Sara Ahmed (2010) describes affect as “sticky.”
Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects. . . .[If] you are given something by somebody whom you love, then the object itself acquires more affective value: just seeing it can make you think of another who gave you that something. If something is close to a happy object then it can become happy by association.
(Affect Theory Reader. “Happy Objects” 29, 33)
In systems-theoretical terms, we could use the term resonance or resonance capability in place of affect. Affect is about connection or relationship, or being irritated by something in one’s environment; it’s not emotion (understood as a psychological, interior condition/state). The opposite of resonance is alienation, or the sense that the world no longer speaks to us; nothing moves us anymore (Hartmut Rosa).
An object, such as a watch or ring we receive as a gift, might have sentimental value far greater than its monetary value. So, according to Ahmed, affect (resonance capability) is what associates the object with an emotion and/or value. The ring that has sentimental value for a particular person resonates with that person but not with others. Only one, possibly two, people will care if the ring is lost. For Spinoza, the ring is a finite thing, and affect is the relationship between, or association of, finite things. The human being is a finite thing and the object of attachment is a finite thing.
Resonance/affect is activated through structural coupling. As Luhmann writes,
Structural couplings do not determine the state of the system. One might say that they only supply irritations for the system. Alternatively, Maturana speaks of the “perturbation” of the system. I prefer the terms “irritation” or “stimulus,” or also from a systems perspective, “resonance capability” [Resonanzfähigkeit]. The resonance of the system is activated through structural coupling. (Introduction to Systems Theory, 88)
Earlier in the same text, in distinguishing action from communication, Luhmann mentions social resonance:
Action occurs even when nobody is watching, when nobody else is there, when the agent does not expect that somebody else will react to her action–for instance, when somebody brushes her teeth while by herself. It is done merely because everybody knows that it ought to be done. True, one was told by somebody to do it and somebody put the toothbrush there for this purpose. However, in principle, action can be conceived of as a solitary, individual operation that has no social resonance. In the case of communication, this not is not possible. (54)
Luhmann also equates resonance with a system’s irritability or sensitivity, and he suggests that
the differentiation of functional systems has the function of increasing chances for rationality, irritability, sensitivity, and resonance in the functional systems. It makes it possible for the ability to be disturbed to increase and at the same time provides counter-measures or procedural concepts, but only at the level of society in its totality. (138)
So we can speak of the economy, the political system, and other function systems has having resonance capability, or affect. We needn’t limit affect to living systems (humans, animals).
A functionally differentiated society has greater opportunities for resonance, or greater resonance capability, in comparison with a stratified or centralized society. In a centralized society, such as pre-modern China, the ability to affect the emperor, which means to affect the empire, decreases the further one moves away from the throne. There might be a famine is a distant province, and if no one informs the emperor of this news he will not be affected/disturbed by it. But in a modern functionally differentiated society, there are many social systems, such as organizations or government agencies devoted to poverty relief, that take notice of events that would go unnoticed in a simpler society. These organizations spread their tentacles into areas of society that a president or prime minister is not aware of.
Affects do not pre-exist social systems; they are elements and, as such, they are constituted by the system. Communication produces affect.
Levi Bryant (personal communication) wrote,
communication doesn’t *describe* affects that are already there, but is closer to something like Foucaultian subjectivization in that it actually *produces* certain forms of affect. Under this theory, when I read Sartre’s Nausea or Proust’s Remembrance, I’m not encountering particularly apt descriptions of emotional life that we all experience, but am actually being conditioned to experience things that I would have never otherwise experienced. Proust *creates* a form of love and jealousy, he doesn’t describe it.
For example, romantic love is produced and reproduced by communication. It did not always exist. See Luhmann’s Love as Passion.