Have you ever poked a sea anemone? It’s open and fluttering its little tendrils in the brackish water, and then suddenly and without any warning, this stick comes out of nowhere, jabbing into its soft, fleshy bits. The anemone reacts, without thinking – it curls in on itself, pulling tight and protective. After a while, it might send out a few questioning tentacles at a time, searching and seeing if it’s safe again. And when it’s determined that it is safe, it will unfurl again, until the next stick descends.
This is affect at its simplest, an emotive, embodied response to stimulus. It is “the modifications of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped or hindered, together with the ideas of these modifications.”1 That is to say, according to Baruch Spinoza, affect is the sum of our drives, our motivations, feelings, and emotions. But it is not just a mental construct; there is a physicality to affect. Our emotions exist within our body; as we have them we react instinctively–to pain and pleasure and their derivatives. There is a dynamic engagement of the body; these reactions race across our bodies prior to our experiencing the feeling related to the emotion. This can be most clearly seen in the lower-ordered vertebrates and invertebrates, which have emotional responses to pain, such as the anemone removing itself from a painful stimulus. Does this then mean that the anemone has a feeling?2 No, most likely not. It does, however, suggest the evolutionary advantage to the development of feelings; feelings became motivations to encourage the doing of things good for the emotions (and what was good for the emotions was good for the genes, and so on).
Brian Massumi says that affect is relationality, not a self having feelings but a distinctive being in and of the world. This notion of affect gives us a phenomenological perspective3 on the connections that exist between us that is grounded in the body itself. To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, it allows us to embrace the space between us not as that which separates us from the world, but to be the medium that binds us together.4 Affect becomes a reverberative process of perception and engagement, where the sea anemone acts on the environment as much as the environment acts on the sea anemone.
Affect. To affect and be affected. To touch and be touched. To produce a change in something, while a change can concurrently happen in yourself. There is often an attempt to isolate affect as a manifestation of the self, something that is internally regulated. Antonio Damasio says that
You can look at Picasso’s Guernica as intensely as you wish, for as long as you wish, and as emotionally as you wish, but nothing will happen to the painting itself. Your thoughts about it change, of course, but the object remains intact…In the case of feeling, the object itself can be changed radically.
He is saying that because the origin of feeling is internal to the mind, rather than external, the body can act directly upon that perception of feeling. And while this is undoubtedly true, the scenario he describes leaves out one situation, which is that of a person looking intently at another person. That object, the person, is not the static object of a painting, but another moving, breathing, perceiving being, and your own body of perception can act upon them, and they upon you. Affect, then, becomes a part of that interplay, that give and take that exists between us, and binds us to one another.
Affect, then, represents the whole modification of a person, both mentally and physically. It is “not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power…that throws the self into upheaval and makes it real.”5 Affect is the unsplit mind and body, which are a functional whole too often split in an effort to scrutinize separately, to believe one disjointed from the other. But they are not separate parts resting together to create a functional being, but, paraphrasing Spinoza, are parallel aspects of the same substance. And as mind/body are not separate, but instead a being made whole by affect, that being is not isolated, and that which imparts a change in an individual being will impart change in another, through the medium that connects beings, through the beings themselves–the order and the connection of being and beings.
Sea anemones can live alone, but most often they live grouped together in clusters. When you poke one anemone, it acts and reacts, folding in on itself for protection. And if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the anemones around it, while perhaps not folding in as dramatically as the poked anemone, will retract their tendrils in reaction, as well.