After the late twentieth-century linguistic and cultural turns, the twenty-first-Century (re)discovery of affect. Such at any rate is the sequence presented by the editors of The Affect Theory Reader, following in the footsteps of such recent volumes as Patricia Ticineto Clough's The Affective Turn (2007). However, whereas that volume stressed affect as a novel rupture within theories of the social, in The Affect Theory Reader, we are presented less with a break than the tracking of a slow mutation towards affect that while proliferating in the present has its roots in the past and specifically within the trajectories of cultural studies, as attested to by the interview near the end of the book with Lawrence Grossberg. As the editors Melissa Gregg and Greg Seigworth point out, this is not a reader that collects the classic texts in a given field, nor a text book, nor an account of the latest trends in research, but like affect itself it is somewhere in between. As they state in the introduction, rather than a theoretical overview of 'this somewhat ephemeral and ubiquitous thing called affect theory' (p18), they hope that the collection instead 'took on a life that might be more untimely ... to convey--more than once--the contagiousness of ... positive affects' (p18). What is interesting here is that writing about the slippery topic of affect typically becomes a question of "writing with or through affects, a point confirmed in the personal affective notes both editors add situating affect in relation to both their own lives and everyday encounters with punk rock, trains and reading cultural theory, as well as in the various styles employed by the authors of the subsequent chapters in the volume.
However, for all the ephemerality of affect theory, the editors certainly endeavour to situate it in relation to a range of intellectual approaches and trajectories. This includes a sophisticated treatment of affect in Spinoza, and the way this has come, via Gilles Deleuze's reading of Spinozian affect, to inform a significant strand of thinking about affect in cultural studies as the always unknown capacity of 'what a body can do', its capacities to affect and be affected. This is contrasted with another trajectory emerging out of Sylvan Tomkins' psychobiology of differential affects, especially via the work of Eve Sedgwick, that draws on an articulation of Darwinian evolutionary hardwiring with aspects of Freudian psychoanalytic theory. As incompatible as these approaches might seem, this has not prevented their fertile cross pollination, as can be seen in several chapters of the reader. However, affect theory is more complex than the merging of these two streams. In fact they identify no less than eight possible orientations in the field of affect studies, crossing such domains as (post) phenomenologies, science studies, cybernetics, non-Cartesian philosophies, activism, non-linguistic psychologies and ethnologies, and emotion and embodiment studies, and state that these orientations are only partial and by no means exhaust the current or potential field of affect theory. Another dimension, not emphasised by the editors is a geographical one; many of these contrasting trajectories and approaches to affect having especially taken root in Australian cultural studies and it would be fair to characterise the collection as an Australo-American one, that is based on both an explicit displacement of the dominant, semiotic-political tendencies of British cultural studies and its affective reinvention in the contexts of US/Canadian (Grossberg, Clough, Massumi) and Australian (Morris, Probyn, Gibbs) cultural studies.
The chapters of the volume are less a collection of the seminal works in the field than a cross-section of contemporary expressions of affect theory; while some of the chapters by the more well known contributors have appeared elsewhere, they were all published within the last five years and have mostly been updated for this volume. The reader starts with some of these contributions, namely Sara Ahmed's account of the 'hap' in happiness, Massumi's delineation of the 'political ontology of threat', and Elsbeth Probyn's engagement with the affect of shame across a heterogeneous range of writers.
Ahmed insists on the complexity of happiness, seeing in it a combination of affect, intentionality and evaluation (p29). She is particularly interested in what she calls the 'hap' of happiness, its nature as a contingent happening, even while it is often considered as a state to be cultivated. More importantly Ahmed complicates this account, suggesting that happiness can have unjust and unhappy effects that a 'feminist, anti-racist and queer politics' can expose (p50) and that this political alienation from happy objects might be a more socially productive orientation. Despite the avowed aim to focus on 'happy objects', Ahmed leaves us with an affirmation of 'melancholic subjects ... who are even prepared to kill some forms of joy' (p50). This in a sense undermines her argument, since the chapter turns out to be about bad feelings after all, nevertheless it serves to underline the complexity of affect and its evaluation, its tendency to never be quite what it seems.
Massumi's chapter argues polemically yet philosophically that threat operates with a particular temporality, the future perfect of the will have been; the US invasion of Iraq, for example, was retrospectively justified not according to any real threat such as actually discovered WMDs but a future threat that 'will have been real for all eternity' (p53). For Massumi, threat, while inhabiting linear time, is not of this time but rather a recursive future past of pre-emption, in which the affect of threat is always able to produce its own object. Massumi's chapter develops at both an abstract level of the ontology of threat and its actual instantiation in a series of events, especially in a reading of 9/11 less as the beginning of a new era than as the crossing of a threshold of threat, giving a kind of 'thickness' (p62) to pre-emptive modes of power. This approach is ultimately aligned with the Whiteheadean non-phenomenological concept of the event as an occasion of experience, able to encompass the immanence of the future in the present.
Probyn's chapter does something else again in her engagement with 'writing shame'. Here it is less the case of delineating the political or philosophical nature of a specific affect than exploring what can be done with it and what it can do via the interconnections between writing and shame. While two of the examples Probyn refers to, namely T.E. Lawrence and Primo Levi, were already key examples of the intersections between "writing and shame identified by Deleuze, Stephen King, as an immensely popular fictional author, would seem to be an entirely different category of "writer. Nevertheless, she detects in King's work a comparable shame-induced ethics of writing (p75), as well as detailing her own feelings of shame and disgust in relation to "writing on shame, emphasising that 'shame is a painful thing to write about' (p72). While Probyn is wary of the heroics Deleuze ascribes to the writer provoked by shame, she embraces the idea that "writing shame turns the "writer's body into a battleground of conflicting forces, 'sometimes to produce new visions of life' (p89).
These initial orientations towards affect sketch out different potentials and tendencies of affect theory that the following chapters pursue in a variety of ways. Some focus more on the politics of affect, whether in the potentials for ethico-aesthetic responses to emergent political events as in the Tampa sinking, explored by Andrew Murphie and Lone Bertelsen, or the emergence of the post-biological, bio-political manipulation of life itself critically engaged with by Clough. Other chapters focus on affect in more everyday settings such as the affective dynamics surrounding food and taste (Ben Highmore), the affective politics surrounding Friday night drinks (Gregg), or the quotidian modulation of psycho-active medication by mental health service users explored by Stephen Brown and Ian Tucker. Inherent in many of the chapters is an engagement with the affective potentials and limitations of life in the context of contemporary consumer capitalism, whether formulated critically as in Lauren Berlant's 'Cruel Optimism' (pp93-117), or more affirmatively, as in Nigel Thrift's account of the 'Material Practices of Glamour' (pp289-308). While there is a strong combination of everyday practices, ethico-political encounters and metaphysical speculation as provokers of both affect and affective theory in the volume, one dimension that is relatively lacking is that of aesthetics. While many of the chapters touch on affective encounters with various forms of media, the only chapter to really put aesthetics at the centre of thinking affect is probably Anna Gibbs' chapter which relates affect to mimesis and gesture, drawing at once on Tomkins and Deleuze, Michael Taussig and Walter Benjamin in order to discern different levels of mimetic communication. Nevertheless, the collection ends in a fashion that is at once affective and aesthetic, in a type of fictional afterword by Kathleen Stewart that is both about affective refrains and actually weaves some of the contents of the book into series of affective refrains in the construction of a theory-fiction.
While a reader of the book might be left less rather than more sure of what precisely constitutes 'affect theory', or even affect itself, s/he is nevertheless very likely to be moved by the range of both thought and affective styles that make up the volume and constitute what the editors call in the introduction, an 'inventory of shimmers' (p11). This incitement to 'more than discourse', the capacity 'to touch, to move, to mobilise readers' (p24) is exactly what one would hope for from a reader of affect theory, and is what the contributions that make up this collection indeed achieve.