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Monday, March 7, 2011

Projectively Identifying with Brennan

The fact that Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect is “not a history of the affects”(22) inhibits some of its ability to draw its conclusions out beyond the clinic. While Brennan is willing to agree “that what defines the significant affects varies, especially across time or through history as well as cultures” (22), she also argues, “that there are constant potentials at work, and they are universal-for  now-in that they are potentially present in all human psyches as we know them” (22). Her paradox between the proliferation of boundaries and the denial of affect seems reductive in a few ways. Is it true that “boundaries may matter now because there is too much affective stuff to dispose of, too much that is directed away from the self with no place to go” (15)? Isn’t the opposite just as likely, that there are now too many places where the self can invest its affective energies, in negativity toward terrorists, immigrants, homosexuals and so on or against neoconservatives of any religious flavor? Doesn’t knowledge of the increasing complexity of a globalized economy and its subsequent production of new threats and risks of catastrophe give birth to a whole new series of anxieties for the modern subject to deal with? How can one choose between investing themselves in preventing ecological catastrophe or nuclear proliferation? Are we truly “in a period where the transmission of affect is denied” (15)? Or is it the case that everything from cyber fandom to the electronic displays of the national security threat level at the airport calls for our affective energies?

Brennan is very conscious of the possibility that this is the case. What is relevant to her is not “whether the negative affects are increased by a social order that abets their production or diminished in a civilization that counters them” (22) but just that “their potential is present” (23). I think that people repress the idea of a subject that is not self-contained because the current state continually reminds them that it is not such a pervasive manner. By this I mean, that the subject is continually forced to realize the ways in which it is insufficient and finite in a material sense as existential threats become more real to its imagination. But further in a psychological sense the ways people are increasingly aware of ways that they can exist virtually and in a multiple places and times. The fantasy of agency and individuality is a great fabulation to deal with our radical ineptitude in fundamentally altering historical circumstances, let alone our personal state.

On the one hand, it seems that Brennan’s anxiety that emotion has been turned away from in recent times is misplaced since so much attention has been paid to it, at least recently in the academy. On the other hand, within public discourses the fantasy of individuality still rules supreme in many contexts, especially political ones. Brennan’s examples of some of these new ‘maladies of the soul’ point to the contradictory nature of our contemporary condition. There are problems on both ends of the spectrum, psychoses both of hyperactivity and depression. The interpretation of this dynamic could lend itself to a couple paths; it could either follow Brennan in searching for the universal aspects of affect which exist or it could reject the clinical interpretation as a fictional analytic that should not be applied trans-historically.  But then again perhaps this is a false choice.. What is hard to reconcile however, is that if these forms of affective investment oscillate throughout history, what exactly is remaining universal? And how can people develop the capacity to receive or transmit more affect? Is there a certain reserve of affect people have always had and they simply materially evolve to develop more? It can’t be purely cognitive though either so what drives this change?

In Brennan’s analysis of ADHD and FMS she points to the relationship between the infant and their mothers. But it seems that alcoholic parents and poor mothers have been around for a significantly longer time then the uniquely contemporary condition of pharmacology. There must be forces which are particular, rather than universal in this case than simply a relationship between an infant and a mother.

And as a small aside, I feel Brennan’s off-hand dismissal of Deleuze is rather misplaced. For someone who has contributed so much to the field of affect studies its odd she would relegate him to the dustbin of poor theorists so quickly. Perhaps she is still recovering from the traumatic experience of reading Anti-Oedipus? But what is problematic in my view of her reading of Deleuze is that she reduces his theory simply to the BwO as some sort of primal state “that preexists and underpins the horrors of the Oedipus complex” (14). A Thousand Plateaus seems to do exactly the work she points to when she writes “The point is that energies and affects, after the Oedipus complex, still cross over between us” (14). Isn’t this exactly D & G’s point in writing their work, that affects and the self can invest itself in ways beyond the reductive aspects of psychoanalytic theory. I think her work and Object-Relations theory based interpretations of Freud are far less reductive, but that this is a part of the project Deleuze and Guattari were also very intimately concerned with.

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