I have a question about affect, the current it-word for cultural studies and critical theory. Roughly, “affect” gets at a kind of interactive, embodied experience that functions outside of meaning, rationality and intention. It is a capacity, intensity, or resonance of the body that acts autonomously from the subject. Affect is at work in inexplicable fads, social buzz, or even the mundane act of blushing. We can translate blushing into an emotion in a linguistic and psychological system—shame, attraction, anxiety—but the translation necessarily loses the very interactive, embodied, asignifying thing that makes affect such a fruitful and provocative topic. So, then, what does it mean to write about affect?
There are a number of extraordinarily helpful texts on affect appearing as the central corpus of this new “turn” in critical theory. Rarely, however, does a contemporary text address affect without including the assertion that affect is nearly impossible to define. That is perhaps why most of the texts on affect are tentative if not obtuse or why many of them (even the best among them) adopt the occasionally awkward strategy of poetics that break from traditional forms of academic writing. Take Felicity Colman’s helpful and thoughtful entry on affect in The Deleuze Dictionary, which starts, “Watch me: affection is the intensity of colour in a sunset on a dry and cold autumn evening. Kiss me: affect is that indescribable moment before the registration of the audible, visual and tactile transformations produced in reaction to a certain situation, event or thing. Run away from me . . . .” Or Kathleen Stewart’s afterword to the truly exceptional guide to this vast terrain, The Affect Theory Reader, in which her narrative meanders from the downward spiral of her son and his addictions to a coal mining town in West Virginia.
To write about something that is noncognitive and asignifying requires an incredible stomach for loss; whatever we write necessarily entails the alienation of the very thing we are trying to describe. The anecdotes, metaphors, and evocative language that mark contemporary texts on affect seem to start from an acceptance of the fact that any attempt to point at affect and describe it systematically will necessarily end in failure. Yet knowing that affect can’t be said does not provide a path forward. Is the best strategy to make affect’s necessary absence from our texts as apparent as possible? To use figures of speech to write the trace—the presence of the absence—of affect instead of ever trying to point directly at it? Will such strategies merely make clear that affect cannot be written or do they, somehow, impossibly, evoke the very thing that evades the page?