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Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012 Authors: Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

These are our questions for the MLA roundtable.  Section one takes up genealogies of affect theory; section two takes up the problem of affect in the historical present; section three takes up a variety of concerns about queer theory, sexuality, racialization, specific cases and archives, and modes of orientation that are in proximity to whatever we might call affect but in different idioms.  You can download them here.  mla roundtable 2011

745. Affecting Affect Theory is scheduled to take place at 1:45+3:00 p.m. on 08-JAN-12 in 615, WSCC; Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place (Pike St. and 8th Ave.)


Affect Theory Roundtable Questions, MLA 2012

Authors:  Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Jonathan Flatley, Neville Hoad, Heather Love, José E. Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o

I. Genealogies of Affect Theory 

1.  How do we think about the different trajectories of affect theory now, especially as the Deleuzian/Massumian project/idiom has become so important to its critical circulation?  How do we think the proximity of public feelings, minor affects, psychoanalysis, Sedgwickian syncretism (Buddhism, Tomkins, Klein), and affective labor’s version of affect-as-immateriality in relation to the Spinozan tradition?  How to keep the event of affect open to maintaining the multiplicity of traditions, trajectories, tendencies, and critical tactics? Is spanning all traditions important to ways we think about addressing future problems?

2. Affect vs/alongside mood, feeling, emotion etc. What are the stakes of synthesizing these different ways of talking to our about states of the sensorium?

3.  Cavell (a great affect theorist who is not often included in the genealogies of affect theory) says that professional philosophy has been emancipated from an obligation to be therapeutic, but that it should be haunted by that very emancipation.  What about the critical work we do: what about questions of theory and utility, of reparativity, of failure?

4. In response to thoughts about genealogies and the increasing institutionalization of Deleuzian affect studies, I would like to take the chance to think in some detail about genealogies for public feelings/feel tank type affect studies. The Cavell thing got me thinking about other possibly overlooked figures. And I have also been thinking a lot about the fact that the affective turn in Sedgwick comes with the turn to Tomkins—perhaps we could think about this moment less in terms of what Tomkins has to offer specifically and more in terms of the question of periodization (which Sedgwick already sort of does…). Sedgwick highlighted cybernetics as a key framework, but for me it would be interesting to think about social psychology, microsociology, anti-psychiatry, social interaction studies, kinesics, and other related fields that might figure into alternate or unthought genealogies for some of the work we do.

5.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the historicity of the affective turn (to follow up a little on the question of periodization in question 4).  What are the historical situations for the impressively wide and cross-disciplinary turn toward affect as an object of inquiry in the 1990s?  What role did the widespread and much discussed use of a new generation of anti-depressant medications play in the turn to affect?  To what extent is the interest in affect related to the increasing importance and changing function of affective labor?  My own initial thought is that one way to start thinking about this question is to ask what the mood/Stimmung of the affective turn is.  One of the moods of the affective turn would certainly seem to be depressive, but perhaps there are several moods to the affective turn, different affect theories having their own moods or modes of being attuned to particular historical situations, problems or contexts.  Might this then be another way to sort through different affect theories?

6.  To continue the line of inquiry from the questions above, I am wondering too about Sedgwick/Tomkins vs. Massumi/Deleuze and the set of unresolved (and irresolvable?) terminological issues that come along with sorting through the different paradigms, theories, and traditions.  For example, do we need or want to agree on what “affect” refers to as opposed to “emotion,” or “mood” or “feeling”?   Or, at least, do we want to agree about what we are disagreeing about when we don’t agree?   Is there less terminological agreement in affect theory than elsewhere?  How are the conceptual problems affect theory faces distinct from other kinds of conceptual problems?

7. Affective Turns

Is this term useful and what does it mean? Like others, I’m interested in how and why we might articulate multiple locations and lineages for the affective turn(s), while also acknowledging how Deleuzian theory and terminological distinctions among affect, emotion and feeling have helped to move forward the project of thinking about embodied and sensory experience.  What other resources and lineages are useful?  Of late, I’ve been thinking about the ongoing legacy of lesbian separatism, consciousness-raising (and the relations between therapy and politics), the sex wars, and other messy feminist histories that produce emotionally charged and divisive conflicts.  And I’d also like to discuss how new vitalisms, animal studies, ecocriticism, cultural geography, neuroscience and other fields converge around revised understandings of the relations between mind and body, humans and objects, the biological and the material.

II.  The Historical Present/ The Way We Feel Now


8.  Neoliberalism and Affective Labor We might want to think about Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect and its claims that the flows of financialization are saturating fictional worlds such that a new realism appears not in plot or representation or relations to objects as such but in relation to time and movement as affective performances. What kinds of contribution do our different orientations or approaches to affect theory make to thinking the historical present and how it gets represented?  How are we historicizing neoliberalism in relation to affect, atmosphere, and mediations of presencing?

9.  Market Feelings

The ambient rhetorics/ metaphorics of the economic crisis are saturated with affective language: ebullience, depression, and the one I find the the most interesting “greed.” I have struggled with greed for a long time – particularly its imagined self-evidence – in other venues. Economic historians have long-debated whether the British empire was actually profitable, yet the imagining of the drive to self-enrichment remains the default psychological explanation for appropriation, exploitation, conquest. I see greed everywhere as the vernacular of critique across the political spectrum – the bankers were/are greedy, public unions are greedy, governments are greedy. What is greed, both categorically and substantively? Is the term being calibrated somewhere between an appetite and a feeling? An over-compensatory repetition compulsion driven by extremes of lack and scarcity (Lauren’s fort/da question at the end of supervalent thought’s blog post?) or a plenitude of desire? What are the antonyms of greed? Need? Restraint? Self-sacrificing generosity? Overlaying feeling and appetite in relation to greed there also seems to be some idea of secular sin in a world of proliferating religiosity: invisible hands are everywhere clutching, grabbing, pulling??

10.  Life Might affect become a tool in relation to conceiving of “life” or the “philosophy of life”?  Are we participating in a new vitalism, a new humanism, a new universalism? Is it necessary to think about what’s in common (life, the commons) given the crisis of the reproduction of the world? How can the central questions about affect get us to a place that might enable us to say something transformative about singular and collective being?

11. The Untimely in Contemporary Black Aesthetics

This is a book project, I’m pretty sure, that tries to revisit and extend the ‘afrofuturist’ formulation that has spurred so many innovative theoretical, artistic and musical projects in recent years, by looking more broadly (or is it more narrowly?) at the question of the untimely in general. I.e. it seems to me that much of what goes by the way of afro-futurism is, variously, retro-futurism, utopianism, apocalypticism, hermeticism, melancholia, anachronism, and antinomianism. The technological and posthumanist fetish that most readings of afro-futurism gravitate towards seem therefore to be part but not all of what has to be said about the untimely, feeling or imaging out of sync or out of time with the present. Here I will be drawing on José Muñoz’s work on utopia, of course, and also some other contemporary critics of black aesthetics, including Paul Gilroy, Fred Moten, and Kara Keeling, who emphasize the melancholic and fugitive frequencies of the theoretical register. I’m also engaged with Steven Shaviro’s work on post-cinematic affect: he and I share an obsession with the untimely aesthetics of Janelle Monáe.

(Note: Another project on Donny the Punk and the cultural politics of the Seventies also has a connection to affect, I am sure, but I cannot get my way to what that connection might be at the moment. And I’ve presented on Donny enough recently that it might be good to withdraw into the archive for a bit.)

12. Political Feelings:  Dialectics of Hope and Despair

The activities of various Public Feelings groups in Chicago, Austin, and New York emerged in the context of 9/11 and the Bush presidency. To what extent, especially when viewed as ongoing rather than event-based and not just catastrophic but ordinary, have more recent political conditions – Obama’s election, Arab uprisings, financial collapse, Occupy movements — generated new feelings?  Does the category of “political depression” remain relevant, especially if it was meant to remain in conversation with hope, utopia, possibility?  Are the ups and downs of feelings and movements another form of “market feelings” and are there other ways to think about the co-existence of hope and despair?

13. Archives and Public Memory

Where are we now with the production and critical discussion of cultures of public memory? How is critical work on archives, ephemera, and other related categories enabling new reparative practices? What is the transnational scope of this work and can it offer any alternatives to “human rights” (or does it exhibit the same necro/trauma-philia queried above)?  Is there a value to remembering and archiving histories of activism and, if so, how can theories of affect facilitate better versions of activist histories (and other forms of collective action)? In the “Occupy” moment, what affective histories are a resource?

III.  Further Questions

14. What is the affect in affective labor?  Relatedly, how do we think of the multivalence of the concept “object” in relation to immaterial/affective labor?  What can object relations psychoanalysis tell us about the material object/thing?  How has the materialist account been modified by accounts of life in contemporary capitalism that take on the sensorium, and how does analysis through affect articulate with psychoanalysis?  What is the relation between necessary labor time models of value constitution and the fantasmatic investments in objects and object worlds?  Clearly we’re thinking the autonomia tradition here: but also how does a Latourian problematic, which sees objects (including subjects) in proximity as making transformative epistemologies and worlds potentially change the ways affect theory takes on materializing the historical present? Would anyone like to speculate about Graham Harman…

15.  Biopolitics Many of us work in proximity to biopolitics–especially sexuality and race–and mobilize the orientations of affect theory. How can we think about being-in-common in relation to certain particularities without making difference into an irreducible property, or an affective fact?

16.  Performativity What has happened to performativity?  What should happen?

17. Feeling Numbers

I was horrified (and embarrassed that I did not know something so basic) to learn this summer that birth and death registration for black South Africans started in 2003. Small wonder HIV/AIDS death statistics were so contested in the moment of AIDS denialism. As I panic about surveillance, privacy settings on facebook, Big Brother etc, it might be salutary to be reminded of sovereignty’s indifference, that what Keith Breckinridge calls “documentary citizenship” is really a privilege, and then yesterday someone reminded me of the etymology of privilege – literally “private law.” I am teaching Appadurai’s “Fear of Small Numbers” this semester. I had forgotten that its subtitle is “An Essay on the Geography of Anger.” In it Appadurai describes ethnic violence as a kind of “folk vivisection.”  What were/are the public affective dimensions of will-to-knowledge projects: being counted, uncounted, discounted, lumped, split, moved?

18. Public Feelings and Human Rights

Does the contemporary practice – more than the idea – of human rights need to make ordinary violences extraordinary? The numbers question returns here. The piling up of bodies needs to become pornographic spectacle in order to engender the geographically stratified and necessary sympathy/shame, witness/perpetrator, victim/testifier dialectics intelligible. Do human rights institutions stand in something like a pharmakonic relation to “necropolitics,?” Is this kind of hypertheatricality the only tonality left for political agency? Is the end point of this spectacularizing inevitably “AIDS, Famine, X fatigue?”

19. Mood: Many of us work on mood in conjuncture with affect:  involving a relation of Heideggarian Stimmung to a psychoanalytic model of a haunted affected state, for example.  The gestural, the ephemeral, the occasional, the episodic:  the transindividual or social, the atmosphere or movement. Moods and modes challenge the melodrama of the emotional event without being simply static or comic.  What does thinking about scenic relations of liking, flirting, cruising, playing, stuckness, or being-with, or moods involving the playful, the aleatory, the neutral, or the fatalistic do to how we think about affect? How do analyses of gesture impact our comprehension of the affective event?  How is our capacity to be affected a capacity to be in a mood related to plotting, to narrative, to having aims?  (Is there a like plot the way there’s a love plot?  If a state doesn’t induce a plot what else could it induce?)

20.  On negativity:  how does the historical location of the subject in its encounter with its own internal incoherence matter?  What does it mean to encounter what’s unbearable in one’s own negativity when that encounter confirms one’s own habitation and fantasmatic formation in the ordinary, one’s own political location and movement in the social?

21. Abstraction: How do different scales come into play? What is the place of the experiential, the material?  What genres could be better mobilized alongside of the autobiographical, the aesthetic, the performed, and how would they change the conversation?  Is sound the privileged mode of affect’s transmission, as Teresa Brennan suggests?  Are illness and health? This would point to concepts like “atmosphere” and “uncanny” as central topics for research.  Where are other different senses in relation to the mediation of impacts?

22. Glee and the Uncovering of the “American Songbook”

This is a prospective essay? short book? op-ed? about what the show Glee teaches us about precarity in contemporary American adolescence, particularly the “management of stigma” (Goffman reference intended). I want to look at two things: 1) how the show ‘universalizing’ stigma by suggesting that everyone has it, at least potentially, and 2) how the show then proposes the cover song, often the most clichéd, inauthentic option, as the truest route the expression of authentic feeling. What I am mulling over here, in a way I can’t yet formulate as an argument, is how the show simultaneously serves to goad the right — with its Hollywood liberal tolerance of teen pregnancy, homosexuality, transvestism, Lady Gaga — and depoliticize a broad range of social issues on the left, by converting them into grist for a competitive mill (use your stigma to excel at regionals, nationals, etc.) Some of this latter will no doubt riff on Jack Halberstam’s new work on being a loser, which is a value the show repeatedly, and deceptively, extols.

23.  Theoretical Self-Fetishizing or, Bad Habits So many of our anchors are really shorthands.  How do we avoid the shuffling of the cards, how do we keep the discourse from sedimenting?  What are the habits we already have that have become normative, under the radar, what goes without saying: and are there ways anyone has thought of to interrupt x norm or y knee-jerk presumption? What do we wish our work could reach that it doesn’t do but might?

Topics we don’t know how to write questions for:  sanity; academic labor; the idea of a life; depression and the medical; happiness studies; professionalization and politics; mastery and non-mastery; pedagogy; writing…

How do we have the conversation where we really engage each other not only in the places where our work is strong but also where it feels willful or unworked-through, where it is more organized by a desire to sound a certain way or be a certain way? (Is the question about Glee a version of this question?)   Or whether we could look in to our own work and list the kinds of limits we think are constitutive of it.  How can we foster a genuinely engaged atmosphere of collective criticality that doesn’t make this or anything look like a flattery-fest but that produces the respect of a critical engagement for which each of us is a resource? (Is there a way to ask this question, really, at MLA?)

24. The Queer and the Affective I am interested in the way that queer studies has morphed into affect studies, temporality studies, geopolitics, and other things—this is the “After Sex” moment where sexuality studies does not require sexual minorities or sex or subjects at all. Yet queer studies names a field nonetheless. I wonder if affect studies as it ages might start to have a similar trajectory: can work that has happened under the sign of affect continue to flourish even if feeling itself becomes less of a specific focus? Has a field constellated around affect that might not “need” affect per se? I am thinking about this a lot as I am working on a project that is inconceivable without that body of recent work, but is actually about coldness, the lack of affect, etc. But also I think work on affect has opened up other questions about pedagogy, ethics, the conditions of academic life, reading methods, etc.

25. What is the Affect in Affective Labor? This is a supplement to question 8.  What is the function of mood/Stimmung in relation to affective labor?   Do particular kinds of affective labor require as their precondition being in a certain shared mood?  Might mood function as something of a means of production in this sense?

26.  The Neuroscientific and the Affective I am persistently fascinated by affect theories from neuroscience and psychiatry, such as the recent work on mirror neurons.   Even though that work is engaged with phenomenological traditions, for example, I still find it very difficult to figure out how to make use of it in my own writing.   Part of the problem, I suppose, is the very different nature of the epistemological claims in scientific work.   But still, it seems like this kind of cross-disciplinary work should be easier.  Has anyone else had this experience, or better yet, had luck in making use of work on affect from the ‘sciences’?

27. Queer Feelings  How would we describe and account for the specific contributions of queer theory to affect theory?  Many recent topics of discussion have a strong affective dimension – reparative reading (in which affective responses complicate critical ones), the anti-social thesis (a debate which is partly about the efficacy of negative affects and the relation between negative and positive affects), queer temporalities (which are about affective relations to history), and critiques of homonormativity  and neoliberalism (in which notions of happiness, intimacy, and kinship are contested). What is important about these intersections of queer theory and affect theory and to what extent do they get picked up on or circulated outside of queer studies?

28. Writing Feelings To what extent has Public Feelings been a project about writing?  What new forms of descriptive and critical prose and what methods of inquiry are necessary in order to describe ordinary feelings, sensory life, and the way things are? In Austin, for example, we have done a number of writing workshops and salons over the past year, and a number of us have now produced books and collections that have emerged from our collective discussions. What new forms of creative practice and intellectual collectivity have we sought to produce?  What further desires might we have?  How does this work also entail better histories of creative practice and of the intersection of art, politics, and social intimacies?

29.  Archives and Public Memory Where are we now with the production and critical discussion of cultures of public memory? How is critical work on archives, ephemera, and other related categories enabling new reparative practices? What is the transnational scope of this work and can it offer any alternatives to “human rights” (or does it exhibit the same necro/trauma-philia queried above)?  Is there a value to remembering and archiving histories of activism and, if so, how can theories of affect facilitate better versions of activist histories (and other forms of collective action)? In the “Occupy” moment, what affective histories are a resource?

9 Comments so far
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Um, wow. That’s a pretty amazing set of questions. Perhaps there should be 5 or 10 sessions! Unfortunately the panel overlaps with the closing up of the book exhibit, but I hope to make it to the second half.

Comment by Courtney B.


Comment by bonnie lenore kyburz

this list is thrilling. i suppose its just meant as a prelude to the panel, but i’m already thinking of these questions as one of the best things i’ve read all year. thanks for the launchpad.

Comment by gus

Wish I could be there to witness more of this. Thanks for sharing. I have been reading Elton Mayo’s biography over the holiday, leading to lots of ideas about affect theory before cybernetics. Hope to talk more with you about all this soon.

Comment by Melissa

[…] fascinating post at Supervalent Thought is timely motivation for new year writing projects. Makes me wonder if I should rethink my […]

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These are really great questions. I will miss being there. Hope it will leave a trace. Patricia

Comment by patriciaclough

It was a marvelous roundtable; thank you so much for posting the notes!

Comment by Rebecca Gordon

[…] version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion. Advertisement […]

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Does anyone know if there is any video-footage of this event?

Comment by Dave Bennett

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