In “The Ontic Principle” I argue that “…all objects are defined by their affects or capacities to act or be acted upon” (The Speculative Turn, 274). Affects refer to the powers or capacities of an object, and define the relational dimension of substances or how they interface or port with other objects in the world. As Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg put it,
Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more stained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passage or variations between these intensities and resonances. (The Affect Theory Reader)
Seigworth and Gregg go on to say that “affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter” (ibid.). On the one hand, there are affects in the form of the acts of which an object is capable. These are active affects. My ability to play chess, use my body in particular ways, speak, etc., are all active affects. These are powers or capacities that reside in me. They are ways in which I can act upon the world around me. In the literature on affect it seems as if this dimension of affect is often ignored or de-emphasized. On the other hand, there are the variety of ways in which a body or object can be affected. These are the passive affects. The sounds and and frequencies of light I am capable of experiencing, the signs that I am capable of reading or interpreting (even without realizing that I’m doing so), the emotions that I experience, etc., are all forms of passive affects. They are ways in which other objects affect me.
Affects are always structured around channels (in The Democracy of Objects I theorize channels as “distinctions”) which delimit fields of of possible action and receptivity. These are what Jakob von Uexkull seeks to theorize in his writings on ethology. Electric eels are able to sense their world in terms of the electric signatures that I am not, yet they have very little in the way of vision. So too in the case of sharks. Bees might sense electro-magnetic fields. Bodies of a specific type are only capable of particular types of actions.
It would be a mistake to assume that the affects of which an object is capable, the powers that inhabit it, are fixed. There are all sorts of ways in which affects fluctuate and in which objects become capable of new affects, new ways of affecting and being affected, or lose affects. In a state of sickness the passive affects of which I am capable such as taste and smell are significantly diminished. If I am high my ability to track time continuously all but disappears, making it nearly impossible to to follow the plot of a television show, and active affects such as the capacity of thought in a particular way seem to be significantly diminished. Likewise, when I learn psychoanalysis I become capable of new affects. Now a slip of the tongue is no longer a mere “glitch”, but rather a slip of the tongue comes to signify a veiled desire. It becomes a sign of desire. Similarly, as I play darts my body gradually becomes capable of new active affects. I am able to do things that I wasn’t before able to do. Learning is not simply the encoding of information, but rather is a production of new active and passive affects, new powers of affecting and being affected.
Nor would it be right to equate affects with what is given to consciousness. This for two reasons: First, all objects are characterized by affects, but not all objects possess consciousness. Rocks have their affects, their capacities for acting and being acted upon, but it is unlikely that they register this in any way. Second, because even where an object possesses consciousness, there are all sorts of affects of which such an object is not consciousness. In his article “Feeling, Emotion, Affect“, Erich Shouse attempts to draw a strong distinction between consciousness, emotion, and affect: As Shouse writes:
An affect is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential. Of the three central terms in this essay – feeling, emotion, and affect – affect is the most abstract because affect cannot be fully realised in language, and because affect is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness (Massumi, Parables). Affect is the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. The body has a grammar of its own that cannot be fully captured in language because it “doesn’t just absorb pulses or discrete stimulations; it infolds contexts…” (Massumi, Parables 30).
Here I think Shouse’s distinctions are too strong. A conscious affect is no less an affect than a non-conscious affect. An emotion is no less an affect than what Shouse wishes to call affects. With respect to emotions, Shouse would do better to distinguish between first- and second-order affects, rather than exclude emotion from the domain of affect altogether. Shouse’s point seems to be that certain emotions can be qualitatively different than their embodied states. At a first-order level I can be entirely unaware of an emotion that I am nonetheless experiencing. By contrast, when I report myself as having a particular emotion– “I love you!” –none of the first-order bodily transformations that accompany being in love may be present (more on this in a moment). Yet this seems insufficient for excluding the report— “I love you!” –from the domain of affect. Rather, it’s that this report is a second-order affect that now feeds back on my first-order bodily system, regulating it in various ways. Just as the rules of a game come after the game has already come into being, regulating the game at a second-order level, my reports of affect can reflexively regulate my first-order affects in a variety of ways. Yet they are no less affects for all that.
Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that we are capable of all non-conscious affects. This is a major reason that phenomenology, while being one important tool for investigating affect, is inadequate in a variety of ways. There are all sorts of affects of which we are not conscious but which nonetheless regulate our bodies in a variety of ways. Moreover, there are all sorts of ways in which our reports of affects can be mistaken. With respect to the first instance, I might encounter a new person such that my pupils dilate, blood circulation throughout my body begins to intensify, and my lips become engorged. Clearly I am attracted to this person at some level, yet I need not be aware of this at all.
Recent research in differences between male and female sexual arousal drives this point home nicely. In A 2009 New York Times Magazine article, Daniel Bergner recounts differences in sexual response between men and women found by Meredith Chivers:
While the subjects watched on a computer screen, Chivers, who favors high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses, measured their arousal in two ways, objectively and subjectively. The participants sat in a brown leatherette La-Z-Boy chair in her small lab at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, a prestigious psychiatric teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto, where Chivers was a postdoctoral fellow and where I first talked with her about her research a few years ago. The genitals of the volunteers were connected to plethysmographs — for the men, an apparatus that fits over the penis and gauges its swelling; for the women, a little plastic probe that sits in the vagina and, by bouncing light off the vaginal walls, measures genital blood flow. An engorgement of blood spurs a lubricating process called vaginal transudation: the seeping of moisture through the walls. The participants were also given a keypad so that they could rate how aroused they felt.
The men, on average, responded genitally in what Chivers terms “category specific” ways. Males who identified themselves as straight swelled while gazing at heterosexual or lesbian sex and while watching the masturbating and exercising women. They were mostly unmoved when the screen displayed only men. Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern. Any expectation that the animal sex would speak to something primitive within the men seemed to be mistaken; neither straights nor gays were stirred by the bonobos. And for the male participants, the subjective ratings on the keypad matched the readings of the plethysmograph. The men’s minds and genitals were in agreement.
All was different with the women. No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly — and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. The readings from the plethysmograph and the keypad weren’t in much accord. During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. Among the lesbian volunteers, the two readings converged when women appeared on the screen. But when the films featured only men, the lesbians reported less engagement than the plethysmograph recorded. Whether straight or gay, the women claimed almost no arousal whatsoever while staring at the bonobos.
The research paper behind this article can be found here: SexDifferencesInSpecificitySexualArousal. Before proceeding, it’s important to note potential problems with this study. First, these remarks might give the impression that these phenomena are innate or that men and women are biologically structured in particular ways. However, while the biological responses described here can’t be denied, how much of this is potentially a product of culture and our specific moment in history? Might it be that Greek and Roman men in antiquity, for example, had far less category specificity in their sexual response? Here it will be recalled that affect is not a root given– though there might be some affects that are –but rather that it is plastic and can be developed. A wine connoisseur is not born with the capacity to taste the complexity of different wines, but develops this power of being affected. Could there be cultural scaffolding that is so potent that bodies that develop within this scaffolding become category specific and physically unable to respond to particular stimuli? Can they learn to respond to certain stimuli? Here also it’s notable that the study does not seem to include bisexual men? Do they fit this pattern? Why were such subjects excluded from the study? Was there an implicit and unconscious desire animating this study seeking to reinforce certain cultural assumptions by men and women? Certainly this seems to be the case in the implicit assumption that, as Melanie put it, women are wild sexual creatures that are somehow being untrue to themselves.
What’s important for the purposes of this post is that there is a difference between affects we consciously register and those that our bodies might non-consciously register and that there is no necessity that the two overlap. In this instance, women report one thing, while bodily something very different is taking place. There is, here, a disconnect between affect as it is consciously experienced and affect as it is manifest in the body. For this reason we have to take care in how much emphasis we place on conscious reports of affects. Bodily all sorts of things go on within us that, for whatever reason, register very little at the conscious level. Here once again we encounter a distinction between first-order embodied affects and second-order regulatory affects. Presumably the reports that women give of what arouses them play a regulatory or selective role with respect to their embodied first-order affects. Here I recall Luhmann’s article “Deconstruction as Second-Order Observation” in Theories of Distinction where he suggests the possibility that heated debates over gays in the military might have very little to do with principled beliefs and opposition to homosexuality and its alleged negative impact on the military, and might have everything to do with unconscious fears many men might have of how their bodies might react to gay bodies of other men. Such would be an instance of affect below the level of consciousness and avowed desires functioning in a “prepersonal” fashion contrary to the conscious way in which a subject conceives and experiences himself.
Clearly affect will pose all sorts of special challenges for cultural theory. In Parables for the Virtual, Massumi writes that,
Signifying subject formation according to the dominant structure was often thought of in terms of “coding.” Coding in turn came to be thought in terms of positioning on a grid. The grid was conceived as an oppositional framework of culturally constructed significations: male versus female, black versus white, gay versus straight, and so on. A body corresponded to a “site” on the grid defined by an overlapping of one term from each pair. The body came to be defined by its pinning to the grid. (2)
Within cultural theory there is a bias, preference, and emphasis on what is legible or that which leaves a trace in an archive because we primarily work with texts to analyze the world around us. As a consequence, our tendency is to explain social attachments and formations through beliefs, signifiers, and ideology. The problem is that much pertaining to affect never appears in texts at all, is never articulated in beliefs at all, and is even inaccessible to phenomenological consciousness. Take the following two video clips of moments at church services:
Were we to pick up a text written by these people discussing their beliefs and convictions, it’s highly unlikely that any of this would be inscribed. We would know nothing of the intense kinaesthetic, musical, vocal, and collective interactions that accompany these beliefs. Indeed, it’s likely that the rise of new media has played a key role in drawing attention to affect by virtue of recording phenomena that were previously invisible to print media. After engaging in a psychoanalytic or ideological critique of the beliefs that we find in the text we’re seeking to deconstruct, we might find ourselves wondering why this audience responds with indifference. What we would have missed is the manner in which the representational, discursive, semiotic, etc., is largely secondary to the affective in producing certain practices, collectives, and beliefs. We would have missed that which is central to both the subjectivity of these people and their collective.
Even as my mind is elsewhere, when certain songs come across the radio my foot and fingers begin to tap in rhythm to the music. It’s as if I’m inhabited by another agency of which I’m scarcely aware and that has its own intentions. To what degree do these sort of phenomena present us with the missing masses in explaining why social formations take the form they take? Drawing on the extended mind hypothesis that I’ve been exploring of late, what sort of scaffolding to we dwell in such that this scaffolding moulds and forms our affectivity, leading to a variety of normalized gender, racial, and class ways of living with each other, experiencing the world, and experiencing ourselves? Likewise, what quiet possibilities of resistance and change might already be there in the world of affect that is off the radar of the diacritical signifying categories Massumi alludes to?