When affect theorists talk about the body, they primarily refer to the physical material that makes up the human organism and the biological processes that define life. The term flesh further emphasizes the body’s corporeality, with connotations of meat (dead and coldly material) and skin, the outermost boundary of the body and the organ that constantly interfaces with the outside world. While such a perspective may not sound particularly controversial, the centrality of the body in the affect theorist’s toolkit cannot be understated. Part of the affect-studies project is to interrogate the concept of the rational, self-governing individual. This ideal arose in earnest with the privileging of reason during the Enlightenment; its motto might be considered eighteenth-century philosopher René Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Attachment to this model defines humanity by its conscious mind, locus of identity and repository of the faculties supposed to justify the species’ superiority. This line of thinking has underwritten a persistent dualism of mind and body—a binary that valorizes the rational and has historically been used to marginalize by gender, race, and culture. For its part, affect theory treats the body as an important site for feeling, thinking, and registering experience. What is reasoned in the mind and what is marked in the body cannot be separated.
Along these lines, Silvan Tomkins deemphasizes the autonomy of the cognitive and describes its enmeshment with a bodily generalization of affect. The affect system, which Tomkins calls “the primary motivational system in human beings,” operates parallel to the “central assembly,” or the “mechanism involving consciousness” (34, 37). In other words, the bodily systems that process felt experience and the cognitive mechanisms that organize experience work simultaneously. While we can think of these two systems as performing separate functions, they by no means operate independently. This mutual influence of the body and the mind troubles the idea that reason can have full sovereignty over an individual’s thoughts and feelings.
Just as affect studies attempts to unseat the mind as the individual’s governor, it also questions the view of the subject as self-contained by showing how affects are felt and communicated beyond its boundaries, from body to body. The body is a zone of contact with other beings and their environments. Such movements between bodies blur the distinction between inside and outside of the self. According to Teresa Brennan, this view of the individually-owned subject reflects a “Eurocentrism” that has constructed itself against other cultures. Despite our investment in a sovereign self separate from others, Brennan argues that the transmittable nature of affects, the fact that they can pass from one body to another, means that the conceptual distinction between person and environment hardly describes experience. For instance, Brennan points to the bodily secretion of pheromones, which can be sensed by others and which alter feelings and behavior. People resist the notion that the emanations of another person can change the way they think and feel because they are unsettled by, as Brennan puts it, “the idea that a foreign body — something from without — can enter into one’s own [body]” (2, 7, 10). This physiological transmission and affective exchange between bodies undermine the ideal of the self-determining individual sealed off from others.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What Are Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters. Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.