Affect: Provocation

From the Series: Affect

Photo by Martin Fisch, licensed under CC BY.

My word, and my job, is provocation, so here goes. I’m going to let down my guard, assuming I’m among friends. I’m going to assume I am among others who have let the word affect slip off their tongues or pens, who have been excited about the possibilities that this concept might open for anthropologists, who have dreamed of forging alliances with former enemies: of science peace, not science war. I’m going to assume that my readers have also indulged in the delicious, forbidden fantasy of getting to the bottom of things—to the forces that move people, forces that compel, attract, and provoke. I’m going to assume that my readers have found themselves yearning to go ever deeper in their analyses, even while knowing it could well be turtles all the way down, as Clifford Geertz told us long ago. So friends, here are some questions that haunt me whenever I am writing, talking, or even thinking about affect.

What business do we anthropologists have writing about affect, let alone ethics? Can we really claim to have anything more to offer than accounts of affect—not felt bodily intensity, perceptions of perception, relations between movement and rest, but an energy that has been labeled, narrated, and tamed? Brian Massumi, whose formulations on affect are so precise and whose call for new alliances between the humanities and sciences is so compelling, is rather flat when it comes actually to analyzing affect. The studies he describes are interesting, but it’s hard to see how we could arrive at these kinds of findings with the tools of our trade. Just like writing as such for Derrida or the id as such for Freud, for Massumi affect as such is only evident in its traces or symptoms: forms that are both fueled by and fail to capture the thing to which they point.

If so, how is affect doing different work in our analyses than its older analytic cousins? The same problem arises for me when I think about our work on ethics. Anthropologists have produced wonderful descriptions of how people describe the work of self-fashioning that goes into producing and sustaining an ethical subject. But does our research really tell us what ethics is? Does it tell us what to do?

Then again, maybe it is precisely anthropologists whose business it should—or, better, could—be to talk about both affect and ethics. I’m coming to this conclusion by pondering the other niggling doubt that comes to mind when I think about this concept, affect, and its potential. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a scientist—perhaps even a physicist. I wanted to know how the world really worked. Soon enough, I realized that scientists were usually bad at asking and answering big questions. Their standards of evidence were such that often only the smallest claims were permissible. One could know about the function of rods and cones, but that didn’t really tell you what it meant to see. Anthropologists, by contrast, produce a more ambitious, if less self-assured kind of knowledge: instead of telling people that this is how the world is, we invite them to imagine what the world might look like if seen in the way we suggest.

In this sense, the concept of affect is an invitation. What if we thought hard about this force and the way it passes between bodies? What if we began to see in the things people say, write, make, and do together the effects of movements that breach the boundaries that our intellectual forebears were too quick to draw between reason and passion, body, and soul? What new understanding of our ethical commitments—our debts to others and otherness—might emerge? Anthropologists are authorized to be sensitive to what Karen Barad calls “diffraction patterns” between texts, disciplines, and stories, sites of overlap and divergence that bring new practices of thought into play. (Barad, my colleague here at Santa Cruz, is in fact a physicist, and one who has used her attention to diffraction patterns between feminism, deconstruction, and quantum theory to say something that, for me at least, does in fact touch on how things work.)

Affect, as Barad might say, is a phenomenon—not a standalone thing in the world; such things don’t exist—but a term called forth through a relationship with an apparatus, which is as much a part of the concept as the idea we identify at its heart. Instead of asking what affect is, perhaps we should be asking where this concept comes from and what it is doing. What kind of analytic apparatuses are entangled with it? What happens to the world when we use this tool?