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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Massumi's Metaphysics

Of course the qualification of an emotion is quite often, in other contexts, itself a narrative element that moves the action ahead, taking its place in socially recognized lines of action and reaction. But to the extent that it is, it is not in resonance with intensity. It resonates to the exact degree to which it is in excess of any narrative or functional line (Massumi 27).

While Brennan indicates that the affects are a negative and modulating force, I think Massumi’s explanation above offers an interesting comparative account. Perhaps it is not that negative affects such as anxiety and hate are things that occupy a sort of hole when recalled in retrospect. They are things that disrupt our narrative accounts of experience. It is the tension between an emotion felt and its resistance or slippage into the symbolic that feeds cycles of trauma. An event haunts someone the more that its felt memory exceeds their ability to give meaning to it. There is a performative element in naming the felt state. When one has the perception of a perception, i.e. when people name the feeling a scene in a movie provoked, it can either dampen or amplify that state. I think for example when it is awkward in a social situation and that felt state is named it can be relieving or reinforcing. It could potentially release the pressure of tense situation by saying what was on everyone’s mind or it could be that people didn’t think it was such a big deal until it was brought to their attention.

I’m curious as to whether Brennan and Massumi start from the same point. Massumi writes, “Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed” (29). Yet it seems that Brennan’s account begins with the life-drive as the power to assemble and build connections. Under her theoretical frame it is the affects that work as the subtractive or limiting force. And then it is the ability to engage in a sort of meditative process of discernment that allows one to strike a more productive balance between openness and closure as a means to living a healthy life. Massumi on the other hand seems to begin with the proposition that reality exceeds all possible reckonings and it is our will and cognition that modulate affects by attending to them or not. Yet I hesitate to make such a strong claim, since Massumi constantly reiterates the “two-sidedness” (35) of affect. It is here where I think that Massumi diverges from Brennan’s account in a much more radical fashion.

In my last post I made a rather strong argument about the ways in which Brennan’s arguments simply reverts to a reformed humanism without completely substantiating it. Part of my argument surrounds the way she frames the question of affect. She speaks of affect always only in relation to a subject and their experience of an affect, (although she may shy away from the language of the experiential). Massumi on the other hand starts with the question of affect and then applies it to the subject as becoming. Secondly, Massumi starts with the proposition that affect is autonomous. Massumi writes about how each “regime of power in the ecology of powers will have its own operative logic” (The Affect Theory Reader, “The Autonomy of Affect,” p. 62). He describes an operative logic as “one that combines an ontology with an epistemology in such a way as to endow itself with powers of self-causation” (ibid. 62). Each operative logic desires itself, its own continuance. In Massumi’s words it is “autopoietic” (ibid. 63). By understanding affects as operating according to an impersonal will-to-power the humanist paradigm is overthrown. One can no longer assume that agency resides solely within the subject. It radically decenters the tradition of western metaphysics that relies upon a subject separate and apart from either the collectivity or ecology that gave birth to them. Massumi writes that “The difference between the dead, the living, and the human is not a question of form or structure, nor of the properties possessed by the embodiments of forms or structures, not of the qualified functions performed by those embodiments” (Parables of the Virtual, 38). Massumi’s deconstruction of the distinction between natural and cultural, individual and collectivity opens up an entire new mode of engaging in critical theory. He seems to be engaging in the project Adorno originally embarked on, that of making thought adequate to its object. “It is not enough for process concepts of this kind to be “ontological.” They must be ontogenetic: they must be equal to emergence” (9). In order for us to understand a reality that can account for its own potentiality, the vocabulary and theoretical framework for understanding it must itself be open to experimentation, change and process.

The question of expectation and threat returns. Massumi’s account of affect provides a new vocabulary for understanding the performative effect of language. Massumi writes “it is a question of how a sign as such dynamically determines a body to become, in actual experience. It is the question of how an abstract force can be materially determining” (ATR 65). This analysis is based in an understanding of semiosis as “sign-induced becoming” (ATR 65). For example when one hears a fire alarm it is affectively felt as if it were real even if it was not. The sign can be understood as a ‘dynamical object.’ The question is not whether the sign accurately refers to its ‘true’ referent. Rather it is what does the sign do. How does the sign activate or animate a felt experience on the visceral register. Massumi continues his discussion to reveal the ways in which “the world becomingly includes so much more than perception reveals. For that reason, thought’s approach cannot be phenomenological. It must be unabashedly metaphysical” (ibid. 66)

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