Psychoanalysis traditionally divides consciousness into multiple levels, relegating particular drives and impulses to each. However, there is little discussion of free and open movement between these levels, a matter where affect studies is concerned. Affect addresses that intermediary zone between the conscious and subconscious levels of the psyche: particularly, the nature of motivational forces that act upon both. Traditional psychoanalytic theory positions biological drives as subconscious structures that register within our consciousness only as impulses then subject to active decision-making. As Silvan Tomkins describes this tradition, “For [Freud, consciousness] was the epiphenomenal servant of the unconscious” (I, 3). By contrast, affect theory challenges the psychoanalytic account of causality, which generally interprets events as binary relations between causes and effects. The division of conscious and unconscious is one such simplification of causality.
Affect theory, on the other hand, describes forces that escape cognition: affect names a force that has not yet emerged in the field of active thought known as consciousness. As such, affect manifests sensations and socially conditioned forces that do not properly belong to individuals. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari claim that “Affects are precisely these nonhuman becomings of man” (169), forces that condition us as beings but yet reside outside of our subjective awareness. Preceding or existing beside consciousness, affect represents a dynamic change from one state of sensation to another. Such transformations are not locatable in specific persons, times, or places. If psychoanalysis sites the unconscious in the individual, affect studies generalizes out from the individual, looking at a collective felt existence.
As affects emerge outside the individual, they cannot exist in a simple cause-and-effect relationship within the human psyche. Autonomous, they are forces outside of human control that act upon us constantly. For this reason, Tomkins conceives of human beings as working as a “central assembly” rather than a commanding consciousness. “All central assemblies involve consciousness, but only when there is some aim to be realized, an attempt to achieve this aim and reports of how close this aim is to realization is to a central assembly operating on feedback principles” (I, 113). If consciousness is a reporting mechanism that tracks the status of our aims, the fundamental forces that motivate us are affects, which transmit sensationally between conscious and unconscious levels.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Percept, Affect, and Concept.” What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 164-199.
Tomkins, Silvan. Affect, Imagery, Conciousness Volume I: The Positive Affects. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1962.