In affect theory, resonance and vibration generally designate the relationship between affects and its forms (emotions or linguistic descriptions of those emotions). Although resonance and vibration take on slightly different nuances, they predominantly represent some correspondence, or middle, that moves between a vague, unnamable force (affect) on one side and some nameable, fixed entity (persons or personal emotions) on the other. The epistemological mode of resonance examines the movement between affects and emotional cognition, while the intersubjective approach to resonance outlines the relationship between affects and interpersonal responses.

The notions of resonance and vibration play a vital epistemological role for Brian Massumi. Resonance and vibration describe the amplifying or dampening relationship between what Massumi calls intensity (an affect) and quality (the linguistic or emotional form the affect causes), although Massumi seems to indicate that at times vibration may occur between two affects. Intensity refers to the elusive and nameless realm of the affective, whereas quality describes the form sensations take, namely emotions and feelings with linguistic labels. Intensity, for example, may cause a series of sensations that are indescribable but clearly impress themselves upon the human psyche. When the subject finally qualifies the event, the affect becomes a named feeling or emotion and ceases to be an affect. Resonance resides between these two polarities or planes. Massumi explains that the resonance or vibration between intensity and quality may amplify or dampen the other. Linguistic categories, particularly narration or logic, place meaningful, coherent forms on the affect whereas intensity does not adhere to any logic. The resonance may either complement the linguistic form, like a joyous affect that accompanies a friendly letter, or contradict it, as when a sad affect causes pleasure. One can describe this resonation as the back-and-forth or unconscious vibration between intensity and quality, or vibration between these two planes in a feedback system. Resonance and vibration paradoxically move between the unsayable and the sayable: they allow affect to be nameless, transcendental, and virtual, while simultaneously making it recognizable, immanent, or real.

Although not completely alien to Massumi’s perspective, Silvan Tomkins locates resonance in intersubjectivity. Tomkins sees affective resonance as a feedback loop, where affects in one subject reinforce the same affect in the observer, and vice versa. Due to its responsive capacities, resonance lies at the heart of what some deem affective “contagion.” Contagion expresses a situation in which a group of people shares the same affect and exhibit similar responses. Tomkins suggests this phenomenon may attract varying personalities to a similar ideology for different reasons, in the same way two different persons may fall in love with a third because of separate motives. Affective resonance becomes a powerful force because of its intersubjective tendencies. Affects spread among persons and gain strength when oscillating between those persons.

Because of this intersubjectivity, resonance carries significance for literary theory and politics as well. In Strange Fits of Passion (1996), Adela Pinch ask whether feelings are ever strictly our own? Because readers resonate with affects through representations (e.g., texts), literature incites a resonating emotion from without (i.e., the author, the text itself), at which point the text wields great power and influence. If as Massumi notes, affects resonate unpredictably with emotion, when, as in his example, the affect of a sad movie elicits a pleasant viewer response, literature or affects in general may produce widespread irrational amalgams of this sort. Political theorists, likewise, are fascinated by such affective formations, to which Eric Shouse attributes the discipline’s growing interest in affect studies. Shouse argues that a text’s content may be of less importance than the reader’s subconscious emotional response. For his part, Tomkins notes that charismatic tyrants exploit the shared affective states of crowds to manipulate political authority.

Resonance and vibration ultimately describe the correspondence between affects and resulting forms. For Massumi, these forms take shape in the recognized and named emotions and feelings of persons, and for Tomkins, the forms are subjective responses to affects, but both Massumi and Tomkins agree that resonance intensifies affects. A curious affect may cause one to laugh at a funeral, or a salesman’s charisma may convince two friends to buy, for different reasons, despite the quality of the product. Resonance, then, represents stable or unstable oscillation or vibration between affects and people or their feelings.

David A. Garner

Works Cited:

Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 30 (Autumn, 1995).

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Shouse, Eric. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect.” M/C Journal 8 (Dec. 2005).

Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008.

—. “What are affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Eds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.