After affect(s): Ruth Leys on affect theory

I’m not sure if this is the best way to keep up with exciting theory debates, but I spent an evening this week in a ‘car supermarket’, trying not to fall into a salesman’s traps while also working out whether or not I liked driving an automatic rather than a manual transmission – what do you do with your ‘spare’ foot? In between all this, I stumbled across this announcement of a forthcoming lecture at Duke by Ruth Leys, promising a critique of affect (the things you can do with an iPhone). I will not be in North Carolina next week, but this looks really interesting, and long overdue. The post mentions a forthcoming paper in Critical Inquiry later this year, and Leys mentions in a recent interview that she is writing a book on the relationships between scientific understandings of affects and the affect turn in cultural theory. The interview, from last year, provides a taster of what Leys argument looks like – what is most interesting about this is that she is providing a genealogical analysis of the coherence between the anti-intentionalism of certain fields of psychology and neuroscience and a broad range of ‘affect theory’ in cultural studies and beyond. I was first turned on to Leys work on this stuff by Felicity Callard, who studied with her as a graduate student, and who is also working on the use of scientific authority in the affective turn amongst social scientists and in the humanities. In the interview, Leys explains that “The question that interests me is why so many cultural theorists – geographers, political theorists, new media theorists, and others – are so fascinated by the idea of affect and are so drawn to the work on the affects by certain neuroscientists”. Of course, part of the answer is that the science provides authority for strongly ‘political’ readings of particular models of action, embodiment, habit, and practice.  One thing she talks about in the interview is the degree to which ‘strong’ theories of the autonomy of affect tend to be resolutely dualistic, adopting quite old fashioned styles of materialism in setting embodiment off from the mind, affect from cognition. I think she is dead right – this is a clear feature of debates in human geography about non-representational theory, emotions, and affect, in which remarkably simplistic understandings of intentionality, meaning, or rationality circulate.

I have wondered for a while, and tried to articulate in writing, what is the academic pay-off of constructing non-cognitive dimensions of action or practice in the strongly anti-intentionalist ways as one finds in Deleuzian inflected theory – what is gained by the effacement of intention and meaning from the scene of action, and from the re-distribution of knowing rationality almost entirely onto the figure of the expert-theorist? Leys’ argument, which emerges from earlier work about broader shifts from discourses of guilt to discourses of shame in the study of trauma, pinpoints the way in which claims of scientific authority underwrite a motivated reconfiguration of what counts as political: “The whole point of the general turn to affect among recent cultural critics is to shift attention from the level of political debate or ideology to the level of the person’s subliminal or sub-personal material-affective responses, where, it is held, political influences do their real work”. And she goes on, this authorises “a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics in favour of an ‘ontological’ concern with people’s corporeal-affective experiences of the political images and representations that surround them” (of course, in geography and perhaps some media studies, what is most interesting about this sort of work is precisely that it focuses on a much broader array of affective ‘environments’). This ontologization of affect allows for a dark narrative of bad affects – in which people get manipulated for all sorts of sinister ends; and a nice story about good affects, which is meant to be the positive political inflection of affect theory – although this often turns out to be a rather standard ‘proof’ that subjectivities are much more malleable than we think, and can be best transformed by being exposed to some form of aesthetic disruption or other.

All a bit troubling, once you notice that ‘knowing’ has been entirely evacuated from the field of everyday action inhabited by ordinary people, and is now a capacity reserved entirely for those able to handle what are properly thought of as esoteric (in a Straussian sense) theories of affect. In certain respects, and despite the loud rhetoric of political radicalism that accompanies so much affect theory, this style of cultural theory of ‘the political’ might actually be a symptom of a deeply ingrained, scholastic cynicism about the political virtues of ordinary people.

Leys’ genealogy of the science of affect theory is an important resource for thinking through the politics of the ‘political’ invocation’ of affect in cultural theory and social science. Like the Dreyfus/McDowell debate, it is an example of some proper thinking about the forms of reasoning, demonstration, and indeed evidence that lay behind claims of expertise and authority which often work, certainly in geography, to have a chilling effect on serious thought. One thing her work suggests is that the ‘ontological’ commitments of what is now orthodox affect theory in the social sciences and humanities are, indeed, strongly theoretical – the reference to the authority of cutting-edge life sciences might be much more contentious than it appears (and shouldn’t we know this anyway).  Or maybe we should just call those commitments ‘metaphysical’, in the bad sense.

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One thought on “After affect(s): Ruth Leys on affect theory

  1. Pingback: New online journal « Pop Theory

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