- The Promise of Affect:The Politics of the Event in Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness and Berlant's Cruel Optimism
At a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania, Lauren Berlant was asked a question about the relationship between her work—she had just finished a lecture on the theme of flat affect in Gregg Araki's 2004 film Mysterious Skin—and the political. "Because I work on affect," she responded, "I think everything is realism" (Berlant: 2012). Like the dense introductory segments of each of her chapters—thick but fast-moving genealogical waterslides—I think that unpacking statements like this from Berlant is best repaid by taking them in a low gear. When Berlant maps her method as affect theory, she is suggesting that the works she examines in her capacity as a scholar of literature cannot be divorced from the political-material contexts out of which they emerge, but at the same time must be recognized as incarnations of a particular embodied iteration within this field. Texts are produced by bodies that are both enmeshed in their political worlds and trying to negotiate those worlds in their own distinct way. Everything we do is realism: Berlant's textual objects of study are mediations, attempts to work something out, exhibitions of tensed, embodied, affective realities.1
This is the promise of affect theory, the possibility of sliding together analytical tools used to pick apart both highly individuated and highly social contact zones—bodies and histories—as incarnated realities. Affect theory wants to maintain the insights of high theory, the doctrinaire approach that says "historicize everything," while at the same time thinking of how bodies inject their own materiality into spaces. This means using language that enters the orbit of the biological. In the introduction to their 1995 edited volume Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader (later reprinted in Sedgwick's Touching Feeling)—one of the earliest manifestoes of contemporary affect theory— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank acerbically catalog what theory "knows today," first and foremost that
1: The distance of [an] account from a biological basis is assumed to correlate near precisely with its potential for doing justice to difference (individual, historical, and cross-cultural), to contingency, to performative force, and to the possibility of change(Sedgwick: 2003, 93).
2: Human language is assumed to offer the most productive, if not the only possible, model for understanding representation(Sedgwick: 2003, 93).
Affect theory in this vision is designed to explore the "crucial knowledges" of bodies outside a purely theoretical determination, outside the traditional domains of humanist scholarship—reason, cognition, and language (Sedgwick: 2003, 114). Affect, for Lauren Berlant, is thus understandable as "sensual matter that is elsewhere to sovereign consciousness but that has historical significance in domains of subjectivity" (Berlant: 2011, 53). Affect theory is about how systems of forces circulating within bodies—forces not necessarily subsumable or describable by language—interface with histories. It is about how discourses form ligatures with pulsing flesh-and-blood creatures.
Two recent texts, Sara Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness (2010) and Berlant's Cruel Optimism (2011), can be seen as developing this strand, and in particular, of indicating new ways of feeling out politics through the membrane of affect theory. Both of these authors suggest that the repertoire of the analytics of power (Foucault: 1990) must be supplemented with resources from the affective turn. Recent critiques of affect theory2 have focused on a branch of affect theory heavily informed by Gilles Deleuze's reading of Spinoza. In this strand, affect is rendered as a set of ontological properties, as an ensemble of mutable attributes.3 Contemporary Deleuzians such as Brian Massumi4 and William Connolly5 have been targeted by these critics for their attempts at absorbing scientific research into the Spinozistic discourse of affect...