Trends in the Turn to Affect: A Social Psychological Critique, Margaret Wetherell

  • in many respects affect is a challenging topic for social theory and cultural studies – it raises some core social psychological issues that seem unavoidable
  • I want to surface the social psychological assumptions which underpin three, highly influential analyses of affect in cultural studies and social theory
  • Silvan Tomkins – Yale Professor; writing in the 1960s
  • Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank aim was to draw on Tomkins’ biological theory and his sophisticated examinations of affect and personal history (apparently often autobiographical) to encourage social and cultural researchers to attend again to embodiment and experience

  • Tomkins is transgressive because, following Darwin’s lead, he speculated about the existence of innate, genetically determined ‘affect programs’
  • Affect programs or basic emotions are thought to specify, define and organize the range of affective responses
  • Basic emotions are thought to be human universals, with key elements shared with animals, triggered by specifiable antecedents, and appearing early in child development
  • Schacter and Singer’s research indicated that affective arousal seems to require an engagement with the social context to become defined or categorized as a particular kind of emotional state (anger, discomfort, elation). In this view, types or categories of emotions are not pre-given as Tomkins suggests. The individual’s interpretation and reading of their body is strongly influenced by what can be deduced from the scene at hand and from others’ responses.
  • Sedgwick and Frank’s ‘test’ also presupposes, of course, that emotion, arousal and affect are stable, pure entities. They assume that ‘terror’, once it starts, is always ‘terror’. An alternative view (with which Tomkins might have had some sympathy) is that affective experience is constantly flowing, merging, developing and changing.
  • Tomkins’ claims about basic emotions and affect programs reinforce the conventional common-sense view that emotions come prepackaged in always/already defined biological types (fear, anger, grief, joy, disgust, shame, etc.).
  • thinking about how the energy of affect is parsed (divided up, differentiated, interpreted and categorized) is key to investigating the relations between affect, power and privilege
  • Psychobiologists are reluctant to cede much ground to the unfamiliar territory of the social, but the consistent picture emerging is of the plasticity and flexibility of affective responses, the immense amount of cultural and developmental learning involved in complex interaction with any possible innate response tendencies (e.g. Lewis and Liu, 2011), and the impossibilities of endorsing a kind of Darwinian simplicity about ‘lower’ emotions and ‘higher’ cognition (Adolphs and Damasio, 2001).

  • Basic emotion and affect program analyses suggested a kind of clunk/click, automaton-like inevitability to affective activity. Pop in the right stimulus and out will pop the appropriate, inbuilt, basic response <-> practice theories suggest that affective activity is a field of open and flexible patterns. The order in these patterns is emergent from the changing interrelationships and entanglements between the constituent social, cultural, biological and material parts of the broader field. Affective activity is an ongoing flow (a ‘polyphony’ according to Damasio, 1999) of forming and changing bodyscapes, qualia (subjective states), and actions constantly shifting in response to the changing context.
  • A practice is an assemblage for now which draws on past assemblages and influences the shape of future activity
  • Thrift endorses claims for pan-cultural universal emotions, biological templates, five (or six) basic emotions, and accounts of ‘lower order’ affects shared with animals.
  • Affect belongs in the minuscule periods of time before consciousness is woken up in the body and before we become aware of what we are about.
  • t social actors engaged in affective practice are embodied beings for sure, but are also usually sentient, bathed in cultural practice like fish in water, usually reflexive, engaged with others in negotiating their worlds, and constantly talking and making sense. There are no neat and easy dividing lines between physical affect and discourse, or between discursive capture and affective capture, or between discursive enlistment and affective enlistment.
  • Following Brennan (2004), Thrift revives the image of the affected collective which first circulated in late 19th- and early 20th-century psychology fostered by Le Bon and McDougall – the claim that the actions of a crowd, or any joint interaction, allow affect to spread like a virus, passing unstoppably on, like wildfire.
  • The bodies of the members of the crowd become entrained together, influenced, according to Brennan (2004) by pheromones and by the physical actions of others into unconscious and automatic imitation and shared emotion. Le Bon thought that this process of contagion explained why crowds seem to act as one, as though they shared a singular group mind
  • Stephen Reicher (1984, 2001) points out, automatism and group mind notions of crowd action are the psychologies which occur to those observing crowds from the outside
  • Why does affect not leap across some barriers? Why does it have limits? Why does it stop travelling?
  • As Reicher (2001) argues, social identity and identification are a key to understanding this. We seem to be drawn to, empathize with, and are most likely to copy, imitate and share the affect of those we affiliate and identify with, and those whom we recognize as authoritative and legitimate sources. Context, past and current practice, and complex acts of meaning-making and representation are involved in the spreading of affect, no matter how random and viral it appears.
  • Shared identification makes actions and affect intelligible and forms the basis for the discursive territory of ‘reasonable’ versus ‘unreasonable’ emotion, ‘rational’ versus ‘irrational’ crowd action, and ‘considered’ versus ‘involuntary’ or ‘automatic’ behaviour.
  • Ahmed maintains that affect can operate rather like the creation of surplus value in Marxist theory, intensifying and accumulating as it moves and circulates between signs (objects and subjects). She explores the resulting ‘economies of affect’, and opens the way to analyses of how chains of emoting subjects and affecting objects become bound together creating and reinforcing circuits of social value
  • Unlike Thrift and Segwick and Frank, she is not persuaded by the psychology of basic emotions (2004: 9). Ahmed is more influenced by the social constructionist arguments characteristic of emotion research inthe 1980s and 1990s -> these emphasizedthe inherent sociality of emotion and the difficulties in identifying universal, interchangeable, natural kinds or core emotions
  • Following the work of social psychologist Brian Parkinson, Ahmed adds to her cognitive emphasis the key point that emotional experience is directional. Emotions, she argues: are intentional in the sense that they are ‘about’ something: they involve a direction or orientation towards an object (Parkinson, 1995: 8). The ‘aboutness’ of emotions means they involve a stance on the world, or a way of apprehending the world. (Ahmed, 2004: 7)
  • The emoter and the object of their emotion become inserted into conventions, canons and histories of meaning-making, formed, shaped and fixed
  • Ahmed concludes from this that emotion doesn’t in fact have a location. It is neither inside nor outside, neither a property of subjects nor a property of objects. Affect is not ‘inside’ – purely psychological, expressed and owned by an individual – because emotion forms that individual and their ‘shape’ and the ‘surface’ presented in dialogue with the kind of object the affect has constituted

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