- Affect Theory DossierAn Introduction
There is of course no single definition of affect theory. In one of its incarnations affect theory builds bridges between the humanities and biology or neuroscience. In another it looks back to Søren Kierkegaard and Baruch Spinoza (among others) to refresh our definitions of subjectivity. Some affect theory defends the therapeutic value of embracing unpleasant feelings such as shame, sadness, or loneliness. Its other branches highlight “ugly feelings” (to use Sianne Ngai’s phrase) as sources not of self-knowledge but of social critique. Affect theory can be a sociology of accidental encounters. It can be a psychoanalysis without end, both in leaving no stone unturned and in not caring to achieve a stable outcome. Affect theory can also refuse psychoanalysis and try to make feelings speak for themselves, as if they will best do so if the conscious mind does not interfere. Stylistically, it has encouraged intensely personal scholarship as well as scholarship that tries to do away with personality altogether.
In one sense, these various branches of affect theory are all theories of timing. They are theories of the self running ahead of itself: of how much more quickly (fMRIs tell us) our brains might work than we consciously know them to;1 of how often we start acting on emotions before we recognize what they are; of how rapidly our [End Page 3] boundaries and intimacies change with our evolving relationships and settings. They are also theories of the self catching up with itself: naming and acting on feelings it had previously refused to own; revisiting its past psychoanalyses; redefining the very notion of selfhood. They are, finally, celebrations of Proustian moments when the self and the sensory world, or the conscious and the unconscious self, or the self and another person, fall in step with each other in a way that seems momentarily to make a sliver of experience more vivid and more richly patterned than willful analysis could ever have made it seem.
Another way to describe the preoccupations that affect theorists seem to share is to say that affect theory is grounded in movements or flashes of mental or somatic activity rather than causal narratives of their origins and end points. Brian Massumi calls this shift of perspective “fluidifying.”2 Teresa Brennan describes herself as focusing on the momentary “transmission of affect” rather than on the affective physiology of each particular person.3 Charles Altieri emphasizes that the “rapture” of each feeling you act on exceeds and reconstellates your prior sense of who you are or what you are driven by.4 It is in these movements or flash-like outbursts that affect theory founds its most robust notions of knowledge and subjecthood. It is also to these movements and to the philosophical implications of singling them out as objects of inquiry that it points as sources of its most persistent bafflement.
In studying these movements, flashes, or outbursts of feeling, affect theory returns to several key philosophical tensions. The purpose of this dossier is to highlight and explore some of these tensions by juxtaposing against each other a variety of philosophical, critical, literary, and investigative essays, as well as pieces of very recent affect-oriented art. In this introductory statement I will by no means attempt to exhaust the directions affect theory has taken or to describe the whole range of scholarship it has inspired. I merely want to raise several points that will help outline the stakes and interrelationships of the articles this dossier presents.
The first, most basic among the core issues this dossier addresses and exemplifies is the triple disjuncture among what could be termed unconscious affect, affect as an immediate awareness of [End Page 4] reality, and the self-conscious experience of affect as affect. The differences among these three (postulated) ways of experiencing affects will show more clearly in a series of examples. I can become angry at or attracted to another person without knowing that my attitude toward her has changed. This is to experience an affect un- or preconsciously. I can also be aware of my anger or attraction and weigh it as a potentially reliable phenomenology...