What Is Affect? (or, Gestures Towards an Outline for an Ethics of the Encounter)

I wrote this essay a year ago for a writing competition. I present it here in unedited form.

I

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. (Deleuze 2014: 183)

Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation; a something both animated and inhabitable. (Stewart: 1)

Something forces us to think. It’s as though, through a crack of circumscribed reality, the Outside seizes upon us, shattering everything we thought it meant to know, to feel, to be. At the centre of every significant (political, cultural, personal) event lies a breakthrough, which is itself the desired object of an encounter. The encounter feeds on us, it eats us, disinterestedly, without ceremony; sometimes immediately; sometimes it merely infects us, grows slowly in the lower intestine, gradually working on us from inside. We know of the encounter, because it affects us. It produces affect.

Affect is the desired harvest of art, of literature, of thought. It is the digestive acid of the encounter. We feel it wash over us. It continues to dissolve us, it tingles, it “shimmers” (Barthes: 101).[1] However we see fit to define our lives, however it is we choose to spend our time (when that choice is indeed available to us), when we are asked a variation on the question “Why is it you do what you do?”, the unnameable answer is “to experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

In H.G. Wells’s short story “The Door in the Wall” (1911), the protagonist Lionel Wallace recounts his first (and only) true affective encounter, experienced when he was too young to comprehend its enchanted strangeness, its weirdness, and the significant impact it was to have on the remainder of his life. A small boy, four years old, brought up “so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say,” finding himself alone in the streets of West Kensington, cutting a wretched figure (Wells: 146-147). “[H]e recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel” (ibid.). A moment of unprecedented emotional distress. The green door forces itself into this most mundane and hostile of moments. Something about this door, in this wall, is electromagnetically charged with affect.

There’s no reason why it should be.

“Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion” (ibid.). The young Wallace opens the door, as the reader expected him to do. He enters a world of elongated elfin figures and placid wild panthers, children playing delightful games, and books, the pages of which “were not pictures, […] but realities” (ibid.: 148-150). A world that ought not to be, in which “as one played one loved…” (ibid.). In less than an hour, Wallace has been transformed irrecoverably.[2]

 

II

Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. (Deleuze & Guattari: 164).

“But how does one encounter, or live in pursuit of affect? How may we recognise an encounter?” For Gilles Deleuze, an encounter happens as an elevation of each of the faculties to the limit of their “transcendent exercise” (Deleuze 2014: 187-188). “Each faculty must be borne to the extreme point of its dissolution, at which it falls prey to triple violence: the violence of that which forces it to be exercised, of that which it is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, yet also that of the ungraspable (from the point of view of its empirical exercise)” (ibid.).

It is for this reason that an affective encounter cannot be recognised, only sensed; it prefigures the exercise of the faculties in a “common sense”, one common to us (ibid. 183-184). Hence it appears to us as a Something: we cannot be sure of what. But we can feel its effects upon us. Because affect is intensity (Massumi: 15-16, 27). It exists in-between states of action and being acted upon (Siegworth & Gregg: 1), between movement and rest: it “moves as it feels” (Massumi: 1, 15). The encounter is an event through which nothing is prefigured and, in Gilbert Simondon’s terminology, the encounter is itself preindividual – a continuous field of potential functions “out of phase with formed entities” (ibid.: 27, 34).[3]

Thinking in terms of affect presents us with an opportunity to reconceive the structuration of subjectivity as “an assemblage of body memories and preindividual affective capacities […] a new ontology of bodily matter, beyond the autopoiesis of the human organism” (Clough: 9). There is a missing half-second between receptivity of electrical impulses through the skin and the brain: sensation occurs recursively, the body’s capacity to feel prefigures recognisable traces of thought (Massumi: 28-29). Or rather, conscious thought reduces universal affect in the individual act of recognition, as (posthumous) emotion or cognition, “smooth[ing] over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality” (ibid.: 29-30).

Something evidently happens beyond our capacity to understand it when we are affected by external stimuli. How might we characterise this unknowable Something, when there is “no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect” (ibid.: 27)? We can try grasping at words, concepts, transitory expressions: “an intelligence beyond rational calculation”, an excess, “a faceless love” (Berlant: 2, Siegworth & Gregg: 13, Negarestani: 207). Misanthropic subtraction, the Lovecraftian descriptive technique: the unnameable void around which a thousand apophatic names circulate (Thacker: 177-178). The Outside, its teeming affects, and what it brings to the definition of the body. “Affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters”, but also, at the same time, its “non-belonging” (Siegworth & Gregg: 2).

Because affective experience is not really “for us”, but rather absolutely impassive, emotionless, neutral. It does not “arise in order to be deciphered” (ibid.: 21). It happens in spite of us. Sometimes the door just appears. It does not care for our convenience. We are optimistic; it is cruel. Cruel optimism: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (Berlant: 24). Our subjectivity is shaken in its presence. But we need affect: it enhances us, extends us spatio-temporally, the “us” that we recognise. Affect “is integral to a body’s perpetual becoming […], pulled beyond its seeming surface-boundedness by way of its relation to, indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself – webbed in its relations – until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3) Body becomes assemblage:

a multiplicity […] made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Deleuze & Parnet: 69)

Affect could also be named “the virtual”: a singular mass of infinite tendencies, a multiplicity of potentialities. Subjectivity and duration are understood as parallel to their actualized, differentiated outcome, or their capture in a present that marks our understanding of being, our self-awareness (Deleuze 1988a: 42-43). The encounter occupies an “impasse” (though not an exclusively temporal one), within which one may “sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic,” and perceive “those processes that have not yet found their genre of event” (Berlant: 4). The emergence of affect is therefore a “two-sided coin”, the transversal[4] cross-communication of the virtual and the actual, “as seen from the side of the actual thing”, at the virtual’s “edge” (Massumi: 35, 31)[5]. The actual thing, the individual body’s access to the virtual (the affective) is possible because of the existence of the past as an “ontological present” (Clough: 13). The future, on the other hand, is never foreseen, and is a limitless source of creativity (Siegworth & Gregg: 21).

The presence of affect reaches the presently-existing individual as a hyperstition: a narrative that makes itself “real” to the subject through travelling from the “future” to recursively re-engineer the conditions of its existence (Ccru: 74), like the Terminator. We are affected through narrative disruption, whether as violent shock, or as an imperceptible “background” effect, the kind of which happens continuously without our conscious awareness: a “perception of [a] self-perception” of an imperceptible happening, a perception of one’s own vitality, which “cannot but be perceived” (Massumi: 36). In order to re-engineer ourselves in terms of affect, we ought to develop and utilise new “experimental writing” techniques, that strive to “capture a shift in thought happening to the writer and which the writer is inviting”; to open ourselves up to new affective futurities (Clough: 14).

 

III

No one has yet determined what the Body can do. (Spinoza: III, 2, def.)

Philosophers might think to go to the premier on thinking affects, Baruch Spinoza, in search of a point of origin for an ethics of the encounter. This is a good intuition, but Spinoza’s elaboration on the affections [affectio, affectus] must be grasped precisely. Deleuze proposes three perspectives: 1) affections as the modes of substance in themselves, as “God’s attributes”; 2) affections as images, or that which happens to the mode; 3) affections as durations between the affective images, and inseparable to their existence (Deleuze 1988b: 48-49). Affectio refers to the state of the body affected upon; affectus is the transversal passage from one state to another – the former as “ideas”, the latter as “feeling affects” (ibid.). “By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (Spinoza: III, D3).[6] Both “affections” suppose a certain interaction between a thinking mind and an acting body, but it is only really with affectus that this interaction is complexified (more faithfully represented), and a “correspondence” – between mind and body, internal causes (actions) and external stimuli (passions), the affective body and its potential to be affected – can be understood to be taking place (Hardt: ix-x). And the body’s capacity is unknowable: it requires continuous immersion/feedback from “the field or context of its force-relations”: the unknowable attributes of God, a perpetual “not-yet” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3). God is understood as Nature, “encompassing the human, the artificial, and the invented”, pulling the strings of both the body and the mind (Massumi: 36, Hardt: ix-x).

The “not-yet-ness” of the affective body, or the assemblage of affective becomings, can be interpreted as a provocation (Siegworth & Gregg: 9), or a “cluster of promises” to be made possible – or sometimes, humiliatingly, not (Berlant: 23-24). The Spinozian body is defined in terms of “relations of movement and rest”, or rather, a capacity to enter into states of these relations (Massumi: 15). These are the movements of a becoming, an actualization taking place not in us, but in the mind of “God” (ibid.: 36). We cannot “think” our way into affective encounters. Affect cannot be contained in the image (of thought), being of a “purely transitive” nature; but we must let the movements of becoming come to us (Deleuze 1988b: 49). As individuals, or “singular essences”, we are defined by our capacity for being affected, beyond which we cease (ibid.: 27). We owe it to ourselves, then, to attempt a fashioning of affections beneficial to ourselves; a transition from (internally-caused) actions to (externally-caused) passions (Hardt: x). From the confused, fluctuating Inside to the necessarily passionate joys of the Outside (ibid., Deleuze 1988b: 51).

 

IV

The code said: GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU. NOW EAT YOUR MIND. (Acker: 38)

An ethics of the encounter, then, would be a gay science, in which the body is reconfigured as an open assemblage of states allowing for a maximum enabling of interference from the Outside, a relinquishing of (conceived) bodily autonomy, a reimagination of the relationship between the individual and the world, and an assertion of one’s vitality: “circuits and flows […] the form of a life” (Stewart: 2). Thinking affectively, we can no longer interpret the body as a “closed system drawing energy from the outside, thus drawing the body back into homeostasis and equilibrium”; in a way that would lead “inevitably to entropic heat death” (Clough: 16). We reside with the Something, the unactualized, that which allows one to live “in and through that which escapes them” (Massumi: 35). An outwards unfolding, an opening of the self, an invitation to the Outside, “becoming an ever more sensitive worldly interface” (Siegworth & Gregg: 12).

However, to attempt a singular, universalizing ethics of affective encounters is impossible, as no comprehensive definition of the preindividual affect can be established. There are factors to be considered, such as how affect approaches the bodily assemblage. Much is to do with the angle of its arrival: for the assemblage during the encounter, “affect is the whole world [the Outside]: from the precise angle of its differential emergence” (Massumi: 43). In other words, the Outside, what we feel, is “already angled” upon its approaching us (Ahmed: 37): we encounter only actualised or selected “eidetic variations”, to borrow a term from phenomenology. Thinking of the angled dynamic thresholds between the interfaces of bodily assemblages and worlds helps us to recognise affect as “an aesthetic or art of dosages” (Siegworth & Gregg: 16). One ethical response to affect may be to appreciate the ordinary: the continual, minimally disruptive affective activities that “pick up density and texture” as they surge through our quotidian lives (Stewart: 3). Or we may choose to be bold and open ourselves up further to the Outside, making of ourselves “a good meal”, offering ourselves to the Sorceress Druj, the Mother of Abominations, as did Dr Hamid Parsani.[7] Of course, we need to be aware of the limitations of all approaches. Like Lionel Wallace, we cannot truly prepare for the door, or the effects of an immersion into the other side. In outlining an ethics of the encounter we are but grasping into the darkness, experiencing the undifferentiated with our ignorance. An affective ethics could also get us in trouble (“I’m sorry, officer, I couldn’t help it, I was motivated by forces beyond my comprehension.”) But, to remain faithful to our vitality, we ought not to be timid.

One common experience of “ordinary affects” is in the aesthetic experience, for example that offered to us through literature. This is common to many readers: whether from the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, six volumes of Akira, an aphorism, a proposition, whatever it may be. Readers occasionally are transformed by books: sentences, passages, chapters leap out; they redefine literature for us, they teach us how to read, and how to conceive and experience life anew. Again, approach to the text is significant, and it benefits us to be open when cultivating affect. It is not the text itself that produces affect for us, just as it is not the body in isolation that is affected, but the text’s immersion into a field of forces and relations, and its position as a gateway for us to encounter them, that briefly exposes us to such affirmative joys. The book is an open system; we ought to read it as a resonating chamber of the Outside.

This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a meeting of other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything … is reading with love. (Deleuze 1995: 8-9)

As though the right book possesses the right combination of figures, words, and sentences to open oneself out into infinity, like a Borgesian library, but only when approached in the right way, under fortunate circumstances. It is important to acknowledge that we do not know what to expect from art: what is likely to affect us, and how. Nothing is prefigured, therefore we are in no position to make demands from books, genres, writers, etc. Crime and Punishment may do nothing for us, even if we want it to, and Watership Down might reduce us to tears. Of course, there is a certain predictability, an emergence of self-knowledge as we experiment with styles and genres, and we learn to recognise the subtractions of affect we most frequently enable, through its capture as emotion. But preconceptions do not get readers far. Immersion in worldly knowledge, abolition of images and blocks, dissolution of the threshold of the Self and the Other.

As alluded to above, the affective forms a field of forces and relations around the differentiated subject, the dynamic bodily assemblage. Reading and writing are forms of wrestling with these forces of our perpetual becoming, our self-flourishing. Reading can be considered a form of experimental writing: an autoethnography, a self-flourishing. Through reading, we may grasp “the materialities and temporalities of bodies” and reassemble them, extend them outwards, and resonate with affirmative vitality (Clough: 4). Return to the preindividual, the pre-emotive, the unformed, the unthought. Our enablers: texts, bodies, images, sounds, languages: extended infinitely, the Library of Babel. Literature as lines of flight, hyperstitions, orientations of the future. Affect enables us to rethink thought, from cogito to immanence. A rewriting of the self, and of the potentialities of future becomings.

 

“Why is it you do what you do?”

“To experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

 

Notes

[1] See also Siegworth & Gregg.: 10-17.

[2] See also Fisher: 26-31.

[3] Some punctuation from the original has been removed.

[4] “Transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizontality: it tends to be achieved when there is maximum communication among different levels and, above all, in different meanings” (emphasis added). Guattari: 113. From Félix Guattari’s concept of “transversality”, Brian Massumi defines “transduction” as “the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another and across them all” (emphasis added). Massumi: 42.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Emphasis added

[7] See Negarestani.

 

Bibliography

Acker, K. (1988) Empire of the Senseless, New York, Grove Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010) “Happy Objects”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 29-51.

Barthes, R. (2005) The Neutral [Neutre], trans. Krauss, R.E. & Hollier, D., New York, Columbia University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Borges, J.L. (2000) “The Library of Babel” [“La biblioteca de Babel”], in Fictions [Ficciones], trans. Hurley, A., London, Penguin Books: 65-74.

Ccru (1999) “Ccru Glossary”, in Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition, London, Ccru, 69-79.

Clough, P.T. (2007) “Introduction”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-33.

Deleuze, G. (1988a) Bergsonism [Le Bergsonisme], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., New York, Zone Books.

— (1988b) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [Spinoza: Philosophie pratique], trans. Hurley, R., San Francisco, City Lights Books.

— (1995) Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], trans. Joughin, M., New York, Columbia University Press.

— (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 164.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (2007) Dialogues II [Dialogues], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., revised edition, New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, London, Repeater Books.

Guattari, F. (2015) “Transversality”, trans. Sheed, R., in Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971 [Psychanalyse et transversalité], trans. Sheed, R. & Hodges, A., Los Angeles, Semiotext(e): 102-120.

Hardt, M. (2007) “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: ix-xiii

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press.

Siegworth, G. & Gregg, M. (2010) “An Inventory of Shimmers”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-25.

Spinoza, B. (1985) Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed./trans. Curley, E., Princeton, Princeton University Press: 408-617.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Thacker, E. (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 173-180.

Wells, H.G. (1974) “The Door in the Wall”, in The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells, Twenty-second Impression, London, Ernest Benn Limited; New York, St Martin’s Press, Inc.

Featured image credits: Pixabay.

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