A while back a friend on instagram asked if I could recommend a book on affect theory. I did not even know I what affect theory was, although I had been reading about it for years and just finished Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai, which is a work of affect theory.
I subsequently got my hands on a bunch of affect theory related readings, and also familiarized myself with the musical theory of affect– I don’t even know if these two are the same things.
What is affect theory? As far as I can tell it is the theory of how emotion is produced. I sort of like the wiki page on the musical theory of affect and I like this article as well. It describes what Descartes identified as 6 basic affects that a work of art could elicit. I would say there are more, but among the six are joy, desire, and anger.
How are these affects elicited in a work of art, how does a work of art show an affect? This becomes more critical in works of art like film and photography which use the physical gestures of an affect, think pursed lips, smile, frown, to display affect and to perhaps illicit an affect or create some sort of dynamic tension.
Thus there grows this relationship between affect and phenomenology and embodiment. How do we know someone is experiencing an affect? Well we really don’t know, but perhaps we can tell from the way they hold parts of their body. There are also psychological and psychoanalytic analyses of affect.
Affect theory, as far as I can tell, is about materiality, grounding interpretation in the body or materiality.
In this social text article/interview from 2013 Lauren Berlant (affect theorist) talks with Dana Luciano about the need for new genres or to invent new genres. I am attracted to this. The question of how genres are invented reminds me of the metamodernist discussion. A discussion ensues about stylistic considerations in writings aimed at argumentation, in order to produce affect – to engage and interest readers. This is dissolving the distinction between form and content.
To quote the essay Berlant says “As a conceptual aesthetic, my practice is to ask whether interruptive modalities are also ways of not reproducing the world; it is to cleave the relation between impact and importance and to watch how things take shape. ”This is a way of opening up a space of imagination, a speculative space, and a generative space.
I am reminded of Ray Brassier’s essay on the Dialectics between Suspicion and Trust which I have thought about and written about. We have the three modes of understanding beyond science understanding via interpretation (or sculpted via interpretation): Freud, Marx, Nietzsche: sexual repression, class struggle, will to power. The effect of these ‘forces’ are explained via interpretation. There is nothing that is “just the facts” the facts, the observations, are a matter of interpretation.
So what other interpretive modes are there? Brassier’s article begin with Paul Ricouer’s Hermeneutics of Suspicion. This means that consciousness is a false consciousness because there are these background forces that shape our consciousness such as sexual repression (it sounds sort of transcendentally to me). Is it helpful to think of Affect theory in light of this? We could say that facts are really only affects, or that facts are communicated via affects. I don’t know. This does not entirely make sense to me and this is probably a gross misapplication and misinterpretation.
But if in some instances we collapse observation and interpretation, perhaps with affect theory we collapse observation and emotion. What are the different vectors of observation?