U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Habits of Highly Affective People (Guest Post by Kurt Newman)

(Editor’s Note: this is the fourth in a series of weekly guest posts by Kurt Newman — Ben Alpers)

The Blue Smock of Happiness

Like most viewers (I imagine) of Richard Press’s 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, I left the movie theater filled with envy for its subject, the New York Times’ charming roving fashion photographer.

In a Cunninghamian mode, I have chosen, in this installment of my series on critical theory for historians, to train my focus on signs of new intellectual passions—passions that I think will soon begin to concern historians. These are not, properly speaking, “new”—but they are new to us, which is what matters.

My analytic object is Sara Ahmed’s remarkable essay “Happy Objects.”[1] I was going to call it a “beautiful” essay—it is a “beautiful” essay––but I recently re-read Chester Himes’s autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, and one of its most poignant passages concerns his antipathy for the strange tendency of white readers to call novels about African American traumas “beautiful.”

Ahmed’s is the most elegant and alluring theoretical prose currently being written in English, but it may be wise to avoid my impulse to call it “beautiful,” for the same reasons that Himes’s interlocutors might have questioned their own impulses to give voice to an aesthetic appreciation of representations of Black suffering.  Ahmed is also writing about pathologies of power, and the pain it visits on the non-compliant. To aestheticize it may be to blunt its edge.

Ahmed is a British/Australian scholar, born in 1969. Ahmed situates herself—I think––within the political milieus of women of color and queer of color feminism. She teaches at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her best-known work is Queer Phenomenology (2006), a remarkable engagement with Husserl that takes the stupid first question asked by the phenomenologist (“what is this the table?”) and weaves a complex meditation on the meanings of “orientation.”

Ahmed reminds us that the table, that mute object that triggers the initial ratiocination, might also be a dinner table—say, a dinner table at a holiday meal at which the adult gay or lesbian child sits and absorbs the hostility and aggression of the extended family. “Orientation” may not be a matter of spatial locating and proprioception, but also a complex set of metaphors that ratifies a given understanding of what it is to incline lovingly, but “wrongly,“ towards the improper person.

Affects and Objects

In “Happy Objects” Ahmed builds upon these themes, and extends them in ways that trigger our inner Bill Cunninghams to begin snapping photos. Ahmed’s essay provides a series of clues to developments in the world of Theory to which we might want to attend.

First: the title. What does “happy” mean?  Why are “objects” the subjects of the essay, and how can “objects” be “happy,” anyway? “Happy” is a feeling, one supposes. But it is more than a feeling—it is something like a social force. We sometimes remember moments of private happiness, but more commonly, we recall being happy in groups, even “catching” happiness by coming into contact with a happy creature—a giggling infant, a panting Lhasa Apso. The name for this kind of feeling that is more than a feeling, that seems to have something to do with social circulation, is “affect.”

Among other things, then, Ahmed’s essay tells us that “affect” is something that is being talked about. This is true. While likely a phenomenon with multiple sources, the rise of “affect” talk is a product of growing attention to the final writings of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and in particular her renovation of the work of the renegade psychologist Silvan Tompkins.

Enthusiasm for this project has overlapped with a revival of interest in Spinoza, who based his entire Ethics on a theory of active and passive affects, distinguishing the good from the bad on the basis of their capacity to make us happy. In the US, it was the work of Deleuze translator and scholar Brian Massumi that first articulated the neo-Spinozan/Deleuzian frame to a new theorization of “affect” as a guide to the political realities of the post-9/11 national security state. Writing in an affective key, this project continues to be elaborated by Steven Shaviro, John Protevi, Claire Colebrook, and Patricia Clough (Jodi Dean and Lauren Berlant might be thought of as the authors working on related projects regarding the affective core of contemporary politics).

In any event, “affect” is in the air. Ahmed writes: “My essay contributes to what has been described by Patricia Clough (2007) as ‘the affective turn.’” This seems to provide evidence that there has been an “affective turn.” I am not aware, however, of many historians caught within this pivot, with the notable exception of Grace Hale. Who else might qualify, I wonder?

If there is a lag in historiographical engagement with affect theories, this probably reflects the usual glacial pace of historical absorption of theoretical novelties.

Another possibility, however, is that affect has not yet been properly theorized as a tool to be deployed as something with explanatory power. If this is true, my sense is that Ahmed’s essay might guide us towards historical engagements with affect theory.

Come On Get Happy

Ahmed is not talking about just any affect—she is talking about “happiness” as an affect, or as a consequence of affective processes. She wishes to pose to the question: “how we can theorize positive affect and the politics of good feeling?” This is a playful and critical response to the recurrent suggestion by some participants in feminist political theoretical circles that theory should not be such a downer. “If it is true to say that much recent work in cultural studies has investigated bad feelings (shame, disgust, hate, fear, and so on),” Ahmed writes, “it might be useful to take good feeling as our starting point, without presuming that the distinction between good and bad will always hold.”

(In related news, the theme of the next American Studies Association, so the rumors go, is “fun”). Ahmed identifies positively, instead, with the political potentials of “anti-fun” and with the figure of the “feminist killjoy”: http://feministkilljoys.com/

A broader context for Ahmed’s negotiation with “happiness” might be found in Alenka Zupancic’s writing on contemporary ideological demands for “mandatory happiness.”[2]

Zupancic emphasizes that “humor, a ‘positive attitude,’ and a distance towards all ideologies” have become core features of the principal mode of the dominant ideology.

“In the contemporary ideological climate,” Zupancic writes, “it has become imperative that we perceive all the terrible things that happen to us as ultimately something positive—say, as a precious experience that will bear fruit in our future life.” In this atmosphere, “negativity, lack, dissatisfaction, unhappiness” are perceived as moral faults.

“There is a spectacular rise of what we might call a bio-morality (as well as morality of feelings and emotions),” Zupancic insists, “which promotes the following fundamental axiom: a person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person; a person who feels bad is a bad person.” It is this short circuit between immediate feelings/sensations and the mechanisms of moral evaluation that “gives the specific color to the contemporary ideological rhetoric of happiness”:

This is very efficient, for who dares to raise her voice and say that, as a matter of fact, she is not happy, and that she can’t manage to—or, worse, doesn’t even care to—transform all the disappointments of her life into a positive experience to be invested in the future? (…) Bio-morality, (in contrast to the traditional conception of success and failure in entrepreneurial moralism)—is replacing the classical notion of responsibility with the notion of a damaged, corrupt being: the unhappy and unsuccessful are somehow corrupt already on the level of their bare life, and all their erroneous actions or non-actions follow from there with an inexorable necessity.

Thus, “success” is becoming almost a biological notion, begetting a “genuine racism of successfulness.”


The title “Happy Objects” also tells us that people—well, at least one person––are talking about “objects.” Tracking trends, I think it is fair to say that “objects” are “hot” these days. Whereas a great deal of “post-humanist” energy, over the last decade, seemed to invest the question of humans and animals—an inquiry that should be sustained, and in particular, taken up with greater vigor by historians*––today the heat seems to have migrated to “objects.”

The most obvious manifestation of the new craze for “object” talk is the simultaneous emergence of two philosophical schools—Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology—both of which take a somewhat sci-fi-flavored approach to an absolute indifference between humans, animals, things. The conventional story of the rise of SR and OOO looks to 2002 (which saw the publication of Graham Harman’s Tool-Being) as year zero. Since then, a variety of thinkers have circled within and around the SR and OOO camps (though Harman and the French thinker Quentin Meillassoux seem to remain the best-known); several conferences have been held, and a series of Internet debates have drawn widespread attention: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/worries-about-ooo-and-politics/ http://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/05/uses-of-object-oriented-ontology.html and http://itself.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/a-response-to-graham-harmans-marginalia-on-radical-thinking/

This more or less completes the thumbnail story although two details probably ought to be mentioned. First, while initially apparently masterless, some OOO partisans have become invested in the coronation of the French social scientist and theorist Bruno Latour as the major experimental philosopher of our time.

Second, while for decades affect theory and debates about objects/objectification have been substantially grounded in feminist interdisciplines, SR and OOO seem, at least to the casual observer, to be overwhelmingly and aggressively male-dominated (Jane Bennett, a political theorist at Johns Hopkins, appears to be the only prominent woman in the SR/OOO orbit).

Besides my incredulity at Latour-as-“Prince of Networks” (as Harman calls him) and my distaste for boys’ clubs, I am inclined to keep an open mind about the potential fruits of SR and OOO for historians. I have a vague sense that something interesting will come of all this (and a slight hunch that it will end in disaster). I like things that are psychedelic, and many of the authors associated with SR/OOO are talented lysergic word painters. But like Chuck in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, reading OOO texts often leaves me feeling like I want to shout: “We’ve been here for over three hours, and I’m not sure if any of us can see what all this is supposed to mean!”

Kind Pessimism: Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Objects”

Turning to Ahmed’s “Happy Objects,” then, we note that both “happy” and “object” are, for Ahmed, unstable terms. Their instability derives, to a large extent, from their mutual interdependence.

“Even if happiness is imagined as a feeling state, or a form of consciousness that evaluates a life situation achieved over time,” Ahmed writes, “happiness also turns us toward objects.” Other things “make us happy”—it is hard to “make oneself happy,” and we often, in fact, regard people with too powerful an internal reservoir of happiness as troubling.

“Happiness” happens, Ahmed tells us—it is connected semantically to its etymological ancestor (“hap,” chance)––and as a “happening” it is always a coordination of humans and objects. “Happiness” is the name for a chance encounter with an object that we evaluate as good. Repetition over time, though, tends to invest certain objects with promises of happiness. Ahmed’s point here is not to pursue a critique of reification or fetishism––she does not gainsay the veracity of the “happiness” that objects promise. Her agenda is articulated instead to the ways in which these objects coalesce in social forms, shaped by power relations, available to some and not others, and always under certain conditions.

“Affect” then, is not just about an immaterial substance that hovers or migrates, and not just about the prickly business of quickening heartbeats and galvanic skin response. Objects become bearers of affective value “as they are passed around” (I think we might be permitted to say that, at least in our fantasies, objects become receptacles of or keys to affects themselves). For Ahmed this objectal character of affect and affective character of objects is a source of cohesion for the symbolic order. This might prove the first point of entry for historians looking to “use” affect—with this model in mind, historical change might be characterized as a process wherein a certain cohesion between objects and affects loosens or hardens, becomes indeterminate or too demanding to sustain. Those are historical processes.

Ahmed focuses, in particular, on the ways in which the family sustains its place as a “happy object” by “identifying those who do not reproduce its line as the cause of unhappiness.” This strikes me as the second point of entry for historians—in particular, for social historians who have long struggled—to give a common example–– to properly think simultaneously with Marxism, feminism, and critical race theory about the internal antagonisms underlying the history of the “working-class family” in a given time and place.

Ahmed seeks to highlight the political work performed by those who disturb the “happy family” and related formations: “affect aliens,” “feminist kill-joys,” “unhappy queers,” and “melancholic migrants.”

Like the OOO theorists, Ahmed’s language is dominated by metaphors of “inclination” and “withdrawal”—things move towards other things or retreat away from them. What matters most in this plastic universe is the question of the new: familiar people and familiar objects develop habits and relationships, but the new person or new object poses the option of rejection or incorporation.

“Incorporation,” Ahmed writes, “may be conditional on liking what we encounter”:

Those things we do not like we move away from. Awayness might help establish the edges of our horizon; in rejecting the proximity of certain objects, we define the places that we know we do not wish to go, the things we do not wish to have, touch, taste, hear, feel, see, those things we do not want to keep within reach.

The event of incorporation or reception functions as a crucible of new affective relations:

What is around an object can become happy: for instance, if you receive something delightful in a certain place, then the place itself is invested with happiness, as being “what” good feeling is directed toward. Or if you are given something by somebody whom you love, then the object itself acquires more affective value: just seeing something can make you think of another who gave you that something. If something is close to a happy object then it can become happy by association.

This, I think provides a third point of entry for historians—a way of complicating and eroticizing the study of space (to which historians have certainly been attentive of late).

This seems like a particularly productive site of convergence, because Ahmed’s model provides a set of tools for analyzing some dimensions of spatial politics that are difficult to map:

So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere;” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point (…) Having read the atmosphere, one can become tense, which in turn affects what happens, how things move along.  The moods we arrive with do affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods (…) Situations are affective given the gap between the impressions we have of others, and the impressions we make on others, all of which are lively…

The historical applications of such notations, it seems to me, are virtually endless.

To continue with our example of the complexities of the social history of the family, consider this passage:

To be orientated toward the family does not mean inhabiting the same place. After all, as we know from Locke, pleasures can be idiosyncratic. Families may give one a sense of having “a place at the table” through the conversion of idiosyncratic difference into a happy object: loving “happily” means knowing the peculiarity of a loved other’s likes and dislikes. Love becomes an intimacy with what the other likes and is given on condition that such likes do not take us outside a shared horizon.

To think with affect and objects is to begin to consider historical situations in which a social actor is accused of being the source of “bad feelings”—of radiating “unhappy affect”—when they have in actual fact been affectively cool or neutral (an extraordinarily common situation for single “others” in groups that understand themselves as homogeneous).

Thus, we would do well to think with Ahmed’s fragment from Audre Lord: “When Women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action.’”

“The exposure of violence,” Ahmed writes, “becomes the origin of violence.” Such insights might well provide the key for advances in our understanding, in particular, of the history of race and racism.


 Ahmed’s essay suggests a variety of historiographical elaborations, applications, and supplements. It would be useful to prepare a list of works that might constitute a syllabus of works that prefigure such projects. The ones that come immediately to mind are Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things, the essay on The Black Book in Toni Morrison’s What Moves at the Margins, and Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception.

What other texts might belong on this list?

[1] Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects” in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

[2] See Alenka Zupancic The Odd One In On Comedy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008 (emphasis added). Zupancic is a Slovenian philosopher, Lacanian, and social theorist.

25 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Two notes:

    at some point I make reference to human/animal studies, and meant to make a point of my enthusiasm for the recent article on the JAH about squirrels: http://gizmodo.com/the-fascinating-story-of-why-u-s-parks-are-full-of-squ-1478182563

    Alenka Zupan?i?’s name is Alenka Zupan?i?. Although perdition was always lurking in my future, there is not question that there is a special place in hell for guest bloggers who ask their hosts to master the art of Slovenian diacritics.

    • Aha! It is the anti-Slovenian bias of the platform itself! In that case, we will go with “Alenka Zupancic,” and apologize for casting aspersions on the poster’s Ljubljanan street creed.

      • Sorry about not catching the anti-Slovenian bias of WordPress. I’ll quasi-correct it above.

  2. I am not so sure Crary would fall into a genealogy of affect, his take on sensations appears to be quite affect-less, strictly visual. I think the work of William Reddy is strangely ignored by contemporary theorists of affect; he has done very interesting historical work on the construction of feelings in 18th and early 19th century Paris. I also think one can look at poststructuralist feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous in France and feminist literary critics in the US, from Gilbert and Gubar to Elaine Showalter as thinkers that were already beginning to suggest a path forward in this regard in the 70s. And Leo Bersani’s first essays on gay sexuality, which continue to influence queer theorizations of affect. Raymond Williams is of course another key figure in this regard, as Michael Kramer has reminded us in his posts here. But it is essential to note a key break in the so called “affective turn”: the opposition of emotions vs. affect. In grasping the struggle between narrative impulse and affect in realist aesthetics in his latest book, The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson writes about this opposition, using Rei Tarada’s Feeling in Theory for inspiration: “affects are bodily feelings, whereas emotions (or passions, to use their other name) are conscious states. The latter have objects, the former are bodily sensations….if the positive characteristic of the emotion is to be named, the positive content of an affect is to activate the body.” Jameson questions at the same time what he sees, correctly from my view, as an “onto-philological dilemma”: “were their affects before this name [he refers to the name used to designate them] raised them into the light of consciousness, or did the word somehow slowly begin to modify the field of existential reality itself in such a way as to endow us with a bodily dimension absent from the bodily experience of, say, the ancient Greeks?”. In this way, Jameson points to the historical (and dialectic) construction of both named emotions and affect. The link b/w realism and these issues for Jameson is that he sees a transition, within realism itself, from the connection of every sign of affective sensation to a particular meaning (as a marker of this or that type of personhood, for example) to a disconnection, where sensations become seemingly autonomous, as “states of the world, they simply exist” (they never become fully autonomous of course, this is what Barthes calls the “real effect”). This transition points evidently to modernism, but Jameson finds it already in Flaubert, Zola, naturalism, and the other realisms of the second half of the 19th century.

    Reading Jameson helped me think more deeply about how to grasp emotion/affect from a historical perspective and how to think them through literary representations. Btw, an important thing to note about Ahmed is that she comes from the field of cultural anthropology, which helps to understand her interest in affective specificity.

    • Kahlil,

      As always, an amazing and extremely helpful comment. I appreciate it so much.

      As far as Crary is concerned–I should have been more specific. But I would push my side of the debate–at least a little–by referring to the chapter on Manet and Mallaremé. I do thing that’s about historical changes in objects, attention, and something like affect (otherwise, why all the SImmel quotes?)

      I will attend to William Reddy presently.

      Definitely agree re: American feminism, and I think it would be interesting to think of Elaine Scarry, Arlie Hoschild, and even Susan Sontag as important figures in a historical genealogy. As Ahmed makes clear, Audre Lord and the Combahee River Collective also are central “affect aliens” who emphasized the politics of the affective dimension–which is important to stress, because contemporary affect studies often has a normative white position. (I think Puar has been good on this).

      Thus, many of the triggers for thinking about affect–say the leaking of the Abu Ghraib photos or the Bybee torture memos–are received as: what is this for us, we white bourgeois left academics, who don’t think “we” do this? This is a real blind spot.

      Agree, too that Leo Bersani (and my favorite October person, Tim Dean) are crucial. I anticipate and hope for and maybe will do a small part to initiate a Bersani renaissance with a retrospective here.

      I think Jameson is absolutely correct to model a historical/dialectical treatment of the emotion/affect distinction (one should probably also add virtue/sin and the various subdivisions of melancholy’s anatomy to this project, too).

      I am less drawn to an ontological distinction than an internal/external, private/social reading, which of course means that the split is largely arbitrary and changes over time (because all emotions are social, and all affects are private, too).

      But we cannot wish away the distinction. One example, about which I might write a bit, is a minor argument in Freudian/Lacanian circles about whether Freud ignored affect in his theorization of anxiety.

      Now, on one level, this is crazy–who cares? Freud’s writing on anxiety is obviously a deep engagement with invisible feelings–is this the narcissism of small differences at its worst? And the answer, I think, is no. There is a strange omission in Freud that seems to be corrected for in Lacan. “Affect” as distinct from “emotions” in this case, and in many others, is really a useful opposition.

      Jameson, of course, is also trying–I think–to come to terms with his famous claim (perhaps I should have incorporated it in my essay, but I feel like Sianne Ngai sort of cornered the market) that postmdernism/post-1970s we witness a steady “waning of affect.”

      That claim, it seems to me, is bananas–though a certain coldness or coolness that was central to Flaubert and Balzac did return in the work of Warhol, Don De Lillo, Laetitia Sadier, indie cinema, etc.

      • I’ve had problems with my new computer, my apologies for leaving a half-written comment! My observation had to do with another key distinction, which dovetails with Andrew’s point about new materialisms. There is a clear difference to be made between the Deleuzean and psychoanalytic approaches to affect. First, I am not sure to what extent Lacan himself addresses the difference between affect and emotion nor to what extent he explores affect, as an embodied sensation. Deleuzeans question the subject / object dichotomy that is still present in Lacan and his followers (even if they do focus on object of desire or the small other, the subject is still constituted through them), they replace this idea with an immanent framework of flows and bodies where notions of mediation and representation go out the window (notions that are also found in Marxist materialism). By the way, I do agree Deleuze is wrong in this respect. By the way, he and his followers–which are quite fierce–are correct when they criticize psychoanalysis as idealist (same thing goes for Zizek and Badiou), but the doing away of representation and subjectivity, as you point out yourself, it is for me a step too far.

        My biggest question is how can these theoretical frameworks help us to think historically. I have my doubts about this when reading Zupancic’s work on humor for example, where humor becomes an ahistorical abstraction, completely disconnected from cultural and historical definitions (forget genre conventions too). Same thing goes for hardcore Deleuzeans, history is subsumed into the flow of immanence.

  3. While there has been little uptake of affect theory in history, there is a bit more on the history of emotions: William Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling (2001) is the most thorough theoretical exposition, and Susan Matt’s two books, Homesickness: An American History (2011) and Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society (2002) do a history of emotions for the US. Peter Stearns has also written a number of books (and edited a series) on the history of the emotions in the US.

    It seems to me that the difference between these works and affect theory proper is that they derive from a social historical heritage, and are pursuing mentalités, whole social orders of emotional experience, whereas an historical application of affect theory would originate more in cultural history’s preference for the fragment and the exception. Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011) is one of the best in that vein that I can think of, and actually makes brilliant use of the category of “object” even if she is not, I think, drawing specifically on OOO.

    But I would also push further to think not just in terms of these two named theories, but in terms of a whole new wave of materialisms that are becoming quite at home in history. Historians (I think), like philosophers and literary theorists, are finding innovative ways to investigate new meanings and modes of materialism, moving decisively away from (though not breaking with) the linguistic turn. Histories of the body, of the built environment, and of the “natural environment” (all increasingly troubled as distinct modes, as per the forum on environmental history in the June 2013 JAH) seem to me some of the most generative and vigorous subfields in history, especially as they become more and more integrated into the kind of questions asked and methods used by scholars not specifically “doing” those kinds of history. I would argue that we are in the midst of a broader “material turn” that encompasses both an affective turn and an object-orientation.

    • Andrew, thanks so much. As with Kahlil, I am always grateful for your thoughtful and generative responses.

      WIll take up the Reddy, Matt, Stearns, and Bernstein cites; geez, there is almost a really cool course forming around this topic! I’ll be teaching it in the breaks at my 6 Sigma seminar at the Learning Annex.

      Your distinction “between these works and affect theory proper” is very helpful. The mentalité–(I have to be careful, the Annales cops are almost as vigorous as the Hayekians) seems to me, as you suggest, too vast an expanse to accommodate the “events” of which affect theory speaks–which might properly be described as “micro-political.”

      Most provocative, of course, is your suggestion that there is “a whole new wave of materialisms that are becoming quite at home in history.” That’s really something. Perhaps a “new materialisms” post would be in order here. One wonders if these are offshoots or implicit displacement of Marxist materialisms?

      My wish is that the one theory that is both at home in the “linguistic turn” and the world of objects–Lacanian psychoanalysis–will thereby gain a new foothold in history. Lacan’s insistence that objects matter–in fact, that objects really are “everything”)–but we encounter them via the structure of fantasy seems to me to offer an extremely useful prompt for future historical study. The classic model for such work is, I think, Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (even though that work is self-consciously anti-Freudian). Much of the new materialism–at least that which considers itself “post-linguistic turn”–still finds itself talking about subjective mediation of the material world. Same old problem. Humans live in a forest of distant signs, as Rancière writes. No getting around that!

  4. Kurt,
    Thanks for your response, which so deftly makes sense of what was a pretty rambling and elliptical comment on my part. I think your question of what the relationship between, if I’m onto anything here, these new materialisms and Marx is a crucial one to ask, and I’m not sure I have any good thoughts there. I would definitely read the strange coalition of labor/working class history, business history, and the history of economic ideas that is the history of capitalism as a part of a materialist turn, especially because so much of it is about digging out the infrastructure of capitalism–its supply chains, circuits of credit and debt, its transportation and communication networks, its literal sources of energy.

    Then again, not a lot of the new history of capitalism is or means to be Marxist, even if Marx is a source of many (often fugitive) insights. But perhaps that’s the point: it’s not Marxism that is driving a return to materialism, but a host of concerns, allowing for a wider development of materialisms.

  5. To Kahlil Chaar-Pérez at December 12, 2013 at 9:46 am:

    Yes, agree largely with this analysis. Thanks again for great insights.

    The Lacan affect question is complex; Andre Green wrote a lot alleging that Lacan is inattentive to affect. I am a fan of Harari’s work on Lacan and anxiety, and convinced by his presentation of Lacan as thinking with affect in his articulation of anxiety. That’s kind of a local issue, but if it was interesting, I could try to write a whole post on Lacan and affect.

    I also think that by the 1960s, Lacan has begun to take a lot from Deleuze, and that D and G and Lacan actually agree on most things. Once Lacan shifts to an immanent conception of the unconscious, the key dispute becomes the conceptualization of lack and law. That is a big disagreement, but it’s not the incommensurability that is often described in intellectual history.

    Re: historical applicability–I hear you, for sure, but I am more optimistic. For example, re: Zupancic, I have lately started reading some of the literature on ethnic and racial humor from the 20th century: for example the quite clueless analysts discussed in Patrick Mullen’s “The Man who Adores the Negro: Race and American Folklore”; Langston Hughes’s anthology of African American humor; and Theodore Reik’s Jewish Wit. So, sure, Zupancic is ahistorical–but the applicability of her theorization to these works–to figuring out the ideological stakes of certain discourses on what is funny and why different people find different things funny–is extremely helpful. Not by itself–but in conversation with a bunch of other texts.

    What do you think?

  6. Without claiming expertise on the topic or approach (or even an opinion), I would point you toward the history of technology, the history of science, and STS more generally for a longer engagement with what these authors are calling OOO. Latour & co. have of course been pushing a “network approach” to knowledge-making for years, in which humans and non-human actors are supposed to be considered as more or less equals. In practice it’s not clear what this would look like, but the agency of non-human actors has long been a flashpoint of disagreement between STS folks (who often prefer it) and historians of technology (who fear the spectre of technological determinism). At the same time, the convergence of environmental history and history of technology in the form of “envirotech,” with its sophisticated take on the built environment, is providing a new way for these groups to deal with various forms of materiality. Materiality was a *huge* focus at this year’s SHOT meeting; it’s clear that part of what’s happening is that scholars are looking for ways to talk about/critique the ways that systems of power are built into infrastructure, objects, etc., without reverting to full-fledged technological determinism.

    And of course there’s the entire field of material culture.

  7. Thanks so much for this wonderful comment! I should say that, as far as I can tell, the OOO folks are quite sophisticated about sciencey things, and seem even to understand contemporary theoretical physics. I can’t understand anything after Ptolemy, so I would want to make clear that any failure to connect dots re: science/science studies would be mine.

    Again, the gender politics here seem interesting. My sense of critical science studies in the US is that Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller were key founding figures… could it be that the reason some folks might be embracing OOO now instead of locating themselves within the Haraway/Harding trajectory has to do with the fact that OOO seems less palpably “feminist”? I could be wrong.

    And yes, the history of “material culture” and Andrew’s mention of a “materialist turn” give a person a lot to chew on. I remain resolutely psychoanalytic on this: we navigate objects via language (or processes structured like a language). This leads me to think that a lot of people who oppose their materialism to others’ “idealism” are engaging in self-deception.

  8. Kurt and others —

    Kurt, thanks for sparking such a fascinating historiographical/methodological discussion here. I learned a lot from your post and Kahlil, Audra, and Andrew’s comments.

    I am particularly taken with Kahlil’s use of Jameson to distinguish between affect and emotion. I sometimes wonder if recent theorists invested in the affect are, however, replicating a strange kind of Descartian mind-body dualism here (not consciously) in their efforts to emphasize bodily sensation as a power over and against mood, mentalite, and mental state. The lines between the two seem, of course, so porous. But the point is a good one: splitting them analytically can be productive in helping us to get at the connections between these different kinds of “feelings” (and the connections of both affect and emotion to ideology and to history whether it be flowing immanently or dialectically or otherwise).

    The notion of a “material” turn in recent history is also provocative. Though it does make me wonder about that word, which does a lot of work in historical thinking. Do we mean simply “stuff” (if so what kind of stuff); are we referencing Marx’s use of the term in “dialectical materialism” with all the tradition of the Marxian reading of “material” that has been debated; or is this merely a new word for “structures” (actually “material” poses a way past the old and stale “structure” vs. “agency” debates potentially)? Most of all, “material” made me think about the established fields of “material history,” “material culture studies,” and the like. Typically pushed aside into cultural heritage, folklore, and other marginalized areas of scholarly inquiry, “material culture” might be one of the starting points for more robust inquiries into affect and emotion as it relates to bodies, ideas, culture, economics, politics, and “the social”?

    One person whose work I thought of here is the scholarship of Larry Grossberg, who draws upon Freudian psychoanalysis to use the term “cathexis,” meaning investment of mental or physical energies with origins in the libido (to talk about the power of musical experience, see the essay in Dancing In Spite of Myself). Grossberg cites Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis’s The Language of Psychoanalysis as the origin of his thinking on the term. One of the issues in all this is how much to root bodily affect and sensation in sexual drive/libido as compared to other theoretical origin stories. But leaving that contentious dilemma aside, I’m taken by the language of “energy,” “charges,” and “counter-charges” as, er, energizing metaphors for approaching historical inquiry as a way into—and back out of—the affect vs. emotion vs. ideology debates.

    Thanks again all. What a delight to follow and join your conversation.

    Energetically (I couldn’t resist),

    • Sorry that should read:

      “material culture” might be one of the starting points for more robust inquiries into affect and emotion as *they relate* to bodies, ideas, culture, economics, politics, and “the social”?


      One person whose work I thought of here is Larry Grossberg…

    • Larry Grossberg, who draws upon Freudian psychoanalysis to use the term “cathexis,” meaning investment of mental or physical energies with origins in the libido

      Why does anyone pretend to leftism or pick up the electric guitar? In the words of the late Mick Shrimpton, “As long as there’s, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.”

  9. Michael: excellent thoughts, as usual.

    Cathexis is very interesting because it implies that once an investment of affect is made it stays” there.”

    More thoughts soon!

  10. Michael–some further thoughts, sparked by your wonderful comment.

    “I am particularly taken with Kahlil’s use of Jameson to distinguish between affect and emotion.”

    Me too! I do think it would be worthwhile to think through the terminological distinctions that would allow us to operationalize the affect/emotion split historiographically. Barthes’s “punctum” or “shimmer”? Dance theory’s “gestus”? Classical rhetoric’s “pathos”?

    Are we “replicating a strange kind of Descartian mind-body dualism here”?–this is my worry, too.

    On the “material turn”–“Do we mean simply ‘stuff?'” This really is the $64,000 question. If we mean simply “stuff” we do need to ask: what’s so special about “stuff”?

    And I am very glad that you worked out this critique: “stuff studies” as the raw material of “established fields of ‘material history, ‘material culture studies,’ and the like,” which are typically pushed aside into “culture heritage” and “folklore.” While these are “marginalized areas of scholarly inquiry,” they are also very connected to some of the more insidious state enlistments of history as an instrument of governmentality. (We could also pose the question thus–why is there a museum for Kermit the Frog in DC, and not for slavery or the American Indian genocide? What does one get by looking at Kermit, and would it matter if it was a toy recently purchased at FAO Schwartz and not the original piece of flannel worn by Jim Henson or Frank Oz?)

    Further on Grossberg–the invocation of LG helps clarify what Ahmed is up to in “Happy Objects”–why this isn’t just Round 357 of cultural studies/psychoanalysis. “Cathexis,” as LG uses it, if I recall correctly, names a process of investment (the term “cathexis” was invented by James Strachey for the English translation, and Freud’s German is more palpably “financial”).* If you invest in stocks, you can’t invest that money also in bonds, that sort of idea.

    So collective cathexis (say, by teens in a band like One Direction)** cannot just be the story of culture industry manipulation and reification–it is something like “pension fund socialism.” In the same way that Calpers has a certain power over and against capitalism, via the very tools of the capitalist state, so One Direction is more than just a canny marketing tool created via a TV game show (which it also surely is). As the fund in which affect is invested, One Direction is always (at least potentially) the reminder of the aggregate power of the proletarian public sphere (we might call this a very Freudian inflection of “purchasing power”). At some point, however, most of that affect will be withdrawn–or “re-cathected”–One Direction’s fans will get boyfriends or girlfriends, pursue careers, raise families, etc. At that point, One Direction as a “de-cathected” object is emptied out but retains its form–becoming a site of kitsch or nostalgia or danger (if you spend any time in record stores, you meet some of the lovable and sometimes sad folks whose cathectic investments have never wavered, who are still looking for the emotional splendor of that first contact with the Bay City Rollers or Rameau or the Sex Pistols… and that goes double or triple for toy and memorabilia collectors).

    This, by the way, seems like a really important theme for a scholar like yourself, who works on what pop music is vis-a-vis the creation of publics/public spheres, and as a repository of memory (but something more than memory).

    Against LG, Ahmed wants to posit, I think, a less “financialized” metaphor of affect and objects. Ironically, she also uses a figure of speech most familiar from late-Keynesian economics–“stickiness” (e.g. “sticky” prices, “sticky” wages). For Ahmed, affect circulates, and through habit and repetition it creates forms and patterns, but in ways that are much more fluid and changeable. The remainder that sticks to objects is quantitatively “less than”–I think– the “deposit” of affect suggested by LG.

    *The easiest model for Freudian “cathexis,” I think, is the classical fetishist–e.g., the foot or leather obsessive.

    **For great discussion on this, see Jack Halberstam on lesbian teens and “boy bands,” and George Lipsitz on Jack Halberstam and related riffing in Footsteps in the Dark.

    • Quick thoughts:

      Fascinating stuff here. Struck by the way you are pointing to parallels between theoretical/metaphorical imaginings of emotion/affect and theoretical/metaphorical imaginings of economics. Both of which are about “the material”(bodies, stuff, structures) but point to how, to theorize, we can only access the material through metaphor. The issue is much about what “stickiness” means exactly, right? Is it a kind of temporary velcro-ing of pleasure or meaning (or pain too) to an object, something easily ripped away without loss of adhesion for future restickings? Or is it something more difficult to untether (cathexis as fixed costs, capital investments of affect in an object, sunk costs)? What I am most struck by is that while Ahmed gestures to Keynes’ language, the emphasis on circulation mirrors the fluidity of contemporary global capitalist financialization. Which is fine, perhaps as much an effort to sort out affect in contemporary times as anything else. Fluidity not as something better or worse, just more accurate to the moment in which she theorizes. Anyways, the main observation here is the way metaphors mediate between economies of goods and economies of affect.

      • Yes–brings us back to Kenneth Burke’s Attitudes Toward History, and his brief for a Left absorption of the language of capitalism and finance. (I’m feeling sensitive to this, though, since I was also accused, in my orals, of “sounding just like Eugene Fama”!)

  11. At the risk of getting in over my head (I am resolutely not a philosopher), I want to clarify the STS/feminist philosophy of science/hist of tech thing. It’s important to draw a distinction between feminist philosophy of science (Haraway, Harding et al) which is, as you say, fairly American, and science studies, which may or may not feminist and/or American (Latour, Callon, Weibe, Pinch, Jasanoff, etc.). There’s a borderland of STS-history of technology that has very much been interested in the differences between stuff, thingyness, objects, and materiality, with an elaborate system of acronyms and catchphrases to match: ANT (actor-network theory), SCOT (social construction of technology), immutable mobiles, etc.

    In any case, the background here is that many in hist of tech find ANT to be oddly absent of power structures. Good starting points to this literature would be the various STS “handbooks,” a 1980 by Langdon Winnrer called, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” and 1990s edited volume edited by Leo Marx and Merrit Roe Smith, “Does Technology Drive History.” More recently Gabrielle Hecht has been the leading historian of technology urging scholars to think more carefully about power, objects, and agency.

    That being said: I suspect you will find most of these frustrating reads, as (with the exception of Winner), most aren’t terribly interested in philosophy/ontology and most are resolutely opposed to a psychoanalytic approach. Still, it’s useful context to the debate, which is clearly drawing on a certain frustration with science studies and it’s approach to nonhuman actors and actants.

    One final word: don’t worry about the “science” part–knowledge of science is not remotely a prerequisite of STS and history of technology! Acronym soup is the most daunting thing, especially where STS is concerned.

    • Thanks so much for this wonderful comment! It speaks very directly to me–my orals that happened a couple of days ago included some deep questioning around “technological determinism” and whether or not I believe in it (I don’t, I think!)–these sources will no doubt come in very handy as I try to revise my diss prospectus with an eye to clarifying how I plan to deal with technological innovation and history.

      • It brought to mind a recent criticism of “theory” that you don’t really have to know anything about anything. Now the snake eats its tail, the theory of theory.

        Otherwise, Kurt, you doing it all for me already. I’m enjoying your exhibitions tremendously. Keep up the work.

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