WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures – Wrecking The Format of Affect Theory
14th-17th October 2015, Lancaster, PA
Wendy J. Truran, Department of English, UIUC.
Between 14th-17th October 2015 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania over 380 academics across diverse disciplinary boundaries and from eighteen different countries came together to consider the aesthetic, social, ethical, and political potential of affect theory. Organised by Greg Seigworth – the co-editor, with Melissa Gregg, of the touchstone text Affect Theory Reader
– with assistance on the conference committee from Lisa Marie Blackman and Heather Love, this unique conference hosted by Millersville University, aimed to cultivate affective community, artistic interaction as well as scholarly stimulation. At once intense and intimate, the conference spread eighteen of the leading theorists in affect theory across seven separate plenary sessions
. The conference had nineteen different conference streams with over 220 academic papers, and more than a dozen artistic installations/interventions, and workshops. The inaugural conference of Affect Theory gathered together the leading and newly emerging thinkers in the field in order to take stock of what has gone before and imagine what might come.
Inspired by Laurent Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s alternative ethnography, The Hundreds, wherein the form of writing uses details and feelings to create “a scene;” the following summary of each plenary aims to evoke the spirit of the moment. To see the actual order of events and the many other panels you can view the schedule
. All quotes are taken from notes made at the time of the presentations and should be attributed to the speaker unless otherwise stated.
Scene 1: Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart The Hundreds
Afternoon; packed auditorium; a buzz of excitement as two giants in affect theory sit: Lauren Berlant
and Kathleen Stewart
Their presentations capture the conference by ‘wrecking the format’ of plenary speeches. The two women calmly trade statements back and forth that don’t answer one another, it’s not exactly a conversation but it is communication; an exchange of experiences which coalesce into a patchwork of vignettes of life. The Hundreds are “episodic swatches” that are affective and alive, that require aesthetic attention and a sense of play, that carry revelation and critique. Themes emerge across The Hundreds, but as it is “form on the move” in order to counteract “the heavy words of cultural politics,” they are weaving “story problems” because “toying with things is critical to the game of social poesis.” There is no argument laid out for you here, but rather lyrical pyrotechnics that leave smoke trails of ideas, tropes and concerns to haunt you. Some of the smoke trails that linger include: life is hard and tender and beautiful; neoliberalism kills; friendship can be political and productive; problems of racial and sexual violence are intimate and ubiquitous. Berlant tells a story of city life – a dog takes a dump on the sidewalk, its owner gathers it up and responsibly disposes of it, funneling this waste into compost because “even a shit has got to enter the work force” Berlant observes. This talk was a masterclass in carefully crafted writing; showing that criticism and theory can be beautiful and represent life affectively. In fact, this is a necessary and political act. More information about this creative ethnographic method can be found in this interview with Kathleen Stewart in Cultural Anthropology.
You can also read more of this work on Berlant’s website
Scene 2: Tavia Nyong’o, Shaka McGlotten, Zizi Papacharissi – An Invitation to be Affected After-Hours
Our first late night plenary invited the audience to experience affective community as well as think about it. The panel opened with Zizi Papacharissi
describing the new structures of feeling made available through new media, specifically the affective publics created via Twitter during the live reporting during the Egyptian Uprising in 2011. Papacharissi described how Twitter became a new news reporting mechanism which offered a sense of “instantaneity.” Political revolution, and its communication blackouts, precipitated a media revolution, creating a new idea of who is able to speak and their alternative “listening publics.” Using mixed methods and big data (1.5 million tweets) she analyzed the “streams” of news and feeling which she found had a rhythm and pacing of its own. Papachrizzi identified the creation of “affective publics,” wherein affect is reported as event and the networked publics connected via expressions of sentiment which “interrupted dominant narratives by underrepresented viewpoints
.” Papacharissi closed with the powerful statement that “technologies network us but it is our stories that connect us.”
“What’s normal anyway?” Tavia Nyong’o
asks as he performed an exquisitely crafted scholarly story which revealed the “crisis ordinary,” of normality, claiming “we are strangers to our statistically average selves” – and race is central to the crisis. Drawing on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
, Karen Tongson’s comment on normcore in her conceptualization of normporn
, Miguel’s (from his Wildheart) refrain “what’s normal anyway?
”, and Malcolm McLaren’s all too normal cultural appropriation in “Double Dutch
,” Nyong’o gave a beautiful indictment of the “median, middle, the default called normal” which centralizes whiteness. Nyong’o posited that “angular sociality” and “angular world making” is vital in order to blend the “normatic” and “antinormatic.” Nyong’o concluded by inspiring an audience sing-along to 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up?” as repurposed on the Netflix series Sense8
‘wrecked the format’ of traditional academic plenaries with an interactive performance which embodied the notion that “affects are always in relation.” Citing Ben Anderson’s concept of “bodily capacity collectively performed” McGlotten discussed “diverse intimacies” in all their fragility and queerness through the forms of #emojis, #touch – via the nudebitionists, and #discomakeout – which invited the audience to “disco makeout” their plenary. Audience participation was required. Shaka McGlotten challenged the audience to experience affective community rather than simply think about it. Fun times #whathappensinlancasterstaysinlancaster.
Scene 3: Lisa Blackman and Heather Love – Queer Science and the Ethics of Description
asked us Alice-in-Wonderland-like to “believe six impossible things before breakfast.” One of those impossible things is to consider that science and computational cultures might be haunted by the history and the excess of their own storytelling. Blackman suggests that by tracing the “threshold phenomenon” and the ever-roiling discourse of PPPR (post publication peer review) she is able to establish a “digital hauntology,” both as an object and method of study. This excess of material is often moving and moved (as in removed from the digital sphere) and so necessitates swift and focused attention of big (haunted) data, which blurs the distinctions between proper and improper objects of study. Focusing on “controversial” science such as Deryl Bem’s
article “Feeling the Future
,” which states that that the future affects the past, the storm of PPPR and its excision is just one example of the potential for creating “alternative imaginaries, part cultural imaginary and part speculative forecast” that point to science’s propensity to sanitize ideas which might “contaminate” it with queerness.
Chiming beautifully with Stewart and Berlant’s reading from The Hundreds, Heather Love
, reminded us that reading methods have consequences on affect studies. Love proposed that we think of affect studies as a descriptive practice, and asked: can there be a politics of description? Love posited that there could be “a metaphysical complicity of things as they are.” In other words do we reproduce what we describe? As such she called for “an ethics of not projecting.” Drawing on her work in microsociology Love asked us to pay attention to the “politics of scale;” the small scale: details, richness of description and large scale: distanced observation and surveillance. Using Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
as an example of a writer attuned to the politics of scale. Love suggests that Rankine’s portrayal of racial microaggressions in America reveal what “the link between intimacy and violence.” Her writing also makes clear the “daily distribution of institutional power” which conflicts with our position as observer/describer/writer. Love thus cautions us to pay attention to the affectivity of our reading and writing methods, while offers the hope that details and descriptions can be an affective/effective means of resisting the status quo through the “politics of the micro.”
Scene 4: Jasbir Puar, Patricia Clough, and Ben Anderson – Posthuman and Antihumanity
The “datafication of the 21st century” makes us porous and multiple, and therefore what, asks Patricia Clough
, has become of the human subject and psychoanalysis? Datafication leads to “a displacement of consciousness as a hub of experiencing meaning,” reconfiguring sensory fields to create a “society of microsensibilities.” Clough claims, since our modern psyche comes into being in a nonhuman environment it creates a “thingself,” meaning we must consider a “nonhuman unconscious of dissociated selves.” Indeed, Clough claims, the sociopolitical trauma of this time creates a new type of wound which requires us to rethink the death drive in the light of this quintessential 21st century relational form. For Clough this is no longer the human or the conscious self, but rather relations of media – the “it:it” relationship.
Inhumanist forms of trauma was taken up by Jasbir K. Puar within her devastating description of necro politics in Palestine. For Puar, affect theory allows us to describe nonhuman entities and “how certain human are rendered nonhuman.” Puar gave a harrowing analysis of settler colonialism in Palestine and how “computational sovereignty” is extended under occupation to the “control of control itself.” The scale of computational sovereignty encompassed by computational sovereignty is debilitating for both bodies and infrastructures. Rethinking Foucault’s concept of biopower, Puar suggests that the nation-state does not enact "make live and let die" but rather a right to maim, a “will not to let die.” This is a necro politics, Puar claims, wherein Israel is perpetuating a deliberate “asphyxiatory maiming” tactic of “shooting to cripple” and to stunt by the control of food and resources to Palestinian children which is an “inhumanist biopolitics” designed not to destroy bodies but resistance itself.
discussion of the moods of neoliberalism connected to Puar in considering how we remain emotionally and affectively mobile in order to create change in the context of a State’s created disaffection. Anderson called for scholars to “not presume the forms of neoliberalism,” in order to (quoting Stuart Hall) “provide a more hospitable climate” for “understanding and resisting neoliberalism.” Anderson beautifully illustrated this method of openness to form through two “scenes” which reconsidered reified forms of thinking and feeling about neoliberalism: scene one focused on the Mont Pelerin Society
and the genesis of a “reconstruction of liberalism.” Scene two reconsidered Margaret Thatcher and the structures of feeling which constituted the conditions of Thatcherism. The value of this kind of reevaluation, Anderson suggests, is that in redrawing multiple structures of feeling under neoliberalism we might avoid acquiescing to the “fatalism which is attached to anxiety” and especially the anxiety attached to the state.
Scene 5: Melissa Gregg and Natasha Dow Schüll – The Biopolitics of Measurement
, ex-Professor and now a Principal Engineer at Intel Corporation researching the future of work asked when and how did the vision of the good life become about being more productive? How did “appropriate professional conduct” become equated with being hyper-productive? Under capitalism, Gregg suggests, labor politics weaves social pressure into productivity, leading people to exchange the “athleticism of accomplishment” for happiness. By immersing people in particular atmospheres, especially of anxious competition, which is beneficial to the work environment but not workers. She suggests that “individual immunity is only possible as co-immunity.”
In conversation with Melissa Gregg’s analysis of the monitoring of bodies at work in order to become hyper-productive, Natasha Dow Schüll’s
ethnographic analysis of wearable technology
considered the self-monitoring of our bodies. Wearables “record and correct you,” Natasha Dow Schüll argues that that we are “transferring our vigilance to computers and self-monitoring to the gadget.” Schüll’s research found that wearables create a “double insecurity” which leaves us unable to trust ourselves. Rather than autonomy Schüll warns we are “outsourcing our responsibility to technology.”
Scene 6: Lawrence Grossberg, Jason Read, Jeremy Gilbert – The Feeling and Politics of Labor
cautioned those working in affect studies “in order to understand the affectivity of politics,” not to subtract anything from the analysis but to “add, add, add” layers of complexity. Pointing out that we are living in a time of political pessimism, he also posited that “it doesn’t help to articulate this bad mood unless we understand the assemblages of complexity that creates despair, and we cannot transform it unless we understand it.” In an attempt to create the complexity he called for, Grossberg posited a “diagramming of affect” which aimed to capture the affective formation of a changing political landscape.
spoke about an unexpected affective twist in UK politics characterized by the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn
as leader of the Labour Party. In distinction from the “disaffected consent” of most people under neoliberalism, the changing mood Corbyn is harnessing offered “an enhancement in the capacity to act,” which may indicate a “weakening of neoliberal hegemony.” This mood from the “death-throws of the left” offers a “collective potency” and “transindividual potential” which might lead to joy in with the collective. Gilbert ultimately called for a theorization of interests rather than identities, claiming that shared interests hold the potential to harness this new mood into a new collectivity that might drive the political struggle.
focused on what he called “transindividuality.” Transindividuality Read tells us “is the mutual implication and irreducibility of the individual and the collective.” Framing his analysis through two thinkers that deal with affect and the political, Gilbert Simondon and Benedict Spinoza, Read considered these figures in order to posit a “collective ethics of affect.” Read’s method allows us to understand how political and economic structures can only exist if they are mirrored in the individual and collective at the level of affect and desire. To understand them is to attempt to formulate a “collective ethics of affect” which might make living politically possible. Much of Jason Read’s paper can be read on his blog
Scene 7: Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning – Affecting Others Otherwise
Never have plasmodial slime molds
been so entertaining or so controversial. Steven Shaviro
offered a humorous and provocative venture into speculative realism. He challenged the dogmas of analytical philosophy by extending the question of mind and mentality, proposing a shift from consciousness to sentience. Responsive to their environment, able to make choices, appearing to have emotional tones observable by the rhythmic pulsing of their cytoplasm plasmodial slime molds, Shaviro claims, offer evidence of cognition without brains. Shaviro suggests therefore that sentience rather than human consciousness should be the guiding principle of posthuman analysis.
, with characteristic brilliance and complexity, offered a “new idea of mixity and multiplicity” to create a kind of “additive realism” that might upend the binaries which create the exclusion of many people through a logic of mutual exclusiveness. Addressing the logical problems of binaries and difference which Massumi characterized as a logic of mutual exclusiveness. He offered rather an “affective logic of mutual inclusion.” Rather than a “substance predicate logic” i.e. defining things by the qualities or predicates that it has, Massumi posited the possibility of an “undifferentiated multiplicity” and a mutually inclusive logic. This logic begins with activity rather than characteristics and is therefore more inclusive of both human and nonhuman entities.
focused on her work with emerging authors, thinkers, and scholars who are also autistic, for example Lucy Blackman
In her work Blackman describes a sense of “carrying the feeling,” in which the felt experience has an emergent relation which incorporates the environment. Manning suggests, that this non-normative experience of relationality might offer insights into how the lines and limits of subjectivity are defined. The boundaries of experience, what the human is, and can be, is often constructed by neurotypically inflected limits, creating a “neurotypical myth.” Thus a politics of neurotypicality emerges. Autistic scholars and artists suggest a feeling of multiplicity that is not so fixed, a “hyper-relationality,” claims Manning, which offers a widening of the field of experience and therefore of the scope of the human.
WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures (2015) was a rich, inspiring conference with incredible intensities, and made clear that Affect Theory has a vibrant future. And to answer the most asked question of the conference, yes, the acronym of the conference was entirely deliberate: #affectWTF