Affect, Emotion, and Feeling

One of the difficulties we frequently encounter is defining the difference between affect, feeling, and emotion as distinct objects, as well as distinguishing between the unique attributes of each. If we read for emotion, for instance, it is usually something other than feeling or affect (and equally with the other two terms). In rhetorical studies, a key starting point is Aristotle’s formulation of pathos, which is commonly understood as the appeal to emotions. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II Chapters 1-11 describes the particular disposition of audience and the way that this audience may be impelled to feeling in particular ways. Far from inducing an emotional response from the audience, Aristotle’s pathos refers to the way that a speaker may use the available means of persuasion as it is already present in a given audience, and how that audience can be brought toward reason through a manufactured sympathetic relation between the speaker and their audience’s emotional status quo. Teresa Brennan offers a sweeping history of affect, connecting Aristotelian pathos to its modern variants:

The term "affect" is one translation of the Latin affectus, which can be translated as "passion" or "emotion." As AmeIie Rorty has shown, there are historical changes in the taxonomies of the key emotions, affects, desires, and passions (terms that are used synonymously in varying translations from Greek and Latin up until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when "passion" became reserved for sex and heartfelt commitment, and "desire" was separated from "affect").' But the same terms - love, lust, hate, anger, envy, shame (or guilt) - continue in evidence from ancient times to the present; they are found in ancient Greek taxonomies of the emotions, before that in Egyptian and Hebrew tabulations of demons, and continue through to Freud and after. The first philosophical text of the subject, Aristotle's Rhetoric, organized the affects in terms of "anger and mildness, love and hatred, fear and confidence, shame and esteem, kindness and unkindness, pity and indignation, envy and emulation.
Present definitions of the affects or emotions stem mainly from Darwin's physiological account of the emotions and something called the William James-Carl Lange theory. The James-Lange theory ... essentially dictates that bodily responses give rise to affective states. This view is popularly rendered by examples such as "crying make us sad," although for William James the issue was far more nuanced. Nonetheless, the primacy he gave to bodily changes was anticipated in Descartes's belief that emotions are passive perceptions of bodily·motions. Decartes's belief inclines us toward isolating motions that can be verified by another observer, and this is reinforced by modern psychology. ... The predilection for the readily discernable physiological change is accompanied by reducing complex human motivation to the drives of hunger, love-sex, aggression, fear, and self-preservation. (The Transmission of Affect, 4)

Some scholars ground the theory of affect with Benedict de (also Baruch) Spinoza’s Ethics and its uptake by Gilles Deleuze. Both associate the notion of affect with corporeality or the body. As Matthew May has written, “[for] Spinoza, to communicate is to affect and be affected by other bodies. Bodies that communicate a common motion compose an aggregate body which may itself be part of a larger composition.” (204) Part and parcel of this theory of affect is its peculiar temporality, which appears in a few different forms. May, citing both Gilles Deleuze and A. Kiarina Kordella, also suggests that affect operates according to “a material process of immanent causality,” or a temporal sequence in which the affective cause to some emotional effect can only be encountered belatedly, or after the fact. (205) According to Brian Massumi, affect describes a domain of ongoing experience that is logically prior to its capture as a discernible emotion:

Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them. ... Formed, qualified, situated perceptions and cognitions fulfilling functions of actual connection or blockage are the capture and closure of affect. Emotion is the most intense (most contracted) expression of that capture - and of the fact that something has always and again escaped. Something remains unactualized, inseparable from but unassimilable to any particular, functionally anchored perspective. (The Autonomy of Affect, 96)

Although Spinozan/Deleuzian affective temporality is not cited universally, scholars are generally at pains to distinguish affect from emotion in their research. According to Climate Communication researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, for instance, affect is a person’s good or bad, positive or negative feelings about specific objects, ideas or images, and emotions are specific expression of those feelings, such as anger or fear. (46-7) In such qualitative/quantitative research, affect is used to describe how positive/negative perceptions influence information seeking/avoidance behaviors, particularly as regards high-risk (climatic) events. Suffice it to say that the distinction between affect, feeling, and emotion can be slippery and that it is incumbent on the critic (as always) to define their terms. Here are two additional terminological schemes for distinguishing affect/feeling/emotion terms:

  1. Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory: Emotion After the “Death of the Subject,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4-5.
  • Emotion: a psychological, at least minimally interpretive experience.
  • Affect: The physiological aspect of the interpretive emotion.
  • Feeling: Connotes BOTH physiological sensations (affect) and psychological states (emotion)  Emphasizes the common ground of the physiological/psychological.

Emotion                                     Feeling                                             Affect

(Psychological)--------------(Common Ground)------------------(Physiological)

2. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

The transmission of affect, whether it is grief, anxiety, or anger, is social or psychological in origin. But the transmission is also responsible for bodily changes; some are brief changes, as in a whiff of the room's atmosphere, some longer lasting. In other words, the transmission of affect, if only for an instant, alters the biochemistry and neurology of the subject. The "atmosphere" or the environment literally gets into the individual. Physically and biologically, something is present that was not there before, but it did not originate sui generis: it was not generated solely or sometimes even in part by the individual organism or its genes. (1)

[F]eelings are not the same thing as affects. Putting it simply, when I feel angry, I feel the passage of anger through me. What I feel with [affect] and what I feel [feeling] are distinct. (5)

  • Affect is “a physiological, material thing,” and “have an energetic dimension, [which] is why they can enhance or deplete.” It is defined as “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment.” (5-6)
  • Feelings “etymologically [refer] to the proprioceptive capacities of any living organism its own (proprius) system of reception,” and are defined as “sensations that have found the right match in words.” (5)

According to Brennan, “there is no reason to challenge the idea that emotions are basically synonymous with affects (if more an evidently physiological subset), or that moods and sentiments are subsets referring to longer-lasting affective constellations.” (6) Additionally, “the idea of transmitted affects undermines the dichotomy between the individual and the environment and the related opposition between the biological and the social.” (7)

[The] transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the individual and the "environment." ... If I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an "impression" (a word that means what it says). On the other hand, if I am not aware that there are affects in the air, I may hold myself solely responsible for them and, in this case, ferret around for an explanation in my recent personal history. Thus, the content one person gives to the affect of anger or depression or anxiety may be very different from the content given to the same affect by another. If I pick up on your depression, my focus perhaps will be on my unfinished book. Yours, more seriously, may be on the loss of a loved person. I may be somewhat startled, if I reflect on it, to find such depression on my part in relation to my unfinished book, which may be a bit depressing to have undone but which should not feel like death. It should not demand such a strong affective response. The point is that, even if I am picking up on your affect, the linguistic and visual content, meaning the thoughts I attach to that affect, remain my own: they remain the product of the particular historical conjunction of words and experiences I represent. The thoughts are not necessarily tied to the affects they appear to evoke. One may as well say that the affects evoke the thoughts. (6-7)

Part 1: Emotion and Anger

  • Sara Ahmed, “Introduction: Feel Your Way” and “The Affective Politics of Fear” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 1-19; 62-81.
  • Celeste M. Condit, “Emotions as Distributions of Fuzzy Complexes,” in Angry Public Rhetorics: Global Relations and Emotion in the Wake of 9/11, 43-70.
  • Emily Winderman, “S(anger) goes Postal in The Woman Rebel: Angry Rhetoric as a Collectivizing Moral Emotion,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 17 (2014): 381-420.

Ahmed, Condit, and Winderman all establish a definition of emotion. Emotion, as Atilla notes above, is distinctive in our psychological awareness of it. All three authors begin by acknowledging that emotion is a historically underlooked area of rhetorical research. Its distinct subjectivity has prevented scholars from creating a rigorous theoretical framework. In response each author points out that emotions are rhetorical acts that change our behaviors, create or isolate groups, and spur social change. Ahmed explicitly does not attempt to define emotion, but instead look at “What they do.” Condit establishes emotions as distributions of fuzzy complexes, by looking at them through multiple lenses, she crafts a detailed theory of social collective and individual emotions. Finally, Winderman, citing both Ahmed and Condit, uses her theory of textual anger to explain how emotion becomes one of the most important facets of a text. Overall, the texts center emotions as a pivotal area of research in rhetorical theory.

Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion

The Ahmed reading occurs in two parts. An introduction and an explanation of how fear establishes and redraws boundaries. The introduction begins with a discussion of xenophobic British propoganda. Immigrants and “bogus asylum seekers”, the propaganda suggests, are seeking the “Soft touch” of Britain. To Ahmed, this statement belies the ways in which the propaganda uses emotion to “shape the surfaces of individual and collective ‘bodies.’”(p. 1) Here, the propaganda leverages the immigrants as other through the use of anger. Implicitly, anger draws the boundary between the citizen and the alien. Moreover the language constructs a nation that is itself soft, feminine, and emotional.

From this construction of the emotional character of Britain, Ahmed points out that emotion has always been both primitive and secondary to thought and reason. Further, some emotions become more cultured than others (serenity v. rage, for example). With this in mind she proposes the major thesis of her book: Emotions are not just embodied. Instead, they make and shape the boundaries that both bind and separate individuals and collective groups. As she says, “I will track how emotions circulate between bodies, examining how they ‘stick’ as well as move.” (p.4) To Ahmed, emotions are culturally constructed from a series of past impressions. These impressions are sticky and move between similar objects.

Further, Ahmed acknowledges that while there may be some form of “dumb” instinctual emotions, emotions do not just exist in an object (i.e. a bear is fearsome) or in a person (I am afraid of bears) but the contact between the object and person. They are neither imposed outside-in as they are  crowd psychology, or projected from the inside-out as an actor might do in a play. Instead she argues, “...emotions are not ‘in’ either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow all kinds of objects to be delineated.”(p.10) This implies emotions are not social and/or individual, instead they help construct the individual and the collective.

Finally, Ahmed defines her methodology around texts. As objects texts work to generate emotional effects. For example, to say the “Nation mourns” is to establish the nation “as if it were a mourning subject.”(p.13) In doing so, texts transform objects into objects of feeling then distribute and move emotion around bodies and in doing so reveal the boundaries that emotions create. “The affective politics of fear” serves as an application of Ahmed's theory to a specific emotion: Fear. She begins with a story from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, where a white child fears the narrator, a  black man. The child’s fear is so great that he asks his mother to save him from being eaten. Simultaneously, the narrator becomes encased in fear, which establishes the relationship between the bodies. As the narrator watches the child, he feels fear as coldness. As he shivers, the child perceives rage and becomes more afraid.(p.63-64) Ahmed reiterates that this fear is rooted in both bodies past experiences, that fear is related to proximity—when the fearsome object approaches we use fear to push away—and that the boundaries of fear represent perceived dangers to life and limb, which then become used to justify violence (e.g. homophobia, islamophobia). This threat to life becomes “... an ‘affective politics’, which ‘preserves’ only through announcing a threat to life itself.”(p.64)

Next, Ahmed discusses the relationships between fear and containment. Fear projects itself into the present from the future based on past reminders. The fearsome object is something coming nearer, the bear will get here, so the fear is here now. Additionally, fear can be displaced. Perhaps the fear of bears is really a substitution for a more psychological fear, that of the father. In this instance, one could avoid a bear and process fear, but will never overcome the initial fear of the father. It follows then that caging a bear, making sure that it can pass by, but not arrive becomes an optimal strategy. WIth Fanon’s story in mind, the boy fears the narrator so he runs, cementing a boundary and increasing the distance. The boy also turns toward his mother, an object of love, reminding him of the importance of both their lives, and encloses their bodies, reaffirming a relationship. In this sense, while we fear what we cannot contain, we may also contain that which cannot be. (p.68)

Third, Ahmed turn her analysis to the spatial effects of fear. Social spaces, inhospitable to some bodies, create spaces that force those bodies to self isolate, shrink, and withdraw. For example, feminist approaches to fear explain that fear is the response to the threat of violence in public spaces. In constructing an uneven distribution of fear, hegemonic forces restrict the movements of specific bodies and shape the surfaces of both public and private space. Ahmed then asks, which bodies are granted the freedom to move, and which bodies become read as the origin of fear?

To answer this, Ahmed looks at fear as a form of control. It creates “...a distinction between those who are ‘under threat’ and those who threaten.” (p. 72) She explains the global economy of fear through terrorism. After the September 11th attacks, US citizens were asked not to fear. In doing so, fear does not isolate Americans but instead acts to contain terror. Americans turned away from the Middle East and towards ideals of exceptionalism, symbols of colonization,  (like the flag) and the mobilization of American troops through the Middle East. Feeling insecure became an impetus to secure one’s self. As a result, fear was used to literally and figuratively detain bodies that are read as associated with terrorism. It motivated the British right to create propaganda suggesting that it could not have a soft-touch when approaching asylum speakers which resulted in deaths.

Celeste Condit’s Angry Public Rhetorics

Condit turns her attention towards anger. After explaining how the Ifaluk culture thinks that anger serves a social function of punishment and not an individual function of retribution. She posits multiple questions in the study of emotion. How can emotions be both psychological and sociological? Are emotions universal? And as a result, should we think of emotion originating in the individual or the collective?  Condit’s answers take the form of “Yes, and...” Her essay enumerates the different ways in which scholars approach emotion, both humanistic and scientific, then proposes a succinct solution: emotions are best thought of as fuzzy complexes of elements, be they brain circuits, symbols, affects, or results. Everyone is almost right.

First Condit tackles our understanding of core emotions, or emotions that seem to transcend cultural boundaries. Scientific studies of these cores seem to imply that there is a cross cultural understanding of anger, fear, sadness, surprise, and disgust. Condit responds by pointing out that though there is cultural agreement, there is no individual agreement and that the variability between people implies that core emotions are more like dense interrelated clouds. While each cloud may have a center, it is impossible to locate where one ends and another begins. She further brings in more science to support her point.  Core emotions are not single circuits in the brain, rather they’re a collection of related components, relatively consistent, but still unique to each person.

Condit then enumerates four components of emotion:

  1. Appraisal cues - individually perceived and symbolically explained elements of emotion. “Fear is the passing by of an object. An object is passing me by so I am afraid.”
  2. Subjective experiences - each person feels differently about emotion. “I like to be angry”
  3. Neurophysiological Activations - emotions are embodied states with specific physiological responses. “Fear makes my heart race.”
  4. Action Tendencies -  emotions are associated with specific actions and results. “Shame makes us shrink.”

In every case, emotions are what Condit calls “Fuzzy Complexes.”  Every cue is close, but slightly different, moreover understanding an emotion through appraisal cues is text specific (as we will see in Winderman.) A subjective experience does not exist in isolation of all others. Our physiology is so unique that we cannot equate our bodies to one another, and shame results in both shrinking and lashing out. In a way, every model is incomplete without the others. Condit returns to her metaphor of clouds:

These overlaps mean that a multidimensional depiction of emotions as complexes formed of partially overlapping components would not produce a picture of discrete clumps, like isolated cumulus clouds on a fair summer day, but rather one of those very interesting cloudscapes where a fountain from a massive cumulonimbus spikes through some dense, high cirrus at one edge of the sky, while fading into low- level streaks of stratus at the other horizon. (p.60)

This theory of clouds not only connects emotions to one another, but neurophysiology to subjectivity.

Finally, Condit returns to address how this theory explains emotions as both social and personal. While public emotions like grief or fear, can help powerful groups remain in control. Anger can unite the disenfranchised. Conversely, these group emotions are frequently stirred by singular figures. Public emotion, Condit points out, is not just socio-individual. “The binary should be expanded to a trio: individual bodies house socialized emotions that are transformed on occasion into collective emotions (each level is recursive with the others)”(p.68.) The fuzzy nature of emotions means that  they are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Moving, pushing, and existing ineffably.

  • Individual- The emotion I feel.
  • Socialized- how we are taught to feel emotions
  • Collective-how we mobilize to create emotions.

Emily Winderman’s “S(anger) goes Postal in The Woman Rebel: Angry Rhetoric as a Collectivizing Moral Emotion”

Winderman, like Condit and Ahmed, points out that emotion is a frequently underlooked area of study. She pushes further and argues that texts which are deemed emotional are frequently overlooked. Winderman pushes back on this assumption, presenting Margaret Sanger’s magazine Woman Rebel, as a frequently dismissed angry text which launched Sanger’s career and re-established public acceptability for contraception and helped establish a collective oriented by anger.

Contextually, The Woman Rebel is a newspaper publication deemed “unmailable” by the Comstock Act of 1873 because it contained obscene information about contraception. The law forbid the dissemination of such information. Sanger took deep issue with the availability of contraception to upper and middle class women, while poorer women were presented with motherhood as a moral imperative to feed the need for workers.  Previous scholarship on the paper dismissed it because of its anger, calling it shrewd, belligerent, and lacking intellectual depth. Winderman pushes back. Anger was the rhetoric that shaped and defined morality, membership within the polis, and the functions of the state.

Methodologically, Winderman centers her analysis around text. Like Ahmed, she sees these works as transmitters of emotions, which stick to audiences and mobilize public action. In doing so, she establishes ways in which we might read anger from a text. Capitalized letter, obtuse sarcasm, the repetition of specific figures all make The Woman Rebel emotive and intensely angry.

Winderman, borrowing from Ahmed points out that Sanger uses anger to establish boundaries and reframe relationships between women and “moral” institutions (e.g. the state and church) as oppositional and parasitic. The new boundaries between body and parasite encouraged women to remove the state  from their lives (p.396).

This push also further cemented what constituted a Rebel Woman. The paper frequently sought women who were also angry at institutions and feminists of the upper and middle classes. In collectivizing anger, The Woman Rebel broke down boundaries between specific women, those who would most benefit from knowledge of contraception who were also angry at the state.

Finally, Sanger used incredulity to call into question the dominant moral code. Sanger pointed out that calling contraception indecent was a tool to oppress working class women. Further, the best solution was to reframe decency as anything that liberated these women. This in turn redirected their moral compass.

With this in mind, Winderman explains that though critics have always overlooked The Woman Rebel because of its anger, or suggested that it succeeded in spite of its emotional content, in actuality the anger that the paper expressed was one of the reasons Sanger became successful. IN fact “anger’s circulation in The Woman Rebel formed a chain of economic, civic, and cultural demands that coalesced around contraception, cementing Margaret Sanger as the public agent of change.” (p.409.) She ends by suggesting that reading  texts in terms of how emotions adhere and transfer between them is an unexplored and powerful methodology to understand how publics are defined by emotion.

Connecting the Readings

All three readings offer different applications of emotional theories. Importantly, they draw attention to the ways in which emotion has been historically overlooked. This is likely due to its intersubjectivity. Notably, even Condit defines emotion by its ephemerality. In this sense, Ahmed, Winderman, and to a slightly lesser extent Condit, focus on the results of emotion.

Ahmed and Winderman make texts central to their argument. To them, the emotionality found in texts provides a clear object of study that can echo forward as an object of analysis.

Rather than thinking of rhetoric as the available logical means of persuasion and extending that theory across their analysis, they think of emotions as a means of both persuasion and creation. Emotion works to define the boundaries between rich and poor, black and white, public and private.

Simultaneously, as Condit points out the fuzzy nature of emotions blur lines as well. The individual and the social, angry and fearful, physiological and subjective, are all categories that bleed together under strict scrutiny. Ahmed in particular notes that these connections are equally important to understanding emotions effect on identity. Just as they draw lines between inside and outside, they equate terrorists and refugees.

Notably, all of the authors focus on some form of negative emotion, but do not identify its negativity as a fault. Instead, it seems that as negative emotions are used as ideological tools of control and subjugation, as Condit and Ahmed suggest, they are equally likely to be co opted by marginalized groups to collectivize and fight against power structures.

The underlooked nature of emotion in previous scholarship combined with its fleeting natures then makes it incredibly versatile in modern research. Every reading suggests that this research is as much a methodological development as it is an application of that methodology.

Centering Rhetoric

These readings focus on considering emotion as a rhetorical force. Winderman is perhaps the most explicit in her explanation of “Angry Rhetoric” through, “...a reading strategy of emotional adherence that attends to the circulation of emotions as a diffuse economy of rhetorical forces.”(p. 385) This closely mirrors Ahmed's economy of fear specifically, in which fear as a rhetorical force (my words) is a reality defining force that constructs identity, coalesces into institutions, and enacts violence upon those outside them.

In contrast, Condit considers both social and individual expressions of emotion as a subset of the larger body of public rhetoric. In her work, emotion is central to understanding the ways in which public emotion organically emerges and shapes discourse, but true to her writings, she does not define what is or is not rhetorical. Instead, I believe that outlining the fuzzy clouds of emotions is a way of blurring their rhetoricity. In making the rhetoric of emotions fuzzier, she gives it more power to tackle how emotions transform in discourse.

Finally, Ahmed never mentions rhetoric in the readings. I would suggest that for our purposes of understanding rhetoric as reality defining and identity forming, we can take Ahmed’s definition of emotion to present emotion as a rhetorical force. Ahmed gives us the tools to think of rhetoric as a property of ineffable emotions and as a force that sticks to people and objects and reverberates through our personal histories.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is emotion, and why is it rhetorical? How do we know it when we see it?
  • What does Ahmed mean by thinking of fear as an economy?
  • What role can empirical data play in emotional or even humanistic research?
  • In what ways do positive emotions create boundaries and control public space?

Additional Readings:

  • Rouse, Christopher. Flute concerto. New York: Hendon Music, 2001.
  • Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In The Affect Theory Reader, by Sara Ahmed, Brian Massumi, Elspeth Probyn, and Lauren Berlant, 52–70. edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke University Press, 2009.
  • Landau, Jamie, and Bethany Keeley-Jonker. “Conductor of Public Feelings: An Affective-Emotional Rhetorical Analysis of Obama’s National Eulogy in Tucson.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 104, no. 2 (April 3, 2018): 166–88.

Part 2: Feeling / Sensing

  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Introduction” and “Interlude, Pedagogic” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 1-34.
  • Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” in Cultural Studies and  Political Theory, 42-62.
  • Debra Hawhee, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 101 (2015): 2-17.

Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee each articulate rhetoric’s connection to sensing and feeling. In making this connection, they encourage scholars to understand how sensation and feeling might promote new modes of rhetorical criticism and thinking that avoid dualistic structures. Yet they also point to the ways in which political institutions have rhetorically mobilized feeling to reassert power over oppressed groups. Overall, the main contribution Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee offer to rhetorical studies is the potential for sensation and feeling to promote different ways of understanding performativity, politics, and subjective experience.

Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics”

In this chapter, Berlant’s main focus is to understand the ways that feelings of pain are mobilized rhetorically for political gain. She argues that positioning pain as an objective, universal feeling, one that motivates political response, is counterproductive in that it does not adequately address social injustice. While expressing the pain that others feel can lead to awareness and action in some cases, it mostly fails to address structural injustices.

Berlant opens the chapter by describing the concept of national sentimentality, which holds that nations are best created “across fields of social difference through channels of affective identification and empathy” (p. 44). Sentimentality is related to two models of U.S. citizenship, but Berlant focuses mainly on the second. This model is rooted in abolitionist and feminist movements that worked to “establish the enslaved Other as someone with subjectivity” by emphasizing the violence and suffering that minority groups endured (p. 44). Berlant argues that sentimentality is used rhetorically to present pain as the “true core of personhood and political collectivity” (p. 45). When those who are privileged are exposed to the pain of the Other, it requires that they feel this pain as their own -- ideally, they will respond by attempting to get rid of these painful feelings. Berlant explains that in this ideal situation, identifying with the pain of minority groups would lead to genuine social change, and in turn, these groups would reinforce pain as a universal element of citizenship.

However, as Berlant points out, the political institutions meant to protect minority groups do not always fulfill this role. Additionally, using pain to challenge hegemony may only end up reifying the value of a homogenous national culture that erases difference. Berlant also claims that in seeing the elimination of pain as a mark of accomplishing social justice, we confuse “pleasure with freedom, or the sense that changes in feeling, even on a mass scale, amount to substantial social change” (p. 45). In this way, sentimentality works rhetorically to further advance rather than confront political power. The ethical dimensions of this process are the focus of a few of Berlant’s guiding questions:

Finally, what happens to questions of managing alterity or difference or resources in collective life when feeling bad becomes evidence for a structural condition of injustice? What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation when feeling good becomes evidence of justice's triumph? (46)

Overall, Berlant is concerned with how “rhetorics of utopian/traumatized feeling” impact our understandings of politics, citizenship, power, and the nature of “publicness” (48).

Berlant refers to the history of Constitutional law in regulating sexual protections as an example of the way that sentimentality is enacted. Whereas sexuality in marriage was once expressed as a “noble” and “sacred” matter in Griswold v. Connecticut, later decisions articulated women’s private sexual trauma and pain as support for the Supreme Court’s, and in turn, the national government’s own public power. As Berlant discusses, this was the case with Planned Parenthood v. Casey in which the Supreme Court’s decision upheld the right to abortion via Roe v. Wade while also placing further restrictions on that right. Moreover, the Court’s majority supports their opinion by referencing the “intimate” and painful violence that women have endured. In this way, women have become politically legitimate citizens via the State’s interference and control in their private matters -- Berlant writes that the “general scene of public citizenship in the United States has become suffused with a practice of making pain count politically” (55).

From this example, Berlant questions how groups of activists have navigated the “politics of trauma” in advocating for the law’s recognition of subaltern groups (55). In these critical legal approaches, pain and trauma function rhetorically as a way of making groups publicly “readable” and understandable to others in different social hierarchies, while also further removing them from the “universal” protections of the law and the State (p. 56). Berlant explains that those advocating for minority groups often mistakenly identify general subjectivity with legal subjectivity. In doing so, they assume that the law, with its penchant for taxonomizing and categorizing, will recognize groups and ways of life that do not fit within legal “categories of power, cause, and effect” (58). If the law mainly understands individuals through their pain and trauma and attempts to uncover where and how the trauma began (the causes), subaltern groups are only accessed through these legal lenses of pain. As a result, everyday structural injustices are masked, and pain is seen as a way to access “the good life,” one that is without pain (58). Legal subjectivity is organized in a way that rhetorically manipulates expressions of pain in an effort to perpetuate the subordination of certain groups.

In concluding this chapter, Berlant reiterates how the nation offers oppressed groups the “promise” of removing their pain while also requiring that their pain be made public in order to achieve this promise (59). But as she points out, “thinking that the good life will be achieved when there is no more pain [...] does nothing to alter the hegemonic structures of normativity and mourning” (59). Berlant argues that sentimentality is flawed because it represents the inability of the political system to address injustice. In response, she encourages us to question the role of feeling and to consider the role of the impersonal as well as the personal in securing fair recognition and treatment for those who are oppressed.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling

In the introduction to Touching Feeling, Sedgwick explores how we might begin the difficult task of rejecting dualistic thinking that is widespread in structural and poststructural theory. She argues that theorists who have applied Austin’s work on performativity to analyzing discourse only end up reinforcing dualities and essentialist modes of thinking. To move beyond dualism, Sedgwick suggests that we understand performative experiences outside of linguistic perspectives. Texture and affect offer opportunities for us to do so by drawing attention to the various histories, materialities, and psychologies that comprise and motivate our experiences.

Sedgwick’s work is grounded in Austin’s concept of performative utterances. She explains how performativity has been taken up outside of linguistic projects. Many theorists use performativity from an epistemological standpoint, and as a critique of essentialism. Austin’s work emphasizes the “productive” nature of language in constructing reality, rather than simply describing it (5). Theorists adhering to deconstruction and gender theory apply these assumptions more broadly to discourse and language as a whole (not just specific utterances). Sedgwick’s aim is to attend to the variety of meanings that exist outside of and in relationship to linguistic or linguistic frames of analysis in these approaches, as well as how performativity is related to theatricality. This concern for relationships and connections rather than stark dualities is represented by Sedgwick’s focus on the term beside, which references how things exist spatially “alongside” one another (8).

In response to previous critical work, Sedgwick turns to texture and affect as a way of pushing past dualism. She refers to Bora’s description of texture, which claims that perceiving texture “is always, immediately, and de facto to be immersed in a field of active narrative hypothesizing, testing, and reunderstanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time” (13). Texture involves discerning not just what an object is like, but how it was handled or could be handled. Sedgwick maintains that touch as a sense pushes against dualistic thinking by recognizing the way that others have engaged in creating texture. She also pulls from Bora’s distinction of “texxture” -- as evidence of the history and materiality of an object -- and texture -- as a way of blocking information about an object’s history and materiality. Perceiving texture also, according to Bora, involves more than touch; we may see and hear texture.

According to Sedgwick, focusing on texture allows us a way to move from epistemological into phenomenological conceptions of performativity and performance, and in turn, a way to push past dualistic thinking. Epistemology positions performativity and performance as a way of knowing, but phenomenology asks about the motivations behind performance as well as its effects. Pointing to the connection between texture and emotions, Sedgwick uses Tomkins to stress the importance of affect over the concept of drive -- drive is much more narrowly constrained by certain aims, by time, and by associated objects. Affect has more freedom in terms of aim, time, and objects -- affects can be connected to one another and to a host of objects. For example, individuals might associate positive affect with pain, and this pain might serve as motivation behind certain actions. And, affect, at least positive affects, can be fulfilling in and of themselves. Sedgwick refers to Tomkins’s example of sexuality as an affective drive that has the potential to be rewarding by itself. Furthermore, Tomkins explains that motivation is governed by affect and not by an individual’s drive.

In discussing affect and drive, Sedgwick argues that texture and affect, as well as touching and feeling, are each connected to phenomenology as ways of experiencing and perceiving the world. Thinking of texture/affect or touching/feeling in this way means that the focus shifts to “psychology and materiality” and that we leave behind the structural and “commonsensical dualities of subject versus object or means versus ends” (21). Texture and affect move our attention to the ways in which we experience the world (through touching and feeling) and what motivates these experiences. Instead of asking about how we can or cannot come to know essential truths through performance, Sedgwick encourages us to consider how we experience performative phenomena via our consciousness rather than how we might categorize or taxonomize our relationships to these phenomena.

Debra Hawhee, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium”

Hawhee’s goal is to examine how sensation has been discussed throughout the history of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, as well as offering insight into the future of scholarship on sensation in rhetorical studies. She traces the ways in which scholars have articulated connections between sensation and rhetoric -- initially as a focus on the physiological, later as a challenge to epistemic rhetoric, and most recently concerned with sensation through various sensory modes.

Hawhee begins by addressing an early article by Judson and Rodden that appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech nearly 80 years ago. Within Judson and Rodden’s article, Hawhee draws attention to a chart that references the importance of the senses and perceptive experiences in the exchange between speakers and audiences. Before beginning to sketch how the senses emerged in past work, Hawhee explores the concept of the sensorium. She describes its function in “conjoining” sensation and bodily response, writing that the sensorium is the “corporeal limn that guides sensory perception” (p. 5). This perception ultimately leads to an understanding of the sensorium as a “locus of feeling” (p. 5). Although sensation is typically thought of in its bodily connections, Hawhee points out that this point of feeling is not always confined by the body.

Turning her attention to early years of work on sensation, Hawhee explores how important the senses were to those establishing public speaking as an academic discipline. An early report by the Research Committee of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking demonstrates the significance of the perceptive power of the senses in forming impressions and expressions. Hawhee writes that “the senses were thought to guide thoughts and feelings as much as they guide the expression of those thoughts and feelings” (p. 6). Work by Woolbert and Blanton emphasizes the scientific and philosophical grounding for public speaking as a discipline, but as Hawhee demonstrates, both scholars highlight the significance and complexity of sensation. In discussing the sensation of sound, Woolbert positions sensing as the main concern of public speaking. Blanton’s description of a watch reveals how the senses are interconnected both with one another and with the situation. As Hawhee writes, “the sensorium can never be unmoored from its location; its moment matters a great deal” (p. 7). However, in contrast to Woolbert and Blanton, Gunnison argues for oratory as the art of engaging with the imagination in order to understand the “meeting point” of speakers and audiences (9).

Looking to sensation’s appearance in the journal from the mid-century onwards, Hawhee explains how the rise of rhetorical criticism and the popularity of Kenneth Burke led scholars to articulate sensation as secondary to rhetoric as a way of knowing. Sensation by itself was “meaningless,” as Brummett stated (p. 10). Hawhee then details the rise of philosophical aesthetics as seen in Poulakos and Whitson’s work, which responded to rhetorical epistemology by maintaining that scholars return to rhetoric as sensation and art rather than as a (or the) way of knowing. Additionally, Hawhee synthesizes work on film and radio as objects of sensation that may be related to aesthetics. As she describes, the inclusion of film, radio, and other media into rhetorical studies points us towards the significance of “multi-sensory” frameworks (p. 11). For example, Hawhee highlights Foss and Foss’s rejection of vision as a primary sense. They argue for a “feminine style” of communication that incorporates the sensorium -- all senses -- as modes of “direct experience” and “participatory involvement” in our environments (p. 11). Hawhee turns her attention towards newer modes of sensing via digital and digitally social environments, claiming that scholars need to develop sound theories of the sensorium to accommodate new shifts.

Hawhee ends by asking three significant questions: how we might define sensation differently than affect, how sensation is a part of rhetorical processes, and how scholars can write about sensation “without positing an individual as opposed to a collective, or of thinking in terms of communal sensation, without presuming sameness?” (p. 12). She suggests that we move past divisions between emotion and affect by focusing on the notion of “public feeling,” or how we understand feelings through contact with the public and social, as a path for theorizing sensation (p.13). Hawhee encourages scholars to reject epistemic rhetoric’s insistence on knowing and meaning, and instead to attend to the ways that “political, bodily, technological, and sensory” connections to rhetoric are conjoined and recursive (p. 13).  

Connections to the Readings

First, Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee engage directly with some readings and conversations from earlier in the semester. In Touching Feeling, Sedgwick grounds her work in Austin’s concept of performative speech acts by connecting performativity more broadly to texture and affect. This allows her to bypass the epistemological constraints of earlier theorists. Additionally, Hawhee explicitly mentions, and Sedgwick alludes to, the epistemological debate surrounding rhetoric that Scott, Condit, and Farrell engage with. Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee would challenge scholars who view rhetoric as a way of knowing, and instead claim that rhetoric is a way of feeling. Hawhee references the “rhetoric as epistemic” debate for the way it privileged rhetoric instead of sensation as “a -- if not the -- way of knowing” (10). Finally, Berlant’s work on pain and oppressed groups recalls Alcoff’s claims about speaking for others.

As Alcoff questions the ethical and moral implications of speaking (or not speaking) for others, Berlant extends this to ask about how we speak about the pain that others experience. She asserts that advocating for those who are oppressed by focusing on pain or trauma may end up furthering oppressive conditions.  Themes from Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee also intertwine with this week’s readings on emotion, feeling, and affect.

In her chapter “The Contingency of Pain”, Ahmed engages with many of the same issues that Berlant does, specifically in the section titled, “The Politics of Pain.” Ahmed, like Berlant, asks how pain is used in problematic ways. She asks, “Isn’t there a danger of ‘flattening’ out the differences in pain experience, or turning the sociality of pain into a new form of universalism?” (31). This is exactly what Berlant spends the duration of her chapter arguing -- pain is used politically by the State to “flatten” or erase differences in feeling in order to reassert its own power. Related to this discussion of pain, Hawhee also cautions against the “flattening” of sensation in asking how we might grapple with viewing sensation “without presuming sameness” (12). Doing so might remove the subjective experiences we encounter through sensing and feeling.

The central claims behind Berlant’s work on pain is also brought into question in Winderman’s article on anger and The Woman Rebel. Winderman writes about anger rather than pain, claiming that anger functions rhetorically as a “collectivizing moral emotion.” In Winderman’s reading of The Woman Rebel, anger obtains a somewhat positive outcome by creating unifying identities for oppressed groups who wield moral force. From here, we might question how Winderman’s work might be a challenge or addendum to Berlant’s claims about the way pain is mobilized rhetorically not as empowerment, but as subordination of certain groups. In other words, does pain exert rhetorical and moral force?

Centering Rhetoric

Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee each refer to the potential of rhetoric to engage with the senses and with sensual experience. In some ways, I see this as a de-centering of rhetoric rather than a centering -- these discussions push us away from convention and towards different opportunities for understanding rhetoric. This is seen most clearly in Sedgwick and Hawhee’s work as they both explore sensation as an opportunity to expand on or move beyond traditional conceptions of rhetoric. Rhetoric’s focus is recast as experience via sensing, and the social and public interactions of those sensual experiences. In this way, it opens up new spaces for understanding rhetoric’s purpose and how it’s enacted. As Hawhee looks at the span of literature on sensation in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, she contends that the “epistemic approach to rhetoric has run its course; rhetoric is not, or not only, a means of knowing and needn’t be so attached to meaning” (13). Hawhee urges scholars to consider the rhetorical role of feeling -- of sensation and/or emotion -- as it is experienced bodily and publicly. Similarly, Sedgwick’s whole project in Touching Feeling is to promote nondualistic thinking by breaking with epistemological and anti-essentialist criticism. Like Hawhee, she points to the ways that epistemological approaches privilege the linguistic and are preoccupied with essential truth. Sedgwick pushes for scholars to engage with texture and affect (touching and feeling) as a means for escaping duality. Texture and affect allow us to ground our work in experiences rather than in structures of meaning/truth.

At first glance, Berlant’s work does not clearly seem to open up spaces for the potential of sensual rhetorical experiences. However, Berlant does point out the potential for sensual/emotional experiences to be rhetorically and politically manipulated, specifically when the pain of oppressed groups is involved. Rhetoric is connected feeling and emotion, but feeling and emotion are used by political institutions to reassert power, not to address injustices. Berlant reflects on the ways that legal advocates for oppressed groups misunderstand the way pain is used, stating that the “different stories of trauma wielded in the name of a population’s political suffering not only tended to confirm the state and its law as the core sites of personhood, but also provided opportunities to further isolate dominated populations” (62). Her arguments lead us to consider the potential for feeling to be used in rhetorically productive and positive ways.

Each of these authors also muddy up the connections among affect, feeling, and emotion as rhetorical concepts/objects. At least in my reading of Berlant, Sedgwick, and Hawhee, it was difficult to understand how we were to distinguish among each of these terms, or if distinguishing them was even important. Berlant talks about feeling pain and pain as an emotion. Hawhee explains interpretations of sensation as physiological and psychological. And though Sedgwick does point to touching (texture) and feeling (affect) as different, she ultimately brings the two together to escape duality. Hawhee offers some clarity by suggesting that the differences among these concepts is perhaps unimportant: “Rather than rehearsing the accepted division between emotion and affect as known and inchoate respectively, perhaps we should exploit the intensity of feeling, or at least dwell there for awhile” (12). In thinking on Hawhee’s quote here, it’s clear that creating distinctions among affect, feeling, and emotion may not be as important to these authors as understanding them as objects for exploring embodied experience.

Discussion Questions

  • From these specific readings, how do you understand the relationships among affect, emotion, and feeling? Do these readings present these as distinct objects, and do you think it matters if they are distinct?
  • If we follow Berlant’s assertions about how the pain of oppressed groups is mobilized rhetorically to reinforce the State’s own power, where do we go from here in advocating for social justice for these groups? In other words, what can we do with Berlant’s criticism?

Additional Resources

  • Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015).
  • Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
  • Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).
  • Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Part 3: Structured Affects

  • Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling,” in Marxism and Literature, 125-138.
  • Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” in Parables for the Virtual, 23-45.
  • Eugenie Brinkema, “Disgust and the Cinema of Haut Gout” in The Forms of the Affects, 152-182.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebook. Edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, International Publishers Company, 1971.

The major contribution of the structured affects theorists that we read for this week—Williams, Massumi, and Brinkema—was their focus on the ways that emergence and impact happen, through rhetoric and other means, that is both distinct from and related to the other object domains that we are discussing today: emotion and feeling/sensing. From the three readings, we can infer that affect is an artifact that is not linguistically captured or bound to an object, but is instead a potential emergence that can be read as/through form. In order to explain the uniqueness of structured affects in relation to emotion and sensing/feeling, I will first lay out the main arguments in Williams, Massumi, and Brinkema’s work. Then, I will uncover the connections between these texts. Finally, with the help of other scholars who have been attuned to affect this semester, I will reveal the potential for affect to enrich rhetorical studies.

Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling”

Raymond Williams first theorized structures of feeling in 1954 as a concept to “to discuss the relationship between dramatic conventions and written texts” (“structures of feeling”). Structures of feeling was a concept developed to challenge Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony which Gramsci characterized as "the 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (12). For Williams, hegemony could never be complete because, if it was, the emergence of new thoughts and ideas would be impossible (“structures of feeling”).

In chapter nine of Marxism and Literature (1977), the piece that we read for today, Williams explains the connection between structures of feeling and Marxist political thought. Here, he argues, “Analysis is then centered on relations between these produced institutions, formations, and experiences, so that now, as in that produced past, only the fixed explicit forms exist, and living presence is always, by definition, receding”(Williams 128).The purpose of this chapter is to overcome what is lost when “the social is always past, in the sense that it is always formed” and to “find other terms for the undeniable experience of the present: not only the temporal present, the realization of this and this instant, but the specificity of present being, the inalienably physical . . . the personal: this, here, now, alive, active, ‘subjective’” (128).

Williams believes that Marx offers theorizing that will be helpful in accomplishing this goal, writing, “Yet it is the reduction of the social to fixed forms that remains the basic error. Marx often said this, and some Marxists quote him, in fixed ways, before returning to fixed norms. The mistake, as so often, is in taking terms of analysis as terms of substance.” As a solution, Williams offers structures of feeling defined as “impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity” (132). Williams believes that considering structures of feeling is important for Marxist theorists because, he argues, structures of feelings are experienced differently by differentiated classes and new structures of feeling tend to signal the rise of a new class (134).

Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect”

Brian Massumi is a philosopher and social theorist in the Department of Communication at the University of Montreal. In his article, “The Autonomy of Affect” (1995), he tells four stories and, using a Deleuzian framework, unpacks the power of affect and the possibilities of theoretical intervention into affective power.

The first story is about a short film in which a snowman melts, presented in three iterations, which evoked striking emotional responses in the nine-year-olds viewing the film—they found the iteration of the film that they considered ‘sad’ to be the most pleasurable (84). Massumi uses this example to discuss the power of affect, by noting that the scientists’ “only positive conclusion was the primacy of the affective in image reception . . . marked by a gap between content and effect” (84). He explains that the gap between content and effect can be explained by thinking about the gap between quality and intensity (84).

Massumi defines intensity as “embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin—at the surface of the body, at its interface with things . . . a nonconscious, never-to-conscious autonomic remainder . . . outside expectation and adaptation . . . disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration, as it is from vital function” (85). On the other hand, quality is “associated with expectation, which depends on consciously positioning oneself in a line of narrative continuity” (85). The relationship between qualification and intensity is helpful in understanding the relationship between emotion and intensity. Massumi explains that intensity can be qualified as an emotional state—“a state of suspense, potentially of disruption” (86). However, he explains that, because emotion is often “a narrative element that moves action ahead,” it would not seem to resonate with intensity—emotion only resonates with intensity “to the exact degree to which it is in excess of any narrative or functional line” (86-87). At the end of this section, Massumi equates intensity with affect and argues for the importance of scholarship that admits “emotion and affect . . . follow different logics” (88).

The second story is about patients who received stimulation via cortical electrodes which helped scientists to determine that there is “a half-second lapse between the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression” (89-90). Massumi, again, discusses the relationship between quality and intensity, explaining that cognitive functions aid “higher functions” which operate in “the realm of qualified form/content” and the virtual, or “something that happens to quickly to have happened” (90). For Massumi, the body is both actual and virtual and the abstractness of the virtual is tethered to the concreteness of the body (91). Affect is the two-sided coin of the actual and the virtual, the virtual “anchored in [and] (functionally limited by) the actually existing” (96), different from emotion because of its openness to potential, unfixed interactions (96). Emotion is “the capture and closure of affect” (96) and, from that capture, Massumi asserts, something always escapes. Distinguishing between the actual and the virtual, the emotional and the affective, for Massumi, holds significant implications regarding the ethics of social constructionism, a theory that “holds that everything, including nature, is constructed in discourse” and, as a result, “reinstates the rigid divide between human and nonhuman,” conceptualizes nature as transcendent to culture, and erases “nature as naturing, nature as having its own dynamism” (99). Affect and emotion, the virtual and the actual, once conceptualized together, allow for theorization of the natural, the constructed, and their excess.

Massumi’s third story is about a neurophysiologist named Oliver Sacks who watched Ronald Reagan give a speech with patients suffering from global aphasia, a condition that “rendered them incapable of understanding words as such,” and tonal agnosia, a condition that made them unable to “hear the expressiveness of voice” and be attentive to extraverbal cues” (101). Both types of patients found Reagan’s communication to be dysfunctional, but the rest of the American population was mesmerized by his charisma (101). Massumi argues that, the only explanation for Reagan’s dysfunctional speech being interpreted as charisma is that Reagan’s speech possessed double dysfunction (102). Massumi explains that this double dysfunction acted as affective means, allowing Reagan to politicize the power of interruption, or what Massumi calls “the power of mime” (102). The power of mime is that each movement, each discontinuity, each “jerk” is “almost imperceptibly intercalates a flash of virtuality into the actual movement under way” (102). The power of mime, Massumi argues, enabled Reagan to “operationalize the virtual in postmodern politics” allowing him to be “many things to many people, but within a general framework of affective jingoism” (102). Reagan’s power of mime seems to operate the way that “late-capitalist, image- and information-based economies” operate now—through “interruption . . . our bombardment by commercial images . . . Everywhere, the cut, the suspense—incipience” (102-103). Massumi argues that these interruptions mimic virtuality and, thus, that affect may be a tool for “rethinking postmodern power after ideology” because it could be a way of “connecti[ng] ideology to its real conditions of emergence” (103-104). Using affect as a tool for connecting ideology to emergence requires considering how ideology is produced using “induction and transduction—induction being the triggering of a qualification, of a containment, an actualization; and transduction being the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another, and across them all” (104). These tools could help to "actualize media transmission” for both politics of reaction and resistance (105).

Massumi’s fourth story is short. It is about the impact of Clinton’s proposed health-care reform bill on the economy (106). Massumi narrates that news commentators argue, in response to the public feeling about Clinton’s leadership, that passing the healthcare bill would hurt the economy. He notes that, “Although economic indicators show unmistakeable signs of [economic] recovery, the stock market dips” (105). Massumi questions why the stock market does not “go up at the news of the ‘unpresidential’ falter” but explains that the news commentators never ask this question because they “are operating under the assumption that the stock market registered affective fluctuations in adjoining spheres more directly than proper economic indicators” (105). Massumi uses this example to argue for the “matter-of-factness of affect” (107) and to assert the political power of affect to produce powerful, public effects.

Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects

Eugenie Brinkema is a media studies scholar housed in the Literature Department at MIT and is currently acting as a visiting scholar at the University of Amsterdam (“Eugenie Brinkema”) She studies film and media with a focus on “violence, affect, sexuality, aesthetics, and ethics in texts ranging from the horror film to gonzo pornography, from the body of films dubbed ‘New European Extremism’ to the viral media forms of terrorism” (“Eugenie Brinkema”).

This week, we read the sixth chapter of her book, The Forms of Affects, entitled “Disgust and the Cinema of Haut Gout.” In this chapter, Brinkema does a psychoanalytic film analysis of Peter Greenway’s film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover that produces a three part argument about how critics of the firm erred in their criticism: first, “in taking gastronomy as a theme . . . [because] gastronomy is, rather, its form,” second, “in taking gastronomy’s interest in good taste as self-evident; [because] on the contrary, that which tastes good and is in good taste in both gastronomy and aesthetics is constituted around negative in the form of revolt against taste,” and third, “in taking rot as a fixed, concrete, knowable thing made available in film as an ‘image of’ or an abject object” (154-155).

Brinkema offers an argument that allows us to see how a text might be read for affect. In the first section of the chapter, Brinkema demonstrates how to read gastronomy as a form, rather than a theme. The film, for Brinkema, is “composed entirely of modes of relation (sexual, material, archival, architectural)” patterned by repetition “both to linguistify rhythm and to rhythmicize language, to change it from a signifying system to a pulsing one” (158). Because of the structure, the bonds between related objects are intimate, fragile, and breakable (157). The second section of this chapter explains the relationship between aestheticism and disgust. Brinkema uses Aurel Kolnai’s exploration of disgust to explain “disgust in fact requires reading for the unleashed details in the form of any film. . . . But the detail, or detailing the detail, is also a departure from Aesthetics in the Idealist tradition that hitherto had defined disgust as the obscenity of the beautiful and defined aesthetics in relation to wholeness, totality, and unity” (163). Because of this departure, the bond between disgust and aesthetics, just like the bond between objects in the film, are “suspended in their relation of repellant, non-relation: they are a fraught, even dreadful, liaison, a forever failing bond” (163-164).

The third section of this chapter details the paradox of disgust which, Brinkema argues, “resides in this affective ambivalence whereby aversion to an object is superimposed alongside attraction toward that same object” (164-165). This section ultimately explores the relationship between disgust and allure/craving (164-165), revulsion and attraction (166), and decay and preservation (169). The final section of the chapter argues the impact of reading disgust as the structure, rather than the theme, of the film. Here, Brinkema aligns disgust and aesthetics “because of [the] totality of forces on the animated quality of a substance” and explains that disgust or rot “must necessarily be Kolnai’s privileged example of the form of the affect” because “disgust’s intimacy with the vital and animated puts it not on the side of death or the corpse . . .  but on that of dying, corpse-becoming” (170). The vitality and animation of disgust operate as key starting points for attending to affect as an object of study and Brinkema’s analysis of Greenway’s film provides an example of how a study of form can enable a study of affect.

Connections between the texts

I found two important connections between the Williams, Massumi, and Brinkema essays: 1) their exploration of the relationship between affect and the fixed socio-linguistic forms that seek to capture it and 2) their discussion of the object of affect.

The first theme that emerged from these readings was the scholars’ concern about language’s capture of affect. All of these scholars conceive of this capture as a way of categorizing experience, but contend that all of experience is never captured, something always escapes. Williams’ theorization of the capture and the escape is concerned with the way that cultural theory captures lived experience because “the social is [thought to be] fixed and explicit . . . [and] all that escapes or seems to escape from the fixed and the explicit and the known, is grasped and defined as personal” (128). Massumi is also concerned with escape, especially as it relates to the relationship between affect and emotion. He writes, “Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body . . . Emotion is the intensest (most contracted) expression of . . . capture—and of the fact that something has always and again escaped” (96). Finally, Brinkema provides an example of reading a text for the escape, explaining that “unlike other modes of aversion, disgust—taken to be the most immediate and visceral of the affects—in fact requires an act of reading . . . for qualities, singularities, and particularities . . .  one does not know—it is not possible to know-what those attributes are in advance of grappling with them in any particular text. . . . disgust in fact requires reading for the unleashed details in the form of any film” (163). Reading for affect, for all of these scholars, seems to require a reading that attends to specific qualities and emergences, rather than relying on a priori assumptions about history, emotion, or texts.

Related to the capture of affect is a discussion about the object of affect—or the similarities in each of these scholars’ answer to the question: what are you studying if you study affect? Although this question is related to the concerns about how affect is captured by a priori, linguistic categorization, each of this scholars offer even more insight into how to approach affect as an object of study. For Williams, structures of feeling can be observed both in “art and literature, where the true social content is in a significant number of cases of this present and affective kind, which cannot without loss be reduced to belief-systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships” (133) and in “the rise of a class . . . when a formation appears to break away from class norms” (134-135). Massumi’s stories offer examples of the objects in which affect can be studied, but he provides a more complete answer when he explains, “Affect is the whole world: from the precise angle of its differential emergence . . . [but] concepts of the virtual in itself are important only to the extent to which they contribute to pragmatic understanding of emergence, to the extent to which they enable triggerings of change (induce the new). It is the edge of virtual, where it leaks into actual, that counts. For that seeping edge is where potential, actually, is found” (105). Finally, Brinkema notes that “disgust [the privileged example of affect] is bound not to an object but to its adjectives,” thus, studying disgust “requires that a suspicious hermeneutics regard this stock of specific features and qualities, take those particulars apart, study the details of crucial characteristics” (162).

Resonance with Rhetoric

None of these authors attend directly to rhetoric, however, their focus on the capture of affect by the symbolic and the object of affect make these readings important tools for rhetorical scholars. In fact, we have encountered many scholarly pursuits of affective objects already this semester. If we place rhetoric at the center of the conversation about structured affect, these readings seem to provide us with a way of understanding the affective power of form, the creation and impact of public feeling, and new methodological possibilities.

The scholars that we read for today are invested in the impact of form. Raymond Williams is concerned about what happens when identifying forms categorize art and literature because “the effective formations of most actual art relate to already manifest social formations, dominant or residual” (134). However, his hypothesis of structures of feeling allows him to account for “emergent formations (though often in the form of modification or disturbance in older forms)” (134). Brinkema is also attentive to the impact of form, demonstrating the difference between reading a text for its form (her analysis of Greenway’s film) and reading a text for its themes (the erring analyses of Greenway’s film) (154-155). Similarly, the rhetorical scholars that we read on genre also seemed concerned about determining what form can mean. Carolyn Miller writes, “A particular kind of fusion of substance and form is essential to symbolic meaning. Substance, considered as the semantic value of discourse, constitutes the aspects of common experience that are being symbolized . . . Form shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction, so to speak, about how to perceive or interpret” (159). Josh Gunn also attended to form arguing that studying form is a crucial way for rhetorical scholars to attend to affect and calls for rhetorical critics “to reconstitute the relationship between form and genre to affect and emotion respectively” (10-11). He asserts, “As a kind of bodily rhythm, form refers to the affective experience of the subject without meaning . . . eludes (and resists) capture; one feels it, but she cannot say it. Genre emerges at the point at which the symbolic meets the body; genre, in other words, is form delivered to language, form succumbing to the insistence of languaging” (11). Studying affective objects would, seemingly, offer critics new insight on the rhetorical function of form and genre.

Affect, for these authors, also provides a way to describe the creation and impact of public feeling and emotion. Massumi is particularly helpful in thinking through the way that affect can contribute to public emotion, using the example of Ronald Reagan’s operationalization of the virtual that “on the receiving end . . . was qualified, given content” (103). One rhetorical scholar that we’ve read this semester was particularly invested in the “affective or pathetic dimension of rhetoric” (5). Like Massumi, Josh Gunn is also interested in political addresses where affect emerges. Centering political addresses spoken by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, Gunn argues for “a renewed focus on the canon of delivery” (29) because of rhetoric’s role in disciplining the affective dimensions of human speech “through the careful rumination on spoken words, vocalics, gestures, claims, and evidence” (17). Gunn’s attentiveness to affect in political speeches has much in common with Massumi’s work, particularly the story that we read for this week about Reagan and Massumi’s chapter in The Affect Theory Reader which is cited in the additional sources section of my presentation. Gunn’s work is also similar to Brinkema’s. Both Brinkema and Gunn highlight the importance of studying affect by analyzing the way that adjectives are affixed to objects (Brinkema 161-162, Gunn 14). For both Gunn and Brinkema, the way that adjectives are affixed to objects can “help us to discern the vocalic norms of public speech and feeling” (Gunn 14). Affect in rhetorical studies is offered, in these texts, as a way to understand the circulation of public feeling.

Discussion Questions:

  • Considering the assertion that “affect is not bound to an object” (Brinkema 161), what would you choose to study if you were tasked with examining affect as a rhetorical object?
  • Of the identifiable characteristics of affects and approaches for studying affect that we read about this week, which seem most related to the rhetorical techniques and tools that are used in more traditional rhetorical theory? Which seem less related? If necessary, how might we engage traditional rhetorical theory to study affect as an object?
  • Why would you choose to define your object as affect, rather than emotion or sensing/feeling? What qualities would such an object have? What are the stakes of making that distinction?

Additional Sources:

  • Landau, Jamie. “Feeling Rhetorical Critics: Another Affective-Emotional Field Method for Rhetorical Studies.” Text + Field: Innovations in Rhetorical Method. Edited by Sara L. McKinnon, Robert Asen, Karma R. Chavez, and Robert Glenn Howard, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
  • Ahmed, Sara. “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 35, no. 3, 2010, pp. 571-594.
  • Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” The Affect Theory Reader. Edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Berlant, Lauren. “Introduction: Intimacy, Publicity, and Femininity.” The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012.