Affect

For those not familiar with what affect is and how it is understood, it can be broadly broadly defined as an interest in the intimate, bodily and emotional dimensions of life. For a long time this was not an area that troubled sociologists, given that it seems on the face of it an area that might instead trouble psychologists. However, this has changed and studies of the social dimensions of emotion, of the felt and experiential aspects of existence, have proliferated.

The book takes much from this proliferating loose body of work, while trying to connect it to the research stemming from Science and Technology Studies (STS) that is interested in tracing the empirical details of the encounters between people and objects of all sorts. One of its main aims is to argue that, in order to understand economic calculation, we need to understand its basis not just in the rational assessment of best outcomes, but also in affect.

This is the argument I begin to make in the extract below, which is taken from the book’s introduction (and is stripped of all footnotes). In particular, it begins a dialogue that continues throughout the book, between theories of affect and what I called the ‘economisation programme‘, which is a branch of economic sociology inspired by theories and methods from STS and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (and associated especially with the work of the French STS scholar Michel Callon). One contribution of this approach has been to highlight the way in which specific market objects, specific ‘market devices’, ones that often seem quite mundane, can sometimes have major impacts on how encounters in markets are resolved.

More precisely, what I do in what follows is to begin to ask what affect theory and its attention both to movement and emergence (on the latter see also my discussion of money on this site) might contribute to how we understand how such devices operate when they encounter the lived, everyday dimensions of experience. I do this in part via the concept of the ‘affordance’, while also broaching two themes that contribute to the book’s title: the lived character of economies, and questions of affective ‘capture’.

… accounting for social life in terms of movements of emergence does at least two important things for this book. First, it emphasises that things never, quite, stay the same, but are always ‘becoming’ something different. As I suggest in the next chapter, this can be understood as a renewing of what was previous, with something other and different also being rendered present—even if, as is often the case, this difference is very slight indeed. Second, it connects to a long standing interest in STS in the role of the ‘affordance’, a term originally introduced by the psychologist James Gibson (1977). Within STS, this terminology has been particularly used to describe the way in which objects and environments offer themselves up for the conduct of some form of human action. A hammer, a bed, a bouncy castle: each offer an affordance for a particular kind of action. In STS-terms each might be considered to possess its own form of material agency. From the perspective of affect theory, part of this material agency might also be considered as being constituted through processes of emergence.

Trying to hold together an interest in both devices and affect would then point towards how particular objects and processes push and pull us in one direction or another, while also sensitising our attention to what happens in the space of encounter between a device and a body. Take, for instance, the debt collections letter, a device that will appear at a number of times over the course of this book. If, when it drops on the doormat, the debtor recognises it as such, why might s/he be drawn towards opening this particular device more than another? If, after having read it and put it down somewhere in the house, why is it that some of the letter’s contents continue to nag at the debtor, intruding unwanted into their thoughts, potentially at inopportune moments? Affect provides one way to begin to provide answers to such questions, without assuming that the only answer is to turn to psychology. For affect theory is also social theory. It does not assume bodily capacities, but sees them as outcomes of very specific, very contingent arrangements of social (and material) processes.

In the social life of consumer credit default, one particularly important set of processes is arranged around what I call, after Brian Massumi (2002, p.35), the ‘capture’ of affect. Moments of affective capture are those in which the diverse and often unnoticed relations that are constantly composing and recomposing the affective are pulled into the more readily accessible domain of perception (although affect is never fully captured; there is always something that escapes). Emotions, which have been the object of much affect theory, are one expression of this process of capture, ‘the most intense expression’, Massumi suggests (ibid). However, there are other possible expressions. As we will see, forms of economic calculation may too emerge through the capture of affect.

Lawrence Grossberg, while supportive of the turn to affect within some of the social sciences, has argued that too often affect has come to serve as something of a ‘magical’ term. We need to work harder, he suggests, to specify both what he calls the “modalities and apparatuses of affect” and how affect might be distinct from (and, I would suggest, interacts with) other “non-semantic effects” (Grossberg 2010, p.314; see also: Probyn 2010, p.74). In other words, identifying the existence and production of affect, or naming things as affective, is not, in itself, ‘good enough’.

This is a challenge that those using the intellectual resources of affect theory need to respond to. This book’s attempt to do so is by bringing some of STS’ empiricism to affect. In so doing it is by no means alone, however. Writers including Christian Borch, Celia Lury, Natasha Dow Schüll and Nigel Thrift have all drawn on a similar intellectual architecture in order to explore with some precision how affective processes can become the subject of sometimes highly strategic socio-materially derived practices of management and capture (Borch 2007; Lury 2004; 2009; Schüll 2012; Thrift 2005; 2007). Further, a handful of researchers aligned with the economization programme have undertaken work that is in many ways closely related. Franck Cochoy (2007; 2011) has called for a more concerted study of both material ‘devices’ and human ‘dispositions’, directing attention to how markets can become oriented towards a range of embodied human states, ranging from habit, to curiosity, to weariness, to temptation. Liz McFall, meanwhile, drawing on Gabriel Tarde’s social theory, has argued for the value of attending to the central role of ‘sentiment’ in markets; the “trick” of markets, she writes, “is all in the orchestration of technique and sentiment; in the way sentiment is put into relation with products and the way relations are transformed into sentiment for products” (McFall 2014, p. 7; see also: Latour & Lépinay 2009).

These writers have begun to contribute towards an empirically rich analysis of how what I call affect, and what some others might call disposition or sentiment, plays a crucial role in shaping the conduct of markets. Leaving aside quibbles around terminology, what such work is starting to reveal are the ways in which economies come into being by passing through some of the most intimate dimensions of human experience. Economies feel and are felt. They breathe and hope and suffer. Economies live.

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