Affect theory corrupts the reason/emotion binary, locating the felt filamental threads of subjectivity on a material continuum in interaction with patterns of sensation, currents of force, ways of knowing, circuits of power. Affect attunes us to power’s flows beyond the grid of reason/language, tracing the ways that our responses are dictated by tissues of feeling, sensation, and emotion rather than a sovereign self that says “I.” By lighting the depth and vivid texture of embodied life off the grid, affect theory not only collapses rationalism, but anthropocentrism. On a subterranean strand running from Darwin to Nietzsche to deconstruction to feminism, especially the material feminism of Donna Haraway or Elizabeth Grosz, the buried or torn or submerged bodies of animals return to awareness. They are our bodies, too, moved by overwhelming forces that knock down the stickman of the speaking, reasoning, human Self.
In The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida renamed his philosophy as a philosophy of animalism: “I have a particularly animalist perception and interpretation,” he wrote, not only “of what I do, think, write, live, but, in fact, of everything, of the whole of history, culture, and so-called human society, at every level, macro- or microscopic.” (Derrida: 2008, 92) Animalism, for Derrida, is the repudiation of all the myths of human self-sovereignty—“asking whether what calls itself human has the right to rigorously attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.” (Derrida: 2008, 135) Derrida called the illusion of consciousness auto-affection—the fictitious ability to direct one’s own assemblage of feelings, and so be the subject of oneself from top to bottom, from the macro level of decisions and gestures to the micro-level of the body’s reactions, the conductor of how you feel about things.
To be animal, therefore, is to be a wanderer, a woolgatherer, a wave. Forgetting the auto-affecting self is a return to animality. Darwin wrote an entire book, the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to underscore the critical continuity between human and animal bodies by highlighting the evolutionary parallels between our emotions and theirs. This is in no way to suggest that our labile affective architectures must all be oriented toward “fitness.” For Darwin, evolution produced much sloppier outcomes than that, including the octopus-like internal plurality of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions. “My object is to show that certain movements were originally performed for a definite end,” he proposes, but “under nearly the same circumstances, they are still pertinaciously performed through habit when not of the least use.” (Darwin: 2009, 50) These fluctuating registers of function and excess, fitness and waste structure the amalgam of tensely intertwined affective channels that make up embodied life. Rather than a singular “consciousness,” we animals are what the inter-war German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll called “reflex republics.”
Affect theory meshes with animalism, remapping bodies as matrices of force rather than clean complexes of information reception, processing, and transmission. When we read, we read not as a perfectly precise knowing eye scanning the crystal clear lines of a text, but as one maze to another. The inflections, desires, memories, messes, and snarls of our bodies wash into our books, carrying back what the tide takes, leaving holes in the rest. Texts are engaged texturally. We sniff them out, or make demands of them (they refuse), or they strike us obliquely, or we trample on them. Maybe the moment we trample on them is the moment they slice through us effortlessly. We don’t choose how or where or why the hurricane of animal bodies makes landfall or what it picks up along its path. The deconstruction of texts is not just about the inscrutability of “systems” of meaning, but about the inscrutability of bodies under layers of murky affects.
Deleuze and Guattari emphasized the dynamic of deterritorialization and reterritorialization of lines of flight in the process of becoming-animal. The animality of affect guides us to see how fluid but intransigent biological, affective, and cognitive structures coalesce. Limbs, faces, colors, shapes, textures, caresses—all swirl together to form assemblages of experience, sensation, and subjectivity, understood not as a structure, but as a cluster of processes. Memory has its own logic of mutation, but within that logic is a logic of resolute attachment. Even though, as Elizabeth Wilson has written, “all biology wanders,” the different registers of organic animal bodies can also insert themselves in uncompromising ways. Faces and bodies remain, shaping and reshaping us, redirecting the course of our lives. Bodies are assemblages of animals. The hopes, griefs, joys, and frustrations of life accumulate and combine into heterogeneous life-forms that constantly run in opposite directions from what the “I” thinks or wants. Or the animals train the “I” and you feel like you’re in charge when you’re actually being carried away.