What we have learnt about affect…

February 24, 2012

Affect must be distinguished from the biography of feelings and the social expression of emotions (Eric Shouse, M/C Journal 2005). Affect is non-conscious and pre-personal, which is to say, it does not belong to some self-reflexive subject. It belongs neither to subjects nor objects, but emerges with the dynamic relations that erupt in the midst of encounters. Affect IS the relation that flows between people and people, people and things, people and places, etc.  Understandings of who or what is the ‘subject’ (who am I?) come to be radically overhauled when we investigate the role of affect. Subjectivity opens itself up to all forms of transformation and on-going construction, though generally in response to complex constraints (cultural, historical, social, personal): it’s not a free for all, but it is a promise that moves us beyond the habit of thinking that subjectivity is fixed and stable. Affect is transformative and dynamic occurring ‘in-between’, linking up actors (human and non-human) in intricate networks or ecologies. Many different dynamic scenes can be analyzed according to a theory of affect. The market place; the street march; the school playground; the traffic jam; the airport waiting lounge. We can analyze different institutional formations according to affect.

But, if affect is pre-personal and non-conscious how do we identify it and make observations and assertions about it? What does Gilles Deleuze mean when he suggests that artists work with affect and percept? Especially if affects and percepts neither belong to the affected subject nor to the perceiving subject. Following Deleuze and also Guattari’s account, artists, writers, and other creative practitioners are those privileged actors best able to produce affect, or animate the circulation of affect. Francis Bacon, for instance, wants his canvases to gain direct access to the nervous system, that is, to what stirs affect. Presumably, through time, we learn to recognize the after-effects of affect (feelings, emotions) and from the point of view of this understanding it may be possible to participate in the production of affect. What we must be wary of assuming is that we could ever control the flow of affect, for the affects that we hope to produce (through our architecture, for instance) may have both positive as well as negative effects.

Hélène Frichot


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