Nelson, Julie D. An Unnecessary Divorce

Nelson, Julie. “An Unnecessary Divorce: Integrating the Study of Affect and Emotion in New Media.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016. Accessed 30 Aug. 2016.

Abstract: Rhetoric and composition scholars’ almost exclusive reliance on Brian Massumi’s definition of affect has spurred a theoretical and practical divorce between “affect” and “emotion” in our field. This article returns to Lynn Worsham’s Going Postal and argues that to fully scrutinize and respond to what she calls “pedagogic violence,” affects and emotions must be theorized in tandem, especially as violent rhetorics increasingly spread through new media. Through a close reading of Massumi’s work, consideration of alternate affect theories, and discussion of Aristotle’s systematic theory of emotions, I illustrate how inseparable affects are from emotions. I examine the affects and emotions at work in a contemporary example of pedagogic violence—police brutality toward African Americans—and suggest new media not just contributes to but also disrupts violent rhetorics, damaging emotional educations, and negative affective relations, which I explore through a brief analysis of Twitter.

To remember:

  • “pedagogic violence” …our schooling in emotion contributes to an increase in seemingly random violence, through the “hidden curriculum” of emotions like grief, bitterness, rage, apathy, and shame that are embedded in our social, economic, and familial structures (p1)
  • “[S]eemingly random acts of unmotivated savagery” continue across the U.S., but the role that media play in schooling us in emotion has changed the way we learn about, participate in, and respond to these acts of savagery (Worsham 214) (p2).
  • Citizen-reporters who share cell phone videos and instantaneous Twitter reporting have changed the way we encounter “going postal.” The result seems to encourage a more collective way of national grieving, yet rapidly updating media, with posts often expressed and consumed in isolation, can make emotions seem “free-floating and impersonal,” as Fredric Jameson has called feeling in the postmodern age (16). In these digital platforms, condemnations of violence and prayers for the dead circulate, though seemingly detached from their producers and recipients (p3).
  • the mediation of emotions and its role in shaping our affective relations and (re)education has not been adequately addressed (p2).
  • Byron Hawk claims, “affect moves us toward relations among bodies, which is critical to understanding (discourse in) network culture. Like language, new media make new affections and new relations possible” (843). However, despite great hopes for affect theory’s contributions to rhetoric and composition, it was never fully absorbed and it is still often considered “impractical theory talk,” which Jenny Edbauer Rice has detailed (Metaphysical 135). This lack of integration, I contend, stems from scholars in the field defining affect primarily as precognitive, impersonal, and unstructured (p3).
  • scholars’ almost exclusive reliance on Massumi’s definition of affect has propelled a theoretical and practical divorce between “affect” and “emotion,” creating two rich but disconnected bodies of scholarship in our field. If we are concerned with “the system, the way of life, the philosophy” that produced someone like Roof, we need a better understanding of how pedagogic violence is perpetuated in new media. Theorizing affects and emotions in tandem elucidates how these violent rhetorics circulate and reproduce (p3).
  • When Worsham defined emotion in 1998, she wrote, “In the view I develop here, emotion will refer to the tight braid of affect and judgment, socially and historically constructed and bodily lived, through which the symbolic takes hold of and binds the individual, in complex and contradictory ways, to the social order and its structure of meanings” (216) (p4).
  • According to Massumi, emotion is qualified affect; emotion is stuck in the realm of signification while affect—most simply understood as intensity—exceeds it (p5).
  • Massumi makes one of the most direct and urgent claims to come out of his often circuitous writing: “It is crucial to theorize the difference between affect and emotion. If some have the impression that affect has waned, it is because affect is unqualified. As such, it is not ownable or recognizable and thus resistant to critique” (28). Referencing Jameson’s claim about the “waning of affect” in our time, Massumi points out the paradox inherent in theorizing affect{7}: We ought to study affect, but when we bring it into consciousness and language, we qualify it, and through this process, affect is brought into the realm of emotion (p5).
  • a closer look at Massumi’s writing reveals that he sees the difference between affect and emotion as one of degree and not value. While affect exceeds symbolic structures of emotion that are already laden with meaning, “[e]motion is the most intense (most contracted) expression of that capture” (28). Thus, we are dependent to some extent on emotion’s vocabulary and qualification to explicate affect (p6).
  • fear is “wrapped in action, before it unfurls from it and is felt as itself, in its distinction from the action with which it arose” (36). It is only when the action ceases, the moment Massumi calls the “stop-beat,” that fear is recognized as an emotion; prior to that moment, fear exists only as bodily intensity and action, but as Massumi quotes James, “our feeling of bodily changes as they occur is the emotion” (40) (p7).
  • To study the relationship between affect and emotion rhetorically, it is important to understand their unique characteristics and their interrelation … Massumi defines affect not just as a bodily intensity but also a capacity or effect … Emotions are cognitive and social phenomena that carry meaning and reflect investment (p8).
  • When affect is studied only as an unnamable force or ungraspable excess, it is useful only in demarcating a dimension we can never access, except very indirectly or after the fact. Invoking just these definitions of affect prevents us from studying it rhetorically, continuing what Edbauer Rice has called a “persistent misunderstanding among certain rhetoric and composition scholars” which “creates a false binary between signification and affect, wrongfully claiming that these theories advocate affect ‘over’ discourse and meaning” ((Meta)Physical 135) (p9).
  • The very nature of affect invites diversity in describing the more visceral, embodied, and sensorial aspects of life (p10).
  • Spinoza defines bodies by their affects rather than their form or substance;{9} “body” means any gathering of human or nonhuman parts, including objects, ideas, environments, media, etc. In this way, affects can be understood as the possible or actual effects of any body. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari develop this theory further to suggest that the power associated with the composing and decomposing of bodies (or “assemblages”) makes affects “becomings”(p10).
  • We can see, then, why affect has often been discussed in our field most closely in relation to the rhetorical canon of invention. As a rhetor interacts with other bodies (e.g., audiences, constraints, emotions, environments, memories), the rhetor’s capacities and possibilities for invention are created and diminished. Beyond invention, though, affect has a number of other rhetorical functions (p10).
  • Despite excellent work by scholars like Laura Micciche, who emphasizes the doing of emotion, emotion is still often discussed in terms of singular, or at least momentarily fixed, states represented in texts, discourses, or audiences. Affect, however, marks change, always from one state, gathering, or body into another. Three metaphors in particular offer renderings of affect useful for rhetorical study in new media: accumulation, contagion, and rearticulation (p11).
  • as Megan Watkins asserts, scholars have focused almost exclusively on affect as a short-lived, ephemeral force, we overlook the “capacity of affect to be retained, to accumulate, to form dispositions and thus shape subjectivities” (269) (p12).
  • Scholars, Watkins suggests, have often conflated the distinction Spinoza makes between affectus and affectio, defining affect primarily as a force (affectus) rather than a capacity (affectio). While affectus describes the fleeting, ephemeral nature of affect, affectio acknowledges affect’s residual effects and ability to accumulate into dispositions … Rhetorically, through style and arrangement, repetition can be used to maintain or disrupt dispositions toward ideas, objects, events, etc (p12).
  • Repetition similarly contributes to the contagious nature of affect, which we can see through mimesis and synchrony in communication … Affect contagion extends also into media, where Gibbs asserts that company logos and signatures, for example, “generate feelings that mobilize the body’s capacity for synesthesia, in which affect seems to act as a switchboard through which all sensory signals are passed” (192). Internet memes and their subsequent replication and extension of particular feelings, ideas, or arguments work in a similar way. Memes, retweets, and re-posts are not random duplications but a form of identification, a way of using someone’s language “by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his,” as Kenneth Burke describes (55). To consciously identify is an emotional move, since it reflects a valuation of, investment in, or empathy for some one or thing (p13).
  • Through mimesis, we express value in what we affect and are affected by. As Sara Ahmed suggests, “[t]o be affected by something is to evaluate that thing. Evaluations are expressed in how bodies turn toward things. To give value to things is to shape what is near us” (31). Evaluation recognizes a kind of agency in our turning toward and against (p14).
  • “Feelings can get stuck to certain bodies in the very way we describe spaces, situations, dramas. And bodies can get stuck depending on what feelings they get associated with” (39). What is important to note about this rhetorically is the ability to “unstick” these feelings. Edbauer Rice has called this a process of “disarticulation” and “rearticulation”—“a new way of linking together images and representations that is less oppressive” (The New 210) (p14).
  • Affect is a precursor to the emergence of and potentials for emotion; affective dispositions prime us for particular emotions; and emotions, too, spread through bodily and mediated mimesis. If we take the difference between affect and emotion to be cognition, we can see how affect accumulation, contagion, and rearticulation lead right up to and spill over into the realm of emotion (p15).
  • “Affect” and “emotion” were first conceptually divorced in psychoanalysis to distinguish between first-person and third-person feelings; the patient has emotions and the analyst describes the patient’s affects (Ngai 24). Massumi and Lawrence Grossberg extended this distinction, suggesting that while emotion is the narrativized feeling of the subject, affect exceeds the subject’s cognition. Sianna Ngai claims this “subjective-objective problematic” has been the “uber-question of recent theoretical writing on feeling in particular” (24) (p16).
  • we can imagine affect and emotion on a continuum, with a (sliding) point of cognition, acknowledgment, or articulation marking their difference … If we begin, instead, with emotion, we can theorize affect both as the bodily intensity that precedes it and the affective capacities and potentials that grow out of it (p16).
  • To consider emotions’ affective capacities and potentials, we must study emotion as both cognitive and social. While many have written about Aristotle’s tripartite analysis of the emotions in Book II of the Rhetoric, Craig Smith and Michael Hyde’s Heideggerian reading astutely emphasizes the role of the emotions in creating publics: “it is by way of our emotions and the ‘moods’ that they sustain that we come to see, interpret, and involve ourselves with the world” (448) … Through a social lens, we can conceptualize how the affects (bodily intensities and capacities) of living in a particular culture give rise to an emotion but also how that emotion can have affects that are contagious and that accumulate in expectations for emotional expression (p17).
  • The advantage of studying emotions is that they always have directions and objects, and understanding these reveals the affects available to respond to damaging emotional pedagogies (p18).
  • An often overlooked aspect of Aristotle’s work on emotions, which Smith and Hyde emphasize, is that he describes them in terms of seven sets of continua: anger-calm, friendship-enmity, fear-confidence, shame-shamelessness, kindness-cruelty, pity-indignation, and envy-emulation. A median state of rest or unaffectedness sits in the middle of each continuum, and the rhetor’s job is to move audiences along various continua (often simultaneously). In order to do this, a rhetor must understand how each set of emotions is structured but also how each is interrelated to other sets. Emotions, according to Aristotle, intensify and dissipate based on spatial and temporal proximity … A pedagogy of violence relies on keeping the objects of particular emotions present—if not tangibly, at least as viable threats in our imaginations (p19).
  • With advances in technology, pedagogies of emotion spread globally. Jane Kenway and Johannah Fahey call these “emoscapes” and describe how emotions move globally through media (p19).
  • Through new media, these emotions were “communicable, transmittable and infectious, even viral,” creating a complex emotional milieu that could be felt around the world (170). Similar to Jameson’s theorizing of an era or Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling,” the concept of emoscape describes the sustaining and broadly felt emotions that define a period and place in time. Still, Kenway and Fahey assert that discourses of opposing emotions can disrupt harmful emoscapes; they offer examples of viral videos and films circulated during the financial crisis that inspired hope or happiness (p19).
  • Because affects and emotions work together in pedagogies of fear, one of our challenges is to figure out their interrelated personal and cultural impacts—namely, how the lived bodily intensity of fear interacts with its cultural manifestations (p21).
  • Fear, as an emotion, is structured to flourish among the marginalized. Fear is experienced as negative anticipation, a sense of helplessness or inferiority, and an urge to protect oneself. Because fear motivates a person to distance oneself from the object of fear, Robert Solomon describes it as a kind of “negative desire,” a desire that often requires a certain amount of cultural agency or privilege to fulfill (253) (p23).
  • A combined analysis of affect and emotion reveals how fear feels, moves, accumulates, and gains real-world significance. While affect theories capture the rapid, contagious, and visceral feeling of fear, when affects emerge into the realm of emotion, affective capacities materialize as people turn toward or against an object, relation, or discourse—choices also tied up in the social and cultural construction of emotion (p24).
  • The unique qualities of affects and emotions are central both to propelling viral trends and inciting the very motivation for users to participate … No one shares a tweet or post that makes her feel nothing. Affects and emotions are the vehicles through which tweets, images, and videos (and their corresponding messages) become widely shared. We share content that makes us feel—even if that feeling is precognitive. But when we bring intensities into consciousness, we then have the rhetorical opportunity (affective capacity) to make an argument, to try to effect change. Emotions, after all, are defined as “those things through which, by undergoing change, people come to differ in their judgments,” according to Aristotle (1378a8) (p27).


  • check this out: Pew Studies: Ferrin’s Social Media Usage: 2005-2015,

To consume:

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  • Rickert, Thomas. Toward the Chora: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention. Philosophy & Rhetoric40.3 (2007): 251-73. Print.

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