Intensity is one term in affect theory that does not easily lend itself to a concrete definition. It exists outside of the body, beyond emotion, feelings, and even cognition, so language cannot fully describe the idea of intensity. Sometimes affect theorists will use the term intensity interchangeably with the term affect while at other moments, as a measure of the strength ascribed to some object, event, or feeling.
Brian Massumi works with intensity both as a measurement and as a synonym for affect, so that “intensity will be equated with affect” (88). He refers to intensity as an individual’s physical reaction to a stimulus, when the body “is filled with motion, vibratory motion, resonation” (86), a response that can then be “qualifiable as an emotional state” (86). Massumi’s intensity precedes emotions and feelings, which themselves serve as the mind’s way of making meaning of bodily responses. Feelings and emotions may combine within an individual, and different intensities exists at their intersection. The processing of these intensities creates a particular affect within the individual. Like affect, intensity is also involuntarily embodied within and throughout the individual. The most apparent instances of such physical reactions are flushes of color in the skin and facial expressions that alter depending on the particular intensity/affect. For instance, when an individual experiences a high intensity of surprise, she will reflect this in the widening of her eyes and the raising of her eyebrows.
Massumi also uses intensity to refer to “the strength or duration of [an] image’s effect” (84). This definition concerns the length of time that a feeling resonates with an individual and how powerful that reaction is. In this definition of intensity, an individual may not be cognizant of the motivation behind the intensity because the affective is not mainly a conscious response. Because of intensity’s connection to sensation, the more affectively charged a situation, the more intense the effect on the individual involved. Most of the time affect studies concerns itself with these high-intensity affects because they cause personal and social reactions quite beyond the rational explanations given for them.
When defining intensity as a measurement, theorists differentiate the way that intensity works with regard to drives from its relationship to affects. As the intensity of a drive increases or decreases, the drive does not transform. For instance, hunger may intensify the longer an individual abstains from food. However, at every level of intensity, the drive remains constant. If intensities were to change the actual drive in this case, one’s extreme hunger might eventually transmute into thirst, which obviously is not the case.
Intensity has a different relationship to affects. As a particular affect increases or decreases in intensity, by contrast, it has the potential to transform into another affect. Consider, for example, the positive affects of interest and excitement, closely linked affects that differ according to their intensities. One situation that displays this shift in intensities is driving a car. Occasionally my jewelry will catch a ray of sunlight and refract that beam onto the ceiling of my car as I am driving down the road. The momentary flash may interest me, but only slightly and for a brief time. It takes half of a second or so for me to realize what created the light in the first place, and by that point, I have already lost interest. The color of the upcoming traffic light, on the other hand, will catch and hold my interest for a longer period of time, increasing the intensity of that interest. I need to maintain a certain level of interest in case the light turns red before I reach it. Now, at a certain point, a person’s interest intensifies so much that it becomes a different (but related) affect: excitement. Both the flash of light and the traffic light held my interest in different degrees, but neither one actually interested me to the point of excitement. If I continue to drive down the road and my favorite song begins playing on the radio, however, I will experience the affect of excitement. First, the song will catch my interest, and my interest may become so intense that I am actually excited to hear the song.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31 (1995): 83-109.