When a concept becomes hot, says Elspeth Probyn, it becomes untouched by wonder, unable to be discussed in a way that doesn’t render it banal. She was talking about affect when she said that: affect being one of those cultural studies buzzwords (like jouissance at the start of the 1990s) that are incredibly annoying to anyone not in the know. I always find myself caught in a two-edged reaction to hip concepts like that: drawn to them on the one hand, and on the other almost fearfully contemptuous. This is especially the case with affect, a concept which refers to experiences of bodily intensity unable to be readily accounted for through language. How could I not be drawn to such a notion, with my own interest gravitating irresistibly to the personal, to the subjective realm, and the experience of the unusual in the everyday? (In one sense, my whole project is concerned with intimations of the weird and unaccountable provided by ‘mystic theatre’). But at the same time, both the word and its hot status remind me instantly of affectation – and of course this immediately influences the way I relate to theoretical discussions of the concept.
The reason affect has become such a thing, I think (or at least was so a couple of years ago), is because of some of the grandiloquent claims made on its behalf. Defined as a realm of human experience unable to be caputred or contained by discourse, it was in some cases made to function as the basis for a whole new politics of being. If we all have moments in which our bodies react in ways that are unstructured by culturally-determined meaning (the argument went), then let us use them to elaborate new ways of feeling, thinking, resisting, relating to each other and the world! This is of course a highly appealing idea. Not withstanding the perceptive critique it has attracted (witness, for example, Claire Hemmings’ piece in Cultural Studies 19:5 2005), this is a claim I would want to make myself. But then the fear of affectation intervenes: the fear that speaking about affect in a theoretical way is simply another example of scholarship taking hold of the extra/ordinary and disinfecting it of its vibrancy.
Surely the whole enterprise of speaking about affect as a thing is perverse. Isn’t it an attempt to reify strange and fluid experiences of joy, revulsion, mystery, charisma, wonder, and the sublime? And surely there is something oxymoronic about the word itself: a conflict between the antiseptic sound of it when spoken, and the visceral phenomena it attempts to describe? That’s what Probyn was getting at, I guess, when she called for a movement away from Affect and towards an investigation of ‘affects’ on a micro-scale. And it also underlies Jeremy Gilbert’s insistence that scholarly interest in Affect is not in fact new, but rather a hip way of contributing to the humanities’ longrunning interest in ‘the irreducible sociality of human experience’.