The idea of affect’s transmission has roots that extend centuries back, Teresa Brennan argues. As an object of study, however, the transmission of affect perhaps began with the epistemological questions of the eighteenth century. Where do emotions originate? How do we know if the emotions we feel truly belong to us? These questions were of major importance to thinkers dedicated to Descartes’s view of the individual as the sum of his or her cognitive reasoning (the famous “I think, therefore I am”). Rationalist accounts idealized the subject as self-contained and self-governing, and therefore able to properly regulate his or her own emotions. But philosophers also acknowledged that affects were highly mobile, a fact that threatened the view of the individual as an identity who owned its own sentiments.
Empiricist philosopher David Hume, for instance, describes passions transmitted between bodies, actually producing identity rather than the other way around. Hume posits two ways of perceiving: through impressions and through ideas, both of which can be transmitted from one person (or object) to another person. Such “impressions,” as Adela Pinch notes, have “no representational content” (33). In his 1739 Treatise of Human Nature, Hume describes such sense perception as a “firmness, or solidity, or force, or vivacity” that physically impresses upon a body (51-52). This impression is different from an idea: one can see, feel, or otherwise experience a chair (an “impression”) as well as understand the idea of what a chair is. For Hume, impressions and ideas are both transmitted between people through the process of sympathy. In this process, a person who sees someone crying would understand that the crying is a sign of the idea of sadness, itself based upon the physical impression of this experience. This impression could then turn into an idea within the one who received the impression. The process all happens when one understands or feels for another – when one sympathizes.
Contemporary affect theory draws on this notion of “sympathetic transmission” through impressions and ideas. Affect transmission resembles the notion of sympathy as “fellow-feeling,” a term repeatedly used by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Unlike Smith, however, affect theory considers fellow-feeling mainly a bodily experience. Like Hume, affect theorists tend to split physical “impressions” from cognitive “ideas.” Thus, impressions look like “intensities” while “ideas” resemble “content or context.” As with Hume’s theory, the body in affect theory comprehends social situations. When an individual interacts with others (or with a work of art), his or her body is impressed with an intensity not necessarily dependent upon the content of that situation or text. At the same time, another place in the flesh or in the mind takes in a trace of the content or context of the social interaction or work of art, storing the content/context for later experiential understanding. The impression might be termed a person’s “affective state,” a state without any necessary cognitive content.
While Hume and older thinkers did not focus on the mechanism of affect’s transfer, recent work has tried to explain the process. One explanation for affective transfer is known as “entrainment,” whereby one person transmits an affective state to another either chemically or electrically (Brennan 22). For instance, people secrete pheromones through their glands based on their affective state (such as fear or anger). Released into the surrounding atmosphere in the form of a smell, such pheromones can be picked up by another person’s chemoreceptors, triggering the internal secretion of a hormone and thus changing that person’s neurological or biochemical state. Electrical transmission has not been as thoroughly explored, but Brennan describes this process as one involving the effects of one person’s nervous system on another. Rhythm or pattern of a voice can thus alter another person’s affective state. This type of entrainment has greater implications for transmission between groups or for the process of affective contagion.
Since affect is often conceived as not individualized and without content, its impression has limitless potential. A person thinks or acts only after meaning becomes attached to a potential. As Brennan describes it, “the point is that, even if I am picking up on your affect, the linguistic and visual content, meaning the thoughts I attach to that affect, remain my own: they remain the product of the particular historical conjunction of words and experiences I represent” (7). In this way, one’s thoughts can actually result from one’s affective state, rather than one’s thoughts producing one’s affective state. One does not necessarily feel joy because one is thinking of a joyful experience. This autonomy of affect raises epistemological questions: to what extent do thoughts and actions originate in the self and thus, to what extent is the self determined or has free will? One answer is to stop viewing action either as a binary of agency or passivity. As Silvan Tomkins points out, our doings need not be understood as “essentially two-valued, either determinate or capriciously free” (35).
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31 (1995): 83-109.
Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What are affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.