Modes of Thinking Affect

Summarizing and working through the concept of affect, it is helpful to think of it in four different ways. The first two take affect to be a material thing, firstly understanding it as a phenomena and secondly as a force; then it can be addressed directly as a theory before finally understanding affect as a mode of expression. So in what follows each of these modes of thinking, affect will be discussed in turn and references will be made to the way in which affect has figured respectively in the work of human geographers.

Affect as a Phenomenon

In relating to affect through phenomenon, a lot of research into affect attends to the affective capacities of our bodies. One can categorize in this way the work done on dance movement therapy, on neuroscientific experiment, the appreciation of art, and so on. For this the work of cultural and communication theorist, and translator of Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, has been the primary source of ideas with Derek McCormack being the main geographer working in this area. What this work does is to take affect as exactly the medium through which the body relates to the materiality of the world. Exampling this, one can think on dance, as McCormack does, as relations and movement that signal affect in the body's encounter with the volume of space, the proximity of touch, and the connective rhythms of life produced therein. In other words, the movement of air, the pump of blood, the flow of adrenalin as the dancer and dance unfold. The significant additive of thinking phenomenon as and through affect is that it enables us to take a step back from the intentional subject prevalent in the traditional phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Merleau Ponty (although not exclusively these two thinkers or indeed their work as a whole). Phenomena are thus encountered prior to any subjective framing and are rendered more in terms of felt intensity which produces a kind of understanding before it can be signified and articulated. Thus the material phenomenological state of being in the world is expressed in terms of a field of sensible experience full of unqualified intensity.

Affect as a Force

What you then have is a shift in vocabulary and thus conceptual purchase. Conceptual words such as intensity – with concomitant economies of increase and decrease, thresholds and reduction; and sensibility – with notions of tendency, acquiescence, and intuition – come to the forefront in accounts about affect. Such a shift is equally an emphasis toward rendering affect as a somewhat nebulous force rather than as 'something' that exists as a directly graspable object. No longer something definite like that finger pressing on the skin of another, but rather the sensation of the flesh of the finger as it encounters the sensible penumbra of other fleshy matter. Affect is then this penumbra, it is like a force field; something felt, something known to be there, but equally intangible in being not quite there. Affect is then understood as an invisible presence. Significantly this maintains that state of understanding the world in a realm prior to any heavy handed signification: thus it is not that your hand is being stroked by a doctor or a lover (significant significations altering the event of the stroking in your mind) but that the sensation itself is what matters, or at least exists in a less reductive state than being a medical examination or an amorous caress. Epistemologically the focus is modified from attending to interpretations of what things 'mean' toward an experimental endeavor to find expressive space for thinking and presenting what things 'do'.

These two taken together, affect as phenomenon and force, focus attention directly onto that of the body itself. What this means is that we are understood as subjects which are caught and situated as bodies within radiating ripples and circuits of feeling, intensity, response, and sensation, the flows of which wrap into and fold out of the body that we call our own. There is then no such thing as a singular subject but rather a series of potential subjectivities that are multiple and emergent. Affect places the body in different ways and toward different understandings of selfhood. It is helpful to think of the body in affective terms as a surface of intensities whose regions become folded to provide depth. The body is thus defined as the nexus of internal pain and external pleasure. As such the body is understood as a receptacle for affective experiences, as something that remembers such experiences as and through corporeal proclivities which have a long hold on constituting our being by telling us something about our past and aligning us to the present as more or less open or closed to the current sensorium in which we find ourselves. Illustrating this David Bissell's work, looking at how we acquiesce and become
differentially present with respect to affective intensities in seemingly mundane practices, opens up interesting edges to the work of embodiment in geography. This comprehension of the body doesn't then fit neatly into the social interpretations we inevitably have and get given to us. Shuddering and quivering the body shatters expectation and opens up the obvious nature of seemingly self same encounters. As we are held within our bodies, being literally embodied, affect redirects our lives from their predictable journeys. However, this force is not just physical – when something affects us, let us think of this as two entities encountering each other, they become other than what they just were. Crucially this becoming is something between the two, outside the two. In this sense there is both a virtual and an agential dimension to affect given that the body is always in transition caught as it were on the waves of affect: 'You don't think so much as go with the flow'. Affect is therefore vectorial and not scalar: it crashes geography's propensity to map, replacing it with a passion for immediate diagramming.

The concept of becoming is crucial to the logic of affect and the quintessential example for thinking this through comes in the reinterpretation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick by Deleuze and Felix Guattari where Ahab becomes the whale in what they call zones of indiscernibility that are here manifested in intensities of whiteness and terror. Affect thus comes to be understood as the nonhuman becomings of humankind. On the one and, there is the percept of the whale, this voluminous and inertially present or absent proximate mass – a nonhuman landscape of sea and animal – where it is the proximity and geometry that situates the becoming body. But crucially, and on the other hand, the percept does not operate alone, for there is the affect, that becoming other in the body in the encounter of this space of whale and sea. Both the percept and the affect are wrested from the perceptions and affections of the perceiving and feeling subject. It is for this reason that with an extreme suppleness the concept of affect opens doors in the impasse between subjectivity and objectivity. In combination, percept and affect produce blocks of sensation: visceral proximities across a whole host of media all explicitly material – ''the smile of oil, the gesture of fired clay, the thrust of metal, the crouch of Romanesque stone,'' according to Deleuze and Guattari (1994: 166). John Wylie's phenomenological animation of landscape within geography has been literally the most affecting presentation of these ideas.

Affect as a Theory

Theorizing affect directly questions and seeks to expose how we relate to each other, and the world, being produced by the world in certain ways. Starting at the immediate level of the body emphasizes that before we signify affective forces as emotional feelings such as love, hate, envy, shame, pride, etc., we acknowledge that the force itself delivers us to embrace or spurn that which we encounter in the world. Love or hate, are thus registered on a visceral level as desire or abjection in a way that is more akin to just 'following your nose' than signifying and framing, even if subsequently such frames enhance the experience and even intensify the affect – for example, your love in performances such as love letters or the words 'I love you'. It is for this that affect as a theory is often referred to as an ethological one: it defines an ethos in terms of a pared down visceral way of behaving. The concept of Parallelism, drawn from the work of Baruch Spinoza and Deleuze's translation of his ideas, is useful in arguing that a movement of the body is simultaneously a movement in the mind such that thinking and doing equate to the same thing. Affect is then subsequently the active result of an encounter either as an increase or decrease in the affective capacity of the body and mind to act. Perhaps somewhat awkwardly for our social scientific minds, Spinoza depicts these resulting manifolds of affect in a romantic, poetic, and emotional vocabulary, using the notion of joy when one's capacity to act is enhanced, and that of sorrow, when it is diminished. Take the example of an arachnophobe whose hairs on the back of their neck register the affect resulting in their encountering of a spider and who then thus freeze in fear. The affective capacity at some molecular level in the arachnophobe's body produces a diminished capacity to act in the presence of those eight legged modes of nature. It is the relation between the terms, between the body and the spider itself, which presents the affect and not the predominance in any shape or form of one of the bodies over the other. Further, it is in this sense that affect speaks of an impersonal relation of being affecting and affected, and thus of something that exists between 'you' and it.

In this regard, the political theorist,William Connolly, engages body/brain research in its obvious synergy with the Parallelism of Spinoza's concept of affect. In unpacking the contemporary scientific, cultural, and political terrain of body–brain culture relays he utilizes recent scientific epistemological advances and ontological developments in the field of neuroscience. As a result he coins the term 'neuropolitics' to define and make visible the politics at large in the cultural formations by which specific body/brain processes are produced. In geography Nigel Thrift has propagated many lines of research into the neuropolitical, rendering them all in some extent upon an understanding of the increasingly systematic knowledges behind the creation and mobilization of affect as precisely a means and resource for choreographing our everyday lives in more or less subconscious ways. In being a point of application between institution and individual, Thrift's work cautions the social sciences to pay attention to formations through which affect as such is being inducted politically for specific instrumental ends in ways that offer up ''new means of manipulation by the powerful.''

Here, affect nestles into the project of nonrepresentational theory and its practice and performance based accent, for what is signaled is the performance of ideology following Nietzsche's dictum that change is better gained by convincing the body than disciplining the mind. A politics thus plays out around the formal relation of the bodily capacity to be affected and to affect, addressing all manner of spaces as generative ecologies that solicit means of thinking as thought in action. For example, one can think of crowds or the 'team' mentality in sport or military contexts, and so from the event dimensions of dance floors to the football pitch to the battlefield where moving–thinking without contemplation delivers ecstatic escapism, sublime craft, and saves lives. There is a cautionary note to be had here, for at work is a leveling of the human with nature and this can lead to an unintentional slip into grandiose claims for affect. It is too sweeping a concept for too little actual empirical detail. The untimely and alternative work of sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, again much used and valorized in the thinking of Deleuze, counters this and is the current avant-garde for expanding our appreciation of the affective contagion of micro social mimicry (as repetition) and innovation (as difference) in the scene of different social milieus.

Affect as Expressed

In terms of human geography's general uptake of the concept of affect, this space of distinction between affect and emotion has become both the key point of application for ideas in this area and at the same time the most contentious as can be seen by the exchange in the papers between McCormack, Deborah Thien, and Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison. The distinction can be grasped as a spectrum from the autonomy of affect in its open, impersonal, and unqualified form, to its capture and expression in the qualified forms pertaining to emotion.

Emotions are usefully understood as tangible manifestations of affect. In this regard, emotions are the most intense capture of affect in communicable and expressive terms. What the theory of affect makes explicit in thinking through emotion is that there is always an excessive, unqualified aspect to the qualified articulation of the state of feeling – the emotion – such that although words never quite do, they do become the means for rendering visible the affects we are subjected to and through which we become who we are. It is not the words that count, it is the stuttering to articulate that which is unarticulable as such, that renders partially visible that which would otherwise remain painfully incommunicable. Emotions are then affects as clothed in language such that we can retrospectively communicate the affective dispositions we have been delivered unto and begin to understand their impact upon us with the help of others. Questions have been raised and distinct approaches have emerged in siding with either the prioritization of affect over emotion or emotion over affect. In addressing affect first, the emphasis is in deconstructing the tendency to treat emotions as an authentic register of something that can be captured and investigated as such. Affect is mobilized often precisely in its move beyond biological essentialism and epistemological certainty. Further, in here affirming a virtual openness, the concept of affect stresses the politics of 'world making' on a whole ambit of scales, enacting both a vigilant stance against a reductionism in social–scientific thinking and an exposure to the potential for creative experimentalism.

On the other hand, taking emotion as the starting point accentuates that everyday life is that which needs to be addressed, that this is elided in conceiving of a world beyond or before the human that thinking through affect solicits, and that on a daily basis it is the social constructions of affect as emotion that are the ways in which people live and think through affect. One direction out of this is to follow Massumi and argue that the purchase of thinking the social through affect is taxing because affect itself is of a different order to the usual social scientific epistemological frameworks in that it is inassimilable and is unknowlable as such. Affect and emotion are both denigrated as a threat to reason: the question then is to what extent, and in what different ways, do affect and emotion disguise and distort reality, distracting us by appealing to shallow sensibilities? This move takes us beyond questions of obvious modes of judgment whereby the ethos of affect affirms the creative potential of a heightened awareness of such sensibilities. The event, the singular, and the beauty of the unusual are thus valorized. The other direction has been to square up more directly with the emotional side, and this has revealed itself most prominently in the uptake of a more psychoanalytical perspective through the work of Silvan Tomkins and the translation of that work into the fields of queer theory and performativity by Eve Sedgwick where desire scripts affect through emotionally framed narrations such as shame and biologically individuations such as smiling. Accommodating both these directions Clare Hemmings offers a critically aware overview.