Chika Watanabe asked, after my last post, why I am looking at affect; this post is meant as a partial answer.

I study what I have been calling modern global imaginaries—the network of symbols, images, and commitments through which we envision and inhabit the world. (I am particularly indebted for this definition to Dilip Gaonkar, who, in his introduction to Public Culture’s issue on “new imaginaries,” defines a social imaginary as “an enabling but not fully explicable symbolic matrix within which a people imagine and act as world-making collective agents.”) The heart of my argument is simply that we live in the world according to how we imagine it, whether that be the world as vast wilderness or as global village.

The tricky thing about global imaginaries, unlike other social imaginaries, is the issue of totality. Whereas other kinds of social imaginaries (e.g., nations, publics, counterpublics, commons, etc.) can shore up identity by posing an external or excluded other, there are few possibilities of exclusion in the global. (Aliens and God being the notable exceptions.) The differences some social imaginaries can produce have been put to good use by political theorists. Thinkers like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have used this kind of difference to stand against the totalizing impulse realized in globalization.

In their argument for a radical democratic politics, Mouffe and Laclau insist that politics can only work well if power remains an active, if contingently structured, force. They call this “hegemony.” Their theory of hegemonic politics forsakes unity in the service of temporary and precarious alliances through the equivalence of demands. According to Laclau and Mouffe, such a politics requires difference to prevent a totality in which power could no longer structure political relationships. They posit an external difference forged through the temporary identity of a “we” posed against a “they” as a condition for hegemony. Laclau asserts that “the people” comes into being through an equivalency of demands made around a set of terms that lack positive content (e.g., we want freedom) and that this requires an expelled other against which the resulting identity can be defined.

While I share their concern for the dangers of totality, I am not sure we can simply forsake the global “we” in an era in which global imaginaries have become so powerful. That does not mean, however, that we are doomed to some global apolitical homogeneity. Difference is not lost to us, but the global requires a different difference. The we-they difference that Laclau and Mouffe use to stand against totality is not the only kind of difference that could make that stand. Moreover, posing a necessary relationship between these two forms of difference can leave us at a loss when we attempt to rearticulate the political against globalization. In other words, requiring an other to constitute the difference necessary for hegemony forces us into processes of expulsion, processes that take on a dangerous ethical tone should the global “we” be configured as “humanity” and the “they” then configured as something else. We leave ourselves little recourse to create the political in a global imaginary if we are determined to base our politics on differential identity.

Enter affect. Affect, when understood as a mode of investment through which social meaning is organized, opens a field of difference without succumbing to the closure of totality or the sedimentation of oppositional identity (See Lawrence Grossberg, Christian Lundberg, and Jacques Lacan). Affect marks sites of investment that secure meaning and act as nodal points, through which the surrounding field of meaning is structured. The concept of nodal points of investment comes to us through Lacan’s understanding of the field of signifiers. Here, the difference between terms (e.g., that “cat” is not “hat,” “bat,” or “dog”)—which allows for the function of language—is not posed against an outside but produced as an internal set of irreducible distinctions. Investment of affect at nodal points serves as the condition for meaning by joining signs and representations. This affective investment also produces certain signs, particularly powerful metaphors, that organize the surrounding linguistic field. This way of thinking difference offers an account of the striations of power without requiring an absolute other, nor the occasion of identity formation at all.

So, to answer Chika’s question, I am looking at affect to see if affect, as a structure of investment, allows for a field of difference that can still account for power but does not require identity. Taking up affect in this light allows us to adhere more faithfully to the call by Mouffe and Laclau to create contingent alliances of projects rather than a sedimented “we” oriented to the projection or expulsion of a “they.” In this way, an affective politics without identity could serve as a crucial resource when the global is at stake.