On Affect, Aesthetics, and Mass Mediation: An Interview with William Mazzarella

The May 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included a Retrospectives collection on “Affect,” edited by Daniel White. This collection included the article “Sense out of Sense: Notes on the Affect/Ethics Impasse,” by William Mazzarella, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Andrés Romero and Toby Austin Locke conducted with Mazzarella about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Andrés Romero and Toby Austin Locke: In this article, you work through a genealogy of thought on affective relations that diverges from the usual line from Baruch Spinoza to Gilles Deleuze that we are accustomed to tracing in the scholarship on affect. It is instead, David Hume and Adam Smith who draw you into rethinking the intersections of affect and ethics, as well as what you call “communicative representation and immersed sensuous participation.” What is it about this set of interlocutors, and more particularly, Smith’s development of the notion of sympathy that you found pertinent for this line of inquiry?

William Mazzarella: It’s true that most of what’s been done in what is now known as affect theory has been a development of the Spinozian-Deleuzian tradition. And there’s a lot to admire in that line of work. But I come to the question of affect with another set of concerns, concerns having to do with the peculiar split that arose in the twentieth century between, broadly speaking, vitalist Francophone critical theory (culminating in Deleuze and his inheritors) on the one hand and Germanic dialectical theory (culminating in the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) on the other. I say “split,” but there’s actually something more like a highly cathected phobia going on there: just take a look at the way the word dialectic functions as a focus of rabid disgust in the Deleuzian tradition. This always seemed like an interesting symptom to me. What is the anxiety embedded in this need on the part of Deleuzians, again and again, to abject (what they, often quite tendentiously, understood as) dialectics? I won’t rehearse my argument about this here—various versions of it show up in my essays “Affect: What is it Good For?” (Mazzarella 2009) and “The Myth of the Multitude” (Mazzarella 2010), and in my books Censorium (Mazzarella 2013) and, especially, The Mana of Mass Society (Mazzarella, forthcoming).

 The important point, in regard to your question, is that I felt that thinking the vitalist tradition and the dialectical tradition together—bringing them into dialectical tension, if you like—would allow us to understand the restless co-constitution of the immanent potentialities that affect theory identifies and their actualization in determinate social forms. (Georg Simmel’s work is a semisecret inspiration for me here; I sense, as well, relatively untapped possibilities in thinking more about the influence of Henri Bergson on Walter Benjamin.) My own work has, all along, been preoccupied with how we might understand the relation between affect and institutional mediation, specifically with regard to mass-mediated publicness. That’s where Smith seems especially significant to me. His attempts to theorize sympathy are, I think, impossible to understand without reference to the distinctively modern forms of mass publicity that are taking form around him in the mid-eighteenth century. This is something that isn’t directly addressed in Theory of Moral Sentiments, but one feels its fingerprints everywhere in the text—not least in its ambivalence about the very meanings of public and private, as well as the way in which Smith’s famous notion of the impartial spectator is so clearly oriented toward what we would now understand as an impersonal mass public. 

AR and TAL: Hume and Smith begin to diverge around the question of how, precisely, affective intensities are transmitted between people. Unlike Hume, Smith argues that the intersubjective transmission of sentiments is premised on our imaginative capacities. Could you say more about the relationship between affect, imagination, and sensuous experience?

WM: The way I’d like to answer this question is to propose thinking Hume and Smith on empathy alongside another philosophical discourse that takes shape in the eighteenth century: our modern philosophical conception of aesthetic experience. The philosophy of aesthetics, as formalized by Immanuel Kant (2009) in his Critique of Judgment, is preoccupied with some of the same questions that interested Hume and Smith. For example: To what extent can our spontaneous sensuous capacities be understood in ethical terms? How can we tell the difference between affective responses that reproduce ideological prejudice and those that open us up to the possibility of transcendent ethical judgment? Is it possible to imagine spontaneous corporeal capacities as disinterested? Whereas the discourse on sympathy is largely concerned with resonances or intuitions between human beings, the philosophy of aesthetics broadens the field of inquiry into problems of imagination/creativity and relations between humans and (ostensibly) inanimate objects.

Another thing that links the debates on sympathy with those on aesthetics is the problem of how to understand the sensorium of modern life, a problem that lurches back and forth between claims about natural/innate human capacities and historically specific modes of sensuous life. The discourse on sympathy retains a strongly ethical orientation; it remains focused on the question of how to move from spontaneous, embodied responses to reliable ethical judgments in a society of strangers (a mass public). The discourse on aesthetics, by contrast, remains sharply skeptical of any attempt to move directly from aesthetic experience to ethical judgment, even as—one sees this strongly in both Kant and Friedrich Schiller—a properly trained aesthetic judgment remains an indispensable precondition for the ethical judgment that nevertheless cannot be derived from it.

This may all sound quite recondite, but this is the philosophical problematic of the life of the senses in mass-mediated modernity. As such, there is a tremendous amount of value in here for trying to understand phenomena like advertising, propaganda, the commodification of art, political rhetoric, the performative aspects of political legitimation, and so on. These are issues that are, more than ever, of pressing importance to all of us. 

AR and TAL: We would like to probe the relationship between affect and ethics further by thinking about the early Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1998) proposition that “ethics and aesthetics are one.” Do you think that the affect/ethics impasse is inevitable due to the fact that neither affect nor ethics is capable of being expressed in purely logical or rational terms? In what sense do affect and ethics remain in what you call that “uncanny fold” that is “at once intimate and impersonal” due to the fact that, like aesthetics, they remain beyond the limits of what can formally be said or communicated?

WM: I’m not qualified to speak about Wittgenstein. But building on my previous comment, I’d simply observe here that the line you quote here—“ethics and aesthetics are one”—is absolutely at odds with the whole Kantian tradition of thinking about aesthetics and ethics. Taken on its own (although obviously that’s not what Wittgenstein meant), it could even be read as a recipe for fascism. 

Now, as I suggest in my article on the affect/ethics impasse, it’s very easy to poke fun at the Kantian principle of aesthetic disinterest. We like to believe nowadays that it’s either built on some kind of massive repression of fundamental libidinal energies or that it’s simply a recipe for ideological naturalization: that is, that any claim to a disinterested aesthetic judgment cannot really be disinterested and is in fact more than likely simply to be an effort to make some wildly partial ideological claim seem transcendent, natural, immutable.

But that’s where Theodor Adorno was, I think, correct. Adorno was enough of a Nietzschean and a Freudian to point out that Kant’s version of “without interest” was really, as Adorno put it, shadowed by the wildest interest. Yet Adorno didn’t conclude from that that ethics could be collapsed into aesthetics. For Adorno, it was still absolutely crucial that aesthetic judgment not be reduced to some kind of ethical or political demand. That was the core of his commitment to aesthetic autonomy—another apparently old-fashioned and even delusional, but I think actually crucial concept. Adorno acknowledged that whatever we might call aesthetic autonomy couldn’t be autonomous of the social conditions that made that autonomy possible; in that sense, all aesthetic autonomy is heteronomously conditioned. He was also the first to note that this heteronomy comes with a price: a certain domestication or defanging of the aesthetic, especially in its separation from politics. But, good dialectician that he was, he then insisted that it was precisely this separation from politics that gave art its truly political potential.

By refusing to serve politics, by refusing to illustrate a political message, aesthetic experience could do something truly radical—and, in doing so, point, actually, way beyond the relatively narrowly demarcated space of “art.” 


Kant, Immanuel. 2009. Critique of Judgement. Edited by Nicholas Walker and translated by James Creed Meredith. New York: Oxford University Press. Originally published in 1790.  

Mazzarella, William. 2009. “Affect: What is it Good for?” In Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization, edited by Saurabh Dube, 291–309. New York: Routledge.

  ______. 2010. “The Myth of the Multitude, or, Who’s Afraid of the Crowd?” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 4: 697-727.

  ______. 2013. Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

  ______. Forthcoming. The Mana of Mass Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2008. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by C. K. Ogden. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Originally published in 1921.