Notes on the Affective Turn

Though affect has often been conflated with emotion, affect, at least according to Brian Massumi is not emotion. But Paul Stenner, drawing on Spinoza, does not make such a sharp distinction.

In the growing literature of the ‘affective turn’, affect is often sharply distinguished from emotion and comes to include issues of mimesis, suggestibility, imitation, contagion and so forth that feed into the wishes, desires, aspirations and other asubjective vectors of becoming that cannot easily be reduced to the self-contained ‘subject’ beloved of liberal humanism, or to existing structural constraints.

Stenner, P. and Moreno, Eduardo (2013). Liminality and affectivity: the case of deceased organ donation. Subjectivity, 6(3) 229–253. doi:10.1057/sub.2013.9.

I agree with Stenner that affect and emotion may be used synonymously. Spinoza used the word affect because emotion wasn’t a word yet, but he also meant far more than what we call emotion. That is to say, for Spinoza affect was not a purely internal or subjective experience.

According to Massumi, affect, also known as intensity, is “always prior to and/or outside of conscious awareness” (Massumi, 2002). Massumi observes that affect can be detected through a skin conductance response prior to the conscious registration of emotion.

The question is, why make the distinction between affect and emotion? What do we gain by it?

If we wish to make a distinction, we might call emotion affect translated into meaningful experience; it might also be an experience that can be placed on the plot line of a narrative or understood from the perspective of linear causality. Emotions are a form of self-observation (the psychic system observes/registers stimuli from the body), but affect may be considered an unnoticed autonomic nervous system response to something, and it occurs prior to or outside psychic-system self-observation. Affect occurs too quickly to be placed on a narrative plot line; it happens outside of temporal cause-effect relations. It isn’t observed in the temporal dimension, which means it’s an event, not a structure.

In systems theoretical-terms, human experience is embedded within (or observed across) organic, psychic, and social systems. Events observed by psychic and social systems can be temporalized, or distinguished as before/after. Thus if affect is “always prior to and/or outside of conscious awareness” (Massumi, 2002), this means that affect is not observed by the psychic system; it is not filtered by the psychic system’s distinctions (e.g., before/after). Affect, in this view, can only be observed “from the outside” as translated into emotion or as a topic of communication.

Following Massumi, we could say that emotions, but not affects, are observed by a psychic system, and often social systems as well. An organic, physiological body is perturbed by something in its environment, such as the sight of an overcast sky and the perception of cold air, and then consciousness might experience (observe) the emotion of sadness. Or an expectation might be disappointed, resulting in sadness (or possibly relief). In either case, the emotion is a selection, a reduction of affective complexity. In other words, affect is too complex to be observed by psychic or social systems. The complexity must be reduced through selection/distinction. The selection always leave a surplus. Emotions, then, are contingent rather than necessary–they could always also be otherwise.

Massumi wrote,

For present purposes, intensity will be equated with affect. . . .  Affect is most often used loosely as  a synonym for emotion. But . . . emotion and affect–if affect is intensity–follow different logics and pertain to different orders. An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is 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. 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 is thus resistant to critique.  (Massumi (2002). Parables of the Virtual, 27-28)

[The] body is radically open, absorbing impulses quicker than they can be perceived. . .

Brain waves of healthy volunteers were monitored by electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. The subjects were asked to flex a finger at a moment of their choosing and to recall the time of their decision by noting the spatial clock position of a revolving dot. The flexes came 0.2 seconds after they clocked the decision, but the EEG machine registered significant brain activity 0.3 seconds before the decision. . . .

Asked to speculate on what implications all this might have for the doctrine of free will, the researcher, Benjamin Libet, proposes that “we may exert free will not by initiating intentions but by vetoing, acceding, or otherwise responding to them after they arise.”

In other words, the half second is missed not because it is empty but  because it is overfull, in excess of the actually performed action and of its ascribed meaning. Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed. (29)

This “vetoing, acceding, or otherwise responding to [intentions] after they arise” would be a selection–a selection from a surplus of possibilities, or perhaps a virtual surplus.

Intensity is incipience, incipient action and expression. Intensity is not only incipience. It is also the beginning of a selection: the incipience of mutually exclusive pathways of action and expression, all but one of which will be inhibited, prevented from actualizing themselves completely. . . .

Something that happens too quickly to have happened, actually, is virtual. The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiences and tendencies, is a realm of potential. (30)

Massumi traces these ideas through Spinoza, Bergson, and Deleuze.

We can describe affect as a virtual/actual two-sided form.

The autonomy of affect is its participation in the virtual. Its autonomy is its openness. . . . If there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death. Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. (Massumi 35)

Perceptions and emotions are ways of capturing affect.


  1. Hello! thank you for your text. It really helped my understanding on the subject better. I am wondering…. If I get to quote some of this text, how can I credit you? Please help.


    1. That’s good to hear. Thanks. My name is Carlton Clark, and the blog is Social Systems Theory, of course. I would just check the guidelines for citing blog posts for the documentation style you are using.


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