Great Expectations IV, Affect
Affect that spans over time, and from individual through several media to philosophies blog post (Blade Runner, 1982)
While reading Eric Shouse I desperately try to determine the exact location of the phenomenon or function of affect on a procedural timeline or within my own body. How to get hold of this, at least seemingly tiny, thing called affect?
Affect “is a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and is implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Shouse 2011), see also Spinoza’s claim of a body’s ability to act rising or decreasing dependent on the influx of outer stimuli (Thrift 2008:178). A capacity to produce proprioception lies within our body, proprioception being the “continuous but unconscious sensory flow from movable parts of the body” (ibid.). This is where affect, engendered as an answer to outside stimuli is supposed to add a sense of urgency or intensity. In the (adult) body this intensity then determines the body’s alertness for action (ibid.). As I understand it from Shouse, affect is prepersonal, a state at the absolute beginning of a response to an outer stimuli. The process of affect production according to Shouse would then be: affect is moving from the prepersonal, continuing through the biographical/personal (feeling) to the “other side” where it becomes consciously accessible to us and forms a response (emotion) that communicates to the “outside world” (i.e. the world more noticeably shared with others). Shouse states that affect is not personal and is non-conscious. I wonder if Shouse considers affect to be not personal because it is universal and not unique. In addition to that, personal does not have to mean conscious, even if we are not aware that something is happening to us, the event can be deeply rooted in our specific capacities and properties. Although being unthought, the production of affect could be personal in the ability to produce a reaction to the experienced affect and also in the ability to perceive the stimuli that cause the “affect reaction”. If the production of affect must include the ability to be affected (that constitutes a personal capacity) how can it not be personal?
When turning to Nigel Thrift a somewhat different account of affect emerge. Thrift points to the lack of studies of affect in relation to cities and urbanity. He holds a politically oriented ambition where he acknowledges the affective repertoire of cities and identifies the urban engineering in the creation of cities responding to the demand of exhibiting “intense expressivity” (Thrift 2008:172). With Thrift affect seems to be closer related to what Shouse would label emotion and feeling, i.e. not a prepersonal phenomenon, but the displayed result of a prepersonal phenomenon (this prepersonal phenomena can be Shouse’s affect). Thrift names fear, happiness and joy as examples of affect that emerges in city life. Each of the approaches to affect he investigates moves towards ” an ‘inhuman’ or ‘transhuman’ framework in which individuals are generally understood as effects of the events to which their body parts (broadly understood) respond and in which they participate” and considers affect as “a different kind of intelligence about the world” (Thrift 2008:175).
Thrift presents four definitions of affect: the first consider affect as “a set of embodied practices that produce visible conduct as an outer lining” (ibid.) and further “Because there is no time out from expressive being, perception of a situation and response are intertwined and assume a certain kind of ‘response-ability'” (Katz 2000 in Thrift 2008:176). The second definition is based on drive: “emotions are primarily vehicles or manifestations of the underlying libidinal drive” (Thrift 2008:176). The third is associated with Spinoza and Deleuze and concerns Spinoza’s challenging of Descartes’ model of a body ruled by will, and the world being put together of two substances: extension and thought. Spinoza here puts forward the idea of only one substance where the thinking and acting happens in parallel. The fourth definition is the Darwinian translation of affect which is based on evolution and states that emotional expression is universal and may not be exclusive to humans.
Thrift then outlines examples of how affect is used within politics: how it through media has become a visible element which targets the public with methods of affect, e.g. when using emotion and let details of it represent a whole. This works well with an increasing emphasis in Euro-American societies to let subjective emotion stand as truth, “rather than through rational judgment or abstract reasoning” (Thrift 2008:184), I do wonder what is decided to be a rational ambition here, and by whom. What might affect do then? Thrift brings elements from the four approaches to affect together and extends them into politics through the video art of Bill Viola. In Viola’s work “The intent is clearly to let facial expression or other body movements (and, most obviously, the hand), patterns of light and different spatial formations interact in telling ways, providing ‘turbulent surfaces’ in which emotional and physical shape coincide in arcs of intensity” (Thrift 2008:195). Thrift points out that movement and emotion, and how that relationship is formed in cities on screens populated by faces, have become normal means of expression (ibid.). The immediate presence of humans in cities is also acknowledged; “…the city as a sea of faces, a forest of hands, an ocean of lamentation: these are the building blocks of modern urbanism just as much as brick and stone.” (Thrift 2008:196).
In his work Viola shows how we through mimesis learn about our own emotions and how the display and broadcast of these emotions affect others. On his sets Viola intertwine affect with space and time: “By operating on space and time (stretching, transforming, miniaturizing etc.) they become a kind of threshing floor for the emotions from which new instinctual traffic may come.” (ibid.).
In my previous Great Expectations blog posts I have tried to apply various theoretical concepts to the Brunnshög area in Lund, which has a future associated with a patchwork of expectations. In my quest for potential on site, as well as within the process of creating and planning the area, I of course also have had great expectations of my findings. After all “expectation is inevitably a part of perception” (Hustvedt 2013). As the affect concept, among other things, addresses immediate perception, I thought it would be well suited to combine it with an investigation done on site in the Brunnshög area, and see if I can spot this, at least seemingly tiny, thing called affect. For that, see Great Expectations V, Affect II.
Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seijworth ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seijworth eds. The Affect Theory Reader, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Nigel Thrift, ‘Spatialities of Feeling’, in Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London: Routledge, 2008
Eric Shouse, ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect’, in Melissa Gregg, ed. ‘Affect.’ M/C Journal 8.6 (2005). 25 Nov. 2011. http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php
Siri Hustvedt: Art is a memory
Illustration from Blade Runner