It’s Not What You Think: Affect Theory and Power Take to the Stage

Schaefer cover image, 5990-6Today we are happy to present a guest blog post from Duke University Press author Donovan O. Schaefer, who is Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and author of our recent book Religious Affects. Here, Schaefer discusses affect theory, power, and performance.

Affect theory is an approach to culture, history, and politics that focuses on the role of prelinguistic or nonlinguistic forces, or affects. Affects make us what we are, but they are neither under our “conscious” control nor even necessarily within the register of our awareness—and they can only sometimes be captured in language. In Religious Affects, I offer an introduction to the subfield of affect theory that is (I hope) accessible to a range of backgrounds. I then explain how affect theory can be linked to other conversations happening in the humanities—including Michel Foucault’s “analytics of power,” the recent “animal turn,” critical secularism studies, and my home field of religious studies. Affect theory helps us understand power by encouraging us to think of power as theater.

One of the background figures of affect theory, Princeton psychologist Silvan Tomkins, began his academic training not as a psychologist, but as a playwright. He’s a drama kid at heart and affect theory is a dramatist’s understanding of people and their relationships. Drama kids know that acting isn’t about memorizing words on a page. Learning 500 lines of text is the easiest part of an actor’s job. Instead, acting is about taking those lines and packing each and every word—and the spaces between the words—with emotional nuance. An actor’s instrument is not a script, but a body, and effective actors will meticulously use every aspect of their bodies—their voice, hands, face, posture, stride, gaze, gait, and muscles—to build an affective symphony. Directors, too, use a nonverbal repertoire including timing, staging, and perspective to weave a thick knot of affects around their script. The most expertly scripted play can be ruined by underwhelming acting, clumsy direction, or confusing staging. This is because the work of making bodies move is not done by words alone, or even by words primarily. Thespians think not only about script, but about oration, blocking, staging, sound, atmosphere, and a whole embodied toolkit of movements and gestures. These elements are assembled into finely-tuned affect-distribution machines. A play’s success is measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects.

Affect theory sees power in the same terms. As anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes, “power is a thing of the senses.” (Ordinary Affects, 84) Rather than thinking about politics as a set of propositions that are sifted by rational, choosing subjects (“Vote for x if you want bridges, vote for y if you want bombers.”), affect theory sees it as a performance. Religious Affects talks about this specifically with reference to religion, exploring examples such as global Christian evangelicalism, American Islamophobia, and contemporary secularisms—but religion is only one of many formations of power, and so the affect method can be applied broadly. All that it takes is to recognize that power is first and foremost what Sara Ahmed calls an “affective economy” rather than a set of ideas or linguistic propositions. Affect theory helps us evade the “linguistic fallacy,” the belief that power is primarily conducted by thoughts and language. Instead, power as a “thing of the senses” feels before it thinks. It is hooked not to our transcendent rational consciousness, but to our animality.

Pundits like to talk about politics as if it is done from the top down. Sneaky politicians put up a front in order to dupe “the masses” into doing what they want. But this is contrary to how someone like Michel Foucault understands power. For Foucault, power is a relationship: it always flows in multiple directions rather than just from the top down. Except in extreme situations (such as confinement or the threat of imminent deadly force—which misleadingly become the templates we use to understand power more broadly), power requires some kind of buy-in—however uneven—from all parties involved. Affect theorists build on this insight, seeing politics not simply as a set of ideas that are neutrally and objectively evaluated, but as a performance, and like all performances, it is a dynamic between actors and audience. Politicians may “use” voters to get things done, but voters also “use” politicians to provide a particular experience—an evening at the theater. (Moreover, politicians undoubtedly “use” voters in the same way.) Whereas rhetorical analysis asks how affects are being mobilized to achieve certain political objectives, affect theorists argue that politics is being done in order to achieve certain affects.

This doesn’t mean that the consequences of politics are in any way trivial—that they don’t deal deprivation, pain, and death, or flourishing, peace, and happiness unevenly across societies. Politics is no less urgent for being structured by affects. If anything, affect theory shows that even a haughty turning-away from politics or a studied indifference is an affective construct—and therefore a political procedure. What affect theory shows is that a political formation is best understood not as a package of more-or-less coherent ideas but as a swirling vortex of emotions. This goes just as much for the incoherent rage-fests of a Trump rally (the lust for hatred, the desire for strength, the refusal of shame) as it does for the soaring optimism and calls for a more just society of a Sanders speech: both are avenues for the production of affects. The political is not just occasionally interrupted by affect. It is affect. The currency that connects our bodies and fuses us into communities is not a rationally elected choice, but a felt compulsion. This is the insight of affect theory: sovereign consciousness—including reason—is an effect of a matrix of moving lines of force, travelling through us and leaving power in their wake.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s