What is Affect Theory?
Affect theory helps us move on from the error that power is primarily conveyed by thoughts and words.
Affect theory is an approach to culture, history, sociality, and power 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 helps us understand power by encouraging us to think of power as theater.
One of the background figures of affect theory, 20th-century psychologist Silvan Tomkins, began his career as a playwright. His interest in theater stayed with him while he was devising the ideas that would become affect theory. He’s a theater kid at heart—and affect theory is a theater kid’s understanding of the relationship between people and their worlds.
Theater kids know that acting isn’t about memorizing words on a page. Learning hundreds of lines of text might seem hard. But it’s 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 finesse.
An actor’s instrument is not their script; it’s their body. Great actors methodically tune every feature of their bodies—voice, hands, face, posture, stride, gaze, gait—to build an affective symphony. Anyone who has ever seen two different actors portray the same character (or heard two different singers perform the same song) knows that the decisions actors make about how to express the same words produce profoundly different effects in their audiences. Directors, too, use a nonverbal repertoire—including light, shadow, shape, color, timing, framing, rhythm, and perspective—to weave a thick knot of affects through their script. Even the most well-written play can be ruined by underwhelming performances or clumsy direction.
The work of evoking feeling is not done by words alone. But the words matter, too. Words are powerful because they’re so precise in their ability to distribute affects—to foster connections and hone attention. Words are weightless without the feeling behind them. Theater kids love a good script, which they use as a starting point in the creation of a fully three-dimensional performance, adding expression, oration, gesticulation, blocking, staging, sound, atmosphere, and a whole embodied toolkit of movements and gestures. A play’s success is measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects—to compel, fascinate, and transfigure.
Affect theory sees power in the same terms. As anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes, “power is a thing of the senses.” Rather than thinking about politics as a set of propositions that are thoughtfully considered by rational, choosing subjects (“Vote for Candidate X if you want bridges! Vote for Candidate Y if you want bombers!”), affect theory sees it as a performance, in which political actors like party leaders, activists, and media personalities try to cultivate a sense of urgency around their issues using an affective toolkit.
Pundits like to talk about power as if it’s always 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 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. When rhetorical analysis asks how affects are mobilized to achieve political objectives, affect theorists conceptualize politics as a venue to play with affects. As affect theorist Lauren Berlant writes: “All the messages are emotional.”
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 feeling. (If anything, affect theory shows that even ostentatious indifference to politics is an affective construct—a function of the privilege to check out—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 exhilarating, incoherent rage of a Trump rally (the lust for hatred, the demand for strength, the refusal of shame) as it does for the soaring optimism and calls for a more just society from politicians on the progressive end of the spectrum. Both are avenues for the production of affects; the real-world impacts wash-up downstream from this initial fountainhead of feeling.
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 is an effect of a matrix of moving lines of force, travelling through us and leaving power in their wake.
But it would also be wrong to suggest that the rational and the affective are fundamentally separate. To identify human beings as affective creatures is to say that all aspects of our existence—including what gets called thought, intellect, and reason—are enfolded in feeling. Many versions of affect theory struggle with how to conceptualize the relationship between thinking and feeling. And many affect theorists lapse back into an unworkable cognition/emotion binary—only with the emphasis flipped from head to heart.
Other theories of affect recognize that thought and feeling are interrelated at a fundamental level. In criticizing the “white fathers” who built the thinking-feeling binary in the first place, poet Audre Lorde insists that “as we come more into touch with our own ancient, noneuropean consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.” Silvan Tomkins’ approach is similar. He writes that “Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind.” It’s only by caring, being interested, or feeling the urgency of information—all affective states—that cognition even becomes possible.
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 a transcendent rational consciousness, but to our embodied life.