Adventures in Jutland

Affect—a basic summary of approaches


(updated quite a bit 2014)

Whatever this is, it seems to involve “affect”, in all it’s dimensions. But what’s affect? Affect is both the simplest thing and the most complex. I guess that’s what makes it both so valuable and so difficult to think about. There’s a great Affect Theory Reader  out now, edited by Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg. It’s great for lots of reasons apart from the fact I co-wrote a chapter for it (along with Lone Bertelsen … our chapter is “An Ethics of Everyday Infinities And Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain” … Lone’s also written some great things on affect and photoworks—). And it’s not as though there’s not a lot of wonderful material around on affect. There are of course the thinkers I mention below, and lots of other people. Two of my favourites writers on affect I have to quickly note here who are not mentioned below are Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai (one day I’ll put a largish affect reading list up—not today though). You could do worse than start with this wonderful Wang Wei poem, My Retreat at Mount Zhongman.

In this post I thought I’d try to sum up the basics of affect from a number of viewpoints. I’ll  also sum up some of my favourite takes on affect (I’m really not claiming this post covers every approach). I know so many people working on affect who find it difficult to reconcile the concepts involved with the normalising requirements of their various disciplines. These disciplines can sometimes tend not to want to know about affect, or at best perhaps to cage affect in the one or other of the limited definitions that suits the field. The end result is a reluctant acceptance of a minor role for affect. On the other hand, it’s true that taking affect seriously seems to shake up a lot of disciplines, and perhaps disciplinarity in general. Maybe this explains the strangely intense—even for the academic world—policing of affect theory. It seems highly policed from the outside of “affect theory”, yet it sometimes seems policed even more from inside “affect theory” itself. Maybe the stakes are high for everyone involved.

I should note that what follows below is very much an embellished out-take from a very early version of chapter for The Affect Theory Reader. Greg and Melissa have covered this introduction to affect much more subtly and powerfully in their introduction to the Affect Theory Reader. So what’s below is pretty much a set of notes to add to all the other takes around. I think I wrote most of this section, but Lone might have written some too. I’ll say up front that it’s not terribly well referenced, though I have at least tried to get the names in the right places.



‘Affect is a process of existential appropriation through the continual creation of heterogeneous durations of being and, given this, we would certainly be better advised to cease treating it under the aegis of scientific paradigms and to deliberately turn ourselves toward ethical and aesthetic paradigms’ (Félix Guattari in Gary Genosko’s The Guattari Reader, 1996: 159).

This is certainly the definition that I prefer, although I guess it’s pretty much incomprehensible to a non-Guattarian. I’ve tried to translate this for classes as “Affects make up the relations within the temporary worlds we are constantly creating, and by which we are constantly being created. Affect involves the moment to moment question of being in the world, in all its constant change.” Affect is the complexity of the world in movement, with all the shifting relational differences involved. Mary Zournazi writes that: “When we navigate our way through the world, there are different pulls, constraints and freedoms that move us forward and propel us into life” She calls affect simply, “the experience and dimensions of living” but this is a (thankfully) complex thing. Seigworth and Gregg suggest that—

… there is no pure or originary state for affect? Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is [1] an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relations as well as [2] the passages (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is [1] found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, non-human, part-body and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and [2] in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, 2010, “An Inventory of Shimmers” in The Affect Theory Reader, Durham: Duke University Press:1—I added in the [1]s and [2]s which I suspect they might not like).

Seigworth and Gregg go on to write:

Affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter. The term ‘force’, however, can be a bit of a misnomer, since affect need not be especially forceful (although sometimes, as in … trauma, it is). In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the miniscule .. events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its extra—” (2).

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. What does everyone else think affect is when it’s at home (if indeed it is ever really “at home”)?

Well, two things can be said about the recent move towards thinking about affect, and not only in cultural theory (also in neuroscience, for a start). First, it’s shown that affect is much more powerful and central than we may have thought in all kinds of other ways—and in everyday life as much as in theory. It is increasingly seen as key, for example, even to concepts/processes such as reason, or agency. At the same time affect forces us to rethink these. Second, no one quite agrees what affect is. With quite a few notable exceptions (see lots of links at the end), it often tends to become defined according to disciplinary requirements, and often with only minor alterations to previous ways of thinking about how the world works, how we supposedly know the world and how we act within it. Yet even with the confusion of definitions affect has become very important to a number of fields of research: cultural studies and theory, sociology, geography, neuroscience and cognitive science and philosophy, psychology, feminism, gender and sexuality studies, psychotherapy, politics and so on.  Affect is often assumed to be crucial to our sense of self and simultaneously to question it. It is crucial to our relations, conscious, unconscious or non-conscious, as well as our sense of place, our own and other bodies … and to larger questions (such as the way the economic market works, business works, questions about the way we affect the world at large ecologically, etc).

One way in which thinking about affect gets more complex than it needs to be is that, depending on the thinkers involved, the terms slip and slide a lot. Terms such as “affect”, “emotion” and “feeling” can mean very different (something opposite) things for different people. What is “emotion” for one person is “affect” for another. Or what is “feeling” for one is “emotion” for another, and vice versa. Etc. However, the main division within “affect theory” is between, on the one hand, those who are interested primarily in feeling and emotion, and on the other, those interested in the general way that forces affect each other (of which feelings and emotions are just one, perhaps limited, example). Of course, these two things are not mutually exclusive and lots of thinkers sit in the middle somewhere.

Until recently in more general culture (excluding the like of Spinoza) the “standard model” of affect goes something like: affects and emotions are “lower” or “lesser” things, engaged with by higher or greater powers of reason and consciousness, or “thinking in general”. Affect, defined this way, is seen as separate (and often subordinate to) other cognitive processes. For example: “The generic character supposedly shared by pleasure, pain and the emotions as distinguished from the ideational and volitional aspects of consciousness” (Dagobert D. Runes). Many agree with at least the separation here. Some don’t. Some think affect is more important than this. Yet suggesting that affect is more than this, that affect might affect, or even constitute or undermine, to various degrees, whatever it is we call “reason”, “agency”, “intention”, “volition”, “intentionality” upsets a lot of people (who shall remain nameless).

In any case, a general list of the many ways in which affect has been defined might include the following … Simply affecting or being affected. Affection. Emotion. Feeling. Background feeling (Damasio). Mood (which can be different to background feeling). Affective tone (Whitehead). Motivation. Interest. Then there are false displays of emotion (affect as ‘the scientific term used to describe a subject’s externally displayed mood’) as opposed to real hidden feelings (in these terms one fakes “affect” so that, for example, one could be discharged from a psychiatric institution). Or, affect can be the opposite, the “real” thing, ‘the inner motive as distinguished from the intention or end of action. Cf. Spinoza, Ethics, bk. III. — L.W.’. Somewhat in this vein, feelings can be considered as different to emotion, in that feelings are a hidden series of feeling-thoughts in some kind of relation to more public and basic, obviously embodied, emotions such as anger or disgust (e.g. in Damasio). For some, affects can be categorised. Although the categorisers often tend to argue about which categories count and which are more genuine or foundational. For Charles Darwin (The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals [1872]) there were six basic emotions: Surprise, Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Disgust, Anger. Then were a few possible additions (e.g. puzzlement). They all had specific facial expressions and other behaviours. They were not restricted to humans (this was also one of the first books to use photographs). For Silvan Tomkins there are eight affects [maybe nine? There’s a nice diagram and very quick summary here], for example, though for him these are different to emotion, which is a much messier combinations of aspects of affect.

Others differentiate “categorical affects” from those that possess infinite variety (Daniel Stern). For Daniel Stern the latter are “vitality affects”. Vitality affects are worth considering in a little detail because they explain a great deal about affect in general (and also because Stern’s work on affect seems more widely accepted than lots of other thinkers’ work on affect, by lots of other thinkers on affect). “Vitality affects do not fit” with the theories of categorical affects, “Yet they are definitely feelings and belong in the domain of affective experience .. Vitality affects occur both in the presence of and in the absence of categorical affects. For example, a ‘rush’ of anger or joy, a perceived flooding of light, and acceleration of thought, an unmeasurable wave of feeling evoked by music … can all feel like ‘rushes’” (Daniel Stern [2000] The Interpersonal World of the Infant Basic Books: 55). All these “rushes” have a similar vitality affect that has a similar “wave” or shape through time, perhaps a similar rhythm. In fact vitality affects can cross between experiences. Vitality affects are very easily passed from person to person, situation to situation, or between different senses. For Stern, famously, they cross between mother and child, by which they get affectively attuned to each other. They are all a kind of “activation contour” … that is, they activate a certain shape of experience, even across differences. Stern thinks of all the vitality affects in dance (p56), especially more abstract dance. Here there’s a lot of affect, of movements of affect between people, and between music and movement, and a lot of variation, but seldom any clear categorical affect. Such affects are about a “how” without necessarily a “what” (the “what” would be a story, representation or even a recognisable emotion such as anger or happiness). Stern points out that small children learn to be in the world, or get activated, by vitality effects, much in the way of abstract dance.

… the infant, when viewing [or experiencing in other ways, being hugged, or hearing, or whatever] parental behaviour that has no intrinsic expressiveness (that is, no Darwinian affect signal), may be in the same position as a viewer of a dance or the listener to music. The manner of performance of a parental act expresses a vitality affect, whether or not the act is (or is partially colored with) a categorical affect. (56)

Vitality affects are largely where the action is in terms of change, or fundamental affects.

… like dance for the adult, the social world for the infant is one of vitality affects, before it is a world of formal acts. It is also analogous to the physical world of amodal perception, which is primarily one of abstractable qualities of shape, number, intensity level, and so on, not a world of things seen, heard and touched. (p57)

Stern studied the actual exchanges of affect between mothers and infants, sometimes using high-speed film or video and watching it frame by frame. He saw all kinds of expressions that were not visible when watching these interactions normally, in real time. Of course, these expressions were most often not conscious. What he witnessed was a much more complex dance of attunement or engagement between mother and child than had been seen before. Here vitality affect is

… the performance of any behavior and their relationship with three fundamental modalities of perception: intensity, time, and shape. For instance, whether … long or short, rhythm can be presented or identified through seeing, listening, smelling, touching, or tasting … Finally, vitality affects demonstrate how attunement is an ongoing, often unconscious process; this is critical. If attunement is unconscious, the capacity for one person to “be with” another can transcend behavioral imitation, verbal reinforcement, “mirroring”, and the common understanding of empathy (all largely conscious occurrences). Thus, Stern’s argument for vitality affects not only describes mother-child attunement but lends understanding for the interconnectedness of human beings. (from here)

For some, however, the questions and sensitivities when dealing with affect are much blunter than Stern’s. For example, for many there is the question of how to control affect (notably in recent psychology in what is called “Affect Control Theory“). This has arguably informed most of twentieth century politics. Others have taken a more subtle approach and recently started to think about affective design, in media, video game design and lots of other areas. Anna Gibbs excellent, short (but paywalled— as are at least some of the other links here I’m afraid) article on affect and media (from a largely Tomkins’ angle) suggests that “affect itself as the primary communicational medium for the circulation of ideas, attitudes and prescriptions for action among them” (339). Gibbs also suggests that categorical affects can be more lively than some others might suggest. Categorical affect (anger, happiness etc) also involves a kind of “affect contagion” because affects are “innate activators” (337).  Affects motivate others as they are “communicated rapidly through facial expression” etc. If someone is angry it motivates them, us and our relationship, at a basic biological level. Affects also motivate themselves (if our hairs stand on end from fear this creates even more of a feeling of fear). Gibbs goes on to describe “the role of innate or categorical affect in human communication and … some ways in which such a rethinking might make possible a new approach to media studies”. For her,

what is co-opted by media is primarily affect, and … the media function as amplifiers and modulators of affect which is transmitted by the human face and voice, and also by music and other forms of sounds, and also by the image … Moveover, the media inaugurate and orchestrate affective sequences (for example, startle—terror—distress—anger, in the recent “Attack on America” and the subsequent “War on Terror”” (338—my emphasis).

Gibbs works largely (but not exclusively) with Tomkins. She points out that for Tomkins affects are also what motivate us. Affects amplify the “weak” drives. Without affect, nothing happens—famously people can’t even make decisions about basic things, no matter how much they know about the circumstances, if no affect is involved. Gibbs is also good on the fact that what is shared or communicated via affect is not only or even “content”, a message, something we can express in language. It’s often the directly bodily, or even what takes place between bodies—movements, intensities, forces—that shape any subsequent “content”, message etc.

There’s also been some really interesting recent work in affect in art history and theory (as you’d expect), for example on affect and the feminine avant-garde by Sue Best (who, among other things, takes up psychoanalysis and the work of Silvan Tomkins on affect). I’m also looking forward to reading Eve Meltzer’ book on conceptual art, affect and the antihumanist turn. 

Speaking of psychoanalysis, it’s probably worth noting in passing that Freud himself defined affects as somatic as against the psychic. That is, affects were thought as neither ideational nor representative. For Freud, lots of problems emerged as affect tussled with the psychic/ideational/representational. Ideational representatives could be repressed without too much transformation, but for affects it was a different story. What happens to them in repression, and how do they return? You’d think Freud would go right into this. However, the question is answered so vaguely in Freud’s writing as to provoke the more recent psychoanalyst of affect, Adam Phillips to remark that there was a missing theory of affect in psychoanalysis (see Gregory Seigworth’s ‘Fashioning a Stave, or, Singing Life’ for a fuller and subtle account of Freud and affect, in Jennifer Daryl Slack’s Animations of Deleuze and Guattari, 2003). There’s been some attempt to address this, a while back by Andre Green (see also this on affect and representation). One more recent and very clear account of Freud (and Tomkins) and affect, especially of drives and affect, is found in this excellent article by Doris McIlWaine.

Of course, many thinkers on affect are interested in a slightly different take to that of psychoanalysis.

For Spinoza, famously, the question was “simply” one of the power to affect and be affected (see Greg Seigworth on affectio etc .. see also Greg’s work elsewhere, for example, “From Affection to Soul,” in Charles Stivale’s Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts). For some, these two “powers” in Spinoza are always intertwined (see the first page of Joel McKim’s interview with Brian Massumi). Of course, this power associated with affect immediately suggests a political approach to affect, a politics as appropriate to everyday life as it is to larger political events. Indeed, it links the shifting play of capacities and capabilities to the individual tolerance (or not) of intensities on the one hand, and to an interlinked general world on the other. This power to affect and be affected, as a power of transformation within the wider world has motivated Deleuze and Guattari’s affects as becomings, such as a becoming-animal (as in the “surprised [and indeed surprising] kitty” above even).

This is where things get complicated, however. Although I think this just adds to our understanding. For Deleuze and Guattari, affects, as becomings and mutual contagions, can operate independent of emotion or feeling. Writing about the work of painter Francis Bacon, Deleuze writes –

… there are no feelings in Bacon: there are nothing but affects; that is, “sensations” and “instincts,” according to the formula of naturalism. Sensation is what determines instinct at a particular moment, just as instinct is the passage of one sensation to another, the search for the “best” sensation (not the most agreeable sensation, but the one that fills the flesh at a particular moment of its descent, contradiction or dilation … (Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation:39)

As I’ve mentioned several times—although it bears noting—this kind of thing goes too far for many. For some affect—even perhaps the politics of affect—is something more or less separate from this broader set of events/sensations without feelings. The “real” politics of affect is taken only to be that of feelings/emotion, reduced even to only a question of the agreeable/disagreeable. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in many ways. On the contrary. It’s useful. It’s just that the affect being discussed is not quite the same as the affect being discussed elsewhere—and the politics of affect being promoted is not the same as a different politics of affect one can imagine based on the primacy of affects that are not automatically feelings, or even human, or even lived (think for example of a wave and a cliff affecting and being affected by each other). It’s here that some kind of disciplinary competition sometimes seems to emerge. There are all kinds of approaches to affect which like to bracket off one part of the whole process as “affect”, while ignoring or diminishing the importance of the rest. This is completely unnecessary (although very much explainable via a multi-disciplinary theory of affect—that is, by looking at the different affective investments in certain approaches to affect). In any case, this only emphasises the fact that we need to know which definition of affect we are taking up at any given moment. And obviously, although I am about to head to a specific, if broader, understanding of affect, I also think that affect studies works better as an appropriately multiple assemblage, rather than a discipline.

If I move away from “emotion” in what comes next, it’s only because I think in the end that this move is what some approaches to affect avoid doing, and what still needs most explaining. For this I return to Deleuze, and of course Massumi.

Although the approach to affect as emotion, feeling or pleasure has value, Deleuze above suggests something very different—a possible politics that takes into account instinct, in the sense of filling the flesh. And perhaps when Foucault, at the beginning of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, famously asked questions about why we constantly live out a micro-fascism within everyday life, the answer is at least in part to be found in this passage of sensations, both with and without feeling, or even with or without our “agreement”.

This is a question, in the main, of intensity.

For Brian Massumi, one of the best thinkers of affect in the contemporary world, and upon whose work many of us draw extensively (along with Félix Guattari) affect is indeed first equated with ‘intensity’ (Parables for the Virtual:27—see also this Massumi interview with Mary Zournazi, especially at the beginning). This is an intensity in which, in living engagements at least, there is ‘a crossing of semantic wires’, which perhaps begins to explain why affect theory sometimes trips over itself (Parables for the Virtual:24). This intensity is not only a matter of what affect means (that is, “affect means intensity”), but what it does (that is, affect works intensity, or is the work of intensity). Affect is intensities coming together, moving each other, transforming and translating under or beyond meaning, beyond semantic or simply fixed systems, or cognitions, even emotions. This is not to denigrate meaning or emotions or any of these (and Massumi writes a lot on feeling). In fact, it gives more precision to our understanding of the broader contexts and dynamisms for all of them. Yet, in Aristotle’s terms, affect remains, for Massumi, ‘the excluded middle’ (24) that allows us to nicely position the thinker and the thought, the subject and the object, the feeler and the felt, etc. Thus a consideration of affect in broader and more dynamic terms undermines much of the habit of twentieth century thought based upon Aristotle’s opening gambit (for example in the founding of common principles for ontology—beings and Being with an exclude middle in-between … and so many other basic divisions). Even the sometime troubling division of active from passive affections in Spinoza’s philosophy can fall apart in the light of this previously excluded middle –

Spinoza’s ethics in the philosophy of the becoming-active, in parallel, of mind and body, from an origin in passion, in impingement, in so pure and productive a receptivity that it can only be conceives as a third state, an excluded middle, prior to the distinction between activity and passivity: affect. (Massumi: 32)

Suggesting over ten years ago that we still largely lack(ed) a ‘cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect’ (27), Massumi attempts to provide one. Affect, as intensity, is of a different order to personal emotion.

Reserve the term ‘emotion’ for the personalized content, and affect for the continuation. Emotion is contextual. Affect is situational: eventfully ingressive to context. Serially so: affect is trans-situational. As processual as it is precessual, affect inhabits the passage. It is pre- and postcontextual, pre- and postpersonal, an excess of continuity invested only in the ongoing: its own. Self-continuity across the gaps. Impersonal affect is the connecting thread of experience. It is the invisible glue that holds the world together. In event. The world-glue of event of an autonomy of event-connection continuing across its own serialized capture in context. (Massumi:217)

Affect is then immersed in the way in which the changing world constantly trades its forces, with us always immersed in this trade, whatever story we tell ourselves about it, however we “feel” about it, and whatever disciplines or concepts we form to talk about it, or with which we try to tweak this trade. Intensity arises as the infinity of real relations, and their real potentials, actualize in specific events and processes. For example, there is the shifting intensity in the infinite number of possible connections between neurons, just to name one part of the world in which affect resides. Over time, this infinity actualizes as specific connections mixed in with the broader connections of the world beyond neurons (that is, as thoughts). These connections are never quite removed from their potential for infinite other connections. In short, affect is the emergence of actual relations on the one hand, and their falling back into virtual relations (relational potential) on the other. The entire complex situation is summed up as follows (in this unapologetically long quote, because it is here that emotions and cognitions are situated in the broader trade of intensities):

Emergence, once again, is a two-sided coin: one side in the virtual (the autonomy of relation), the other in the actual (functional limitation). What is being termed affect in this essay is precisely this two-sidedness, the simultaneous participation of the virtual in the actual and the actual in the virtual, as one arises from and returns to the other. Affect is this two-sidedness as seen from the side of the actual thing, as couched in its perceptions and cognitions. Affect is the virtual as point of view, provided the visual metaphor is used guardedly. For affect is synesthetic, implying a participation of the senses in each other: the measure of living thing’s potential interactions is its ability to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another. (Tactility and vision being the most obvious but by no means the only examples: interoperative senses, especially proprioception, are crucial.) Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them. The autonomy of affect is its participation in the virtual. Its autonomy is its openness. Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality [Stern again], or potential for interaction, it is. Formed, qualified, situated perceptions and cognitions fulfilling functions of actual connection or blockage are the capture and closure of affect. Emotion is the most intense (most contracted) expression of that capture – and of the fact that something has always and again escaped. Something remains unactualized, inseparable from but unassimilable to any particular, functionally anchored perspective. That is why all emotion is more or less disorienting, and why it is classically described as being outside of oneself, at the very point at which one is most intimately and unshareable in contact with oneself and one’s vitality. If there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death. Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect [so affect is also the autonomy of things – that which gives them autonomy]. (Massumi:35)

This autonomy is not, as some people interpret it, to say that affect runs around by itself, independent of us and everything we do. It is rather to say that the shifting relations that are affect—simply put, the world as it “worlds”—make up the ocean in which everything we do swims (and in which “swimming arises”, ultimately, from which “we” arise). Affect is therefore more than “important”—in many ways it is the world in motion, in emergence and disappearance. Affect is central, before and after our assumptions of stability, subject or object. As Deleuze notes in The Fold

…nothing authorises to conclude in favor of the presence of a body that might be ours, or the existence of the body that would have happened to affect it. There exists only what is perceived…. (Deleuze, 1993:94)

Even perception comes after affect. Deleuze suggests that if we were to stick a pin into our hand and move it about, the pain would not be that of “a pin” but of a sharpness intercepting our flesh – at least at first (see my article on the Virtual and VR systems, Deleuze, 1993:95). Perception is an aftereffect of affect. It “evokes a vibration gathered by a receptive organ” (95).

As I have begun to suggest above, affect also, for many thinkers, comes before, during and after, “cognition”, if indeed cognition is not just a special, misrecognised case of affect. Deleuze suggests, for example, that for Spinoza ‘The whole problem of reason…will be converted by Spinoza into a special case of the more general problem of affects’ (Daniel W. Smith, 2006, in Duffy:151). Although affect comes before bodies, constituting them perhaps in an ongoing manner, insofar as they are alive perhaps, it also inhabits them, if as a passage through them. As Eugene Thacker notes, ‘affect is a differential force accommodated by the mode of a body at a given moment – what a body is capable of. … the way that both feeling and self are constituted through and through by modes of individuation, or what Deleuze calls “nonsubjective affects”’ (Biomedia:186). Just as importantly, Thacker notes (188) that the more complex a body, the more we might say it is able to sustain the intensity of relational autonomies, the more complex the affects. Thacker also points to the kind of ethics involved—an ethics of good or bad forms of composition. And this might also be what a well-composed, and open concept is meant to assist.

To try and sum up at least some of Massumi’s thinking on this then, he’s interested not so much into categorical affect or “emotions” (though he does write a lot about the complexities of feeling and has indeed dedicated several essays to fear and anger). Rather he’s interested in something like vitality affect and, on from there, affect considered more broadly as the “power to affect and be affected”—in short, in affect as a series of forces that are in-between bodies, within bodies, and between bodies and world. In terms of the body, for Massumi affect is all about the changing capacity of the body as it engages with the world (and with its own complexity). Crucially, this is not just about what actually happens. Alongside what happens is what doesn’t happen! The body carries a constantly increasing or decreasing potential or capacity for what will happen in the future (the “virtual”). In addition, because of the shifting power to affect and be affected, the “body does not coincide with itself” .. it’s changing and movement means it has an odd affective relationship to itself (and thus we have an odd relationship to ourselves).

In all this, affecting the world and being affected by the world are two sides of the same coin

When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before. You have made a transition, however slight. You have stepped over a threshold. [another definition of affect is that] Affect is this passing of a threshold, seen from the point of view of the change in capacity… every transition is accompanied by a feeling of the change in capacity. (interview with mary Zournazi in her excellent Hope book: 212-213 or here)

And actually these transitions are very important to us—our feeling of how much capacity we have to do things, and what those things might be, as this feeling changes from moment to moment is crucial. Think of the constant transition in power/capacity while you play a game, go for a walk down the street or through a park, talk to someone, etc. Here I can remind you of Anna Gibbs statements on media, refracted a little towards the idea that media and communications events often try to capture and direct this capacity or potential, or to enhance it or diminish it, something that Massumi also deals with specifically. In any case, the ongoing transitions leave a lot of traces in our brains, our nervous systems, bodies in general, and in our relations, all of which fold into each other. This suggests a complex kind of (largely bodily or somatic) memory, within but also across individuals. Any particular emotion only draws on a little bit of this.

… an emotion is a very partial expression of affect. It only draws on a limited selection of memories and only activates certain reflexes or tendencies, for example. No one emotional state can encompass all the depth and breadth of our experiencing of experiencing – all the ways our experience redoubles itself. The same thing could be said for conscious thought. So when we feel a particular emotion or think a particular thought, where have all the other memories, habits, tendencies gone that might have come at the point? And where have the bodily capacities for affecting and being affected that they’re inseparable from gone? There’s no way they can all be actually expressed at any given point. But they’re not totally absent either, because a different selection of them is sure to come up at the next step. They’re still there, but virtually – in potential. Affect as a whole, then, is the virtual co-presence of potentials. (Massumi in Zournazi interview)

With these definitions in mind, and taking our lead from Massumi, Thacker, Guattari and others, I can say this about affect. Although I obviously do think affect can be most usefully defined in a certain manner, I am more interested in considering the complex set of processes and events that all definitions attempt to address. This is, if you like, to emphasise the entire constellation of events that most theories of affect address, if with different emphases. It is then to ask how everyday life, and politics within everyday life, move through and are moved by this constellation. It asks what difference it makes to think in terms of this broad constellation, why it might be more useful ways to think in these terms rather than others. One can use this constellation as a way of expanding upon what Félix Guattari termed an “ethico-aesthetic” approach to everyday life. The ethico-aesthetic paradigm is useful because its precisely because it brings the aesthetic—affect and sensation—into the question of practice and experience in everyday life. This in part involves what Guattari calls “sensory affects”—which accord with what he calls “simple refrains”. However, there is also something in this like a generalisation and overturning of the question of taste (so important to Kantian aesthetics) in the acceptance of the autonomy and infinite multiplicity of relations that are affect (registered in what Guattari calls “problematic affects”, which accord with “complex refrains”). This is also a matter of relational potentials (the virtual—cf Massumi). If ontologically we take the whole constellation as a kind of “worlding” that pre-exists and post-exists the more usually constrained versions of our ontologies and ethics, let alone our disciplines and methods, we need an ethico-aesthetic paradigm rather than a “systematic” scientist paradigm (for example, based on a cognitivist notion of dominant rational agents choosing what the world will be next, if in competition with others choosing—this is definitely Lone Bertelsen’s point!). Such scientistic (which is different to scientific) paradigms can neither comprehend the constellations of affect, nor work with them except to bracket them out, or subordinate them to a scientistic, cognitivist or rationalist form of control (even occasionally within “affect studies”).

We end up living with these restrictive paradigms a lot, and that’s a pity. Yet perhaps all approaches to thinking more seriously about affect have the potential to free us up from such limited modes of living.


[some “exceptions”, in addition to those mentioned above]  Erin Manning [among many other works her amazing paper on choreographic objects and mobile architectures is here], Anna Gibbs, Steven Shaviro, Doris McIlwain, Sher Doruff, Lone Bertelsen, Glen Fuller, Jonas Fritsch, Mat Wall-Smith, Liz Wilson, Ros Diprose, David Bissell, Gillian Fuller, and of course quite a few others, including friends, I can’t list here (please forgive me if I haven’t mentioned you and you’re reading this!). These are the people I work with most, so I’m biased :).


  1. Pingback: Affect, software, net art (or what can a digital body of code do-redux) « Machinology

  2. Pingback: Affect and Media | Jolie's Media Blog


  4. Pingback: The Turn to Affect in Architecture | Evaluating Neoliberal Landscapes

  5. Pingback: MA2 Studio Practice – Presentation on Affect | Alan Rutherford

  6. Pingback: Phantom Phone Sensations – Ned Whittaker

Leave a Reply