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  • The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique by Ruth Leys
  • Charles Palermo
Ruth Leys. The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique. U of Chicago P, 2017. 390 pages.

Ruth Leys traces the origin of affect in modern psychological research to the psychologist Silvan Tomkins. The first two volumes of his Affect Imagery Consciousness appeared in 1961 and 1962, while his work entered the mainstream of literary theory later, thanks to the literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Leys summarizes the central claim of Tomkins's work:

One way of putting Tomkins's claims about the intrinsic absence of cognition and the objectlessness of the affects is to say that, although the affects may be activated by reasons, this is only because they have been co-assembled with the separate cognitive system. In themselves they lack rationality, which is to say that their functions do not belong to what the American philosopher Wilfred Sellars (1912–1989) called the "logical space of reasons."


What does it mean for affects to be nonintentional (i.e., objectless) or non-conceptual? What does affect theory in the humanities look like now?

Let's look first at an example. In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant deploys affect theory. Cruel optimism runs on affect: "A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing" (1). This "optimism" needn't be a confident relation to the future—it can feel like "dread, anxiety, hunger, curiosity, the whole gamut"—rather, it is a form of attachment, an "affective structure" (2).

Berlant offers a reading of Charles Johnson's 1981 short story "Exchange Value." Two brothers have found a hoard of money, stock certificates, luxury goods, and junk by breaking into the apartment of Miss Bailey, whom they presume dead. She had inherited the valuables, yet she wore used clothing and begged for meals from a restaurant. Once the brothers find her treasure, they explore the obvious options. The younger spends some money frivolously, but without entering the world of enjoyment he'd expected. The elder secures the treasure and forbids his brother to spend more. Their affective attachment to the pure purchasing power of the valuables prevents them from enjoying the wealth. To enjoy wealth is to spend it; but, to spend it is to diminish its power. So they reconstruct the miserable existence of Miss Bailey.

There are healthier relationships to fortune than the story's protagonists, but better ideas would be beside the point because the problem is not about thinking. Berlant says, "to my eye the story's main event, the scene of potential change, is somatic. Change is an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent" (39). Berlant notes that Miss Bailey, when offered money, "puts it in her mouth and eats it" (37). Money, like speech, ceases to represent and becomes like eaten food: somatic. Affective energies inhabit the body. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on minor literatures comes to mind, as Deleuze is a foundational figure for affect theory.1 Yet, Berlant hesitates to claim him, [End Page 1420] because, for Deleuze, "affects act in the nervous system not of persons but of worlds" (14). Affect has no place in historical agency for Brian Massumi, either, for whom "affective acts cannot be intended" (14). Berlant, Massumi, and others argue that "affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary, and that bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves" and therefore "exemplify shared historical time" (15). Note that "bodies," and not minds, do the judging and responding.

But this is not a review of Cruel Optimism. I mean only to show the stakes of Ruth Leys's brilliant analysis of the rise and internal contradictions of affect theory. Leys's project mostly addresses the history of psychology—discussions of Sedgwick and Massumi notwithstanding. She devastates Massumi's "The Autonomy of Affect," to which Berlant refers. Leys reveals the mistakes on which Massumi's use of psychological research depends to justify his central claim; namely, that affect precedes both emotion and cognition.

For Massumi, emotions occur...


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