- Special Section: “Affect/Performance/Politics”
What can the study of affects contribute to our understanding of theater and performance? What might “thinking feeling” tell us about the efficacy of various rites and rituals of civic society? Which cultural forms pack the most affective power? Which emotions are likely to marshal and mobilize spectators into collectives and communities? These questions that highlight affect, emotion, and feeling in relation to theatrical performance and its political potentials are among those that animate this special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Indicative of a more far-reaching shift in critical thought toward what cultural geographer Nigel Thrift named “non-representational theory,” they challenge us to articulate the affective vagaries of ontology as lived in and through a range of cultural forms within systems of knowledge/power.1 Affect. Performance. Politics.
The “affective turn,” as sociologist Patrician Ticineto Clough has dubbed it, is the latest in a series of “turns” to sweep the Humanities and social sciences.2 However, unlike the “linguistic turn” and the “cultural turn” that precede it, the affective turn promises to bring us closer to that dimension of culture that cannot be grasped through semiotic analysis or a constructivist perspective by privileging those forces that cannot be fully socially determined and may be less prone to discipline and regulation. The affective turn signals a renewed interest in embodiment and sensorial experience; the arts, maybe particularly the time-based performing arts, are especially relevant here for their bodily entanglements in their production and their sensate lures in their reception.3 This paradigm shift represents the desire to carve out some conceptual space for aspects of human motivation and behavior that are not tethered to consciousness, cognitive processes, and rationality, to validate physical and social dynamics that are inchoate and unpredictable, and to explore impulses and responses that social conventions shape but do not [End Page 99] circumscribe. The turn to affect in theatre and performance studies, increasingly evident in conference programs, journal issues, books, and course offerings, might be usefully described using language from that turn: as an object of desire.4 In her meditation on a propensity to be moved in ways that do not align with or that even contradict our rational, cognitive selves—to love things that do not serve us, for instance—literary critic and political theorist Lauren Berlant writes, “[w]hen we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us.”5
What is the cluster of promises that this object that is “affect studies” makes possible? On the personal level, it promises a more emancipated and autonomous conception of subjectivity.6 For performance, it elevates aesthetics of experience over those based in representation, freeing dramaturgy and spectacle from the Aristotelian requirements of wholeness and unity. (We note the twinned rise of widespread artistic and critical interest in what Nicholas Bourriaud named “relational aesthetics” as well as in “postdramatic theatre,” both of which privilege the experiential dimension of art’s intersubjective encounters. Indeed, Hans-Thies Lehmann expressly defines the postdramatic against an Aristotelian “theatre of sense and synthesis.”7) In the political realm, affect relocates the barometer of change from collective movements based in commonality to the more intimate (and immediate) registry of intensities that are incremental yet palpable.8 And the comparatist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht clarifies its challenge to a dominant scholarly value of discovering the meaning of things through interpretation when he positions his work on “events and processes in which the impact that ‘present’ objects have on human bodies is being initiated or intensified” as nonhermeneutic and antimetaphysical.9
Genres of Affect
You are likely already hearing other resonances with theatre and performance in this description of affect studies and its promises: the emphasis on “presence,” for instance, or the invocation of transformation, or the centrality of embodiment. While these terms are not always used in the same way in affect studies as they are in theatre and performance studies (where they are already contested), they nonetheless point to affect studies’ potentially productive place...