Archive for review essay

Taxonomies: The “affect” in “Affect Studies”

I’ll organize this by author first, and then topologically.*

*(In other words, this is a growing post.)

1. Theresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect.

TAG: sociality

Affects are “material, physiological things” (6). Affects transmit between bodies, and between bodies and environments. This tells us that there “is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment'” (6). These quotation marks around these two words indicates one of the keys to understanding affect. Affect is not personal feeling, but is instead the means through which bodies act in context with each other. Affect’s sociality is more than a group of individuals: “[T]he emotions of two are not the same as the emotions of one plus one” (51). According to Brennan, this sociality is the zone of relations between “you” and “me.” She writes, “My affect, if it comes across to you, alters your anatomical makeup for good or ill” (74). Not only are we together in a social sense, we are one another.

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Critical Affect Studies

“Something strange has happened to citizenship,” writes Lauren Berlant (1). The public sphere—our arena of citizenship’s enactment—has gone up in smoke. There is no more public sphere, says Berlant, and thus “no context of communication and debate that makes ordinary citizens feel that they have a common public culture, or influence on a state that holds itself accountable to their opinions, critical or otherwise” (3). But even this vanishing act is not what Berlant finds strange. Instead, she identifies the strange replacement of the public and its citizens: an intimate public sphere comprising innumerable private lives on display for mass consumption. The intimate public sphere does not equate to Habermas’ sense of intimate domestic spheres that dwell apart from the public spheres of bourgeois culture. Rather, the intimate public sphere is the condition of publicness in contemporary culture. According to Berlant, the intimate public does away with the critical energy of a public sphere and transforms it into “the sentimental spaces of an amorphous opinion culture” (3). The intimate public sphere turns citizenship as a collection of simultaneous private worlds, the best of which are childlike and cartoonishly innocent (5). No better example exists than President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address, where he paid honor to the new face of American citizenship by recognizing Julie Aigner-Clark, the stay-at-home mother who created the Baby Einstein franchise of baby products. Aigner-Clark is indeed a model of the intimate public sphere, creating texts for the most virtuous of our fellow citizens: the baby. Children are indeed the perfect citizen of this strange new public, for they are an eternal image of the personally public.

Berlant’s argument recognizes that public deliberations are currently mediated by something affective. Or, to use another set of terms, affect has transformed the character of public life. Berlant is not alone in this recognition. A growing body of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has made an “affective turn” that parallels earlier decades’ linguistic and social turns. Jennifer Seibel Trainor classifies much of this new scholarship as an interdisciplinary venture into “Critical Emotion Studies.” According to Trainor, CES is a study of “the relationship between emotion and whatever it is that a particular discipline studies, from brain chemistry to teacher education to election results” (645). Under the heading of Critical Emotion Studies appears a host of new work being done on affect, emotion, and sensation’s relation to thought. The aims of this scholarship do not necessarily cohere, and their objects of study differ greatly. Yet, they converge in their attempts to theorize the affective character of our discourse, actions, agency, and public interactions. Branching out from Trainor’s emotion-oriented terminology, therefore, we might call this new scholarship “Critical Affect Studies,” or the interdisciplinary study of affect and its mediating force in everyday life.

Affect Studies and Social Relations

What are some of the common threads of this new front called, perhaps tediously creating another academic neologism, Affect Studies? In one sense, a new form of social relations is the basis of all discussions of affect. Whether the term is used to describe labor shifts or biopolitics, theorists of affect frame the affective element as a new relationality among bodies.

The practical deployment of Spinoza’s affective relationality takes very different forms in the recent theories of affect. Theresa Brennan, perhaps the most radical example, speaks about entrainment as a physiological basis for the social experience. In a word: it’s pheromones. One thing Brennan does to (perhaps for) the social is to dismantle the cultural frame of social belief. This challenges a notion of rhetoric as epistemic, since the basis of social knowledge is the body. More preceively, it’s bodies-in-relation. Here we arrive at the “transmission” of affect, or Brennan’s take on sociality through affective contagion.