The Politics of Affect: Berlant on Affect and Austerity

Posted: December 27, 2010 in biopower, Deleuze, Diagramming Affective Ethics, Ecology of Sensation, Representation, ressentiment
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What are the politics of affect? And is this a well-posed question in the first place? Why affect now? In what sense is a given politics affective?

As discourses of shame sweep across dominant media in the UK, what are the implications of naming this discursive coding an affective politics? Is such an affect being mobilized to obscure historical relations of injustice, xenophobia, and inequality in the UK today? For some on the left, such a naming aims at re-working sentiment toward a pluralistic, anti-xenophobic, democratic, socialist politics.

I support a pluralistic, anti-xenophobic, democratic, socialist politics. Why is it then that I find this naming more a blockage in method rather than a strategy toward radical transformation?

Let us be clear: if we agree with Lauren Berlant and her interlocutors at Variant, we do well to have some clarity about the feeling of disgust that animates radical, experimental politics today.

Shall we call this politics affective autonomista-ism? I don’t much care what we call it. I think the way we practice it is confused, bound up as it is with forms of “progressive” ressentiment and representational critique. Mixing social constructivism with psychoanalysis and slapping on the label of affect falls prey to what Spinoza called a “confused idea”—a notion that is not adequate to its active and potential capacities.

I think it important to clearly define the concept of affect, not as an apriori given, but as a diagram of relations of motion and becoming—a biogram, to follow Brian Massumi and Luciana Parisi’s recent work. I have attempted this in a recent post available here: Deleuze on Affect. Affect is not the site of social struggle in the sense health care, benefits, wages, and capitalist value are. Affect concerns complex, multi-causal states of affairs that have taken form through non-linear histories involving flows of biomass, bacteriological parasitism, forms of habituation, sensory feedback loops, mutations in machinic perception and other such circuits of actualized potentiality. In virtual philosophy these states of affairs are understood to be morpho-genetic because their non-linear dynamics are constantly giving rise to new forms, mutational, experimental forms at the edge of chaos that push the capacities of its human and non-human assemblages to actualize forces of the future: pure potentiality.

But then in what sense is affect political? Affect is political in the sense that the history of insurance is political: an experiment in finance begun hundreds of years ago in the European shipping industry on the verge of imperial explosion, this technology of subjectivation and populational risk became a generalized mode of control throughout capitalist societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, giving rise to new forms of subjectivity, modes of governmentality, financialization, and risk technologies. Affect is political in the sense that Hollywood’s shrinking shot duration is political: over the course of thirty or so years the average shot duration of a Hollywood blockbuster has shrunk by about half (this figure needs to be referenced! Cf. David Bordwell’s work on ASD in blockbusters), transforming modes of attention and the political economy of production and exhibition. One might say that both these are “negative” examples of affect-becoming-control, but we can say as well that the capacities of affective modulation have also opened up potential subjective and creative forms to actualization never before available to life—forms of complex sensed bio-architectures and interactive digital creativity, the explosion of mobile phone usage and vernacular adaptation and tweaking, and different peer-to-peer technologies for sharing content, strategies, sensations, and futures are all also, in complex ways, examples of the politics of affect.

But notice the method here: the focus is on the dimensions of change of a given human and nonhuman assemblage. There is no assumption that the force of agency is in the human, but there is an assumption of multicausal dynamics that change in relative importance, force, value, sense, embedded timescales, correlated processes, and resonance. All of which suggests that strategies of radical change in systems of inequality must tweak this complex state of affairs without expectation of mastery or control, but rather with an affirmation of a chancy revolutionary becoming, a becoming that as yet has no name, but that has potential futures in the virtual now.

The political climate in the UK, given as it already was to the emotive and nationalist tropes of the War on Terror, found a new affective register with the financial crisis: the invocation of public and personal shame. Admittedly, shame and other moralized negativity has been never far from the national imagination. Some recognizable examples would be the Victorian marking of deserving and undeserving poor, the various moral panics of youth deviancy or the influence of communitarian authoritarianism on New Labour social policy. (3)

This is from the introductory comment to “Affect & the Politics of Austerity:
An interview exchange with Lauren Berlant,” by Gesa Helms, Marina Vishmidt, Lauren Berlant (Variant 39/40, Winter 2010, 3-6). What in effect is the difference between this use of the term affect and the old Marxist term “ideology”? Basically affect here is a kind of mass desiring-duping. I appreciate the critics’ focus on how to “organize and intervene” through a considered understanding of “the affective register that is so forcefully called upon” in contemporary neoliberal politics (3). This register “talks of shame and excess outlined against an assumed notion of a common-sense decency still to be found in the working-class heartlands and which, so some argue, can be mobilized as part of a progressive politics” (3). For the authors, including it seems Berlant, the politics of affect comes down to “how assumptions and norms using the language of personal responsibility shape the political discourse of ‘austerity’” (3). Thus, analyzing affect means doing readings of normative, elite discourse that “hides” the really real. But there is no sense that these discourses appear through specific technologies of the media, mobilizing perception, habits of consumption, sense, sensation, value, and force that involve techno-subjects in human and non-human assemblages. In other words, that affect in its mode of transforming reality is not a discourse at all, or at least not primarily, but rather an ontological reworking of ecologies of sensation, an ontopower as Massumi puts it (cf. Brian Massumi, “Perception Attack: Brief on War Time,” Theory & Event, Volume 13, Issue 3, 2010). Thus, Berlant opines:

The attempt to associate democracy with austerity – a state of liquidity being dried out, the way wine dries out a tongue – is fundamentally antidemocratic. The demand for the people’s austerity hides processes of the uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability. Democracy is supposed to hold out for the equal distribution of sovereignty and risk. Still, austerity sounds good, clean, ascetic: the lines of austerity are drawn round a polis to incite it toward askesis, toward managing its appetites and taking satisfaction in a self-management in whose mirror of performance it can feel proud and superior. (3)

And the tired metaphors for power are never far behind in such a “social constructivist” analysis. Thus, for Berlant,

The Euro-American state is a cowardly lion, a weeping bully, a plaintive lover to finance capital. It cannot bear to admit that, having grown its own administrative limbs to serve at the pleasure of the new sovereign of privatized wealth, that the wealthy feel no obligation to feed the state. So the state bails out banks and tells the polis to tighten up, claiming that the people are too expensive to be borne through their state, which can no longer afford their appetite for risk. (3)

Berlant et al’s analysis of the politics of austere affect falls prey to some of the same pitfalls that have plagued psychoanalytic, social constructivist, discourse analysis for some time: a dynamic network, a complex state of affairs, variously structured through flows of energy and information, modes of sense and sensation, habits and mutations of perception, technologies and singularities of memory, dynamic patterns of matter, and deterritorialized capital is rendered as a map with specific symptoms.

And so the answers to the conundrum of austere affect become straightforward and at the same time utterly obscure. The first answer, according to this approach, is to understand affect itself as a form of mediation of sociality, an ideological symptom, an “affective toupee” (5). So austerity as a “structure of feeling” (3-4—I know, I know: Raymond Williams! we will have to come to terms again with Marxism and Literature some time in the future) mediates social life—again the conceptual resonance between this notion of affect and the Marxist theory ideology is profound. Thus, “affect works to precisely avoid the political and the possibilities for a democratic public” (quoting Gesa Helms 5). Berlant elaborates: “What it reveals, I think, is that we’d have to think about the different kinds of shame and rage attached to different kinds of mediation of sociality. What form of mediation of collective subjectivity are [sic] deemed unbearable, and what kind of threat do they present?” (4). The second answer is to work on and against fantasy—the phantasmatic rendering of affect as a work of some unconscious longing for non-lack.

The response to a potentially radical reconstruction of the conditions of the reproduction of life ought to be very demanding on everyone, including the resisters. At the moment most resisters are protesting state/capital but not protesting themselves. Without accommodating the affective demands for adjustment to the austere ordinary with which they’re being confronted, people need to think about what kinds of good life might better be associated with flourishing, and fight that battle (with fantasy, politically) too. (3)

In that archive, what ‘shame’ is is to be seen seeing one’s own forced adjustment, to be seen seeing the wearing away of the old anchors for being tethered to the world, to be watched or encountered as one displays profoundly not knowing what to do, to be seen frantically treading water or to be encountered in paralysis (again, there is a whole range of proprioceptive performances through which we learn to register feeling the contingencies of survival and the negativity of encountering ourselves as subjects who make sense either in our fantasies or the world). (4)

We should add as a side note the utterly confused notion of “proprioceptive performance” thrown in here as if for good pedantic measure (Berlant refers to herself as a pedant later in the interview!). Proprioceptors feedback on the relative positioning of the body, its parts, and their variable movements; it confuses matters to appropriate proprioception to the discourse of performativity.

Never mind! For Berlant, finally, developing “symbolic practical infrastructures for alternativity is the task of progressive praxis, but it’s a daunting task” (6). Symbolic practical infrastructures are to be fought for and won in the “imaginary”—will social constructivism ever rid itself of its Lacanian hangover? I suppose if it did it would in some important sense no longer be the same constructivism

But I still think the battle to be thought through and won is at the level of the imaginary: to confront how powerfully exceptional the neoliberal and democratic economic bubbles of the last 60 years are, how expensive individualism is, how the idea of a mortgaged future needs to be confronted in its stark realities, how entirely different models of collective dependence need to be forged in relation to the reproduction of life because there is no money and the poverty is both material and imaginary. (4)

What if, asks Berlant, people were “to reimagine state/society relations such that
the flourishing of reciprocity were differently constructed and assessed, and in which consumer forms of collectivity were not the main way people secure or fantasize securing everyday happiness?” (5)

Why call these fantasies affects? What do they have to do with this center of indetermination whose bodily capacities transform with dynamic changes in the carbon- and silicon-based ecologies in which they are embedded, involved as they are in gradients of intensity, self-variation, basins of singular attraction, and critical thresholds. We should ask directly where the body is in Berlant’s notion of affect, and where is technology? (In the broader analysis of Berlant’s work which I intend to take up in the coming months, I will deal at length with her various publications on sentiment and compassion.) The final nail in the ideological coffin of affect is potentiality itself. For Berlant,

There are no unmixed political feelings, there is no unambivalent potentiality for the social. We know that when we come to the social component of the political from affect rather than from the ascriptive. There is just the possibility of teasing ourselves toward a reorientation in which we can sense a better accommodation of desire and pleasure, of risk and sweetness, of aversion and attachment, of incoherence and patience. (5)

I return to my initial hypothesis: I find this notion of affect more a blockage in method rather than a strategy toward radical transformation. Affect is not a form of mediation, it is an infinite attribute of unmediated virtuality itself. The capacity to affect and be affected is fully ontological: carbon- and silicon-based life is affective all the way down! And this is because affect is not a kind of representation, its diagram involves us in ontologies of becoming, as a concept it directly expresses an affirmation of becoming itself.

Berlant’s conception of affect is in fact closer to what Baruch Spinoza meant by a “passion”—an inadequate idea of which we are not the cause. It is worth lingering over Gilles Deleuze’s elaboration of “ideas” in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. “Love presupposes the idea, however, confused, of the thing loved. This is because the idea represents a thing or a state of things, whereas feeling (affect, affectus) involves the passage to a greater or lesser perfection corresponding to the variation of states. So there is at the same time a primacy of the idea over feeling and a difference in nature between the two” (73). But ideas are not primarily a force within consciousness (fantasy, reason); under common conditions of perception the only ideas we have represent what happens to our body, “the effect of another body on ours, that is, a mixing of both bodies. They are necessarily inadequate” (73). Ideas, then, are image-affections that represent a state of things affirming the force of an external body as long as our body remains affected in this way.

Such ideas are signs; they are not explained by our essence or power, but indicate our actual state and our incapacity to rid ourselves of a trace; they do not express the essence of the external body but indicate the presence of this body and its effect on us…These ideas are connected with one another according to an order that is first of all that of memory or habit; if the body has been affected by two bodies at the same time, the trace of one prompts the mind to recollect the other. This is why, insofar as our affections mix together diverse and variable bodies, the imagination forms pure fictions, like that of the winged horse; and insofar as it overlooks differences between outwardly similar bodies, it forms abstractions, like those of species and kinds. (74)

Adequate ideas are of a different nature. The mind, in its capacity of spiritual automaton, unites form and material in an adequate idea that expresses another idea as cause, and from “an autonomous connection of ideas in the attribute of thought” (74). Now we should keep a couple of things in mind before the habituated deconstructive semiotician starts screaming foul over signifiers such as “adequate” and “essence.” The later is a determinate power or capacity or intensive part (76), while the former is far from the Cartesian notion of “clear and distinct.”

The form of the idea is not sought in a psychological consciousness but in a logical power that surpasses consciousness; the material of the idea is not sought in a representative content but in an expressive content, an epistemological material through which the idea refers to other ideas and [in Spinoza] to the idea of God. Logical power and epistemological content, explication and expression, formal cause and material cause are joined in the autonomy of the attribute of thought and autonomism of the mind that thinks. (75)

An adequate idea expresses its own cause, and connects up with other ideas at the level of what Gilbert Simondon calls the preindividual—where the subject and populations meet. Inadequate ideas involve the lowest degree of our power of understanding, without being explained by it, and indicate their own cause without expressing it (75). But both ideas are always followed by feelings-affects; insofar as “we have inadequate ideas, we are the inadequate cause of our feelings, which are passions” (76).

To my mind Deleuze helps us to make an important, that is pertinent, distinction between affect and passions-feelings. Affect is the adequate idea of a complex relation of composition internal to a given assemblage of human and non-human matter, whereas the passions abstract away the multicausal dimensions of these complex states of affairs, connecting ideas through the force of habit or memory. This is the realm of sentimental passion as an inadequate narrative abstraction that mobilizes the clichés of memory, habituated responses.

We should understand the radical implications of thinking bodies in terms of non-coinciding resonant unities, characterized by the composition of multiplicities. In his Preface to Antonio Negri’s book on Spinoza, Deleuze defines bodies (and souls) in the following way: “Bodies (and souls) are forces. As such they are not only defined by their chance encounters and collisions (state of crisis). They are defined by relationships between an infinite number of parts that compose each body and that already characterize it as a ‘multitude.’ There are therefore processes of composition and relationships that suit them or not. Two or several bodies will form a whole, in other words, another body, if they compose their respective relationships in concrete circumstances. And it is the highest exercise of the imagination, the point where it inspires understanding, to have bodies (and souls) meet according to composable relationships” (Gilles Deleuze, “Preface to The Savage Anamoly,” in Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, David Lapoujade, ed., Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, trans. (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 190-93, 192.) Affect, therefore, is a way of actively conceptualizing these relations of motion between bodies, it is what Spinoza called a common notion (not to be confused with Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “common sense”). As Deleuze puts it, a common notion is the “idea of a composition of relations among several things…The attribute of extension as a common notion is not to be confused with any essence; it designates the unity of composition of all bodies, all bodies are in extension…The same reasoning holds for more restricted conditions: a given body enters into composition with some other body, and the composite relation or unity of composition of the two bodies defines a common notion that cannot be reduced to the essence of the parts or the essence of the whole; e.g. what there is in common between my body and a particular food. So the common notions oscillate between two thresholds, the maximum threshold of that which is common to all bodies, and the minimum threshold of that which is common to at least two bodies, mine and another” (Deleuze, Spinoza 114). Like all common notions, affect involves physiochemical, neurological, and biological processes. Affect is situated at the maximum threshold of that which is common to all bodies, and yet is specific to the unity of at least two multiplicities entering into relations of composition. Diagramming affect is itself an ethics through which we affirm the capacity to affect and be affected as common to any process of bodily composition.

  1. fahru says:

    good info, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark! I have a Technology (in category) blog. It pretty much covers related stuff.

    Come and check it out if you get time 🙂

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