PMC Logo

    If there were no escape, no excess, no remainder, . . . the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death. Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect.

    --Brian Massumi

    I've changed my style somewhat, as you know. I'm less--I pontificate less. . . . And I'm interacting more with people.

    --George W. Bush, 13 February 2000

    Introduction: The Chief Eruption

  1. The President appears and suddenly something goes wrong. He stumbles. He squints. His mouth opens, but the words won't come. And when they do finally come, they are wrong. The sounds are strangely tangled up, misplaced, tortured. His body jerks just a little, but the camera magnifies the small flinches until they appear larger than life. When watching George W. Bush speak, you are watching an event. It is easy to get the feeling that you are witnessing something fall apart. In front of the cameras and lights, his body cannot contain the linguistic flaws, grammatical blunders, wild malapropisms, and visible confusion that are present. The executive body becomes a wild composition of energies and forces. Something erupts. In a 1999 article for The New Yorker, Joe Klein describes Bush's body like this:

    He will squinny his eyes, raise his chin, lift an eyebrow, and curl his lip slightly--his face seems to be involved in a somewhat painful, quasi-involuntary struggle to prevent itself from erupting into a broad, self-satisfied smile. This facial skirmish is often accompanied by a slight forward bend at the waist and a what-me-worry? shrug, and they often occur after the Governor has delivered a line particularly well, or thinks he has. ("Campaign" 40)

    Of course, Bush hardly ever delivers a line particularly well. The phenomenon of spotting and cataloging "Bushisms"--those infamous verbal flubs and failings--has become a kind of sport. His caricature almost creates itself: if Bill Clinton's stereotype was The Good Time Bubba, Bush's popular image is The Dumb Jock. Yet, as Mark Crispin Miller points out in The Bush Dyslexicon, this image is hardly a source of shame for President Bush. By playing the role of the folksy American during the 2000 campaign, Bush seemed "a viable alternative to the far more seasoned and intelligent Al Gore--whose very strengths could be perceived, or spun, as weaknesses by contrast with the Texan's 'naturalness' and 'likeability'" (Miller 13). Bush's mispronunciations and slips of the tongue are thus rendered as a reflection of his populism. As Miller tells it, "certainly George W. Bush has always postured as a good ole boy, who don't go in fer usin' them five-dollar words like 'snippy' and 'insurance'" (13). Indeed, Bush has capitalized on this image quite well. Bush understands that "there is no balm like 'self-effacing humor.' Thus he started early on to use that weary little joke about his tendency to 'stress the wrong syl-LAB-able,' and told Letterman that he 'would make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and big pictures'" (Miller 39). And then there were the President's self-deprecating remarks at Yale University's 300th commencement: "To the C students, I say, 'You too can be president of the United States.'" Waves of laughter erupt from the crowd: he's got quite a sense of humor.
  2. As Miller astutely observes, however, Bush's miscommunications are more than rhetorical blunderings. He is not (merely) illiterate, but intensely and viscerally incoherent:

    His eyes go blank as he consults the TelePrompTer in his head, and he chews uneasily at the corner of his mouth, as if to keep his lips in motion for the coming job, much as a batter swings before the pitch. Thus prepared, he then meticulously sounds out every. . . single . . . word, as if asking for assistance in a foreign language. (6)

    Bush's incoherence presents an interesting problem for cultural theory, as well as for the political left. If we argue, for example, that Bush is an anti-intellectual--or, at the very least, a thoughtless Head--we might rightfully conclude that any of three factors is at work.[1] Perhaps the left has not done a good job of pointing out Bush's inconsistency and anti-intellectualism (or perhaps they have failed to show why these characteristics are harmful). Or perhaps we might conclude that people appreciate Bush's ineptness--that his blunders are the mark of a "regular guy." Or, as a third alternative, we might even conclude that the public feels positive about Bush in spite of his public dullness; his other qualities outshine his apparent dimness. All of these conclusions are strong rhetorical accounts of Bush's surprising popularity in the face of his public stupidity. Yet I would suggest a further way of mapping Bush's rhetoric that the political left, not to mention cultural theory, has been slow to consider: Bush's rhetoric, including the jarring disruptions of thought and speech, creates an intensity that can move others. Bush's ineptness contains something affective that turns out to be more than its symbolic or meaningful form. In other words, before we can talk about gridded position(ings) either for or against Bush, something intensive occurs in the interstices between our various bodies. There is an affective dimension to Bush's rhetoric that can be located and mapped in terms of the body and bodily forces. In order to more fully understand this executive body and its cultural effects, we must turn to the concept of affect.
  3. Affect and (Other) Unqualified Bodies

  4. Read across the notion of affect, Bush's decomposition is quite significant. The fact that you cannot read his lips is important; the Presidential disconnection implies much more than a missed connection. As Brian Massumi argues in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, the event of image reception takes place on several levels: there is a level of intensity and a level of qualification. Whereas qualification is the image's "indexing to conventional meanings in an intersubjective context, its sociolinguistic qualification," an image's intensity is "the strength or duration of the image's effect" (24). For example, Massumi describes an experiment undertaken by researchers after a short, wordless film on German television raised a number of complaints from parents about the film's tendency to scare children. The film itself, which was originally nothing but filler between programs, was seemingly innocuous: a man builds a snowman, and, after it begins to melt in the sun, drives it to the mountains. There he drops off the snowman and leaves. This scene is hardly the kind of film one would identify as being frightening to children. In their experiments, researchers showed different versions of the film to children: a wordless version, a version that narrated the man's emotional states at various points, and a factually narrated version. They wired the children to measure various physiological reactions, and asked for responses to the film. (Is this version happy or sad? Is this version pleasant or unpleasant? Which one do you remember the most?) As Massumi writes, the children found the original wordless version most pleasant. Oddly enough, the children also rated this wordless version as the saddest one. The saddest version was the most pleasant. The physiological results are also strange, Massumi points out. "Factuality made their heart beat faster and deepened their breathing, but it also made their skin resistance fall" (Parables 24). In other words, the heart-brain processed information effectively, but it was the skin that had to be excited.
  5. But why would the brain race while the skin is bored? Massumi suggests that these different functions arise from their relation to expectation. Because the heart-brain positions itself within narrative and cognitive continuity, "modulations of heartbeat and breathing mark a reflux of consciousness into the autonomic depths, coterminous with a rise of the autonomic into consciousness" (Parables 25). But intensity--the skin flicks--jumps outside the narrative/cognitive line. Intensity disrupts the linear narrative. The pleasure of intensity is a jump cut, a jolt, a shock that exists on the surface of signification. Judging from such empirical scenes, Massumi concludes that "depth reactions belong more to the form/content (qualification) level. . . . The reason may be that they are associated with expectation, which depends on consciously positioning oneself in a line of narrative continuity" (25). The qualification-meaning level of an image's reception, in other words, relates to expectation. Yet, the intensity level, which registers on the skin, "is outside expectation and adaptation. . . . It is narratively delocalized, spreading over the generalized body surface like a lateral backwash from the function-meaning interloops that travel the vertical path between head and heart" (25). The level of intensity in image reception is something other than expectation. Indeed, writes Massumi, "intensity would seem to be associated with nonlinear processes: resonation and feedback that momentarily suspend the linear progress of the narrative present from past to future" (26). Intensity is a disruption of the indexing of qualification.
  6. These multiple levels do not merely happen with image reception, however. "Language belongs to entirely different orders depending on which redundancy it enacts," writes Massumi, "or, it always enacts both more or less completely: two languages, two dimensions of every expression, one superlinear, the other linear. Every event takes place on both levels" (26; emphasis mine). Massumi calls these two halves expectation and suspense. "Approaches to the image in its relation to language are incomplete if they operate only on the semantic or semiotic level, however that level is defined . . . . What they lose, precisely, is the expression event--in favor of structure" (26-27). In short, Massumi concludes, "much could be gained by integrating the dimension of intensity into cultural theory. The stakes are the new" (27). In spite of everything that expectation, the symbolic, and structure allow for, they operate in a realm where nothing new emerges. But the event itself is not prefigured. As Massumi writes, "the expression-event is the system of the inexplicable: emergence, into and against regeneration (the reproduction of a structure). . . . Intensity is the unassimilable" (27). Following Massumi's lead, therefore, we can redescribe intensity of the event as affect.
  7. This theory of affect--of the event's doubleness--is important for cultural theory. Massumi notes, "there seems to be a growing feeling within media, literary, and art theory that affect is central to an understanding of our information- and image-based late capitalist culture, in which so-called master narratives are perceived to have foundered" (27). The problem, according to Massumi, is that "there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect. Our entire vocabulary has derived from theories of signification that are still wedded to structure" (27). Thus, we must invent an affective cultural theory as we go along. The stakes are the new and the otherwise unassimilable dimension that shadows our encounters with the event. If our descriptions lack an account of the affective-intense dimensions, they can formulate only a partial cultural theory.
  8. As we see in Massumi's evocations of the event's doubleness, therefore, corporality is more than it sometimes seems. A cultural theory of affect is a theory of the body. The affective body is an event; it is implicated in the doubleness of the event. Whereas many readings of the body begin in qualification and ideological realms--in meaning--we must not neglect the body's total event. That is, we must not neglect both halves of the body: qualification and intensity. It may be true, as Katharine Young writes in her introduction to Bodylore, that "our beliefs about the body, our perceptions of it and the properties we attribute to it, both symbolic and literal, are socially constructed" (xvii). However, we cannot simply reduce the body to the plane of meaning. It is here that the challenge to cultural theory specifically lies: we must come to understand the body as an affective body, as a total event.
  9. I can think of no better exemplar than Bush, who is certainly not describable only in terms of qualification. (Has one ever seen a more unqualified executive body?) Calling on this body, then, I want to extend Massumi's call for the creation of a cultural vocabulary of affect by tracing three lines, three key terms, of the affective body: relational intensity, the sensation of involvement, and thought-impingement.[2] I argue that we must begin to develop a cultural-theoretical vocabulary of and for affective bodies beyond those existing vocabularies of signification. Not only can such vocabularies bring both halves of the event into focus, but this exploration also offers a material re/description of the (political) body as an effect of affect. Moreover, this reading does not apply merely to President Bush's decomposing body, but to cultural theory as such. In other words, a bodily theory of affect can become a launching pad for a more complete response to current cultural-political scenes. What follows is thus a double gesture of analysis: I want to generate an affective vocabulary via the spectacle of Bush's decomposing body, as well as a reading of this body across our developing vocabulary of affect. I suggest that such vocabularies can only be generated in a simultaneous co-emergence with(in) sites of cultural analysis. They emerge, that is, through unqualified exemplars.
  10. Relational Intensity

  11. Bush operates most effectively through surprise attack. In his 8 February 2004 appearance on Meet the Press, for example, Bush responded to the growing clamor over weapons of mass destruction (or the lack thereof) with what was slated to be an explanation. "There is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime of iron-clad absolutely solid evidence," he remarked. "The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon." And, taking a slightly different tactic, Bush further responded, "in my judgment, when the United States says there will be serious consequences, and if there isn't serious consequences, it creates adverse consequences." To put it mildly, these responses jolt their audience. As qualifications, they are meaningless and empty, yet their vacuousness is hardly without intensity--in fact, they come on strong and refuse to evaporate. Bush's incorrect statements, tautologies, malapropisms, mispronunciations, and bewildering remarks stage a jolt, causing intensity to build up around them. "I don't care what the polls say," remarked the President in March of 2000, "I don't. I'm doing what I think what's wrong" (qtd. in Miller 134). Miller identifies remarks like this as a surprise for the audience. Miller continues, "For this tendency there may be some physiological explanation; or it may express the muffled protests of a very deeply buried conscience" (134). Bush tells the truth in spite of himself. One's first inclination may be to explain this jolt as a severe case of intellectual deficit disorder. Yet something more is happening in these veerings and verbal snags. Bush's pratfalls are not (only) failures, but, perhaps more importantly, they are affectively generative events. It is a mistake, therefore, to underestimate the importance of the event's doubleness in reading this scene. The jolt of Bushisms exposes the "productivity" of affect as a relational capacity--a function of relations. It might be worth while to spend some probing the idea of relationality for what it can tell us about the event of unqualified bodies.
  12. Consider the Reagan Presidency: smooth and polished, the Great Communicator himself might seem to be Bush's performative doppelganger. Many commentators have crafted the moment of Reagan's persuasiveness as a sublime example of charisma-politics. Teflon Ron. Unlike the sticky prose and verbal snags of Bush's speech, nothing stuck to Reagan. He appeared to be smooth. Massumi points to a story from Oliver Sacks that suggests otherwise. Sacks observed two groups of cognitively dysfunctional patients--global aphasiacs and tonal agnosiacs--watching Reagan deliver a speech. Whereas the first group follows significant meaning through body language, the second group gathers meaning strictly through people's grammatical and semantic verbal structures. Interestingly enough, notes Massumi, neither group was able to follow the supposedly smoother-than-smooth Reagan. His body language was so jerky and unsmooth that the aphasics could not follow his meaning. At the same time, writes Massumi, "the agnosiacs were outraged that the man couldn't put together a grammatical sentence or follow a logical line to its conclusion" (Parables 40). The upshot, surprisingly enough, is that Reagan was anything but a smooth talker. This usual rationale for his popularity appears to be somewhat questionable.
  13. The picture of Reagan as the Great Communicator is thus rhetorically troubled for a number of reasons. Even on the surface, Reagan lacked the charismatic qualities to pull off a politics of charisma. As Massumi remarks:

    It wasn't that people didn't hear the verbal fumbling or recognize the incoherence of his thoughts. They were the butt of constant jokes and news stories. And it wasn't that what he lacked on the level of verbal coherence was glossed over by the seductive fluency of his body image. Reagan was more famous for his polyps than his poise. (Parables 40)

    Paradoxically, Massumi suggests that Reagan's popularity did not happen in spite of this unintelligibility, but because of it. "The only conclusion is that Reagan was an effective leader . . . because of his double dysfunction. He was able to produce ideological effects by . . . falling apart. His means were affective" (40). Massumi argues that Reagan's power to attract others was the power of interruption, of suspense: "At each jerk, at each cut into the movement, the potential is there for the movement to veer off in another direction, to become a different movement. . . . In other words, each jerk is a critical point, a singular point, a bifurcation point" (40-41). His movement developed along the lines of the event: Reagan not only embodied qualification, he also embodied the unassimilable intensity of suspense. Massumi explains:

    He was an incipience . . . It was on the receiving end that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content. . . . They [the audience] selected one line of movement, one progression of meaning, to actualize and implant locally. That is why Reagan could be so many things to so many people. (41)

    Reagan's power was precisely his potential: the doubleness of the event was crucial to his ability to move others. At every turn, Reagan's qualifications were hacked and cut. He communicated via interruption of expectation--he was an affective leader, even if not necessarily an effective one.
  14. This insipience embodied by Reagan is arguably echoed in Bush's rhetoric. The President's visceral incoherence that Miller identifies is both more and less than a case of stupidity. He surprises us in a variety of ways--from the disastrous malapropisms to the rather obvious shifts and evasions. In a January 2004 press conference, for example, Bush was questioned about David Kay's startling admission that weapons of mass destruction would probably not be found in Iraq. "Are you still confident that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq," the reporter asked, "given what Dr. Kay has said?" The President responded with what might most generously be called a non sequitur:

    There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a gathering threat to America and others. That's what we know. . . . And given the events of September the 11th, we know we could not trust the good intentions of Saddam Hussein, because he didn't have any. There is no doubt in my mind the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. America is more secure, the world is safer, and the people of Iraq are free. (Office of the Press Secretary)

    The answer hardly follows, yet we should also note that this "surprise" has the effect of a bifurcation point, which veers off into innumerable incipiencies. This veering is not merely a matter of multiple interpretive possibilities (although we can read Bush's tautologies as such, for example), but it is also the encounter of disruption, of suspense. Bush's disruptions reflect the jolt of the event and its doubleness. To borrow Massumi's phrase about Reagan, Bush himself is "a communicative jerk" (Parables 41). Therefore, we might wish to depart from Miller's reading of Bush's rhetoric--a qualified reading that seeks to expose the disruption of expectation as a broken line of meaning--and look instead to the event's doubleness. While Bush's persuasiveness and rhetorical efficacy may not be locatable in his qualified, indexical meanings, his intensity is another matter. It may not be his linear dimensions that move audiences, but rather the supralinear. Moreover, it may not be a movement of gridded positionality that is effected, but movement as such.
  15. Here we can turn to the work of Spinoza on the subject of decomposing bodies. As Massumi points out, Spinoza's writings are perhaps the most powerful source of influence for current theories of affect: "on the irreducibly bodily and autonomic nature of affect . . . it is the name of Baruch Spinoza that stands out" (Parables 28). Spinoza is interested in what he calls the affections of the body, where "the body's power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked" (104). For Spinoza, a body is never a/lone(ly) body. One body is always in relation to another. "The human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or diminished," writes Spinoza (104). The relation of affect is not a one-way proposition. A body is affected by another body as much as it affects another body. Spinoza explains, "the human body is composed of very many individual bodies of different nature, and so it can be affected by one and the same body in many different ways" (115). Drugs are an obvious example of just such a manifold affectation. While a drug can be quite pleasurable for certain parts of the body, it can also be harmful to others (the liver, brain, etc.). Similarly, Spinoza continues, "different men can be affected in different ways by one and the same object, and one and the same man can be affected by one and the same object in different ways at different times" (134). Spinoza describes this interrelation of bodies and affects in terms of joy and sadness, which are terms central to his ontology. As Deleuze writes in his brief treatise on Spinoza:

    When a body "encounters" another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts. . . . We experience joy when a body encounters ours and enters into composition with it, and sadness when, on the contrary, a body or an idea threaten our own coherence. (Spinoza 19)

    Moira Gatens and Catherine Lloyd explain Spinoza's affective poles: "Joy involves an increase in activity--an increase in the striving to persist. . . . there is a corresponding orientation of sadness toward disengagement and isolation" (53). Whereas joy is an increase in active intensities, sadness is the diminishment of that potentiality.
  16. A body is thus a degree of potential for entering certain kinds of relations. As Deleuze points out, Spinoza defines bodies not as a substance but as "a capacity for affecting or being affected" (Spinoza 124). Such capacity certainly relates to the "ideas" that affect us. (For example, I have the capacity for being affected by sad thoughts, thereby changing the intensity of my body at a particular moment of a sad song.) Yet, Deleuze describes this capacity in concrete terms, beyond the ideas that, as we commonly say, affect us. "For example: there are greater differences between a plow horse or draft horse and a racehorse than between an ox and a plow horse," explains Deleuze. "This is because the racehorse and the plow horse do not have the same affects nor the same capacity for being affected" (Spinoza 124). Spinoza forgoes a substantial definition of a body in favor of its capacities and its potentiality for relations. A (Spinozist) body thus cannot be defined apart from relations with the world. Following this description, we understand the body as those groupings of capacities that are always being affected by (or affecting) another body or bodies. This encounter between bodies is a relation of intensities. Even the body that I substantively identify as my body is a matter of powers: I slip on my headphones to listen to certain music that makes me feel more energetic, more awake. The body of the songs has entered into relation with my body in such a way that increases my intensity. One body enters into a relation with another, changing the potential of both. After listening to sad music, for example, the body's energy becomes low-key, mellow, and almost pained. Or perhaps I take a tab of acid. In spite of my wishes or desires, my body reveals its own capacities for being affected by psychopharmic bodies.
  17. The body, in its affective relation with other bodies, is thus always in a transition or a passage. "These continual durations or variations of perfection are called 'affects,' or feelings (affectus)," writes Deleuze (Spinoza 49). However, such affects do not merely relate to ideas that move us. "It is of another nature," says Deleuze, "being purely transitive, and not indicative or representative, since it is experienced in a lived duration that involves the difference between two states" (Spinoza 49). Affect marks the lived duration between two states experienced by one body that is affected by another body. The sensation of such a relation is what we might call the encounter of affect. As Deleuze and Guattari explain, "affect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel" (Thousand 240). Rather than acting as the emotive means by which to solidify one's individuality, affect is the sensation of being affected by another body. It is the experience that we are not a/lone(ly), but that we exist in relations beyond what we may recognize or even wish.
  18. Affect is the experience of having the ground pulled out from under our very feet. Few people do this better than Bush, who veers, stutters, misspeaks, hesitates, twitches. We are tempted to take a jab at his failing body, a failing that (we quietly assume with a strange degree of residual Cartesianism) surely reflects a faltering mind. Yet the crashing sounds of the jolt resonate with the encounter of one body affecting/being affected by another body. The camera lights hit Bush--or the questions begin to strike--and we immediately witness a body de/composing as a result of such composition. Likewise, Bush often surprises our narrative expectations with a botched metaphor, fact, or phrase. It is then our turn to experience an interruption--a decomposition--of the (should we say normal?) smoothness of composition. Bush hacks our experience of narrative so easily, and with such a degree of intensity, because we are already in a kind of relationality with this executive body. Bush himself is hacked because he is never a/lone(ly) body, but is rather always open to affectation and compositions. Yet it is a mistake to position Bush's "hackishness" outside of the event's relationality. Furthermore, as we will see in the next section, this experience of relationality generates unqualified intensity that is all the more powerful in its productive capacities.
  19. The Sensation of Involvement

  20. We don't listen to the President. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to listen to the President. Not only does he so rarely speak in public (it is said that he has given the fewest press conferences of any president since the advent of television), but he does not give you much to go on. His speech interrupts itself so frequently that it is almost impossible to find Bush sustaining an articulated thought for very long. As the President himself admits, his reading strategy is a bit disjointed: "I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably (sic) read the news themselves." Even his description of reading is unreadable. Calling Bush "the unspeakable president," Salon editor Gary Kamiya wryly remarks that forcing Bush to speak in public is un-American: "what America . . . wanted was a genial, figurehead-type CEO who is incapable of defending or even explaining the decisions made by his corporate masters . . . but who can make ignorance seem charming" ("Unspeakable"). We cannot listen to this President, and yet we experience him. We await his event. We await the jolt of relational intensity.
  21. In describing affects and/as bodies-in-relation, therefore, we are talking largely about sensation, or the sensation of involvement. Yet this is not the personalized sensation that we typically conceptualize as feelings about something. By reading Bush's body as an affective body, we are not indexing feelings about Bush. By the time such qualification has occurred, we have already bypassed the event's doubleness and/in the affective body. Instead, we might conceptualize affect as the sensation of the periphery. In What is Philosophy?, for example, Deleuze and Guattari look toward music and painting in order to find the sensation of bordering. "Harmonies are affects," they write. "Consonance and dissonance, harmonies of tone or color, are affects of music or painting" (164). Harmony is sensed in music or painting, yet it does not belong properly to the listener/viewer. Neither does it reside in any particular place in the material itself. There are combinations of notes and colors, to be sure, yet the harmony exists beyond a mere combination of elements. "It is difficult to say where in fact the material ends and sensation begins. . . . Sensation is not realized in the material without the material passing completely into the sensation, into the percept or affect," Deleuze and Guattari continue (166-67). The sensation of affect is thus the sensual experience of bordering, of being on the periphery. Or, to put it in other terms, the sensation of involvement is the corporeal experience of being-in-relation.
  22. Although the language may be unfamiliar, this affective encounter of bordering is familiar. One can point to the event of shared eroticism, for example, where sensations belong to no/body in particular. An erotic encounter reflects an involvement of bodies, skin, and those strange relations of the outside. An erotic encounter cannot sustain itself on the mere intimate relation of two (or more) bodies. Eroticism involves an extra, shared element that is outside the range of either body in its "proper" limits. The erotic is neither outside nor inside, but is rather involved in the relation. Eroticism is, perhaps, the primary exemplar of involvement. Echoing the writings of Georges Bataille, Alphonso Lingis remarks that such involvement is an exposure and wounding:

    What else is erotic craving but a craving to be violated? In voluptuous turmoil, we are left not simply wounded, but shattered. The violent emotions that are aroused, . . . that push on in a momentum that can no longer derail or control itself, sense also the exultation of risking oneself, of plunging into the danger zone, of expending our forces at a loss. (Dangerous 91)

    Lingis suggests that the erotic extends beyond the mere combining of two bodies. Erotic sensation itself is a bordering phenomenon: it is not merely an internalized sensation, but feeds from the intensity of a relation and the body of another. He writes:

    Erotic passion is not an initiative of what we call our person--our separate and discontinuous existence, source of its own acts, responsible for what we ourselves say and do. . . . An erotic object functions as the open gate toward which the shock waves of our energies rush, to be . . . intensified and inflamed there, and to break forth into the dazzling darkness beyond. (Dangerous 142-43)

    The scene of eroticism is thus a feeling of excess and exposure. It is an encounter with the periphery, or the experience of relationality. Perhaps it is telling that erotic encounters are so commonly described as the feeling of getting lost in another, getting swept away, drowning. The sensation of involvement radically exposes our own being as being-in-relation.
  23. A slightly more banal way of describing this peripheral phenomenon of affective involvement can be found in the body's reactions to everyday event-scenes. In her reading of the plastic bag pseudo-documentary in the film American Beauty, for example, Gay Hawkins describes her reaction to the short scene as one of intense involvement. It wasn't a matter of liking the scene, she explains. It's not quite like that. The scene bowled her over, leaving her breathless. She says, "I was participating in that scene before I knew it, it triggered a different rhythm or process in my watching, one in which I lost my self in a new relation" ("Documentary"). That is, before she could even identify or register some kinds of index--admiration, disgust, semantic meaning, and so on--Hawkins says that she was struck. In her attempt to make sense of this rather unusual visceral reaction, Hawkins turns to the notion of the affective body as relationality. "In other words," she writes, "affect is a relation, it's not a self having feelings, it's a distinctive being in and of the world" ("Documentary"). While we may be tempted to re-index, to reclassify, such an encounter, Hawkins argues that "we are in affect, participating, before this happens, affect precedes these kind of classificatory and cognitive activities" ("Documentary"). Before any qualification of the event, therefore, the affective body registers intensity and breaks expectation.
  24. As both Spinoza and Deleuze suggest, however, this involvement is never of the personal. Affect and bodies-in-relation are always a social matter. In her analysis of conservative Australian ultra-rightist politician Pauline Hanson, for example, Anna Gibbs turns to the notion of affect for an explanation of Hanson's popularity. It is not (merely) that Hanson persuaded an entire line of voters to support her arch-conservative policies, but rather that Hanson's affective body entered into particular kinds of joyful relations--in Spinoza's sense of this term--with other bodies. Gibbs writes that "bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another" ("Contagious"). Gibbs is especially interested in Hanson's face and voice (as they are caught on screen) to find what she calls "the affective resonance" of visceral response between bodies ("Contagious"). With her pale skin, green eyes, and red hair, Hanson was a disruption from the ordinary drabness of political faces. She was striking. Her voice was also affectively contagious, wobbly and full of emotional texture. In Gibbs's astute reading,

    Hanson's voice in the broadcast coverage of the last federal election often conveyed acute distress, as if she was about to burst into tears, and the communicability of this affect in turn set in motion a number of affective sequences in those who listened to it. The distress of the other, if distress itself particularly distresses the observer, often produces an impulse to put an immediate stop to it, as when a baby cries. ("Contagious")

    Trembling and emotional, Hanson appeared less than articulate or self-assured. This performance was not at all harmful to her broad conservative and moderate support, as Gibbs points out. For her inarticulacy "not only communicated the immediate affect of distress, but formed part of a more general attitude . . . of some one who has 'had enough', and this attitude, if not the detail of all of her actual ideas, evoked a ready sympathy in many people" ("Contagious"). In other words, it was not political, ideological content that necessarily won support for Hanson, but the sensation of intensification she was able to cultivate for some members of her audience. In addition to these indexical lines, there was a visceral feedback being fed by an interloop of bodies. There was a mutuality between Hanson and the bodies of her supporters.
  25. However, as we have seen, affect is not (always) bound up in identification. Affect as bodies-in-relation--affect in a Spinozist sense--remains outside awareness. Gibbs later concedes that this is precisely what Hanson's inarticulation "embodies." Citing Massumi, Gibbs writes, "to the extent that the affects comprising [attitudes] remain outside awareness, they imply desire, or what Brian Massumi has characterised . . . as 'yearning' [which is] . . . 'a tendency without end'" ("Contagious"). Gibbs argues that Hanson's affective resonance was not ultimately comprised in identification, but in "redintegration." The difference between the two is a difference between a unifying gesture and a point of decomposition. Gibbs explains, "redintegrative contagion is less organised [than identification], less predictable, less stable. . . . [It is] characterised by disequilibrium rather than equilibrium, punctuated or otherwise" ("Contagious"). Redintegration is a falling apart. Thus, as Massumi says of Reagan (and as we might say of George W. Bush), Hanson was popular not in spite of, but because of, her inarticulacy. While we cognitively prefer linearity and indexicality of the event, the skin is intensified and potentialized by disruption. The body is struck by the event's suspension of linearity.
  26. The real, material sensation of this immaterial strike cannot be underestimated. The lived duration of affect has power. In deleuzoguattarian terms, the strike of affect--as sensation of the periphery or involvement--marks a real change in our ways of being. The body's relationality, Deleuze and Guattari write, is "not the passage from one lived state to another but man's nonhuman becoming" (What 173). Becoming-involved is a process of entering into new relations and zones of proximities. "Becoming is an extreme contiguity within a coupling of two sensations without resemblance. . . . It is a zone of indetermination, of indiscernibility, as if things, beasts, and persons . . . endlessly reach that point that immediately precedes their natural differentiation. This is what is called an affect" (What 173). Here we might recall the experience of listening to music or seeing art that thrives in harmony or dissonance. During the event of hearing a song that jives with your body, you enter into a zone of permeability with other elements that are "properly" outside your own sense. Concerts illustrate this zone of indetermination to an even greater extent. Musicians often describe "feeding" on a crowd's energy and vice-versa. Commonly perceived delimitations--proper borders of identity and substance--break down in these instances, disclosing the affective sensation of peripheral relations at work. This is not to say that the sensual experience of affect marks a return to a primal scene of origination. As Deleuze and Guattari write, "it is a question only of ourselves, here and now; but what is animal, vegetable, mineral, or human in us is now indistinct" (What 174). We already exist in zones of indetermination; particular events emphasize the sensual reality of such indiscernibility.
  27. The feelings that we once attributed to our selves are thus reattributed to the affective event of involvement and its sensation. The sociality of affect is precisely this relation among bodies. When President Bush opens his mouth to speak, he feeds into this relationality, augmenting the relations within which various bodies find themselves. His speech does not initiate a relation, in other words. As we have seen in the previous section, relationality among bodies precedes his worst blunder or finest moment. Bush's words are compositional bodies of affect--whether joyful or sad. His words are potentialities. We do not merely listen when the Chief speaks, but we are de/composed and intensified at the peripheral threshold outside of proper corporeal limits. With every jerk, jolt, and flopped joke, we are affected by the doubled intensity of the Presidential event. We are sensually involved in the President's intensity. Before we can like, love, or loathe Bush--before the space of critique is even opened to us--we encounter his potential for affect(ation).


  28. Bush's "unspeakability" forces the question that we must inevitably revisit: Is Bush thoughtless? According to a 2003 poll cited in Britain's Sunday Times, 37% of Brits responded that Bush is "stupid" (Bohan). Likewise, recall how the spokeswoman for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien felt about Bush: "What a moron" (McIlroy). As Salon's Kamiya wittily remarks: "Welcome to the wonderful world of George W. Bush's brain, where it's always Casual Friday!" Is Bush thoughtless? Perhaps. But as Gatens and Lloyd point out, it is important to remember that the Spinozist understanding of body is not in opposition to mind. Spinoza does not advocate a turn toward the body in an effort to move away from rationality or logic. Rather, for Spinoza, mind is constituted through the body's relations and its awareness of those relations through the imagination. Indeed, imagination--a term that is important in Spinoza's ontology--is the "coming together of mind and body in the most immediate way: mind is the idea of body" (12). Bodies are affected and modified by other bodies, and the mind or consciousness is an awareness of these very modifications. Mind and body are thus involved in various degrees of mutuality, and consciousness is an effect of alertness to bodies in relation. Gatens and Lloyd write, "in being aware of its body, the mind is aware not just of one material thing but of other bodies impinging on that body. . . . This experience of other bodies together with our own is the basis of imagination" (14). Consciousness is awareness of affect: the body in modifying relations with other bodies. "The affects are for Spinoza . . . transitions in bodily power and intensity," they write. "The awareness of actual bodily modification--the awareness of things as present--is fundamental to the affects; and this is what makes the definition of the affects overlap with that of imagination" (52). The body-in-relation (the affective body) is thus a social body. Affect is a corporeal dimension of sociality.
  29. Spinoza thus suggests that we should be slow to make any pronouncements about the relationship between the mind's (rational) mastery over the (irrational) body. Although we are often eager to give primacy to consciousness and cognition--thereby also reducing corporality to a secondary importance--Spinoza finds evidence that the noncognitive aspects of the body reflect a kind of thinking. "For nobody as yet knows the structure of the body so accurately as to explain all its functions," writes Spinoza (106). Spinoza suggests that because the body acts beyond the full control of our cognitive knowledge, "mental decisions . . . [vary] therefore according to the varying disposition of the body" (107). Thinking is a dimension of the affective body insofar as thought registers an awareness of affect.
  30. As we have seen repeatedly, the affective body is a visceral body: the body enfolds sensation prior to all mediation of thought. "Visceral sensibility immediately registers excitations gathered by the five 'exteroceptive' senses even before they are fully processed by the brain" (Massumi, Parables 60). In a given situation, the body knows prior to our cognitive awareness. Massumi explains:

    As you cross a busy noonday street, your stomach turns somersaults before you consciously hear and identify the sound of screeching brakes that careens toward you. . . . The immediacy of visceral perception is so radical that it can be said without exaggeration to precede the exteroceptive sense perception. . . . [V]iscerality subtracts quality as such from excitation. It registers intensity. (Parables 60-61)

    In other words, the affective body acts within relations that are cognitively filtered out from our recognized awareness. Whereas we often only recognize the linear, qualified index of meanings, the body is aware of an event's doubling. "Viscerality, though no less of the flesh, is a rupture in the stimulus-response paths, a leap in place into a space outside action-reaction circuits," writes Massumi. "Viscerality is the perception of suspense" (61). Before we can cognitively, consciously register an indexical meaning along a semantic narrative, our body has already encountered the suspension and interruption of the event.
  31. This understanding of situation renders thought as a dimension of the affective body's relationality. Here we are moving away from a classical epistemology that holds thinking as an effect of observation. Lingis points out that such classical epistemology distinguishes between "the de facto multiplicity of sense-data and their relationships" (Foreign 7). At the same time, he continues, we might follow Merleau-Ponty and take "the sensing to be active from the start. . . . [T]he receptivity for the sensuous element [is thus] a prehension, a prise, a 'hold'" (7). To sense is already to have the body taken in, so to speak. "To perceive is not for a transcendental agency to extract itself from a drifting mass of sensations; it is to belong to the world one works oneself into," Lingis continues (Foreign 15).[3] The relations of bodies, the sensual experience of being-involved, and thought are therefore all inextricably linked in ways that bypass cognitively recognized dimensions. Instead, the body reflects its own ways of thinking in and through its involvement. Consider those movements that happen too quickly for you to decide, writes Lingis. Consider the slips of the tongue, fast glances, flips of the stomach, jerks of the head, and so on. Or consider a banal gesture, the event of waving to a friend, for example:

    The hand that rises to respond to a gesture hailing us in the crowd is not . . . made possible by a representation first formed of the identity of the one recognized. It is the hand that recognizes the friend who is there, not as a named form represented, but as a movement and a cordiality that solicits . . . not a cognitive and representational operation from us, but a greeting, an interaction. (Foreign 8)

    The body's own affectiveness, in other words, is not an effect of cognitive or representational processes. Though we may be reluctant to grant such a status to the body--dumb and inscribed as it may seem--its everyday involvements give the lie to any notion of cognitive primacy. More importantly for cultural theory, the body-in-relation exposes its potentiality for corporeal thought: sensual thinking that exceeds cognitive capture.
  32. Thought itself is thus a force: it hits the body. Steven Shaviro describes this kind of thinking in terms of the cinematic image and the event of "reception." When watching a film, writes Shaviro, "I have already been touched and altered by these sensations, even before I have had the chance to become conscious of them. The world I see through the movie camera is one that violently impinges upon me, one that I can no longer regard, unaffected, from a safe distance" (46). And beyond the cinematic image, our encounters with other bodies likewise impinge upon us before we have the chance to respond through the grid of the symbolic. In other words, the image grabs us, and not the other way around. "I am solicited and invested by what I see: perception becomes a kind of physical affliction," writes Shaviro, "an intensification and disarticulation of bodily sensation, rather than a process either of naive (ideological and Imaginary) belief or of detached, attentive consideration" (52). Thought hits the body, haunting it as a force that is with/in us, though out of our grasp.
  33. Such a re/description of situation has an important impact on the way we come to think of particular scenes, especially political-social scenes. As Hawkins writes:

    What is valuable about this account of affect is the way it makes trouble for all those epistemologies that begin with a knowing subject ready to act on the world or be acted upon. For the body in affect is not a subjectivity to the world's objectivity, it is a body in transition, a body in relation. . . . [T]o have a response is to be in a relation. ("Documentary")

    Before we approach a situation cognitively, as subjects, we are already involved in relationality. "Our body thinks with pure feeling before it acts thinkingly," Massumi argues (Parables 266). We see this primacy in the body's responses to sudden jolts that are registered somehow before we can make sense of the situation--that is, before we can attach a narrative to the event. Thought itself thus becomes a kind of thinking-feeling that originates in the body. Looking to the work of Deleuze, Massumi explains: "a body does not choose to think, and . . . the supreme operation of thought does not consist in making a choice. . . . Thought strikes like lightening, with sheering ontogenetic force. It is felt" (Shock xxxi). An affective reading of Bush's (rhetorical) body, therefore, must begin not with any ideological or cognitive effects (although a complete reading necessarily involves these lines), but in a space prior to cognition. It begins in relationality, with the body-in-relation. Something escapes Bush's language. The excess erupts over his body, rippling across the surface of skin and muscle for us all to see. It is not (merely) that he is lacking coherency, but that he has an excess of qualities. There is too much in his performance to index, to qualify, to hook into coherent meaning. These excess qualities derail from the logical-semantic loops and strike us. They break into a situation and register themselves on the visceral body. Whether or not this involvement becomes a joyful or sad composition, of course, is not determined by such a reading. The visceral registering of excess is not necessarily a positive or negative phenomenon. Affect--and what we might properly call thought--is prior to emotional, ideological, or cognitive indexing.
  34. This means, for one thing, that Bush himself is not thoughtless. The nervous body, the pursed lips, the stuttering, the pauses, the shifting eyes--they all indicate a kind of bodily thinking. A body is struck by other bodies, resulting in its composition or decomposition. It is affected. Beyond what Bush himself may wish, the body leaks and exposes itself in its own intensities. Our visceral reactions also reflect a thinking-feeling that hits us prior to cognitive indexing. Before we can make sense, we sense. Before we react cognitively, we respond affectively. As Avital Ronell explains in her study on stupidity (especially appropriate here), the body's thinking is not only not coterminous with cognition, but that body's thinking takes place absolutely otherwise (otherways) than cognition and qualification:

    Ever elsewhere when it comes to cognitive scanners, the body evades the regimens of knowledge that would claim to grasp, sectionize, or conceptualize it. Somewhat surprisingly, the site of nonknowledge that the body traverses, and of which it is a part, is related . . . to thought, to acts or contracts of thinking, for the body thinks in a sense, beyond giving or making sense. . . . Thought, which Heidegger unhitched from philosophical operations, weighs in as body. (187)

    Ronell explains that the thinking-feeling body indicates a limit to cognitive knowledge. It also indicates the wealth and importance of "sense" that occurs prior to cognition and qualification. We see these two strands well illustrated by the failing, falling, flubbing body of George W. Bush. On the one hand, there is an absolute limit to Bush's cognitive knowledge. He is, some fear, empty-headed. Yet if his head is empty, his body is stuffed to the breaking point. His is an excessive body-in-relation. The ingress of unqualified intensity hits like a jolt: a body affects and is affected by another body in a compositional overspill. When Bush begins to speak, we the viewers see the suspense--the affect--spill out across the screen. Yet it is not just Bush whose body falls apart. Like Bush, we are bodies in situation. Something slips between subjectivity, language, and scene. Perhaps this something can be called thought, insofar as thought is understood in its affective terms. Excessive intensity hits our body before we have the chance to contain it safely within a story. This excessive punch is what we might call the thought of affect.
  35. Toward a New Cultural Theory

  36. Given these three lines of the affective body--relational intensity, sensation of involvement, and though-impingement--and given primacy of the affective body, how can we give an account of Bush's persuasiveness, especially in light of his incoherent, poorly performed, and un(der)prepared rhetoric? One could answer this question by looking to relations of power among individuals and the social, examining the ideological construction of relations. This is an important critique, yet an affective reading suggests a space prior to ideological and socially constructed relations of power. As Massumi explains:

    It is the event-dimension of potential--not the system of language and the operations of reflection it enables--that is the effective dimension of the interrelating of elements, of their belonging to each other. . . . Belonging is unmediated, and under way. . . . It is the openness of bodies to each other and to what they are not. (Parables 76; emphasis added)

    The ability of Bush to move others not in spite of his incoherency but because of it suggests an openness to something beyond semantic or ideological meanings. It suggests that we are open to being affected and affecting other bodies before we know it. Simpler still, we might describe the body of Bush as a gaping hole, a wound: he exposes his and our own exposure as bodies-in-relation. It's not that nothing comes out when Bush opens his mouth; it's that too much spills out. Before Bush himself has the opportunity to persuade, and before we can undertake any critical analysis of gridded ideological positionalities, something else comes first. As I have attempted to trace here, this something else is precisely the intensity that is generated outside (or alongside) dimensions of qualification or interpretation.
  37. Two things should stand out to us in an affective reading. First, our cultural-political analyses must begin to include affective dimensions if they are to have any kind of critical effect. That is, we must begin to read the event in its doubling, and not merely in its signifying dimensions. Secondly, we must begin to trace the body itself in its affective and relational characteristics. It is not enough to study the "inscriptions" and symbolic currency of the body. Even at the political scene of the executive body, we must begin to register the suspense of meanings and its effects on the spectator. The primary questions for critical analysis should begin with affect: ask not what the President is (or isn't, in our case) but what his body is capable of doing. Such readings are a first gesture toward developing vocabularies of affect that can contribute to a revitalization of cultural theory. A viable cultural theory is one that reads both halves of the affective body's event.

    Department of English
    University of Texas at Austin

    Talk Back




    I would like to thank Diane Davis, Collin Brooke, Jeff Rice, and Thomas Rickert for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

    1. We should give a nod to those arguments (Miller's among them) that warn against dismissing Bush as an idiot. As a strategy, this line of argument will not take us very far. And, of course, there are other reasons why we would not wish to adopt the argument that Bush is unqualified because he is somehow not "an intellectual." At the same time, Bush's image is clearly that of the dunce. While we can explore the various ramifications and effects of these different media constructions, I want to focus here on his body's inability to perform smoothly. Whether Bush's dullness is sincere or calculated, it is clearly his body that seems to come up short in front of the cameras. It is his failing body that I consider in this piece.

    2. Note that these keywords are only traces left behind by encounters with the affective body. They cannot form a "map" of affect as such. These keywords are impressions left over from the event's intensive movement. The terms are traces, and not systematizations, of thought.

    3. As Lingis himself writes, this is a Heideggerian notion. We should hear clear echoes of Heidegger's being-with in this talk of involvement.

    Works Cited

    Bohan, Caren. "Bush to keep distance from protests on London trip." Forbes 16 Nov. 2003. Reuters. 6 Feb. 2004 <>.

    Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights, 1988.

    Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

    ---. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

    Gatens, Moira, and Genevieve Lloyd. Collective Imaginings. Spinoza, Past and Present. London: Routledge, 1999.

    Gibbs, Anna. "Contagious Feelings: Pauline Hanson and the Epidemiology of Affect." Australian Humanities Review Dec. 2001. 20 Feb. 2004 <>.

    Hawkins, Gay. "Documentary Affect: Filming Rubbish." Australian Humanities Review Sept. 2002. 20 Feb. 2004 <>.

    Kamiya, Gary. "The Unspeakable Bush." Salon 30 Mar. 2001. 10 Mar. 2004 <>.

    Klein, Joe. "The Campaign Trail." The New Yorker 75.9. 13 Dec. 1999: 40-41.

    Lingis, Alphonso. Dangerous Emotions. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.

    ---. Foreign Bodies. London: Routledge, 1994.

    Massumi, Brian. Parables For the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

    ---, ed. A Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    McIlroy, Anne. "Uneasy Neighbours." Guardian Unlimited 2 Dec. 2002. 15 Mar. 2004 <,,852207,00.html>.

    Miller, Mark Crispin. The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. New York: Norton, 2001.

    Office of the Press Secretary. "President Bush Welcomes President Kwasniewski to White House." 27 Jan. 2004. White House. 10 Mar. 2004 <>.

    Ronell, Avital. Stupidity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2003.

    Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

    Spinoza, Baruch. The Ethics and Selected Letters. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982.

    Young, Katherine, ed. Bodylore. Knoxville: UP of Tennessee, 1994.

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