary emotions typically accompany feelings and that, unlike primary emotions, which are pre-organized and universal, secondary emotions are less automated. In short, secondary emotions are significantly shaped by personal experience.

That is not to say that personal experience plays no role whatsoever in basic emotions, but it is indirect. From a neurological perspective, the activation of emotion (for our purposes, fear) looks like this. A threatening object or event is registered via an exteroceptive sense (e.g., the sight of a bear). This sends a neural signal to the amygdala, which recognizes the object or event as an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS). The ECS, which is a pattern that has evolved biologically over time to ensure a safe homeostatic range for the body, triggers an automated response or program of action (i.e., the amygdala sends predetermined commands to the hypothalamus and brain stem). The state of the body changes to fear (i.e., heart and respiratory rates increase, cortisol and adrenaline are secreted into the blood stream, blood vessels in the skin contract, etc.). These changes in the body state are sensed by the interoceptive system and mapped (i.e., a feeling develops). While fear is, for Damasio, a largely universal experience, fear of bears is not. Personal life experiences with bears (e.g., perhaps one is an animal trainer), as well as the context in which one encounters a bear (e.g., while camping versus at the zoo), modulate whether or not seeing a bear qualifies as an ECS.

Despite developing in different fields and employing different terminologies, Tomkins’s theory of primary affects and Damasio’s theory of basic emotions share a remarkably similar set of assumptions. First, for both Tomkins and Damasio, affects are elemental body states arrived at through automated biological processes. Second, there are several identifiable affects or bodily states that are innate and universal, meaning they occur across all cultures, even cultures that do not have names for them. Though Tomkins’s and Damasio’s terminologies differ somewhat, both regard fear, anger, disgust, and surprise, as well as some variation on joy (happiness) and distress (sadness) as basic affects. Third, affects do not require conscious thought and, in this sense, may be understood as precognitive. Fourth, the experience of a particular affective bodily state is quickly captured and mapped, leading to conscious feelings. While communication scholars across a wide array of areas have utilized these theories to explore the role that affect plays in communication, the conception of affect as elemental bodily state has disproportionately informed empirical-based research in areas such as persuasion (Nabi, 2010) and media effects (Bolls, 2010).

That having been said, a number of humanities-based scholars have actively pursued the notion of affect as elemental state. Literary and queer studies scholar, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who along with Adam Frank, for instance, were central to popularizing the concept of affect in cultural studies through the examination of shame in their 1995 book, Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Sedgwick (2003) continued to explore the role of affect in subsequent work, paying special attention to the idea “that motivation itself, even the motivation to satisfy biological drives, is the business of the affect system” (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 20). Other humanistic scholars to take up affect as elemental state include the media ecologist Phil Rose (2013), performance studies scholars Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman (2007), and rhetoricians interested in neurorhetorics (Marinelli, 2016; Mays & Jung, 2012). The film scholar Lisa Cartwright (2008) also utilized this perspective to develop a theory of “moral spectatorship,” which develops the concept of “empathetic identification” (p. 24); in contradistinction to psychoanalytic theories of identification, Cartwright frames identification in terms of affect and intersubjectivity.

The concept of intersubjectivity within this tradition is significant because it is one way of understanding how affect circulates and moves. Accounts of affective movement associated with a view of affect as elemental state have tended to subscribe to some version of “mimesis” or “affective contagion,” in which, according to Anna Gibbs (2001), “Bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear” (p. 1). Among the most widely cited works in this tradition is Teresa Brennan’s (2004) The Transmission of Affect which, drawing upon contemporary neuroscience, advances the idea of “chemical entrainment” (involving pheromones) to explain how affects pass between bodies in groups and crowds. While Brennan’s theory is a novel one, the “transmission” metaphor at its center ultimately re-inscribes the idea of individual bodies that are essentially separate and stable (see Wetherell, 2012, p. 144). It is this view of bodies that the second major perspective on affect explicitly and forcefully challenges.

Affect as Intensive Force

While the view of affect as an elemental state generally finds its roots in the disciplines of psychology and neurology, the view of affect as an intensive force is more commonly associated with developments in philosophy and humanities-based disciplines such as literature, art history, communication, and cultural studies, as well as cultural anthropology and geography. The most famous proponent of this conception is the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, along with his friend and frequent collaborator, French psychoanalyst and philosopher Félix Guattari. In their view, affect entails “the change, or variation, that occurs when bodies collide, or come into contact” (Colman, 2010, p. 11), or rather, “passages of intensity, a reaction in or on the body at the level of matter” (O’Sullivan, 2006, p. 4). In this section, I explore Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of affect as intensive variation and then outline two current strains of this conception: cultural theorist Brian Massumi’s thesis on the “autonomy of affect” and cultural geographer Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory. Though Massumi and Thrift are far from a comprehensive list of the scholars working in this area, most conceptions of affect as intensive force are grounded in their work.

To fully appreciate the perspective of affect as intensive force, it is necessary to look first at the principal current of thought that it responds to and challenges. Throughout the 20th century, critical theory was dominated by a concern with language. In philosophy, that concern manifested itself in the so-called “linguistic turn,” a recognition by analytic philosophers that the structures of language delimit what can be said and, by extension, what can be thought. Since language does not mirror reality (i.e., as correspondence theories of truth suggest), language necessarily shapes our understanding of reality. Even the cognitive turn, which took place in philosophy mid-century, ends up being an extension of the linguistic turn since the mind is treated like a representational system. As Jacques Lacan (1998) famously said, “the unconscious is structured like a language” (p. 48). The centrality of language and, therefore, representation was also evident in linguistic circles, where the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure demonstrated there was no necessary correspondence between a sign and the thing to which it refers. Similarly, in literary and cultural studies, theorists extolled a universal “textualism,” or the notion that “There is nothing outside of the text” (Derrida, 1997, p. 158). The primacy of language, which gave rise to structuralism and later post-structuralism, had two notable effects; it disciplined the senses, and it privileged textual and interpretive approaches to knowledge (see Howes, 2003, pp. 17–22).

Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of affect fundamentally challenges these biases by suggesting a mode of thought that is non-representational (Seigworth, 2011, p. 183; see also Deleuze, 1978), a carnal knowledge that escapes but runs “parallel to signification” (O’Sullivan, 2001, p. 126). This view is heavily influenced by Spinoza’s account of affect and Bergson’s (1991) views on matter. But whereas Spinoza, as noted in the introduction, specified two dimensions of affect (affectus and affectio), Deleuze and Guattari derive their formulation of affect principally in relation to affectus, to “a body’s passage from one state of affection to another” (Massumi, 1987, p. xvi; Seigworth, 2011, p. 184;). Affects, they argue, are neither feelings nor affections (i.e., basic emotions), as “they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 164). Nevertheless, affections, which describe the state of the affected body at a given moment in time (i.e., a slice of our duration), signal the capacity of the body to affect and be affected by other bodies, to transition from one state to another as a result of the material forces that bodies continuously exert upon one another. Deleuzian-Guattarian affect, therefore, “requires a view of the body, not as an organic closed system (as in Freud), but as … a ‘machinic assemblage’ … radically open to the world” (Labanyi, 2010, p. 225). In this view, “a body is defined not by the form that determines it,” but as an individual thing distinguished from others things in respect to motion and rest, that is, a body without organs (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 260; see also Spinoza, 1992, p. 63). Virtually anything, human or nonhuman, can function as a body so long as it has the capacity to affect and be affected. “Bodies,” explains Barbara Kennedy (2000), “might be technological, material, organic, cultural, sociological, or molecular” (p. 98).

In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) take up their conception of affect primarily in terms of art, which they define as “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects” (p. 164). For them, works of art are bodies whose material aesthetics produce sensations in other bodies at the level of matter and energy. Specifically, they identify three monumental types of sensations, each of which functions as a material force or intensity affecting bodies as affect. The first is vibration, a simple sensation that is “more nervous than cerebral” (p. 168). Though simple, vibration “is determined by a difference in intensity that either rises or falls” (Kennedy, 2000, p. 113), thereby generating rhythmic oscillations in attendant bodies. Resonance, which Deleuze and Guattari (1994) describe as “the embrace,” refers to a second variety of sensation; it occurs when “two sensations resonate with each other so tightly in a clinch of what are no more than ‘energies’” (p. 168), transferring excitation across bodies. Finally, they identify distension, which arises when “two sensations draw apart, release themselves, but so as not to be brought together by the light, the air, the void that sinks between them,” eliciting a sense of movement. The sensations of vibration, resonance, and movement all have the capacity to affect bodies at a material, presubjective, asignifying level. Deleuze (2003), in his account of Francis Bacon’s painterly practice, is clear that sensation has nothing to do with a subject’s feelings, writing, “there are no feelings in Bacon: there are nothing but affects, that is, ‘sensations’ and ‘instincts’ … Sensation is what determines instinct at a particular moment, just as instinct is the passage from one sensation to another” (p. 35). Hence, for Deleuze and Guattari, “Affects are sensible experiences … liberated from organizing systems of representation” (Colebrook, 2002, p. 22); they are “felt as differences in intensity” (O’Sullivan, 2006, p. 169).

Among the most prominent scholars to take up these ideas is Brian Massumi, a cultural theorist, who is one of the chief translators of Deleuze and Guattari’s work. Following Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi (2002) equates affect with “intensity,” which he argues is not “semantically or semiotically ordered,” but which “is embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin—at the surface of the body, at its interface with things” (pp. 24–25). Massumi’s insistence that affect is “the body’s response to stimuli at a precognitive and prelinguistic level” (Labanyi, 2010, p. 224) that involves the brain but not consciousness is perhaps most evident in the strong divide he draws between affect and emotion. Indeed, as Ruth Leys (2011) explains in a special issue of Critical Inquiry on affect, Massumi is widely credited with emphasizing the “autonomy of affect,” the idea that affect is “a nonsignifying, nonconscious ‘intensity’ disconnected from the subjective, signifying, functional-meaning axis to which the more familiar categories of emotion belong” (p. 441). While Massumi’s view on the distinction between affect and emotion is consistent with Deleuze and Guattari’s, he stresses it more explicitly and forcefully. In Parable for the Virtual, Massumi (2002) maintains that, “emotion and affect—if affect is intensity—follow different logics and pertain to different orders” (p. 27).

The view that affect is extralinguistic, asignifying, nonconscious, and presubjective has important implications, not least of all for the relation between affect and discourse, which Massumi splits “into two tracks and privilege[s] the track of the body or the process of becoming, and the moment of impact and change” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 19). For Massumi, discourse has a domesticating and neutering effect on affect; “discourse is seen as taming affect, codifying its generative force” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 19). This taming effect arises because discourse is bound up with all the structures (i.e., identities, subjectivities, communities, cultures, and histories) that allow ideology to do its work. To prevent “received psychological categories” from slipping back into a theory of affect (Massumi, 2002, p. 27), Massumi subscribes to the perspective that “affects must be viewed as independent of, and in an important sense prior to, ideology—that is, prior to intentions, meanings, reasons, and beliefs” (Leys, 2011, p. 437). Not surprising, this is a controversial position, especially among academics who are unwilling or perhaps unable to take seriously the possibility that affect operates outside of language, discourse, and ideology.3 In response to criticism that the body is always already mediated by discourse, defenders of Massumi’s view often point to the example of infants, who, having not yet entered the realm of the Symbolic, are nonetheless machines for generating affect. Infants, who are as of yet preverbal and a-ideological, can nonetheless exert intensive forces that affect and are affected by other bodies.

Massumi’s insistence that affect is “preconscious and bodily, rather than individuated, discursively mediated, and constructed” is also reflected in Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory (NRT), which concerns processes that are “more than language” and below the “threshold of cognition” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 55). More specifically, Thrift argues that NRT has seven main tenets. First, it seeks to capture the “onflow” of everyday life, meaning that it is rooted in philosophies of becoming that challenge the idea of static, unchanging states (Thrift, 2008, p. 5). Second, it is decidedly pre-individual; parting ways with methodological individualism, it views the world “as made up of all kinds of things brought in relation with one another by many and varied spaces through a continuous and largely involuntary process of encounter” (pp. 7–8). Third, it concerns the material practices of bodies in addition to the symbolic actions of individual subjects (p. 8). Fourth, it regards “things” as lively and takes seriously the energy that things generate (p. 9). Fifth, it is experimental, especially its infusion of the performative and other non-empirical methods into social science (p. 12). Sixth, it recognizes affect and sensation as registers of thought as important as the register involving signs and significations, challenging “the privileging of meaning … by understanding the body as being expressive without being a signifier” (pp. 12–14). Seventh, it stresses an ethic of novelty “celebrating the joyous, even transcendent, confusion of life,” and, thus, opening the possibility for new forms of politics (p. 15). The major tenets of NRT collectively challenge the hegemony of representational notions of the mind and of thought.

One of the unique aspects of Thrift’s NRT is its explicit emphasis on politics, on showing how the study of affect can enhance our understanding of politics, as well as using affect theory to generate new forms of politics. In Thrift’s (2008) words: “the envelope of what we call the political must increasingly expand to take note of ‘the way that political attitudes and statements are partly conditioned by intense autonomic bodily reactions that do not simply reproduce the trace of a political intention and cannot wholly be recuperated within an ideological regime of truth’” (p. 182) As a geographer, Thrift is interested in how the study of affect influences and impacts the politics of space, especially, urban space. In that regard, Thrift points to four developments. First, he suggests there is a general altering of the form of politics, expanding the modes of political involvement beyond traditional means (Massumi, 1995, pp. 100–103). Second, there is a growing “mediatization” of politics in which “political presentation increasingly conforms to media norms” (Thrift, 2008, p. 184). Massumi (2002) agrees. Citing the example of Ronald Reagan, he argues that the timbre and “beautiful vibratory” quality of Reagan’s voice made him appealing even though his thoughts were incoherent (p. 41). Third, the political is spreading into new sensory registers, creating microgeographies governed by biopolitics. Fourth, urban space is increasingly designed to elicit political response through strategically engineered landscapes.

Though distinctive, the various views of affect as an intensive force inspired by Deleuze and Guattari share a common set of assumptions. First, affect is regarded as a distinct way of knowing. In Thrift’s (2008) words, “affect is understood as a form of thinking” (p. 175). Second, that form of thinking is regarded as presubjective, asignifying, and nonconscious; it occurs at the level of bodies (Clough, 2007, pp. 1–2). This perspective represents a direct challenge to the notion that thought is exclusively an individual, rationalist, representational, and conscious activity. Third, affect is distinct from emotion. In Massumi’s (1995) words, “An emotion is a subjective content, the socio-linguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognized” (p. 88). Put another way, emotion is “the subjective capture of affects” (Schrimshaw, 2013, p. 31). Fourth, affect entails a material aesthetics. To take seriously the view of affect as intensive force involves foregrounding the importance of matter as lively, vibrant, and animate. One useful way to think about this is in terms of what Jane Bennett (2004) calls thing-power, “which figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow” (p. 349). Bennett further describes thing-power as “the lively energy and/or resistant pressure that issues from one material assemblage and is received by others” (p. 365). Though asignifying, matter is nonetheless expressive, for the aesthetic qualities of things elicit sensations as bodies come into contact with one another (see Hawhee, 2015).

This unifying set of assumptions has been particularly appealing to rhetorical, media, and cultural studies scholars interested in materiality and the ways that bodies can be excited, primed, and swayed (i.e., affected) at the level of matter. One of the chief advocates of a Deleuzian approach to affect has been Eric. S. Jenkins. In scholarship exploring the circulation of memes (Jenkins, 2014a), the contributions of affect to media ecology (Jenkins & Zhang, 2016), and the affective dimensions of animation (Jenkins, 2014b), Jenkins has affirmed that affect “is not the property or possession of the subject but arises in between, in the intervals connecting bodies” (Jenkins, 2014b, p. 7). Similarly, D. Robert DeChaine (2002) adopted this perspective to analyze the embodied character of musical experience, while Eric King Watts (2012) utilized it to demonstrate the vibrational experience of the human voice. J. D. Dewsbury (2015) has mobilized this perspective to examine the relationship between landscapes and the performative materialities of habit, while Greg Dickinson, Brian L. Ott, and Eric Aoki (2013) employed it to assess the spatial experience of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. In each case, the aforementioned authors stress the intersection of matter, movement, aesthetics, and sensation to affect.

Stuck in the Middle With You

As is likely already evident, the two dominant understandings of affect charted in this essay—as elemental state and as intensive force—are not wholly at odds with one another and, indeed, some scholars have worked to creatively (re)combine them as Spinoza had done. Spinoza, Papacharissi (2015) reminds us, “defined affects as states of mind and body that include, but also extend beyond, just emotions and feelings to describe driving forces that are suggestive of tendencies to act in a variety of ways, or, to not act at all” (p. 12). Communication and cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg, for instance, drew upon this dual understanding to help explain how popular culture creates “affective investments.” Like Deleuze and Guattari, Grossberg (1992) regards emotion and affect as operating on two different planes, associating the plane of emotion with signification and ideology and the plane of affect with prepersonal, asignifying “senses and experiences” (p. 80). But Grossberg goes on to say that “Too often, critics assume that affect—as pure intensity—is without form or structure,” adding that affect, “is articulated and disarticulated—there are affective lines of articulation and affective lines of flight—through social struggles over its structure” (p. 82). In stressing this point, Grossberg seeks to map the relation between emotion and affect, arguing, “Our emotional states are always elicited from within the affective states in which we already find ourselves” (p. 81).

For rhetorical and psychoanalytic scholar Christian Lundberg (2012), “affect,” in Grossberg’s view, “serves a trans- or asubjective economy of forces that produces the subject” (p. 109). This move, which he argues resonates strongly with Freud’s understanding of a “set of forces that precede the manifest content of the subject’s actions,” might reasonably be interpreted as simply driving the subject to a deeper, more hidden level and, thus, as running counter to Deleuze and Guattari’s desubjectivizing view of affect (pp. 108–109). Turning to Lacan, who Lundberg readily admits had a very uneasy attitude toward affect,4 he suggests affect “can be situated in the Real, although not necessarily at the site of the body” because it implies “the possibility of bodily experience not mediated by the presence of the signifier” (p. 111). Such a move, situating affect in the Real, but outside the body and subjective practices of meaning, he posits, allows for a “quasi-ontology … that escapes seamless representation in the regime of the signs” (Lundberg, 2012, p. 111; see also Lundberg, 2009, 2015). Lundberg’s theorization of affect is a challenging and provocative one that, given its Lacanian inspiration, also rehabilitates some version of subjectivity that runs counter to Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of affect as operating outside the economy of the sign.5

A number of communication and cultural studies scholars, but especially those working in the psychoanalytic tradition, have found utility in both Lacan and the Lacanian-inspired scholarship on affect. Ernesto Laclau (2005), for instance, employs a Lacanian view of affect to help explain the appeal of populist rhetoric; specifically, he suggests that affect highlights the force of a “people’s” investment in a given discourse or entity (p. 110). Joshua Gunn has also drawn upon Lacan—along with Sigmund Freud, Lauren Berlant (2008), and Anne Cvetkovich (2003) among others—to explore various dimensions of affect, including how deeply gendered norms regarding speech tonalities often result in moments of affective transgression (Gunn, 2010), how the formal (affective) appeal of the film The Passion of the Christ relies upon the generic norms of pornography (Gunn, 2012), and how laughter troubles the human/machine binary (Gunn, 2014). In each instance, Gunn has attended carefully to the concepts of repetition, form, and bodily rhythm. This has produced a compelling body of work that enhances our understanding of the relation between affect and emotion by highlighting the entwinement of the sensual/sensorial with the symbolic/representational. This entwinement also animates Brian L. Ott and Diane Keeling’s (2011) analysis of the film Lost in Translation, though they prefer the psychoanalytic work of Julia Kristeva (1984) and her distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic, rather than Lacan, to account for rhetoric’s affective dimension.

A third middle ground of inquiry into affect is reflected by Sara Ahmed’s work exploring the “sociality of emotion.” Rejecting the notion that emotions are psychological states, she draws upon Marxism to advance the idea of an “affective economy,” which holds “that it is the objects of emotions that circulate, rather than emotion as such” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 11). In this framework, emotions reside neither in individuals nor objects, but move in association with the movement of objects, which become sticky or saturated with affect. This perspective assists critics in analyzing how affect flows through contemporary politics and, indeed, numerous rhetorical scholars have drawn upon this perspective to examine the affective dimensions of diverse rhetorical phenomena. While any attempt to survey those efforts is necessarily selective and partial, it is worth highlighting a few of the key voices and views in this arena.

In a frequently cited review essay, Jenny Edbauer Rice (2008) examines Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion along with three other recent contributions to critical affect studies (CAS), which she defines as “the interdisciplinary study of affect and its mediating force in everyday life” (pp. 201–202). In doing so, she draws attention to the broad ways that affect theory shapes “how we conceptualize the public space;” challenges “us to rethink the telos of rhetorical publics;” and invites “more complex understanding of pathos (beyond emotion), increased attention to the physiological character of rhetoric, and a rethinking of ideological critique” (pp. 209, 210, 211). Taking up these varied charges, scholars such as Erin J. Rand (2015, 2014), Caitlin Bruce (2015), Catherine Chaput (2011), and Dana L. Cloud and Kathleen Eaton Feyh (2015) have all sought to clarify “the intersection of the somatic and the social” (Cloud & Feyh, 2015, p. 303). Brent Malin’s (2001) work on “emotions as public, embodied practices” is also of note, though his discussion of emotion is closely tied to discourse and processes of meaning-making, which is precisely the view many scholars of affect wish to upend.

The German philosopher Gernot Böhme’s “theory of atmospheres,” which challenges firm object/subject and affect/emotion dichotomies, provides a fourth mediating perspective on affect as elemental state and intensive force. According to Böhme, atmospheres “designate that which mediates the objective qualities of an environment with the bodily-sensual states of a person in this environment” (Böhme, 2014, p. 92). Elaborating on their “peculiar intermediary status … between subject and object,” Böhme writes:

atmospheres are neither something objective, that is, qualities possessed by things, and yet they are something thinglike, belonging to the thing in that things articulate their presence through qualities-conceived as ecstasies. Nor are atmospheres something subjective, for example, determinations of a psychic state. And yet they are subjectlike, belong to subjects in that they are sensed in bodily presence by human beings and this sensing is at the same time a bodily state of being of subjects in space.

(Böhme, 1993, pp. 114, 122; see also Anderson, 2009)

In as much as atmospheres problematize the object/subject dichotomy, they do not align exclusively with affect or emotion, sensation or signification. While atmospheres involve the flow of affective intensities across/among bodies within a space, the felt experience of those flows are rendered subjectively as emotions, which, in turn, are immediately enfolded back into the space as affective flows.

The spatial aspect of atmospheres is absolutely crucial to their functioning and, for Böhme (2014), entails five specific characteristics (pp. 93–94). First, spaces express a general tenor or mood such as playful or serious, cheerful or solemn. Second, spaces operate synesthetically, thus, sparking a dynamic interplay of senses. The color of a room, for instance, may evoke a sense of warmth or coldness. Third, spaces convey a disposition toward movement that varies from narrow and claustrophobic to expansive and open. Fourth, spaces are reciprocal, meaning they both influence and are influenced by the bodies present in a space. Fifth, spaces are social and, as such, carry cultural meanings and values. Each of these characteristics, according to Böhme (2013), can be modulated by manipulating a space’s material conditions and aesthetic properties, what he refers to as its “generators” (p. 4). The most important generators of atmosphere, he argues, “are light and sound, that is, more specifically: music and illumination” (Böhme, 2014, p. 94). Because atmospheres can be modulated by material/aesthetic choices, they lend themselves to critical analysis, which has prompted some rhetorical scholars to attend to the affective/emotive dimensions of particular spaces (Ott, Bean, & Marin, 2016).

While Grossberg, Lundberg, Ahmed, and Böhme differ in their assumptions and approaches, each is concerned with finding some middle ground between a view of affect as an elemental state, which has been rightly criticized for being too fixed and, thus, failing to capture the processual character of becoming, and affect as an intensive force, which has justifiably been criticized as being too theoretically abstract and, therefore, of limited heuristic value. That these “middle grounds” as I have dubbed them raise their own questions and paradoxes is not a limitation so much as it is a testament to the complexity of affect.

Further Reading

Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Böhme, G. (1993). Atmosphere as the fundamental concept of a new aesthetics. Thesis Eleven, 36, 113–126.Find this resource:

Böhme, G. (2014). The theory of atmospheres and its applications (A.-C. Engels-Schwarzpaul, Trans.). Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts, 15, 92–99.Find this resource:

Brennan, T. (2004). The transmission of affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

Clough, P. T., & Halley, J. (Eds.). (2007). The affective turn: Theorizing the social. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. London: William Heinemann.Find this resource:

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Avon Books.Find this resource:

Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.Find this resource:

Damasio, A. R. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Pantheon.Find this resource:

Deleuze, E., & Deleuze, G. (1978). Lecture transcripts on Spinoza’s concept of affect.

Deleuze, G. (1988). Spinoza: Practical philosophy (R. Hurley, Trans.). San Francisco: City Lights Books.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G. (2003). Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation (D. W. Smith, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy? (H. Tomlinson & G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Demos, E. V. (Ed.). (1995). Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Gregg, M., & Seigworth, G. J. (Eds.). (2010). The affect theory reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Grossberg, L. (1992). We gotta get out of this place: Popular conservatism and postmodern culture. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Massumi, B. (2015). Politics of affect. Malden, MA: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Protevi, J. (2009). Political affect: Connecting the social and the somatic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Spinoza, B. (1992). Ethics: Treatise on the emendation of the intellect and selected letters (S. Shirley, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hacket.Find this resource:

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-representational theory: Space, politics, affect. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Tomkins, S. S. (1982). Affect theory. In P. Ekman, W. V. Friesen, & P. Ellsworth (Eds.), Emotion in the human face (2d ed., pp. 353–395). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Tomkins, S. S. (2008). Affect imagery consciousness: The complete edition. New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Wetherell, M. (2012). Affect and emotion: A new social science understanding. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.Find this resource:

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Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 77–81.Find this resource:

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Böhme, G. (2013). The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres. Ambiances: International Journal of Sensory Environment, Architecture, and Urban Space, 2.Find this resource:

Böhme, G. (2014). The theory of atmospheres and its applications (A.-C. Engels-Schwarzpaul, Trans.). Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts, 15, 92–99.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1.) Elaborating on this view, Brinkema (2014) explains, “Affects for Deleuze are not feelings, emotions, or moods but autonomous potentialities, pure ‘possibles’ that are linked to a complex series of highly specific terms, such as ‘sensation,’ ‘becoming,’ ‘force,’ ‘lines of flight,’ and deterritorialization.’ … for Deleuze, affect is not linked to interior state or individual subject” (Brinkema, 2014, p. 24).

(2.) These are, of course, not the only two ways to conceptualize affect, though they are regularly highlighted. Seigworth and Gregg (2010), for instance, identify two key vectors of affect theory: “affect as the prime ‘interest’ motivator that comes to put the drive in bodily drives (Tomkins); [and] affect as an entire, vital, and modulating field of myriad becomings across human and nonhuman (Deleuze)” (Seigworth & Gregg, 2010, p. 6). These two vectors largely correspond with what I am calling the “state” and “force” traditions. The centrality of these two traditions is also highlighted by Paasonen, Hillis, and Petit (2015), who observe: “In new materialist investigations inspired by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, … affect translates as nonsubjective and impersonal potentiality, intensity, and force… . In contrast, in the work of the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, … affects are identifiable and specific … physiological reactions” (Paasonen, Hillis, & Petit, 2015, p. 6).

(3.) Brinkema (2014) posits, for instance, that “Affect is not the place where something immediate and automatic and resistant takes place outside of language. … Affect is not where reading is no longer needed” (Brinkema, 2014, p. xiv). Brinkema is a committed textualist who maintains that any productive theory of affect would allow critics to “read for affect and affectivity in texts.”

(4.) I have chosen not to treat Lacanian psychoanalysis as a distinct “perspective” on affect in this encyclopedia essay on two grounds. First, I concur with Evans (1996), who argues that “Lacan does not propose a general theory of affects” (Evans, 1996, p. 5), though he does dedicate a whole seminar (1962–1963) to discussing L’angoisse (variously translated as anxiety, anguish, or angst), which he regarded as an affect, not an emotion (Evans, 1996, p. 11). Second, I am compelled by Seigworth’s (2011) claim that, “Lacan regarded any sustained attention to affect as thoroughly misguided.” On the final day of his seminars in 1953–1954, Lacan responded to a question about affect in this manner: “I believe that is a term [‘the affective’] which one must completely expunge from our papers” (Seigworth, 2011, p. 183). I recognize and appreciate that this is a contested position, which is why I have included Christian Lundberg’s Lacanian-inspired view of affect, as well as the work of Joshua Gunn, in this review. For those interested in learning more about the role of affect in Lacan’s thought, please consult Soler’s (2015) Lacanian Affects.

(5.) Lacan (1988), for instance, argues that: “The affective is not like a special density which would escape an intellectual accounting. It is not to be found in a mythical beyond of the production of the symbol which would precede the discursive formulation” (Lacan, 1988, p. 57). In other words, Lacan objects to treating the affective realm as primary.