Society for Critical Exchange

Aaron Chandler

University of North Carolina Greensboro

December 27th, 2008


In Response: New Methods, New Affects

Each of the essays gathered for this panel represents a distinct challenge to the theoretical field in which it intervenes, a fact that makes arduous any effort to lasso all five into a single theoretical enclosure.  So I begin by shrugging off any pretense that I can do so.  I will not endeavor to map these interventions within the single speculative domain nor will I trace their relation to a stable concept of affect I take to be axiomatic.  Instead, I will follow a methodological thread, thin in parts and thick in others, that will hopefully produce a new relation between these texts.  Each essay uncovers a set of active, but often-tacit conceptions of affect as they have been historically deployed within particular theoretical discourses, such as eco-criticism, narratology, or theories of globalization.  What emerges with fair consistency, largely without regard to the domain of knowledge, is the tendency of academic, and particularly theoretical discourses to secrete unreflective (often dismissive) views of affect into their core premises.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these conceptions of affect vary widely.  Here one encounters “affect” as hazy-edged catchall, as a commonsensical index of gut feeling, as a fresh means of dressing up Kantian phenomenality, and as any somatic responses hidden in the lacunae of discourses past and present.  Also unsurprisingly is the propensity to oppose affect to reason—both in the target discourses and, to a lesser extent, in the interventions of the panelists themselves—though the manifestations of reason, be it poststructuralist abstraction or Marxist scientism—differ significantly.  Nevertheless, each of the texts also hint at tantalizing larger projects, projects that will doubtlessly spur exchanges within their respective sub-fields and in the critical conversations making up “the affective turn” more generally, and so I take it as a privilege to engage with them in their early forms. 

            Patrick Colm Hogan’s essay "Affective Narratology: On Emotions and Stories," declares itself a prolegomenon to the larger project of affective narratology and, it seems to me, gets that venture off to an auspicious start.  Hogan begins with the claim that “the distinctive aspects of narrative—or, more properly, the distinctive aspects of story--are to a great extent the product of emotion systems,” a seemingly uncontroversial claim until one takes stock of the definite article with which it begins (2).  Hogan’s approach not only avoids treating narrative as a primarily linguistic operation, it seems to abhor the tendency to do so more generally, seeking to anchor the study instead in emotional structures as recoverable through “emotion research,” a slightly indefinite formulation that, given Hogan’s emphasis of cross-cultural data and phenomenological description, suggests a cognitivist approach (7).  Nonetheless, as he redraws the traditional narrative of narratology’s disciplinary development, Hogan seems to draw from a swathe of sources wider than those amenable to cognitivist assumptions—articulating, for example, his connection to the Chicago school’s stress on audience while seeking to avoid their commonsensical reductions of affective experience.

An affective narratology drawing on contemporary psychological studies of emotion, but one that, as Hogan outlines it, remains in dialogue with more speculative narratological antecedents is a stimulating prospect that will doubtless produce valuable shifts in emphasis. For example, the suggestion that affectively motivated selection, rather than knowledge, provides the best means of understanding the contours of focalization is, I think, a tantalizing example of the insights that are likely to emerge from this approach. In some ways, this approach echoes the notion of salience proffered by Richard Wollheim in On the Emotions (1999), and expounded on as an aspect of aesthetic experience by Charles Altieri in The Particulars of Rapture (2004). Such connections to psychology and aesthetics are bound to multiply in a project that seeks to recast narratology’s object so radically. Additionally, it seems worthwhile to engage more rigorously with those rare instances in which classical narratology and semiotics did attempt to deal directly with how emotions ought to be studied, especially The Semiotics of Passions: From States of Affairs to States of Feeling (1993) by A J Greimas and Jacques Fontanille.

Less a prolegomenon than an essay in Montaigne’s sense, Don Hedrick’s "Marxist Feelings" builds thoughtfully on the observation that Marx’s theory displays (or uncovers?) a troubled split between objective and subjective experiences of capitalism, as emblematized by the difference between exploitation and alienation.  As Hedrick points out this split can be made to correspond with other dualities, most particularly the tension between early and later Marx, or in another formulation, between Marx’s humanistic inclinations and his scientific pretensions.  Since labor is the site of these conceptual antagonisms, Hedrick usefully culls a passage from the Grundrisse in which Marx positions himself dialectically between the attitudes toward labor expounded by the apologists of capitalism (Adam Smith’s view of labor as a curse, an interruption of tranquil happiness), and those espoused by utopian economic thinking (Fourier’s confusion of work and play).  Though Hedrick does not frame it as such, the result seems to be Marx’s effort to suture-- by dent of exclamation and affective intensity—the phenomenal, affective experience of effort with its actual, economic consequences.  Marx writes of “really free working” involving kinesic markers of objective relevance—“the most damned seriousness”—and subjectively felt force—“the most intense exertion.” 

Thus Hedrick has sketched a means of reconfiguring the master term in Marx’s discourse by drawing up its connections to affective anchors (seriousness, intensity) and placing this in counterpoint to capitalism’s affective configuration (which opposes labor to happiness, but also figures the former as the origin of the latter).  Dexterously appended to this argument is Hedrick’s gloss on the recent film The Pursuit of Happyness, though the implications of his analysis for his larger argument might be usefully expanded. Hedrick offers an ingenious reading of the film’s title and the queasy-making regressus in which Will Smith’s character labors mightily for—in the end—little more than a job application. The film treats this as a heroic accomplishment and exults accordingly, but in this context the question is whether this suffering should be read as Sisyphusian or sacrificial. Here labor is not merely the opposite of tranquility (Smith), nor is it play (Fourier), nor is it creative concentration (Marx), but instead should be read as a symbolic sacrifice, in that what is being negotiated is the no-man’s-land dividing exploited to exploiting classes, from salesmanship bound to spoil-vulnerable materiality to a mastery of immaterial markets.  The film traces, as if they were stations of the cross, the movement of an agent who negotiates, on behalf of the audience, a fantastic shift from being the marginal object of late Fordist exploitation to the subject of airy post-Fordism – as a financial analyst but also as the subject of a mythologizing Hollywood biopic. 

            Like Hedrick, both Douglas Robinson and William Slaymaker uncover the place of affect in critical discourses—postcolonial theory and ecocriticism respectively--which would otherwise seem to depend only tangentially on theories of affect.  In his admirably lucid essay, "Bhabha and Spivak on Postcolonial Affect," Douglas Robinson argues that “[t]he phenomenology of affective economies or value-coding is almost entirely buried in Bhabha and Spivak, almost crushed under the immaterial burden of poststructuralist abstraction.” Concentrating on Bhabha’s “Sly Civility” and Spivak’s “Women in Difference,” Robinson shows how both theorists, though they explicitly evoke the significance of affect to their critical practice, ultimately truncate their exploration of its role in scenes of colonial subjection or consign affective engagements, for questionable reasons, to a secondary status. In each case, this seems to owe to Bhabha’s and Spivak’s respective discursive predispositions.  In the former case, Freud’s interest in paranoid projection over and against kinesic interactions is echoed in Bhabha’s reading of “the frontier station of joint occupation.”  In the latter instance, Robinson marvelously reveals how Spivak’s prioritizing of economy over affect (shades of Hedrick’s analysis) unwittingly recuperates the gendered binarism of reason vs. affect embedded in Marx’s view of exploitative labor.

            What emerges clearly from these moments of critique is that postcolonial critics must avoid the practice of bracketing from consideration the affective responses of natives and subject peoples and instead seek to foreground the complex transsubjective interactions that constitute scenes of geopolitical domination, submission, and contestation.  Nonetheless, it seems to me that Robinson, perhaps due to the constrictions of the form, downplays the difficulty and danger attending any imaginative recreations of the affective experience of those on the “outside” of the archive.   Are we justified in saying that it is just as easy to imaginatively reconstruct the kinesic body and affective experiences of those who are not actively involved in the production of the historical record from which we extrapolate and imaginatively produce our recreations? Although reconstructing the affective interactions embedded in historically significant scenes of cultural and economic coercion will all involve an imaginative leap, it seems necessary to acknowledge that certain sociopolitical positions remain less visible from our critical vantage than others.  Even so, Robinson’s essay persuasively contends that any theorizations of subalternality, subjection, and resistance that replace an engagement with the affective investments of those in question with spatial tropes and received abstractions will, at best, leave aside aspects crucial to the dynamics of domination.

            Similarly, in his criticism of theory’s tendency to occlude or obstruct affect, William Slaymaker implicitly agrees with the premises underlying Robinson’s “Postcolonial Affects.”  The difference, however, is that Robinson is interested in affective interactions that occur but which goes unregistered in the very discourses which ought to seek their recuperation.  Instead, Slaymaker laments the lack of emotional traction that academic ecocritics themselves have sought to produce. In "Eco-Motions: Ecocriticism as Emotive Theory," Slaymaker takes umbrage with what he calls “[c]old theory,” which, he argues, “does not produce enough energy to spark the moral imagination to activate indignation at the destruction of nature.” Slaymaker posits an opposition between academic ecocritics, who remain within “the bounds of critical decorum” and activists, whom the academics praise. This seems to place ecocritics as a medium term in between the affective disengagement of postcolonial and contemporary critics, whose vocabulary overwhelms their sentiments, and creative environmentalist writers who sue for commitment from their wider readership. What is at stake in this classificatory scheme is an unstated normative assumption that ecocriticism must, either in its explicitly activist or academic forms, involve not only an affective element, but also an affective rhetoric and pedagogy that produces more than assent.  Ecocriticism must, it seems, produce commitment.  Doubtless this intervention will goad some critics into a defensive posture, but at its best, this essay is a provocation to practitioners of “high theory” to interrogate their interest (or lack of interest) in the role affect plays in theory’s emergence and presentation.  All the same, once cannot easily sidestep the need for on-going and explicit theorizations of our master terms, because even as one calls on “moral imagination,” one is already entangled in theory jargonic enough to initially appear too “cold” to inspire it.  

            As if writing to provide evidence for the need to examine our assumptions about affect as well as the histories of those assumptions, Miranda Burgess’s splendid essay, "On Being Moved: Affect, Aesthetics, and Romantic Traffic," intriguingly suggests that several of the most influential theorizations of globalization as a collective emotional and psychological process owe to Romantic conceptions of shared affect and transport.  In Burgess’s view, the concern of contemporary theorists such as Craig Calhoun and Arjun Appuradai share with Coleridge (among others) a vision of and a concern over the massification of affect that attends the dissemination of cultural objects, texts, and commodities.  Intriguingly, Burgess makes use of this subterranean connection, it seems to me, to ask after what is missing in our current formulations and to suggest that the long eighteenth-century might provide several blueprints for novel understandings of affective geopolitics.   Burgess suggests that the current theorizations of globalization-as-affective-event borrow less from the Humean tradition, which might see affect as a matter of contagious feeling, than from a Romantic/Kantian model in which universalism-- generalized affect--finds counterpoint with the specific, subnational, the local, and so on.  It seems worthwhile to build on this insight by considering more fully recent social theory.  I have in mind here particularly Gilles Deleuze (a student of Humean empiricism), his notion of the social body as machinic assemblage and, most importantly, his evocative warning about the emergence of the society of control. 

            It has been an honor to engage with these exceptional essays and to be able to respond to them here, even if haste has checked the degree to which I have been able to do justice to them.  I look forward to studying these interventions in their future, expanded forms.