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The Misappropriation of Affect

As a theoretical framework, affect theory is vast. Arriving at any one definition is difficult because the term is a slippery concept that refuses confinement or containment.

The term is understood in various ways depending on the field, discipline, framework, and/or lens used to interpret it. The concept remains abstract and elusive, making it difficult to define. It has many definitions and is multi-disciplinary. It includes conversations from psychology; psychiatry; biology (including cellular); neuroanatomy and neurology; philosophy; physics; chemistry; mathematics; technology and communication; sociology; anthropology; geography; gender and feminist studies; trauma studies; history; English and the fine arts; architecture; theology; and metaphysics; among others.

The word affect has its roots in Latin, French, and late nineteenth-century Middle English. At its core, it means to be moved by or influenced to produce change. Popular associations include: to have an effect on; make a difference; feel something; make an impression; or to influence disposition.

More classical definitions are attributed to psychologist Silvan Tomkin, Dutch philosopher Spinoza, and French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. In this way, much of the scholarly literature on affect acknowledges and credits the works of white professionals affiliated with the academy. However, the theorization of affect owes a considerable amount to Indigenous, Black, disabled, queer, intersex, trans, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Jainist, African spiritualists, and Jewish communities who have conceptualized many of these same conversations in different ways, using different language, and on different terms.

A couple of years back, I was sitting at the Toronto Reference Library on a cold winter day. A Spanish-speaking couple approached and took the seats across from me at a table I was working at. I read gender off the body and identify one as a woman. Perhaps even high femme. They were wearing a vibrant sweater while working on their HP laptop which matched the colour palette of their sweater.

There is silence at our table. All three of us are working independently on our individual tasks. Suddenly I feel a tickle in my throat. As I cleared my throat, I realize that she too had done the same. Silence at our table has been broken by a simultaneous clearing of both our throats. In this instant, we are synchronized down to the second. Did I affect her, or she me? I was doing work on shame and affect theory in that very moment of being affected, so the affective-ness of it all, was not lost on me. I wondered if she too caught it. I said nothing.

A week later I was again working at the Toronto Reference Library typing notes from Judith Herman on trauma and terror. As I type the word “connection” which Herman has written before me and I am noting, I hear from across the room “the French connection coming through”. As my fingers typed the word “connection”, I was hearing the word “connection” out loud from another human being outside of me, who had no clue what I was typing from the library book on the table, onto my laptop.

This is not the first time this has happened to me while typing notes. Sometimes, I’ll be listening to music on YouTube, and working on my laptop. As I type a word, I hear that same word being said out loud by whichever artist I’m listening to. Rare moments of synchronicity. I could be watching T.V. and typing, and the same thing will happen. So, I decided to approach the group of men and ask what they thought of it. I was curious to know how they conceptualized this moment of harmony between strangers.

It turns out they are four International students from France, studying for the GMAT. I explained my research and what had just happened. That I had typed the word “connection,” from the notes I was taking. I showed them the page, with the word “connection” on it. And mentioned that as I typed the word, one of them had said the same word out loud at that very moment. What did they make of what happened?

Coincidence is the language they have for the experience. To them, it was mere coincidence. I said that I agreed, though I and the literature had other language too, and thanked them.

Harmony, synchronicity, haphazard and coincidental. Those are some ways we can think of what happened. I want to note that we can consider it affect as well. Something beyond us moved us in some way that led to a lining up of words. Something happened that none of us can quite explain. It happened to us, but we weren’t necessarily in control of its unfolding. Other communities make sense of this in different ways. However, in the literature, it tended to be definitions of white male philosophers that were centered. They were the only ones that really mattered as valid or credible.

People like me, when we talk about these things, we tend to be left out of, or called into question as theorists, scholars, and valid knowledge producers, even when located within academia.

Mohawk Wolf Clan associate professor of anthropology and Indigenous Studies Dawn Martin-Hill shares that across many Indigenous communities, Creation stories are fundamental to understanding cosmology. It is through these stories that the universe is explained and made sense of, she says. Other frameworks include animism, chaos theory, Other-worldly experiences, and queer time and space, and for centuries. But instead of acknowledging the brilliance of these communities and their Indigenous knowledge and ancient technologies, white people have tended to negate, even criminalize this information.

In Telepathy and Medical Psychology Jan Ehrenwald (1948) writes, “the savage is convinced that he is able to cause crops to grow, rain to fall, storms to subside, through his rites and ceremonies” (13; 21). This has typically been the Western positivist approach to Indigenous worldviews. As childish and unfounded, because most of these scripts cannot be proven as objective and real enough.

I’ll end this post here, and continue the topic in another blog. Please like, subscribe, and share.

Until next time, in solidarity.

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