Mark B. N. Hansen: Feelings without Feelers, or Affectivity as Environmental Force
Feelings without Feelers, or Affectivity as Environmental Force
(S. 65 – 86)

Affectivity as Environmental Force

Mark B. N. Hansen

Feelings without Feelers, or Affectivity as Environmental Force

PDF, 22 Seiten

What does it mean to define affect as excessive in relation to emotion, or in relation to drive? This is the crucial question that was posed by Brian Massumi and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in two watershed articles from 1995 that are largely responsible for putting affect on the map for the theoretical humanities. This question, the focus of Massumi’s The Autonomy of Affect and Sedgwick’s Shame in the Cybernetic Fold (written with Adam Frank), holds the key to understanding why their rejuvenations of older lineages in affect theory – of Spinoza and of Silvan Tomkins, respectively – have proven so influential. Despite polarizing affect in fundamentally different, and in some sense, precisely opposite ways, Sedgwick and Massumi converge in their development of affective sociality as excessive in relation to the host of delimited subjective unities, including “deconstructed” ones that have been central to scholarship in the theoretical humanities over the past half-century. For Massumi, affect is more diffuse and in some sense less “human” than emotion, and as such, furnishes a “line of flight” from the all-too-human and all-too-cognitive human being that has anchored models of subjectivity from Descartes to Derrida. For Sedgwick, affect is less automatic and in some sense more “human” than drive, and as such, furnishes a paratactic logic of behavioral motivation which breaks free from overriding narrative and philosophical conceptions of a core self in order to focus on concrete acts of affective engagement. By shifting focus from emotion and drive to affect itself, these two critics have quite literally inaugurated a whole new terrain for exploring subjective behavior beyond the human subject.

When we ask, however, what sustains or hosts the excess of affectivity, neither Massumi nor Sedgwick can give a convincing response. Both critics invoke, or rather postulate, the operation of a sociality – “pure sociality” (Massumi) or “social affect” (Sedgwick) – that somehow forms a “virtual remainder” or “non-egoic actant” paradoxically generated within and as part of a process of bodily or narrative capture. What remains beyond the reach of both projects (and, by implication, of the wealth of scholarly production they have catalyzed) is any capacity to speak of affectivity as truly “autonomous”, where autonomy would betoken an authentic independence and a positive existence beyond the effect-structure that furnishes a crucial hermeneutic thread for both critics. The result is a situation in which affect can be theorized as being “two-sided” or as functioning outside of narratives of the self, but cannot be grasped in concrete operation. Affect can only be grasped, that is, as something indeterminate and amorphous – something that exceeds the body’s or the self’s mechanisms of capture, but that is nonetheless required as a “virtual object cause” to explain any and all resulting (bodily or self-referential) actualizations.

From Bodily Matter to Matter Itself,
or Affect Beyond the “Virtual Remainder”

In her own assimilation of the watershed moment of affect theory, Patricia Clough makes a similar point. For Clough, the reigning discourses on affect have simply not gone far enough in reckoning the significance of the “affective turn.” While affect theorists were quick to make good on affect theory’s promise of a return to “bodily matter” following several decades of its suspension in various poststructuralist, deconstructivist, and cultural constructivist models, they have not been able to follow the turn all the way to its radical endpoint. As Clough understands it, affect’s introduction into reigning critical discourses was dictated – and ultimately constrained – by an overly restrictive polemical function: to rebuke poststructuralism for its suspension of everything bodily. As a result, the more radical promise of the affective turn went unfulfilled, and remains, circa 2008 when Clough wrote her article as well as today, a road not taken. For Clough, who has started down this road, “the turn to affect points instead to a dynamism immanent to bodily matter and matter generally – matter’s capacity for self-organization in being informational.” This capacity, Clough proclaims, “may be the most provocative and enduring contribution of the affective turn.”1

Affect theory’s critical myopia betokens a larger shortcoming – its neglect of the technical dimension of affectivity. As Clough sees it, this shortcoming is bound together with affect theory’s adherence to a certain model of the body, what she calls the “body-as-organism.” Largely an inheritance from cybernetics and autopoietic theories of the self, this model of the body channels affectivity in the service of organic reproduction; as such, the body-as-organism forms an obstacle to the realization of the radical potential of the affective turn – its focus on the dynamic capacities of matter generally. As an alternative, Clough proposes the “biomediated body,” a definition of the body in terms of “what it can do – its affect.”2 This model “points to the political-economic and theoretical investment in the self-organization inherent to matter or matter’s capacity to be informational, to give bodily form.” The biomediated body, continues Clough, “is not merely technological all the way down. More importantly, the biomediated body exposes how digital technologies, such as biomedia and new media, attach to and expand the informational substrate of bodily matter and matter generally, and thereby mark the introduction of a ‘postbiological threshold’ into ‘life itself’.”3 This “postbiological threshold” names the “limit point” of the extant discourses on affect, and points to what they shy away from embracing – namely, the potentiality for affectivity to characterize and to inform the operationality of matter itself (and not just that of a privileged kind of matter or material organization, i.e., the body-as-organism).

To explore affect theory’s neglect of technicity, Clough focuses on Massumi’s conceptualization of autonomy on the basis of a series of technoscientific experiments. What is at stake in the experiments, following their appropriation by Massumi, is a philosophical conversion of the empirical. In a move that “seems to make affect the equivalent of the empirical measure of bodily effects,” Massumi “uses such measures for a philosophical escape to think affect in terms of the virtual as the realm of potential, unliveable as tendencies or incipient acts, indeterminant and emergent.”4 Conceptualized through Massumi’s work, the turn to affect thus opens the body to its own indeterminacy, to a domain of experience that cannot be lived directly by it and that can only be theorized as a “virtual remainder.”

Where Massumi comes up short is in his failure to appreciate the significance of the concrete technical set-ups of the experimental production of “traces of the superempirical.”5 For Massumi, these technical set-ups and the experiments they make possible are nothing more than devices for illustrating the autonomy of affect, the fact that affect exceeds it bodily capture. Massumi, in short, subordinates their concrete operationality to their philosophical payoff. For Clough, such a subordination misses the promise of contemporary technoscientific experimentation on matter. As she sees it, experimental set-ups of contemporary technoscience furnish nothing less than a mechanism for connecting “bodily matter” to “matter as such”: “if it is increasingly possible,” reasons Clough, “to register the dynamism of the superempirical as the dynamism of matter, it is because the superempirical is not only a philosophical conceptualization of the virtual but also a technical expansion that reveals matter’s informational capacity.”6 As Clough sees it, and I concur wholeheartedly, the development of contemporary, data-driven, computational technoscience has given independent, non-bodily access to the beyond of bodily experience, which means that it no longer needs to be restricted to the status of a beyond that can only be theorized philosophically, as a virtual remainder. This is precisely what she means by her notion of “technical expansion,” and it provides the basis for a radicalization of affect theory as it has been developed by theorists in the wake of Massumi and Sedgwick.

To develop Clough’s insight here, we need to correlate two developments, both due to advances in material science and computation that together inform the irreducible artifactuality of affect, in its contemporary configuration. On the one hand, we must recognize that affectivity is inherent to the flux of matter itself: far from being the product of a materialization within bodies, affectivity is always already in operation in the vibrational relationality of the material continuum. On the other hand, we must take stock of the double function of technical processes: at the same time that they operate to mediate affective processes exceeding the scope of consciousness, technical operations are deeply and nontrivially imbricated within the processuality of the material sphere itself, and in ways that are fully decoupled from human modes of thinking and understanding.

These two developments help expose Clough’s lingering attachment to the body. At the same time as she announces the imperative to examine how the experimental set-up gives access to affectivity beyond the philosophical figure of the remainder, she telescopes this contribution in reference to bodily activities and “bodily matter”:

[T]hese experiments are technical and conceptual framings of bodily responses that produce affect and reveal the capture of the virtual. Massumi’s exemplary illustrations of the autonomy of affect not only show what the body can do; they show what bodies can be made to do. They show what the body is becoming, as it meets the limit of a postbiological threshold, which draws to it the dynamism of matter that had been hidden in the oppositions held in place by the body-as-organism, between the living and the nonliving, the physical and the biological, the natural and the cultural.7

In order to radicalize affect theory following Clough’s lead, we will accordingly have to question something Clough seems to accept at face value: Massumi’s characterization of affect’s excess as “virtual.” It is precisely this characterization that puts into place the figure of the remainder (Massumi’s “virtual remainder”), and with it, the entire structure of excess by which affectivity can be operational without being presentified.

To develop an account of affectivity that would overcome this restriction, we need to dispense with any lingering vestiges of the Spinozist channeling of forces through bodies. We must understand the technicity involved in the production of affectivity to extend well beyond the laboratory situations explored by Massumi, where its impact is channeled into the production of bodily traces of the superempirical. In contemporary developments in biomedia and digital computing, technicity opens the domain of the superempirical to experimentation and in this respect can be seen to contribute directly to the genesis of affectivity well beyond the affect-body-emotion complex. In the age of biotechnical convergence, the key issue is not “what bodies can be made to do,” as Clough puts it, but rather what matter is. Here we come upon the true significance of Clough’s insistence on the technicity of affect and its centrality for extending affect to the “dynamism of matter generally”: far from being a merely instrumental mediation that operates to produce affect or to give access to affect produced in something else, technicity operates within material fluxes themselves. It is an internal element in material processes that are themselves affective. What is needed then, to expand affectivity beyond bodily matter and bodily agency, is an account of technicity that takes stock of its material efficacy at the same time as it deploys experimental setups as mechanisms for granting human access to the expanded domain of the empirical they make operational. Rather than “technical […] framings of bodily responses that produce affect,”8 we must view experimental setups as technical framings of material processes which are “environmental” in relation to bodily activities and responses and in the face of which bodies can only remain passive.

In programmatic terms that address affect theory as an institutional formation, this situation requires us to dispense with two fundamental theoretical commitments of affect theory as it has been inherited by today’s theorists. First, we must see beyond the correlation of affect with power, and instead seek to theorize the crucial dimension of passivity as the key dimension of affectivity’s material operationality. This imperative calls for an interrogation of the central role accorded bodies and specifically, of the source for the focus on bodies as power, namely Spinoza’s account of bodies in the Ethics. No matter how much Spinoza’s philosophy supports a materialism that moves beyond anthropocentrism, the privilege Spinoza – and his contemporary inheritors – accord bodies institutes a nontrivial restriction on how the affectivity immanent to material process can matter, or in Clough’s rendering, can be made to matter. Second, we must cease conceptualizing affect in terms of its excess – whether over human modes of consciousness or over types of bodily response – and instead reinscribe it as a force operating wholly within processes, including processes that involve delimited perspectives (e.g., human consciousness) themselves incapable of directly grasping its operationality. This, too, calls for a rejection of certain elements of the philosophical sources for affect theory, again including Spinoza, and more proximately, Deleuze’s and Negri’s recuperations of Spinoza as the basis for an account of affect that is outside the operation of political power.

This dual imperative certainly stems from a sea change in the critical environment since 1995, but beyond that – and indeed, as part of its impetus – from developments in technoscientific experimentation that have increasingly made it possible to address processes of the material world without any reliance on the framework of consciousness and sense perception. The practices of experimental science have in effect caught up to the radical postulations of theory: as a result, the “virtual remainder” (or any other philosophical figure of excess) need not remain amorphous and quasi-causal, but can be fleshed out in ways that are extremely concrete and empirical, though not in the traditional philosophical sense of being directly available for the experience of human perceivers.

Feeling the Universe, or the Fundamental Passivity
of Worldly Affect

To carry out this double reform of affect theory proposed here, let me turn to the work of two philosophers from distinct traditions, Alfred North Whitehead and Gilbert Simondon, who have both been tangentially introduced into affect theory,9 but whose respective conceptualizations of “feeling” and of “affective exchange” hold much as yet untapped promise to move affectivity outward from bodily matter to material process. Whitehead’s account of feelings as the basis for the relationality of the world can help us grasp the purely passive origin of affectivity – how it informs the very worldly elements (attained actualities) from which all experiential entities, including bodies of all sorts, are composed. Simondon’s account of affective exchange between disparate levels of being – specifically, what he calls “individuation” and the “preindividual” – foregrounds affectivity as an autonomous operation that relates individuated being with its source in the metastability of energetico-material processes. His account can help us understand how affectivity is crucially involved in the operation of the compositional process whereby bodies and other experiential entities are composed from preindividual elements. Together, Whitehead and Simondon furnish the theoretical grounding for a reconceptualization of affectivity as an element of material process itself: by placing affectivity at a level of material process, prior to though not without relation with, the formation and operation of bodies, their work provides what we need to make the leap from “bodily matter” to “matter itself”.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead describes his philosophy of organism in terms of an aspiration to

construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason. […] in the organic philosophy Kant’s ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ becomes a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic. The datum includes its own interconnections, and the first stage of the process of feeling is the reception into the responsive conformity of feeling whereby the datum, which is mere potentiality, becomes the individualized basis for a complex unity of realization.10

What is lacking in Kant’s Aesthetic, Whitehead reiterates, is a conception of the interconnectedness of feelings: following Hume, Kant “assumes the radical disconnection of impressions qua data, and therefore conceives his transcendental aesthetic to be the mere description of a subjective process appropriating the data by orderliness of feeling.”11 Their complexity notwithstanding, these passages provide a preliminary answer to the question: what, for Whitehead, is an affect? An affect is a “feeling,” which is to say that it is the fundamental relation informing the connectedness of stuff in the universe (or what Whitehead, in the technical language of his speculative metaphysics, calls “actual entities” or “actual occasions”).

From these passages, we immediately grasp much about what an affect (qua feeling) is not (or is not primarily or exclusively): an affect is not an atomic impression or datum that requires the supplementary activity of another agent to be synthesized or brought into relation with other affects; an affect is not the synthesis performed by a higher-order organism on such atomic impressions or data; and an affect is not a product or result of another process. Feelings, moreover, are decidedly not exclusive to certain kinds of beings, i.e., beings endowed with particular types of bodies or particular mental capacities, but are operative at every scale of process from the most minimal (atomic and molecular processes) to the most maximal (geophysical change). And indeed, feelings are also compositional in their own right, meaning that whatever affectivity belongs to a given body or society is the more or less complex composition of all of the feelings belonging to their components.

Here, we come upon the most fundamental characteristic of feelings or affects on Whitehead’s account: they are elements of relations constitutive of unities of experience independently of being, and before they can become, qualities or properties of experiencing entities. This is the case whether the unities one is speaking of are those constitutive of elementary physical processes like the enduring existence of a table or stone or those constitutive of conceptual processes characteristic of higher-order beings like human consciousnesses. Such divergent types of process involve highly disparate degrees of intensity, in a sense that has been explicated by philosopher Judith Jones. In her study of Whitehead’s cosmology, aptly titled Intensity, Jones focuses on the power of elements of the settled world to produce contrasts, as well as on the power of these contrasts, in turn, to generate intensity, or more precisely intensities of variant degrees. The general law for such composition is simple: the more elements composing a given actuality, the more intensity.12

Despite immense variations in the degree of intensity (tables and stones involve little more than simple physical repetition and thus very little intensity, whereas consciousness, of all cosmological entities, involves a maximum degree of intensity), this univocal determination of feeling as the reception of data of the settled world that is itself replete with feeling results in a highly anomalous view of affectivity. On this view, it is not some bodily response that produces affect, and affect is not the property or quality of some endowment of internal structure or complexity; rather, affect is the basic building block, the core relationality, that informs the texture of the cosmos, that produces time and space.

This is a situation grasped perfectly by Steven Shaviro in his chapter on feeling in Without Criteria. As if speaking directly to my above criticism of affect theory’s fixation on the question of what a body can (be made to) do, Shaviro underscores Whitehead’s focus on feeling as specifying how an actual entity affects other actual entities:

Every subjective form is different from every other; no subject feels a given datum in precisely the same manner as any other subject has done. This means, among other things, that novelty is a function of manner, rather than of essence. The important question for Whitehead is not what something is, but how it is – or, more precisely, how it affects, and how it is affected by, other things. […] This emphasis on “subjective form” as a manner of reception is what links Whitehead to Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic. For all that Kant privileges and foregrounds cognition, he is drawn into a movement that precedes it and that is irreducible to it. Time and space, the inner and outer forms of intuition, are modes of feeling before they are conditions for understanding.13

For Whitehead, in other words, time and space are not “forms of intuition” that somehow preexist the relations of entities in the universe; on the contrary, they are themselves products of these relations, or more precisely, products of the process whereby distinct entities feel one another and acquire their own form from the manner in which such feeling occurs, as a product of the how of this activity of feeling.

With this understanding of feeling as the fundamental relationality of the world, we acquire a conceptualization of affectivity that is capable of moving from bodily matter to matter itself, as Clough would have it. What is involved in such a movement, however, is not a simple “expansion,” not even a “technical” one, as if we could simply go from a situation in which the body produces affect that can only be captured with technical mediation to a situation in which matter would take the place of the body and in turn produce affect that can only be captured with technical mediation. What is required is a far more fundamental reconceptualization of what the shift from bodily matter to matter as such entails: not only does it not amount to a simple substitution of a different, more encompassing body, i.e., the body of the material universe as science constructs it, for the organic body at issue in affect theory, but it also requires a critical reassessment of the role accorded bodily activity, the active response of the body, to material perturbation. In this sense, we can see that lingering traces of the autopoietic “body-as-organism” continue to animate Clough’s technical expansion of affect theory.

What Whitehead’s alternate, cosmological or environmental (as opposed to bodily) view of feeling introduces is nothing short of a radically new conception of the relation between affectivity and the compositional entities or “societies” that populate the domain of worldly experience. For Whitehead, bodies – which are, again, one kind of society among others (societies being compositions of actual entities of varying complexity) – are compositions of attained actualities or superjects, each of which has come to exist and to wield “superjectal-subjective” force because of its own self-inaugurating feeling of the entirety of the settled world to which it adds itself.14 Bodies, for Whitehead, can be said to have or to experience affectivity not because they respond to “virtual” forces but because they are literally made up of elements that all have their respective origins in feeling and that cohere together through higher-order resonances that build upon, but do not supersede, their constitutive affective relationality.

On this score, Whitehead’s account of feeling stands opposed to the entire tradition informing contemporary formations around affect theory, Spinoza included. For Whitehead, feeling is not and cannot be a quality, activity or property of an already constituted entity, whether that be thought of as a subject, a body, or an agent. Far from being the source of power, bodies are more like hosts or channels for the force of worldly matter. As the superjectal-subjective force of the universe itself, feeling is what impels the constitution of such entities, and as such can only be felt in a mode of receptive passivity that is, at the same time, the inchoate instigation of an always singular pattern of contrast amongst attained actualities or superjects.

In Feed-Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media, I have developed an interpretation of Whitehead’s speculative philosophy that addresses the contemporary liberation of technical media from the anthropocentrism informing its great 19th and 20th century forms.15 Effectively, I argue that media have begun to operate in ways and at timeframes that no longer require or desire the participation of humans and that no longer interface with the domains of our perceptual experience, and I turn to Whitehead’s neutral ontology of organism to develop resources for rethinking what experience, and human experience in particular, is within such a context. At the core of this project is an effort to correct Whitehead’s own massive underestimation of the importance of the superjective power of the settled world of attained actualities and “real potentiality.” Building upon Jones’s work in Intensity, I counter Whitehead’s own tendency, a tendency reproduced by the vast majority of his critics and commentators, to privilege “concrescence” (the genesis of new actual entities) over “transition” (the reentry of attained actualities into the settled universe) and to position conscrescence as the sole source of novelty in the universe. What results from this correction is an integration of the operations of concrescence and transition into a single account of process that foregrounds the power of data, as the bearer of the “real potentiality” of the settled world, to give rise to new entities (which is equally to say, to more data). Far from being the (sole) source of novelty, concrescence on this account is the product of always singular patterns of contrast amongst already existent or objectified attained actualities or superjects. The novelty that is central to process results from the worldly operationality of data, not from the interior operations of a delimited subjective entity, and this remains the case even though such a subjective entity – what Whitehead calls the “subjective aim”– is also the result of the very same worldly operationality of data.

If we carry over the payoff of this correction to the topic of feeling in Whitehead, what we find is a similar division between the worldly operationality of data, which Whitehead most typically calls “feeling,” and the delimited subjective formations to which it gives rise, which Whitehead designates as “the emotional complex” of the finished or “satisfied” concrescence:

A “feeling” belongs to the positive species of “prehensions.” […] An actual entity has a perfectly definite bond with each item in the universe. This determinate bond is its prehension of that item. A negative prehension is the definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution. This doctrine involves the position that a negative prehension expresses a bond. A positive prehension is the definite inclusion of that item into positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution. This positive inclusion is called its “feeling” of that item. Other entries are required to express how any one item is felt. All actual entities in the actual world, relatively to a given actual entity as “subject,” are necessarily “felt” by that subject, though in general vaguely. An actual entity as felt is said to be “objectified” for that subject. Only a selection of eternal objects are “felt” by a given subject […]. But those eternal objects which are not felt are not therefore negligible. For each negative prehension has its own subjective form, however trivial and faint. It adds to the emotional complex, though not to the objective data. The emotional complex is the subjective form of the final “satisfaction.”16

Only by dispensing with Whitehead’s apparent desire to maintain a symmetry between positive and negative prehensions can we do justice to the radical potential of his account of the passively-received, non-subject-centered, superjective agency of objectified data. Rather than characterizing feeling (or positive prehension) first and foremost as a “contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution,” we would do better to divide feeling between two distinct standpoints, that of the objective data informing process and that of the incipient subjective polarization. Prior to giving rise to the latter – and in order to do so – feelings characterize the pattern of contrasts of objectified data as they bond together and converge around a congealing unity that can only subsequently emerge as the prehender or feeler of these feelings. Feelings thus precede the constitution of any distinct feeler.

At certain moments in Process and Reality, such as when he describes his philosophy of organism as the “inversion” of Kant’s philosophy, Whitehead clearly grasps the relation between feeling and feeler as a genetic one, with feeling playing the role of source:

The philosophy of organism seeks to describe how objective data pass into subjective satisfaction, and how order in the objective data provides intensity in the subjective satisfaction. For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world – a “superject” rather than a “subject.” The word “object” thus means an entity which is a potentiality for being a component in feeling; and the word “subject” means the entity constituted by the process of feeling, and including this process. The feeler is the unity emergent from its own feelings; and feelings are the details of the process intermediary between this unity and its many data. The data are the potentials for feeling. […] The process is the elimination of indeterminateness of feeling from the unity of one subjective experience.17

Despite Whitehead’s finalist claim that “the feelings are what they are in order that their subject may be what it is,” there is a clear sense in which feelings must first operate in the mode of efficient causality precisely in order for any subsequent subjective polarization to emerge. Thus, we can conclude that Whitehead, notwithstanding his undo emphasis on subjective polarization, accords a primacy to feeling as the source for worldly contrasts that give rise to subjective polarizations. With Whitehead, then, we can affirm that “a feeling – i.e., a positive prehension – is essentially a transition effecting a concrescence.”18

We can now appreciate what is at stake in Whitehead’s efforts, halted as they may be, to correlate feelings with the objective data of worldly superjects as they generate contrasts that will yield concrescing subjectivities. In what amounts to a categorical distinction between feelings and emotions, Whitehead here installs feelings as something like a medium or texture of relationality in which the objectified matter of the world can, by generating the concrescence of new actualities, produce new feelings. Far from being relative to any subjective perspective, feelings are what make such perspectives possible in the first place: bluntly put, feelings mediate the relations among data that produce subjective intensity, or as Whitehead puts it in one of the above cited passages, they are “intermediary between [the feeler’s] unity and its many data.”

As they are described in Whitehead’s account of “the emotional complex,” emotions pertain to the “subjective form of the final ‘satisfaction’” of an actual entity’s concrescence. They describe the how of the concrescence, which is to say, the way in which the “unity as felt,” the unity that is a “contrast of entities” or objective data, is transformed into a unity of subjective form in the accomplishment of the concrescing actuality.19 In a sense, then, emotion in its Whiteheadian determination is a capture or maximal contraction of affectivity (or feeling), just as it is for Massumi, Clough, and other contemporary affect theorists. Yet, in Whitehead, emotion, like feeling, operates first and foremost within the speculative process whereby the real things that compose the universe come to be. Emotion is not a macroscale contraction of the microscale operations of affectivity, as it is on Massumi’s account; rather it is, like feeling, a microscale operation that can be differentiated from feeling precisely because of its status as the final result of the process that eliminates the indeterminateness of feelings.

Steven Shaviro is, accordingly, mistaken in his assessment of how Whitehead’s categories map onto Massumi’s:

I will use the terms “feeling,” “emotion,” and “affect” pretty much interchangeably. This is in accordance with Whitehead’s own usage. Nonetheless, I remain mindful of Brian Massumi’s crucial distinction between affect and emotion. […] I think that this distinction is relevant for Whitehead as well, but he does not mark it terminologically. As I will argue, Whitehead’s “feeling” largely coincides, in the first instance, with Massumi’s “affect.” Whitehead goes on, however, to give a genetic account of how, in “high-grade” organisms such as ourselves, something like “emotion” in Massumi’s sense arises out of this more primordial sort of feeling.20

Shaviro’s effort to map Whitehead’s critique of pure feeling onto the structure of affect theory, with its defining division between a molecular, nonsubjective affectivity and a molar, subjective emotion, misses what is most novel and significant about it. Shaviro misses the fact that, for Whitehead, feeling comprises the vector character of the physical cosmos itself and, as such, is built into the process of the world at all levels.

Here we come to the question of what Whitehead can offer affect theory. As I have been suggesting, his approach to feeling as the basis for the relationality of process allows us to situate affectivity as a component of worldly materiality itself, rather than a result of bodily reactions to such materiality. As distinct dimensions of affectivity, feeling and emotion thus pertain to different aspects of speculative process: while feeling explains the general process through which data of the world gives rise to new data, emotion characterizes a specific phase in that process, the moment when a new actuality (a new datum) is completed. It is clearly the case that Whitehead’s philosophy would have room for, if not in fact require, an account of emotion in higher-order experiential entities (societies); however, we must admit that he does not really provide a robust account of affectivity as an experiential achievement. More specifically, even as his philosophy of organism allows us to locate affectivity directly within the material flux itself, Whitehead does not really explain how the feelings that characterize actual entities as the data of the settled world (i.e., as superjects) relate to feelings of experiential entities or societies that are composed from them. There is a general, yet vague, sense in Whitehead that the subjectivity (superjective subjectivity) produced by feeling at the speculative level is what furnishes the source for higher-order, experiential forms of affect and emotion, but nowhere does Whitehead tells us how this takes place: how, that is, the affectivity of component actualities can be subsumed into and can become the motor for the affective experience of societies.

Affective Exchange, or the Integration of Excess

To address this process, one that is absolutely fundamental for any account that would predicate affectivity of matter itself, we must turn to the work of another philosopher – one who, it would seem, was not directly influenced by Whitehead’s work. Affectivity, or more precisely, “affective exchange,” plays a fundamental role in Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation. In his major text, L’Individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Information, Simondon develops a general account of ontogenesis that encompasses all levels of being from the physico-chemical and biological to the psychic and collective.

The basic concept at the heart of this project is individuation, and Simondon’s key move is to think the individual from the standpoint of individuation, rather than following the tradition of hylomorphism which accords individuation exclusively to an already constituted individual. The anteriority and surplus of individuation over the individual means that the latter has a constitutive relation to something outside of it. In the case of inanimate beings, like the crystal that Simondon takes as a key example, individuation occurs abruptly in a single event that produces a dyad of individual and milieu; the ongoing evolution of a crystalline structure following this event involves the simple, physico-chemical production of more crystals from the interaction with a highly stable milieu. In the case of the living, by contrast, both individual and milieu continuously evolve on account of their distinct but intertwined, ongoing relations to a preindividual domain of metastability that forms an inexhaustible and separately evolving source of potentiality. By contrast to the crystal, in the case of the living, there is “perpetual individuation, which is life itself.”21 “The living,” Simondon reiterates, “is theater and agent of individuation; its becoming is a permanent individuation.”22

With this fundamental distinction between animate and inanimate individuation, Simondon structures his general account of ontogenesis in a different way than does Whitehead. For the latter, there is no particular line of demarcation between the living and the nonliving, and life itself must be sought in the quotient of novelty involved in the genesis of actual entities rather than in the organization of experiential entities (organisms). For Simondon, by contrast, the living is defined by the structure of the living being’s relation to a metastable outside: as opposed to an inanimate being like the crystal, a living being remains in perpetual becoming. To achieve the flexibility or indeterminacy required for such becoming, the living being self-complexifies: it doubles its relation to its exterior milieu by developing what Simondon calls an “internal resonance.”23

Because of Simondon’s effort to specify the particularity of living individuation, he introduces something that remains underdeveloped in Whitehead’s account: an explication of how affectivity and emotion take on a special role in living processes. Whereas Whitehead locates feelings at the level of process itself and explains the purely passive origin of affectivity, Simondon excavates the central role played by affect and emotion in the compositions that organize the basic components of process (actual entities) into experiential entities or societies, and specifically, into living organisms. This excavation centers on “internal resonance” and how it specifies the way a living being undergoes perpetual becoming: internal resonance affords the living being the resources to adapt to a world that is both constantly changing and in excess over it: affectivity comprises “the resonance of being in relation to itself, and links the individuated being to a preindividual reality that is associated to it.”24

Here we can grasp both the specific difference between Whitehead and Simondon concerning affectivity as well as their common adherence to a “double ontology” that distinguishes a domain of experience from a domain that is the source for this domain. Whereas Whitehead posits feeling as the very motor of process itself and thus approaches it first and foremost as a speculative (pre-experiential) operation, Simondon deploys affectivity as a hinge between the domain of experience and the preindividual source of potentiality for experience. It is in affectivity that a living individual experiences its own partiality and incompleteness, and comes to understand how its ongoing individuation involves an open relation to a preindividual source of potentiality outside it.

Let us now turn to the question of how Simondon’s account of affectivity helps transform our understanding of the second key concept in affect theory, the notion that affect is in excess over something, be it consciousness, cognition, or emotion. As we shall see, Simondon’s model allows us to conceptualize affect not simply from the standpoint of the limited experiential entity that it exceeds (the individual), but also from the standpoint of the larger relationality that is the source of this excess. Crucially, Simondon introduces two terms for, and two ways of conceptualizing, this latter standpoint: it is, of course, the standpoint of the ongoing individuation of the individual; but it is also the standpoint of what Simondon calls “the subject.” Whereas “individuation” expresses the excess of the process of becoming over the individual, the “subject” expresses this same excess from the standpoint of individuated being. Unlike the individual, which might be understood as a set of individuated realities, the subject encompasses both individuated and pre-individuated elements, in a way that makes it laden with “potentialities.”25 Like all potentiality, these specific potentialities of a given subject require a relational structure to express themselves. For Simondon, this structure involves the subject’s relation with other beings and a form of individuation – transindividuation – that, like the preindividual, exceeds the reality of the individual: “Gathered together with others, the subject can be correlatively theater and agent of a second individuation that gives birth to the transindividual collective and binds the subject to other subjects.”26

With its capacity to designate an aspect “within” the individual itself that exceeds the individual, the subject helps us understand the full significance of Simondon’s characterization of affect in terms of “affective exchanges”: affectivity is precisely the medium for the relationality that links the individual to its preindividual source and to its transindividual participation, and it is this relationality itself – the product of affective exchanges – that constitutes the subject. In this sense, the subject is not so much an aspect of the individual as it is the expression of the individual’s own constitutive excess, of the fact that “being is never one,” that it is always “more-than-one.”27 Affectivity, Simondon writes, “is a way for the instantiated being to locate itself according to a vaster becoming”: it is the “index of becoming.”28

It is important that we appreciate just how anomalous Simondon’s use of the term “subject” is: by subject, he definitively does not mean the self-reflexive subject of Western philosophy. Indeed, not only does Simondon’s subject lack the traditional attributes of philosophical consciousness, it in fact comprises something of an antithesis to it: as a relational milieu of the individual, the subject is what connects the latter to the larger biological and technical environment in which its continuous individuation occurs.

We can now appreciate why affectivity is impersonal and non-individual: it operates beyond the bounds of, and in some sense against, the psychic individualization that, on Simondon’s account, complexifies living individuation in ways that yield the kind of personal experience characteristic of human selfhood. Affectivity is thus the mode of experience through which the individuated being lives its embeddedness, beyond its individuality and personality, within larger domains of process where it does not enjoy any kind of privileged perspective and where it operates as an element of other, broader processes of individuation. This is precisely why Simondon describes affectivity as an exchange between two states of being:

Affectivo-emotivity is not only the retention of the results of action within the individual being. It is a transformation and it plays an active role: it expresses the relation between the two domains of the subject-being [l’être sujet] and modifies action as a function of this relation, harmonizing it to this relation, and making an effort to harmonize the collective. The expression of affectivity in the collective has a regulative value […] of the manner in which the preindividual individuates itself in different subjects in order to found the collective. Emotion is this individuation in the process of effectuating itself in transindividual presence, but affectivity itself precedes and succeeds emotion; it is in the subject being [l’être sujet], the one that translates and perpetuates the possibility of individuation in the collective. It is affectivity which leads the charge of preindividual nature to become the support for collective individuation. Affectivity is the mediation between the preindividual and the individual.29

Affectivity, in short, is the experiential mode in which the living individual literally lives outside itself and comes into contact with its preindividual source. It is the experience through which the individual becomes subject.

As a mode in which a living organism can experience its own connection to its preindividual source, affectivity thus phenomenalizes what remains speculative in Whitehead’s account – the relationality that comprises the energetico-material domain of metastability or potentiality. Yet when the individual experiences affectivity, it does not do so by processing it through its own psychic or embodied systems, but by opening itself out to a far broader set of energetico-material processes, by living its imbrication within the material flows of the universe. In this sense, we could say that affectivity is the capture of the individual by the greater domain of process itself, or perhaps better, that it is the re-capture of the individual by the material fluxes from which it originated in the first place.

All of this is part of what Simondon seeks to theorize when he differentiates the subject from the individual: thought of from the side of experience, the subject is precisely the mode in which the individual experiences itself not from its perspective as perceptual center, but as an element in a larger process of becoming. This becomes clear in Simondon’s explanation of the relations linking perception and action, emotion and affectivity, where affectivity emerges as the crucial operation that spans the gap separating the perceptual world of the individual from its preindividual source and continuous correlate:

[A]ffectivity indicates and comprises this relation between the individualized being and preindividual reality; it is therefore, to a certain degree, heterogeneous with respect to individualized reality, and appears to bring it something from the exterior, indicating to it that it is not a complete and closed unit [ensemble] of reality. The problem of the individual is that of perceptual worlds; the problem of the subject, by contrast, is that of the heterogeneity between perceptual worlds and the affective world, between the individual and the preindividual. This problem is that of the subject insofar as it is subject: the subject is the individual and other than the individual; it is incompatible with itself. 30

It is precisely though its incompatibility with itself that the subject can grasp its operation as a part of a larger energetico-material becoming.

Returning now to that central investment of affect theory – the differentiation of affect from emotion – we can understand better what it involves: rather than designating the intrusion of a virtual dimension into bodily experience (which is equally to say, the bodily capture of the virtual), as it does in Massumi’s updating of Deleuze’s neo-Spinozist model of affect, the distinction of affect and emotion in Simondon marks a differentiation of two distinct, yet correlated models or accounts of experience, one that remains psychic and bodily and that retains the individual as its frame of reference, another that is material in a more radical sense and that, by introducing the perspective of the subject, manages to capture how the individual is itself part of a broader domain of process.

If what differentiates emotion from affectivity on Simondon’s account is not and cannot be a distinction between virtuality and actuality, that is because, for Simondon, affectivity and emotion literally belong to different domains of reality. In a sense, emotion is the capture of affectivity by the individual, but what results is a psychic and bodily experience that belongs exclusively to and is entirely contained within the perspective of the individual. Affectivity, as we have already seen, marks the relation between the domain of individuated being and the preindividual, and thus broaches the bounds of the individual’s perspective. Whereas Massumi’s account presupposes a single plane of immanence on which all processes unfold, Simondon’s institutes a divide between ontological domains and correlates this divide itself to the experiential modality that he calls affectivity. With this divide, we achieve what we have been seeking, a doubled account of affectivity that is able to conceptualize it at once as an aspect of the experience of the individuated-being-in-continuous-individuation and as an aspect of the energetico-material processes that comprise the ongoing individuation of the universe itself. On this account, the materiality of affectivity is not limited to “bodily matter”, i.e., to materialization of affective forces in the body, but encompasses the entirety of the contact between individuated being and the larger universe within which and as part of which its becoming happens.

If Simondon thereby furnishes an experiential account of affectivity that dissociates it from its exclusive focalization in relation to the individual (and more precisely, to the virtual-actual economy of the individual), what remains to be accounted for is how Simondon’s account of affectivity as the bridge linking the individual to the preindividual correlates with Whitehead’s account of feeling as the relationality of process. With his understanding of affectivity as a material modality that crosses between the domain of preindividual process and the domain of individuated becoming, Simondon helps us to flesh out the operation whereby actual entities, which hold the status of the preindividual within Whitehead’s process ontology, get composed into experiential societies (the equivalent of individuated being or individuals). As objectified actualities or superjects, actual entities comprise the “real potentiality” of the settled world both for future process and for the formation and perdurance of individuated societies.

What Simondon adds to this picture is an account of how (preindividual) attained actualities relate to (individuated) societies, a dimension of process that remains obscure in Whitehead. The attained actualities that compose the disjunctive continuum and that inform the “real potentiality” of the settled world furnish a preindividual source for the continuous becoming that constitutes any and every experiential society, from the most minute (atoms or quantum disentanglements) to the most broad (geological formations). In the case of certain higher-order beings, including of course humans, this correlation of preindividual attained actualities and individuated societal becoming takes the form of a continuous and modulated being-with an energetico-material excess, that remains, however, part of societal becoming and that is experienced by the society itself as instability, as a threat to its ongoing coherence, as being “more-than-one.”

If the qualitative modality of this experience of continuously-constituting-societal-excess is affectivity, something that Simondon helps us to appreciate, then we have license to conclude that the (Simondonian) subject is a (Whiteheadian) society of a certain level of complexity, i.e., that level constitutive of the living human organism. With his understanding of feeling as the elementary relationality of the universe – a relationality that effectively forms the very basis for the ongoing evolution of Simondon’s preindividual domain – Whitehead in turn helps us appreciate the fact that affectivity does not originate from the reaction of the individuated bodymind to its constitutive outside. Rather, in line with Clough’s insight that has guided my thinking here, Whitehead furnishes a mechanism whereby affectivity can be predicated of the processual becoming of the preindividual itself, independently from, prior to, and outside of its operation as the qualitative correlate of individuated societies/subjects. And he also thereby helps us appreciate how the material affectivity comprising the relationality of the preindividual – what Whitehead conceptualizes as the “presubjective” intensity generated through contrasts of attained actualities – itself directly informs experienced affectivity, without it having to be first processed by the experiencer of the experience.

If this direct experience appears, from the standpoint of the individuated experiencing society, to come from the outside, from the standpoint of process itself, by contrast, it remains internal both to the relationality of the preindividual energetico-material domain and to whatever incomplete and inherently unstable societal becoming it specifically informs. I would thus wholeheartedly concur with the analogy Couze Venn draws between Simondonian affect and gravity, on account of their constitutive relationality and their presubjective model of operationality:

Affect between living beings is like gravity for physical bodies, since gravity too requires that there be more than one body in the universe. No less than gravity, affect is not an immaterial thing secreted by bodies. In short, affect, as a relational force or energy, is radically interior to the relation and not an outside force.31

With this conclusion, I can close the circle on my effort to radicalize the material turn within affect theory: insofar as affectivity demarcates a continuum from the elementary relationality comprising the preindividual to the qualitative experience of the embeddedness of individuated beings within this relationality, there simply can be no outside to it. Affectivity is not an excess over individuated being, as the tradition inherited from Spinoza would have it. On the contrary, it is at once the fundamental mode of operation of the energetico-material universe in itself (which, of course, encompasses the individuation of higher-order living organisms) and the mode in which the individuated living being’s inherence in this larger universe can be experienced from the perspective of its own ongoing individuation. Just as the experience of gravity by a body attests to the materiality of gravity as a physical force of the universe, so too does the experience of affectivity by a subject attest to the materiality of affectivity as the relational force of the universe. As a force that operates across all levels of individuated being (as well as underneath individuation as such), affectivity informs the universe’s ongoing becoming just as much as it does the individuated subject-society’s constitutive suturing of the gap between individuation and the preindividual. Affectivity, in short, is the relational force of process as such.

1 Patricia T. Clough, “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia, and Bodies,” in: Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 206–228, here p. 206–207, emphasis added. An earlier, slightly longer version of Clough’s essay appeared in Theory, Culture & Society 25.1 (2008): p. 1–22.

2 Ibid., p. 207.

3 Ibid., p. 207–208.

4 Ibid., p. 209.

5 Ibid, p. 211.

6 Ibid., p. 210.

7 Ibid., p. 210–211 (emphasis added).

8 Ibid., p. 211.

9 By Shaviro and Massumi, respectively. See also: Marie-Luise Angerer’s and Luciana Parisi’s texts in this volume.

10 Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology, Revised Edition, ed. David R. Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1979), p. 113.

11 Ibid.

12 Judith Jones, Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998).

13 Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), p. 56.

14 Superjectal-subjective force designates the power of “attained actualities” to impact the genesis of future actualities, as well as to operate as elements of higher-order, experiential entities or “societies”. Quoted terms are key concepts from Process and Reality.

15 Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 41 (emphasis added).

17 Ibid., p. 88.

18 Ibid., p. 221.

19 All quoted terms refer to concepts from Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

20 Shaviro, Without Criteria, p. 46.

21 Gilbert Simondon, L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Millon, 2005), p. 27 (trans. Mark B. N. Hansen).

22 Ibid., p. 29.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., p. 31.

25 Ibid., p. 310.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 326.

28 Ibid., p. 260.

29 Ibid., p. 252.

30 Ibid., p. 253, emphasis added.

31 Couze Venn, “Individuation, Relationality, Affect: Rethinking the Human in Relation to the Living,” Body & Society, 16.1 (2010): p. 129–161, here p. 153 (emphasis added).

  • Gilbert Simondon
  • Wahrnehmung
  • Gender
  • Emotionen
  • Zeitlichkeit
  • Affekte
  • Medienwissenschaft
  • Wissen
  • Epistemologie
  • Medientheorie
  • Körper
  • Spinoza
  • Alfred North Whitehead

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Marie-Luise Angerer (Hg.), Bernd Bösel (Hg.), ...: Timing of Affect

Affect, or the process by which emotions come to be embodied, is a burgeoning area of interest in both the humanities and the sciences. For »Timing of Affect«, Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott have assembled leading scholars to explore the temporal aspects of affect through the perspectives of philosophy, music, film, media, and art, as well as technology and neurology. The contributions address possibilities for affect as a capacity of the body; as an anthropological inscription and a primary, ontological conjunctive and disjunctive process as an interruption of chains of stimulus and response; and as an arena within cultural history for political, media, and psychopharmacological interventions. Showing how these and other temporal aspects of affect are articulated both throughout history and in contemporary society, the editors then explore the implications for the current knowledge structures surrounding affect today.