Today’s intellectual knot comes from Theresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect, a book whose argument has, to my mind, some wonderful implications, even if her psychoanalytic source material is somewhat outside my know-how:
“The transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment.’ But transmission does not mean that a person’s particular emotional experience is irrelevant” (6).
“The name or the concept of the transmission of affect does not sit well with an emphasis on individualism, on sight, and cognition. These things are all associated with the subject/object distinction, with thinking in terms of subject and object. This thinking, while it long precedes mechanism, gives rise to a particular understanding of objectivity that is coincident with it, based on the notion that the objective is in some way free of affect. Once this notion is accepted, then the affect, as a vehicle connecting individuals to one another and the environment, and for that matter connecting the mind or cognition to bodily processes, ceases to be a proper object of study” (19).
In addition to proposing a model for affective transfer, Brennan’s argument suggests a circulation, so that emotional transfer isn’t simply a one way street, but rather that affect flows back and forth between any number of people in complex and generative ways. Such an affective network raises a number of interesting questions: Does this affective network have a structure, or architecture? Can we think about this affective circulation in economic terms, where anger, for example, becomes a currency that is traded among people and sometimes exchanged, to various ends? A la Sara Ahmed, how does such an affective economy orient its subjects? How is this economy itself oriented? What kind of work might this framework for understanding emotions enable?
The most fascinating facet of this discussion is the way in which it reimagines the boundaries we’ve placed around affect and refigures the work which we imagine emotions to be capable of doing. As Brennan proposes in the second quote, this economy dissolves the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity (though I secretly wonder how useful an intellectual/rhetorical move this is). As a final set of things to think about, what does it mean, for psychoanalysis, our own (possibly fictional) individuality, and our interpersonal relationships to suggest that people are not psychically self-contained? What it might mean that Brennan gestures towards affect as the point at which psychological boundaries break down?
Happy Monday, folks. I hope you find the time either to curl up with a good book or watch some trashy television. Both would be even better.