Affect: Translation

From the Series: Affect

Photo by Martin Fisch, licensed under CC BY.

I'm tempted to begin this translation with the following observation: the concept of affect is attractive because it pushes scholars to pay super-close and hypervigilant attention to processes and relations of becoming, rather than to states of being or to discrete beings.

But I can't, in good faith, commit to such a statement because I'm not sure to what extent "states of being" or "discrete beings" can be opposed to processes. Oppositions like these—being versus becoming; intensity versus qualification; affect versus emotion—subtend a great deal of the writing, whether formal or casual, on affect theory that I've encountered.

These oppositions are present in the provocation that kicked off this Field Notes series. For instance, it opposes felt intensity and its cognate terms to labels and names that tame energy. It pits actually analyzable affects against their (mere?) phenomenal effects. It poses actual ethics against what others say of ethics. And it is troubled by the idea that anthropologists don't, or perhaps can't, directly account for the first term in each pair: affect and ethics as such, rather than some derivation.

Such oppositions aren't unique to Rutherford's commentary. See, for example, Brian Massumi's (2002, 26, 27) language:

Approaches to the image in relation to language are incomplete if they operate only on the semantic or semiotic level, however that level is defined (linguistically, logically, narratologically, ideologically, or all of these in combination, as a Symbolic). What they lose, precisely, is the expression event--in favor of structure. Much could be gained by integrating the dimension of intensity into cultural theory. The stakes are the new.

Note the somewhat brash lumping together of various terms—like ideology, logic, narration, and Symbolic—on the side of semantics or semiotics, which are opposed to the image, with event and intensity on the other. This produces the lamentable opposition between event and structure, presumably enlisting "the new" on the side of the event, which has heretofore been squelched by language and structure. To recap, we have event, intensity, and new versus semiotics, linguistics, the Symbolic.

Oppositions like these leave me stumped. I'm not sure what to make of them—not only because both Derrida and Deleuze refused the opposition between genesis and structure, but also because these oppositions seem to flat-out ignore Saussure's conceptualization of language as a form, not a substance.

My principal objection to the above is that such oppositions reduce language to words—whether spoken or written—and then attribute to language-as-words a kind of static stasis or stillness that can be opposed to something ostensibly more dynamic and lively, perhaps even authentic.

Perhaps we should revisit Derrida's formulation of writing, which is conceived as a dynamic structure that is always in-formation. The structure's marks or terms are continually produced by virtue of their differentiation—in space and time—from other terms and nonterms alike, where the latter could designate either an existential emptiness (a textual blank) or a full positivity: a virtual multiplicity (as in Deleuze).

The process of differentiation manifests marks as (presupposed) effects that (entail) certain generative causes that are thereby not capricious, despite being arbitrary. Writing is a dynamic, generative structure in-becoming. One of Derrida's most poignant contributions was to radically broaden the concept of language precisely by not reducing it to spoken or written words that represent a supposedly pregiven presence, or that can be ontologically distinguished from the presence of their presumed referents.

If we take both him and Saussure, seriously, it's difficult to understand why language is opposed to felt intensity in affect theory. Doesn't this very opposition deny the viral and empirically documentable dynamic character of language that, for example, animates queer theory's political potential to make words and practices resignify—better still, to yield to a nonagential/individual resignification that is imminent to, and constitutive of, language to begin with?

Words are—ontologically—material process of becoming; this whether they are spoken or written. The relation of words and, say, matter, is a relation of quality, not representation. A relation is posited between word and rock and instantiates both as being in and through their articulation.

This, I think, should give some—who are quick to presume that Judith Butler's account of the discursive performativity of sex somehow remains within a representaionalist discourse—pause. Her argument is less that we can only have access to bodies through categories that, therefore, negate our ability to understand bodies on their own terms and preserve a bar between experience and matter. It is, rather, that words and matter are—like Barad (one of her ostensible critics) says—relata, which are determined by their relation. Words are to matter as the observer of the double-slit experiment is to particles: they encounter and affect each other.

So why do anthropologists go to all this trouble to try and get back to matter at the expense of language, which is conflated with words, which are in turn presumed to represent referents? Why do they enlist language and culture on the side of the static and affect on that of the dynamic—the new? What could be more new than taking a word and recontextualizing it—or, better, creating a new word that will affect a relationship; rather than waiting for some new intensity to emerge, which immediately faces the awkward problem of needing to be accounted for—or described—in words?

Perhaps anthropologists do so because terms like affect and matter are trendy. Perhaps, then, this marks one of the dangers of the professionalization of ideas.

In any case, analytic attention to writing as a structure of becoming might help analysts avoid the reduction of language to spoken or written words and prompt attention to the generative effects that happen when qualitatively different terms encounter each other.


Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.