Affect theory and its disaffections

It turns out that the single most visited post on this blog is, still, from 2011, discussing Ruth Leys’ rather wonderful take-down of affect theory in Critical Inquiry (apart from anything else, this is an important lesson about always giving the things you write a decent title – a lesson I learnt a long time ago). Leys’ CI critique of theories of affect in the humanities and social sciences is one part of her broader genealogy of the human sciences. Her new book, The Ascent of Affect, is, she says, the third in a trilogy alongside Trauma and From Guilt to Shame. The new book is a sustained critical engagement with debates within and over the sciences of emotion that provide the more or less acknowledged background of social theories of affect and non-representationalism (in so far as there is any claim at all in these theories that the grand metaphysical generalisations one can derive from reading Deleuze and others aren’t just made up – to a considerable extent, these theoretical fields inadvertently offer themselves up as exemplars of the ‘autonomy of affect’, to the degree that ontological claims are simply asserted as beyond dispute and thereby effectively immunised from any critical scrutiny). The emphasis in Leys’ account is on disputes and disagreements within this scientific field – the dimension which makes any authoritative appropriation of such fields to settle arguments within the social sciences and humanities so problematic.

The Ascent of Affect came at the end of a year that I had begun by reading Linda Zerilli’s equally wonderful A Democratic Theory of Judgment, a work of political theorising not of genealogy, but one which also engages critically with the turn to affect in recent cultural and especially political theory. In her book, Zerilli takes my characterisation of the layer cake ontology of non-representational theory as pretty much capturing the essence of affect theory more generally, which is very flattering. The combination of an architectural vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority (all those feelings and inclinations kicking in before anyone is even conscious of it…) is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader cultural world of psychologised neuro-commentary (Jessica Pykett has recently elaborated on some of the implicit spatial assumptions one finds in popularised versions of neuroscience). It’s a feature that discloses what I would be inclined to call, ripping the phrase off from Gilbert Ryle, the logical geography of action that distinguishes this field – this theme is just now beginning to come clear for me as the focus of next book, now that the flurry of excitement associated with publication of the last one has died down.

Zerilli presents Ruth Leys and myself as providing two distinctive critical perspectives – as ‘affect theory critics’ – which again is flattering (I only ever wrote one paper and a couple of blogposts, whereas you can find the emerging outlines of Leys’ more recent sustained critique not only in her Critical Inquiry piece but also in those earlier books as well). Both Zerilli and Leys present me as accusing affect theorists of ‘cryptnoromativism’ – of not being able to able to defend their normative preferences with reasons because, as Zerilli puts it, for them reasons “always trail after affect-driven preferences”. Leys, on the other hand, sees the problem as an inability or unwillingness on behalf of advocates of the autonomy of affect to take any normative position at all – as she puts it in her new book, for affect theorists “preferring democracy to despotism is life preferring tea to coffee”. The stronger point she is making is that affect theory closes down any sense of disagreement as a dimension of life – it’s a theme developed much more explicitly in Todd Cronan’s critical account of the affective turn in aesthetics in Against Affective Formalism– where the recurring argument is that appeals to the causal power of affect have the effect of closing down any space not just of intentionality but also therefore of interpretation, and that herein lies the political unconscious of those appeals, registered in the erasure of any scope for legitimate disagreement or dispute. Leys uses my argument to specify her own point, suggesting that there is no a contradiction at all between avowing progressive causes and affirming the power of affective priming but a considerable degree of consistency precisely because the former are indeed taken to be mere personal preferences (strictly speaking, I don’t think I did rely on a sense of performative contradiction in my discussion of non-representational ontologies, which is not after all the same thing as cryptonormativism – I happen to think, more generally, that the real problem across these debates is the authoritative appeal to ‘ontology’ (or, ‘the made-up’, let’s call it) in a way that forecloses on the significance of normativity to life, which I think is a rather similar worry to Leys’ worry about the elision of intentionality).

The issue that Leys’ genealogy of disputes over the science of emotions – and especially over the validity of the affect program theory of basic emotions proposed by Sylvan Tomkins, the thinker championed by Eve Kofosky Segwick in the pivotal text in the turn to affect in the humanities – clarified for me is a key contrast, one that cascades through social theory and humanities debates about affect, between two quite distinct images of the social. Noncognitivst and anti-intentional interpretations of the emotions tend to hold to images of isolated monads, housing a brain, buffeted by external stimuli. The social here stands as an external, totalising environment (call it an ‘atmosophere’, perhaps?). It’s a very traditional image. Leys reconstructs  a counter-tradition that holds to a view of mindedness as contextual and ecological, and thereby has lots more to say about issues of intentionality. The difference might be captured by the shift in the meaning of ideas about unconscious mental activity which Leys mentions in  her book. The unconscious, in psychoanalysis, is a “dynamic-conflictual” concept, and it only makes any sense against a background assumption that subjectivity is intentional, just not wholly so. This idea is contrasted to a view of unconscious activities “as forms of automatic, nonconscious information processing occurring in computer-style subsystems capable of acting independently of the mind’s conscious control”. It is this second sense of ‘unconscious’, with or without the scientific references, that is the operative usage in arguments in GeographyLand and related fields which champion and/or bemoan the extent to which apparently wilful action is in fact influenced, primed and manipulated in all sorts of ways that are beyond the mind’s control.

The noncognitivist strand of scientific research on emotion, with an emphasis on the on the stark separation and hierarchical ordering of systems of knowing and feeling, clear divisions between insides and outsides, the emphasis on information processing and stimulus response, and its attachment to identifying sub-personal mechanisms, informs an imagination of the social reduced to monadic pre-individuals immersed in totalising atmospheres and subjected to triggers and impulses that wholly shape them. With or without the direct reference, the analogy between this reductive, if not necessarily eliminationist, scientific imagination of the social and the imagination found in humanities and social science fields absorbed by affect theory is, well, uncanny. (There is, I think an interesting line of questioning left unexplored by Leys about the degree to which the divisions within the sciences of emotions might be related to a discernible difference amongst advocates of the importance of affect between strongly anti-intentional advocates of the autonomy of affects, which tend to invest heavily in science as the source of insights into the ontology of affect, and versions of affect theory that redistribute the relations between knowing and feeling, reflecting and doing in more creative ways – the concern, for example, with issues of attachment in Lauren Berlant’s version of affect theory suggests a refashioned understanding of the aboutness of affective dynamics, rather than a wholesale rejection of intentionality).

Zerilli’s discussion of affect theory in political thought is actually rather wary of what she quite rightly identifies as the central emphasis of Leys’ critique – the problem of intentionality (recognition of this issue does not even arise in geographical discussions of these matters, beyond simplistic dismissals of ideas of intentionality and rationality as all a bit old-hat – a sign of the philosophical unseriousness of those discussions, one might suppose). I am tempted to locate Leys’ genealogy of research on emotions as part of a wider “nonsite school” of cultural criticism, since her work clearly shares a number of commitments with the broader project associated with that journal of which she is one of the founding editors – whose mission statement asserts a shared interest in “a set of theoretical topics – the ontology of the work of art, the question of intentionality, the ongoing appeal of different and sometimes competing materialisms – and in part out of opposition to the dominant accounts of those topics.” It should be said that the emphasis in much of the work associated with nonsite.org, in Cronan’s book already mentioned for example or in the work of Walter Benn Michaels, is primarily upon redeeming a certain sort of concept of artistic intentionality. I am personally not convinced that artistic practice provides the best paradigm for thinking about intentionality, and one of the important features of Leys’ book is that she locates issues of cognitivism, noncognitivism, and intentionality more squarely in a philosophical debates, centring in no small part on issues rehearsed in the ‘McDowell/Dreyfus debate’ a while ago now. This is rather more interesting, and more ordinary, ground upon which to locate discussions about the relations between embodiment and mindedness, the human and the nonhuman, rationality and intentionality.

Leys’ book raises important questions about the ways in which interdisciplinary work depends on the selective invocation of examples and on claims to speak authoritatively in one field on the basis of privileged grasp of settled knowledge in other fields. One of the central concerns of the nonsite.org ‘school’, if there is such a thing, is a focus on the implications for understandings of intentionality and interpretation of the automatism built into various artistic mediums – painting, photography, film, and so on. In one of those odd coincidences that make reading more than one thing at the same time fun, I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as I came across the cricket writer Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second, a book all about the photography of Patrick Eagar, and specifically the photos he took in the summer of 1975 (amongst other things, it’s a book that thematises the way in which photography might constitute the conditions for nostalgia – a subtext of Ryan’s story is that much of the cricket in that summer was actually a bit crap, and he presents 1975 as a cricketing year that mattered primarily because of Eagar’s photography, in all sorts of ways – a summer when “the photography of the ballet mattered more than the ballet”). Ryan’s book is all about the relationship between chance, luck, accidents and the skills and habits of the photographer, mediated by the automatisms of cameras and remote controls. Ryan’s book should be read alongside Gideon Haigh‘s Stroke of Genius, a book about Victor Trumper, but more precisely about the making and after-life of the single most famous cricket photo of them all – both tell stories about what we can learn about habitual, embodied skilled action (of the photographer as well as cricketers) from attending the process of its representation (OK, so that’s how I read them, not least ‘coz I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as reading Ryan’s, which reminded me of this dimension of Haigh’s book which was my Christmas book last year – and not least because Ley’s narrative of disagreements over the science of emotions revolves in part around a critique of the rather peculiar way in which photographs of facial expressions secure the authority of Paul Ekman’s influential research on basic emotions). And remembering the centrality of baseball to the McDowell/Dreyfus debate, it struck me that this particular coincidence is slightly less than wholly contingent on my own odd interests – one could do a lot worse than these two recent cricket books if one wants to be provoked to think more about the relationships between embodied skills, rule following, automatism, expertise, luck and the felt sense of what is doable and sayable that are at the centre of the scientific and philosophical debates that Leys dissects – there is, after all, no reason to take cricket any less seriously than the disputed fields of science that remain so attractive to certain strands of cultural and political theory. And these two books aren’t really about cricket anyway (books which are tend to be really boring) – they are about mediation, which might just be the concept that holds the key to moving beyond the dead-ends down which non-representational anti-intentionalism has led critical thought.

 

This sporting life

It’s the season for discovering new things about sports you know nothing about – or not, as in the case of dressage, the only Olympic sport dominated by Gloucestershire, and about which we all remain in the dark, unable to actually tell what makes for a 90% score rather than an 80%. In diving, we all know to look for the splash; in dressage, is it too much sand being kicked up by the hooves?

In this post-Olympics spirit of trying out new things, to watch obviously, on Friday I went to my first ever rugby league match. At St Helens, no less. A very balmy evening. In a hot August night sort of way.  Not barmy. I have no attachment whatsoever to rugby, one way or the other, and was struck not so much by the difference between the two codes, as much as the difference between this contemporary version and the remembered version from the 1970s that you used to see on Grandstand. An altogether leaner game, it seems. And not a flat cap in sight.

On the theme of the cultural differences that sport draws into view, there is a profile of Imran Khan in The New Yorker, one of those regular pieces that wonder whether he is likely to ever get to exercise significant political power in Pakistan. Amongst other things, the piece has to negotiate Imran’s status as ex-crickter for its presumed American audience, inevitably groping for an appropriate baseball reference point. That shouldn’t be that difficult, really. But Imran ends up being described as having once been a “hard thrower”, a description also used in relation to Sarfraz Nawaz. Oops. This couldn’t be more wrong, could it? Technically, throwing in cricket is cheating. What ever happened to The New Yorkers’ famous fact-checking?

Anyway, enough of this, back to work.

What is it like to bat? Dreyfus, McDowell and the exemplary game

The first conference I attended after becoming a parent, and therefore experienced in the ‘concentrated’ way described in my last post, was in Boston in 2008. One of the things I did manage to squeeze in between arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, spending two days in presenting, chairing, or discussing, was to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. So many highlights: riding a rickshaw through Friday night rush-hour/game-night traffic; singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the seventh-innings stretch…

To coincide with the start of the new season that month, The Boston Review published a letter written by the Harvard-based political philosopher John Rawls, in 1981, in which Rawls outlined why he considered baseball to be ‘best of all games’. It turns out that baseball’s superiority to basketball, tennis, football and soccer lies in the degree to which it embodies the virtues which Rawls invested in his own theory of justice as fairness – it has a certain sort of equilibrium, contains aspects of publicity, it is inclusive of plural talents, and it has a temporal rhythm that means that “there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback”. The editors of the magazine noted that Rawls had himself once been an accomplished baseball player, and that he had made reference to baseball in his own academic writing. In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Rawls used examples from baseball to make philosophical arguments about what a practice is, and what role rules play in practices (arguments which revolve around the puzzle that running, sliding, and throwing are things people do in all sorts of situations, but that stealing base or striking out are aspects of a practice known as baseball, and yet these events are not reducible to the rules of baseball which define them). It is common enough to use games, of one sort or another, to develop arguments of this sort. I wonder if it matters which games philosophers and social theorists consider best exemplify the most fundamental aspects of human action. Rawls’ brief, half-serious analysis of baseball’s virtues is one example of how certain sports attract the attention of intellectuals – baseball and cricket are the obvious examples, both of which lend themselves to the attention of those with a certain ‘nerdy-academic’ cast of mind. Maybe it’s all the statistics, plus the veneer of ‘literariness’ that attaches itself to lots of the books about both of these sports. And in both cases, they aren’t football.

Baseball turns out to play a significant part in a recent debate between two of the heavyweights of contemporary philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, played out in the philosophy journal Inquiry in 2007 (although Dreyfus’ initiation of the debate appeared in Topoi). This debate is interesting because it serves as an example of an interesting convergence between what are often labeled Continental and Analytical traditions – Dreyfus, a leading exponent of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, stands here for ‘Continental’, McDowell for ‘Analytical’. These are problematic, even silly terms of course – Simon Glendinning has a lovely little book on this topic, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy. The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action, and differences over how far conceptual capacities extend into the world. They tend to accuse each other of clinging to unacknowledged ‘Cartesian’ dualisms, which tends to be the way with these debates – Rorty accused lots of people of this, Charles Taylor accused him of Cartesianism, and so on and so on. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual – as ‘unminded’. He accuses McDowell of still holding to ‘the myth of the mental’ by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between ‘mind and world’ teaches us that that ‘perception is conceptual all the way out’ (McDowell’s work is interesting to me not least because of just how important spatial vocabularies are to his re-casting of traditional questions of the philosophy of mind; something for which he has been taken to task for by others, such as Simon Blackburn).

Dreyfus’ position is that phenomenology, by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about it is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell then accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to separate mindedness from intuitive, embodied coping – McDowell reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality.

Now, in the middle of this exchange, the two philosophers end up arguing about Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch was an All-Star second-baseman for the all-powerful New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in 1999, Knoblauch developed a version of the ‘yips’, losing his ability to execute the quick-fire pick-up-and-throw-on-the-run-in-mid-air manoeuvres crucial to his position. Knoblauch was thinking too much, it was widely agreed at the time (he had various off-the-field issues it turns out). Dreyfus invokes Knoblauch as proof for his position, arguing that his skill levels declined because he stopped being absorbed in the activity at hand, but was instead allowing thought and reflection to intrude. Knoblauch’s ‘mental blauch’ (as headlines of the time describe it) shows that mindedness is not an aspect of the immersion involved in ongoing activities of embodied coping, so Dreyfus argues. McDowell takes issue with this reading of Knoblauch’s tribulations – according to him, this case proves his point, that the problem for coping arises when mindedness becomes detached from immersion in activity.

So it turns out that Knoblauch is central to making explicit what is at most at stake in this debate – this is a dispute between two variants of ‘non-representational’ accounts of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands as the figure for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality; McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a ‘supplementation’ to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than leading to a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping (I like McDowell’s usage of ‘supplementation’ because I have a pet hypothesis about his style of philosophy being similar methodologically to Derrida’s, in so far as it messes with the spatializations of key concepts in philosophical traditions).

The dispute about how to interpret Knoblauch’s freeze is interesting because it underscores one feature about how arguments in this style of philosophy, as well as in social theory, tend to lean on particular exemplars of what a ‘game’ is when they develop arguments about the meanings of concepts such as practice and embodied agency. There is a widely shared tendency to focus on individual, repeated acts within games – throwing, kicking, or taking free-throws in basketball. Oddly, the Dreyfus/McDowell debate might be much more narrowly focussed than Rawls’ discussion, which dates from the 1950s – they are focussed on the sliding/throwing/running aspects of baseball as discrete activities, outside of their wider place in not just particular ‘plays’, but in whole games, seasons, and beyond. Knoblauch’s problem with throwing didn’t end his career. He just got moved to the outfield; he wasn’t paid millions of dollars just as a second-baseman, but also as a batter. And the Yankees still kept winning (besides, Knoblauch has more recently been implicated in on-going scandals about endemic use of performance-enhancing steroids in professional baseball in the 1990s, which might cast an entirely different light on the episodes the philosophers disagree about).

None of which seems terribly philosophical, but it does provide a nice link to an essay by John Haugeland, another important philosopher in these debates, who died earlier this year. Haugeland has a long essay called ‘The Intentionality All-Stars’ (from 1990), re-published in his book Having Thought. He uses the fielding positions on a baseball diamond to map out different philosophical positions on the topic intentionality. He actually focuses on three main positions, using first, second and third base to differentiate thinkers like Searle, Quine, Dennett, Brandom, Heidegger and Sellars (Derrida, Rorty and others are consigned to the outfield, because they don’t really think these issues are that important – and Wittgenstein is shortstop, a joke I think about how he mediates between more rejectionist and more reconstructive positions on this classical topic). Haugeland is only using baseball here as a device to delineate these positions – it’s a mere metaphor in his essay, not part of a central philosophical argument (although he does end with a funny line nodding at Thomas Nagel about the importance of the question “What is it like to be at bat?”). A point I make only to underscore the fact that in other cases, like in Rawls or Dreyfus/McDowell, it might well matter that they use this game, rather than others, to exemplify fundamental philosophical points.

One of the things that McDowell’s position in his debate with Dreyfus suggests is that we might do well to pay heed to the sort of ‘immersed activity’ that is involved in doing intellectual work. There might be an interesting aspect of disavowal and projection involved in academics having to invoke games or dancing in order to elaborate on the relations between knowing that and knowing how (while choosing games which tend to push to the side forms of knowing-with which are implicated in both). The point is made succinctly by an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, collected in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, his essays on baseball. Gould’s essay, written contemporaneously to Knoblauch’s freeze, is called ‘The Brain of Brawn’, and refuses to buy into the straightforward dualism in which athletic excellence is presented as wholly opposed to, as either superior to or lesser than, scholarly accomplishment. Gould doesn’t want to interpret Knoblauch’s problem as the intrusion of the brain upon feeling, mind on matter either, and he draws an arresting analogy which cuts straight to the heart of the philosophical debate which Dreyfus and McDowell have more recently staged in part around Knoblauch’s trouble: “Knoblauch’s problem takes the same form as many excruciating impediments in purely mental enterprises with writer’s block as the most obvious example, when obsession with learned rules of style and grammar impedes the flow of good prose. And we surely cannot designate our unblocked mode as less intellectual merely because we cannot easily describe its delights or procedures”. Thinking well, it seems, is something that also might be embedded in intuitively grasped, not-too-reflective coping skills as well.

I’m not sure where Dreyfus and McDowell would stand exactly in Haugeland’s ballpark, although I think it’s somewhere between second and third base – in his account things get more pragmatist, phenomenological, and social as you round second. It’s probably quite crowded there. One thing the Dreyfus/McDowell exchange seems to confirm is that being ‘non-representational’ isn’t much of a discriminator these days – the issue is about different ways of being non-representational. And might it not matter just a little which game you take to be the model of having a ‘feel for the game’ when making arguments about non-representational aspects of action? The Australian philosopher John Sutton, who also works on phenomenology, distributed cognition, and the embodied mind, develops his argument with reference to cricket. More precisely, he uses batting as his favoured example. Batting in cricket is the basis for his argument about how thinking too much disrupts the accomplishment of embodied coping skills, showing how conceptual memory and procedural memory are dynamics aspects of embodied practices. They have batting in baseball too, of course, so maybe the point translates across fields, so to speak. But of course batting in these two games is not quite the same practice, it involves different sorts of coping skills. Sutton’s argument about the importance of memory seems an opening to understanding this difference, in so far as it suggests that the rhizomatic lines of flight passing through any discrete ‘at bat’ or ‘taking guard’ carry markedly different worldly resonances. And I can’t help thinking that all of these arguments amongst philosophers of embodied action might be helped by taking Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological analysis of ‘Throwing like a Girl’ a little more seriously – it reminds us that all these seemingly universal features of ‘embodiment’ and ‘coping’ might be cut through with social relations all the way down, as it were – that there is no universal phenomenological domain waiting to be exemplified by this or that particular game.