‘The Politics of Affect’ reviewed by Charles Devellennes


The Politics of Affect

Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2015. 232pp., £15.99 pb
ISBN 9780745689821

Reviewed by Charles Devellennes

About the reviewer

Charles Devellennes is a lecturer in political and social thought at the University of Kent. He …

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The politics of affect is a subject of study that desperately needs more attention, both in terms of its interconnections in our political lives, and in terms of how we think the political philosophically in relation to affects. Brian Massumi’s Politics of Affect, unfortunately, does neither. There is precious little about politics in this work, or about political thought. While the former may be excusable from such a prominent theorist as Massumi, the latter is not. What the book does, however, is provide a discussion of affects in Spinozist terms, as the power ‘to affect and be affected.’ (ix)

Yet the rather contained definition provided in the introduciton quickly evaporates into multiple directions. Affect is to be ‘open to the world’ (ix), the ‘cutting edge of change’ (ix), present ‘through events’ (ix), ‘positively productive of individualities in relation’ (x), synonymous with ‘hope’ (3), attached to ‘movements of the body’ (4), a ‘virtual co-presence of potentials’ (5), ‘like our human gravitational field’ (17), intensified and diversified by capitalism (20), it is to be a channel to justify sending troops overseas (31), is not a thing, but an event (47), ‘inseperable from the concept of shock’ (53), linked to aesthetic politics (66), applies most properly to populations (95), is not essentially liberatory or progressive (101), and finally is a ‘way to account for experience in its in-forming’ (148). In short, affect, apart from not being a thing, can be observed and experienced in all sorts of relations, from the personal to the social, the micro- to macro-political, the ontic to the (quasi)metaphysic. This wide-ranging use of the term further adds to the confusion about what affects are/are not. There is precious little that would not fit Massumi’s definition, apart perhaps from ‘structuralist’ readings of the term critiqued in chapter three.

The definition of affect is thus broadened beyond repair throughout the work, only to be rewoven together again through a complex use of Deleuze and Guattari as a means to discuss the importance of events in understanding the world. This in itself is neither surprising nor problematic, but Massumi does not engage with others, including Spinozists and Deleuzians, who have widely discussed these themes in the past years, including Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Connolly’s The Fragility of Things. A more thorough engagement with other works of the affective turn could have helped Massumi further identify political challenges from his own affective ontology, and helped the reader understand the micropolitcal implications mentioned in the text. Nor is the notion of event particularly useful here, as events are used to apply to the trivial and the consequential, personal encounters or political movements. Two examples help illustrate the work’s shortcomings in this respect.

In the first instance, micropolitics is defined as a politics of microperception. This is illustrated by the Obama campaign’s ‘re-cueing of fear towards hope’ (58). This is odd in a number of respects. First, because the book is written towards the end of Obama’s second term, when the largely rhetoric nature of the message of ‘hope’ has become clear to even his strongest sympathisers. Second, because Massumi otherwise rejects faith as a viable political tool (101), only to rephrase it in terms of a ‘belief in the world’ (111). The movement between hope, supposedly of a progressive kind as the one exhibited in the Obama campaign of 2008, and faith, supposedly of a regressive kind, is never explored nor justified in terms of affects. What could have been a productive political discussion on the limits of hope is turned into a rather banal statement about the superiority of progressive politics in their institutionalised form.

Micropolitics can also occur at a more local level. Massumi, together with Erin Manning, participates in the SenseLab in Montreal. Described as an in-between milieu of art and academic institutions, they investigate affective dimensions in participants’ work. One such experiment is described as the ‘furring’ of participants. People were asked to choose a piece of cloth that appealed to them, and were then divided into groups using the fabric to ‘make the space for their interaction’ (75). The groups were then forbidden to report, but Massumi assures us that the creation of what Guattari would have called a ‘subject-group’ led to collaborations that continued after the event. Without wishing to belittle such an event for the participants involved, and the experience of being affected by the fabric of their choice, it is unclear what its articulation tells the reader about the politics of affect. The vagueness of the discussion in the end hinders the illustration of the kinds of practices that take place within this space, which nevertheless sounds prolific and original in its experimentations.

There is one aspect of the book that is beyond reproach: its conclusion, or as Massumi titles the chapter: ‘In lieu of a conclusion’. There, affect is described from a variety of different angles. Each section has a dialectic feel to it, where the dynamism of opposite uses and abuses of affect interact with one another to produce a constructive picture of the concept. For example, the dynamic between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ affects is exposed in the section entitled ‘Affect is good’ (209). There, we read that affects are ethically neutral, with an equal potential to be fascistic or progressive. While the section fails to provide guidance on how to orientate affects towards the latter rather than the former, it nevertheless problematises in the clearest way the possibility of thinking deeply about political affects. It is merely a shame that the work did not expand on this set of relations, as they are certainly worthy of attention and consideration.

10 February 2017

2 comments

  1. One specific aspect of affect that seems to be under-theorised here and in general is the politics of affect in literary response. Clearly, literature (and the arts in general) ‘move’ us. We laugh, we cry, we follow intent, success, failure etc etc. We are ‘affected’. The classic bourgeois model is that this belongs in a sphere separate from politics, and indeed separate from almost everything else! It’s just ’emotion’. How or why we ‘got’ that emotion is generally left to Aristotle or the dry logic of the ‘English essay’ where we are supposed to list ‘techniques’ and ascribe ‘effects’ to the techniques, thereby miraculously leaving out the reading person!

    How this affect is built and created with genre norms, societal norms, group resistance or collaboration to those norms, is clearly complex. There are liberal models for this (Rosenblatt, Fish etc) but Marxist critics (e.g. Eagleton) have been mostly rather dismissive of it as an area worth looking at as it’s ‘subjectivist’. My argument is that it doesn’t need to be. Far from it.

    What’s more, in the context of an educational system that is demanding more and more a pseudo-objective, pseudo-neutral view of the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’, we need a social and political reply on affect at all levels of education. I’ve come up with a simplified (simplistic?) schema for teachers and educators that can be used as a way of gauging and discussing qualitatively the nature of literary response with students from 3 year olds to 103 year olds. (Up on my blog. Feel free to use and adapt.) It doesn’t fully escape from the accusation of being subjectivist. That’s down to a teacher/educator socialising affect and encouraging theorising on the ground – in short asking repeatedly ‘why are we responding like this?’

    In terms of wider politics, clearly the mass media have worked overtime on affect in relation to migration, intent on encouraging rage , resentment and blame the like of which we haven’t seen in decades. The flip side of the coin are new ‘nationalisms’ (inverted commas because this is in itself illusory, because the nationalisms in question are contingent on (usually) whiteness and, quite frequently regionalisms. I’ve read internet comment threads by ‘nationalists’ in which people regularly rage against ‘scousers’, ‘jocks’, etc. What narrative are these people in? How has it been constructed? When Farage was asked about his objections to people speaking non-English language on trains and how that differed from his own wife’s and children’s talk (German) he said Romanian was different. How’s that? asked the interview, ‘You know what I mean’ was the reply. Pure affect. Nudge nudge to the listenership, you know-I know.

    Yes, there is an urgent need to analyse and theorise the affect business. Sometimes, politically, we need stand-up comedians to do it – the immediate live social interaction of performer and audience, can hold the affect-phrase up the light and deconstruct it in front of people.

  2. Michael, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment – affect as the capacity to move and be moved is an important topic to discuss, and I think there are some in academia that take it seriously enough. I’m glad to see that this is also present with children’s literature, and I definitely need to learn more about it. As you say, affect is clearly being used by those who want to manipulate ‘us’, but there is still a lack of understanding of how to turn them to a more positive or progressive dimension. Unfortunately I did not find this dimension in Massumi’s book, but I will keep looking for works that attempt to do so.

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