Elevate Difference

The Affect Theory Reader

As the first definitive collection of essays on affect studies, The Affect Theory Reader demonstrates how the affective turn in academia has been, and continues to be felt, throughout a variety of disciplines. Studies on affect produce qualified and valuable effects in the realms of aesthetics, ethics, and politics—to name just a few. Affect, in other words, is all pervasive, and the efforts of editors Gregg and Seigworth focalize on this estimation, while at the same, as evident in the gamut of essays, they emphasize that affect is readable in specific bodies and spaces.

What is “affect”? The editors offer a working (and, unfortunately, longwinded) definition on the first page of their introduction: “Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion—that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us…across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability.” One, arguably feminist, value of affect in academic studies is that it has allowed the body (human or otherwise) to function as an epistemological site of knowledge and inquiry. The body, sloughed off and pushed aside by decades of poststructuralist and deconstructivist studies, has new value as both producer and product of affect. The essays by Elspeth Probyn (“Writing Shame”), Lauren Berlant (“Cruel Optimism”), Patricia T. Clough (“The Affective Turn...”), and Megan Watkins (“Desiring Recognition, Accumulating Affect”), all, in subtle or explicit ways, pronounce the underlying feminist register of studies on affect.

The collection of essays, while thematically varied, almost upon a spectrum of the materiality of affect (from the emotion of “happiness” to the commodity-fetish of affect in consumer culture), all philosophically and methodologically derive from a handful of prominent theorists and critics: Spinoza, Bergson, Freud, Deleuze and Guattari, (Raymond) Williams, and Lawrence Grossberg, who is figured as the inspiration behind the editors’ decision to create this volume and who is interviewed in the piece that bookends the volume. Grossberg, they claim, is “the principal figure in cultural studies to have recognized ‘passion, emotion, and affect as the new frontier for politics,’” and the interview offers a genealogy of Grossberg’s own affective turn.

In addition to the aforementioned essays, especially Berlant’s, whose “Cruel Optimism” made me squee—internally—at my own naïve “cruel optimism” about my sexual attachments (“‘Cruel optimism’ names a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic”); Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Objects” is a standout piece that opens the volume. In this essay, Ahmed studies how happiness “functions as a promise that directs us towards certain objects and how, in turn, there are bodies—such as feminist kill-joys, unhappy queers, and melancholic migrants—who thwart collective societal happiness by refusing to reproduce happiness-norms. Ahmed shows us how happiness is indeed socially produced but at the same time idiosyncratic; happiness is subjectively experienced and qualified individually, by each body. The result, as she notes in her analysis of the “unhappy queer,” is that “[a]lthough we can live without the promise of happiness, and can do so ‘happily,’ we live with the consequences of being a cause of unhappiness for others.”

C’est la vie.

Written by: Marcie Bianco, February 16th 2011