emotion vs. affect

July 10, 2009

I’ve been rereading Brian Massumi’s fascinating book, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, which beautifully crystalizes the ethical importance of distinguishing between emotion and affect. Suddenly this morning, it occurred to me that this distinction is, in fact, highly relevant to my own reaction to living here for the past two weeks. So without further ado, I bring you:

Emotion vs. Affect (in New Delhi)*

*Photos shamelessly stolen from google images. I promise to post some of mine soon.

1. The near-miss in the autorickshaw

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Emotion: Conscious feeling. (The rickshaw passes the truck on the right, squeezing between its mammoth steely bulk and the highway divider. I’m pretty sure either the rickshaw driver, or the truck driver, or both are drunk. Terror).

Affect: Pre-conscious feeling. (Choking. Breathlessness).

2. The comfort of myth

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Emotion: Heightened by linguistic meaning and codification. (At the national gallery, there is a poster that explains the significance of the hand gestures of each deity. I understand what all eight of Durga’s arms are telling me. Satisfaction. Joy).

Affect: Dampened and controlled by linguistic meaning and codification. (Steadiness. Ease).

3. The ubiquitous double standard

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Emotion: Attached to a narrative series and thus dependent upon the fulfillment or thwarting of expectation. (I walk into a store. Nothing. Ted walks into a store. “How can I help you, sir?” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Frustration).

Affect: Heightened by the disruption of narrative expectation. (Heat. Blood surge).

4. The endless crowds

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Emotion: Leads to judgment in relation to expectations, norms. (In the train station, I step over person after person while bracing myself against more people on all sides pushing me in every direction. 110 degrees. Panic. Anger).

Affect: Leads to judgment in relation only to the immediate condition of the body and the bodies that surround it. (Heart pounding. Motion. Sweat. Immersion).

A few days ago, I had to learn how to reconcile my general dislike of much of what I encounter in this city with my expectations of it and of myself. Being used to having fairly unambivalent feelings about travel, I had to learn to admit that I spend a lot of time feeling furious, frustrated, hectored, shocked, and that those feelings have reasonable sources.

But from that moment forward, I began to very slowly, almost imperceptibly, become conscious of a physical sensation that I honestly cannot describe. The closest word for it might be love, but a love that has nothing to do with anything as noble as appreciation, nor anything as easy as pleasure. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I can’t help but think that the availability of that feeling has something to do with letting go of expectation and allowing for what exceeds that expectation to absorb, “bringing a tinge of the unexpected, the lateral, the unmotivated, to lines of action and reaction. A change in the rules” (Massumi 27).


by analogy

July 2, 2009

In literary and cultural studies, trauma theory has, since the early 1990s, been the privileged position from which to analyze emotions as they relate to violence and loss. Usually psychoanalytic in orientation, trauma theorists are interested in how cultural works communicate (or fail to communicate) the extremity of human suffering. Some of this work is quite good: I’m a particular fan of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain and I even have a soft spot in my heart for queen-of-trauma-studies Cathy Caruth.

Problems often begin, however, with the desire to chart the emotional dynamics of a social, national, or identity based group often take scholars to works of literature and film in order to better understand how mass trauma effects a culture at large. Applying the dynamics of individual loss and grief to a group, particularly to a nation state or a strictly defined cultural identity, cannot occur cleanly; it too often leads to a use of analogy that has politically problematic results.

For instance:

me : my pain :: us : our pain
me : specificity of my pain :: us : specificity of our pain
me : no one else will ever know how I feel :: us : no one else will ever know how we feel
me : desire for my personal security :: us : desire for our [national?] security
me : post-traumatic rage :: us : post-traumatic rage [with capabilities to do something about it]

And so on. I would argue that the ease of taking those aspects of individual reaction to loss that are expected, understandable, and for the most part innocuous and using them as justification for the violent expansion of power is a central reason behind much of the worst of global belligerence: see the past 8 years in the United States among other examples.

I’ve been thinking about the problem of comparison, of analogy, metaphor, and simile, because I’m working on an article about 9/11 literature that addresses these problems and their relationship to narrative form. But real life, as usual, complicates matters. Having just under a week ago arrived in a new country, I’ve found that to banish all comparative resources would leave me no initial tools to use to approach this place and no way to communicate my experience here to anyone at home. How, for instance, to say what the air felt like upon leaving the apartment on my first afternoon in Delhi but to say that it was like standing over a steam vent in New York City? How to describe riding in an autorickshaw but to say that they move, jerk, and dart like bumper cars? But, as my research and writing reminds me, it is crucial, too, to say that these comparisons fail profoundly, inevitably, and that the more meaningful the experience, the more the comparisons feel like thin caricatures of the density of life.

For instance:

Yesterday, sitting in the grass in front of Humayun’s tomb, I saw a hawk swoop down and grab a stick in its talons. As if the stick were a snake. As if the hawk was a pigeon. As if the imposing structure was the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.


the sensorium

June 15, 2009

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our feelings hinge on the way our brains map our bodily states. In other words, if Antonio Damasio is right, then a whole trajectory of thinkers from Spinoza to William James were also right about the centrality of corporeal sensation and emotion to ethical relations. So despite over one hundred years of uninterrupted mocking, James might have been on to something: we might be happy because we smile, we might feel connected to someone because we share air, not the other way around.

If this is true, then our feelings about ourselves and others are dependent upon what philosophers and scientists, drawing from classical sources, refer to as the sensorium.

Sensorium: The seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves. (OED)

So what happens to emotions, thoughts, and relationships if our sensorium floods with new stimuli? Some say this is why our capacity to form narratives is key to our survival. Joan Didion made exactly this observation in the midst of the chaos of the late 1960s, beginning her essay “White Noise” with the famous line, beloved to writing instructors everywhere, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Overwhelmed by sensations, we select those that strike us, even preconsciously, as meaningful. These narratives are always wrong. We leave out the pungent smell of strawberries; we say there were six parakeets when there were only four.

This seems innocent enough, but there is a problem: in the United States today, we might have too little sensory diversity, not too much. One writer for the University of Chicago’s theories of media keywords project suggests that the advent of digital technology leaves the sensorium overly immune to stimulation and thus ethically ineffectual:

The contemporary proliferation of images of an invulnerable body, of an impenetrable sensorium, suggest that… novel methods have been devised to maintain sensory alienation and anesthesia. Rather than promoting a mutually-participatory sensory response, many new media (the computer game, smart bombs) in fact absolve the body from the experience of empathic pain, thereby also removing the sensory dimension of the consequences of our actions.

It turns out that we might be better storytellers than we should be, or that we have been wrapped up telling the wrong story. Sensoria, like anything else, develop within a social context. With our focus on safety, happiness, and comfort, we may be breeding numbness. That numbness can and does have disastrous consequences for our relationships with others.

I leave for India next week. I have no doubt that my narrative impulse will make stories and that I will tell them and that they will be wrong. Leaving an economically dominant, highly controlled place in order to get a rush of feeling is as old as naval exploration, and as violent too. Seeing the world in the radar-hued cityscapes of war coverage and flood coverage takes away our only links to others: heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. I have no illusion that my capacity to register this new place will fall into both traps. I will fetishize chaos as antidote to American anemia and narrativize conflict until it feels safe. My hope is that amidst these tendencies, something physical will still bleed through the barriers of higher cognition, something that forces new postures, feelings, pathways.