Feeling, Emotion, Affect

How to Cite

Shouse, E. (2005). Feeling, Emotion, Affect. M/C Journal, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2443
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

AFFECT/AFFECTION. Neither word denotes a personal feeling (sentiment in Deleuze and Guattai). L’affect (Spinoza’s affectus) is an ability to affect and be affected. It is a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act. L’affection (Spinoza’s affection) is each such state considered as an encounter between the affected body and a second, affecting, body … (Massumi, Plateaus xvi)

Although feeling and affect are routinely used interchangeably, it is important not to confuse affect with feelings and emotions. As Brian Massumi’s definition of affect in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus makes clear, affect is not a personal feeling. Feelings are personal and biographical, emotions are social, and affects are prepersonal. In the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to unpack the previous sentence and provide some examples that will illustrate why the distinction I’ve made between feelings, emotions, and affects is more than pedantry.

A feeling is a sensation that has been checked against previous experiences and labelled. It is personal and biographical because every person has a distinct set of previous sensations from which to draw when interpreting and labelling their feelings. An infant does not experience feelings because she/he lacks both language and biography. Yet, almost every parent will state unequivocally that their child has feelings and expresses them regularly (what the parent is actually bearing witness to is affect, about which, more shortly).

An emotion is the projection/display of a feeling. Unlike feelings, the display of emotion can be either genuine or feigned. The distinction between feelings and emotions was highlighted by an experiment conducted by Paul Ekman who videotaped American and Japanese subjects as they watched films depicting facial surgery. When they watched alone, both groups displayed similar expressions. When they watched in groups, the expressions were different. We broadcast emotion to the world; sometimes that broadcast is an expression of our internal state and other times it is contrived in order to fulfill social expectations. Infants display emotions although they do not have the biography nor language skills to experience feelings. The emotions of the infant are direct expressions of affect.

An affect is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential. Of the three central terms in this essay – feeling, emotion, and affect – affect is the most abstract because affect cannot be fully realised in language, and because affect is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness (Massumi, Parables). Affect is the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. The body has a grammar of its own that cannot be fully captured in language because it “doesn’t just absorb pulses or discrete stimulations; it infolds contexts…” (Massumi, Parables 30). Before this gets too abstract, let’s return to the example of the infant.

An infant has no language skills with which to cognitively process sensations, nor a history of previous experiences from which to draw in assessing the continuous flow of sensations coursing through his or her body. Therefore, the infant has to rely upon intensities (a term that Massumi equates with affect). “Affects are comprised of correlated sets of responses involving the facial muscles, the viscera, the respiratory system, the skeleton, autonomic blood flow changes, and vocalisations that act together to produce an analogue of the particular gradient or intensity of stimulation impinging on the organism” (Demos 19). The key here is that for the infant affect is innate. Through facial expression, respiration, posture, color, and vocalisations infants are able to express the intensity of the stimulations that impinge upon them. Thus, parents are correct when they say their children express emotion. On the other hand, they are incorrect when they attribute feelings to the little tots. Their offspring have neither the biography nor the language to feel. The transition from childhood to adulthood is one in which we partially learn how to bring the display of emotion under conscious control. Affects, however, remain non-conscious and unformed and “are aroused easily by factors over which the individual has little control . . .” (Tompkins 54). For the infant affect is emotion, for the adult affect is what makes feelings feel. It is what determines the intensity (quantity) of a feeling (quality), as well as the background intensity of our everyday lives (the half-sensed, ongoing hum of quantity/quality that we experience when we are not really attuned to any experience at all).

One of the simplest ways to understand how affect continues to operate meaningfully in the lives of adults even after they have gained some conscious control over their emotions is to look at an individual whose affect system has gone haywire. Neurologist, Oliver Sacks, described his experience with such a person. She was an elderly patient who had suffered a hip fracture. The fracture resulted in the immobilisation of her leg for an extended period of time. At the time Sacks began working with her, the woman hadn’t regained feeling in her leg in three years. She was not able to consciously move her leg and she felt that it was “missing.” However, when she heard music she would involuntarily tap her foot to the beat. “This suggested the possibility of music therapy – ordinary physiotherapy had been of no use. Using support (a walker, etc.), we were able gradually to get her to dance, and we finally achieved a virtually complete recovery of the leg, even though it had been defunct for three years” (Sacks 170-1).

The woman in the previous story couldn’t move her leg via the usual conscious mechanisms because the leg had become disconnected from her a-conscious awareness of her body, or “proprioception.” Proprioception is the “continuous but unconscious sensory flow from the movable parts of our body (muscles, tendons, joints), by which their position and tone and motion are continually monitored and adjusted, but in a way which is hidden from us because it is automatic and unconscious” (Sacks 43). Affect adds intensity, or a sense of urgency to proprioception which is why music – the recollection of which is partially stored in the body – could move this woman’s leg when will alone could not.

What is remarkable about the story of the woman whose leg danced all on its own is not so much that affect trumped will in this particular case, but that this is just one example of the way in which affect always precedes will and consciousness (Massumi, Parables 29). At any moment hundreds, perhaps thousands of stimuli impinge upon the human body and the body responds by infolding them all at once and registering them as an intensity. Affect is this intensity. In the infant it is pure expression; in the adult it is pure potential (a measure of the body’s readiness to act in a given circumstance). Silvan Tompkins explains that affect has the power to influence consciousness by amplifying our awareness of our biological state:

The affect mechanism is like the pain mechanism in this respect. If we cut our hand, saw it bleeding, but had no innate pain receptors, we would know we had done something which needed repair, but there would be no urgency to it. Like our automobile which needs a tune-up, we might well let it go until next week when we had more time. But the pain mechanism, like the affect mechanism, so amplifies our awareness of the injury which activates it that we are forced to be concerned, and concerned immediately (Tomkins 88).

Without affect feelings do not “feel” because they have no intensity, and without feelings rational decision-making becomes problematic (Damasio 204-22). In short, affect plays an important role in determining the relationship between our bodies, our environment, and others, and the subjective experience that we feel/think as affect dissolves into experience.

What does all of this mean for individuals who are interested in media and cultural studies? It means that describing “media effects” in terms of the communication of ideology sometimes results in the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy. This has to do with the second term in Massumi’s definitions of affect/affection. L’affection is the process whereby affect is transmitted between bodies. “The transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment’” (Brennan 6). Because affect is unformed and unstructured (unlike feelings and emotions) it can be transmitted between bodies. The importance of affect rests upon the fact that in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her non-conscious affective resonance with the source of the message.

Music provides perhaps the clearest example of how the intensity of the impingement of sensations on the body can “mean” more to people than meaning itself. As Jeremy Gilbert put it, “Music has physical effects which can be identified, described and discussed but which are not the same thing as it having meanings, and any attempt to understand how music works in culture must . . . be able to say something about those effects without trying to collapse them into meanings.” In a lot of cases, the pleasure that individuals derive from music has less to do with the communication of meaning, and far more to do with the way that a particular piece of music “moves” them. While it would be wrong to say that meanings do not matter, it would be just as foolish to ignore the role of biology as we try to grasp the cultural effects of music. Of course, music is not the only form of expression that has the potential to transmit affect. Every form of communication where facial expressions, respiration, tone of voice, and posture are perceptible can transmit affect, and that list includes nearly every form of mediated communication other than the one you are currently experiencing.

Let me clarify that the transmission of affect does not mean that one person’s feelings become another’s. The transmission of affect is about the way that bodies affect one another. When your body infolds a context and another body (real or virtual) is expressing intensity in that context, one intensity is infolded into another. By resonating with the intensity of the contexts it infolds, the body attempts to ensure that it is prepared to respond appropriately to a given circumstance. Given the ubiquity of affect, it is important to take note that the power of many forms of media lies not so much in their ideological effects, but in their ability to create affective resonances independent of content or meaning.

The power of affect lies in the fact that it is unformed and unstructured (abstract). It is affect’s “abstractivity” that makes it transmittable in ways that feelings and emotions are not, and it is because affect is transmittable that it is potentially such a powerful social force. This is why it is important not to confuse affect with feelings and emotions, and why I agree with Brian Massumi that Lawrence Grossberg’s term “affective investments” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If, as Massumi proposes, affect is “unformed and unstructured,” and it is always prior to and/or outside of conscious awareness, how is one to “invest” in it (Parables 260)? Investment presumes forethought and a site for deposit, and affect precedes thought and is as stable as electricity. This isn’t to say that there aren’t practices where certain enhancing forms of affect are more prevalent, only that the people who engage in those practices are not investing in affect, but rather in the hope of being moved. Of course, one of the lessons of cultural studies is that investing in hope has moved people before.

Author Biography

Eric Shouse