From Introduction: A Philosophical Quartet

From Mood and Trope: The Rhetoric and Poetics of Affect by John Brenkman. 

© 2020 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Two related polarities in modern thought provide the theoretical webbing of Mood and Trope: Nietzsche versus Kant and Deleuze versus Heidegger. My choices are neither imperative nor arbitrary. What turns out to have been the origins of this project was an interest in how various philosophers have discussed the emotions and passions. Other combinations would fruitfully serve to organize a discussion of affect. This philosophical quartet is especially apt because their differences and oppositions are a fertile terrain of controversies in modern thought and, even more, because each of the four ultimately centers the question of affect on literary and aesthetic experience. The literary critic and theorist is not bound to—or capable of!—philosophical systematicity. The vocation of criticism is attuned, rather, to the singularity and plurality of literary and artistic creations. What is art? is a less pressing question than What does this work do? What do these works do? The emphasis in my subtitle should fall on the rhetoric and poetics of affect, with of bearing all the playful ambiguity of the genitive.

A two-tiered dialogue is to be animated. The differences among Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze bring questions of art, language, and affect to bear on the set of charged terms associated with Kant: enlightenment, modernity, and universalism. Interwoven is a second dialogue that confronts the quartet with an intentionally heterogeneous set of authors and artists, including Harold Pinter and Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Li-Young Lee, Shakespeare, Tino Sehgal and Rineke Dijkstra, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jorie Graham.

For me it is not a question of being Heideggerian or of subscribing to applied Deleuzianism. Nor does doubting that Kant’s thought has simply been overcome by Nietzsche’s require becoming a Kantian. A guide to the most productive attitude to take toward these four philosophers is supplied by Deleuze in his explanation of his commentaries on Kant: “When you’re facing such a work of genius, there’s no point you saying you disagree. First you have to know how to admire; you have to rediscover the problem he poses, his particular machinery. It is through admiration that you will come to a genuine critique. The mania of people today is not knowing how to admire anything; either they’re ‘against,’ or they situate everything at their level while they chitchat and scrutinize.”

The quartet’s value lies in becoming attuned to the dissonance they produce. From his earliest thinking in The Birth of Tragedy to the notes for the never-achieved Will to Power, Nietzsche pursues a relentless assault on Kant’s conception of aesthetic judgment, disinterestedness, and the categorical imperative. While Heidegger and Deleuze both place themselves in the lineage of Nietzsche, they also creatively engage Kant’s thought rather than merely rejecting it. By the same token, Heidegger’s Nietzsche is not Deleuze’s. Deleuze takes from Nietzsche the vitalism that privileges urge, desire, and self-enhancing power, while Heidegger takes from Nietzsche the idea that humans are interpreting beings for whom every “is” arises from a more or less unacknowledged interpretation of being. Nietzsche both straddles and thwarts his two astute commentators, as when he jots in a 1885–86 notebook entry, “moral valuating is an interpretation, a way of interpreting. . . . Who interprets?— Our affects.” Between Deleuze and Heidegger lies a seemingly unbridgeable fault line separating vitalism and hermeneutics, sensation and being, “transcendental empiricism” and “fundamental ontology.” And yet, as Deleuze grapples with sensation in Francis Bacon’s painting and Heidegger with the disclosure of being in van Gogh’s, their otherwise incommensurate views surprisingly tend to converge. What is the significance of the incommensurability? What is the significance of the convergence? Such questions inform the encounter I orchestrate among the philosophers and between them and the poets and artists.

The philosophical quartet’s approach to affect via aesthetics combined with my taking poetry as the terrain for testing their reflections makes the trajectory of Mood and Trope somewhat oblique to major contributions to affect theory. Groundbreaking work over the last decade and more has often focused on a particular emotion or state-of-mind and explored how its significance branches out into the social world and public contexts. In Eve Sedgwick’s work on shame and Ann Cvetkovitch’s on depression, the theoretical exploration is strongly inflected with personal testimony; Cvetkovitch begins Depression: A Public Feeling with a frank autobiographical journal. The foundational projects in affect theory have come predominantly from feminist and queer theory and other politically and ideologically inflected trends, including those expressing radical resistance or even revolutionary expectation with regard to, variously, racism, neoliberalism, liberal democracy, globalization, or capitalism per se. My project could not have taken shape without that work and those projects, and while I maintain a certain distance from the political claims of much affect theory, affect theorists’ insights inspire and impinge upon much of what I address. As always in a rich field of inquiry, it is the fissures among and within the theories themselves that invite continued probing.

Two questions stand out that stimulate markedly different responses in affect theory: Can reliable distinctions be made among such terms as affect, feeling, emotion, passion, and mood? And how does affect relate to the cognitive and linguistic dimensions of experience?

In the psychotherapeutic vernacular affect frequently refers to how someone manifests or expresses feelings through gesture, tone, posture, and facial expression. Someone is said to lack affect when others cannot readily discern what emotions the person might actually be feeling. The explanation of such a lack of affect can run from mere inhibition or repression to so-called narcissistic disorders all the way to sociopathy and psychopathy. In this conception, emotion is internal and subjective, while affect is manifest and intersubjective.

Brian Massumi anchors a strand of affect theory that upends the therapeutic lexicon and gives affect the meaning of “being affected,” independent of feeling and emotion. He stakes out the claim for the “autonomy of affect,” a claim based on the notion that responses in the autonomic nervous system operate in advance of emotional and cognitive responses. Relying heavily on various experiments that isolate and measure electrodermal activity, heartrate, breathing, or brain activity, Massumi elaborates their results in a Deleuzian vocabulary of intensity and the virtual. He stipulates affect to be bodily responses—intensities—occurring below the threshold of consciousness and separate from any cognition, intention, or awareness. In experiments where children watching a film gave different valuations of the film on happy–sad and pleasant–unpleasant scales depending on whether it was shown with a factual voice-over narration, an emotional voice-over, or no voice-over at all, “the original nonverbal version elicited the greatest response from their skin,” that is, the greatest “autonomic reaction.” Massumi concludes that this is evidence of the “primacy of the affective in image reception” and that “the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect: it would appear that the strength or duration of an image’s effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way.” Such strength and duration are what he calls “intensity.” Affect (the body’s being affected below the threshold of consciousness) is sharply distinguished from emotion (a quality of consciousness): “An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that moment onward defined as personal. Emotion is a qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognized.” The distinction becomes dichotomy. Emotions are ascribed to a social order of convention, consensus, function, and meaning, while affect’s intensities are endowed with disruptive potential (virtuality). Language is order and structure; image is intensity and event. “Structure is the place where nothing ever happens, that explanatory heaven in which all eventual permutations are prefigured in a self-consistent set of invariant generative rules.” In the event, by contrast, “nothing is prefigured. . . . It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity, of rules into paradox. . . . Intensity is the unassimilable.”

This pseudopolitical and avant-gardist vocabulary swells into a programmatic yet vague political vision: the Left needs to learn from the Right’s success in mobilizing through images and affects. Further backing for this view is drawn from other neurophysiological experiments that demonstrate a lag between bodily stimulus and perception, even a blank in perception for stimuli lasting less than half a second. One experiment clocked brain waves, subjects’ finger-flexing, and their sense of the flex’s timing. There was “a half-second lapse between the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression.” These half-second lags—which are reminiscent of the temporality of perception in Freud’s mystic writing pad in Derrida’s classic commentary “Freud and the Scene of Writing”—are cast by Massumi in a Deleuzian idiom: “Brain and skin form a resonating vessel. Stimulation turns inward, is folded into the body, except that there is no inside for it to be in, because the body is radically open, absorbing impulses quicker than they can be perceived, and because the entire vibratory event is unconscious, out of mind. Its anomaly is smoothed over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality.” As it stands, this formulation is unobjectionable and quite eloquent. The problem comes in ascertaining how it matters.

The attempt to derive political strategy and tactics from neurophysiology, as though such a project could simply forego delineating mediations between the time-lag presumed endemic to human perception and the mobilization, organization, and sustaining of political movements and opinion, is scarcely plausible. At the level of everyday experience, there is a more basic flaw. Massumi postulates that affect in his sense of the term is more primordial, on account of its autonomy, than cognition and language, understanding and discourse. His prime example suggests otherwise. For his account of the kids watching the film overlooks the fact that a film, even without voiceover, requires of the viewer two complex cognitive processes, namely, the capacity to decipher an image as image and to follow and grasp a sequence of images as a narrative, capacities already well cultivated in nine-year-olds. Those skin reactions could not occur without the aesthetic-cognitive-imaginative apprehending of images and narrative. The experiment was not designed to take account of the capacity to decipher images and apprehend narratives, even though without that capacity the subjects’ autonomic reaction would lack any relevance whatsoever. There is no reason to fault the experiment’s design, but every reason to be alert to what the experiment can and cannot disclose.

All sensation and all perception rely on subsensory and imperceptible processes. Consider hearing. Unfelt and unheard sound waves imperceptibly vibrate the tympanic membrane, whose unfelt percussive movement transforms the sound waves into mechanical waves by vibrating, still subsensorily, against a bony structure filled with a fluid that then moves in waves that transform into electrical impulses registered by fifteen to twenty-five thousands cells—the marvelously named “hairy cells of the Corti”—deep within the inner ear and are—finally!—transmitted by the cochlear nerve to the brain. Only then is something heard. What matters in the realm of experience and behavior is that all the subsensory and imperceptible stimuli and movements give rise to perceptions that allow individuals to understand, move, act, respond, soon enough. Orientation in time has to be soon enough, orientation in space close enough. A bullet will strike you before you hear the gunshot, but when a car approaches as you cross the street or someone calls out to you or something falls on the floor, you turn and look, accurately, to the left or the right. Studies suggest that this is because the brain processes the difference in time it takes for the sound waves to reach your left ear and your right. Given that sound travels 1,126 feet per second and the distance from one ear to the other is a matter of give-or-take seven inches, the difference registered in the brain and then acted upon by body and eye is in the nanoseconds. Soon enough, close enough. One hears the spoon hit the floor to the left. One hears the door slam, one hears the wind in the chimney. How the temporal delays, missed stimuli, and retrofittings matter is in the relative coherence of the practices, actions, behaviors they enable.

It is not a question of giving primacy to consciousness. Massumi gets argumentative traction from countering the centrality of consciousness and the phenomenological concept of intentionality as articulated for example in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Heidegger’s project in Being and Time by contrast, as already pointed out, is a phenomenological analysis that does not center on consciousness and intentionality. Mood is the first instance of that decentering, as is the equiprimordial triad mood–understanding–discourse. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose unique contribution to the phenomenological and Heideggerian tradition I will draw on at crucial moments, makes a strong case for not postulating the bodily, biological, physiological dimension of human being as pre- or nonhuman, since such a postulate reinstates some variant of the idea that humans are rational animals, that is, animals to which the capacity of reason or speech is added. Whether the emphasis or affirmation then falls on the rational or the animal, the conception is misguided. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is necessary, instead, “to grasp humanity first as another manner of being a body.” There is a specifically human bodily being. Massumi risks losing this specificity in postulating that our ordering, narrativizing, and conceptualizing powers are mere fixity and social control composed in arrears of “affect.” The kids’ skin’s autonomic responses are enfolded in an experience that includes understanding in the form of image deciphering and narrative apprehension.

Lauren Berlant distinguishes affect and emotion differently from Massumi as well as from the common therapeutic conception. For her, there is always an ample and indeterminate range of possible relations between an affect and its manifestations, between feelings and their perceptibility by others, indeed between one’s own feelings and their meaning. She sees “a distinction between a structure of affect and what we call that affect when we encounter it. I may be or feel overwhelmed, I may be composed or feel composure; my panic might look like a stony silence, my composure might be a manic will to control, or not. What looks like a shamed response in one decade, may look angry in another one. One can experience the world not being there for one because of one’s singularity or because one’s singularity includes the kind of thing one appears to be to others.” Feeling has multiple registers.

At the same time, Berlant proposes that a particular affective configuration defines the dynamic tying individuals to the institutional, economic, and political conditions of contemporary American society. This configuration she calls “cruel optimism.” Optimism is understood as attachment to an object, person, situation, or circumstance that seems to hold the promise of satisfying one’s desires and needs and sustaining one’s existence. The promise and hope can intensify the attachment even when the desire and need are repeatedly thwarted by the attachment itself. The question that arises is “what happens when the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it, and vice versa.” Hence optimism’s cruelty. Berlant aligns with Massumi and others in arguing “that affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary, and that bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves.”

Much of the power of Cruel Optimism derives from the fact that its account is at once subtly testimonial—pervaded by a sense of I know whereof I speak—and insistently theoretical. Its theoretical intent, as I see it, is to overcome the limitations of the concepts of reification and commodification in the Lukácsian–Frankfurt School tradition as well as the Althusserian notion of ideology as interpellation, all of which were designed to explain Western workers’ adaptive rather than revolutionary response to capitalism. Berlant eschews these concepts as oversimplified but perhaps keeps the motive behind them. In any case, she faults them for failing to grasp “the messy dynamics of attachment, self-continuity, and the reproduction of life that are the material scenes of living on in the present.” Sensitive to the injustices and struggles involving gender and sexuality, race, and income inequality and at the same time expressing a moral-aesthetic resistance, even rejection of the incentives and imperatives of capitalist society, Berlant’s project “tracks the fraying relation between post–Second World War state/economic practices and certain postwar fantasies of the good life endemic to liberal, social democratic, or relatively wealthy regions.” The theoretical reflection offers a diagnosis of the present experience of affluent societies: “Amidst all the chaos, crisis, and injustice in front of us, the desire for alternative filters that produce the sense—if not the scene—of a more livable and intimate sociality is another name for the desire for the political. This is why an intimate attachment to the political can amount to a relation of cruel optimism.” So, too, the endeavor and stress of trying simply to live with and live the imperatives and incentives of society give rise to cruel optimisms. The apparent aporia is, rather, Berlant’s rethinking of the relation between social integration and political opposition. In place of the polarity of reified versus revolutionary consciousness, cruel optimism is meant to describe the ineluctably “messy” imbrication of subjection, resistance, and revolt. While cruel optimism is not a specific emotion, affect, or mood, it does purport to convey the specificity of the contemporary period’s atmosphere and affective dynamic. In its suggestion of a collective experience, and at times of a yearning for the experience of collectivity, the concept has a rough resemblance to ideas of zeitgeist, period feeling, or a generational sensibility.

An approach to mood as the collective experience of a generation is exemplified by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present. His testimony from personal recollection combines with historical research to describe the mood (Stimmung) that underlay and inflected the experiences and mentality of Gumbrecht’s own generation of Germans, whose childhood and youth unfolded in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The atmosphere in which his generation found itself he calls “latency.” This latency is Stimmung in the double sense of “an all-embracing atmosphere and a subjectively experienced mood.” Gumbrecht makes a case for the investigation of collective moods or atmospheres on the ground that “calling Stimmungen to mind can give us retrospective certainty that something neglected or overlooked—or even lost altogether—made a decisive impact on life at a certain moment in history and formed part of each subsequent present from that moment on.”

In Heidegger’s terms, Stimmung is an aspect of being-with-others. The emphasis can fall either on collective (and collectivizing) moods or on individual (and individuating) moods. In the seminar Heidegger gave in 1929–30, two years after the publication of Being and Time, the mood he takes up is ennui or boredom. The stress falls on its collective nature and in particular its hold on the generation that fought in the Great War, suffered Germany’s surrender and reparations, was thrown into the uncertainties of Weimar politics, and by the year of the seminar found itself in the midst of a global economic crisis: “Everywhere there are disruptions, crises, catastrophes, needs: the contemporary social misery, political confusion, the powerlessness of science, the erosion of art, the groundlessness of philosophy, the impotence of religion. Certainly there are needs everywhere.” Reform and the actions of all manner of “groups, associations, circles, classes, parties” attempt to address the needs but according to Heidegger miss the import of the “profound boredom in our Dasein,” which stems from a  different kind of need: 

what oppresses us most profoundly and in a concealed manner is the very absence of any essential oppressiveness [Bedrängnis] in our Dasein as a whole.

The absence of an essential oppressiveness in Dasein is the emptiness as a whole, so that no one stands with anyone else and no community stands with any other in the rooted unity of essential action. Each and every one of us are servants of slogans, adherents to a program, but none is the custodian of the inner greatness of Dasein and its necessities.

Nothing weighs heavily enough to incite satisfying action, so human existence is paradoxically weighed down by boredom. “Has man today,” Heidegger asks, “become boring for himself?” Had Heidegger not been a reactionary, and had he had a novelistic sensibility, he might have rendered this condition with insights something like those of Berlin Alexanderplatz.

But in the event his philosophical cri de coeur stirs him to a rhetoric that readies his own ear to heed—hear and obey—the rallying cry of Hitler. The 1929–30 seminar hooks together a German generation’s supposed collective state-of-mind and the anticipatory hope for deliverance and entry into a new communal unity. Caught between the disdain for reform and the yearning for solidarity and “the rooted unity of essential action,” he and his generation wait an annunciation: “The most extreme demand [Zumutung] must be announced to man.” Philosophy itself cannot sound such a collective demand; philosophers can only affirm or reject those that arise from social and political strife. Heidegger chose to affirm Nazism. His political decisions and allegiances do not refute his philosophical project as a whole, for they do not organically follow from it, even though for Heidegger himself there was undoubtedly a sense of consistency.

While the analysis of boredom ties that affect to a generation and its experience of a decade, the analysis of Angst in Being and Time is pegged to the longue durée of modernity and to the other slope of thrownness and being-with-others, namely, the ordeal of individuation and its oscillations between estrangement and resoluteness, between being left to one’s own devices and acting in one’s own name, isolation and belonging, heteronomy and autonomy. The  historical span is that of the modern era—Heidegger likes to date it from Descartes—whose economic, scientific, and philosophical developments tore at the symbolic and religious bonds that were the fabric of traditional societies. Modern individuals are at once bereft of premodern forms of “affective sociality,” to borrow Berlant’s term, and delivered into new and uncertain forms of freedom. The notion that Heidegger pairs with the individuating force of Angst, being-toward-death, also reflects the eclipse of religious consolation; being-toward-death is the horizon of experience that individuals must make their own once the afterlife ceases to be the goal, expectation, and hope of this life.

Throughout Mood and Trope I hew predominantly to the longue durée perspective on modernity rather than any more specific historical focus, except incidentally (Baudelaire and 1848, Li-Young Lee and the Sukarno regime’s violence against Chinese immigrants, Shelley and Alpine tourism). The broader perspective facilitates fashioning dialogues among philosophers from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century and poetry from Shakespeare to Jorie Graham. I do not consider it superior to more historicizing perspectives. Each sees things the other does not. I also hew more closely to affect’s individual rather than collective slope. Aside from my reservations about identifying particular affects with specific political or ideological orientations, I shy away from attributing certain states of mind to an entire period or generation. For those who boldly take that step, the underlying methodological question is distinguishing where the theorist’s own sensibility finds itself reflected in the collective mood from where it has projected itself into. My attention is directed primarily to aesthetic experience, which on the one hand relies on just such an ambiguity between receptivity and projection but on the other must confront the question of affect in the singularity of poets and artists and their works rather than with collective manifestations. Taking Angst to be the base mood of modern existence, that is, the affect from which other feelings and passions arise, helps bring to light the quality of artistically rendered emotions, including jealousy (Pinter), self-tormenting grief (Poe), spleen (Baudelaire), fury (Lee), vengefulness (Shakespeare), and others.

I have staked this project on several premises regarding poetry, philosophy, and affect. First, literature, especially poetry, goes furthest in plumbing the powers and possibilities of language, and philosophy exercises thought’s furthest reach in precision and consistency. Furthest not fullest, since neither poetry nor philosophy can ever exhaust the possibilities or reach of language and thought. Second, the question of affect needs to be addressed primarily by means of aesthetic theory, a premise tacitly shared by the quartet of Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze. Third, affect can be studied with some precision in poetry because it resides there not in speaking about feelings but in the very speaking and way of speaking. And, finally, the interpretation of poetry straddles three distinct, never fully synthesizable theoretical fields—poetics, aesthetics, and rhetoric—which foreground, respectively, creativity, receptivity, and persuasion. Poetry is the site that stirs theoretical reflection in all three disciplines but never lets theory wholly resolve them. In that sense, there is an incommensurability between poetry and theory; between poetry and philosophy. That strife animates what follows.

Part One: The Poetics of Affect brings the Heideggerian triad mood–understanding–discourse to bear on a many-sided inquiry on the nature of affect from Kant’s “transcendental aesthetic” to Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism” to Nietzsche’s Dionysian/ Apollonian conflict, and on literary interpretation via engagement with Pinter, Poe, Baudelaire, and Li-Young Lee. A strength of Heidegger’s primordial triad is that it articulates in a philosophical register the inseparability of the affective, cognitive, and linguistic dimensions of human experience and action. Literature and its interpretation are the emphatic site of that inseparability.

Part Two: Feeling and the Vocation of Criticism unfolds from a basic question. Can the relevance of Kant’s aesthetic theory be rethought in light of Nietzsche’s powerful criticisms, Deleuze’s innovative commentaries, and Heidegger’s attempted appropriations? The three chapters in this section are an attempt to revise and reinvigorate several Kantian themes—affect and judgment, the beautiful and the sublime, form and formlessness—in light of the hydra-headed critique of enlightenment, modernity, and universalism, indeed even of the human, associated with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze. And to do so without merely rejecting those critiques. To accomplish that dual task requires two apparently contradictory lines of argument. Going back to Nietzsche’s inaugural response to Kant, it is necessary to pry aesthetic judgment loose from its parallel with the categorical imperative. And, on the other hand, it is necessary to reaffirm the appeal to universal agreement that Kant lodges within aesthetic experience itself and that the others of the quartet so vehemently reject.

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