The essence of affect is its power to motivate human action and investment in social forms. As such, affect theory presents a challenge against a traditional conception of free will. This faculty is often depicted as freely determining our actions based upon various motivational factors that we recognize and thus inform our decisions. By this process of free will, we are thought to fashion and enact our intentions. However, affect theory calls this self-determination into question. Thus, in “The Autonomy of Affect,” Brian Massumi argues that “Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions which reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed” (90). Although free will is attractive to many because of its humanist premises, the faculty is here understood as simply another means of interpreting the world by reducing its full nature. In contrast, affect theory is decidedly determinist. If the affect system supersedes the polarized system of free will and unfree drives, its forces can be seen as chiefly determinative of our actions.
Nevertheless, as affect theory seeks to avoid the binary of liberty and bondage in psychoanalysis, it speaks of “degrees of freedom,” as Silvan Tomkins has put it (110). Tomkins argues agency exists along a continuum between two poles of no possible change and total randomness. Freedom results from a being’s complexity (the variability of its aims) and the frequency of attainment with respect to those aims. In other words, freedom is proportionate to the extent of our possible aims. Some goals are entirely outside of active control, for example physical drives like breathing. Other aims, such as our wants, depend upon the complexity of both our aims and how they can satisfied. This means that in terms of affect, human beings should be thought of as a “feedback system rather than a communication system” (Tomkins 111). The force of affect is not subject to our will but instead helps determinate our actions.
Affect can thus be imagined as autonomous. Although socially conditioned, affect is beyond the ability of any individual to direct or control, posing a direct challenge to the autonomy of the individual insofar as affect is collective. Massumi, however, allows for some level of agency: freedom of the will comes not in establishing an intention, but in responding once such aims emerge (90). With a relatively complex yet attainable wish, we may exhibit free will by choosing to assent or decline the impulse at hand. Such a response would necessarily derive from conscious faculties and thus return to the concept of the will.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique: The Politics of Systems and Environments. 31.2 (1995): 83-109.
Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect, Imagery, Conciousness Volume I: The Positive Affects. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1962.