Adventures in Jutland

Affect—a basic summary of approaches

| 1 Comment

Whatever this is, it seems to involve “affect”, in all it’s dimensions. But what’s affect? There’s a great Affect Theory Reader coming out this year, 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 (who’s written some great things on affect and photoworks, our chapter is ‘An Ethics of Everyday Infinities And Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain ). And it’s not as though there’s not a lot of other wonderful material around on affect.

However, I thought I’d put something up here that tries to sum up the basics from a number of viewpoints before heading toward my favourite takes on affect. This is in part because 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, which tend at times to cage affect in one or other of these definitions (or worse, a reluctant acceptance of a minor role for affect, at best). At the same time, both as a concept and in itself, affect seem to shake up a lot of these disciplines, even those working most closely with it.

I should note that what follows below is very much an out-take from a very early version of chapter for the reader. Greg and Melissa will undoubtedly cover this introduction to affect much more subtly and powerfully in their introduction to the Affect Theory Reader. Until then, 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’ (Guattari, 1996: 159).

This is certainly the definition that I prefer, but what does everyone else think?

Well, three 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 crucial to culture (and not only to culture). Second, affect is much more powerful and central than we may have thought—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 it forces us to rethink these. Third, no one quite agrees what affect is, and, 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, and how we know the world and act within it.

A 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. Many of these are often seen as separate (and often subordinate to other cognitive processes), as in ‘The generic character supposedly shared by pleasure, pain and the emotions as distinguished from the ideational and volitional aspects of consciousness’. Then there are false displays of emotion (‘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 distinquished from the intention or end of action. Cf. Spinoza, Ethics, bk. III. — L.W.’. In this, 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 emotion such as anger or disgust (e.g. in Damasio). For some, affects can be categorised (for Silvan Tomkins there are eight affects [maybe nine?], for example, though for him these are different to emotion, which is much messier). Others differentiate “categorical affects” (Daniel Stern) from those that possess infinite variety (for Daniel Stern these are “vitality affects”). For some, the question is one of how to control affect (notably in recent psychology in what is called “Affect Control Theory“).

Freud defined affects as somatic as against the psychic, or as against the ideational representative, with many problems lying between the two. 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? This question is answered so vaguely in Freud as to cause the more recent psychoanalyst of affect, Adam Phllips 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).

For Spinoza, of course, the question was 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, or even becoming-animal (the “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 -

But 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)

For some cultural (and other) theory, the politics of affect is separated from this broader set of events, taken only to be that of feelings, emotion, or even only a question of the agreeable/disagreeable. There’s nothing wrong with the ideas here, in many ways. On the contrary. It’s just that the affect being discussed is not quite the same as the affect being discussed elsewhere. Again, this wouldn’t matter, except that some kind of disciplinary competition sometimes seems to emerge, which likes 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). In any case, this only emphasises the fact that we need to know which definition of affect we are taking up. And obviously, although I 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 then, 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). This is an intensity in which there is ‘a crossing of semantic wires’, which 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, but what it does. 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 any of these. In fact, it gives more precision to our understanding of the contexts of all of them. In Aristotle’s terms, affect is, for Massumi ‘the excluded middle’ (24), and thus a consideration of affect undermines much of twentieth century thought and habit 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, en excluded middle, prior to the distinction between activity and passivity: affect. (Massumi: 32)

Suggesting that we still largely lack 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, and whatever disciplines or concepts we form to talk about it, or 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, in the infinite number of possible connections between neurons, just to name one part of the world in which affect resides (without suggesting affect as an origin in itself). Over time, this infinity actualizes as specific connections (thoughts) that 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)

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.

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 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—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 like a generalisation and overturning of the question of taste in the acceptance of the autonomy and infinite multiplicity of relations (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 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] Brian Massumi, Erin Manning [I hope her amazing paper on choreographic objects and mobile architectures comes out soon], 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 :).