Review: Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation

Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation. Lisa Blackman. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012. Pp. xxv + 209.

Positioned amidst interventionist efforts to de-privilege opposing fields of body studies, Lisa Blackman’s Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation provides a democratic solution to contemporary affect studies’ problem of subjectivity. Her specific object in this book is exactly what her title suggests: she hopes to provide a model for the psychological and material to be imagined together. “[B]odies cannot be reduced to materiality,” Blackman argues, and “the body’s potential for psychic or psychological attunement” – what she terms “immateriality” – “is one that the turn to affect must adequately theorize” (xxv). Immaterial Bodies therefore explores the permeable threshold between the mind and body as well as the individual and the group, viewing these concepts not as distinct divisions but as relational and co-producing. The psychic and the physical, Blackman argues, should ultimately be viewed as simultaneous, dynamic, and over-lapping distributions – a claim she supports thoroughly throughout her monograph. She advocates for the use of Deleuzian assemblages even when discussing the boundaries of human experience, which she describes as brain-body-world. These assemblages, she argues, help to mitigate divisions between the “human and non-human, self and other, and material and immaterial” (2).

Blackman views herself as continuing the work of scholars from a variety of fields through an engagement with what she calls a “subliminal archive,” which is “shaped by a diverse set of scientific and literary preoccupations with invisible animating forces” (xii). She primarily responds to scientific historian Ruth Leys’ call for a “genealogy of anti-intentionalism” in her interventions in the fields of body studies and William James’s “problem of personality” in her exploration of “how subjects lived singularly in the face of multiplicity” (23). Her archive simultaneously incorporates marginalized scientific and philosophical inquiries from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into critiques of recent body studies as a means of pointing out problematic contemporary assumptions and arguing for more transdisciplinarity in academia.

Throughout her chapters, Blackman touches on various affective phenomena – those “othered” by contemporary fields of science – such as hypnotic suggestion (Chapter 2), telepathy (Chapter 3), and voice hearing (Chapter 6). She also explores the implications of such approaches to affect studies by viewing “matters psychic, spiritual, and psychopathological as case studies” in Chapters 4 and 5 (103). While these phenomena are commonly viewed by contemporary critics as “evidence that the person has lost their will and succumbed to the will of another,” Blackman advocates for a reconsideration of these topics because they: effectively – and affectively – “breach the boundaries between the self and other, inside and outside, material and immaterial, human and non-human, and even dead and alive”; are transdisciplinary in the way that “concepts, ideas and exchanges circulat[e] across art, literature, medicine and science”; and facilitate efforts to understand the nature of subjectivity as it relates to individuals and groups (xii-xiv). Ultimately, she views these phenomena as “modalities of communication, rather than irrational forms of perception,” and argues for their inclusion in contemporary affect studies because they “disclose our fundamental connectedness to each other, to our pasts, and even to past histories that cannot be known” (20).

In her effort to create a “genealogy of anti-intentionalism,” Blackman traces the history of affect studies in order to challenge the field’s pervading focus on biology and natural sciences as well as its depiction of an automatic, instinctually-driven body. She proposes that the “turn to affect” was primarily a response to academia’s “emphasis on immateriality over ideological and discursive processes,” but claims that recent studies in affect have overcompensated in their attempts to destabilize this mind-over-body paradigm (ix). She views contemporary affect theory in practice not as disrupting this oppositional rhetoric but rather as reversing its emphasis—the field now too strongly privileges the material over the immaterial. In other words, “[i]f talk of the natural body was displaced within the sociology of the body…then talk of the distinctly human, singular body is displaced within affect theory with its resounding focus on multiplicity and movement” (2).

Alongside her critical history of body studies, Blackman also demonstrates how analyses of affective communication can more productively mediate either extreme of mind-body dualism. She argues that affect studies can no longer avoid the question of subjectivity and aims to provide various methods through which the field can access “the question of how to understand the role of the body and embodiment within processes of subjectification” (xi). In many of her chapters, Blackman focuses on affective communication in groups or crowds to demonstrate how human experience is neither bounded by mind and body, nor is there a strict divide between the individual and outside world. There is still such a thing as consciousness, she argues, but rather than being centrally located within the body, it is “distributed” throughout the material and immaterial world. In fact, the distributed nature of subjectivity allows people to communicate and connect in spite of physical or mental distance.

Blackman specifically takes up this issue of consciousness and its confines by challenging the stream of consciousness ideal credited to William James, that is, consciousness as “a flow of ideas, images, sensations, and affects which are characterized primarily by movement.” In Chapter 2, she argues that this theory ultimately presents a “paradox of personality” because it assumes the singularity or multiplicity of the individual subject by assigning origin and end points to consciousness. She later presents alternatives to this model in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 by looking at affect studies’ interest in mental disorders and engaging with “conceptions of affective exchange which do not presume flow…and which do not reduce the complexity of relationality to a neurophysiological body” (24). In Chapter 7, Blackman revisits the brain-body-world assemblage of Chapter 1 to demonstrate how unconventional psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience challenge “the very concept of consciousness…which attempts to house the brain and consciousness within a bounded, unified individual” and enable analyses of individuals as “one yet many” or “more than one and less than many” (10, 16). This last section, arguably the book’s most incisive, culminates the book’s argument that affect studies should shift focus from materiality to marginalized realms of science in order to create assemblages of mind and body, individual and group, consciousness and unconsciousness, instinctual and social, as well as affective and cognitive.

Ultimately, Immaterial Bodies provides contemporary studies of the body with an alternative working definition of affect. Although Blackman defines affect throughout, her clearest articulations are when she opposes the “primacy of affect” granted to scholars such as Brian Massumi by arguing that it is “not just an amorphous intensity or set of intensities, a formless process that flows through bodies, captured through emotion” (173-174). Instead, she claims that affect is “part of a process,” which occurs in a “dynamic constellation” or setting, “through which adjustments to the milieu take place, including adjustments that involve the participation of human subjects, but which cannot be understood as singular human adjustments” (173-174). Similarly, the “affective” for Blackman refers to “not just emotions or feelings housed and experienced within singular bodies, but those trans-subjective processes that connect bodies, that collapse common distinctions between space and time, and even the human and non-human” (172). An understanding of the roles affect plays in this dynamic process, therefore, facilitates more accurate analyses of the various modalities of affective communication. To put this another way, affect studies can – and should – return to the question of subjectivity and maintain its focus on the body in order to more fully comprehend the complex rhythms and registers of human experience.

The most striking relevance of Blackman’s work lies in its call for and model of a greater acceptance of transdisciplinarity in university scholarship. While the current focus on interdisciplinary studies attempts to cross academic boundaries, Blackman’s transdisciplinarity urges us to become more aware of how ideas circulate in disciplines. Blackman implies that her recommendations for affect studies could offer a more powerful defense for the humanities by demonstrating its importance to academia as a whole and specifically to the often-privileged realm of science. With her genealogy and analyses, her work demonstrates how “exchange and collaboration are integral to scientific forms of experimentality, not simply an adjunct that can be removed and isolated without damaging the very innovation, creativity and critical thinking that enable scientific thinking to develop” (xvi). Developing a greater awareness of transdisciplinary in academia, she argues, encourages openness to “where and how we might invent new concepts for understanding who and what we are and, indeed, might be allowed to become” (xvii). Immaterial Bodies, therefore, bridges the divide between the sciences and the humanities, becoming an example that demonstrates why these two general areas of inquiry, like that of the body and mind, the one and many, and the human and non-human, also need to be viewed as a dynamic, interrelated, co-producing assemblage of academic scholarship.

Allison Clymer