WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures - Wrecking The Format of Affect Theory (Part 1 of 2) - Commentary by Wendy J. Truran

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

posted under by Ted

From October 14-17, 2015, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, over 380 academics across diverse disciplinary boundaries came together to consider the aesthetic, social, ethical, and political potential of affect theory. Organised by Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, co-editors of the touchstone text Affect Theory Reader, this unique conference hosted by Millersville University aimed to cultivate affective community, artistic interaction, and scholarly stimulation. At once intense and intimate, the conference offered seven plenary talks with eighteen of the leading theorists in affect theory, and over 250 academic papers. Intellectual inquiry that draws on affect theory has addressed a wide range of social, political, and aesthetic problems from a variety of standpoints. Affect theory continues to morph and shift: the intellectual and conceptual possibilities this emerging field of study are still unfolding. The inaugural conference of Affect Theory gathered together leading and newly emerging thinkers in the field in order to take stock of what has gone before and imagine what might come.

Inspired by Laurent Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s alternative ethnography, The Hundreds, where the form of writing uses details and feelings to create “a scene;” the following summary of each plenary aims to evoke the spirit of the moment. To see the actual order of events and the many other panels you can download the schedule. All quotes are taken from notes made at the time of the presentations and should be attributed to the speaker unless otherwise stated. Recordings of the plenaries will be made available by December 2015 on the conference website.

Scene 1: Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds
Afternoon: packed auditorium, a buzz of excitement as two giants in affect theory sit: Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. Their presentations capture the spirit of the conference by ‘wrecking the format’ of plenary speeches. The two women calmly trade statements back and forth that don’t answer one another--it’s not exactly a conversation but it is communication, an exchange of experiences which coalesce into a patchwork of vignettes of life. The Hundreds are “episodic swatches” that are affective and alive, that require aesthetic attention and a sense of play, that carry revelation and critique. Themes emerge across The Hundreds, but as it is “form on the move” in order to counteract “the heavy words of cultural politics,” they are weaving “story problems” because “toying with things is critical to the game of social poesis.” There is no argument laid out for you here, but rather lyrical pyrotechnics that leave smoke trails of ideas, tropes, and concerns to haunt you. Some of the smoke trails that linger include: life is hard and tender and beautiful, neoliberalism kills, friendship can be political and productive, and problems of racial and sexual violence are intimate and ubiquitous. Berlant tells a story of city life – a dog takes a dump on the sidewalk, its owner gathers it up and responsibly disposes of it, funneling this waste into compost so that “even a shit has got to enter the work force.” This talk was a masterclass in carefully crafted writing; showing that criticism and theory can be beautiful and also attempt to represent life affectively. In fact, this is a necessary and political act. More information about this creative ethnographic work can be found in this interview with Kathleen Stewart in Cultural Anthropology. You can read more of this work on Berlant’s website.

Scene 2: Tavia Nyong’o, Shaka McGlotten, Zizi Papacharissi – An Invitation to be Affected After-Hours

Our first late night plenary invited the audience to experience affective community as well as think about it. The panel opened with University of Illinois’s own Professor Zizi Papacharissi describing the new structures of feeling made available through new media, specifically the affective publics created via Twitter during the live reporting during the Egyptian Uprising in 2011. Papacharissi described how Twitter became a new news reporting mechanism which offered a sense of “instantaneity.” Political revolution, and its communication blackouts, precipitated a media revolution, creating a new idea of who is able to speak and their alternative “listening publics.” Using mixed methods and big data (1.5 million tweets) she analyzed the “streams” of news and feeling which she found had a rhythm and pacing of its own. Papacharissi identified the creation of “affective publics,” wherein affect is reported as event and the networked publics connected via expressions of sentiment which “interrupted dominant narratives by underrepresented viewpoints.”  Papacharissi closed with the powerful statement that “technologies network us but it is our stories that connect us.”

McGlotten, Papacharissi
“What’s normal anyway?” Tavia Nyong’o asks as he performed an exquisitely crafted scholarly story which revealed the “crisis ordinary,” of normality, claiming “we are strangers to our statistically average selves” – and race is central to the crisis. Drawing on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Karen Tongson’s comment on normcore in her conceptualization of normporn, Miquel Wildheart’s singing the refrain “what’s normal anyway?”, and Malcolm McClaren’s all too normal cultural appropriation in “Double Dutch,” Nyong’o gave a beautiful indictment of the “median, middle, the default called normal” which centralizes whiteness. Nyong’o posited that “angular sociality” and “angular world making” is vital in order to blend the “normotic” and “antinormatic.” Nyong’o concluded with the sound of Marvin Gaye’s protest song asking us (to ask) “what’s going on?

Shaka McGlotten ‘wrecked the format’ of traditional academic plenaries with an interactive performance which embodied the notion that “affects are always in relation.” Citing Ben Anderson’s concept of “bodily capacity collectively performed” McGlotten discussed “diverse intimacies” in all their fragility and queerness through the forms of #emojis, #touch – via the nudebitionists, and #discomakeout – which invited the audience to “disco makeout” their plenary. Audience participation was required. Shaka McGlotten challenged the audience to experience affective community rather than simply think about it. Fun times #whathappensinlancasterstaysinlancaster.

Scene 3: Lisa Blackman and Heather Love – Queer Science and the Ethics of Description

Lisa Blackman asked us Alice-like to “believe six impossible things before breakfast.” One of those impossible things is to consider that science and computational cultures might be haunted by the history and excess of their own storytelling. Blackman suggests that by tracing the “threshold phenomenon” and the ever-roiling discourse of PPPR (post publication peer review) she is able to establish a “digital hauntology,” both as an object and method of study. This excess of material is often moving and moved (as in removed from the digital sphere) and so necessitates swift and focused attention of big (haunted) data, which blurs the distinctions between proper and improper objects of study. Focusing on “controversial” science such as Deryl Bem’s article “Feeling the Future,” which states that that the future affects the past, the storm of PPPR and its excision is just one example of the potential for creating “alternative imaginaries, part cultural imaginary and part speculative forecast” and points to science’s propensity to sanitize ideas which “contaminate” it with queerness.

Gregory J. Seigworth, Blackman, Love
Chiming beautifully with Stewart's and Berlant’s reading from The Hundreds, Heather Love reminded us that reading methods have consequences on affect studies. Love proposed that we think of affect studies as a descriptive practice, and asked: can there be a politics of description? Love posited that there could be “a metaphysical complicity of things as they are,” in other words do we reproduce what we describe? As such she called for “an ethics of not projecting.” Drawing on her work in microsociology, Love asked us to pay attention to the “politics of scale”: the small scale (details, richness of description) and the large scale (distanced observation and surveillance). Using Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric as an example of a writer attuned to the politics of scale, Love suggests that Rankine’s portrayal of racial microaggressions in America reveal “the link between intimacy and violence.” Her writing also makes clear the “daily distribution of institutional power” which conflicts with our position as observer/describer/writer. Love thus cautions us to pay attention to the affectivity of our reading and writing methods, but offered the hope that the details and descriptions can be an affective/effective means of resisting the status quo through the “politics of the micro.”

WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures (2015) ( was a rich, inspiring conference with incredible intensities, and made clear that Affect Theory has a vibrant future. And yes, to answer the most asked question of the conference, the acronym of the conference was entirely deliberate: @affectWTF

For ‘scenes’ from the next eleven plenary speakers (Jasbir Puar, Patricia Clough, Ben Anderson, Melissa Gregg, Natasha Dow Schüll, Lawrence Grossberg, Jason Read, Jeremy Gilbert, Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning) click here.


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