Affect & Exchange
In recent years, contradictions inherent to capital accumulation have forced an economic crisis and created an impasse in which extremes of economic inequality are intensifying. Rather than addressing these imbalances, most existing governmental structures seem to merely sustain the social order while assisting this process of uneven distribution. New social movements that include wide swaths of the population have begun to ignite across the globe, if only momentarily, in reaction to this situation. In this context, I want to present a series of arguments and speculative ideas that have been developing throughout my work as an artist and in my writing.
Having worked for the past six years with the subject of what a massive economic crisis such as the current one would do to the political landscape, my focus has been on representing systemic economic shifts while contrasting them with their affective impact on people. I have concentrated my attention on the forces that shape political life beyond the representational politics of parties and voting—in other words, the intersection of biopolitics and capital. Throughout my practice certain questions recur: What are the potentials for collective action in the present and how must it be reconceived in an age of ever intensifying economic determinism and biopolitical control? How can struggle toward collective goals also take the full range of each individual’s needs and desires into account? Can the individual subject be reconceived to incorporate the collective dimension that is always already contained within it? Can recognition of the importance of affect and emotions in politics help bring about new social scenarios? And, on the other hand, how do non-rational aspects of the subject, such as affect and emotion, become embroiled in processes of capital accumulation? Ultimately, I intend that all these inquiries answer a larger question: What can help us change the current political and economic landscape and enable us to overcome capitalism in favour of a new system in which accumulation no longer determines human interaction?
Obviously, some of these questions are monumentally complex; for me, a useful means of approaching them is to think through fictions. Philosopher Denis Diderot used imagistic moments in his writing (which he called hieroglyphs) in order to activate the senses and affects as well as the mind, and I work similarly in that I write theory that is also fiction and fictions that are also theories. Here, the fiction that I deploy is The Common Sense, a TV-series-like video project currently in development. Its plot is a thought-experiment bringing the basic elements of these questions into play and figuring out their ramifications.
The plot, resembling a science fiction, goes something like this: The story is situated in a fictitious “now” after a worldwide revolution against economic inequality has erupted. What has catalyzed these events is the invention of a new technology that allows people to feel each other’s emotions. Empathy and political solidarity suddenly become concrete and visceral sensations, bringing about strong desires for social change across the world. The relationship between individual and collective is suddenly profoundly transformed. Emancipation from economic bondage becomes the order of the day for many, but the problem is less figuring out what needs to be destroyed than what to build in its place. Moreover, this technological development that allows people to feel each other’s feelings is not unambiguously good, nor does it solve all the world’s social problems. While it creates possibilities for new modes of existence and collective social formations, it also leads to new contradictions and conflicts.
In the project, this technological device allows people to perceive their needs, desires, and feelings no longer only individually, but to also feel those of others as fully as their own and, as a result, individual interests become meaningless. Capitalism currently derives validity through its role in mediating all individual interests into coordinated relations of exchange, thereby sustaining the complex concatenation of value relations that have come to support all people’s survival. However, my fiction posits that if one can feel another’s needs as intensely as one’s own, individual needs become collective in a profound and ontological sense, and the necessity for a system that mediates the relation of an individual’s needs to the totality of everyone else’s dissipates. I focus my story of revolutionary upheaval on emotions and affects because these seem to be at once overlooked and misunderstood, but also incredibly important. Crises of the capitalist system hit us in the belly, in the nervous system, they mobilize our desires and fears, the place where the body’s physical needs and drives meet thought.1 In a capitalist economy, people satisfy their needs (for nourishment, shelter, etc.) through the use values of commodities; yet at the same time the availability of these commodities is determined by their exchange values, which are external to use and fluctuate according to the movements of supply and demand, determining their market prices. However, in an economic crisis like the one currently unfolding, people become acutely aware of how these exchange fluctuations control the most basic conditions of their physical existence. As such, the systemic crises of capital directly connect, through an umbilical-like tie, to immersion within physical, affective experience.
The approach I took in my serial video narrative Popular Unrest (2010) was to look at how emotions and affects are instrumentalized in capital accumulation and biopolitical control. In this text, I wanted to consider the other side of this predicament and ask what potential lies in affects and emotions relative to today’s and future politics. Occurring in the past year, the anti-government-cut protests and mass riots in the UK, anti-austerity protests in Greece, the Los Indignados movement in Spain, the Arab Spring uprisings and protests across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Occupy movement in North America, all share the quality of sudden massive upsurges of frustration and desire, of collective grassroots actions with people demanding change without being led or co-opted by existing organizations. Los Indignados and the Occupy movement especially seem to be riding a wave of feelings and ideas that are by no means uniform, but nonetheless manage to cohere sufficiently to give rise to mass action. At this moment, when multiple, self-organized people’s movements are taking on an active and important role in public life, it is significant to contemplate what bonds them together in the absence of strong leadership or explicit, shared principles and values.
Coverage in popular media as well as discourses within academic, political, and socioeconomic contexts, whether progressive or conservative, tend to position affect and emotion as irrational, biased, and illegitimate, and therefore dismissible—except when they instrumentalize public feelings in support of specific political goals such as a war. This residual legacy of Enlightenment epistemology considers emotions unalterably tethered to the incommunicability of individual experience while, in contrast, rational thought is seen to have the ability to open onto the social world because its innate medium is language.
To illustrate, Berthold Brecht famously intended to activate thinking rather than feeling through his plays. In a text contrasting conventions of the naturalistic dramatic theatre with his own epic theatre, Brecht described the main quality of the former as “feeling” that “provides [the audience member] with sensations,” while his own theatre is characterized by “reason,” which “forces him to take decisions.”2 Against affective immersion in theatrical representation, Brecht preferred a distanced appreciation of events that, he believed, allowed the audience to understand that characters, and by extension they themselves, are “alterable and able to alter”; in other words, their subjectivities and political roles are socially constructed and therefore can be reconstructed through political struggle.
By contrast, some contemporary philosophical and other academic and scientific discourses understand affect to overcome this relegation of feeling to the inner world of the individual. A good deal of this work departs from writings by seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who saw ideas and affects as two distinct modes of thought—with the idea as a mode of thought defined by its representational character and affect as a mode of thought “which doesn’t represent anything.”3 Spinoza defines affect as the body’s ability to affect and be affected, creating “modifications of the body whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained.”4 When the body receives external or internal physical sensation, it responds somatically to these stimuli and they coalesce as affects, prior to registering in the conscious mind of an individual. Subjectivity is therefore radically open to the world and to the other by way of this preconscious affect.
Spinoza’s proposition elucidates how affect escapes the confines of the individual subject’s interiority. To pursue this thesis further, it is useful to attempt a distinction between affect, feeling, and emotion, and to ask whether there is a concomitant social dimension to any of these phenomena, bearing in mind that the distinctions may be tenuous as such phenomena tend to elude rational analysis and nomenclature. In defining a theoretical framework for understanding affect, Brian Massumi proposes that affects are pre-personal while emotions are social. Massumi also mentions feelings, which can be interpreted to exist somewhere between affect and emotion, namely as affects that register in the subject’s conscious world of personal signification. Pre-personal affect is, according to Massumi, “a non-conscious experience of intensity” that “cannot be fully realised in language...because affect is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness.”5 Affects precede cognitive identification with a constituted subject, stand prior to social contextualization, and cannot be “owned” by a specific individual. This corresponds with what Spinoza would call non-representational thought. Conversely, Massumi calls feelings and emotions “recognized affect.” For Massumi, affects transform into conscious emotions, comprising dimensions of social relation and “discursively defined” signification that are socially communicable concepts—an operation that occurs retrospectively. Thus, emotions acquire an independence from the individual body from which they emanate, engaging instead with social and political life. It is therefore possible to surmise that feelings are an intermediate stage where initial processing of affect emerges in the individual psyche, describing a point between pre-personal affects and emotion as a social process. As such, feelings are the only point in this process that can rightfully be considered confined to the individual’s inner world.
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About the Author
Melanie Gilligan is an artist and writer based in London and New York. She has written for magazines and journals such as Texte zur Kunst, Mute, Artforum, and Grey Room. In 2008, Gilligan released Crisis in the Credit System, a four-part fictional mini-drama made specifically for viewing on the Internet. Her most recent serial video works, Popular Unrest and Self-Capital, look at the current state of politics in the midst of capital’s ongoing crisis.