Marco Abel reads recent affect theory and suggests, via discussions of fiction by Don DeLillo, Brian Evenson, and Cormac McCarthy, how literature can cultivate the reader’s receptivity to these pre-subjective bodily forces.
For Nick Spencer, January 28, 1966 - July 18, 2008 - In Friendship
Discussions of the history of 20th- and 21st-century critical thought often proceed by delineating an itinerary of schools (new criticism, structuralism, poststructuralism, new historicism, new materialism, neo-formalism, etc.) and ‘turns’: the linguistic turn, the religious turn, the ethical turn, the ontological turn, the spatial turn, the rhetorical turn, the medial turn, and of late the so-called ‘affective turn’.Of these phrases, perhaps the one that caught on the least is that of the ‘medial turn’. See, however, Joseph Tabbi’s essay “The Medial Turn” for a lucid exposition. Focusing on this last ‘turn’, I will attempt to articulate why, and in what ways, the concept of ‘affect’ might be relevant to contemporary theoretical debates. Rather than reading a given text by applying ‘affect’, however, I am more interested in showing that affect - configured as pre-subjective force - not only usefully adds to our existing critical toolbox for the analysis of literature, film, the visual arts, music, or the social but always already constitutes the ontological grounding for the very operations of any theory or critical act of response and, as a result, directly impacts how we do theory and criticism.
Let us begin by focusing on two recent statements concerning the role assumed by the concept of affect in contemporary theoretical (literary, cinematic, social, political, economic) debates. The first statement, which initially seems critical of the affective turn, appears in Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications Since 1984, in which he debunks the widespread appropriation of Michel Foucault’s late work on ethics as a welcome (humanist) reversal of his earlier archeological and genealogical work on power. In the context of providing a genealogy of contemporary biopower, Nealon directs readers’ attention to the wide-ranging role the ‘body’ plays in academic work. Crucially, Nealon suggests that because of the proliferation of work on the ‘body’, “the hottest topic on the literary and cultural theory futures market these days seems to be ‘affect’ (or, even more straightforward, a renewed emphasis on ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling’)” (86).
Compare Nealon’s claim about the centrality of affect in contemporary cultural debates - a claim supported by the publication of Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley’s The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, a volume of interdisciplinary essays analyzing the role affect plays in a wide range of social, cultural, and political phenomena - with a statement in a recent blog entry by Steven Shaviro, known for theorizing affect in relation to culture and capitalism. Reviewing Jeff Warren’s The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, Shaviro concludes that the book’s lack of attention to the role affect plays in human cognition (and consciousness) is a “(socially) symptomatic omission”; indeed, the book, notwithstanding its various merits, “testifies to how little a role affect or emotion plays in the accounts we give of ourselves today” (“The Head Trip”). We are faced, then, with what appear to be contradictory assessments of affect’s role in contemporary debates. On one hand, Nealon suggests affect is everywhere; on the other, Shaviro argues that we do not yet pay enough attention to affect, very much to the detriment of our ability to theorize all kinds of social and aesthetic processes and phenomena.
To begin making sense of this seeming theoretical impasse, it’s worth noting that the passages just quoted seem to suggest that affect and emotion can be considered synonymous. In fact, it is just this articulation of affect qua emotion that currently dominates usage of affect in academic (and popular) discourses. As selective evidence for the conceptual slippage between, indeed the equation of, affect and emotion, consider, for example, Elisabeth Bronfen’s feminist analysis of image affects and cultural memory in which she claims that “any affective response is ephemeral. The unease about a horrific event cannot be preserved on the level of what is after all experienced as an immediate and thus momentary emotional response” (34, my emphasis); or Clare Hemming’s cultural studies critique of contemporary theory’s inclination to invoke affect as a critical object and perspective, in which she repeatedly equates affect with emotion, as she does, for example, when writing that “there is a vast range of epistemological work that attends to emotional investments, political connectivity and the possibility of change” (557, my emphasis), which, according to her, affect theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi cannot afford to acknowledge for their respective theories to work.
In contrast to these examples, neither Nealon nor Shaviro can be suspected of not understanding the crucial difference between affect and emotion. By momentarily equating affect and emotion, Nealon rhetorically emphasizes that his main concern is not ‘affect’ as such but precisely the eradication of difference between pre-singular affect and subjective emotion that occurs with great regularity in contemporary theoretical and critical discourses. Likewise, Shaviro hastens to clarify his critique of Warren’s book by admitting that he “simply elided the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’ ” and insists, with reference to Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, that any coherent explanation of affect and emotion “requires a distinction between the two.” Indeed, Massumi’s seminal work on affect teaches us that while emotions/feelings are indeed affects, they are merely one kind of affect; affect and emotions are related but not exhaustively synonymous. Simply put, emotions are merely affects territorialized on the subject. As Massumi writes, “Affect is most often used loosely as a synonym for emotion. But […] emotion and affect - if affect is [understood as] intensity - follow different logics and pertain to different orders” (27-8).
According to Shaviro, for Massumi, affect refers to the “pre-personal aspects (both physical and mental) of feelings, the way that these forms form and impel us” (“Head Trip”). As Massumi writes in his discussion of Baruch Spinoza’s theory of affect - perhaps the locus classicus of affect theory that is not derived from the tradition of psychoanalysis - “affect is an ‘affection [in other words an impingement upon] the body, and at the same time the idea of the affection’” (31, bracket and emphasis Massumi’s); the forces that impinge upon the body result in the body infolding “the effect of [this] impingement - it conserves the impingement minus the impinging thing, the impingement abstracted from the actual action that caused it and actual context of that action” (31-2, emphasis in original). Spinoza’s conception of affect has, of course, also been of great importance to the work of Antonio Negri, who renders affect as “the power to act” (“Value and Affect” 79).
To my mind, this characteristic of affect - that the effects affect produces exist in the absence of the effect’s cause - is one of the most crucial aspects that too often is ignored by those who have of late embraced this concept as a way of turning analysis back to practical concerns of the body/materiality and away from what many consider an overemphasis on textuality and overly theoretical matters. Affect, according to Massumi, cannot be reduced to traditional, teleological cause-and-effect terms. Affect in the Spinozian, and I might add Deleuzean, sense grounds any cause-and-effect logic, with the latter functioning merely as the contextual framework on which the prior force of affect eventually gets reterritorialized. This sense of affective grounding, however, must be understood in the ontological terms of Deleuze’s univocity of being thesis, which he derives from the work of medieval theologian Duns Scotus. Deleuze defines univocity of being as the “Being of becoming,” as the ontological fact that ‘Being’ can be said only of becoming and that therefore ‘Being’ itself ‘is’ nothing but becoming. As Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition, “Being is said in a single and same sense of everything of which it is said, but that of which it is said differs: it is said of difference itself” (36).As a result of this premise, Deleuze never considered ‘presence’ as much of a philosophical problem as did Jacques Derrida and the philosophical tradition influenced by Martin Heidegger. What this means, concretely, for the study of images or signaletic materials in general is that, as Elizabeth Wissinger explains in an analysis of fashion modeling, “the image’s content, its conventional meaning, does not necessarily correspond with its impact. Thus an image can have an effect that does not necessarily correspond to its meaning, or without meaning anything in particular to the viewing subject that it affects” (237).
If, however, we understand affect in these ontological terms, then we have to assert that affect can never be waning - pace Fredric Jameson’s famous claim that the age of postmodernism is characterized by a “waning of affect” (10). Tellingly, Jameson qualifies his claim that postmodern culture is characterized by a “waning of affect” by saying that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that all affect, all feeling or emotion, all subjectivity, has vanished” (10, my emphasis).What Jameson should have said instead is that in the age of postmodernism and late capitalism, we witness the waning of emotion (to wit, a display of emotion becomes ‘uncool’ and is being displaced by irony, a perhaps willfully enacted detachment and disinvestment by people confronted with a world that increasingly pushes the logic of consumerism down our throats as the epitome of good citizenship); but affect is always there, even in the works of, say, Andy Warhol, Bret Easton Ellis, or A. M. Homes, to name but a few artists whose work is often characterized as affectless. Affect is not something that can be quantified, but it has, so I would suggest in contrast to Massumi, different qualities: it can be more or less flat, cold, hot, stimulating, paralyzing, sped up, slowed down, etc. In this sense, affect is indeed a matter of intensity, but what this means is that a flat, Warholian affect is as affective as a baroque Baconian one - just differently so.My reference here is to Francis Bacon’s paintings.
Affect doesn’t wane to a point of absence; rather, what we might cognate as a waning of affect is itself an effect of the affective rhythm that immanently generates the very moment of recognition upon which we territorialize the forces our bodies encounter before the moment of cognition kicks in. If the affective movement ends up being read as ‘flat’ this is less an issue of the absence of a subject’s affect than a symptom of the forces involved in the encounter between the surface of the body and that which impinges upon it in the moment of encounter. That is, in response to any given encounter with the outside, a subject may display a lack of emotion and yet is filled with affects; indeed, it is the affective quality of the encounter that produces, on the cognitive level, the very lack of emoting that is often misleadingly described as affectlessness. This is precisely why attention to the a-signifying materialities of communication is not, as some might think, a meaningless endeavor but rather its necessary starting point, not in order to assert that ‘everything is affect’ (analogously to, say, the endlessly repeated mantra that everything is socially constructed) but to follow through this affective moment so as to ride - to deploy and intensify - its forces creatively, to delineate and in so doing build the very connections that affect’s specific, always singular intensities make available as virtual potential.
Given Massumi’s careful conceptual distinction between affect and emotion - that is, between becoming and representation and the pre-personal/pre-subjective and the personal/subjective - it is intriguing to note that Nealon’s critique of affect directly targets Massumi’s argument. However, the problem that Nealon locates in Massumi’s configuration of affect is not that the latter insufficiently theorizes affect but rather that Massumi’s conception of affect ends up doing too much work in contemporary debates. As Nealon writes, “My beef here, such as I have one, is not that one should avoid talking about ‘intensity’ in terms of subjectivity” (65), as Massumi does when writing that “Intensity and experience accompany one another like two mutually presupposing dimensions or like two sides of the coin” (Massumi 33; qt. in Nealon 65). As far as Nealon is concerned, “intensity is a concept or yardstick that should allow us to say things about subjective experience, money, rivers, nanotechnology, anything. But it’s precisely the ‘anything’ that sometimes gets lost when intensity is territorialized or understood primarily through something called ‘experience’ ” (66). What Nealon fears, then, is that in Massumi’s conception of affect qua intensity the logic of intensity embraced by Nealon ends up being shackled to an existentialist/phenomenological notion of ‘authentic’ experience, indeed to a narcissistic (re)affirmation of the Self’s preciousness - and this at the very moment when the logic of globalized capital mobilizes subjects’ narcissistic obsessions with themselves as the smoothest running engine of production the history of capitalism has thus far invented! In short, too much talk of affect has the potential to detract us from analyzing the larger forces surrounding personalized affect. It is not that the individual, and his or her affective experiences, do not matter, but from Nealon’s perspective it is dangerous if these experiences come to stand in for the difficult work of ‘resistance’ as a whole: I may or may not have authentic experiences when tattooing myself, but to cast such affective experience as ‘sticking it to the man’ strikes Nealon (and I wholeheartedly agree) as the apex of political delusion.
To briefly illustrate this point, consider Don DeLillo’s much maligned novel Cosmopolis (2003), about 28-year-old, billionaire asset manager Eric Packer. DeLillo’s first post-9/11 novel and follow-up to his celebrated magnum opus Underworld (1997) inspired critics to write some of the harshest reviews of DeLillo’s career.Between these two books he also published the novella The Body Artist (2001). Setting the tone for the novel’s critical reception, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ chief book critic, vehemently dismissed the novel because of its ‘insufficiencies’ on the level of psychological realism. What Kakutani and others find so lacking in DeLillo’s recent work, if not indeed in his entire oeuvre,For a good rehearsal of the critical attacks that greeted DeLillo’s novel and a considerably more positive take on the novel’s merits, see Sven Philipp. is precisely that aspect of fiction writing that calls forth in the reader personalized affect - or the ability to become immersed in the fictional world and to identify with characters and the events that befall them. But such responses resist engaging what the novel is only all-too-obviously doing on the narrative and linguistic level: namely, instilling personalized affect in the reader negatively, in form of the affective response of irritation solicited by the novel’s refusal to allow readers to access it through the well-habituated and institutionalized (moral/moralizing) frame of psychological realism. Cosmopolis explicitly confronts readers with the very pre-subjective affective forces surrounding (and generating) the desired personalized affect that it makes available only qua negation, without turning such negation into a positive expression of personal affect. In so doing, however, that which the novel is so clearly about and dramatizes - the ‘lightness’ of contemporary finance, or even “just-in-time” (Nealon 59), capitalist operations - becomes affectively rendered sensible to readers as the very a- or pre-subjective field of forces on which personalized affect has no (resistive) purchase.
Rather than driven by the desire to critique capitalism, as critical doxa holds, DeLillo’s work is first and foremost an attempt to render sensible the complexity of this pre-subjective quality of capitalism - i.e., that contemporary capitalism’s operational logic is defined by a multiplicity of flows that produce ever-changing subject-positions as nodal relays and intensifiers but that neither presuppose any given subject nor are beholden to such subjects’ will or desires. Such a view of DeLillo’s fiction is made available precisely by and as a result of their surface, anti-realist qualities, by, if you will, the clinical coldness of their diagnostic import. Failing to ‘recognize’ this, however, is not a matter of a lack of intelligence on the part of critics; rather, it is exactly their sense that a priori valued critical categories - broadly put: psychological realism and the moral compass of universalizing humanism - have no purchase on DeLillo’s recent novels (I’d argue his entire work) that negatively manifests itself in the forcefully affective quality of the critical attacks.
Critics such as Kakutani are not unresponsive to the affective quality of DeLillo’s novel; rather, it is precisely the primacy of the affective response solicited by the novel’s design from which they desire to escape, since heeding the particular quality of DeLillo’s novel’s affective solicitations puts at stake the very liberal-humanist, indeed existentialist, critical presuppositions critics of DeLillo’s work hold dear and mobilize so effectively as a means to normalize middlebrow taste. What critics ultimately begrudge DeLillo is that he does not cater to their shared sense of ‘authenticity’ - that old Romantic nugget that continues to function as the apex of critical valuations - but instead relentlessly reveals it for what it is: to wit, as Horkheimer and Adorno long ago argued, the driving engine of the culture industry - a much maligned theoretical insight, which rings even more true today than it did in the 1940s.See their Dialectic of Enlightenment, especially the “Culture Industry” chapter.
Affect, then, is indeed a matter of bodies, but Deleuze crucially reconfigures the concept of the body away from subjectivist (phenomenological, existentialist, or vitalist) understandings thereof, which end up reducing a body - properly speaking, a singular configuration of a multiplicity of forces or potentials marked by the haecceitic indefinite article - to ‘my’ body and in so doing found its feelings as the normative base from which to assess and indeed judge the world (including artistic productions).See Deleuze’s Francis Bacon for a comprehensive explication of his a-phenomenological conception of bodies. On haecceities, see Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, where they define this notion as verbs in the infinitive, proper names, dates, indefinite articles, all of which consisting “entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected” (261, my emphasis). For Deleuze, as well as Foucault, forces (including Foucault’s often misunderstood conception of ‘power’) don’t act on already constituted bodies or subjects as much as they act upon other forces, or potentials. A body is nothing but the manifestation of this interaction of forces, but this body - a bundle of sensations or affects or potentialities - should not be confused with ‘my’ or ‘your’ body. In Deleuze’s hands, that is, affect is precisely not ‘of’ or ‘for’ the realm of judgment but inexorably precedes the very possibility of judgment. Affect is a-moral, a-representational, a-signifying: affect does not belong to ‘me’ but traverses what ‘I’ eventually come to cognate as ‘my’ body and ‘my’ self. By extension, the logic of Deleuzean affect implies that what ‘I’ am is, in the end, nothing but ‘my’ response-ability with regard to the forces of the outside that impinge upon ‘me’. Ethically-speaking, then, this means that it is not up to a subject to decide whether he or she likes or dislikes, affirms or rejects, this or that affect; the very ability to ‘choose’ is an effect of the prior impinging of forces upon ‘my’ body: ‘my’ choices are non-deterministically produced by the affects traversing ‘me’. As Wissinger helpfully elaborates, affective flow “is a reaction that occurs before the direction of aims and objects, that is, before there is individual desire or interpretation, before the affective flow is narrated as an affective state in a particular body. [The] effect of affective flow is always indeterminate until after it is registered and narrated as a physical state” (238).
Put differently, affect - understood as becoming/pre-subjective force - is precisely that which comes first, ontologically as well as pragmatically; affect is that which ends up producing emotions and representations. For instance, it is because my hands tremble that I get nervous, rather than the other way around. My hands tremble because my body has infolded a multiplicity of forces that impinged upon me, but that are now absent; the effect of these forces - lingering, intensifying - translate, however, into a more recognizable emotion: my body narrativizes/represents, if you will, the initial a-signifying encounter with said forces. As Shaviro, whose discussions of affect are informed by “William James’ argument that cognized emotions are the effects of bodily states” (“The Cinematic Body Redux”), argues, “affects are the grounds of conscious experience, even though they may not themselves be conscious. […] The affect is an overall neurological and bodily experience; the emotion is secondary, a result of my becoming-conscious of the affect […]. This means that my affective or mental life is not centered upon consciousness” (“Head Trip”). Or, as Ticineto Clough states, in the age of biopower, what Foucault and subsequently Deleuze coined ‘control societies’ “call into question the politics of representation and subject identity, even as a method for achieving representation for those who had not been subjects of representation or who had been traumatically excluded from voice. The shift to control calls into question autobiographical experimental writing; it calls into question the political effectiveness of self-reflexivity in the production of knowledge” (“Introduction” 20) because self-reflexivity, by definition, presupposes a fully-formed subject to which affect happens secondarily, rather than being itself an effect of the convergence of flows of affective forces.
Self-reflexivity is another word for critical distance, understood as a ‘stepping out’ of one’s self upon which one subsequently reflects; but such ‘stepping out’ is precisely impossible, as that which one steps out of consists of the same affective force field as that which one steps into at the moment of reflexivity: any self-reflexivity is itself affected by the affective forces giving rise to the reflecting ‘self’. One of the upshots of this insight is that the self-reflexive impulse, which is so popular in cultural studies or specific versions of ethnic studies and which is intended to mark the situatedness of the speaking voice as marginal and thus privileged with regard to the experience under discussion, is actually a particularly powerful - because seemingly empowering - relay in the smooth machinery of control, rather than being a particularly promising strategy of resistance. Encouraging the dissemination of personalized affect, control societies, through such a ‘light’ deployment of power, afford subjects to experience their own oppression as pleasurable, indeed libratory! Or, as Adorno once wrote in his inimitable style, the “glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so” (Minima Moralia 28).
The ultimate reason for Nealon’s suspicion about affect - understood qua experiential, subject-driven or - focused experience or emotion - pertains to the work it does with regard to the position contemporary subjects find themselves in at the very moment when the realm of the common, “that vector of power that directly connects the cultural to the economic, […] takes up residence in the private realm, not the public sphere” (85). What strikes Nealon as odd about this turn to affect qua subjective (i.e., privatized) experience is that such “artistic or cultural forms of ‘the privatization of value’ are seldom discussed as further lamentable symptoms of neoliberal economics, but rather as bulwarks against this very logic” (88): the explosion of the memoir as a popular genre; the popularity of confessional music genres such as emo; the widespread success of daytime television shows such as Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, or Oprah; as well as the increasing reliance of the news on screaming-head ‘experts’ whose only expertise is their supreme self-confidence in their own subjective experiences’ synecdochal quality - all are symptoms of this very point. A cultural and enculturated turn to affect seems to have encouraged (however inadvertently even by those whose version of affect does not reduce it to mere subjective feelings) a return to a hyper-subjective mode of thinking and acting at the very moment when, on a much larger scale, the subject has definitely “disappeared into a virtual ether” (89), now known as the posthuman condition in which we all partake as cyborgs of one kind or another. From this perspective, the turn to affect appears as a near impotent retreat into the shell of the self that is misguidedly conceived as a way of resisting power when it is precisely the private realm that has now become the location in which power works on us.
All of this can also be put in the following terms: Contemporary affect theory is problematic for someone like Nealon - and is not yet far enough advanced for someone like Shaviro - because its predominant deployment of this concept ties it to a lack economy. Just like the impetus for self-reflexivity is generated by the dialectical logic of inside/outside - the necessity to get to where one currently is not - so affect is all too often seen as something scarce. Indeed, Massumi’s argument can be considered symptomatic of this configuration of affect as lack, as can be seen when he argues that the “problem is that there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect” (27). On one hand, of course, Massumi is quite correct (or was, given it’s been six-plus years since his theoretical intervention, which itself has been instrumental in rectifying this problem). Precisely because of the ruling framework of signification - even in works otherwise influenced by poststructuralismConsider, for instance, Paul de Man’s work, which, as I discuss in chapter 3 of Violent Affect, ultimately remains stuck in the logic of signification. - one runs into resistance when suggesting that reading literature or viewing film is first and foremost an affective operation before it becomes a cognitive one. By insisting on the priority of affect over cognition - on the fact that, to quote Deleuze and Guattari, “the basic phenomenon of hallucination (I see, I hear) and the basic phenomenon of delirium (I think…) presuppose an I feel at an even deeper level” (Anti-Oedipus 18) - I don’t mean to imply a value judgment (that affect is ‘better’ than cognition, or the body is ‘better’ than the mental and its attending operations of, say, interpretation and recognition), which would once more perpetuate binary logic, namely between immediacy (presence) and mediacy (absence); rather, the nature of the ‘before’ is a temporal one, which, as Shaviro writes, is embedded in a “unified (both physical and mental, or both affective and cognitive) process” (“Cinematic Body Redux”). However, only because in actuality we witness the difficulty of conceptualizing or talking about signaletic materials in a-signifying, affective terms does not mean that our representationally-framed encounters with whatever objects are not always and already shot through with affect, all the way down, as contemporary neurobiology has firmly established. See, for instance, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, in which he proposes a distinction between feelings and emotions, the latter of which maps onto my discussion of ‘affect’ in the Spinozian-Deleuzean, pre-subjective sense. Emotion, for Damasio, is of the public arena whereas feeling remains private, a distinction that Ticineto Clough picks up on when, with reference to Massumi, she declares that “affect is not ‘presocial’ ” (2): affect, in other words, is precisely social.
Differently put, perhaps the only possible response to Massumi’s correct assessment about our lack of vocabulary regarding affect is to ask: so what? More poetically, if the implicit demand issued by Massumi’s book is for us to spend much energy on developing a proper vocabulary, then perhaps we should say with Herman Melville’s scrivener Bartleby: “I prefer not.” For emphasizing the question of vocabulary seems, oddly, to privilege precisely the semantic, narrativizing, representationalist discourse Massumi wants to suspend, if not completely jettison. By starting from the presumption that we do not even know how to talk about affect we end up predominantly trying to figure out how to talk about affect - thus inevitably territorializing affect back onto the signifying plane. Moreover, by obsessing about filling this lack, our very efforts are already governed by this lack, in a way akin to what Deleuze and Guattari argue regarding resistance when they point out that too much will have already been conceded if we begin with the assumption “that a society is defined by its contradictions. […] From the viewpoint of micropolitics, a society is defined by its lines of flight [or affects], which are molecular. There is always something [affects] that flows or flees, that escapes the binary organizations, the resonance apparatus, and the overcoding machine” (A Thousand Plateaus 216). If our diagnostic starting point is to overcome lack then affect ends up becoming nothing but yet another model ruled by scarcity - but affect is precisely that which is constitutive: the power to affect and be affected is not something that we get to choose to embrace, nor does the power to affect and be affected depend on our ability to speak about it.
Taken seriously, an important consequence ensues from insisting that affect has nothing to do with lack - one that I want to develop with reference to the often-posed question of what theoretical strategies and methodological tactics are required to read, view, listen, that is, respond, through an affective lens? The basic assumption of this question echoes Massumi, namely, on a basic level we must first learn how to respond affectively. As if we ever (could) respond an-affectively! Reading, viewing, listening, sensing - that is, responding to the outside - is first and foremost a matter of affect: we never read a novel, poem, or essay, view a film or an advertising billboard, listen to a song or a cat’s purr, sense a pinprick on our skin or the deep bass waves emitted by a high-end subwoofer in the trunk of a car passing by, or engage another person outside of the realm of affect. Our ability to comprehend, indeed to respond, is always produced by the pre-subjective affective quality of the encounter with the other, a quality that depends on the affective intensity inhering in the impinging force, the force that impinges on my body (including my embodied mind). The question, therefore, is not so much what critics are supposed to do with ‘affect’ as what, say, fiction does to its own affective quality - how it overcodes its pre-subjective force and thus affects how readers territorialize their response, how we are enabled, allowed, or subjected to territorialize, that is, produce a response, or actualize our response-ability.
For example, in recent works of violent fiction by the widely acclaimed Cormac McCarthy and the considerably lesser known Brian Evenson we can detect telling differences in terms of how the texts work and have been subsequently received. Without intending to value the quality of either writer’s work, I submit that the fundamental difference between their oeuvres - which I think accounts for the former’s fame and the latter’s relative obscurity - derives from the affective import of their respective use of violence. In McCarthy’s case - whether he writes in his minimalist (The Road ) or baroque (almost everything else) mode - the impact of his characters’ violence, or of the violence they are exposed to, seems always offered within the framework of existentialist morality; in other words, the pre-subjective, affective quality of a reader’s response is always already tied to an explanatory plane that in effect immediately overcodes the novel’s affective force onto the level of individualized rationalization (i.e., ‘meaning’), even if, as some have suggested, the point of his novels is to assert the meaninglessness of his characters’ struggle with and in an uncaring environment. For instance, The Road ultimately solicits from readers acquiescence to a sense of human decency that is embodied by, and affirmed through the survival of, the young child, even though one might simultaneously feel that such survival of human decency is meaningless given that the novel’s apocalyptically stark setting serves to emphasize that it would be ‘unrealistic’ on our part to believe that the son will find a better future. That he refused (and made his father resist his urge) to give in to ‘inhuman’ acts such as cannibalism is precisely the narrative device that (affectively) territorializes the all-pervasive violence of the novel onto a plane of proper morality, which is offered up in opposition to this violence. Consequently, the possibility that ‘morality’ itself is violence remains (purposefully?) suppressed.Chapter three of Violent Affect shows why morality is not opposed to violence.
In contrast, in Evenson’s fictional universe the role violence plays is never framed in terms of morality; instead it is extra-moral, or a-moral. In his texts, in fact, all social categories, including, crucially, that of morality, dissolve. What remains is pure syntax and diction. Consider this series of opening sentences found in Altmann’s Tongue:
“He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open” (“The Father, Unblinking” 3).
“They wanted to kill their cats, but the problem was the problem of transportation” (“Killing Cats” 9).
“After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Altmann’s corpse watching the steam of the mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann” (“Altmann’s Tongue” 13).
“The face of my daughter, my eldest - the daughter who later that day threw herself a second time from the open window of her Munich apartment, this time to her death - was not unknown to me, though I had not seen her face for eighteen years” (“The Munich Window: A Persecution” 15).
“That was the year my father was shot for giving bad directions” (“Hey, Luciano!” 91).
“Having sewn Jarry’s eyelids shut, Hébé found himself at a loss as to how to proceed” (“Hébé kills Joe” 109).
“Inspector Sanza was conducting a reinvestigation into the particulars of the Hadden case when, one mild October night, after ten but not later than two, according to various testimony and to the autopsy, they killed him” (“The Sanza Affair” 173).
All of these sentences assault the reader as a mixture of rhetorical flatness, narrative indifference, and syntactical precision. Setting the tone for stories of extreme violence and depravity, they introduce the violence to be explicitly described or, rarely, merely evoked. They do this in ways that primarily effect a sense of violation in the reader, not merely because some of the violence is nausea-inducing but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it solicits from me an odd, inexplicable sense of what Maurice Blanchot calls in The Space of Literature “fascination,” arguing that “when what you see, although at a distance, seems to touch you with a gripping contact, […] when what is seen imposes itself upon a gaze, as if the gaze were seized [then what] is given us by this contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image” (32).
Indeed, Evenson’s fiction induces a sense of violation in a reader’s body and embodied mind that remains profoundly pre-moral, that is, pre-representational - a-signifying, a-moral. We’re fascinated by the violence - even at the moment of initial encounter - and are not allowed to discern why we are, and continue to feel, fascinated, haunted. Not using violence representationally - that is, in the name of something else, as if violence had something to teach us (which critics desiring to defend a certain kind of ‘progressive’ violence often assert) - Evenson confronts his readers with a form of writing that forces us to come to terms with, to evoke one of his greatest short stories, “the problem of all possible language” (“The Polygamy of Language” 9): that of its a-signifying force that precedes and exceeds any moment of cognition and comprehension, which themselves are effects of the force of language impinging upon our embodied minds.
McCarthy’s fiction allows a reader’s affective response to the language and narrative be easily re-framed so that it becomes cognitively comprehensible in terms of the texts’ ‘meaning’; as such, it is offered up as a lesson in humanity. In contrast, Evenson’s work defers such territorialization of affect onto ‘meaning’ by demanding of us not so much to tolerate but to endure an interval of suspension - not because we do not know how to talk about violence or affect, or because the violence itself is unspeakable, but because the intensity of the violence in his work, which is not merely a matter of what his language represents but also of how it has existence on the level of language itself, renders us, in a sense, speechless. Being speechless, however, is not the same as not knowing how, or not being able, to talk about something; being speechless is, precisely, an affective experience that is imposed upon a subject from outside. It is not that the subject/reader decides not to talk or will never be able to talk, but that she cannot not be silent for a period of time, not because there are no words, but because there are only words - a cacophony of possible reterritorializations of the affects circulating between text and reader that allows for only two responses: to give oneself over to this cacophony as cacophony or to impose one’s subjective moral universe onto an essentially a-moral artistic offering.Far from ascribing to a moralizing discourse of ineffability, this moment of speechlessness, raises the question of how to territorialize, rather than whether or not to territorialize: the latter question is moral in kind, and choosing the correct answer is a matter of one’s ‘proper’ relation to violence; the former question, in contrast, is not a matter of propriety at all but of pragmatics (in Deleuze’s sense), of doing. With reference to Naomi Mandel’s compelling argument against the rhetoric of the ‘unspeakable’, we might say that engaging the question of how to territorialize is creating a line of flight away from the claustrophobic, intransitive moral discourse of ‘proper’ morality, which trades in ‘meaning’ for ‘doing’, and towards a transitive mode of engagement with violence, which foregrounds the question of doing; indeed, being ‘against’ representationalism is, if you will, “something to do” (Mandel 219).
But as with Kakutani’s rejection of DeLillo’s novels, such subjective enactment of one’s will to power would be nothing but an articulation of one’s pre-subjective affective response qua negativity. Or, as Shaviro writes, “the cognitive […] grows out of the visceral, and is an elaboration of it (“The Cinematic Body Redux”). That is, it is not so much that there is affect ‘over here’, cognition ‘over there’; rather, cognition itself is always already affected by the affective quality our bodies infold in their responses to the outside.Such a conception of cognition fundamentally differs from the kind of cognitivism that currently is popular in film and media studies: the former conceives of cognition in affective terms (cognition impacted by affective force), whereas the latter continues to trade in the Enlightenment binary of body and mind. While the moment of affect, neurobiologically speaking, quite literally precedes that of cognition,Cf. Damasio 101. the moment of cognition is not opposed to affect but can be understood only in affective terms: it is not a case of ‘cognition versus affect’ but of cognaffectation, to coin an admittedly awkward neologism. What we have here, importantly, is not a dialectical sublation of a contradictory relation, but the immanent imbrication of cognition and affect, or what Deleuze and Guattari theorize in terms of double-articulation (A Thousand Plateaus 39-74). Arguing that double articulation is not merely axiomatic to language systems but to all systems, or rather, forms of stratification, they dispute in the third chapter of A Thousand Plateaus that everything is linguistic or textual. Language, in their view, is but one specific instance partaking in the process of stratifying previously heterogeneous forces. To be sure, the signifying regime of language - that is, (re)cognition or representation - is an important aspect of this process, but not the only, let alone the most important, one.Chapters 4 and 5 in A Thousand Plateaus go a long way to showing that the widespread tendency to reduce language to signification is itself highly problematic.
Polemically put, Deleuze and Guattari contest the humanist privileging of ‘meaning’ - that is, representationalism - as an analytic category. Although they would not deny that representations exist and meaning is always bound to occur on some level (precisely at moments of utmost territorialization or stratification of the forces of different/ciation), it remains obscure to them why, say, literary or film studies have defined the discovery and pinning down of ‘meaning’ as their holy grail of analysis.For Deleuze’s discussion of different/ciation, see Difference and Repetition, 209-214. In fact, I read Deleuze’s oeuvre as an extended attempt to combat the dominant - that is, representational - image of thought: as long as we think of language or images - or, in general, signaletic materials - representationally our analyses will remain trapped in a moralizing logic of thinking, which is as old as Plato’s thought and which continuously values identity over difference, or, in the terms of the present discussion, emotion/feeling over affect.For Deleuze’s most explicit rejection of the representationalist image of thought, see Difference and Repetition, 129-167.
I want to stress, however, that the point I was not trying to make in comparing McCarthy and Evenson is that the latter’s fiction - and especially its violence - has somehow ‘more’ affect and is therefore superior to the former’s. One cannot have more or less affect. The point is that Evenson’s fiction overcodes its affective quality as well - but not onto personalized emotion or meaning. It does not seek to establish or solicit a purer form of individuality; instead, Evenson’s fiction aims to render the pre-subjective force of affect immediate through language - something that is structurally impossible to accomplish because affect is, precisely, not language as such - by intensifying the logic of representation itself, rather than by negating or escaping it.
Evenson’s fiction overcodes affect, just like McCarthy’s - but differently so: whereas McCarthy territorializes affect onto the individualist plane of emotion, soliciting a discourse of meaning and thus feeling from us, as the critical discourse on his work certainly evidences, Evenson’s writing essentially provokes silence - a silence that in itself marks an interval, a moment of deferral where the responding subject’s self-confidence in his ability to respond is put into question. Or, rather, his ability to respond is re-configured, for silence is already a response to something as well: silence is not lack, the absence of speech, but a specific affective marking of speech itself and, as such, has reality and does something. What Evenson’s violent fiction does is to go after our representationalist mode of response itself. It foregrounds the problem with assuming a position of ethical responsibility premised on a humanist belief in the primacy of the subject - a belief that is shot through with the very self-righteousness of the one who gets to pass judgment (positive or negative) on the fictional violence that allegedly calls for just such moral response.In chapter 4 of Violent Affect I show that judgment actually is violence, not its antidote.
It is the fascinating silence that Evenson’s fiction calls forth as discourse’s ability to respond - that is, its inability to explain violence with recourse to moral categories - that induces in the reader, in the one who cannot not respond to what calls forth such response, a different encounter with the object. It is an encounter with the object, or the event of violence, that, however, is not defined by a sense of purity, as if one somehow were exposed in an unmediated fashion to violence as such. Because Evenson’s writing manages to defer immediate territorialization onto representationalism doesn’t mean that his fiction and its violence exist outside the plane of representation. To insist on the reality of representation - its affective quality - against the idea that signaletic materials are representations of reality is not to suggest that our access to the reality of representation is immediate; it is to suggest, however, that such access is not reducible to such an image’s ‘meaning’ but instead has to account for what that reality does.
To repeat I am not claiming that affect and representation are opposed to each other. I am claiming, however, that affect, understood with Deleuze as pre-subjective force, is the ontological pre-condition for any instantiation of representation, meaning, understanding, cognition, and consciousness to emerge. The noun quality of affect - subjective feeling - is precisely the end product of an operation of territorialization of pre-subjective affective force that we call representation; or, perhaps better, affect qua verb and affect qua noun are two different actualizations of the virtual potential that is affect itself. To say that affect exists all the way down means that representationalist discourse is also shot through with, and affected and effectuated by, affective force. The question is, therefore, not one of an either/or choice, as if we somehow could choose either to groove with cool, hip affect or to remain traditional by choosing old-fashioned, square representation. As Jacques Derrida taught us in his landmark essay “Structure, Sign, and Play,” when discussing two interpretations of interpretation - the negative and the affirmative, the Platonic and the Nietzschean - we do not get to choose between these interpretations. Instead of positing this as a matter of choosing one over the other - an act that would allow us to reconfirm the “privilege of the founding subject, who cheerfully allows himself or herself to be drawn into the orbit of responding” (Alterity Politics 167), of choosing ethical response-ability over unethical resentment - I want to insist that affect ‘chooses’ us. As Nealon elaborates upon and intensifies Derrida’s often misunderstood argument, “responsibility is not merely choosing, at least if this responsibility is to be an affirmation of alterity.” The ethics of what he calls “performative subjectivity is enacted precisely in and as a response to the always already exterior, to the other that is the ground of the same. The point is not that I always need to remember to act ‘as if I was responsible’; rather, ‘I’ am nothing but this responsibility” (169). That is, ‘I’ am always already ‘chosen’ by the outside, by pre-subjective forces, to respond; I am always already affected by pre-subjective forces before ‘I’ get to ‘decide’ to territorialize such affective response onto another plane, such as that of representation and judgment.
However, that representation is inevitable and always returns I take for granted. Given the inevitable territorializing moment, then, what does matter is the moment of the in-between, what I refer to in Violent Affect as the moment of ‘masocritical suspense’: the interval that gets produced through critical, pedagogical, habituating practices of momentary deferral, of halting, is of utmost interest. In other words, even though one cannot escape representationalism and thus judgment, it is possible to defer, to halt, it. How one defers becomes thus a crucial stylistic, indeed ethical, question: the ability to respond - response-ability - is what is put at stake in and by this masocritical diagnostic operation. This operation strategically and rhetorically configures the ability to respond not as a humanist privileging of the primacy of the subject but as what I like to think of as an Adorno-Deleuzean ethics of heeding the primacy of the object.
It is important to qualify, though, that the object’s, or affect’s, primacy I am laboring to articulate is ultimately a rhetorical primacy rather than akin to the primacy of the event as understood by Alain Badiou to whom showing fidelity to the event is and remains the key issue. As understood by Adorno and Deleuze, the primacy of the object is not defined by a purity or authenticity to which we somehow can have immediate access if we try hard enough - a point that directly follows from Deleuze’s univocity of being thesis or Adorno’s axiomatic deployment of negative dialectics; rather, that which is said to have primacy is that which can be said only in the pluperfect: it is that which will have been - it is something that itself has yet to be produced and is thus always (partially) of the future.
Heeding the primacy of the object is not about being ‘just’ or ‘felicitous’ to the event (as if the event existed ‘out there’ in unmediated fashion) but about enacting a mode of response-ability that disallows - in any case temporarily suspends - the possibility for the subject to obtain a position of purity, of self-righteousness. Heeding the primacy of affect means, then, that that which will have been heeded must first be produced through the act of response-ability itself, which, as I suggested, is itself configured by affect: the object to be responded to never exists in its immediacy or purity ‘for us’ but itself is an effect of how we are made to respond, that is, how we inhabit our response-ability within the affective forces of the object.
In the end, the stakes of my argument directly pertain to how we conceive of ‘theory’ itself. For I cannot help but observe and think that the ‘affective turn’ too often functions simply as a new concept to be applied to various artistic objects and social phenomena. All too often affect itself becomes a concept that in praxis functions representationally: by reading ‘for’ the affect in the object at hand, the object itself ends up representing the very affect for which one reads to begin with. In other words, the mode of theory that is being proliferated in such analyses is that of the utilitarian application model. This is a serious problem, at least within the framework of Deleuze and Guattari’s work, which functions as the foundation of so many contemporary discussions of affect.
Theory is precisely not something to be applied; theory - theoria as Greek for seeing - is an action, a verb: we always already do it, which means it’s never a matter of us choosing whether or not to apply theory. Theory is an intervention, a mode of construction - i.e., something that is broader and richer than the much more limiting action involved in application. By definition application involves repeating the same. Theory, in contrast, involves the process of what Deleuze theorized as repetition of, and as, difference, that is, an “internal repetition within the singular” (Difference and Repetition 1).What Deleuze means is that ‘repetition’ is not a matter of consecutiveness (first one, then the same once more) but of firstness or singularity: in one and the same instance difference and repetition occur. It is not that ‘B’ repeats ‘A’ but that in the event of ‘A’ there is already a first moment of repetition and difference.
Affect is not something to apply but to deploy, to link up to and to re-direct. It is a matter of pragmatics, not hermeneutics. At stake here is the claim - and cherished humanist belief - that we actually should care about what ‘X’ means. That many care seems self-evident, but why one does - and indeed should - is less clear. To my mind, Deleuzian affect-theory is an effort to suspend our obsession with meaning, precisely in order to examine what the meaning-game blocks, what, to use Nealon’s favorite phrase, it costs us to territorialize affect onto feeling, actions onto states, verbs onto nouns, social processes onto private affairs, the uncontrollable, messy affairs of the outside onto the neatly codifiable structures of interiority.
Of course, these are sweeping generalizations. Nevertheless, it strikes me as inarguable that our academic tradition has ingrained in us, across generations, the hermeneutic mode of thinking, a mode that privileges concepts such as representation, meaning, and application. It might be worthwhile showing, however, how even these seemingly dominant models and their practices of reading are always shot through with affective relations - are, indeed, always enabled by the very affective forces they work hard to ignore or deny. In my view one of the most egregious examples of this is the U.S. cultural studies reception of Adorno, whose thought is frequently reduced to what have by now coagulated into well-worn clichés: that he hated Jazz, that he hated popular culture, that he was a pessimist, that he advocated elitist high culture, etc. What is so astonishing about the propositional quality attributed to his work is that Adorno’s writings are so obviously not driven by propositions but by the chiasmic movement of his prose/thought. For excellent analyses of the logic of Adorno’s prose and therefore thought, see Nealon’s “Maxima Immoralia? Speed and Slowness in Adorno’s Minima Moralia” and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s essays on Adorno’s work in Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno. This movement is immanent to the very logic of negative dialectics, which is very much characterized by its affective force (i.e., by how it moves: at what speed, in what direction, with what rhythm) and, crucially, by the insistence to forestall any possibility for standstill, that is, for the very resolution embodied by the dialectical sublation of a contradiction into a positive third term. It simply makes no sense at all, if we are willing to encounter Adorno on his own terms, to abstract from the movement of his thought, which is (inextricable from) its content, propositional, i.e., representational, statements.
But attending to such movements and rhythms is precisely to practice a mode of response that Adorno defined as the imperative to heed “the primacy of the object” (Aesthetic Theory 145). It is the affective quality inscribed into this ethics of response - one that, if given a choice between subject and object, always begins with the object, not the subject, although for the negative dialectician Adorno the subject does play a crucial role - that, I contend, presents critical theory with one of the most intriguing and potentially productive linkages between the thought of the Frankfurt School thinker and that of Deleuze’s conception of immanence.I.e., Adorno, unlike Ludwig Wittgenstein, insists that one must attempt to utter “the unutterable” (Negative Dialectics 9). For him, the only way to speak about things is conceptually, using language, and yet language never can ‘be’ what it talks about. The relationship between subject and object must always be articulated negatively, qua contradiction, thus maintaining the tension rather than resolving it. As a result, Adorno came to define unideological thought as “that which does not permit itself to be reduced to ‘operational terms’ and instead strives to help the things themselves to that articulation from which they are otherwise cut off by the prevailing language” (“Cultural Criticism and Society” 29). To wit, the role of the subject is to aid the object, itself without language, in articulating itself in ways that are specific to its singularity - a singularity that virtually precedes the subject who finds herself actually confronted with it. The object needs the subject for its actualization - an event that itself cannot occur without the subject’s productive intervention; but the subject must never predicate her constructive, pragmatic encounter with the object on her own subjective preconceptions. That’s what it means to heed the primacy of the object: not objectivity, purity, or authenticity, but engaging in a creative act of love with regard to what exceeds one’s own self but has as such no existence without that response. While we mustn’t conflate their thought - for instance, the role ‘truth’ and ‘dialectics’ plays in their work deserves careful and nuanced attention and likely would point to significant philosophical differences between these thinkers - both of their practices of reading and theorizing overtly foreground the role pre-subjective affect plays in the production of subjectivity. By adapting, and slightly twisting, my work in Violent Affect, I want to suggest both that such heeding of the primacy of the object, or better yet, the primacy of affect, constitutes a way of practicing theory or criticism that is worth taking seriously and what the nature of such practice is.
One of the central theses of Violent Affect is that taking seriously the notion of affect demands that one (at least momentarily) suspend representationalism, including recourse to history and context, two concepts that are undoubtedly important and need to be brought back into the discussion but that, at least from Deleuze’s point of view, too often block a more intensive way of responding to a literary, filmic, or social event. Representationalism always approaches and leaves the object too quickly - that is, it does not linger with it enough. This actively produced act of lingering with the object, of giving oneself over to the other, is characteristic of the critical practice of masochism, or what I call ‘masocriticism’: just as the text to be responded to, through its sheer existence as a specifically configured object, arrives before me with a set of expectations derived from its process of generation (which is irreducible to the concept of intentionality and exceeds the explanatory force of context), so the critical act seeks out, through subjection to the object/other, an encounter with the object/other in such a fashion that the singularity of this object/other, of its process of generation and the inhering affective forces, is aided in its effectivity, in realizing itself, in allowing it to do or be what it immanently wants to do and be, rather than being reterritorialized onto a plane where its virtual potential is weakened or simply blocked.
Masocriticism - conceived this way as the immanent condition of possibility for an encounter with that which impinges upon ‘me’ - necessitates response, and the latter requires a giving over of oneself to the object/other, to becoming-other, to the process of being affected and effectuated by and from the future, that is, to the experiment. Obsessively lingering with the object/other, to say this differently, entails a process of waiting, a key component of masochistic practice.Cf. Deleuze, Masochism 71. And waiting is an affective state. The state of waiting, of lingering, of giving oneself over to the object/other, is defined by its affective quality. Waiting may be more or less intense, boring, exciting, taxing, arousing, heat-producing, cold-inducing, gravity-experiencing, en-trancing; but whatever its quality, this active inducement, or intensification, of the immanent affective forces traversing the environment of waiting produces a state of mind in the subject that enables her to aid the object/other to actualize itself the way it ‘intends’ to. To accomplish this, a masocritical encounter (which itself is a matter of habituation - of repetition - and has to be actively sought out, practiced) suspends the conceptual, representationalist mode of approaching or configuring the encounter. It thus affords the object/other to allow its non-conceptual, i.e., its affective, qualities to realize themselves, which subsequently become available on the secondary, cognitive, representational level, which will always reassert its force, inevitably so.
So affect - the affective turn - is intricately tied up with a state of waiting, which itself is immediately connected to matters of attention (Wissinger 235). And as a result of this affect-attention relation a period of waiting quite literally occurs between a body’s affective and cognitive response: the body, if you will, always has to wait for the mind to catch up to it, but that moment of waiting, this interval of duration, itself affects the nature of the mind’s response. This affective logic of suspension of the subject’s primacy is one that embraces a masochistic logic of deferral (which is not the same as ‘close reading’ or just good old fashioned ‘critical thinking,’ both of which presume the primacy of the subject) by subjecting itself to the force of Foucault’s diagnostic insight that not “everything is bad but that everything is dangerous” (“On the Genealogy of Ethics” 343). This insight calls for a mode of encountering the world that intensively, affectively, invests in the operation of responding to this danger, of, for example, taking an intense look at it and keep on doing so - not in order to judge this danger, but in the hope of relaying its forces, of transforming them through an immanent encounter with them.To look at something - and keep on doing so - results in our eyes’ state of staring. When locked into such a visual state, the object our eyes stare at transforms itself within our eyes; staring renders affectively sensible an object’s immanently ongoing processes of becoming-other to itself - processes that become opaque once again as soon as we become conscious of them, which is when we ‘snap out’ of our state of staring. The moment of becoming conscious marks the moment when signifying operations territorialize the a-signifying materialities of communication; but this (re-) assertion of signification, which always occurs by necessity, comes into being - exists - only because of its conditions of possibility, the ceaseless flow of material, pre-subjective affective forces. Such a transformation would, of course, necessarily consist of a double-becoming of both subject and object: in this intensive encounter with the danger the one who gives herself over to the encounter becomes-otherwise to herself just as the forces of this danger are reconfigured, redeployed, and thus made other to their prior territorialization. The outcome of this process of encountering danger cannot be defined in advance, neither in terms of a priori desired results nor in terms of duration (i.e., how long one has to participate in this encounter) - a lack of ontological and pragmatic certainty that is undoubtedly troublesome to many but, at least in my view, both a necessary and inevitable attribute of such experimental, masocritical encounter.
Masocritical suspension constitutes an immanent mode of response that heeds the event’s irreducible singularity, whereas representationalist judgment itself begins from outside the object or event to be judged, and the judging subject sits itself safely situated afar or above - seemingly unaffected and allegedly objective. The central question to ask of an event is not what one’s judgment of it should be but how response-ability itself is configured by the affects inhering the event - the answer to which is always singular in that it depends, precisely, on the event and the affects traversing it. Suspension, in this sense, does not promise to result in a positive term, as does the suspense immanent to dialectical sublation. Instead, this suspense works only relationally, akin to Deleuze’s masochistic symptomatology or Adorno’s negative dialectic.
Importantly, the masocritic, like the negative dialectician, does not pretend to escape the force of judgment, but judgment is not the goal of their endeavors. Instead, finding out how something works and what it does (rather than what it means), as well as what transformational relays can be forged through the encounter, constitutes their diagnostic focus, one that by definition stresses the productive - affective - component of any encounter rather than the reproductive - representational - one. They both aim at the world without pretending to know what it is, rather than treating it as a knowable object, or one to be known only through the secondary plane of cognition.
Such masocritical, affective aiming-at-the-world should not be confused with relativism, however, precisely because this style of encounter desires submission to the rules or ‘being’ of the object/other: like a diamond cutter who must heed the pre-subjective lines of flight of a raw diamond if he wants to realize its full potential value, so the masocritic follows the affective qualities (intensities) of the object/other in responding, so that the object/other’s potential is enabled to realize itself. That such realization might be destructive is a risk one has to accept; but starting response by insisting on the primacy of one’s own subjectivity is guaranteed to do damage - the extent of which can be mapped out in advance - just as the diamond cutter is assured of damaging the raw diamond if he super-imposes his own a priori will onto the material.
In conclusion, the affective turn delineated in this essay strongly echoes a mode of response captured by the concept of ‘mimesis’ as configured by Adorno. Mimesis names a style of encounter with the world, one that is non-appropriative, yet responsive - and responsive in such a way that it does not depend on the subject’s spontaneity but instead on the object’s autonomy. Mimesis, for Adorno, is the affinity of subject and object as it is felt in one’s finger on seeing someone else cutting theirs on a sharp knife. Mimesis is an act of fantasy, what Deleuze calls “fabulation” (“Control and Becoming” 174) - but an exceedingly exact one, an exactness expressed by Adorno’s insistence on micrological analyses (which are very much echoed by Deleuze and Guattari’s interest in the micro). It seems to me that Adornian negative dialectics, Deleuzean immanence, and affective, or masocritical response-ability is a descriptive and generative process that allows the subject to proceed mimetically, retaining and being governed by contact with the object (in its primacy) without, however, subsuming it under what Adorno considered the fascist bootstraps of the subject. This process aims constantly to reshuffle the terms of the concept themselves, from within, that is, from its affective nature.
Unlike those who conceive of affect qua emotion, affect-theory qua pre-subjective force affirms the preeminence of the object, not the subject: the object is that which is preformed, containing virtual, historically developed structures of the social that render the world hic et nunc and subject a subject to the pre-subjective forces, which, in impinging upon it, constitute it. That’s why Adorno, pace existentialism or phenomenology, argues that the autonomous moment of cognition lies precisely in refusing to acquiesce to any resulting fetishization of thought in which the subject is split from the object, or mind from matter. Affect theory teaches us that politically it is necessary for the subject to leave its shell of subjectivity.
A subject can exit its shell only by tuning in or attending to the affects that transversally connect it to the outside, by giving itself over to the object, entering it. This, in turn, requires of the critical act - what I call masocriticism - the production of micrological diagnoses based on an immersion in particularity. Such affective immersion, however, is not meant to lead back to the subject’s rediscovery of itself (“aha, it was about me all along!”) but to a discovery of the social structure in a particular configuration. This discovery is enabled by the masocritical affirmation of the mimetic principle that “You are to this what this is not to you” (Hullot-Kentor 64) - a non-imitative, non-representational principle that defines the relation between subject and object precisely as a matter of affect - as the power to affect and be affected different/cially.
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