Affect theory examines perceptions in two ways: as a product of cognitive faculties and as phenomena that exist independently of these faculties. Seen from the former perspective, perceptions are shaped by memory, unconscious drives, cultural biases, and sexual desires; from the latter, perceptions have a life that extends beyond that of the person who is processing them. Theorists advocating both perspectives emphasize the power of beauty and art to form the individual patterns of perception.
Philosopher Adam Smith argued that perception shapes human values while also reflecting the limits of culture. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith acknowledges that utility has a beauty humans perceive and enjoy; to please themselves, individuals perpetuate utility and, in doing so, gain the approval of others. Smith writes of “the beauty which the appearance of Utility bestows upon the characters and actions of men; and how far the perception of this beauty may be regarded as of the original principles of approbation” (218, italics in original). But even as Smith claims that the aesthetically pleasing perpetuates social values, he acknowledges that what counts as beautiful is not universal. He brings up traits that his fellow Englishmen may not appreciate, such as the Chinese bound foot. So while the perception of beauty fuels a universal moral process for Smith, its content does not hew to unchanging standards.
Perception can thus be seen as existing outside individual consciousness. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari speak of percepts and affects – two parts of perception. Percepts are the impressions of phenomena registered through the senses and affects are precognitive states that provide raw material for emotion. As Deleuze and Guattari put it: “Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived” (164). Deleuze and Guattari go on to describe art as separate from humans, parts of perception manifested independently in works of art: “They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself” (164).
When tied to individual consciousness, perception is refracted by memory. Silvan Tomkins thus speaks of the demands novel perceptions make on memory. Using the example of an individual perceiving a number for the first time, Tomkins asserts that the number draws upon a person’s memory of the individual digits. If the digits were not already stored in memory, the perception of the new higher number “would not be possible” (1,059). Additionally, the novelty of any given perception cannot be too great. If a perception does not have the support of enough “memory traces,” “perceptual achievement” (the ability to take in new phenomenon) is “jeopardized” (1,059).
At the same time, Tomkins describes a “centrally innervated feedback mechanism” duplicates raw sensory input. The purpose of this duplication is twofold: to limit the amount of sensory data received, which, if unprocessed, would overwhelm the mind and to pick out repetitions that occur in sensory input over time (1140). The operations of this mechanism are learned. Says Tomkins: “The individual must learn this skill of matching the constantly changing input as one learns any skill” (1139). The fact that all sensory data gets duplicated renders the notion of pure perception obsolete. Perceptions are, according to Tomkins, creations of our own mind arising from the feedback mechanism.
Not only a matter of learning, memory can also misshape perception, causing new phenomena to take the outlines of old ones. Thus, Adela Pinch speculates about Charles Lamb’s misperception of a Wordsworth poem, originally titled “Poor Susan.” Looking at Lamb’s description of the final stanza, which Wordsworth excised before renaming the work, Pinch argues that the older poem shaped Lamb’s view of the newer one. Lamb sees the servant Susan through a lens of movement: “I see her trundling her mop and contemplating the whirling phenomenon thro’ blurred optics” (102). For Lamb, Susan is a morally fallen woman looking at the pastoral scene around her. Pinch speculates that Lamb’s vision in this letter “is as fantastic as Susan’s” (103). She says of Lamb: “What he sees is not in the poem; what he sees is closer, in fact, to a fantasy colored by other poems” (103). The primary “other poem” that may have colored Lamb’s view centers on a fallen woman named Susan: the “careless quean” who “[f]lirts on you from her mop” in Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower.” The sexual status of the women, in Pinch’s view, may have bound the two poems in Lamb’s mind, distorting his perception as much as Susan distorts the world around her. Sexuality fundamentally influences perception, as affect studies’ grounding in queer and feminist theory suggests. Hence, Tomkins’ foundational work is marked, according to Sedgwick, by “the plain absence…not only of homophobia, but of any kind of heterosexist teleology” (99). Tomkin’s description of how perceptions are processed in the mind is devoid of gendered dramas.
From Smith to Tompkins, perception is understood as a process not fully objective. For Smith, such lapses produce immoral conduct: “So partial are the views of mankind with regard to the propriety of their own conduct, both at the time of action and after it; and so difficult is it for them to view it in the light in which any indifferent spectator would consider it.” Individuals, according to Smith, must imagine themselves as impartial spectators to correctly perceive the “propriety of their own conduct.” Smith calls this ability to see oneself a “particular power or perception,” through which one can avoid “self-deceit.” Tomkins does not speak of self-delusion, but rather consider perceptions as constructed through social and individual habits. “The world we perceive,” Tomkins writes, “is a dream we learn to have from a script we have not written” (1139).
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guatteri. What is Philosophy? Trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson. London: Verso, 1994.
Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
Tompkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008.