Affect/s Theory: A Response to Yan Tang

By | December 9, 2021

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Post by Roger Rothman

With great concision, Yan Tang sketches a necessary genealogy of affect theory—now roughly a quarter century in the making—and makes a compelling case that the theorists we may end up referring to as those of “first generation” (principally Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi) overstepped in their insistence that the bodily foundation of affect necessarily secures them from ideological manipulation. In response to the animating provocation posed by Spinoza—“No one has yet determined what the body can do,” (Gregg and Seigworth, 3)— it is only with the second generation of affect theorists (Tang focuses on Wendy Brown, Lauren Berlant, Christina Sharpe, Sara Ahmed) that the ideological entanglements of bodily affect are acknowledged and explored.

What makes Tang’s genealogy most consequential is its deployment of key modernist texts and Frankfurt School theorists. Considerations of W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and Ford Madox Ford on the one hand and Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin[1] on the other, open up a line of inquiry between affect theory and the avant-gardist practice of ideology critique that bears extended consideration. Here I would like to take up Tang’s offer by drawing attention to the Frankfurt School’s own divide between the first and second generation. What lesson might we learn if, alongside the Critical Theorists Tang mentions we also include the most influential figure of the next generation, Jürgen Habermas? 

In relation to Tang’s genealogy of affect theory, what is most important about Habermas’ critique of the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists—Horkheimer and Adorno, in particular—is its insistence that one pluralize our conception of “reason.” Horkheimer and Adorno saw reason as liberating: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 1). The fatal flaw, they argued, was that the advance of reason brought with it the advance of the dialectics of mastery, to the point where the mastery of man over nature would become the mastery of man over man. Reason had ceased being a force of liberation and become instead a force of oppression. Habermas, for his own part, saw yet other flaws in this model.

 For Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument was flawed in several ways. First of all, their argument was a performative contradiction: “they [Horkheimer and Adorno] submitted subjective reason to an unrelenting critique from the ironically distanced perspective of an objective reason that had fallen irreparably into ruin” (Habermas 1984, 377). They also posited a singular form of reason: instrumentalized reason. Moreover it runs afoul of the same ahistoricism that they themselves insisted upon (Habermas 1984, 366). For Habermas there is no justification for such a reductive and ahistorical conception of reason (Habermas 1984, 392).

Habermas identifies several modes in which reason manifests itself, of which the cognitive-instrumental is but one. His great contribution is the idea of communicative reason which, “unlike instrumental reason, … cannot be subsumed without resistance under a blind self-preservation” (Habermas 1984, 398). For Habermas, the Enlightenment promise of liberation-through-reason is only betrayed by the emergence of instrumental rationality if it precludes accessing and deploying communicative rationality—and there is no evidence that such is the case.[2]

The productiveness of Habermas’ pluralization of reason should encourage us to consider pluralizing affect. Tang uses the plural “affects” only a handful of times in her essay, whereas the singular “affect” appears more than fifty times (excluding the noun-phrase “affect theory”). This accords with the usage of the theorists she examines, and yet Tang’s genealogy reveals affect’s many forms: happiness (Sara Ahmed); optimism (Lauren Berlant); rage (Wendy Brown); and intimacy (Christina Sharpe). We would do well to pursue them all. Each of these distinct affective dispositions shapes how the subject perceives and interprets sense data.[3]

Tang’s analysis is all the more useful because she accounts for the affective dispositions of contemporary theorists, and provides crucial examples of what we could call the affective affordances of modernist texts. Like “disposition,” “affordance” emphasizes the relational aspect of artworks’ affective dimension. Qualitiescomponents, and aspects, are not relational, but affordances are. As defined by James Gibson, who coined the term, “the affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (Gibson 119). Offer, provide, furnish are relational terms, that speak directly to the fact that works of art move us. Works of art are unlike legal briefs, scientific papers, and journal articles in that they elicit an affective as well as cognitive response. (Tang offers a fine sample of art’s affective affordances: amuse, unsettle, entertain, provoke, confuse, repel). When works of art argue, assert, demonstrate, or denounce, they almost exclusively do so only insofar as their affective affordances permit.[4] The “profane illumination” that Benjamin found in surrealist poetry was conveyed to him via the affects of “shock,” “intoxication,” “love,” “mournfulness” (Benjamin 182). Tang finds parallels within the modernist canon, from the generality of W. B. Yeats’ “indefinable and yet precise emotions” and Virginia Woolf’s “community of feeling” to the particularity of Clive Bell’s “aesthetic exaltation” and Ford Madox Ford’s “sentimentality.”

Foregrounding affects in the plural makes it possible to understand its relation to critique as entwinement, not opposition. Pluralizing affect enables us to avoid what Tang identifies as a “move away from ideology critique through theories of affect” (italics added; Tang page#), and to understand how critique and affect function together.[5] Once pluralized, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend affects as antithetical to critique, just as Habermas’ identification of multiple rationalities makes it difficult to identify them as simply opposed to myth.[6] Understood thus, critique and affect do not oppose each other but mutually modify. Affects engage critiques just as affordances engage dispositions. We can now respond to Sedgwick’s observation that while the realization that knowledge not only is but does is seemingly obvious, it is nevertheless the case “that that a lot of the real force of such discoveries has been blunted through the habitual practices of the same forms of critical theory that have given such broad currency to the formulae themselves” (Sedgwick 4). Pluralizing affect makes it possible to recast the problem: the issue is not critique per se but the affect under which that critique is taken. Though Sedgwick understands anger and critique as parallel phenomena (Sedgwick 4), Habermas’ example suggests that we ask ourselves whether it is also possible to do critique within the context of other affective dispositions? To use Tang’s phrasing, the “knot of affect and ideology” includes not only anger, but also surpriseenjoyment, and interest (page#).

Given the limited space available here, one brief example will have to suffice. And to keep things as simple as possible, I will work with the foundational set of affects identified by Silvan Tomkins: enjoyment; interest; surprise; anger; disgust, dissmell, distress, fear, shame.[7] My example is the historical avant-garde–dada and surrealism–as well as two of its most significant postwar manifestations–the situationist international and fluxus. That all four movements were engaged in ideology critique is uncontroversial; the question, then, is how best to distinguish them.

Beginning with dada, we can mine Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto 1918 for its identification with critique: “the new artist protests: he no longer paints” (Motherwell 78). At the same time, Tzara makes it clear that dadaist protest is to be enacted in the affective mode of disgust: “Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada”  (Motherwell 81). Surrealism, on the other hand, was oriented toward surprise:  “Surrealism is the magical surprise of finding a lion in a wardrobe where you were ‘sure’ of finding shirts” (Kahlo, qtd in Rosemont 145). In Salvador Dalí’s case, the affect is shame (Gibson). The situationist international was ambivalent, torn between anger and distress(McDonough; Bonnett). Operating in an entirely different register was fluxus, was only ambivalently committed to critique (Rothman 2017). As I have argued elsewhere, including my longer contribution to this volume, fluxus was fundamentally a post-critical avant-garde. Maciunas, who was himself more deeply indebted to the historical avant-garde than almost all of the other fluxus artists, maintained–at least in his early years–an explicitly critical conception of fluxus. [8] Of its many participants, George Maciunas was perhaps the most drawn to ideological critique, but even he was unwilling to engage in it under Tompkins’ “negative affects”: anger, disgust, dissmell, distress, fear, shame. Fluxus had to be fun. It was, as he described it, “the fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, Cage, and Duchamp” (Smith 181).

In the end, Tang’s genealogy of affect theory invites us to reexamine modernism’s affordances and to develop models of responsible reading that account for the multiplicity of affective dispositions in modernism’s reception. Following Tang’s observation that we have been operating within “a recurring rhetoric that urges us to move away from ideology critique through theories of affect” (Tang page#) we would do well to seek out moments in which affect and critique act in concert. For what is responsible in one context–one in which, for example, critical anger is required–may, in a different context, be wholly irresponsible, requiring instead a mode of critical engagement disposed instead toward joy, interest, surprise, distress, fear, or even, perhaps, shame.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness,” Signs 35:3 (Spring 2010): 571-594.

Bacon, Francis. The Works of Francis Bacon, (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:The_Works_of_Francis_Bacon_(1884)_Volume_1.djvu/211)

Benjamin, Walter, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (Boston: Mariner Books, 2019), 177-192. 

Bonnett, Alastair. “The Nostalgias of Situationist Subversion,” Theory, Culture & Society 23:5 (2006): 23-48.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1979/2015).

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–25.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. F.G.Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, p. 366)

Horkehimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford UP 2002).

Leys, Ruth. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37:3 (Spring 2011), pp. 434-472.

McDonough, Thomas F. “Rereading Debord, Rereading the Situationists” October 79 (Winter 1997): 3-14.

Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951).

Rosemont, Penelope. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (London: Athlone Press, 1998).

Rothman, Roger. “Fluxus and the Art of Affirmation,” in Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art, Theory, and Practice, eds. Pamela Fraser and Roger Rothman (New York: Bloomsbury 2017): 25-34.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, you Probably Think This Introduction Is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997): 1-37.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Smith, Owen. Fluxus: The History of an Attitude (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1998).

Tomkins, Silvan. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition (Two Volumes), (New York: Springer, 2008).


[1] Benjamin, though unnamed in Tang’s essay, appears obliquely in the conclusion’s distinction between intoxication and sobriety. See “Surrealism, or the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”: “The dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious. Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?” (Benjamin, 181).

[2] We might also adduce Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reason here.

[3] “Disposition” is relational, contra “mood” and “feeling,” which are monadic states.

[4] Another way to frame the multiplicities inherent in affordances is through what Kathryn Carney, in this volume, identifies as “prosthesis.”

[5] Similarly, Daniel Aureliano Newman, in this volume, advocates for a turn from what has become a “homogenous” discourse of critique toward a collection of irreducibly different practices (Newman pg #).

[6] It also avoids the problem, identified by Leys, of making “disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis” (472).

[7] Tomkins argues that with the exception of disgust and dissmell, each affective disposition exists on a continuum: from enjoyment to joy; interest to excitement; surprise to startle; anger to rage; distress to anguish; fear to terror, and shame to humiliation (Tomkins).

[8] For a detailed account of the tensions between Maciunas and other members of fluxus, see Owen Smith, Fluxus, History of an Attitude.

Roger Rothman is Professor of Art History at Bucknell University. He is the author of Tiny Surrealism: Salvador Dali and the Aesthetics of the Small (2012) and coeditor, with Pamela Fraser, of Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction (2017). Among his recent publications is “Anarchism,” a special issue of the journal Modernism/modernity (2020), for which he served as editor and contributor.

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