Saturday, October 17, 2015

Affective Reproduction: Thinking Transindividuality in an Age of Individualism

Paper Presented at the Affect Theory Conference

One of the many theoretical and practical promises of the so-called “affective turn” in social and political thought is that it makes it possible to conceptualize the social and political dimensions of the most intimate aspects of experience. Or, put differently, it makes it possible to think of the way in which political and economic structures can only exist, can only reproduce themselves, if they do so at the level of affects and desire. The reconceptualization that I am referring to here is not to be confused with a reduction of the individual to the mere effects of structural conditions and relations, in which individuals become simply bearers of economic and political functions, nor is it a reduction of politics and economics to individual experiences and intentions, a kind of intimate theatre of micro-politics that never becomes macro. It is a matter of thinking the mutual implication of the individual and the collective, or in a word, transindividuality. 

To say that affects are transindividual is not just to say that they are both individual and collective, intimately felt and collectively shared, but that they constitute the very ground of individuation and what could be called “collectivization,” the constitution of both individual subjectivities and collective relations. Affects, different affective sensibilities, define both different individuals, shaping different characters, and idiosyncratic ways of feeling, and different collectivities, constituting belonging, exclusion, and the inchoate backdrop of a historical moment. To live in this historical moment, to be in the United States of America in the early years of the twenty-first century is not only to have different objects of fear and hope, love and hate, but to have an entirely different way of feeling than other moments. The same can be said for all of the various intersecting and contradictory collectivities of class, race, etc. Or, more to the point, affects define the point where the individual is constituted from a series of shared structures of feeling and where the collective is constituted from different individual points of intensity. Affective compositions define individual and collective life without ever being reducible to one or the other. Transindividuality is the mutual implication and irreducibility of the individual and the collective. This can be illustrated by looking at two thinkers, who are for me the primary point of reference for a transindividual thought of affects, Gilbert Simondon and Spinoza. 

Simondon is of course the thinker who coined the term “transindividual” and it would be difficult to do justice to all of its ontological and existential dimensions here, focusing instead on several basic points of orientation. For Simondon individuation is less a state than a process, a process that must be thought from its constitutive relations, what Simondon terms, the preindividual, rather than from its terminus in the individual. Individuation is a process not a state. The specific pre-individual relations that constitute the bases for psychic individuation, for the individuation not of the human individual as living organism, but as specific individual in terms of character and habit, are sense and affect. Sense and affect are pre-individual, less discernible states than tensions and possibilities, and as such they constitute the two major axes, one oriented towards the exterior world (space), the other towards the interior world (time), through which the individuation takes place. To argue that they are pre-individual is to argue that they are not immediately experienced as the perception of individual things or of defined emotional states, but of relations defined by constitutive tensions. In sense, what is perceived is neither form nor matter, neither intelligible totalities nor raw flow of experience, but information. This information is always supersaturated, there is always more colour, sound, shapes, images, lines, smells, and so on, than we can perceive.[1] What we perceive, what becomes discernible, refers us back to a vital subject, to desires and actions. Perception, the constitution of discernible objects and forms, is a product of this relation between subject and world: it is a transductive individuation in which both the world and subject are individuated.[2] The contradictions and complexities of sense are overcome as discernible things just as the living individual takes on distinct goals. A similar process defines affect. In affect, the problematic dimension is torn between the polarities of pleasure and pain, which define the basic orientation of affect, a polarity that is constantly shifting as pains and pleasures vacillate and transform each other. Pleasure and pain are always shifting, always relative to specific relations and situations. 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, they complement it, and perpetuate it’.[3] Affects and sensations are individuated into emotions and perceptions, an individuation that transforms both the world, creating distinct things with corresponding evaluations, and constitutes an individual from the inchoate perceptions and desires. Emotions are named; they are identified and identify us, while affects are less individuated, defining a point of indeterminacy from which emotions emerge. A similar transformation happens to sensations, the inchoate excess of stimulus, become the basis for discernible perceptions. These two individuations, emotions and perceptions, do not necessarily cohere, and the tensions between the two are part of the reason that individuation is always transindividuation; collectivities are in part defined as a particular articulation of sensing and feeling, an organization of feelings and perceptions, ways of perceiving and seeing. 

It is the affective and emotional register that takes on particular importance in defining the individuation of the collective. As Simondon writes:

If one is able to speak in a certain sense of the individuality of a group or such and such a people, it is not by virtue of a community of action, too discontinuous to be a solid base, nor of the identity of conscious representations, too large and too continuous to permit the segregation of groups; it is at the level of affective-emotional themes, mixtures of representation and action, that constitute collective groups.[4]

If the collective is to have any individuality at all, this individuality must be sought at the level of particular affects and emotions, particular ways of feeling. In place of the rigid distinction between affects and emotions, in which one is social and the other individual, Simondon argues that both individuals and collectives are constituted by affects and emotions. Collectivities and individuals are not defined by a determined set of emotions, or sense of affective possibility, but the metastable intersection of the two. 

In the Political Treatise, Spinoza also argues that collectives, are defined, that is to say individuated, by their general structure of feeling. As Spinoza writes,

Since men, as we have said, are led more by passion than by reason, it naturally follows that a people will unite and consent to be guided as if by one mind not at reason’s prompting but through some common emotion, such as a common hope, or common fear, or desire to avenge some common injury.[5]

Of course there is where the similarities would seem to end. Unlike Simondon, Spinoza makes no distinction, terminological or otherwise, between affects and emotions. It is affects all the way down, as affects define not just psychic life but all of modal existence, as everything, from the stone to the state, is defined by its capacity to affect and be affected, by its increases and decreases of power. While the affects are given in a simple, almost reductive, geometry, in which desire, striving, is either increased, joy, or decreased, sadness, this geometry, like geometry itself, gives way to increasingly complex and fractal structures and increasingly individuated compositions. If our joys, sorrows, and desires are defined by our relations, encounters, and experiences, then they eventually become as singular as our histories. As Spinoza writes, ‘there are as many species of joy, sadness, and desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.) as there are species of objects by which we are affected’ (EIIIP56). This nominalism of affects on the side of the object is mirrored on the side of the subject, as ‘each affect of each individual differs from the affect of another as much as the essence of the one from the essence of the other’ (EIIIP57). It is this multiplicity of objects and desires that makes any political constitution of a shared affect a difficult, albeit necessary, project: any attempt to define national (as well as racial or class) belonging according to a shared love or hate, risks conflicting with the multiplicity of hatred and loves that define singular affective existence. 

The complexity of Spinoza’s affects is not just a pure numerical multiplicity, a love for every object and a desire for every individual; it is much more complex and ambivalent than that; the same object, the same person or thing, can become the cause of joy and sadness, love and hatred. It is this temporal fluxuation that leads to the vacillation of the affects, a tension between two different ways of feeling or relating to a thing that can be described as a kind of metastability, a tension between two different affects. Within this metastability there is a tendency, a striving, a conatus, to think and act in relation to those things that affirm our existing and thinking. This tendency is not linear, at least unproblematically; this is in part because what we imagine to be the cause of joy may, in the long run, decrease our power and thus be a cause of sadness. What we strive for is not only relative to how we have been affected in the past, but also how we understand these affects. Different histories, different understandings, produce different strivings. These different strivings constitute different individuations. As Spinoza writes, 

very often it happens that while we are enjoying a thing we wanted, the body acquires from this enjoyment a new constitution, by which it is differently determined, and other images of things are aroused in it; and at the same time the mind begins to image other things, and desire other things (EIIIP59S). 

Spinoza offers a discontinuous account of individuation, in which the realisation or frustration of certain desires, loves and hatreds, leads to a transformation of desire itself, to a fundamental reorientation of the conatus. Simondon also argues that individuation, at least the individuation that defines the psychic individuation that defines personality, or personalisation, is discontinuous. As much as individualisation is the process by which affects and senses are individuated into emotions and perceptions, this gradual individuation is punctuated with crises, moments when a given individuation does not function and is necessarily transformed. Individuation is a solution, a particular way of resolving a tension between different affects, perceptions, and concepts, but it is a solution that is constantly being put into question as new situations and problems arise. 

Record Store Next to the Conference in Lancaster

Affective Reproduction

Taking the individuation as our starting point, it then becomes possible to ask the question what would mean to speak of affective reproduction, the reproduction of social relations, not just at the level of ideas and actions, but also affects. If this is in some sense what constitutes a given social order, a given collectivity, how can such an order be sustained against the tendency towards singularization, discontinuous individuation of experience? What are the conditions of possibility of collective compositions of affect? More importantly, how can we evaluate and transform the affects that define collective life? How can we have a collective ethics of affect, transforming the conditions of collective and individual existence? Spinoza’s answer to these questions are well known, and his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus remains an exemplary analysis of an affective composition of superstition and tyranny. The question remains, how to conduct an analysis of the affective composition of the present. Three contemporary philosophers, Frédéric Lordon, Yves Citton, and Chantal Jaquet, have all offered analysis of the affective reproduction of capital. 

Lordon’s “energetic structuralism” offers the most systematic account of the reproduction of affect. For Lordon capitalism, like every mode of production, must be understood as a particular organization of desire, of the conatus, by a definition of the objects of love and hate. Generally, the capitalist reorganization of desire, is defined by its transformation of both the nature of activity, and the development of a new universal object of desire. Activity, the fundamental striving that defines existence, is oriented towards labour, the selling of one’s wage labour. Striving for survival becomes indirect, mediated, oriented towards money as the object underlying all desires. “which occupies the mind of multitude more than anything else.” Capitalism begins with a new object of desire and a new relation to activity, money is the object and the selling of wage labour is the activity. As Lordon argues, first the desire to work and earn money is compelled by the simple absence of alternatives, of other ways to survive other than selling labour power. Once the commons and other non-commodified spaces of reproduction are destroyed, reproduction rests on nothing more than what Marx referred to as “the worker’s drives for self-preservation and propagation.” It is a kind of primitive accumulation of subjectivity. The historical development of capital is a transformation of this initial affective composition dominated by fear and scarcity. The Fordist era brings with it the rise of consumer society, and thus money becomes not just the necessary means of survival, but the necessary condition of joy, of the pleasures of consumption. The Fordist compromise can be seen as an affective one: the sadness and sorrow of the work process, fragmented and alienated, is compensated for by a new series of joys, by the pleasures of consumption. Contemporary work, the work of neoliberal gig economy transforms this relation once again; no longer is work the drudgery the makes possible consumer goods, but becomes itself a terrain of desire and self-realization. The worker who sees him or herself as an entrepreneur, as a networking developing their personal brand, seeks joy not from money and what money buys but from work itself. 

Lordon’s schematic history of the economic structure of affect offers an important Spinozist supplement to Marxist theories of capitalism. What compels people to work is neither ideology nor force, but desire—the entire affective organization of one’s striving. This is why the masses struggle for exploitation as if it was liberation. Its explanatory force is doubled by its critical dimension. Understanding the essentially oriented, or affected nature of any desire, immediately dispenses with any naturalist justification of capitalism based on the putative natural desire for wealth or consumer goods. However, Lordon’s different regimes of affect are overly schematic, not just in terms of historical time—there are, after all, workers still working just to survive, workers compelled by the rewards of consumer society, and workers motivated by the desires to maximize their potential working sided by side in the contemporary labour process, as primitive accumulation, Fordism, and neoliberalism coexist in the same company or factory. Moreover, the same individual can be caught between all three, passing from the fear of not earning enough to make rent, to consumerist and entrepreneurial fantasies over the course of a day. There is an fundamental ambivalence to affective reproduction. Combined and uneven development does not just define the affective composition of a given period, but subjectivity as well. Ultimately, what Lordon’s theory risks overlooking is the transindividual nature of the affects, that affects are simultaneously collective and individualizing. 

Downtown Lancaster 

Metastability and Transformation

The challenge then is combining a recognition of both the structuring conditions dominate organization of affects and the individuation of a particular composition;in a word, of seeing affective composition as transindividual. Lordon has good reason to eschew the individualizing aspect of affects and desires. Doing so is not just faithful to Spinoza, who criticized the tendency to treat man as a “kingdom within a kingdom,” but it addresses one of the central alibis of contemporary capitalism. As Lordon argues, not just individual desire, but individual difference functions as one of the most persistent justifications of capitalism. To the extent that work is criticized, or the actions of this or that boss, or corporation become the focus of hate, they do so as individual actions. Individual difference, the focus on this or that bad boss, or this or that corporation, often takes the place of systematic critiques. The focus on the differences, the exceptions, obscures and justifies the similarity and structural conditions. The nicest boss in the world cannot transform the fundamental reality of the wage relation, nor can the worst for that matter, their individual differences, particular incentives and so on, are all just variations on the same theme, the same imperatives to realize surplus value under the predominant conditions. This does not mean that they are irrelevant, as much as these differences are meaningless at the level of economy, they are quite meaningful at the level of affect and imagination, constituting part of its symbolic violence. As Lordon writes, 

Symbolic violence consists then properly speaking in the production of a double imaginary, the imaginary fulfilment, which makes the humble joys assigned to the dominated appear sufficient, and the imaginary of powerless, which convinces them to renounce any greater ones to which they might aspire.

These humble joys reflect a basic tendency, of desire, of the conatus, according to Spinoza, we strive to affirm that which brings us joy. Brought into the work place this principle explains the small pleasures that make up day to day work, the casual Fridays, shared cat videos, and chit chat about Game of Thrones. These pleasures can only appear to be fulfilling if other pleasures, other possibilities are radically foreclosed. Any idea of another existence another way of living other than through wage labour, or realizing dreams other than through consumer society, is seen as impossible. 

The affective composition of this symbolic violence is fundamentally ambivalent. One could argue that it is the sad affects, the imaginary of powerlessness that makes the small pleasures even possible. It is only once that we give up on our dreams of determining our lives that a weekend of streaming movies, or being able to work from a coffee shop can seem pleasurable. Inversely, one could argue that the small pleasures necessarily come first, driven by our tendency to affirm what we perceive as increasing our powers, that forecloses any examination of what lies beyond. This ambiguity fluctuates historically. In times of relative abundance and surplus, capital presents its pleasures as adequate, and realizable, running on hope, while in times of crisis or economic uncertainty, it is the impossibility of any alternative, the fear of economic transformation, that is foregrounded. Hope is inseparable from fear and vice versa, but one is dominant at any given historical moment. 

Lordon’s emphasis is on the way in which the small differences, the things that make this job good or bad, this boss tolerable or intolerable, drive the entire system. The keep us motivated, driving us to the better job or the nicer boss, while at the same time foreclosing any thought of the overarching structure. As long as we talk about good and bad jobs or bosses we will never raise the question of the good or bad nature of bosses in general. Individual difference can only be an alibi for structural similarity. As Yves Citton argues, the individual constitutes something of a founding myth of capitalist society. It is through its moralizing lens that we grasp both success and failure, the entrepreneurs and welfare queens that populate our contemporary imaginary, never seeing the institutional and structural conditions that it conceals. 

This maybe the ideological function of individual difference, the role it plays according to the first order of knowledge, but the very existence of such differences attest to something else. The fact that some work situations are sites of solidarity, that some individuals strive for something other than consumer goods, or self-realization through entrepreneurship, that the metastable means that the former is always something more than the reproduction of the latter. Chantal Jaquet has turned her attention to this metastable dimension of reproduction, by examining non-reproduction, the points where individuals deviate from their place in the relations of production. As Jaquet argues these individual differences are not the product of some irreducible remainder of the individual in the face of social pressures, but of the complexity and metastability of these very social forces. Jaquet proposes to see individual differences, especially those differences of what she terms “non-reproduction” as the effects of the multiple and overlapping individuations, or affective compositions, within any existing social relation. The different affective orientations of the present, the fear that compels people to work, the pleasures of consumer society, and the drive of self-realization of neoliberal society, not only overlap, but do so in fundamentally conflictual and contradictory manners. These tensions sometimes function as the necessary condition of the reproduction of the system, keeping every worker caught between fear of unemployment, desire for consumer goods, and hope of some better career or dream job. The combined and uneven affective composition can produce an ambivalent but persistent reproduction. It can also be the metastable condition of non-reproduction. Every affective condition of reproduction is also a condition of non-reproduction. The fears of destitution and poverty that drive one to work can also lead one to seek a living outside of the commodity form—dropping off the grid; the pleasures of consumer society can drive one to refuse work rather than keep one working; and lastly, the imperatives of self-realization through work might just be the most unstable of all. The ideal of self realization through work, of “love what you do” sets a high bar for affective motivation and orientation that can backfire as much as it compels work. There are as many non-reproductive individuations as there are reproductive ones.

Jaquet’s argument is twofold. First, she wants to restore non-reproduction to a properly philosophical mode of inquiry removing it from the various invocations of ambition, initiative, and other non-concepts of a moralizing ideology that autonomy everywhere. Non-reproduction must be theorized in terms of its constitutive conditions, not thematized as evidence for some transcendental idea of human action. Second, she argues that non-reproductions, the deviations, anomalies, and dropouts that deviate from prescribed lives and paths, are perhaps the only transformations that remain in a non-revolutionary period. They are not revolutions, but the conditions for revolutionary transformation. They are not themselves a politics, but they reveal the metastable aspect of reproduction that is the condition of any politics.

To draw this to a paradoxical conclusion, the individual in terms of the autonomous, independent, and isolated subject maybe the basis of the myth of capitalism, but individuation, the process by which different human animals incorporate while deviating from the existing affective and mythic order, subjecting it to the swerve of their own particular conatus, is the foundation of its transformation. The differences internal to these individuations can become the basis of a different collectivity, a different transindividuality, one that could still claim the name of revolutionary. 

[1] Simondon 2005, p. 242. 

[2] Transduction is the process by which something is individuated and individuates itself, in which something is both product and process (Combes 2013, p. 7). 

[3] Simondon 2005, p. 260, my translation. 

[4] Simondon 2005, p. 248, my translation. 

[5] Spinoza 2000, p. 64.

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