From the Series: Affect
“Instead of asking what affect is,” writes Danilyn Rutherford, “we should be asking where this concept comes from and what it is doing. What kind of analytic apparatuses are entangled with it?” And, asks Richard McGrail, “why do anthropologists go to all this trouble to try and get back to matter?” My ruminations here are deviant, to borrow Sareeta Amrute’s phrasing, in the sense that I seek less to integrate the preceding contributions than to venture into thinking about what animates our attempts to get back to matter.
It seems to me that our turn to affect is animated by a desire that is, ultimately, metaphysical. This desire draws on a long Christian tradition of locating inaugural events in matter. Let us begin with Augustine, whose writings on grace were foundational to Christianity. For Augustine, the inaugural event that constituted God’s creation was divine love: a gift free, gratuitous, and so unmerited by humans that they could never dream of fully reciprocating it. Without this gift, without this primordial moment of life-constituting, revolutionary excess, all would “lapse into immobility and nothingness” (Fitzgerald 1999, 391–92).
For Augustine, this gift of divine love, also called grace, manifests itself on the level of bodily intensity. After all, the scriptures describe God as “pouring himself into [human] hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) and instruct believers "to glorify God in [their] body" (First Corinthians 6:20). The Holy Spirit thus comes to dwell in the Christian nervous system, “striking” the elect through the preaching of the Gospel or by “softening their hearts” to respond to the word (Fitzgerald 1999, 397). The human capacity to respond to divine love is not about autonomous choice. Instead, a disposition toward God’s love is evoked and secured by divine mercy alone. Grace, in short, is a form of affect. It is divine love received by human hearts having been struck.
Not long ago, Julian Pitt-Rivers (1992, 421–22) wrote about the place of grace in Western culture. He argued that derivations of grace survive everywhere outside the realms of theology, in the myriad acts of gratuity that make up our daily lives. These gratuitous acts come in the form of the favors performed between neighbors, kin, friends and strangers and are central to sociation more generally. Concomitantly, saying “thank you” (grazie in Italian, gracias in Spanish; the romance root being gratus, which again recalls the word grace) is nothing else but the recognition and acceptance of these gratuitous gestures. Pitt-Rivers, citing Augustine, argues that the logic that animates these everyday acts is identical to the original event so central to Christianity. Grace, as expressed in these moments of kindness, is “always something extra, over and above 'what counts,' what is obligatory or predictable; it belongs on the register of the extraordinary (hence its association with the sacred)” (Pitt-Rivers 1992, 425). These everyday moments of excess and sacrifice, of the above-and-beyond, are always followed by the same principle in all European languages: the disavowal that a favor has been done (de nada in Spanish; niente in Italian; de rien in French; don’t mention it in English, and so on). The denial here consists “not of a denial of the sentiment which inspired the act of grace but rather that any obligation has been incurred. It is a way of asserting that the grace was real, that the favor was indeed gratuitous” (Pitt-Rivers 1992, 426). What is established between two parties is thus not equivalence (which is necessary, he notes, only if the aim is commercial) but a reciprocity that is asymmetrical because benevolent forms of exchange are incalculable: they cannot, indeed, do not have to be equivalently reciprocated: “there are plenty of reciprocal relations that do not involve any estimation of value; nothing is specified by way of a return." Pitt-Rivers (1992, 427, 428) locates these small daily sacrifices in the heart: grace as a mode of everyday conduct derives not from the cold calculability of contract but from “the reciprocity of the heart," not from “that which is known” but “that which is felt,” not from the rational but from the mysterious, not from the profane but from the sacred. “Under the heading of grace,” he writes “it is possible to group all the phenomena that evade the conscious reasoned control of conduct” (Pitt-Rivers 1992, 428).
Brian Massumi, of course, does not speak of grace. But the logic animating his argument is organized around the very same coupling of the inaugural, excessive, unpredictable, and incalculable to the realm of corporeal intensity. Like Pitt-Rivers, his tone and writing appear to be secular and scientific. But unlike Pitt-Rivers, the fervor that breathes through his theory of eventfulness as occurring on the level of affect “quivers with the romance of the productive, the multiple, and the mobile” (Mazzarella 2009, 294). Massumi does not acknowledge what I suggest is his argument’s Christian anima. Yet he exclaims: “if there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death” (Massumi 2002, 35). Echoes of Augustine, anyone?
It’s hard to be immune to such quivering promises of the infinite, especially in these politically dire times. Many scholars have, unlike Massumi, quite unabashedly moved toward promises of the theological. Wrestling with religious categories such as love, faith, grace, fidelity, and the miraculous, scholars ranging from Derrida to Negri, Badiou, and Žižek have attempted to reinvigorate “the revolutionary and diremptive passion of the religious subject” and to reintroduce “the realm of the passionate act as the ground of responsibility” (Roberts 2003, 37). When asking, then, what work affect is doing in our analysis that is different from “its older analytic cousins,” the answer might lie in the fact that it is, ironically, a metaphysical concept, one that allows for politics and ethics as well. Affect is, as Amrute put it in her post, “politically charged.” As Massumi himself put it in a recent interview: “I guess ‘affect’ is the word I use for ‘hope.’” Affect, in short, is a rumor of revolution in an era where revolution is barely discernible.
This post is indebted to a wondrous moment that happened a few days ago in my Critical Catholicism Reading Group. I want to thank Ashley Lebner, Carlota McAllister, and Valentina Napolitano for that moment and for the conversation that ensued.
Fitzgerald, Allan D., ed. 1999. Augustine Through the Ages. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Sensation, Affect. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
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.
Pitt-Rivers, Julian. 2011. "The Place of Grace in Anthropology." HAU 1, no. 1: 423–50. Originally published in 1992.
Roberts, John. 2003. "The Ethics of Conviction: Marxism, Ontology, and Religion." Radical Philosophy, no. 121: 36–48.