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.
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
- 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
energies and forces. Something erupts. In a 1999 article for The New Yorker,
Joe Klein describes Bush's body like this:
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
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.
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.
- As Miller astutely observes, however, Bush's miscommunications are more
than rhetorical blunderings. He is not (merely) illiterate, but intensely and
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. 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
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.
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)
Affect and (Other) Unqualified Bodies
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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
"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.
- 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
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.
- 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:
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
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
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)
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.
He was an incipience . . . It was
on the receiving
end that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content. . . . They
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)
- 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
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.
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)
- 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
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:
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
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)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
we will see in the next section, this experience of relationality generates unqualified
intensity that is all the more powerful in its productive capacities.
The Sensation of Involvement
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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:
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)
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
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)
- 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.
- 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
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,
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
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")
- 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
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,
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
(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.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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)
- 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. . . .
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). 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 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
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
operation from us, but a greeting, an interaction. (Foreign 8)
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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")
- 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:
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.
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)
Toward a New Cultural Theory
- 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
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:
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.
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)
- 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
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University of Texas at Austin
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I would like to thank Diane
Davis, Collin Brooke, Jeff Rice, and Thomas Rickert for their feedback on earlier drafts of
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
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
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