Some Notes on Affect
A lot that’s happening on this site right now, in posts and in comments, has somehow coalesced around a few themes and texts that I first explored seriously in a college course I took, called Excess, that focused on, well, the literature of excess, or transgression: Sade, Bataille, Sacher-Masoch, and films like Irreversible. It was taught by Paul Mann, poet and author of Masocriticism, which, as its title suggests, radically exposes the viscera gaping from the act of reading and interpreting texts. He writes,
The text never recognizes us. It neither assents to nor dissents from our reading, our desire. Whatever validations we establish, it remains silent throughout our reading.
At the end of each reading, it returns as a Greek.
At the end of each masocritical scene, one is abandoned to the absolutely otherness of the other. One suffers an utter loss of agency, out of and against which a new scene or new reading must be projected.
This formulation of the text recalls Bataille’s vision of the sun burning itself up with no consideration for the life that its combustion nurtures, a concept that is central to much of Bataille’s work (including the essay whose title I stole for the reading series I run w/ Blake and Jamie Iredell in Atlanta, Solar Anus). The way Mann equates the sun with the text deepens this idea of reading as hyper-sensory experience.
The first or second class session, Mann told us that he would be asking us to think about affect as we read. That is, he’d ask us how we felt. He recognized how squishy it sounds to ask someone, “How does this poem make you feel?” but requested that we forbear and consider the possibility that an engagement with affect can transform the critical enterprise (and of course, an act of reading is in itself an act of criticism, even if it’s never articulated). After we read the first part of 120 Days of Sodom, he asked us if we were disgusted/aroused/bored/afraid/annoyed, and it was a great discussion starter.
He referred us to Barthes, who argues in The Pleasure of the Text that Sade wrote and redistributed language to death, or at least attempted to. Insofar as sex and death are the original friends-with-benefits, the best kind of text flirts with us, Barthes says: “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me” [emphasis his]. And “these terrible texts are all the same flirtatious texts.”
For Mann, sometimes the proper response to these language incubi is silence. Thus after watching Irreversible we did not discuss it; we sat in some silence. And if Sade’s destructive project involves a kind of relentless expenditure of language, our only mode of resistance–and submission–may be to refuse to utter, both to accept and to block Sade’s limiltess ejaculation with a soundless, languageless, porous wall.
We’ve talked about writing prompts; these are, perhaps, reading prompts. For Barthes, the reader participates in the extreme. Lots of people say the reader is a participant, though; the point here is that the participation isn’t just mental or even psychological, though it is those things too (Barthes was particularly interested in the idea of neurosis–not sanity or madness–as the cite of the language act for writers like Bataille and Sade). Our participation must be emotional and bodily as well.
This isn’t a metaphor (nod to Blake). Barthes and Mann both focus on texts that draw forth these reactions in a kind of extreme or at least noticeable way, and that’s a great place to start. But affect could always be useful to consider, not just when reading the transgressive text.
We always have a mood, and we always feel a certain way. A text may change our mood or the way our body feels; if it changes neither, that is kind of interesting too. A lot of criticism happens well after reading, in reflection, when we collate and shape our thoughts about what we’ve read. Thinking about affect is quite a lot more immediate, in terms of time and space.
It’s hard to think about affect and language–at least for me. Most of my emotions register physically, and not consciously, so that when I have stomach pain, for instance, I try to figure out what I’m sad/confused/anxious about–but then realize that it could just be something I ate. So it’s difficult to sort out whether emotions and sensations originate from what I’m reading or from some other source entirely. But it’s perhaps all the more necessary for the difficulty.
(nb if you’re not as into the sex and death part of affect, there’s always the $$ side of Sade and Bataille’s notions of expenditure)