Affect theory is as much concerned with the propensity of an art object to affect a viewer/reader as it is with a subject’s ability to be affected. Literary studies commonly conceives of the work of art as a representation that gives rise to ideas within the mind of its observer. In other words, art functions through symbol, relying upon the signification of words and ideas. However, humans depend upon their sensory faculties in interacting with a given work. According to empirical philosophy (Locke, Hume), ideas derive from images refracted through the sensory interpretation of the eye.
This movement from the sensory perception of objects to ideas traverses a gap that Brian Massumi identifies as the space of affect. In “The Autonomy of Affect,” Massumi notes “that the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect: it would appear that the strength or duration of an image’s effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way.” (164). Representation’s signifying of content does not directly correspond to the actual sensory experience of art. Affect theory aims to explore this missing dynamic of the aesthetic relationship between perceiving subjects, objects, and sense experience. Art has a sensational effect upon humans, one interfaced in complicated ways with conceptual cognition. Affective readings imagine aesthetics as the domain of representations that trigger particular affects as routed through the subject’s sensory faculties, thus giving primacy to the relationship between art and feeling rather than the connection between words and ideas. Artistic objects are accorded value within affect theory according to the intensity or uniqueness of the affects they engender or describe. Gilles Deleuze thus describes art as a repository for affective difference: “What is preserved – the thing or the work of art – is a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.” (164). Canonic art thus offers access to affective experiences culturally sanctioned as both distinctive and capable of recuperation for the social.
As such, the artwork comes to resemble emotion. As affect theorist generally note, emotions represent socially mediated affects: they are attempts, through concepts and language, to capture the nature of humanity’s affective experience of art and the external world. This sharing of sensation is one experience that artists represent. In “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event,” Lauren Berlant thus describes a couple of contemporary historical novels as anatomizing “a shared nervous system that it was the novelist’s project to put out there for readers.” (847).
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Percept, Affect, and Concept.” What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 164-199.
Berlant, Lauren. “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event.” American Literary History. 26.1 (2014): 845-60.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect”. Cultural Critique: The Politics of Systems and Environments. 31.2 (1995): 83-109.
Pfau, Thomas. “Traumatic History and Lyric Awakenings”. Romantic Moods. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.
Smith, Daniel and Henry Somers-Hall, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Deleuze. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012.
Tomkins, Silvan. Affect, Imagery, Consciousness Volume I: The Positive Affects. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1962.