Affective Connections
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Affective Connections

Towards a New Materialist Politics of Sympathy

Dorota Golańska

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eBook - ePub

Affective Connections

Towards a New Materialist Politics of Sympathy

Dorota Golańska

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About This Book

Inspired by the philosophical framework of Deleuze and Guattari in relation to affect, Affective Connections disavows the dominant oppositional discourse around representation to offer an affirmative approach to perception, cognition and experience. It advances a new materialist concept of synaesthetic perception, where synaesthesia is understood as a union of senses. This idea offers a new figuration for thinking about our cognition, exploring the role of embodied experience and the agency of matter in the production of knowledge. Looking at a number of memorials, memory sites and artworks relating to the Holocaust the book uses this idea of synaesthetic perception to explore trauma, memory and the production of art in relation to painful memories. In doing so, it demonstrates that modes of interacting with the past and encountering the lived experience of trauma can trigger a deeper understanding of these events and produce more complex forms of affective connections. It proposes a shift away from empathy towards sympathy (understood in new materialist terms), not just as a sentimental response to trauma but as an affective notion that allows for a more comprehensive grasp of experiences of discrimination, exclusion, suffering, or pain.

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Chapter 1

Affect/Discourse: Towards a Synaesthetic Synthesis


In Essays Critical and Clinical (1998), Gilles Deleuze deliberates on the nature of cognitive processes, offering a description of T. C. Lawrence’s experience of being gang-raped in the dessert. In this context he especially comments on the relative autonomy of the body in its unpredictable, or even illogical, responses to “an event,” pointing out that Lawrence’s story reactivates Spinoza’s formula—“We do not know what our body can do!” (1998, 123). Continues Deleuze: “In the midst of his tortures, an erection; even in the state of sludge, there are convulsions that jolt the body … in its normal state, the body never ceases to act and react before the mind moves it” (1998, 123; original emphasis). The way the body autonomously responds to the event gives rise to shame, which means, as Deleuze explains, “that the mind is ashamed for the body. It is as if it were saying to the body: You make me ashamed, You ought to be ashamed.” This relies on a very particular understanding of the body as having “autonomous external reactions,” signaling the fact that “the body is an animal. What the body does it does alone” (1998, 123; original emphasis). Clarifying the complexity of the processes of knowing, Deleuze identifies the following order:
I am in an exhausting situation: my body “crouches down and crawls”; my mind is ashamed. The mind begins by coldly and curiously regarding what the body does, it is first of all a witness; then it is affected, it becomes an impassioned witness, that is, it experiences for itself affects that are not simply effects of the body, but veritable critical entities that hover over the body and judge it…. Entities rise up and act on the mind when it contemplates the body. These are acts of subjectivity. (1998, 124; original emphasis)
As evidenced, what is involved in the encounter with the other, or what an event generates, is of compound nature—both intellectual and bodily, emotional and affective. Such an understanding of perception, in terms of a multidimensional and composite process, will be a guiding principle of my further argumentation resting on radical monism inscribed in Deleuze’s philosophy.
Yet, in the context of recently increasing academic interest in the issues of emotion and affect (visible especially among feminist and cultural studies scholars),1 my approach as well as my use of the terms “affect” and “emotion” need to be situated within the body of existent scholarship in this field. As signaled earlier, my argumentation primarily draws inspiration both from original concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and from more concrete operationalization of these ideas for contemporary cultural studies effectuated by Brian Massumi. These formulations place emphasis on contemporaneous yet disjunctive operations of affect and emotion (or affect and discourse). Such a theoretical framework offers an interesting approach to the functioning of many memorial artifacts, to some extent divorcing the aesthetic experiences they offer from their political and commemorative character or ideological contexts. Nevertheless, agreeing in this regard with many critics (e.g., Blackman 2012, Hemmings 2005, Laurier and Philo 2006, Leys 2011, Papoulias and Callard 2010, Pile 2010, Wetherell 2012, 2013), I do not intend to claim that affect and discourse are completely separate from or independent of each other. Neither, in my opinion, is this Massumi’s intention. I totally subscribe to the idea that the lack of dialogue between affect and discourse research is theoretically counterproductive and, therefore, I think it is of critical importance for cultural studies to search for constructive manners to invent novel ways and new vocabularies to do justice to the entanglement of the affective and the discursive. Such formulation is, I believe, offered by new materialism. Yet, at the same time, it must be kept in mind that we need to learn how to think of affect, also in order to thoroughly grasp the operations and effects of discourse. It is obviously true that the attempts at separating between affect and language prove to be artificial, sometimes even pretentious, or that the only way to “operationalize” the concept of affect for cultural theory is through language (Laurier and Philo 2006, Pile 2010, Wetherell 2013). It does not mean, however, that affect itself does not exist beyond representation. Consequently, my intention in this chapter is to elaborate on how affect and discourse overlap and entangle, with an aim to advance a more synthetic (and synaesthetic) approach to perception.
The majority of affect theories underline that affect is what relates us to the other, a potential residing in matter that, in case of individuals, often provides them with an impulse for narrating their lives. Yet, in this context, it is often stressed that the concept of affect, as it is problematized by Deleuze and further explored by Massumi, is very different from and should not be confused with its more psychological renditions, where it stands for subjectively experienced feeling or observable emotion, that is, its biological portion.2 I am aware of the fact that different meanings of such terms as “emotion,” “affect,” “sensation,” “cognition,” and “perception” are widely discussed both within and between different disciplines. The debate about the relation between the bodily sensation, emotion, and cognition has been present across diverse fields of research, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, neuroscience, and, more recently, cultural studies.3 Hence, in order to clarify my approach to affect, and my understanding of “affective aesthetics,” I first need to briefly explain the differences between various theoretical renditions of affect and emotion, that is, the two central concepts in my argumentation developed in this chapter. Afterward I turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of intensity in order to clarify their approach to bodily affectivity, which serves as a point of departure for the analyses of aesthetic experiences that I offer in the subsequent chapters of the book. Also for this reason, in this part, I elaborate on the problems with defining aesthetic experience, especially in relation to memorial art, whose problematic status within the art theory has been contested for a long time. Then I explain the new materialist account of art, which focuses on its material-semiotic processual nature as well as on its agential capacities. This serves as a context for sketching a synaesthetic approach to both the aesthetics and the processes of perception on which I rely in my further theoretical investigations as well as in analyses of selected case studies.


A brief overview of the voices present in the debate on the nature and status of emotions lets us broadly identify two dominant perspectives on the issue: one linking emotions to immediate bodily sensation, affect, or feeling and one conceiving of emotions in cognitive terms. The development of the former approach was stimulated by William James’s work wherein he argued that bodily changes (sensations) are excited by particular environmental stimuli (1884, 189). For James, emotion should be defined as a feeling of bodily changes, immediate and not demanding interpretation. Although drawing heavily on James’s insights, Antonio Demasio (1999) claims that we should distinguish between feeling (which is private and inwardly directed) and emotion (which is public and outwardly directed). Conceptualizing feelings in terms of variants of the experience of pain or pleasure leads Demasio to argue that emotions both precede and engender feelings (2003, 28), the latter being derived from perceptions of pain and pleasure elicited by bodily responses (i.e., emotions). The differences in their approaches notwithstanding, both James and Demasio understand emotion as immediate, that is, not demanding any intellectual effort (which, actually, means that they do not differentiate between basic emotion and affect).
Conversely, the cognitive approach offers a different rendition of emotion. For cognitivists, emotions should rather be understood as “intelligent responses to the perception of value” (Nussbaum 2003, 1) and, as such, they at least involve (Spelman 1989, Krause 2008) or even are (Solomon 1995) value judgments, appraisals, attitudes, and evaluations. The cognitive approach also quite clearly differentiates between feeling (bodily sensation, physiological change) and emotion, the latter being defined by reference to ethical thought or deliberation.
Another line of theorizing emotions focuses on their “direction”; in this case, again, two paradigms of thinking can be discerned. Psychological model assumes that emotion is centered internally in a subjective feeling and therefore is expressed from inside out (see, e.g., Strongman 2003, Denzin 1984). In a different vein, sociological and anthropological approaches point to the social and cultural construction of emotions and understand them in terms of practices rather than self-present states that might be expressed towards the others (see Lutz 1988, Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990, White 1993). Such conceptualization, however, assumes the existence of the inside (i.e., an individual subjectivity) and the outside (i.e., the social or the cultural) as two different and separate realms.
Apart from these somewhat extremely different strands of theorizing emotion, there is a large scholarship in this field that should be classified as hybrid in the sense that these theories tend to, on the one hand, combine affective and cognitive components and, on the other hand, revise dichotomous categorizations implied in both individualistic and social/cultural approaches.4 Falling into this category, Sara Ahmed’s definition of emotion is grounded in the assumption about its sociality, which means that emotions are not in subjects or in objects of emotions but rather are effects of contacts between the two. To put it another way, “feelings take the ‘shape’ of the contact we have with objects” (Ahmed 2004b, 5); they depend on how we are affected by something and “this dependence opens up a gap in the determination of feeling: whether something is beneficial or harmful involves thought and evaluation, at the same time that it is ‘felt’ by the body” (2004b, 6). Importantly, this contact is not innocent or immaculate in nature, but rather it involves processes of reading and signification as well as draws on histories and narratives that are already there (Ahmed 2004b, 6). Such an approach is to some extent consonant with what Denise Riley says about the structures of everyday language, which—in her opinion—are responsible for the production of affective selves. The words are, for Riley, injurious and “vampirically” lodge themselves inside their victim (2005, 9); they—upon their falling on “some kind of linguistic soil”—take root in memories these words conjure and evoke (2005, 11). She claims that not only are people willing to accept the formulations effectuated within the emotional language as well as the effects it has caused on their lives but also they often desperately need these formulations to be correct (to justify the language’s detrimental effects) as much as they repudiate them (as, e.g., derogatory or humiliating) (2005, 14). Yet the effects are not just produced by the words but rather should be seen as processual.
For Ahmed, “Emotions are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by contact with objects…. [These] objects … can also be imagined” (2004a, 7). As she argues, “The circulation of objects of emotion involves the transformation of others into objects of feelings” (2004b, 11). Emotions shape our contacts with others and produce “the surfaces and boundaries that allow all kinds of objects to be delineated” (Ahmed 2004b, 10). In other words, “the outside” and “the inside” actually emerge as effects of emotions because through emotions, or through our responses to (broadly defined) others, surfaces and boundaries are made. All discourses name or perform emotions. Logically, we can also talk about the performativity of emotions, which make use of discourse depending on past histories and narratives. More important, however, “these emotions generate effects” (2004b, 13). This is also achieved by the circulation of words. Interestingly, Ahmed offers a theory of emotions as economy, which partly draws on Marxist critique of capitalism. She argues that “emotions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign of commodity, but is produced only as an effect of its circulation” (2004b, 120). As she further explains, “Affective economies need to be seen as social and material, as well as psychic” (2004b, 121), meaning that any distinction between sensation/affect and emotion can be solely analytical.
Importantly, in her creative analysis, Ahmed is more concerned with what emotions can do rather than with what they are. This is also my position, yet, I believe, it is vital to critically problematize the (analytical) distinction between affect and emotion (which Ahmed somewhat skips) as shedding light on, first, the (embodied) process of cognition and, second, the composite workings of a conglomerate of the material and the discursive in the procedure of perception. Yet, in order to explore that, I first have to turn to the concept of affect to explain its meaning and importance for my approach. In fulfilling this goal, I will proceed in a somewhat unconventional way by first sketching different paradigms in thinking of affect, then turning to recent criticism of the approach I take inspiration from, and, finally, elaborating in more detail on the position offered in this book. I feel that such a trajectory will let me focus on the intersection, or entanglement, of affect and discourse, that is, an approach not only vitally important for my analysis but also imperative for the goals on the agenda of feminist criticism.
Like emotion, the conceptualization of “affect” has never been a univocal and universally shared practice. In order to briefly sketch the most important differences (and similarities) in approaches to affect, I will partly, and succinctly, refer to the brilliant discussion by Ruth Leys (2011; see also Leys 2007), who clearly explains (and critiques) the dominant paradigms in affect theory.5 As she reveals, what is called the Basic Emotions paradigm (which still continues to dominate the research field) dates back to the works of Silvan S. Tomkins and Paul Ekman and assumes that “affective processes occur independently of intention and meaning” (Leys 2011, 437). Basic emotions (i.e., affects according to this approach!) are “rapid, phylogenetically old, automatic responses of the organism that have evolved for survival purposes and lack the cognitive characteristics of the higher-order mental processes” (Leys 2011, 437). Although affects combine with the cognitive processing of the brain, they are essentially separate; they are nonintentional, bodily reactions, and crucially there is a gap between the causes of affect/emotion and human interpretation of these causes (Leys 2011, 437; she also quotes Tomkins 1962, 1963, 248).6
In a slightly different approach, inspired primarily by works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, another group of scholars7 emphasizes analytical distinction between affect and emotion, defining affects as “a non-signifying, nonconscious ‘intensity’ disconnected from the subjective, signifying, functional-meaning axis to which the more familiar categories of emotion belong” (Leys 2011, 441). What binds the new (i.e., Deleuze-inspired) affect theorists with those representing Basic Emotions paradigm is “their shared anti-intentionalism” (Leys 2011, 443; original emphasis) as well as a “belief that affect is independent of signification and meaning” (2011, 443). This, for Leys, means that, in spite of many differences, there is in fact a deep coherence between the views of the two groups as they both assume that “affect is a matter of autonomic responses that are held to occur below the threshold of consciousness and cognition and to be rooted in the body” (2011, 443). Although different from the proponents of the Basic Emotions paradigm but to the same end, Massumi and other scholars subscribing to the Deleuze-inspired paradigm are committed to the idea that, as Leys asserts,
there is a disjunction or gap between the subject’s affective processes and her cognition or knowledge of the objects that caused them. The result is that the body not only “senses” and performs a kind of “thinking” below the threshold of conscious recognition and meaning but … because of the speed with which the autonomic, affective processes are said to occur, it does all this before mind has time to intervene. (2011, 450; original emphasis)
Leys thus points to the fact that according to these theories, affect and cognition separate chronologically, with affect first. This position, critical towards the Deleuze-inspired scholarship, is also shared by Margaret Wetherell (2013). For Leys, however, the distinction made by Massumi and his followers translates into the fact that they subscribe to the idea of a radical body/mind dualism, which they want to critique in the first place.8 As I make clear in the course of this chapter, although I admire Leys’s brilliant and systematic discussion, at the same time I disagree with the points she makes about alleged dualism of Deleuze-inspired theorization of affect and the assumed time chronology of affect and emotion. Let me explain this position in a more detailed way.
It was predominantly Massumi’s famous assertion about autonomy of affect (more on which will follow) that has provoked most vigorous critique. As Wetherell points out, for many scholars (including Massumi), it seems that “what is most exciting about affect is that it is not discourse. Affect seems to index a realm beyond talk, words and texts, beyond epistemic regimes, and beyond conscious representation and cognition” (2013, 19; original emphasis). She continues by underlining the distinction being made by many affect scholars where “discourse is identified with the conscious, the planned and the deliberate while affect is understood as the automatic, the involuntary and the non-representational. Discourse and affect are seen as having an almost antagonistic relationship” (2013, 52; original emphasis). In a similar vein, and in response to the claim on affect’s autonomy, Leys indicates that the distinction between affect and emotion or affect and signification, problematized by Massumi (among others), simply cannot be sustained. As she writes,
The whole point of the turn to affect by Massumi and like-minded cultural critics is … to shift attention away from considerations of meaning or “ideology” or indeed representation to the subject’s subpersonal material-affective responses, where, it is claimed, political and other influences do their real work. (2011, 451)
As she further explains, “The discontent between ‘ideology’ and affect produces as one of its consequences a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics, culture, and art in favor of an ‘ontological’ concern with different people’s corporeal-affective reactions” (2011, 451). I am reluctant to accept such a reading of Massumi’s ideas. In t...

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Citation styles for Affective Connections
APA 6 Citation
Golańska, D. (2017). Affective Connections (1st ed.). Rowman & Littlefield International. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Golańska, Dorota. (2017) 2017. Affective Connections. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International.
Harvard Citation
Golańska, D. (2017) Affective Connections. 1st edn. Rowman & Littlefield International. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Golańska, Dorota. Affective Connections. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.