Unconscionable feelings: a primer for everyday affect theory

To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

TS Eliot, “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock”

Feelings never had no ethics,
Feelings never have been ethical.

Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), “Nappy Wonder,” Negro Swan

What is an argument, really? A disagreement, yes, but what is it beneath that? What can we see when we peel away the skin of a dispute and peer inside? A woman is arguing with her boyfriend over something small and insignificant; leaving the cap off the toothpaste, dropping his shoes in the foyer when he comes in from work, farting under the sheets of their communal bed. These are small, if annoying, offenses. But what do they say? What she thinks is: “I find these things that you do without thinking annoying.” This is a valid point, even if more laidback people would be prone to shrug at what can be easily written off as “anal retention” or “nitpickiness.” Yet, her boyfriend resists her claims, arguing that his girlfriend is obsessed with order and cleanliness, that it is not in his nature to be so mindlessly tidy. He turns the conversation on its head by claiming that the perception of his negative cleanliness is actually the presence of her excess of tidiness, her fascist need for control. This is an argument because beneath the surface of minutia and bullshit, of petty squabbles, is a deeper issue which rises to the surface, which ceases to just be affect, “unconscionable feelings,” in the moment of linguistic interchange. What is missing is a critique of feeling, not thinking.

I have learned with time that thinking and feeling are distinct. This may seem obvious, but in many ways thinking and feeling remain concepts which, while distinct, appear to many people are fundamentally interconnected realities of cognition. This makes sense; when we feel something, it influences what we say, and how we say it; feeling is often the shape of thought’s (language’s) content. Yet, what is felt and what is thought still remain distinct, and at times unconnected.

I’ll use myself as an example. During spring 2018, I applied for a number of grants to attend summer programs to support my research. While I got into all of my summer programs and was offered generous grants to offset the cost of attendance, I did not receive any of the grants from Yale to which I applied. Because of this, I wasn’t able to attend any of these programs, for the balance was too costly. I was deeply hurt by this, primarily because I felt as if the University was not supporting my research, as if the University did not think my ideas were worthwhile. I understand that these thoughts were irrational, that the University had no vendetta against me, no desire to cut me down. Yet, I still felt unsure of myself, and my rejection from these grants fueled an ongoing crisis of inadequacy.

What is important about this story if the distinction between thinking and feeling, between the logical practice of meaning-making translated into language and the affective practice of meaning-making which exists beyond the dimensions of language, of logical thought. This reinforces, I suppose, the classical mind-body divide; thought is the logical faculty of the mind, affect the sensory faculty of the body. Having an anxiety disorder has forced me to listen to my body more, for my affective disposition “speaks” through my body. When I am anxious, my stomach twists into knots, I lose all desire to eat, I feel tired and clammy, and even the thought of being around people fills me with dread. Some people experience anxiety differently, but my experiences manifest often psychosomatically as an odd tension in my neck, a heavy stone on my bowels, or as a shiver in hot weather.

What the boyfriend should have asked, before launching his own counterassault, was “why does this bother you?” The woman may have interpreted this as some sort of affront, as him not understanding why she is angry, but what this lies beneath the surface of her frustration is a deeper concern over something else; perhaps he doesn’t respect her space and, through that, does not respect her; perhaps she is quite invested in the image of this man as the perfect gentlemen, is quite content with him as a partner, but finds this one flaw of his, his inconsiderateness, his sloppiness, an annoying flaw which mars someone who would otherwise seem perfect; perhaps she sees this as a testament that things are moving too quickly, that they are becoming too comfortable with one another, revealing their truer selves at too fast a pace; perhaps she is afraid that he is not the man she thought he would be, that she is disappointed in having invested energy in someone who is slowly revealing himself to be a slovenly, careless person. These are all quite heavy hypotheses, and it is possible that none of these apply. Yet, her frustration with him is likely influenced by an inward frustration, the likes of which she is not introspective enough to interrogate. Perhaps she is disappointed in herself for falling into a rhythm with yet another slob, that she is annoyed by her attraction to thoughtless men. Perhaps she is annoyed with herself for not being as carefree (both the antonym and synonym of careless) as her partner, that she envies his ability to just kick off his shoes after a long day and slide into relaxation, of his ability to think about other things, to not be present enough to put the cap back on the toothpaste or put the barbecue sauce back in the fridge. These kinds of disputes often speak to deeper issues which deserve to be brought to the surface in calm, meaningful ways.

It is easy to think. We are trained from a young age to verbalize our opinions and beliefs, primarily because our opinions and beliefs are considered the fairest things by which we can be judged. Yet, our feelings remain something beyond discussion. In American life, we do not express our feelings, are told to not cry in public, or to control our anger, or to hide our manic episodes. The only emotion in which we are allowed to revel is joy, which is perhaps the most fleeting and intangible of them all, and even when in joy, we are encouraged to express it in moderation, lest someone else, someone less joyful, be hurt by our expression of self-satisfaction. Part of this, of course, is related to the Enlightened notion of reason being the be-all-end-all, of things such as religious faith being weaker, barbaric parts of the body to be reigned in by a more impartial, civic-oriented, science-based logical faculty. Yet, we cannot excise feeling from our body, nor should we ever attempt to.

People deal with their emotions differently; this I understand. I often say that I have too many emotions and am quite moody, so I have developed / am developing a system wherein I can embrace my character without seeking to change who I was destined to be. This is mostly because I don’t want to continue to bend myself for the approbation of others, because I feel as if I may be undeserving of love. The way I handle my feelings is mine and mine alone. When it ceases to work for me, I’ll look into alternative methods. My intention is not to convince you that your ways are wrong and that mine are right. Yet, what I am trying to say here is that we should begin to think more about how people feel. When people express their feelings, they are neither right or wrong; they just are. If someone’s feelings disgust or upset you, that has nothing to do with how they feel. In fact, that feeling of disgust ought to be interrogated in the same way you want them to interrogate their feelings. Opinions and feelings change, but opinions can be swayed by intervention, by language. Feelings are knots which resist untangling, which are more difficult to will away with words. It’s easy to use logos, pathos or ethos, to be quite trite, but it’s more difficult to convince people that, for example, God is not real, when they feel that He is real. It is easy to convince someone to buy this or that mark of TV but convincing someone that their ideological beliefs are racist or sexist or transphobic or Islamophobic is a challenge, primarily because ideology is a manifestation of faith, which is affective in nature, not logical. There is no logic to faith, there is no logic to feeling; feeling and faith simply are.

I call this post a primer because my intent is not to give you a comprehensive overview of affect or affect theory. I’m not going to prattle off citations from Masumi, Deleuze and Guattari, Freud and Lacan, mostly because these men haven’t made affect theory intelligible and consumable for the masses. While their ideas influence my own, my goal is to introduce the idea of affect and feeling as everyday phenomena which structure ordinary life, which structure things as quotidian as love and conflict. By understanding the deeper roots of ideology and feeling, we can better understand why people do what they do, even if their actions remain unconscionable to us. Studying affect, especially in relation to conflict and otherness, reveals how difficult it is to really see other people as human beings, as Erving Goffman intimates. The stigma response (fear, disgust, avoidance, pity) is an affective response to the image of someone who is not right, who is not quite human; it is an unconscionable response without thought or reason or premeditation; it simply wills itself into being. Affect remains an invisible part of life and love, primarily because we do not know what to do with feelings. And we need not do anything with feelings, we need not control or conquer them. We must live alongside them, we must learn to nourish and listen to them, to share them, and to not live in fear of judgment for what is ultimately unethical and unjudgeable.

Photo: Untitled, Carrie Mae Weems, the Kitchen Table Series

For more on affect, consider these texts:

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2 edition, Routledge, 2014.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, 2 edition, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  • Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Edited by James Strachey, The Standard edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Formations of the Unconscious: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, 1 edition, Polity, 2017.
  • Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. First Edition edition, Duke University Press Books, 2002.
  • Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Ruti, Mari. Distillations: Theory, Ethics, Affect. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, et al. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press Books, 2003.
  • Warren, Calvin L. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Duke University Press Books, 2018.

Leave a Reply