In the last fortnight I have attended two seminars on Affect Theory, one organized by the research group I am a member of, Construyendo Nuevas Masculinidades, and the other presented as a meeting between two research groups, one headed by Helena González of UB (Centre de Dona i Literatura) and the other by Belén Martín of the Universidad de Vigo. I can very well say that the two meetings have ‘affected’ me in deep academic ways of which I’ll try to make sense here.
I first heard about Affect Theory (a noun pronounced with the stress on the ‘a’ unlike the verb, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) possibly a year ago, when I learned from Xavier Aldana (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan) that he was working on a book which considers the effect that ‘body gothic’, focused on the extreme destruction of the human body, has on the somatic reactions of the spectators/readers. The somatic reactions (=how the body responds) is what, if I understand this correctly, interests Affect Theory. This is not focused on individual emotion (conditioned by your own culture) but on the bodily reactions that are seemingly common to all human beings and that pre-condition how we react to, in the case that interests me, certain stories. This makes perfect sense for Gothic. Indeed, reading John Clute’s glossary The Darkening Garden, I found that he refers to ‘affect horror’ (which the translator calls ‘horror de impacto’) as the kind of gross-out Gothic which aims at affecting primarily your guts (a trend started back in the late 1970s by, among others, novelist Peter Straub or film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I assume that Affect Theory must also be very useful to analyze porn…
Like most of my colleagues attending the seminars I am unfamiliar with the key texts in the field of Affect Theory, one of which, psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Imagery Consciousness dates back to 1962. Brian Massumi was constantly mentioned in the seminar that Todd Reese offered to my group, whereas in the case of the other meeting, oriented towards feminism, the two names that most often popped up where Rosie Braidotti and Sarah Ahmed. I’m not sure how to place them. Affect Theory, anyway, which is really, as I notice, a branch of psychology, entered psychoanalysis and from it the Humanities with the work of, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. This sounded promising for Masculinities Studies, as she is famous for her seminal volume, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Yet, to be honest, we had serious difficulties to understand how exactly to apply Affect Theory to Literature and cinema–and the example I saw at the feminist seminar was, actually, quite scary.
The idea, if I understand correctly, is to shift the focus from what the text says to how the text says it, considering how this affects the body. What makes me nervous is that this smacks a little bit too much of traditional formalist criticism of the kind that we, in Cultural Studies, have been disputing since the 1970s. The material conditions of production and consumption, the actual bodies doing the reading and the viewing and, certainly, the content of the stories and who they address matter to me very much. In the presentation I saw on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank the lecturer focused on the aesthetics of an uncomfortable dance sequence, showing the young teenage protagonist trapped by her native housing estate. The idea was to interrogate how the spectator is bodily affected by this joyless sequence. I almost ended up quarrelling with the lecturer when I pointed out that this patronizing film seems designed to depress working-class girls like the protagonist into committing suicide, which is why it is important to know who has watched the film and what for. She called this Cultural Studies approach ‘traditional’ and stressed that there was no point in asking actual members of the audience who they are. I ended up defending Yo soy la Juani as a proper feminist text, so you see how things escalated.
What worries me here is not just my own personal intellectual obsolescence (already?) nor the feeling that I must understand Affect Theory, whether I like it or not, but the political implications of all these academic trends. Perhaps this is because I started my dipping into Affect Theory by reading Ruth Leys’ article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique” (2011); in it she points out that the main theorists suggest that affect is “independent” and “even prior” to ideology, an irrational substratum present also in politics. Yes, well, look at the emotional energies generated in Spain by Podemos and I see what is meant. Yet, I cringe.
In this new paradigm, feeling is personal, emotion social and affect pre-personal, whatever that means. The body speaks a language irrespective of language and culture (an animal language, I wonder?). Leys is particularly critical of the assumed split between mind and body as separate cognitive systems, and I agree with her (we’re fighting this battle too against the transhumanists). Her arguments are too complex to summarise but basically she ends by wondering why the turn towards anti-intentionalism in psychology and the affective neurosciences “exerts such a fascination over the cultural critics and theorists (…)—especially since one price their views exact is to imply such a radical separation between affect and reason as to make disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis.” If debating meaning and ideology is no longer part of cultural analysis, then, what are we supposed to do? Become scientists?
I’m going back to Gothic. I wrote my dissertation on monstrosity so I do know that at a very basic level there is an animal affect called ‘fear’. Those who love horror fiction enjoy the loss of control over their bodies: the adrenaline rush, the ice in the guts, the tingle down the spine, the uncontrollable scream and that bizarre jumping off your seat. Gothic Studies have, of course, used psychology and psychoanalysis abundantly to delve into the writer’s imagination and the spectator’s reactions. Yet, I’ll insist again, as I did in my post here on Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2014) that it is important to specify whose body, as identity is crucial to understand ideology. Women tend to eschew body gothic (and affect gothic more generally) because the bodies too often tortured and destroyed are female bodies. Also, Gothic still is predominantly a narrative mode still mainly produced and enjoyed by white, male, middle-class, privileged persons facing no real situation of danger in their daily lives.
This is the main core of my worry: formalism, post-structuralism and now Affect Theory are telling us that there are universalist principles in the making and the reception of storytelling that can be theorized beyond who is found at each end of the process and how they connect. Understanding how the grim aesthetics of The Walking Dead affect the generic body of the spectator is, I think, a valid academic project. Yet, this project must be complemented by a consideration of how ideology works in this very suspect patriarchal, survivalist text. Why? Because if we reject the unmasking of ideology as a passé academic pursuit, we are falling into the most monstrous ideological trap: the pretence that ideology that does not exist. This, I certainly, don’t want to encourage.
I’ve run out of space to consider the matter of what an academic fashion is and why Affect Theory is now all the rage. I’ll repeat what we determined in the feminist seminar: one thing is embracing a theory out of a profound conviction and following the logic of one’s career and another quite different (this would be the fashion) is jumping onto the band wagon just because, as a participant noted, certain keywords will make your work look cooler than others. I am not, obviously, opposed to importing refreshing, challenging new ideas, for this is what academic debates are about–but I am growing quite suspicious of why particular ideas climb to the top. Also, I long for the day when a local Pérez, García or Martínez will originate an internationally acclaimed academic trend… instead of meekly submitting to someone else’s ideas.
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