Why would anyone want to argue that affect is inhuman or pre-subjective?
Last year in the spring issue of Critical Inquiry, Ruth Leys published a stringent critique of what is now called the ‘affective turn’ in the humanities. She characterises this turn as dominated by a ‘nonintentionalist, corporeal account of the emotions.’ This is an apt and succinct summary of the work of a number of writers, most notably the geographer Nigel Thrift who, she notes, defines affect as ‘inhuman or pre-subjective forces and intensities.’ Leys also includes under this rubric the political theorist Brian Massumi who conceives of affect as ‘irreducibly bodily and autonomic.’ While the need to consider the body and bodily processes is a reasonable enough proposition (autonomic or otherwise), I really cannot understand why anyone would want to argue that affect is inhuman or pre-subjective. To my mind, this is the theoretical version of George Costanza’s infamous ‘opposite George’ strategy.
George, the defeated character in the American television series Seinfeld, lands on this strategy when he is at a particularly low ebb. According to his own description, he is unemployed, bald and living with his parents. Given these circumstances, he decides that success will come when he does the opposite of what he would normally do. As Jerry Seinfeld summaries the logic of this approach, ‘If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.’
In much cultural theory, Opposite George Strategy means that the writer or theorist champions the demeaned or ignored terms in the binary oppositions deemed to govern Western logic: reason/emotion, human/non-human, mind/body and so forth. Adherents of deconstruction would call this process reversing a binary. The necessary next step advocated by said theorists of deconstruction, displacing the binary by showing the inter-implication of the two terms, is not forthcoming however. We just have Opposite George Strategy.
To return to the question of affect, we can clearly see this desire to reverse and oppose. Emotion is usually understood to be human, now it’s inhuman; it’s usually seen as subjective, so now it’s pre-subjective; reason usually governs affect, so now affect overturns reason. I’m wondering how the term is purified of its human and subjective connotations, but let us leave that quibble for another day.
Part of the appeal of this new found interest in emotion (framed in these terms) is identified by Leys in the book that preceded her Critical Inquiry article, From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (2007). Here she uncovers the ultimate (but unstated) appeal of materialist affect theory: the curtailment of argument and debate. This may seem a very strange consequence of the rise of affect theory. Surely academic discourse is fuelled by disagreements, which enable the full articulation of a range of meanings, concerns, positions and interpretations. Opposing this Habermasian account of the public sphere, however, there are clearly other desires: the desire to have the last word, to limit discussion, and to be in control of debate. These desires are well served by championing pre-subjective feeling.
Leys presents this unfortunate consequence of the rise of affect theory much more slowly and carefully than I am presenting here. In particular, she draws on the work of Walter Benn Michaels. Michaels argues that while we may have ideological disputes—conflicts about beliefs, and disagreements about what is true—what we feel is generally not subject to public debate. This enables what Leys describes as the ‘disarticulation of difference from disagreement.’ Her recent article, however, has stirred up quite a lot of disagreement. As a consequence, we can now enjoy a proper debate on affect. ■
Image courtesy of lucaohman.
Susan Best is Senior Lecturer of Art History at the University of New South Wales and the author of Visualizing Feeling, winner of the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia & New Zealand) Best Book Prize for 2012.