by James Ash
The concept of affect will be familiar to many readers of Theory, Culture and Society. The term has gained prominence over at least the last ten years and is now widely used to theorise ‘general modes of influence, movement and change’ (Wetherell 2012: 2) both within the human body and mind, and between human and non-human objects. Seyfert (2012) calls these two different approaches to affect the ‘sociology of emotions’ approach and a broader ‘affect studies’ approach. The sociology of emotions considers affect as a preconscious or unconscious form of social feeling that operates on a non-discursive level within human bodies (Blackman 2012, Wetherell 2012). Here an affect might be a feeling of dread or joy, that is linked to particular social situations or events, such as a funeral, wedding or film. Affect studies considers affect more broadly as linked to all kinds of bodies, such as technical or non-human objects (Thrift 2004, Kinsley 2010, Adey, Brayer et al. 2013). Here rain can affect a plant in the sense that it enables the plant to grow, or a radio wave can affect a mobile phone antenna, allowing it to receive a signal. Within affect studies, affect is understood as being closer to an organised force that shapes the bodies it encounters, rather than a unique capacity of a human or animals nervous system.
Seyfert (2012) suggests that different theories of affect conceptualise where affects emerge from and how they travel in different ways. He identities three main ways to theorise the site and transmission of affect: ‘First, affects and emotions are located within an individual subject or body. Or, second, affects are collective or atmospheric forces that operate external to the body. Third, and finally, affects are the effects of the interactions between and encounters of individual bodies’ (2012: 28). In this short piece I want to reflect on the notion of affective transmission. By unpacking the differences, advantages and problems between the second and third theorisations of transmision Seyfert outlines, I clarify my own position on affect and how it might offer a productive way to understand technical objects and processes of affective design (Ash 2012). To be clear, this reflection is not an attempt to provide an accurate or complete overview or summary of the literature on affect, but more to offer some provocations and speculations to think affective transmission anew.
Perhaps the most common way that affective transmission is theorised is to say that, in fact, affect as such doesn’t travel at all. Here affect is considered to be inherently relational, or the outcome of an encounter. From a relational perspective, an affect only emerges when two bodies encounter one another. As such, there is no affect itself, either ‘in’ the body or ‘in’ the object, but only emerges through the encounter between the body and object. For example, as Paasonen (2011) argues, when viewing an image online, the affect the image can produce is not interior to the image or body of the viewer alone, but is emergent. Each person brings their own socio-historical biography to the image, which shapes the kind of affect that arises. From this perspective, objects or bodies contain a potential for affect that is only actualised in the moment they meet. This perspective emphasises the plurality and diversity of potential affects an object or body can generate because the affects that emerge from an encounter do not precede the encounter. In Paasonen’s case of online images, the advantage of this perspective is that it explains why different people can experience different affects while viewing the same image.
However, there are also some problems with strongly relational accounts of affect. By emphasising the encounter or relations between bodies and objects as key to the affect that emerges, these accounts play down the particularity of non-human objects and their capacities or properties that precede an encounter with a human body. In doing so it becomes difficult to explain why certain non-human objects produce more or less repeatable affects in human bodies (such as a jump scare in a horror film or videogame). Furthermore, the capacities or properties of an object seemingly become meaningless because the human being encountering the object is considered to be more important in creating or actualising an affect than the particularities of the object entering into that encounter. In this regard, relational or encounter based notions of affect can be anthropocentric, in the sense that affects only appear for and through the human bodies that enter into relations with either other humans or non-human things. As Anderson (2014: 10-11) argues, suggesting that affect is relational ‘has become automatic, a habit to be mastered and repeated….[But]…little more than the most basic starting point, it tells us nothing specific about different affects and what they do’.
To address Anderson’s point, affects themselves can be understood as forms of organised force that travel between objects (Blackman 2012). Different from a relational approach to transmission, affects can be considered as thoroughly material entities which resonate and move through environments via material milieus. From this perspective, an affect is tied to and shaped by the object that gives rise to it. For example, a speaker produces a specific type of sound wave depending on its material and technical specification, which then affects a wall or ear drum depending on its specificity (Ash 2014). Here the air becomes a material medium for the transmission of an affect. The advantage of this perspective is that it is ecological. It gives more agency to the object that produced the affect and allows us to understand how affects move through an environment without privileging the human body as a necessary site of encounter that is required in order for the affect to be actualised into something tangible (such as hair raising on the back of the neck or an experience of pain). However, the problem with this perspective is that it has more difficulty accounting for how the same object can generate different affects depending on what or who encounters that organisation of force.
Drawing upon work from object orientated ontology (Bryant 2011), speculative realism (Bryant, Srnicek et al. 2011) and new materialism (Bennett 2009), another way that affective transmission could be theorised is to suggest that affects are objects themselves, which are then transmitted through selective encounters, or perturbations , with other objects (see Ash 2013). In this model, objects are not substances with properties, but entities that never fully contact one another (Bogost 2012). To illustrate this point Harman (2011) gives the example of fire burning cotton. When fire burns cotton the cotton encounters the fires heat and is consumed by it, but never encounters the color of the flame, which remains out of contact with it. From this perspective, objects selectively encounter one another and it is partly the process of selection and partly the objects preexisting structure and capacities that determines what affect emerges through an encounter. In other words, affect is ‘coagulated’ or ‘retained’ in objects and as objects travel and encounter one another different affects can emerge depending on what qualities of an object encounter the other object.
The advantage of this theorisation of transmission is that it does not reduce affects to the outcome of a relation on the one hand or as a force that travels through an environment on the other. Instead, it recognises that affects are partly shaped by an objects structure and capacities that precede an encounter and are partly shaped by the particularity of an encounter, through which specific qualities selectively contact one another, which, in turn shape the kind of affect that emerges. This position is perhaps the least human centered account of affect out of the three discussed here. Different from the sociology of emotions or psychosocial understandings of affect, an account of affect as perturbation, suggests that affects exists in-spite of, or without the presence of human beings and can proliferate and emerge between non-human things.
In my own work, this theorisation of transmission as perturbation is helpful for thinking about how technical environments or objects are designed in an attempt to produce particular affects or responses from human beings. This position is helpful because it allows a researcher to consider both the object itself and how it was designed to try and produce a certain affect, but then also recognises the importance of the environment in which it is placed and how the selective encounter between object and body produces an affect that exceeds or confounds the designers of these technologies. In doing so one can attend to both human and non-human objects that are involved in any form of design without reducing affect to either the properties of the object, the socio-biography of the person using that object or the encounter alone.
James Ash is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University. His book The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2015.
Adey, P., L. Brayer, D. Masson, P. Murphy, P. Simpson and N. Tixier (2013), ‘‘Pour votre tranquillité’: Ambiance, atmosphere, and surveillance’, Geoforum, 49: 299-309.
Anderson, B. (2014), Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions Surrey: Ashgate
Ash, J. (2013), ‘Rethinking affective atmospheres: Technology, perturbation and space times of the non-human’, Geoforum, 49: 20-28.
Ash, J. (2014), ‘Technology and Affect: towards a theory of inorganically organised objects ‘, Emotion, Space and Society, DOI: 10.1016/j.emospa.2013.12.017
Bennett, J. (2009), Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press.
Blackman, L. (2012), Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation, London: Sage.
Bogost, I. (2012), Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s Like to be a Thing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bryant, L., N. Srnicek and G. Harman (2011), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Victoria: re.Press.
Bryant, L. R. (2011), The Democracy of Objects, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
Harman, G. (2011), The Quadruple Object, National Book Network.
Kinsley, S. (2010), ‘Representing ‘things to come’: feeling the visions of future technologies’, Environment and Planning A, 42: 2771-2790.
Paasonen, S. (2011), Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Thrift, N. (2004), ‘Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86: 57-78.
Wetherell, M. (2012), Affect and Emotion: a new social science understanding, London: Sage
Readers may also be interested in the following:
From the TCS Website:
an Interview with James Ash on Videogames, Attention and Affect
From the journals:
From the TCS Book Series:
Blackman, L. (2012), Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation, London: Sage.