Thursday, 3 November 2011

Existential Affects as a Catalyst for Personal Transformation

In ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, Brian Massumi describes affect as “intensity owned and recognised” (2006: 221). Because it is different from emotion, and because it best describes the sensations felt in the event of a personal transformation, I shall adopt this term for what I understand to be the sensation experienced prior to existential change.

Massumi explains that language operates on two levels which resonate with each other: these are “suspense” and “expectation” (1996: 220). Every expression culminates in an event enacted upon by suspense and expectation, in always differing proportions (ibid.). We see parallels with Gilles Deleuze’s description of the resonance between the signifier and the signified in The Logic of Sense, and Massumi acknowledges Deleuze in his essay. For Massumi, affect is this two-sidedness (2006: 228). And, I maintain, it is in these oscillating moments that the individual has the opportunity for a greater awareness, a self-mastery attained from self-reflection brought about through some kind of conflicting state.

Félix Guattari, in his essay ‘Ritornellos and Existential Affects’, discusses affect within the framework of the aesthetic. He explains how expressions of an aesthetic nature can become catalysts for the individual. Guattari believes, in special circumstances, that this can induce “aesthetic ecstasy, a mystical effusion” (1996: 165). In Chaosmosis he uses the phrase “poetic-existential catalysis” (1995: 19) to explain a trigger operating within a particular enunciative domain. This can be considered as a “molecular rupture, an imperceptible bifurcation capable of overthrowing the framework of dominant redundancies, […] the classical order.” (1995: 19-20).

Massumi alludes to Deleuze’s folded subject when talking about self-reflection: “Conscious reflection is a doubling over of the idea on itself, a self-recursion of the idea that enwraps the affection or impingement, at two removes.” (2006: 225). And, if the subject is always folded, then it seems that the individual always has this capacity available to them, whether they choose to utilise it in any profound way or not. But, maybe the individual needs to be reminded of this ability, shaken from their self-forgetting, by receiving a kind of shock, a jolt, which will take them out of their familiar everyday frame of reference. The individual can be so caught up with the daily routine of just surviving on a subsistence level or instead tangled up in playing whatever game society deems appropriate for them, that active self-reflection is a luxury. We can see this elucidated in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with self-actualization (B-cognition) offered as a potential only after all basic needs are met.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2004a. The Logic of Sense. Trans. by Mark Lester (London and New York: Continuum).
Guattari, Félix. 1995. Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Trans. by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).
Guattari, Pierre-Felix. 1996. The Guattari Reader. Ed. by Gary Genosko (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).
Massumi, Brian. 1996. ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, Deleuze: A Critical Reader. Ed. by Paul Patton (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 217-239.

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