Notes from the field:

A question on affect

posted by Jenna Tiitsman

I have a question about affect, the current it-word for cultural studies and critical theory. Roughly, “affect” gets at a kind of interactive, embodied experience that functions outside of meaning, rationality and intention. It is a capacity, intensity, or resonance of the body that acts autonomously from the subject. Affect is at work in inexplicable fads, social buzz, or even the mundane act of blushing. We can translate blushing into an emotion in a linguistic and psychological system—shame, attraction, anxiety—but the translation necessarily loses the very interactive, embodied, asignifying thing that makes affect such a fruitful and provocative topic. So, then, what does it mean to write about affect?

There are a number of extraordinarily helpful texts on affect appearing as the central corpus of this new “turn” in critical theory. Rarely, however, does a contemporary text address affect without including the assertion that affect is nearly impossible to define. That is perhaps why most of the texts on affect are tentative if not obtuse or why many of them (even the best among them) adopt the occasionally awkward strategy of poetics that break from traditional forms of academic writing. Take Felicity Colman’s helpful and thoughtful entry on affect in The Deleuze Dictionary, which starts, “Watch me: affection is the intensity of colour in a sunset on a dry and cold autumn evening.  Kiss me: affect is that indescribable moment before the registration of the audible, visual and tactile transformations produced in reaction to a certain situation, event or thing.  Run away from me . . . .” Or Kathleen Stewart’s afterword to the truly exceptional guide to this vast terrain, The Affect Theory Reader, in which her narrative meanders from the downward spiral of her son and his addictions to a coal mining town in West Virginia.

To write about something that is noncognitive and asignifying requires an incredible stomach for loss; whatever we write necessarily entails the alienation of the very thing we are trying to describe. The anecdotes, metaphors, and evocative language that mark contemporary texts on affect seem to start from an acceptance of the fact that any attempt to point at affect and describe it systematically will necessarily end in failure. Yet knowing that affect can’t be said does not provide a path forward. Is the best strategy to make affect’s necessary absence from our texts as apparent as possible? To use figures of speech to write the trace—the presence of the absence—of affect instead of ever trying to point directly at it? Will such strategies merely make clear that affect cannot be written or do they, somehow, impossibly, evoke the very thing that evades the page?

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3 Responses to “A question on affect”

  1. Very timely question! One of my professors once dismissed the whole trend saying that it doesn’t take us beyond the rationality vs. irrationality binary. How does it serve social analysis?, she asked, and I didn’t have an answer… How does it come up in your project?

  2. avatar Abby says:

    Jenna, I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over some of the same questions and, it must be said, frustrations. And I have to say that the only text on affect that has really satisfied me is Kathleen Stewart’s _Ordinary Affects_, which is, certainly, an exercise in poetics. But it also has a very brief ‘non-experimental’ (poor word choice, but you take my point, I hope) prelude that contains my favorite sentence thus far on affect, because she deliberately instructs us as to how she wants us to read what follows, that she wishes “to slow the quick jump to representational thinking and evaluative critique long enough to find ways of approaching the complex and uncertain objects that fascinate because they literally hit us or exert a pull on us.” And what she evokes in what follows is a mode of attunement to those objects, moments, even texts that exert that affective pull on us, such that we can recognize it when it occurs. It’s the closest I’ve seen to ‘writing affect’ in a way that opts out of the easy ‘impossible to define’ route and succeeds at re-presenting affect, if not in a traditional academic idiom. (I also think Julia Kristeva’s early work on the semiotic and poetic language gets very close to most of what these writers are dealing with, but that’s another post altogether.)

  3. avatar Brandon says:

    Great post Jenna! The topic is also gaining traction in sociology in the new “emotional turn” (as well as the “turn to the body”), although there may be differences in the approach (See for a good summary of recent research:

    I’m not convinced by the opposition of affect to meaning and rationality though. But maybe I misunderstand you. How is something worth noticing (indeed, can we even notice it) if it is “asignifying”? Take for instance powerful experiences of beauty or attunement that we feel we can’t systematically describe without betraying the content of the experience (sure every translator is a traitor, but here the sense of betrayal becomes all too palpable): certainly powerful affective experiences, but not outside of either meaning or rationality.

    As for rationality, I think this recent turn is helping us better get at modes of knowing (as well as understandings of the content of knowledge) that move us past the rationalism of modernity. For me the problem is in this latter reductive (in the bad sense) conception of rationality; calling affect “irrational” only reproduces this problem. I think there’s a lot of good work being done in the direction of challenging this. See George Lakoff, for instance, on the centrality of metaphor for knowing (why, after all, do metaphors “work,” unless they can convey knowledge? [They work beautifully in good novels, and especially well in good comedy!]). Or Randall Collins on the relationship between thinking, emotional energy, and interaction. Recent research in the nexus of sociology and cognitive science also extends this challenge (e.g., on embodied non-linguistic schemas, etc. A lot of this is published in the sociological journal titled–interestingly–Poetics).

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