Saturday, March 22, 2014

Affect and/or Emotions: Differentiation or Dialectic


Theories of affect tend to articulate the term affect in relation to some idea of emotion. Perhaps the locus classicus of this distinction is to be found in Brian Massumi's work on affect. As Massumi writes,

"An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience, which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional consensual point of insertion of into intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is owned and recognized. It is crucial to theorize the difference between affect and emotion."

Massumi is drawing off of Deleuze, who in some sense is drawing off of Simondon. It is really Simondon, and not Spinoza who argues that affects are less individuated than emotions. Affects for Simondon are analogous to sensations: one revealing the exterior, the other the interior, but what they have in common is that they are ambiguous, defining more a problem, a tension, than a fixed state. In affect the problematic dimension is torn between the polarities of pleasure and pain that define the basic orientation of affect, a polarity that shifts in different relations and different situations. Pleasure and pain are always shifting, always relative to specific relations and situations, and thus affects are always less individuated than emotions. In order for this flux to become stable, for distinct emotions to emerge from this flux of pleasure and pain, there must be unity and individuation Sensation and affects are increasingly individuated, as their tensions give way to discernible perceptions and emotions. As Simondon writes, ‘Emotions are the discovery of the unity in living just as perception is the discovery of unity in the world; these two psychic individuations prolong the individuation of the living, the complement it, and perpetuate it.’ Passing from affect to emotions is not just an individuation of the sensation, but of the individual as well, one that cannot be separated from transindividuation. 


The latter word and concept is not only absent from Spinoza, but the defining characteristic of affect in Spinoza is its uniformity and consistency. Everything is defined by its capacity to affect and be affected. The vicissitudes of what we call emotional life are only the specific way of affecting and being affected that define our particular modal existence. Despite this terminological difference Spinoza's account of the affects could also be understood to be defined first in terms of their ambiguity, the vacillation of the affects in which the same thing is both the cause of joy and sadness, love and hate, leading to instability and vacillation. Second, Spinoza's affects are increasingly individuated and individuating. Each individual is some sense defined by their loves and hates, by the basic orientation of desire, "man's very essence." Ultimately there are as many different affects ‘as there are species of objects by which we are affected’ (EIIIP56) and ‘each affect of each individual differs from the affect of another as much as the essence of one from the essence of the other’ (EIIIP57). The general definition of love and hate eventually gives way to different objects and different desires, each defined by specific relations and histories. Less this seem like a complete nominalism, it is important to remember that collective life is defined by its affects too, as people are unified by a common feeling, a common affect, more than by thought. 

In a recent interview with Fredric Jameson on his Antinomies of Realism book, he offers a different, dialectical account of the difference between affect and emotion. As Jameson states in that interview. 

"For I define affect as a kind opposite to emotion, or rather to what I stubbornly insisted on calling the “named emotion,” without making very clear why I did so. For in my perspective the emotions form a kind of semiotic system (like colors for the cultural anthropologist), and they are reified by way of their names. The system of emotions, then, is for me an allegorical matter, and will form the centerpiece of my next book (sorry for these personal forecasts). At any rate, in that sense Antinomies is necessarily incomplete, even though I tried to mark the place of emotion in my discussions of affect. But this is also the sense in which for me most discussions of both things are not altogether satisfactory: the discussions in queer theory of affect as well as the discussions of emotions in such admirably scholarly work as that of Amélie Rorty on emotion, or the more moralizing and liberal approach of Martha Nussbaum to such matters. We need to think of the named emotions as a kind of historical system, like that of the humors (to which they are so intimately related). But enough of this unfinished business, which is certain (rightly) to irritate some readers."

I have not read Jameson's Antinomies yet, but this remark offers an interesting counterpoint to both Simondon and Spinoza. The different ways of framing the affect/emotion relation are distinct not only in how they define the concepts in question but in terms of how they posit the very relation, the logic between them. In the first, in the thread running from Simondon through Massumi, affects are preindividual while emotions are both the causes and effects of individuation. Jameson defines the terms differently, identifying the emotions less with the process of individuation than with changing contours of history. Although in each case the emotion is delimited and defined, while the affect is more ambiguous and intensive. The difference between the two is as much one of logic as it is of definition. In the first case affects are individuated, while in the latter they stand in dialectical tension with emotions, even if it is, as Jameson asserts, a dialectic without positive terms.

I have left Spinoza out of this cursory contrast, even if there are strong points of overlap with the line that passes through Simondon. This is in part because there is no contrast between emotion and affect in Spinoza. It also seems to me that Spinoza might offer a way to embrace both problems, thinking affects in terms of both their individuation in specific affective compositions of individuals and their historical sedimentation in "structures of feeling." This still leaves open the other question, do affects need to be contrasted to emotions, to some other way of feeling, to be intelligible or meaningful? I am less and less convinced of this distinction, which seems overly burdened by some kind of hierarchy of the more or less individuated and the more or less meaningful level of feeling. 

2 comments:

Joel Glidden said...

Have you ever read Antonio Damasio? In "Looking for Spinoza" he makes a distinction in his neurobiological research (his terms were "emotion" for affection and "feeling" for a conscious passion) that might be similar to these distinctions. I read it a few years ago, but I sort of recall that for him, the distinction was also somewhat trivial - that all "emotions" either reverberate until they become "feelings", or they die without much effect.

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, I read the book, but quickly and do not recall it that much. I have never much been interested in the "scientists agree with what some philosopher said" argument.