Affect Theory Lecture Notes

These are, more or less, the notes from which I lectured yesterday. They may not be hugely helpful if you weren’t there, perhaps, since we talked about some things that aren’t indicated here. But they might give some structure and insight into the affect theory swamp we’re wading through. I’ve tried to indicate where what actually happened in the classroom diverges from what I’ve put here.

—Flatley: Nobody agrees on these things; we just know we want to talk about feelings. Affective Mapping, p. 12: “Where emotion suggests something that happens inside and tends toward outward expression, affect indicates something relational and transformative.” (Also, you asked if I might provide a PDF of the glossary from Affective Mapping. The internet has one here. This includes both the brief introduction and the glossary treating affect, emotion, mood, and structure of feeling. You may or may not wish to skip the intro.)

—Weak theory v. strong theory: Sedwick on “strong theory” from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” pp. 133–26. (Esp. weak theory must be effective to remain weak; strong theory can take over the world by being ineffective.)

—Sedgwick herself is a champion of weak theory. I describe Massumi as a strong theorist. Both are dissatisfied with structural accounts.

—This dissatisfaction with structure is an animating, perhaps the animating, concern of “affect theory.” I offered a long excursus on [post]structuralism that I had not quite planned. In a nutshell, and from this perspective, structuralism and poststructuralism name the posture and conviction that an analysis of x (whatever x may be) will eventually get you to the real story, whether this be Marxism’s class antagonism or psychoanalysis’s Oedipus complex. Structuralism is the conviction that everything is determined by the operation of a structure which is hidden from ordinary, phenomenal perception.

—Affect theory notices that the actual texture of life must be abstracted away to arrive at an account which discovers structure at work everywhere. Affect is, at an abstract level, simply that which cannot be accounted for by structure, what must be discarded on the way to a structural account. It is the feeling of living, the texture of the ordinary.

—For Massumi, “the stakes are the new”: if everything that mattered arose as the operation of structure, nothing new would ever happen. Thus, affect is where the new arises. This is politically important for Massumi because otherwise, there’s no resource of novelty available to challenge the operation of structure. Affect is potential, potential to become otherwise—at both an individual and collective level.

—For Sedgwick, the stakes are related, but for her the problem is also that you’ll miss the life you’re living, the ways people have of living through things, and you’ll also end up missing or foreclosing the actual ways people do live that’s in excess of structural determinations.

[Here, I ended up talking about our methods in the class, inspired by affect theory. But in the lecture, I planned this material for the end; I’ll leave it at the end here.]

—Some schematic notes about what affect means for Massumi:

• Affect is prepersonal.
• It does not belong to you.
• You cannot experience it.
• It circulates between and among bodies.
• Emotions are the “capture” of affect by the personal.
• Aesthetic texts, though, are (in Gilles Deleuze’s parlance) “blocs of affect,” which can then, stemming from an aesthetic encounter, circulate through the bodies with which it comes into contact. They are affects without persons.
• Networks act as intensifiers and circulators and amplifiers and modulators and controllers of affect.

—Example: p. 115 of Grusin’s “Affective Life of Media” on cellphones. I was going to talk about Grusin’s description of the cellphone conversation, but we ended up comparing Franzen’s terrible strong/paranoid account of cellphone use—there’s a single reason people are attached to phones, and that’s fear—to Tomkins’s amazing practices of description from “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” the block quotes on pp. 499–500.

—What does this mean for how we move forward, now that we’re turning away from the abstract theorizing that helps us orient our questions, and actually bringing our questions to some aesthetic texts? How are we to read a novel like Super Sad True Love Story?

—Effectively, affect theory of the weak kind that Sedgwick presents explains something in a way that is “little better than mere description”—but, nevertheless, a little better. It means sitting with the specificity and detail of something, how it feels, how it operates. In Sedgwick’s version, this is emphatically about our ordinary: the demand is to develop modes of attention and practices of thinking that work on our ordinary, which, in our work together here, means an ordinary that is saturated by, and attuned with, network technology and network form.

—One version of this a-little-better-than-description is actually the novelistic or memoiristic description of things—feelings, networks—that we find in our aesthetic texts.

—As  far as our networks + feelings agenda goes, here are some items that should orient your reading as we move into the novel-reading phase of the course:

• Attention to the details of the technology it imagines and figures.
• Attention to how affect circulates in the book: between whom? by what means? with what effects?
• Attention to what interferes with the transmission of affect across networks. When do things break? What breaks them? When does affect become intense?
• And, of course, we are always paying attention to form and its limits: What exceeds representation in the novels? How does the novel’s form deal with or respond to that limit of form? How are networks figured? How are feelings? How do they exceed our grasp?