- Relocating Affect in Continental Thought
Self and Emotional Life results from a collaboration between Adrian Johnston—a Lacanian philosopher who’s written on Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and new materialism—and Catherine Malabou—a continental thinker of plasticity with books on G. W. F. Hegel, Jacques Derrida, feminism, and especially neurophilosophy. Johnston wrote the preface and part 2, and Malabou part 1 and the postface. The book’s main title is rather misleading: there is very little on actual emotional experience since the focus is squarely on new theoretical approaches to affect combining the disciplines of the subtitle: continental thought, psychoanalysis and neuroscience.
Pushing aside and even bracketing models of autonomous and coherent selfhood, Johnston and Malabou investigate limit cases of affect life informed by neurosciences, forcing us either to salvage a lesser version of subjective agency or to give it up altogether. Johnston opts for the former under the label of “misfelt feelings,” while Malabou propounds the latter as “hetero heteroaffection” (more on this below). At stake for both is a purview on affect that, instead of exemplifying intensity and motility as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, or Brian Massumi do, locates the essential aspect of affectivity within neuro-psychological forms of disaffection. Recently, disaffection and negative affects have become hot topics—for instance, through books by Rei Terada on the philosophical implosion of the stable subject of affect (Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject”), or Sianne [End Page 203] Ngai on the biting affects triggered by social marginalization (Ugly Feelings). The form of disaffection Malabou and Johnston are after is much more radical.
The book starts with a mild polemic that considers continental philosophy’s “avoidance of philosophically and psychoanalytically responding to the revolutionary advances occurring in the life sciences … no longer plausible or valid (if it ever was to begin with)” (x). To be sure, this resistance stems from the haste with which some, over the last twenty years, have sought—and largely failed—to render neuroscience relevant to, if not dominant in, all the humanities and social sciences, from ethics to film and narratology. Self and Emotional Life (henceforth SEL) belongs to more measured efforts at gauging the precise nature of the “response” that is called for, such as the collection recently edited by Barbara Stafford, A Field Guide to a New Meta-field: Bridging the Humanities-Neurosciences Divide. In the last few years, conversely, neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux have progressively shed their discipline’s suspicions toward continental philosophy, so that a new zone of exchange is fast developing between the humanities and cognitive biosciences. What is especially appealing about SEL is that its authors’ engagement with neuroscientific thought is carefully calibrated and devoid of excesses, caricatures or naïveté. Also, both Malabou and Johnston, in tackling highly specific issues with which they have dealt in their own fields for a long time, hope to highlight in the clearest way possible how encountering neuroscience can renew enduring philosophical problems. The extent to which they succeed or not is what I will try gauging here.
In the first part of the book, “Go Wonder: Subjectivity and Affects in Neurobiological Times,” Malabou questions the place of affect and autoaffection in the origin, constitution, and maintenance of the subject. She does so through three different readings of thinkers reading other philosophers: Derrida reading Descartes, Deleuze reading Spinoza, and Damasio reading Descartes and Spinoza. Her first move is to define affect after Spinoza (via Deleuze) as “a modification produced by the feeling of difference” (5), and autoaffection as the “‘I’ who feels itself” (6), thus the originary affect prior to any other affect (pace Martin Heidegger’s reading of autoaffection as temporality in Immanuel Kant). Then she asks her central question, “is [it] possible to deconstruct autoaffection?” (7). She first follows up on Derrida’s notion of [End Page 204] “heteroaffection” which argues that we are never a subject touching itself, but a subject touching another subject which is found to be itself, and that the two versions...