Let Her RIP

How to Cite

Probyn, E. (2005). A-ffect: Let Her RIP. M/C Journal, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2470
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

This issue’s theme was, in part, spurred into being by Greg Noble’s comments in last year’s newsletter of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia that “cultural studies is crap at affect”. It elicited a bit of argy-bargy although, given the framing, response tended towards: yes, it is; or no, it isn’t.

What would it mean to be crap, or conversely good, at affect? It’s been a while now that references to something called affect have littered cult-studs speak. In my own timeline, I remember giving a paper in Glasgow in the early 1990s. Nothing about it remains in my memory except that the Scots didn’t understand what I meant by A-ffect, as my mongrel tongue then pronounced it.

At the time, the field was caught up in the media effects paradigm, so perhaps the misunderstanding was that common confusion between effect and affect. Although by and large the media effects school was fairly passionless, in feminist television and film studies, melancholia and other emotional states were important, but they weren’t named as Affect.

Affect as an essentially empty term, as yet another contentless term in cultural theory, has been thoroughly skewered by Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Their argument is against accounts of feelings that in privileging the cultural cannot adequately comprehend the variety of bodily and physiological responses. Inspired by the clinical psychologist, Silvan Tomkins, in crossing the biological and the cultural, or in their framing, the digital and the analogue, they seek a model that “can differentiate”, outside of the usual reliance on difference. Instead of the on/off, same/other logic so prevalent in cultural theory, they turn to the distinct and differentiating affects that Tomkins names: disgust-contempt; shame-humiliation; distress-anguish; anger-rage; surprise-startlement; enjoyment-joy; interest-excitement.

You will recall their pitiless critique of Ann Cvetkovich’s book Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism. If you’ve read them as they sliced in theoretical posturing, you’ll never forget their critique.

It was Cvetkovich’s first book. Sedgwick and Frank admit that their tactic was “graceless”. As they explicate, the objective of their critique was “a gestalt strategy of involving readers in a sudden perceptual reorganisation and unexpected self-recognition”. They reason that had they chosen works by more well-known authors, “our strategy would have had no chance of success”.

Not knowing the author, and only vaguely aware of the book, I felt a frisson of mixed, but enthusiastic, emotions (surprise, excitement, interest, enjoyment) at lines such as:

Perhaps most oddly for a theory of affect, this one has no feelings in it. Affect is treated as a unitary category … There is no theoretical room for any difference between, say, being amused, being disgusted, being ashamed, and being enraged. … It would be plausible to see a variety of twentieth-century theoretical languages as attempts, congruent with this one, to detoxify the excesses of the body, thought, and feeling by reducing the multiple essentialist risks of analog representation to the single, unavowedly essential certainty of one or another on/off switch. (Sedgwick and Frank 27)

You would think that their critique would effectively put you off writing about Affect. But that is neither the case for the discipline, nor for that particular author.

If writing about Affect without feeling, as an indiscriminate and undiscerning category, is effectively “crap”, what constitutes good, or at least not-crap uses of affect? If “crap” uses of affect amount to yet another nebulous and unsubstantiated entity (you could do a roll call of other such terms from the 1990s: politics, ethics, poetics, posthuman, and so on), why and how should we be interested in affect? Put another way, does an attention to affect extend existing cultural theories, or is it a discrete object of study and analysis?

To take the latter, it’s clear that affect, understood as distinct physical and social phenomena, is of intrinsic interest. My recent studies of shame have convinced me that you could spend a productive life investigating how different disciplines conceptualise just this one affect. I barely scratched the surface, but the different approaches of, say, evolutionary biology and psychology, historical and biological anthropology, and bio-sociology offer extraordinarily interesting takes on the experience, expression and constitution of shame. And one thing leads to another. I still haven’t properly read Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression. And I’m now really interested in how one would approach the more positive emotions and affects in a rigorous manner.

It’s at the first level – of how affect extends and enriches cultural analysis – that I have the most experience. To take my own work, which goes back to the late 1980s, I’m beginning to see – either in hindsight or because of age – that there has been a consistent search as to how to convey the textures of everyday life. From Sexing the Self through Outside Belongings, Carnal Appetites and to Blush, I’ve scribbled away, constantly worrying at the ineffable, the awesome materiality of discourse and life as we know it. Subjectivity – how to use the self –, sexuality and queer angles, the oblique, the obvious, the ordinary … these are aspects that cannot be properly understood without recourse to the affective ways in which they appear and are recognised, or not, by individuals and social groups.

I say this not to vaunt my own work, which has, in any case, been immensely inflected and inspired by the intellectual contexts which I’ve been lucky enough to inhabit. It is, I think, salutary not only for one’s own sense of a trajectory, but also intellectually important to remember that hot topics like Affect do not emerge as precocious brainchildren. Humans have wondered at these aspects of life for a very long time.

Another important thing to remember is that they/we have wondered in awe-struck ways. When Affect becomes hot, it becomes untouchable and untouched by that wonder and by a necessary gratitude to the ideas that allow us to think …

And write. Writing affect should inspire awe and awe inspires modesty. I’ve experimented with writing shame, arguing that it can provide an ethics of writing that continually makes us viscerally aware of the stakes involved in communicating to readers the importance of ideas. But we could also begin to imagine what writing joy might entail. Clifton Evers writes “stoke” in his work on masculinity and surfing. And years ago, Rosi Braidotti wrote “rage” as a major feminist modus operandi.

If there can be no such thing as affectless writing (humans after all cannot not communicate), writing affects must be compelled by a modest acknowledgement of the effects of our critical writing. Modesty directs us to the small things, to the details and nuances that Sedgwick and Frank place within an intellectual project that can distinguish 256,000 shades of gray but also knows that there are real differences between red, and yellow, and blue. Or in Tomkins’ words, “the key to both Science and Art is the union of specificity and generality”, and he adds “is extremely difficult since the individual tends to backslide in one direction or the other”.

As Georges Devereux once said, “a realistic science of man can only be created by men most aware of their own humanity when it implement it most completely in their scientific work” (xx). Affect in this sense constitutes an object of inquiry and a way of doing research that demands the abstract and concrete be brought to bear on each other. It also extends cultural theory and analysis by reminding us of our humanity and the tremendous effort it entails to implement it in our work.

So let A-ffect rest (in peace), so we can put our energies into motivated analyses of the constitution, the experience, the political, cultural and individual import of many affects.

Author Biography

Elspeth Probyn