Semantic, Pragmatic, and Affective Enactment at OWS
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Semantic, Pragmatic, and Affective Enactment at OWS


The Occupy movement shows us how the semantic, pragmatic, and affective - meaning, action, and feeling - are intertwined in all collective practices. The intertwining of the semantic and the pragmatic - what we say and what we accomplish in that saying - has been a topic of interest in the humanities and the critical social sciences for almost 50 years, since its thematization by Austin and its codification in Speech Act Theory; widespread interest in affect has been more recent, but the interplay of its twin roots in Tompkins and Deleuze - producing a sort of evo-neuro-Spinozism - has been usefully explored in The Affect Theory Reader (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). It's now time to bring speech act theory and affect theory together in understanding the role of political affect (Protevi 2009) in the Occupy movement.

To do that, we'll need some housecleaning. The first thing that needs to go is the concept of ideology. Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus: "Ideology is a most execrable concept concealing all of the effectively operating social machines" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 68) I take that to mean that we have to thematize political affect to understand "effectively operating social machines." From this perspective, the real "German Ideology" is that ideas are where it's at, rather than affect. It's political affect that "makes men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation."

Why won't "ideology" cut it? It doesn't work because it conceives of the problem in terms of "false consciousness," where that means "wrong ideas," and where "ideas" are individual and personal mental states whose semantic content has an existential posit as its core, with emotional content founded on that core, so that the same object could receive different emotional content if you were in a different mood.1

Thus to take up the great OWS poster, "Shit is fucked up and bullshit," the core act posits the existence of shit, and then we express our emotional state by predicating "fucked up and bullshit" of it, whereas we could have predicated "great and wonderful" if we were in a different mood.

But that is "execrable" for Deleuze and Guattari, because it's far too cognitivist and subjectivist.

It's too cognitivist because it founds emotion on a core existence-positing act, and too subjectivist by taking emotion to be an "expression," something individual that is pushed outward, something centrifugal. For them, emotion is centripetal rather than centrifugal, or even better, emotion is for them the subjectivation, the crystallization, of affect. Now DG do have a coporeal/Spinozist notion of affect involved with the encounter of bodies, but they also have what we could call a "milieu," or "environmental" sense of affect. Here affect is "in the air," something like the mood of a party, which is not the mere aggregate of the subjective states of the party-goers. In this sense, affect is not emergent from pre-existing subjectivities; emotional subjectivities are crystallizations or residues of a collective affect.2

Enacting the Political

Having done away with "ideology" as an analytical concept, we can turn to a simple, powerful talk by Judith Butler at OWS (Butler 2011a), which calls upon the classic "very well then, we demand the impossible" trope, and ends with the wonderful line, "we're standing here together, making democracy, enacting the phrase, 'We the People'."

A longer talk by Butler in Venice (Butler 2011b) discusses constituting political space while acknowledging the material precarity of bodies, developed alongside a critical analysis of Arendt's notion of a political "space of appearance." The overall aim is set forth here, where Butler states, "a different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives."

A brief excerpt from the beginning of Butler's Venice talk sets out some of the main lines of thought that would go toward this "different social ontology":

... assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment. And when crowds move outside...