Most accounts of affect are broad enough to apply across diverse disciplines. In an attempt to further explore the human condition (that is, the ways in which we understand ourselves as well as how we interact with each other, physical objects, and situations), affect studies endeavors to identify the process through which human beings feel. With that said, in The Affect Theory Reader, a book dedicated to the affective body, Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg emphasize the innumerable options of understanding the theory at hand:
“There is no single, generalizable theory of affect: not yet, and (thankfully) there never will be. If anything, it is more tempting to imagine that there can only ever be infinitely multiple iterations of affect and theories of affect: theories as diverse and singularly delineated as their own highly particular encounters with bodies, affects, worlds” (3-4).
As Seigworth and Gregg suggest, affect theory, as an academic approach, continually blurs into several different fields and is still forming as a theoretical lens. Although the conceptualization of affect changes according to the field, the majority of scholars across disciplines agree upon the following details concerning affect theory: 1) Baruch Spinoza coined and framed the term affect; 2) affect is, at its base, a force that operates mainly at the non-conscious level; and 3) the two main views on affect categorize it as either “innate” or “relational,” sometimes both at the same time.
The evolution of affect theory begins in the seventeenth century when Spinoza introduced the term, “affect,” in his most renowned work, Ethics. For Spinoza, affect is both bodily and mental in origin. The study of affect can also be seen as having a pre-history in the concepts of sensibility, sentimentality, and romantic feelings. These phenomena first appear in creative works (usually sentimental, Romantic, and Gothic novels and poetry) and in theories of gender difference. Philosophers such as Adam Smith did not necessarily refer to affect as a specific philosophical theory of understanding, but rather as grounds for the “moral sentiments” of individuals. Smith posited that the emotions of one person could be felt by another, a transmission of emotions called sympathy. Smith fashioned a socially-theoretical foundation for understanding affect. He not only wrote about affective moral education as articulated through sympathy but also how the perception of such sympathy by fellow citizens solidified the individual’s relations with other individuals in the surrounding community. Hence, a subject wronged by another can rouse others in the group to rise against the offender because of the affective atmosphere generated by the social situation. Affect theorists do not necessarily invoke these philosophers but their works might be seen as the origins for theorizing affect’s power to explain human action. More recently, philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have expanded on Spinoza. Deleuze translates Spinoza’s ideas into an approach to the arts. To Deleuze, affect is not only a humanized relational force but also manifests within and as a work of art. One can thus talk about the affect of a single painting or novel. Deleuze even links artistic quality to the work’s capacity to produce new and unique affects.
As indicated above, affect scholars might be categorized according to two major strands, the innate and the relational. The innate approach to affect reads affective forces as stemming from and observed within the individual. This take interprets human affects as derived from a physical body shaped by psychological, biological, and /or physiological forces. For such intrinsic theorists, affect is founded on electrical processes naturally happening in the brain (psychological and/or biological), where individual faculties are genetically or evolutionarily fostered, along with the supposed ability of empathy of an individual. Scholars in the intrinsic school tend to describes such forces as drives, a term serves as an umbrella for psychological processes within the body. Psychoanalytic scholars usually study the intrinsic side of affect while sociological disciplines follow the extrinsic.
The relational approach, by contrast, insists on affect as enacted through the relationships between persons. These forces are understood to be the unseen atmosphere between conceptual bodies that incites physical or mental action. Such bodily interactions bear different forms: human-to-human, human-to-environment, human-to-object, or object-to-object. Affect aims to describe and map out such relations. For example, a relationist study might be interested in explaining a situation why one is able to walk into a room and feel the tension between the people already present. Affective forces are therefore understood to have transmissible qualities, according to the relationists. Especially within fields such as sociology, scholars look at affect as a transference of feelings between human beings in order to explain social phenomena such as crowd dynamics, sympathy, and empathy. Such processes help explain riots or the celebratory atmosphere at a football game. Other scholars may analyze the affective links between different objects (non-human/non-animal), for instance, a perspective along the lines of Feng Shui. No one of these approaches (innate or relational) is reserved for a specific discipline.
Affect, as an intangible force, is often described in terms of its intensity. Levels of strength shape the individual’s subsequent reactions towards that affect or feeling. For instance, the difference between tearing up (slight sniffling, flushed cheeks, along with a few tears) and sobbing (fully running nose, inability to properly breath, along with the choked coughs) as reactions to and expressions of sadness reflect the level of intensity of that sadness. The intensity-to-effects ratio can be analyzed by scholars despite how that individual is experiencing the affective force: intrinsically or relationally.
The distinction between affect and emotion is a major matter of dispute in the field. Some scholars consider affect as the theory of feeling, that is, if we accept the word “feeling” as separate from emotions—in that feeling is the unnamed force either inside or outside the body. In other words, some believe affect to be the cause of emotions in individuals (Massumi and Tomkins). Massumi views emotions as a fixed named form while affect is an immeasurable intensity. This distinction between affect and emotion mean there may be multiple forms of affect that eventually turn into a corresponding emotion or that there may be simply one affect that can potentially flow into different categories of emotions. Affect is often depicted as disconnected from consciousness, a force autonomous to the willed command of body and thought. Scholars are therefore looking at a force that seems to escape the realm of cognitive capture. As a result, affect is almost unanimously separated from the conventional lexicon of “emotions.” The terms “feelings,” “sensation,” and “sentiments,” however, tend to be used by several scholars in tandem with affect, in that they are considered to be unnamed forces.
This unnamed quality of affect proves to be problematic. As Seigworth and Gregg (among many other scholars) point out, affect theory focuses on something that can never be fully pinned down and examined, a constantly moving force. In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, many scholars lean towards describing the effects of affect, as if affects were synonymous with named emotions and their well-known symptoms. And yet in spite of such attempts, as Massumi asserts, “there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary for affect” (88). Since scholars do not possess the linguistic tools for the theory, they must analyze its effects in hopes to acquire a more thorough look at the underlying causes. Thus, this website presents articles explaining, through the lens of affect, emotional complexes such as shame, anger, fear, joy, excitement, awe, distress, and trauma. The approach to affect has thus adapted to the problem of the unnamable. But can we in fact effectively use words to describe something that is theoretically outside of language?
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Percept, Affect and Concept.” What is Philosophy? Trans.
Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. 163-199.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31 (1995): 83-109.
Seigworth, Gregory & Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 1-28.
Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Economic Classic, 2013.
Tomkins, Sylvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.