The Affective Turn

Patricia T Clough, 2008. The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies. Theory, Culture & Society 25, 1–22.


The turn to affect points instead to a dynamism immanent to bodily matter and matter generally – matter’s capacity for self-organization in being in-formational – which, I want to argue, may be the most provocative and enduring contribution of the affective turn.


Yet, many of the critics and theorists who turned to affect often focused on the circuit from affect to emotion, ending up with subjectively felt states of emotion – a return to the subject as the subject of emotion. I want to turn attention instead to those critics and theorists who, indebted to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Baruch Spinoza and Henri Bergson, conceptualize affect as pre-individual bodily forces augmenting or diminishing a body’s capacity to act and who critically engage those technologies that are // making it possible to grasp and to manipulate the imperceptible dynamism of affect.


I want to argue that focusing on affect – without following the circuit from affect to subjectively felt emotional states – makes clear how the turn to affect is a harbinger of and a discursive accompaniment to the forging of a new body, what I am calling the biomediated body.

I will argue that the biomediated body challenges the autopoiesis characteristic of the body-as-organism that, by the late 19th century, had become the model of what a body is.

Because the body-as-organism is defined autopoietically as open to energy but informationally closed to the environment, thus engendering its own boundary conditions, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova have argued that the body-as-organism befits the disciplinary society of late 19th-century industrial capitalism ‘where the fluids which were circulating outside and between bodies, are folded onto themselves in order to be channeled within the solid walls of the organism/self/subject’ (2000: 4).

Like the body-as-organism, the biomediated body is a historically specific mode of organization of material forces, invested by capital into being, as well as elaborated through various discourses of biology and physics, thermodynamics and complexity, metastability and nonlinear relationality, reconfiguring bodies, work and reproduction.

The biomediated body is a definition of a body and what it can do – its affectivity – that points to the political economic and theoretical investment in the self-organization inherent to matter or matter’s capacity to be in-formational, to give bodily form.


[…] for Massumi the turn to affect is about opening the body to its indeterminacy, for example the indeterminacy of autonomic responses. It is therefore necessary for Massumi to define affect in terms of its autonomy from conscious perception and language, as well as emotion.

Consciousness is ‘subtractive’ because it reduces a complexity. It is ‘limitative’, a derived function in a virtual field where any actualization becomes, at that same moment of actualization, the limit of that field, which otherwise has no pre-given empirical limit. Affect and consciousness are in a virtual–actual circuit, which defines affect as potential and emergent.

Massumi’s turn to the body’s indeterminacy, then, is not a return to a ‘pre-social’ body.


So, when // there is a reflux back from conscious experience to affect, it is registered as affect, such that ‘past action and contexts are conserved and repeated, autonomically reactivated but not accomplished; begun but not completed’ (2002: 30). There is an intensification of affect.

There is bodily memory – ‘vectors’ or ‘perspectives of the flesh’ – what Massumi calls ‘memory without content’, which, however, remains indeterminate, the indeterminate condition of possibility of determinant memory and conscious perception (2002: 59).

Thus, affect refers to the metastability of a body, where the unstable pre-individual forces, which make up the metastability of a body, are neither in a linear nor deterministic relationship to it.

If Massumi’s turn to autonomic responses of the body is in fact a way to think the sociality of metastability, it also brings materiality closer to the nonphenomenal, the incorporeal, through the philosophical conceptualization of the virtual, played out against theories of nonlinearity and metastability, open systems and the quantum indeterminacy of implicate order.

What is at issue in these philosophical-theoretical connections is not merely the affectivity of the human body but, I would argue, the affectivity of matter, matter’s capacity for self-organization, its being informational.

It is this understanding of matter as affective, as informational and self-organizing, that connects the autonomic responses of the body, or what Massumi calls the ‘infraempirical’ experience of the human body, to the incorporeal, nonphenomenal complexity that is the condition of possibility of the empirical, what Massumi calls the ‘superempirical’ (2002, 144–61).


Massumi’s exemplary illustrations of the autonomy of affect not only show what the body can do; they show what bodies can be made to do. They show what the body is becoming, as it meets the limit at a postbiological threshold, which draws to it the dynamism of matter that had been hidden in oppositions held in place by the body-as-organism, between the living and the nonliving, the physical and the biological, the natural and the cultural.

While recognizing the severe anti-mimesis of the digital image, whose infrastructure, after all, is only layers of algorithmic processing or a matrix of numbers that has severed all reference to an

independent reality, Hansen surprisingly makes this the very possibility for rethinking new media, as he focuses on the relationship digitization invites between the digital image and the body’s internal sense of its movement, its tendencies or incipiencies, which, following Massumi, Hansen refers to as affectivity (2004a: 7).

Hansen argues that digitization engages bodily affect, inviting it to give information a body.

While Hansen’s treatment of new media is important in that it uniquely draws out the relationship of digitization and bodily affect, it does so, however, while shielding the autopoiesis of the body-as-organism from the challenge his treatment of digitization seems to pose.

For Hansen, the relationship of bodily affect and digitization require that we rethink the image as informational.


With digitization, he argues, the image itself has become a process, which not only invites the user’s interaction but rather requires the human body to frame the ongoing flow of // information, shaping its indeterminacy into meaning.


Thus, Hansen takes issue with those theorists who favor a homology between consciousness and media, and thereby fail to grasp the importance of the human body’s experience of technology generally and the specific importance of bodily experience to digital technology. His critique of these theorists, such as Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, are provocative in the way they show how digitization calls us to rethink the body in terms of affect.

For Hansen, what Stiegler misses in coupling the human and the technological as a matter of memory is the function of the body as the frame of this coupling.

Differing from Deleuze’s take on Bergson, Hansen means to reveal the ‘Bergsonist vocation of new media’ (2004b: 605). Returning to Bergson’s treatment of the body as a privileged image or center of indetermination that in its movement draws out or ‘subtracts’ perception from the world taken as an aggregate of images, Hansen argues that bodily affectivity, its capacity to act, to move, is central to, indeed ‘forges’, the digital image.


[The digital image produces] a technological intensification or digital expansion of the nonlived, nonlinear complexity, or indetermination, of bodily affectivity. For Hansen, affective capacity and digitization are a coupling framed by the body-as-organism.


Hansen does not account for the examples and experiments that assemble technology and affect, that like new media, frame affect’s appearance, a production that makes affect felt in an unprecedented manner. Indeed, Hansen finds these assemblages troublesome; he proposes that there is ‘an urgency at this moment . . . for a differentiation of properly human perceptual capacities from the functional processing of information in hybrid human–machine assemblages’ (2004a: 101).


Hansen’s treatment of new media withdraws it from the larger technological environment that includes biomediation, where the immateriality of information (and therefore seemingly in need of a human bodily // form) turns quickly into the materiality of information or matter’s capacity for self-organization or capacity to in-form.


At the crossroads of genetics and informatics, the body’s being informational not only raises the question of the relationships being forged between biology and information, matter and information, ‘life itself’ and information. It also raises a question about the productivity of these relationships, beyond the artful experience of human affectivity, as a political economic production.

Whereas Hansen’s treatment of new media insists on the difference between the human body and human–machine assemblages, between bodily affect and digitization – differences that hark back to the differences that haunted constructionism, Eugene Thacker’s treatment of biomedia reveals the informational substrate of the body and the impossibility of the distinctions Hansen seeks to maintain.


Therefore, what makes biomedia different from other technological developments is the way it changes the relationship between capital, technology, labor and life. Biomedia surely generates all kinds of biotech services and products, as well as all kinds of labor involved in the development, marketing and managing of these products and services. But what is unique to biomedia, Thacker argues, is that it is biology that both ‘drives production’ and is ‘the source material’.

In the technological framing of the ‘labor performed routinely by cells, proteins, and DNA’, biomedia produces the biomediated body as a laboring body (Thacker, 2005: 201).

It is in terms of political economy that Thacker’s view of biomedia tracks both the forging of a new body and what minimal requirement is left for the presence of the body-as-organism in the processes of biomediation.


N. Katherine Hayles (1999) has pointed out that the circularity of autopoiesis, preserved in every situation of the organism, is contradictory to evolution, where species evolve through continuity but also through change and genetic diversity.


In critiquing autopoiesis, Pearson draws on Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s (1986) theorization of endosymbiosis which suggests that machinic evolution not only befits the biomediated body but it also has a long evolutionary history. Margulis and Sagan point to the parasitic and symbiotic relations that precede the appearance of reproduction through nucleic DNA, a process called endosymbiosis. They also point to the process of endosymbiosis continuing in the body of the cell, challenging the model of evolution based on linear or filiative evolution.

In what she calls ‘biodigital sex’, Parisi proposes that the instability represented by bacterial-like information trading of mitochondrial recombination is being invested in both economically and discursively.

In what she calls ‘biodigital sex’, Parisi proposes that the instability represented by bacterial-like information trading of mitochondrial recombination is being invested in both economically and discursively.

In taking cloning as an example, Parisi not only links biodigital sex and machinic evolution to the philosophical conceptualization of the virtual. She also suggests that there is political economic investment in the virtual, as biodigital sex is meant to stretch ‘the unpredictable potential to differentiate beyond expectation’, capturing ‘the interval between states’ (2004: 157).


[discussion of Shannon and Wiener]

Shannon had theorized information as positively correlated with entropy, such that the more entropy, the more improbable the message being sent, and therefore the more information. Wiener proposed that information was an organization or an ordering in the indifferent differences of entropy or noise, and thus was to be understood to decrease entropy.

If we take Shannon’s definition of information to hold at the point of sending the message and Wiener’s at the point of receiving the message, these definitions are not contradictory as they first seem; both fit the mathematical definition of information.


But this understanding of information as a negentropic decrease of entropy, along with the understanding of information as positively correlated with entropy, makes it possible to theorize information once again, this time in terms of open systems, where information is connected both to the movement from disorder to order and from order to disorder in relationship to the irreversibility of time.


When the turn to affect was invited in cultural criticism and critical theory in the early and mid-1990s, the invitation had a certain resonance with the fast capitalism of an intensified financialization, as capital propelled itself around the globe along with the innovative technologies that made its lightning speed possible, while at the same time transforming ideological institutions – those of the state under the pressure of transnationalism, and those of the private and public spheres under the pressure of global expansion of commodity markets and media technologies.


While formal subsumption was meant to be a solution to the problem of overaccumulation, it too produced overaccumulation as wages rose in response to laborers’ demand for higher wages in order to meet the cost of reproducing themselves and their families through the market exchange in commodities and services. But they also demanded more in terms of quality of life, expressed as a frustration magnified in social movements of identity and recognition. By the early 1970s, as the relationship between work and life was restructured, the wage became a matter of political demand, severing the production of surplus value from the laborers’ surplus production.

Cultural critics and critical theorists who turned to affect often noted that, under the conditions of formal subsumption, all that is thought of as social reproduction had become central to the economy. Social reproduction had become a matter of time, capital invested time realized in images to be consumed by the consumer, for example, in watching television, but also in doing therapy or going to the gym (Dienst, 1994). The function of the media as a socializing/ideological mechanism had become secondary to its continuous modulation, variation and intensification of affective response in real time, where bodily affect is mined for value.


In this global situation, the connection of affect and capital is not merely a matter of a service economy’s increasing demand for affective labor or media’s modulation of the circuit from affect to emotion. Rather, preindividual affective capacities have been made central to the passage from formal subsumption to the real subsumption of ‘life itself’ into capital, as the accumulation of capital has shifted to the domain of affect.


The linking of control and political command with the risk factors of statistically produced populations is a form of power that Michel Foucault called biopolitics. In contrast to disciplining, biopolitics turns power’s grasp from the individual subject to ‘life itself’.


If a population racism is central to the political economy of the biomediated body, it is because it is a racism that is deployed each and every time a differentiation is made among and in populations, constituting additional bodies of data. In contrast to the racism linked to the body-asorganism and its skin-morphology, the racism that Foucault points to gives the biomediated body its differences, even as the biomediated body gives racism its informatic existence.

Although the visibility of the body-as-organism still plays a part, the biomediated body allows the raced body to be apprehended as information.

In pointing to the devastating potential of biopolitical racism at the postbiological threshold, it is important to remember, however, that a threshold is indeterminate.

While the political gain expected by the affective turn – its openness, emergence and creativity – is already the object of capitalist capture, as capital shifts to accumulate in the domain of affect and deploys racism to produce an economy to realize this accumulation, it is important to remember the virtual at the threshold. Beyond it, always a chance for something else, unexpected, new.