affect: the context of an idea

the next few posts will be a bit more theoretcial and programmatic than usual, as i’m working on a paper on the subject “taiwan, in theory” for an upcoming conference. the organizers wanted me to look at some of the literature on affect and sovereignty, with reference to how ethnographic work on taiwan can contribute to our understanding of these topics

as an anthropologist, i find that the context of “affect” as an idea is perhaps more interesting than the concept itself

in my reading on affect, i’ve noticed an interesting critical correspondence between two useful takes on this idea, one from the anthropologist mazzarella, the other from a scholar who straddles psychology and analytic philosophy, ruth leys

both mazzarella and leys find that the concept of affect as employed in cultural studies, comparative literature, and the social sciences responds to a particular desire to find an explanation for motivation either beneath or prior to symbolic function. mazzarella describes this desire as a quest for “immediacy,” by which mazzarella means a mode of experience or communication that occurs without mediation. for leys, affect theorists all share a form of anti-intentionalism in which affect provides a “really real” strata of motivation independent of signification or meaning. in other words, affect provides a deflationary model of motivation, one that sets asides questions of belief or ideology in favor of embodied states or reactions: intensity, not intention. in this sense, affect seems tailor made for an era of identity politics. if affect management is an important quality of politics today, perhaps we should locate it as another feature of neoliberal multiculturalism

both mazzarella and leys take on these notions critically. i will not rehearse their arguments here, but instead ask the question of context: why did affect have such a hold on a variety of scholars in the humanities and social sciences from the mid 1900s onward? leys and mazzarella never answer this question, but it seems clear in the initial formulation of some of the ideas of affect theorists, particularly the work of brian massumi. note, for example, that a large portion of massumi’s description of affect focuses on ronald reagan’s status as a “great communicator.” as massumi argues, none of reagan’s ideas stand up to critical scrutiny; even at the level of basic logic or grammar, they appear incoherent. what is the source of reagan’s communicative force? not rhetoric, but affect

here is where we find the point of ley’s discussion of attempts to go beyond ideology or belief and instead find motivation in embodied responses or identity, who one is and what one feels. in fact, affect in this political context is a stand in for the marxian notion of false consciousness: through the concept of affect, one can seek an explanation for the voting behaviour of working class americans who supported george w bush even when the policies of the bush administration could be shown to be contrary to their interests, or discover why a feeling that w was a good man (and nice to have a beer–or smoke a joint–with could cover his inability to produce any coherent statements

affect would seem to differ from charisma because it needs not be anti-institutional or pose problems of routinization; less structuralist than habitus or corporeal schema, it also would fit the post-structuralist biases of many scholars working in the social sciences today. and, you know, it’s better than emotion, because it is contagious and not a property of an individual. nor is affect possible to be elaborated in language, without being captured by symbol….where i think the term took off, however, is that it seemed to do much of the work without requiring a class analysis or a clear account of value structures. in other words, rather than doing the difficult work of understanding the competing values that inform working class life and interpreting the way people adjudicate these competing values as they negotiate the political domain, one could shift one’s focus to a powerful communicative wavelength–which in the end would mean what one could watch on television

perhaps that’s a bit too harsh. yet it does seem to me that the notion of affect was meant to do the work of false consciousness without assuming that false consciousness would take the form of ideology or without assuming a structure of interests from the vantage of which consciousness could be “false.” in some ways, this is a useful shift. but i wonder if here again anthropologists are remaking the wheel. in its usage, affect suggests either habitus or–to reach for a mid-20th century model anthropologists seem to have forgotten–the parsons and shils concept of “cathexis”

as for affect, i’m all for thinking about embodied states and a way around meaning (or, as is most germane here, an alternative to the concept of false consciousness). still, it’s not clear to me that affect provides an advance on the notion of cathexis. and that the context of its usage is so clearly in the resentment felt among critical theorists toward george w bush might require us to be a bit more self-reflexive in our application of this idea. what do you think about how affect might be a useful concept either alone or in combination with adjacent ones (sentiment, habitus, cathexis)

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