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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

posted under by Ted
For scenes from the first seven plenary speakers (Laurent Berlant, Kathleen Stewart, Tavia Nyong’o, Shaka McGlotten, Zizi Papacharissi, Lisa Blackman and Heather Love) click here.

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, the co-editors of the touchstone text Affect Theory Reader, this unique conference aimed to cultivate affective community, artistic interaction,  and scholarly stimulation. The conference offered seven plenary talks by eighteen of the leading theorists in affect theory, plus over 250 academic papers. All quotes are taken from notes made at the time of the presentations and should be attributed to the speaker unless otherwise stated.

Scene 4: Jasbir Puar, Patricia Clough, and Ben Anderson – Posthuman and Antihumanity
Anderson, Clough, Puar

The “datafication of the 21st century” makes us porous and multiple, and therefore what, asks Patricia Clough, has become of the human subject and psychoanalysis? Datafication leads to “a displacement of consciousness as a hub of experiencing meaning,” reconfiguring sensory fields to create a “society of microsensibilities.” Clough claims that since our modern psyche comes into being in a nonhuman environment, it creates a “thingself,” meaning that we must consider a “nonhuman unconscious of dissociated selves.” Indeed, Clough claims, the sociopolitical trauma of this time creates a new type of wound which requires us to rethink the death drive in the light of this quintessential 21st century relational form. For Clough this is no longer the human or the conscious self, but rather relations of media – the “it:it” relationship.


Inhumanist forms of trauma were taken up by Jasbir K. Puar within her devastating description of necro-politics in Palestine. For Puar, affect theory allows us to describe nonhuman entities and “how certain human are rendered nonhuman.” Puar gave a harrowing analysis of settler colonialism in Palestine and how “computational sovereignty” is extended under occupation to the “control of control itself.” The scale of computational sovereignty encompasses debilitating both bodies and infrastructures. Rethinking Foucault’s concept of biopower, Puar suggests that the Nation-State does not enact "make live and let die" but rather a right to maim, a “will not to let die.” A necro-politics, Puar claims, wherein Israel is perpetuating a deliberate “asphyxiatory maiming” tactic of “shooting to cripple” and to stunt by the control of food and resources to Palestinian children, which is an “inhumanist biopolitics” designed not to destroy bodies but resistance itself.

Ben Anderson’s discussion of the moods of neoliberalism connected to Puar in considering how we remain emotionally and affectively mobile in order to create change in the context of a State’s created disaffection. Anderson called for scholars to “not presume the forms of neoliberalism,” in order to (quoting Stuart Hall) “provide a more hospitable climate” for “understanding and resisting neoliberalism.” Anderson beautifully illustrated this method of openness to form through two “scenes” which reconsidered reified forms of thinking and feeling about neoliberalism: scene one focused on the Mont Pelerin Society and the genesis of a “reconstruction of liberalism.” Scene two reconsidered Margaret Thatcher and the structures of feeling which constituted the conditions of Thatcherism. The value of this kind of reevaluation, Anderson suggests, is that in redrawing multiple structures of feeling under neoliberalism we might avoid acquiescing to the “fatalism which is attached to anxiety” and especially the anxiety attached to the state.

Scene 5: Melissa Gregg and Natasha Dow Schüll – The Biopolitics of Measurement

Melissa Gregg, ex-Professor and now a Principal Engineer at Intel Corporation researching the future of work, asked when and how did the vision of the good life become about being more productive? How did “appropriate professional conduct” become equated with being hyper-productive? Under capitalism, Gregg suggests, labor politics weaves social pressure into productivity, leading people to exchange the “athleticism of accomplishment” for happiness. By immersing people in particular atmospheres, especially of anxious competition, which is beneficial to the work environment but not workers, she suggests that “individual immunity is only possible as co-immunity.”

In conversation with Melissa Gregg’s analysis of the monitoring of bodies at work in order to become hyper-productive, Natasha Dow Schüll’s ethnographic analysis of wearable technology considered the self-monitoring of our bodies. Wearables “record and correct you,” Natasha Dow Schüll warned that we are “transferring our vigilance to computers and self-monitoring to the gadget.” Dow Schüll’s research found that wearables create a “double insecurity” which leaves us unable to trust ourselves. Rather than autonomy Dow Schüll warns we are “outsourcing our responsibility to technology.”

Scene 6: Lawrence Grossberg, Jason Read, Jeremy Gilbert – The Feeling and Politics of Labor

Lawrence Grossberg cautioned those working in affect studies “in order to understand the affectivity of politics,” not to subtract anything from the analysis but to “add, add, add” layers of complexity. Pointing out that we are living in a time of political pessimism, he also posited that “it doesn’t help to articulate this bad mood unless we understand the assemblages of complexity that creates despair, and we cannot transform it unless we understand it.” In an attempt to create the complexity he called for, Grossberg posited a “diagramming of affect” which aimed to capture the affective formation of a changing political landscape.

Jeremy Gilbert spoke about an unexpected affective twist in UK politics characterized by the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In distinction from the “disaffected consent” of most people under neoliberalism, the changing mood Corbyn is harnessing offered “an enhancement in the capacity to act,” which may indicate a “weakening of neoliberal hegemony.” This mood from the “death-throes of the left” offers a “collective potency” and “transindividual potential” which might lead to joy in the collective. Gilbert finally called for a theorization of interests rather than identities, claiming that shared interests hold the potential to harness this new mood into a new collectivity that might drive the political struggle.

Jason Read focused on what he called “transindividuality.” Transindividuality Read tells us “is the mutual implication and irreducibility of the individual and the collective.” Framing his analysis through two thinkers that deal with affect and the political, Gilbert Simondon and Benedict Spinoza, Read considered these figures in order to posit a “collective ethics of affect.” Read’s method allows us to understand how political and economic structures can only exist if they are mirrored in the individual and collective at the level of affect and desire. To understand them is to attempt to formulate a “collective ethics of affect” which might make living politically possible. Much of Jason Read’s paper can be read on his blog

Scene 7: Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning – Affecting Others Otherwise
Manning, Massumi, Shaviro

Never have plasmodial slime molds been so entertaining or so controversial. Steven Shaviro offered a humorous and provocative venture into speculative realism. He challenged the dogmas of analytical philosophy by extending the question of mind and mentality, proposing a shift from consciousness to sentience. Responsive to their environment, able to make choices, appearing to have emotional tones observable by the rhythmic pulsing of their cytoplasm plasmodial slime molds, Shaviro claims, offer evidence of cognition without brains. Shaviro suggests therefore that sentience rather than human consciousness should be the guiding principle of posthuman analysis.

Brian Massumi, with characteristic brilliance and complexity, offered a “new idea of mixity and multiplicity” to create a kind of “additive realism” that might upend the binaries which create the exclusion of many people through a logic of mutual exclusiveness. Addressing the logical problems of binaries and difference which Massumi characterized as a logic of mutual exclusiveness. He offered rather an “affective logic of mutual inclusion.” Rather than a “substance predicate logic” i.e. defining things by the qualities or predicates that it has, Massumi posited the possibility of an “undifferentiated multiplicity” and a mutually inclusive logic. This logic begins with activity rather than characteristics and is therefore more inclusive of both human and nonhuman entities.

Erin Manning focused on her work with emerging authors, thinkers, and scholars who are also autistic, for example Lucy Blackman. In her work Blackman describes a sense of “carrying the feeling,” in which the felt experience has an emergent relation which incorporates the environment. Manning suggests that this non-normative experience of relationality might offer insights into how the lines and limits of subjectivity are defined. The boundaries of experience, what the human is, and can be, is often constructed by neurotypically inflected limits, creating a “neurotypical myth.” Thus a politics of neurotypicality emerges. Autistic scholars and artists suggest a feeling of multiplicity that is not so fixed, a “hyper-relationality,” claims Manning, which offers a widening of the field of experience and therefore of the scope of the human.

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