Blind Hope: A Review of Gregg and Seigworth's The Affect Theory Reader

Blind Hope: A Review of Gregg and Seigworth's The Affect Theory Reader

The Affect Theory Reader
Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth
Durham: Duke University Press Books. 2010.

No need to get excited. According to Julie Reiser, The Affect Theory Reader offers the reader no end of theory but little affect. Reiser suggests this points to a broader and systemic problem in any reading or theory of affect.

For me, the implication behind titling any volume as The Reader of Blankity Blank is that, regardless of the subject matter, that cardinal The creates a certain set of expectations for the material contained within: the expectation that it will contain a really smart foreword that introduces the field’s jargon, key concepts, chronology, and themes to the uninitiated; that it will describe the larger theoretical context in which the material is situated; that it will introduce at least a few of the field’s intellectual precursors and most of its important expositors; and that it will give at least minor air time to the field’s gadflies and philosophical opponents. As the canon wars of recent academic history make plain, the stakes of The-oriented readers are high. The readers make or break a field. The readers establish experts, mold careers, demarcate turf, and create theoretical battles for decades to come. The readers are, to reiterate the hype coughed up by the Duke University Press marketing engine and imprinted on the back of The Affect Theory Reader, “field-defining.”

By contrast, the volume with a cardinal AA Reader of Blankity Blank — sets itself a much lower bar. It can afford to be more ephemeral and trendy. It can indulge a certain point of view at length because it is just one volume, among many, that is committed to the project of sketching out a small piece of a much larger literary pie. A literary pit-bull by its very nature, the A reader calls into question the The reader’s imperious hold over the field and is expected to be partial, contradictory, and even radical. It’s an outlier and proud of it. And no one, except an NCTE lackey, picks up an A reader expecting it to be anything but rhetorically shaped by a very obvious, ideological axe. And if you don’t believe me, go look at any one of a hundred such A readers assigned each semester in Freshman Comp and see if you can’t get its message just by perusing the table of contents.

Given these assumptions, I came to Gregg and Seigworth’s The Affect Theory Reader—a The-oriented project if ever there were one—with high expectations and, to be sure, a large dose of skepticism. As someone who has written quite critically of affect and its problematic deployment as a tool of literary analysis, I found myself in the affective states of “antagonistic trepidation” and “theory excitement.” Reiser, Julie. Trauma, 9/11, and the Limits of Affective Materialism. Diss. John Hopkins University, 2009. But I also approached the volume wanting to be able to use it in a class on affect theory; wanting to be charmed by its inclusion of more persuasive, interesting theoreticians than I had yet encountered; wanting to be converted by that one pivotal essay that could somehow explain to me why so many of the best minds of my generation have been seduced by this literary phlogiston; and wanting, albeit totally unfairly, to see it create a sense of order and coherence for what otherwise appears to be an untidy, excessive exploration of that je ne sais quoi of human experience that has seemingly evaded complete explication by the whole of theory and philosophy for close to two millennia. 

But all I found was an A masquerading as a The.

In place of a well-organized, introductory volume positioned to help the uninitiated, I found a sea of neologisms, logics, positionalities, and personal points of view dressed up as obvious facts and preached to a choir of the already-affectively-interpellated. Instead of a set of evocative essays based in persuasive rhetoric, I found a mish-mash of some great essays—Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism,” Anna Gibbs’ “After Affect,” and Patricia Clough’s “The Affective Turn” immediately come to mind (though there are others)—spliced in with a set of nearly illegible, massively contradictory readings of affect that seemed to operate from within the affective space of what I call “blind hope” or the ethos of “If you build it, they will come.”

And, in place of a helpful, “field-defining” volume, I found a rather autistic anthology that refused to reach out and make connections with the larger intellectual space in which its subject matter was born and, presumably, will need to continue to operate if it is to be successful for the long haul. Upon reading the volume, all I could do was ask … where are Spinoza, James, Freud, Bergson, Wimsatt and Beardsley, Williams, Tomkins, and Deleuze? Where are Griffiths, Ekman, and Damasio? Where are Sedgwick, Brennan, Terada, and Leys? answer: they’re in the acknowledgments page and bibliography!Actually, I am exaggerating a bit here because Ruth Leys is actually not in the bibliography even though she has written a great volume, From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, (Princeton University Press, 2007), and is one of affect theory’s strongest and most influential critics. See her latest piece, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Spring 2011): 434-472.

Perhaps this is an unfair and rather Pollyannaish set of expectations to try to load on any theoretical project—especially one whose distinct goal is to undo precisely the kind of conceptual chokehold that my stripe of polemical “rationalism” spawns. But it’s not incommensurate, I think, with the larger theoretical moves the volume’s two editors are trying to make: legitimating the study of affect by readerizing it and establishing themselves as The Affect Experts.

Nor is my smarmy A-The nit so unfair as to be inconsequential when viewed against the backdrop of a field of study that is deeply committed to the elevation of the personal, the particular, and the felt-experiential over the rational, the representational, and the abstract. Affect theory is, after all, a methodology deeply committed to explicating how all those little A’s of ordinary life give us something more than the old The our concept- and category-fetishizing minds keep creating and, evidently, trying to strangle the world with. So it’s not like my A-The take on things is actually irrelevant to what affect theory is trying to do. In fact, I would argue, that it’s completely central to it.

And stated somewhat tendentiously, I would argue that affect theory, when laid bare of all its noxious word-play and embarrassing autobiographicality, is nothing more than an extended meditation on this relationship between A and The—the particular and the general (or the conceptual)—coupled with an intense longing to privilege the A for what appear to be strictly personal and political reasons. And its tendency to ignore the larger ramifications of this A-oriented longing is problematic because it is, in my estimation, just putting forward a theory and hoping for the best.

I think my A-The nit also helps to explicate a problem for affect theory in general: its tendency to indulge in a kind of sloppy methodological relativism—the kind everyone used to erroneously charge Derrida of advocating—that ultimately flattens out the very point of what I take affect to be—namely, celebrating and elevating different personal experiences. Anna Gibbs’ fine essay, “After Affect,” a powerful and compelling attempt to reconcile Massumi and Tomkins, is a strong anti-example of this phenomenon. From my perspective, affect theory’s ultimate trajectory—whether it openly articulates it or not—is to create a new vein of literary theory that can hang on to the importance of experience without appearing to have fallen prey to the same theoretical naïveté that those critics who tried to hang on to “consciousness,” “the author,” “the human being,” “the person,” “the subject,” or even “the body” did. But, in its rush to transform everything into a wild, untamable A, affect theory runs an even bigger risk than those oppressively rationalist theorists of the past did: it runs the risk of making absolutely everything affective and, in so doing, eliminating the specialness of affect altogether.

How so? If every moment of my life—and everyone else’s lives for that matter—is affective, what is the value of singling out any one affective moment and focusing upon its affect as an object of study? In an infinitely expanding sea of particularity, what makes one drop of water more important than any other?

Put more concretely, if Berlant’s “cruel optimism”—or, for that matter, Gregg’s “snark,” Thrift’s “glamour,” or Ahmed’s “happiness”—is now understood to be a widely available “affective state” that anyone can occupy, what do we, as readers, learn by occupying it theoretically? Even if we could, in practice, occupy that state in our “real lives,” it’s not like we could experience that state identically to the way Berlant did. After all, our experience would have to be mediated through our own unique set of affective relations. So, I might experience “cruel optimism” in such a way that it predisposes me to vote for Obama. But you might experience it in such a way that it makes you pine for George Bush. Thus, what’s the value of labeling the state as a specific state if it has the potential for two, if not infinitely many, outcomes that are wildly disparate?

Even if we constrain my little gedanken a bit further and reduce it down to just one person experiencing “cruel optimism” twice on the same day, each of those iterations would still be entirely distinct from each other because they would, perforce, be experienced through each moment’s own particular affect. For simplicity’s sake, I am ignoring the obvious conundrum created by other affective states that could easily overlap, contradict, or constrain this particular one. But, I think it’s easy to see that this would just compound the problem; it certainly wouldn’t alleviate it or make it go away. So, my experience of “cruel optimism” in the early morning—before I’ve taught my classes—might lead me to vote for Obama, but my experience of “cruel optimism” in the afternoon—after a long lunch with my penny-pinching colleague—might lead me to vote for Mitt Romney. But no one—not even myself—would ever know how my voting pattern would play out—or even if it would play out—until I had actually voted and lived through the actual affective relations inherent in that particular moment. And I would only be able to know that affective state—as opposed to just feeling it—by using the reflective capacity of my mind to discover it after it had already happened.

But isn’t that exactly the opposite of affect?

Even if I could leave aside this temporal quibble and just penetrate directly into the affective state of “cruel optimism,” it’s still not clear to me what work or value the labeling of a particular state as “cruel optimism” or “snark” is actually doing. Even if I could somehow simultaneously know that I was perceiving the affective state while I was feeling it, I would still have no way of predicting how or what that particular experience of that affective state would eventually do. And if I can’t predict anything from it, I can’t really do anything with it except, maybe, admire it. And if I can’t do anything with it, I can’t exactly use it to explain anything, to model anything, or to think about things in a different way. In short: I can’t really learn anything from it. Indeed, all I seem capable of doing is feeling it, describing it, and then, maybe, having more of it … ad infinitum.

So, I have to stop and ask at this point, why bother theorizing it? Why not just go practice something like Zen?

As we all know, the whole point of theory is to explain something. Theory uses abstract reasoning, (hopefully) rational thinking, modeling, exposition, explication, representation, and persuasion in order to make a point or to articulate a claim that, presumably, illuminates its subject matter. What else can or should theory do? Of course, theory can also be used to raise questions about something rather than merely explaining it. However, I would argue that the very force of “raising questions” is, itself, an explanatory activity that seeks to explicate why our current understanding of something is partial, tendentious, or inaccurate. Otherwise, why ask the question? As anyone who has graduated from Sedgwick’s “theory kindergarten” knows, the whole point of theory is to turn everything into … well … more THEORY! But this theory-making tendency creates a real problem for many of this volume’s affect theorists—dependent as they are upon theory’s traditional, rationalistic form of “the critical essay”—when they try to suggest that their descriptive, affective methodology somehow transcends this stultifying genre and puts us in touch with something better: actual affect. I mean, isn’t this sort of like reading a romance novel and mistakenly thinking that you’ve had sex? The classic example of this in The Affect Theory Reader is Ben Highmore’s essay “Bitter after Taste,” where he focuses on a scene from a TV series where a man remembers a prior scene of another man eating a particularly hot vindaloo. Because of the man’s strong reaction to the fragrant yet caustic dish, Highmore theorizes (following Bateson) that this then requires a “sensual, affective pedagogy” to be utilized (134). To which, I would respond, that, unless British TV has surreptitiously invented Smell-o-Vision, it truly does not.

Though it might appear somewhat banal and old-fashioned, my claim against affect is this: once you make the move of theorizing affect, you’ve already committed yourself to engaging with affect non-affectively. It’s similar to how quantum mechanics suggests that we change the very nature of that which we study by studying it. And I think affect is particularly susceptible to this effect because, by subjecting affect to a theoretical treatment, you’ve already committed yourself to engaging affect through the vehicle of your own thoughts, mental constructions, ideas, and beliefs about what you think an affective state is or ought to be—not with actual affect or affective relations as such.Which is not to say that the theoretical process, itself, cannot engender an affective reaction to what one is writing or thinking about. Indeed, I think all of us working in the academy can attest to feeling or embodying certain affective relations to the work we do—pleasurable, sado-masochistic, or otherwise. But those affective relations created out of the theoretical moment are, I would argue, affective reactions created by the thoughts, ideas and beliefs that we have about the work we are doing and not, say, by the magical feelings transmitted through the pen or word processing program we happen to be using.

However you define affect—virtually, hormonally, politically, pre-consciously, unconsciously, interpersonally, intersubjectively, or otherwise—you can never get at affect in anything other than a conceptual way if you use theory. And that theoretical conceptualization, I argue, renders the real affective charge—whatever that might be—structurally inert and non-affective. It automatically makes that little A back into a The, and a very old The at that—the The that goes all the way back to Plato’s anxiety about literary representation.

Regardless of whether affect theory can ever overcome its problematic stance with respect to theory, it still needs to become aware of and grapple with the larger philosophical implications of its re-imagination of the A-The relationship in strictly A-oriented terms if it ever wants to become a widely respected, intellectual paradigm. If it can’t, it threatens to become merely the next volume in the Theory-of-the-Month Club because, in the theoretical world it tries to create—the world where everything becomes an A nothing becomes a The—even affect, itself, seems disposable.

Walter Benn Michaels has compelling argued in The Shape of the Signifier that the ultimate trajectory of identity politics was to re-frame the linguistic turn around the particulars of a reader’s personal experience of a text and to challenge our ability to make “meaning” of texts. Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.I would extend his argument here and say that the affective turn, especially as it is presented in this volume, reproduces and amplifies that problem by challenging our ability to make “meaning” or “sense” out of anything at all.


Works Cited

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durnham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Leys, Ruth. From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Leys, Ruth. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Spring 2011): 434-472.