Affect theory: Ruth Leys critique in Critical Inquiry

A few months ago, back in what for me now seems ever so slightly like a previous life, I wrote a post about Ruth Leys and her work on the science behind the burgeoning field of affect theory. The paper mentioned back then, The Turn to Affect: a critique, is now published in Critical Inquiry. For anyone who is interested in the philosophical ideas raised by current debates about intentionality, embodiment, rationality, naturalism and the like – philosophical debates rather mangled in the canonization of ‘affect theory’ – Leys’ intervention should be essential reading. There are a few critical engagements with affect theory already – Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard’s great paper on the selective appeal made to scientific authority in some of this work, Claire Hemmings’ location of affect theory in a broader ontological turn in cultural theory, my own colleague Steve Pile’s effort to mediate between disputes over the relation between affect and emotions – but Leys zeroes in on some of the fundamental grounds of recent claims that affect theory constitutes a wholly dramatic innovation in cultural theory and philosophical thought. It works as a ‘critique’ by presuming that the claims made by adherents of affect theory – the main objects of Leys’ piece include Eve Sedgwick, Brian Massumi, Bill Connolly and Nigel Thrift – are indeed open to rational, measured assessment, not least in terms of the knock-down appeals in much of this work made to the apparently irrefutable evidence of neuroscience and certain strains of experimental psychology (I think in fact that one of the more interesting features of this field of research is the degree to which it systematically avoids argument – both in the exegesis of its own positions, and when challenged by those trying to engage this work in a critical spirit. This field of work would make a great appendix to Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now, but it would have to be called ‘the way we don’t argue with you because you obviously just don’t get it’). Nor, it should be said, do all variants of affect theory depend so heavily on this appeal to science-as-ontology – it’s not a feature, for example, of Lauren Berlant’s work (if you don’t count psychoanalysis as science).

Leys’ critique of affect theory focusses on 3 exemplary experiments which underwrite the external claim to scientific authority in much of this work, specifically the ‘basic emotions’ paradigm associated with Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman. She restores to view the sense of controversy around each one, the complexity of the findings, and their status as ‘cases’ – thereby raising the question of whether these fields can properly serve as the supports for claims made in affect theory – including the debates around the much-lauded ‘half second delay’ upon which writers such as Massumi and Thrift have staked strong claims for their anti-intentionalist visions. One of the more important aspects of Leys’ critique is the reminder that the experiments upon which much of this work alights tend to focus on particular sorts of embodied action (the hand movements involved in playing piano, throwing balls, that sort of thing), but abstract these from the wider “intentional structure or situation” in which such actions take place – in which they take on meaning as part of practices, if you like. The anti-intentionalist frisson of affect theory depends on generalizing up from what one might call ‘generic’ fragments of actions to make claims about the qualities of whole fields of embodied action. And it also depends, as Leys is also keen to point out in her essay, on a quite conventional dualistic separation of mind from body and brain. So it is, under the sway of this sort of theory, that the mind and associated concepts have come, once again, to be associated with ‘immateriality’. Affect theory, in its purest forms, tends to impute highly intellectualist views of meaning, signification, and mind to everyone else in order to make strong claims about the embodied and therefore non-intentional, non-rational qualities of affects.

The animating question behind Leys’ critique is “Why are so many scholars today in the humanities and social sciences fascinated by the idea of affect?” A good question indeed, and I’m sure there are many reasons. One version that occurs to me was triggered by
reading a piece by Michael Berubé recently about the legacy of the Sokal affair fifteen years on. Berubé’s main point was about how the ‘social construction of science’ position that was then a staple of the cultural left has now been adopted by climate-change sceptics on the American right. He didn’t say much about how cultural theory, in the period since this controversy, has also observably invested in various styles of scientism. The strands of affect theory which Leys pinpoints would be prime examples. Of course, the scientism often goes under the cover of ‘ontological’ claims – it is part of a more general drift of left theory towards seeking the foundations for the very possibility of radical change in deeper and deeper layers of covered-over ontological depth. Simon Critchley and Axel Honneth have discerned this trend towards the ontologization of politics, amongst others. ‘Affect’ might have become, at least in certain versions of the deployment of this concept, the prime example of this trend: understood as a surface for priming subjects behind their backs, before they know it, towards certain sorts of dispositions and responses, ‘affect’ is a medium for unrestricted discipline and accumulation – this is the bad politics of affect; at the same time, the same understanding of ‘affect’ as a figure of embodied, vital liveliness that escapes the strictures of mind, reason, and cognition means that it can also function as the name for an irreducible disruptive energy – this is the good politics of affect. Ben Anderson provides an excellent, concise articulation of both aspects of this understanding of the politics of affect, one in which Foucault is finally made safe for Marxism through the mediation of Toni Negri and an account of the real subsumption of labour to capital derived from Marx’s Grundrisse. Brian Massumi provides a briefer, more journalistic rendition of the same symmetrical understanding of the good-and-bad politics of affect in his reflections on recent ‘events’ – in a piece that reminded me that the only people who still believe in the concept of ‘mass media’ these days are theorists of ‘political affect’ like Massumi, Connolly, and John Protevi.

So, rather long-windedly, my point is that the ‘appeal’ of affect might be quite conventional, in so far as it sits within a quite standard assumption about the relationship
between Theory and Politics, and about Theory-as-Politics. The conception of subjectivity in this style of cultural theory is radically transformed, no doubt – but what remains in place, in what might in fact be a retrenchment, is the idea that the relationship of ‘culture’ and ‘power’ is always to be analysed primarily through the vector of reproduction. In this political imaginary, ‘power’ still fixes, naturalises, anticipates; and resistance always, forever, only, disrupts, interrupts, suspends. The emphasis on ‘plasticity’ and ‘becoming’ is the latest on a line of conceptualization which presumes that the most interesting thing one can do in political analysis is point out that things are made, constructed, composed, etc, and therefore, it is assumed to follow, can and should be changed.

As a move within the history of cultural theory, affect theory in its most anti-representationalist, anti-intentionalist variants at least, renders impossible the analysis of the ways in which ‘consent is won’ that might still represent, and here I am just following Berubé again, the single most important theoretical achievement and challenge of what we probably now have to call old-fashioned cultural studies. The most strongly politicized versions of affect theory are formally identical to a Chomsky/Herman style of the mass mediated manufacturing of consent (again, this seems a significant difference from the Berlant-style of affect theory – in which the emphasis is on trying to think about feelings of and for attachment which cannot be reduced to the machinations of power, discipline, or ideology – feelings that are ‘ordinary’, a word that Berlant uses a lot and which marks an affinity with a philosophical current closer to Ruth Leys’ position than that of the über-Marxism through which the ‘politics of affect’ has been most strongly articulated).

One of the peculiar achievements of affect theory is to make possible once again cultural analysis from the armchair (or cinema seat), in so far as it rests on a systematic refusal to countenance that people’s own viewpoints on their own actions and practices can count for much.  The dualistic presentation which opposes affect and emotion to belief and rationality means that these two sets of attributes now get divided between expert knowledge which is available to the expert analyst, on the one hand, and the unknowing actors responding to affective triggers on the other. Affect theory redistributes the unreflective and reflective aspects of action so that all of the reflection now stands on the side of the theorist, rather than being folded together ordinarily in practice, reflection and learning. This strong version of non-representational affect theory really depends on squeezing some interesting ideas into a frame in which the primary objective is to show how Theory cashes-out as having some big-P political value – another sense in which this range of work is more continuous with other traditions of cultural theory than is often acknowledged. The judgement of the theorist, in affect theory, can be substituted for the self-understandings of actors on the grounds that affects exceeds and/or subtends epistemologically held beliefs – this is a risk, of course, that all theories of ontological depth, fundamental causes, or unconscious processes run when they are translated into politically inflected cultural analyses. Something which remains to be addressed by adherents to strongly political versions of affect theory is just what is at stake in the project of correcting for overly cognitive, minded views of action – is it correcting other theories? If so, the problem is that affect theory, non-representational theory, and related styles of cultural theory depend too heavily on straw-figures of their own construction to get any traction. But sometimes, often perhaps, there is a slippage towards the sense that it is ordinary people’s ordinary understanding of themselves and others and what can be imputed to the mind – as intentional, potentially responsible, actors, for example – which is the target. In this, affect theory converges with a broader field of current popular scientific discourse about psychology and the brain – which as Alice Bell has commented has become like ‘the weather’ as a topic of shared conversation – in galloping towards questionable conclusions.

Leys also observes that affect theory is associated with a particular privileged aesthetic, one which accords primacy to the integrity of personal responses, and invests strongly in a Deleuzian inspired model of intensities. The elevation of ‘the image’ into the central category of cultural analysis is testament to this aesthetic – Leys’ paper suggests an interesting relationship between the investment in an avant-garde model of Film and the centrality of images to the experimental fields of psychology and neuroscience upon which affect theory draws.

The final ‘method effect’ which Leys’ paper throws light upon revolves around the vocabulary of layers and levels which is characteristic of affect theory – this architectonic of layering is central to the lessons drawn and claims made about the temporality of embodiment, cognition, intentionality and action – and is another aspect of this work which Leys helps to unpick by restoring a sense of context to the scientific sources of some of these arguments.

So, in short – if this range of work is of any interest, you should read the Leys essay. I understand that Connolly has a response forthcoming in a subsequent issue of Critical Inquiry, with a reply-to-the-response from Leys.

Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.