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  • On Affect Theory's Hidden Histories:Toward a Technological Genealogy
  • Jasper J. Verlinden (bio)

In his 1995 essay "The Autonomy of Affect," Brian Massumi presents three case studies, all framed as stories, through which he explores the nature and workings of affect: the second, the "mystery of the missing half-second," he marks as a story "of the brain," the third, a story about Ronald Reagan, as one "of the brainless." All three are underscored by the medicalized apparatus of neuro(techno)logy.1 In what follows, I aim to illustrate why this matters by taking a closer look at two of Massumi's stories.2

From the beginning of the recent turn to affect in cultural theory, there has been debate about affect theory's use of neuroscience. Often, critique centers on the essentialist dangers that a reliance on neuroscientific evidence is likely to bring. At other times, the criticism aims to intervene in an individual theorist's misinterpretation or misapplication of scientific experiments or the fallacious conclusions drawn from them.3 What is rarely discussed, however, are the sanist and ableist histories of the neurotechnologies that enable and delimit the conditions for the production of scientific knowledge about the brain in the first place. The lack of a historical perspective is indicative of the widespread tendency in discussions on affect to regard scientific expertise—whether considered fact or fallacy—as not only ahistorical and culturally neutral but also strangely unfettered by any material constraints. However, if scholarship on affect does not take into account the material constraints and historical conditions of the scientific experiments it draws from, it risks overlooking the fact that the knowledge claims made on the basis of such experiments are already filtered through culturally and historically specific belief sets as well as the preconceptions of the researchers and the basic tenets of their fields.

Certain strains of affect theory frame their projects as necessary correctives to what they perceive as post-structuralism's overinvestment in language and the social constructions of reality and its concomitant neglect of the material, the body, and other nondiscursive phenomena. If affect is nonrepresentational, as many of these theorists maintain, then it is only perceivable through its effects. Yet the neurotechnologies that they draw on acquire a special status in their [End Page 321] theories as they appear to make affect, or the "real-material-but-incorporeal dimension of the body," tangible and visible.4 What these theorists seem to forget is that neurotechnologies are technologies of knowledge production that operate through mediation and representation and that rely on a conception of the body as ultimately knowable. The turn away from post-structuralism is often enacted by arguing for a shift from epistemology to ontology and by laying claim to an alternative philosophical genealogy extending backward from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to Henri Bergson and Baruch Spinoza. While this genealogy offers a neat and teleological philosophical lineage, it fails to attend to the emergence and conditions of possibility for historical formations in relation to cultural ideologies and structures of power. In contrast, I want to propose an alternative genealogy that understands affect through the technologies by which it is made discernible rather than through a heraldry of thinkers. For this kind of genealogy, an epistemological perspective remains necessary, as any ontological inquiry into the nature or "essence" of an object is already embedded within certain systems of knowledge. An engagement with the material realities of the neurotechnologies, their historical conditions of emergence, and their specific modes of knowledge production is crucial in order to understand their underlying assumptions and potentially normative directionalities—directionalities that, following Sara Ahmed's work, I consider "organized rather than casual." As Ahmed states, the lines we follow bring certain things into focus while occluding or excluding others.5 If, as I contend, a similar framework can be applied to technology's orientations, then the questions we should be asking are the following: How do these neurotechnologies—technologies that render the body into an object of study—acquire a direction? With which aims and under what historical conditions are they developed? What normative baselines do they operate with?

To illustrate these problematics, I...


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