The online journal nonsite.org has a new issue out, on the theme of Evaluating Neuroaesthetics (who knew there was such a thing!). It includes a short review by Ruth Leys of Catherine Malabou’s book on the philosophical significance of the brain’s plasticity.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks if you are interested in the popularisation of behaviouralism. A couple of weeks ago, there was the wonderful news story that seemed to suggest that babies who are breastfed suffer from fewer behavioural problems later in life than those who are bottle fed (this was quickly collapsed into a story about breastfeeding being the route to better behaved babies – not true in our case at the moment, since our breastfed baby is currently refusing to have anything to do with a bottle, which just isn’t good behaviour at all). This science story was fantastic precisely because the causality involved in the correlation was open to entirely different interpretations – it could be something to do with acids in breast milk; or bonding between mother and child.
This week, The New York Times’ pundit David Brooks has been in the UK, promoting his book The Social Animal, which makes strong claims about the importance of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics in establishing the non-rational factors which explain decision-making (in fact, Brooks’ version is really a rehashed version of the low-level conservative anti-rationalism that runs from Burke to Oakeshott; it also seems in part to be shaped by a concern to account for the failure of the US punditocracy of which he is a leading figure to notice that invading Iraq might not work out too well, oh, and that unfettered financial speculation tends to lead to catastrophic banking crises). Brooks got to trail his argument in The New Yorker earlier this year, where the Churchlands and David Eagleman have also been profiled recently – if nothing else, neuro-thought seems to have become something like the ‘spontaneous ideology’ of a certain field of academic-policy-punditry discourse in which the discovery that people don’t conform to the most abstract of models of rational utility maximizing seems to have come as a surprise (while we’re on the topic of The New Yorker and economists’ models of rationality, there is a fascinating series of interviews, from last year, by John Cassidy with various economists from the Chicago School – including Gary Becker, Richard Thaler, and Raghuram Rajan – which provides interesting insights into just where the differences between different understandings of rationality and non-rationality lie within this world).
The attention, and credulity, extended to Brooks this week reminded me of a line from a blog by Alice Bell which I think I have mentioned before, in which she refers to Nikolas Rose’s observation to the effect that neuroscientists themselves are highly sensitive to the mis-representation of their field, and that “if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get”.
But anyway, what was my point? One of the features of the popularisation of brain-led behaviouralism in public culture – through more or less selective reference to cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioural economics, or neuroscience – is the degree to which it reproduces a deep, underlying individualism even as it seems to disavow certain understandings of individual rationality. This is most evident in the claim that various forms of action which, ordinarily, don’t seem that odd at all actually stand as proof of the fundamentally irrational, or non-cognitive, or emotional, or unconscious dynamics of human decision-making. This framing is indicative of the way in which the associational dynamics of action get folded back into an individualised model of action in specific academic fields, and certainly in popular representations of these fields. This is not my thought – it’s a recurring riff throughout Viviana Zelizer’s recent collection of greatest hits, Economic Lives, which I was speed-reading on a train a while ago now. Zelizer is keen to distinguish economic sociology and its attention to the social relations in which economic action is embedded from the approach of game theory and behavioural economics, which also breaks from excessively ‘rational’ models of rational utility. As she puts it, “game theory and behavioural economics involve modification, but not elimination, of economic models’ deep individualism” – and this is evident in the way in which categories such as emotion or irrationality effectively condense the relational contexts of action back into psychologise-able, model-able figures of explanation (Diane Coyle has an interesting, sceptical response from the perspective of an economist to Zelizer’s own project).
I’m still trying to work out how, exactly, to approach this whole set of debates in a way that doesn’t reproduce the in-built prejudices of ‘constructivist’ social theory (which would include most styles of self-styled ‘materalist’ approaches), which sees in all this simply the machinations of ‘power’ and or bad-ontology; and which acknowledges that a critical social science that doesn’t think it has anything to learn from these fields about rationality is probably doomed to moralistic irrelevance. I am beginning to get a sense of where exactly my discomfort lies, not only in relation to the popularisation of all this behaviouralist discourse, but also in relation to the established norms for being sceptical towards it. I was helped by attending part of, but sadly not all, of a workshop on the practice and theory of ‘nudge techniques’ at the OU earlier this month. This included an excellent introduction to the Mindspace report developed by The Cabinet Office and The Institute for Government in early 2010 which provides the framework for behaviour change initiatives in public policy in the UK.
One staple feature of these popular and policy discourses around behaviour change, nudging, and the like, is the claim that there are two systems shaping behaviour – a rational, reflexive, cognitive system; and an automatic system, of unconscious motivations. One interesting division within this field of policy discourse, it seems, is just how the relation between these two ‘systems’ is understood: one version of nudging assumes that government can manipulate ‘choice architectures’ not so much behind people’s backs, but by prompting them to re-interpret their actions in new ways – it assumes that beliefs, habits, feelings, can be apprehended cognitively as a route to changing them (and others presume that the in-built, automatic systems which guide people’s behaviour can be ‘attacked’ directly, without routing through any rational ‘system’ at all).
Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, gave a very good Keynote at this workshop, in which he basically argued that effective nudging is quite difficult – on the grounds that the logical conclusion of an emphasis on the intuitive, unconscious, less-than-rational dynamics of human decision-making is that most beliefs and attitudes and habits are enmeshed in webs of relations with other actions, habits, and commitments, which makes changing any one really difficult – this is why nudging tends to focus on behaviours and decisions which are not strongly connected or embedded (e.g. rare decisions like organ donation or investing in a pension). Chater’s emphasis, then, was on the efficacy of nudge techniques, not their ethics. Of course, the ‘ethical’ worry shaping this debate follows in large part from the bifurcation between ‘rational’ and ‘automatic’ – the concern is shaped by worries over covertly shaping people’s choices in directions they might not otherwise have taken by doing things to them ‘under the radar’, as it were.
I think it’s interesting that this intuitive ethical worry is so central to debates about the use of behaviour change approaches, because it seems to get at an aporia at the heart of the ‘theory’ behind much of this discussion. Chater’s talk exemplified this – it focussed on that the sense that there is introspective depth to human behaviour was an illusion. Now, the substance of his account of the self is really about the temporalities which relate behaviours, habits, beliefs, attitudes, reflection, and so on – but the rhetoric of illusion, the sense of an inner self endowed with a rational will is a fiction, is telling nonetheless. It’s never quite clear in much of the discussion around these issues what attitude is held to the everyday, intuitive sense that we do tend to have of ourselves as having inner selves, able to introspectively reason about our actions (actually, sometimes it is clear, there is a strong strain of explicitly eliminationist neurophilosophy that sees all this as mere folk psychology ripe for correction). Am I in error to hold this belief about my actions, my behaviours and attitudes? Or, shouldn’t this same range of theoretical work be able to provide an account of how such beliefs and attitudes actually help constitute the intuitive, unconscious, embodied, non-cognitive capacities that they otherwise champion? Old uncle Habermas has pointed out the degree to which arguments which collapse normativity into simple models of scientific naturalism end up having to present the self-understanding of acting subjects as mere epiphenomena (see the essay ‘Freedom and Determinism’ in Between Religion and Naturalism).
There is a range of broadly ‘genealogical’ analyses of the emergence of these new styles of thinking about governing behaviour – I can think of Rose’s work on the brain sciences and the new susceptible subjects of public policy, the Soft Paternalism project at Aberystwyth, or work informed by affect theory which discerns the emergence of new anticipatory logics in security apparatuses or urban design. These types of study are good at identifying new political rationalities, if by that we just mean the ‘causal’ understandings of behaviour that shape various attempts to intervene in different social fields.
But the difficult question is what to make of the emergence of these new fields of neuro-enhanced, behaviouralist intervention, once the genealogical description is done. Here, I think there is a division amongst critical social scientists: you can interpret all this as rather sinister, being drawn into a trap laid down by the reflective/automatic binary, adopting an inadvertently rationalist ‘ethical’ position that one might not, otherwise, be inclined to endorse at all; or you can affirm the basic understanding of the non-rational, non-intentional, non-cognitive dimensions of action that informs behaviour change ideas, but with the help of a dash of affect theory, more or less inflected by psychoanalysis perhaps, but draw up a distinction between good and bad affect – extending credulity to the rhetorical deflation of intentionality and rationality in the new behaviouralism, but finding therein untameable resources for disruption and creativity. Both these styles of ‘critique’ end up leaving intact the claims of scientific authority upon which behaviour change discourse depends.
This is why I have found the Ruth Leys intervention in debates about affect theory so refreshing and though provoking – it does two things which seem to me to provide important resources for thinking through what a sustained critical engagement by social scientists and the humanities with a whole range of new scientific fields of the mind would look like: it identifies some key questions about experimental design, inference, and generalisation that should be asked of any scientific field when its’ ideas begin to travel; and it locates this style of questioning within broader philosophical debates about the relationship between normativity and naturalism. My sense is that this second set of philosophical debates in particular – ones in which the status and value of the concept of action is quite fundamental (not behaviour, not subjectivity, but action) – is where the deep ethical and political issues at stake for a critical engagement with the (social-)sciences of behaviour change, really lie. I’m not convinced that the current conventions of theory-formation in critical social science as I have learnt them are well placed to engage with these debates – conventions in which mention of intention, rationality, or reason are met with quizzical looks or confident dismissal. I’m still trying to unlearn these conventions.
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.
“nonsite.org emerges in part out of 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”.
I think the focus on intentionality is particularly interesting – a future issue is promised on this topic.
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.