What is Affect Theory?
A play’s success is measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects.
Affect theory is an approach to culture, history, and politics that focuses on nonlinguistic forces, or affects. Affects make us what we are, but they are neither under our “conscious” control nor even necessarily within our awareness—and they can only sometimes be captured in language. Affect theory can be linked to other conversations happening in the humanities—including Michel Foucault’s “analytics of power,” new attention being paid to animals, the study of secularism, and my home field of religious studies. Affect theory helps us understand power by encouraging us to think of power as theater.
One of the background figures of affect theory, Princeton psychologist Silvan Tomkins, began not as a psychologist, but as a playwright. This interest in theater stayed with Tomkins while he was coming up with the ideas that would become affect theory. He’s a drama kid at heart—and affect theory is a drama kid’s understanding of people and their relationships. Drama kids know that acting isn’t about memorizing words on a page. Although learning 300 lines of text might seem hard, it’s actually the easiest part of an actor’s job. Acting is about taking those lines and packing each and every word—and the spaces between the words—with emotional nuance.
An actor’s instrument is not a script, but a body. Effective actors will meticulously use every aspect of their bodies—their voice, hands, face, posture, stride, gaze, gait, and muscles—to build an affective symphony. Directors, too, use a nonverbal repertoire—including timing, staging, and perspective—to weave a thick knot of affects through their script. The most expertly scripted play can be ruined by underwhelming acting, clumsy direction, or confusing staging. This is because the work of making bodies move is not done by words alone, or even by words primarily. Drama kids think not only about script, but about expression, oration, gesticulation, blocking, staging, sound, atmosphere, and a whole embodied toolkit of movements and gestures. These elements are assembled into finely-tuned affect-distribution machines. A play’s success is measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects.
Affect theory sees power in the same terms. As anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes, “power is a thing of the senses.” (Ordinary Affects, 84) Rather than thinking about politics as a set of propositions that are thoughtfully considered by rational, choosing subjects (“Vote for x if you want bridges. Vote for y if you want bombers.”), affect theory sees it as a performance. Religious Affects talks about this specifically with reference to religion, exploring examples such as global Christian evangelicalism, American Islamophobia, and contemporary secularisms—but religion is only one of many formations of power, and so the affect method can be applied to anything that we humans do. All that it takes is to recognize that power is first and foremost what Sara Ahmed calls an “affective economy” rather than a set of ideas. Affect theory helps us evade the “linguistic fallacy,” the belief that power is primarily conducted by thoughts and language. Instead, power as a “thing of the senses” feels before it thinks. It is hooked not to our transcendent rational consciousness, but to our animality.
Pundits like to talk about politics as if it is done from the top down. Sneaky politicians put up a front in order to dupe “the masses” into doing what they want. But affect theorists see power as a performance, a dynamic between actor and audience. Politicians may “use” voters to get things done, but voters also “use” politicians to provide a particular experience—an evening at the theater. (And politicians undoubtedly “use” voters in the same way.) Whereas rhetorical analysis asks how affects are raised to achieve political objectives, affect theorists argue that politics is being done in order to amplify affects.
This doesn’t mean that the consequences of politics are in any way trivial—that they don’t deal deprivation, pain, and death, or flourishing, peace, and happiness unevenly across societies. Politics is no less urgent for being structured by affects. If anything, affect theory shows that even a high-minded avoidance of politics or a studied indifference is an affective construct—and therefore a political procedure. What affect theory shows is that a political formation is best understood not as a package of more-or-less coherent ideas but as a swirling vortex of emotions. This goes just as much for the incoherent rage-fests of a Trump rally (the lust for hatred, the desire for strength, the refusal of shame) as it does for the soaring optimism and calls for a more just society of a Sanders speech: both are avenues for the production of affects.
The political is not just occasionally interrupted by affect. It is affect. The currency that connects our bodies and fuses us into communities is not a rationally elected choice, but a felt compulsion. This is the insight of affect theory: sovereign consciousness—including reason—is an effect of a matrix of moving lines of force, travelling through us and leaving power in their wake.