Autonomy refers to the capability of self-regulation in individual units. In affect theory, the notion of autonomy is used to distinguish affect from emotions or sentiments, the latter being intimately tied to the feeling individual as well as the felt object. The distinction between biological drives and affective motivation is central to this autonomy. While Freud linked biological needs like hunger, thirst, or breathing to the more voluntary motivations of sex, shame, or aggression as drives, the flexibility in satisfying the latter group, which Tomkins notes should be categorized as affects, allows the individual a much greater range of freedom (60-61). Affects play necessary role in motivation, so despite being autonomous, they do not inherently diminish the individual’s independence. But by investing in a particular affect, the human surrenders some freedom to the commitment. In the aesthetic realm, the affects at work in a text can open up possibilities and expand personal autonomy. Affective identification can thus be a way of safely developing emotional capabilities (Mullin 102-103). Taken even further, aesthetic engagement can open up the individual to new affective experience that might not even be possible otherwise (Deleuze and Guattari 173-174).
The autonomy of affect has a physiological and a social aspect. In the physiological sense, the body’s autonomic responses have been seen to precede cognitive processing: “will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions which reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed” (Massumi 90). Researchers speculate that we respond to or select from a multiplicity of choices, rather than initiating decisions each time “from scratch.” While the body and mind are still in resonant communication with each other, the body’s autonomic responses enable affect to operate beside the mind’s domain, as well as outside language. Consequently, the affective domain often functions prior to, resists, or works directly against reason and language. This extra-linguistic nature also has the consequence of making affect difficult to theorize in language. While the pre-cognitive mechanisms of affect still allow the mind to play a part in filtering the data taken in by the body, they also challenge the view of the individual as one who make choices through mental reasoning.
Beyond this pre-cognitive aspect, “affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is” (Massumi 96). In other words, affect moves beyond its bodily autonomic response and can become its own extra-bodily force. We experience this reality whenever we sense the same lingering feeling in a completely different situation, the affect from the original event having transferred onto the different circumstances (Brennan 7). For example, a student may feel stressed over an exam even after completing it. Affect thus operates independently of both the feeling individual and the causal object. Moreover, an individual may pass on an affect to another person. Brennan describes this process as either enhancing or depleting, and notes, “All this means, indeed the transmission of affect means, that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies” (6). As affects, often independent of individual will, manage to influence the emotional states of others, their autonomy extends to the social sphere, where they can have wide-ranging influence. Crowd mentalities that seem to escape logic embody this concept.
This conceptual separation of affective response from active choice may put human responsibility and agency at risk. If so influential on behavior, affect can shift culpability and self-determination away from individuals, philosophically undermining the capacity for moral freedom and judgment.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31.2 (Autumn 1995): 83-109.
Mullin, Amy. “Narrative, Emotions, and Autonomy.” Narrative, Emotion, and Insight. Ed. Noel Carroll and John Gibson. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2011. 92-108.
Stein, Ruth. Psychoanalytic Theories of Affect. London: Karnak, 1991.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What Are the Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.