The Ascent of Affect
Ruth Leys’s The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique offers its readers many things: A wide-ranging history of the study of emotion in the period after World War II, charting the emergence of affect as an object of analysis for the human sciences (psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and more); a devastating critique of some of the foundational research in the field of emotion studies (and hence, of much contemporary research that still depends on those findings and paradigms); and a sharp polemic against “non-cognitivist” and “anti-intentionalist” theories of affect, which have been immensely influential in the humanities and social sciences. We asked a number of scholars and scientists to respond to Leys’s arguments; their contributions, and Ruth Leys’s reply, are in this issue’s Tank.
Logical Geographies of Action: What are debates about emotions about?
Ruth Leys’s The Ascent of Affect is the third in a trilogy of books that explore shifts in public and scientific discourses of emotional life.1 It intervenes into a crowded field in which the influence of neuro-discourse has become a pervasive feature in all sorts of areas of policy making, journalistic commentary, and social science research, through selective reference to cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioural economics, or neuroscience.2 Leys’s new book is a sustained critical engagement with debates within and over the sciences of emotion, and especially with the so-called “basic emotions” paradigm or “affect program theory” associated with the work of experimental psychologists Paul Ekman and Sylvan Tomkins. According to this paradigm, there are a small number of basic emotions–fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, surprise–and these are presented as “evolved, genetically hard-wired, reflex-like responses of the organism.”3 It is an understanding that informs the idea that there is both a universality and an autonomy to emotionallife–expressed in the usage of the concept of “affect” as a generic object. In excavating debates within and around these fields of science, Leys thereby also draws into view some affinities between the rise of affect theory in recent cultural theory and the philosophical and methodological issues at work in the fields of science often invoked as unquestionable authorities in the humanities and social sciences. She pinpoints a shared discursive frame that connects what otherwise might appear to be very different scientific theories of basic emotions and socio-cultural theories of affect. Leys concern in this book is therefore not simply to provide a genealogy of particular fields of scientific research. Her broader concern, within which her account of scientific disputes is framed, is to pinpoint and challenge the ways in which claims of scientific authority underwrite a motivated reconfiguration of what counts as political in the humanities in particular, as well as in certain fields of social science, and in public life more generally.
Leys’s book challenges the rhetorical appeal of naturalist accounts of emotional life, thereby raising much broader questions not just about the validity of this field of research, but about practices of interdisciplinary inquiry more generally. The relevance of her argument for the humanities and social sciences is to demonstrate that the authority of arguments concerning the primacy of the affects over rationality and intentionality cannot be straightforwardly secured by appeals to the external authority of psychology or neuroscience. She makes this case above all by tracing the degree to which those fields of scientific inquiry are not consensual fields at all. Her starting point is the observation that “there is no consensus regarding the science of emotion’s most basic assumptions.”4 It’s an observation that should give pause when reading any authoritative reference to “science” in arguments about the primacy of affects over reason, intention, or meaning. These fields are shaped by disputes and disagreements and controversies of the sort that are constitutive of science of any sort, but also by a more obviously institutional and professional politics that is often hidden from view in the appeal made to the neutral authority of science.
In recounting the genealogy of various fields of research on the emotions, Leys also identifies some key critical questions about experimental design, inference, and generalization that should be asked of any scientific field when its ideas begin to travel. The critical relevance of Leys’s genealogy of sciences of emotion for practices of interdisciplinarity is highlighted by her discussion in the final chapter of the book, an extended and revised version of an earlier contribution to Critical Inquiry, which called into question the coherence and validity of anti-intentionalist and non-representationalist theories of affect in the humanities and social sciences.5 In this chapter Leys interrogates the use of three exemplary scientific experiments from neuroscience and psychology by leading affect theorists–literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, philosopher Brian Massumi, and human geographer Nigel Thrift. She restores to view the sense of controversy around each of their chosen experiments, and reveals the way in which the appeal to scientific authority in affect theory tends not so much to be a generalizing one, but rather a kind of allegorical one–the apparently settled findings from one field come to stand for more universal claims about the relations between embodiment and cognition.
The Ascent of Affect turns on the contention that what is most at stake across various intellectual debates, from the humanities to neurosciences, is the conceptual status and normative value of the idea of intentionality, that is, of the idea that there is a relationship between “the mind” and things, or properties, or states of affairs of some sort. The question of how to understand the “aboutness” of mental states the long-standing theme of philosophical debates about intentionality.6 Leys structures her discussion around a conundrum which is, she suggests, pivotal to a whole series of contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, neuroscience, psychology, as well as traditions of critical social thought. The conundrum, she proposes, arises from the conflict between two equally compelling observations. On the one hand, there is the long-standing concern with making sense of the intentionality of the emotions, understood in terms of “the fact or idea that emotions are directed at cognitively apprehended objects and are sensitive to ‘reasons.'”7 On the other hand, emotions also appear to be common to both humans and non-human animals. Often enough, the latter observation is used to refute any sense of the intentionality of emotions, as if the idea of intentionality necessitated a highly rational, linguistic, cognitive view of reasonable action. The apparent incompatibility between holding to the intentionality of emotions and acknowledging the continuities between human and non-human rationality underwrites the divide between cognitivists–who remain keen to investigate intentionality but find it difficult to acknowledge emotions in nonhuman animals–and noncognitivists–who emphasise “the importance of bodily changes and subpersonal processes in the emotions but are seen to have difficulty explaining how it is that emotions have meaning.”8
In the course of her discussion of the sciences of emotion, Leys slowly demonstrates that the oscillation between these two apparently incommensurable positions might be avoided by simply loosening the assumption that conceptual activity is equivalent to clearly articulated propositional reason. To deflate the dramatic importance often claimed for the rediscovery that action has various “unconscious” conditions, Leys raises two related queries: “If a thought process occurs below the threshold of consciousness or awareness, does this necessarily mean that it is non-intentional in the sense of lacking all semantic or conceptual or cognitive content? If a process occurs very rapidly, does this exclude the intervention of conceptuality?”9 These are, of course, rhetorical questions. For Leys, the answer is emphatically “No” in both cases.
The shape of action
To appreciate Leys’s point in raising them–to insist that non-conscious activities can be understood as intentional, and that conscious actions can be quick rather than dully deliberate–perhaps requires a certain degree of sympathy with the philosophical reference points that she uses to frame her own analysis. She locates the findings of the psychology of the emotions and neuroscience in an active philosophical debate about the relationships between naturalism and normativity.10 Leys reference point is best represented by the recent “debate” between John McDowell and Hubert Dreyfus over rationality, mindedness, and how best to interpret the relations between nonconceptual and conceptual dimensions of action.11 As Leys describes it, this debate is about “how to characterize the kinds of embodied copings that nonhuman and human animals exhibit when they negotiate their relations with the world and others in a highly skilled and apparently ‘automatic’ fashion.”12 The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual–as “unminded.” He accused McDowell of still holding to “the myth of the mental by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between mind and the world shows that that perception is conceptual ‘all the way out.'”13 Dreyfus’s position is that phenomenology–by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty–teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about them is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to completely separate mindedness from intuitive embodied coping. McDowell also reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality, as a kind of useful straw figure.
The Dreyfus/McDowell debate is, it’s worth noting, a dispute between two types of non-representational account of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality. McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a “supplementation,” as he puts it, to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than requiring a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping.
There is an important subtext to the debate between Dreyfus and McDowell that, once noticed, better helps to appreciate the force of Leys’s own negotiation of these issues. In no small part, the disagreement between these two thinkers revolves around the ways in which spatial metaphors are mobilized in their arguments. McDowell’s work has involved the re-imagination of ideas of inside and outside to reconfigure the image of mind-body relationships.14 And Dreyfus’s criticism of “the myth of the mental” turns on a set of architectural metaphors of the upper floors mindedness and lower floors of embodied coping.15 One lesson from this debate is, then, that it is worth taking some time to think through the implications of the “logical geographies” that characterize different accounts of human action. The phrase is, of course, Gilbert Ryle’s.16 I am proposing to use it in a rather less prescriptive way than he did, not as a prompt to correct other people’s flawed understandings (and certainly not as mean of criticizing the use of spatial terms as excessively metaphorical). Paying careful attention to the logical geographies of theories of action is a defining characteristic of styles of thought influenced by ordinary language philosophy in some way or other.17 It is consistent with taking seriously the grammar of different strands of thought, where this means paying attention to the actions being performed in the use of words and concepts.18 Attending to the logical geographies of theories of action suggests reading the use of spatial and temporal figures in intellectual debates with an eye to what it is that is really at stake in their expression–it helps us to establish what it is that spatial and temporal vocabularies are used to do in the course of developing arguments.19
In light of this sense of the different logical geographies deployed by Dreyfus and McDowell, we might notice how in debates about neuroscience, the autonomy of affect, or the existence of basic emotions, there is a recurrent appeal to specific ideas about the relations between insides and outsides, between different systems, and between distinct processes. For example, as Leys observes,20 nonrepresentatoinal theories and theories of affect routinely appeal to a simplistic contrast between reason, rationality and language, on the one side (which it is argued have been given far too much weight in recent theoretical debates), and corporeality and embodiment and emotion and affect on the other. In this rhetorical move, affect (often spoken of as a singular, generic noun) is presented as essentially non-cognitive, sub-personal and corporeal, working automatically prior to and below any conscious processing by a self-reflective mind or subject. In fact, figures of temporal priority and spatial layering–of things happening prior to and before certain other things, or of some autonomous levels causing events at other, more dependent levels–are pervasive within the scientific fields surveyed by Leys, in the interdisciplinary pilfering that underwrites the rise of affect theory, as well as in popularisations in public discourse more generally. This is most clearly evident in the recourse to a “layer-cake” view of the priority of the latter over the former terms in each pair.21 This view is apparent in the causal references to ideas of the prepersonal, the presubjective, the preindividual, or the unthought in much commentary on the relevance of recent scientific research for understandings of action, thinking, and free will. The combination of a vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader cultural world of psychologised neuro-commentary. This image of layering is now central to the lessons drawn and claims made about the temporality of embodiment, cognition, intentionality, and action across varied fields of science, social science, and the humanities. Arguments for the autonomy of affect in the humanities and social sciences, and arguments about basic emotions in science both hold fast to a strong separation of the conceptual and nonconceptual, thought and action, cognition and affect.
And herein lies the importance of Leys’s critical intent in developing her genealogy of scientific controversies in the sciences of emotions. She helps us move beyond the relentlessly dualistic oscillation that frames so much discussion of brains, emotions, and feelings. She does so by presenting an alternative choice: not between a highly rationalistic view of conscious rationality and a wholly embodied view of automated impulses, but between two different spatial pictures of how the mind relates to the world.
On the one hand, there is a view of the mind as a bounded entity, an inside causally mediated by representations with an external world. Cognitive psychology holds to this resolutely individualised picture. The noncognitivist counter to this view is no less individualised, and no less dualistic; it simply dispenses with the representational mediation of inside and outside, and presents the emotions as fully naturalised filters between isolated monads and the external world. Either way, one has a view of the mind that depends on what McDowell has characterised as a fully disenchanted view of nature, one which can find no place in its picture of the natural for the interactive, interpretative dynamics of meaning and interpretation.22 Both the cognitivist view in which behaviour is about individual mental representations in the mind/brain, and the noncognitivst and anti-intentional interpretation of the emotions hold to images of isolated monads, housing a brain, buffeted by external stimuli. In both views, the social stands as a separate, exterior environment. In particular, the noncognitivist strand of scientific research on emotions–with its emphasis on the stark separation and hierarchical ordering of systems of knowing and feeling; its clear divisions between insides and outsides; its emphasis on information processing and stimulus response; and its attachment to identifying sub-personal mechanisms–informs an imagination of the social reduced to monadic pre-individuals immersed in totalising atmospheres and subjected to triggers and impulses that wholly shape them.
On the other hand, Leys elaborates on an alternative tradition of “ecological” or “ethological” thinking about the mind.23 Here, mindedness is a quality that is located in situated interactions between humans or nonhuman animals. She presents this counter-tradition of scientific research on the emotions as one that holds to a view of mindedness as contextual and ecological. It therefore has lots more to say about issues of intentionality than the dominant basic emotions paradigm–the contextual emphasis means that the “aboutness” of emotional responses is restored to view. Leys insists that it is indeed possible to explain the emotions naturalistically while retaining a sense that meaning is a crucial dimension of any such naturalistic account. To bolster this argument, she endorses the “embodied world taking cognitivism” developed by the philosopher Phil Hutchinson.24 On his view, as for McDowell, perception is presented as conceptual “all the way out.” What this means for Leys is that we need to embrace an account of the emotions that amounts to “a cognitivism that emphasizes the ways in which humans and other animals are alive to aspects of the world–not to the disenchanted world of the modern natural sciences that stands external to minds, but to the cognized, conceptualized world.”25 The type of “embodied world taking cognitivsm” that Leys recommends is shared both by the minor traditions of emotions research that she champions in this book, as well as a broad philosophical tradition working over the theme of the ordinary. For example, it is a sense of the ordinary as a name for the pervasive vulnerability to doubt that conditions all action that is central to Leys’s characterisation of Ekman’s work as hubristically presuming to have solved the philosophical puzzle of Other Minds–of banishing scepticism itself–in developing a paradigm that presumes to be able to hold a mirror up to the soul and determine scientifically when a person is being sincere or when they are lying.26
To be quite clear, the contrast at stake between the bounded and the ecological view of the mind is not between a scientific view of mind and a humanistic one found in the social science and humanities. The fault lines around the interpretation of intentional action that Leys reconstructs run across these putative disciplinary divides, and cleave specific disciplines internally–and Leys shows that this is no less true of scientific research fields than it is of cultural studies or political theory.
On my reading, then, rather than settling for one side or other of a dualism between highly cognitive views of mindedness and assertively nonrepresentational views, Leys reframes the intellectual terrain of discussion about rationality, emotion, and embodiment around a contrast between the inverted Cartesianism characteristic of so much contemporary neuro-discourse and affect theory on the one hand, and on the other hand a resolutely ecological view that restores to view the centrality of issues of intentionality. But to fully grasp the significance of focusing on how Leys rearranges the logical geographies of intentional action, we need to follow the implication of another strand of Leys’s argument in The Ascent of Affect. Her reconstruction of the conceptual assumptions that shape the experimental design and interpretation of emotions research reveals the degree to which this range of work consistently falls back on the idea that mental processes can be divided into two systems–a rational, reflexive, cognitive system, and an automatic system of unconscious motivations. In emotions research, Leys shows, assumptions drawn from cybernetics and information theory lead to a strongly dualistic, hierarchical view in which automatic activation of emotional response and conscious decisions occur in different systems, one after the other.
Leys makes clear that scientific discourses of emotions revolve around debates about how to interpret the relations between concepts of automaticity and intentionality. The meaning ascribed to these concepts is crucial for how unconscious mental activity is interpreted. In both affect theory and the basic emotions paradigm, as well as in popularization of brain research more generally, the term “automatism” draws on a simple, medical-legalistic sense of actions undertaken “unconsciously”–that is, without or prior to conscious deliberation and decision.27 There is, of course, an alternative sense of automatism associated with modernist art–the surrealists most obviously–as well as in the cultural theories of Roland Barthes and Stanley Cavell. Here, automatism is not a term in an opposition between the intentional and the automatic, but for a redistribution of agency across media, genres, and skillful action.28 I take this also to be one of the central concerns of the “nonsite school” of cultural criticism, if there is such a thing–thinking through the implications for concepts of intentionality and interpretation of the automatism built into various artistic mediums, and painting, photography, and film in particular. In all of these fields of debate, automatism is a concept most creatively used according to what one might call a horizontal modularity of action, in which intentionality is folded into broader ecologies of deliberation, habit, reflection, routine, and technology (you could just call it “practice”).29
The relevance of these different views of automatism and intentionality is captured by Leys through passing reference to the shift in the meaning of ideas about unconscious mental activity. She suggests that the rise of universal theories of the basic emotions has had the effect of displacing a dynamic image of the relations between different aspects of embodied action—an image indebted to Freud. As she observes, in psychoanalysis the concept of the unconscious is a “a dynamic-conflictual one involving the role of an ego capable of banishing the subject’s unacceptable desires and wishes from conscious awareness.”30 There are two points worth making about how recalling Freud’s example can help to reorient discussions of affect, embodiment, emotions, and intentionality. First, Freud himself was careful to acknowledge the temptations of taking the spatial analogies involved in conceptualising and investigating the mind too literally.31 The innovation that he claimed to have instituted into the understanding of mental life was to displace “a topographical way of representing things” with a more dynamic view of the unconscious.32 The importance of this shift from a topographical to a dynamic view, he suggested, lay in replacing a view of the mind as consisting of two distinct systems with a view of the mind being shaped by the interactions of two kinds of processes.33 This shift in what I am calling the logical geography of action is related to the second important dimension of Freud’s thought that bears on the discussion here. In Freudian terms, unconscious processes are not merely a background condition of some sort, waiting to be noticed, nor even mere “aspects” revealed by a change of perspective. They are not present to consciousness because they are actively repressed. Accordingly, Freud distinguished between two senses of “unconscious,” referring both to those “excitations” that are “inadmissible” to consciousness and those that can reach consciousness.34 It is the latter sense that is crucial to the dynamic view that Leys identifies as having been more recently displaced. The dynamic view of the unconscious only makes any sense on the assumption that subjectivity is in important respects intentional, but not wholly so. As Todd Cronan puts it, Freud “called those actions that are yours but that you do not fully understand unconscious.”35
In short, Freud’s crucial achievement was to separate the concept of intention from its subordination to the concept of consciousness.36 And it is this innovation that is rejected by the more “scientific” views whose recent ascendancy Leys traces, as well as nonrepresentational theories of affect. As Leys observes, “with the rise of information-processing theories of mental function, the dynamic unconscious of Freud was transformed. Unconscious activities were now viewed as forms of automatic, non-conscious information processing occurring in computer-style subsystems capable of acting independently of the mind’s conscious control.”37 It is this second sense of “unconscious,” with or without the scientific references, that is the operative usage in fields which either champion or bemoan the extent to which apparently wilful action is in fact influenced, primed and manipulated in all sorts of ways that are beyond the mind’s control. As Leys puts it, what is involved in the information processing view is the “reformulation of the dynamic unconscious into an information-processing ‘cognitive unconscious.’”38 This conceptual shift is evident in the frequent recourse to ideas of the automatic, the subpersonal, the preattentive, or the unthought in accounts of emotions, affect, and embodied attunement.
Leys therefore helps us see that the ascendancy of affect–in science just as much as in the humanities and social sciences–effectively reverses the conceptual innovations introduced by adopting a dynamic view of unconscious processes. She also demonstrates that the shift in the master metaphors of the sciences of the mind back to topographical images of layering and temporal images of causal priority is in no small part shaped by the accessibility of mental processes to certain sorts of experimental designs–those which emphasize the discrete, visible, and therefore calculable and correlatable attributes of action. And so it is that, in reverting to the easy satisfactions of a topographical imagination, the problem of intention is elided in favor of what is essentially an early modern view in which the mind is equated with a fully self-present consciousness, so that the naivety of this view can be all the more easily presented as ripe for elimination. In reverting to a topographical view of the mind in preference to the tragic sensibilities associated with a more dynamic view of the relations between intentionality, unconscious processes, and automatism, contemporary naturalistic discourses of brains, emotions, and affects succeed only in reproducing a thoroughly disenchanted view of the natural world.
Intentionality is ordinary
In closing, I want to commend Leys’s reconstruction of the recent history of the sciences of emotion as essential reading for anyone who is interested in the philosophical issues raised by current debates about intentionality, embodiment, naturalism, and rationality. The Ascent of Affect reveals a fundamental divide between two styles of contemporary critical analysis. In one style, discussions of affect, emotions, brains, and embodiment are oriented to developing authoritative-sounding ontologies of materialism and vitality. In an alternative style, exemplified by Leys’s own work, the concern is with genealogical re-contextualisation of fields of authoritative scientific knowledge.39 As I have suggested, the genealogical emphasis in Leys’s account is on restoring to view the disputes and disagreements within scientific fields, and in so doing she presents a critical challenge to conventional models of interdisciplinarity. Importantly, too, Leys outlines an account of intentionality that is, I think, rather different in its implications than that associated with the “nonsite school,” which has been primarily focused upon redeeming a somewhat traditional-looking concept of artistic intentionality closely associated with claims to aesthetically mediated access to objective truth.40 She helps us to see that there is certainly no good reason to hold fast to the vertical framing of conscious and automatic systems that underwrites so much emotions research, neuroscience, and affect theory. Rather than thinking of a dichotomy between autonomous reason and the force of automatic conditioning, we might better think of perception and action, reflecting and doing, as going on alongside each other, arrayed horizontally, rather than imagining them as vertically mediated. Somewhere between the over-inflated claims of “science” and the defensive assertions of “the humanities,” there is a whole world of social inquiry waiting to be explored where the trials and tribulations of creative action are elaborated in all of their ordinariness.41
In the field of emotion research there is no intellectually viable alternative to Fridlund’s position, whatever the cost may turn out to be to many of the existing ‘scientific’ studies of emotion.55Or, we might say, there is only one scientist of the emotions—Alan Fridlund—whose methods and conceptual framework are able, for Leys, fully to stand up to Cavell’s fundamental challenge. Fridlund is a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, probably previously unknown to many of the book’s readers. His research positions facial expressions as being primarily about our intentions and not about our feelings, and this behavioral ecological account of facial expression constitutes, for Leys, the most trenchant opposition to the model of basic emotions provided by Ekman. Fridlund is, moreover, an “apostate”—and on two grounds. He is a scientist who rejected the position of his supervisor (he was Ekman’s student), and his critique of Ekman departed from established interpretations of Darwin’s theory.56 Indeed, Leys notes, making clear how ferocious scientific disputation can be, Fridlund ended up—after his significant contributions in the 1990s—largely removing himself from research on the emotions on account of the reaction from those supporting Ekman’s position.57 Leys, standing shoulder to shoulder with this apostate, has no doubt how extensive the challenge of Fridlund’s approach is for his disciplinary interlocutors:
it’s as if Fridlund is asking investigators to give up many of the tools, methods, and assumptions that for so long have been standard in their science in order to operate differently—at best, as researchers in the tradition of the study of human nonverbal communication, or as ethologists studying the interactions of nonhuman animals in the field; at worst, to make room for anthropologists who are good at describing different cultures or historians capable of depicting past emotional regimes.58In a profound sense, The Ascent of Affect sets the cat amongst the disciplinary pigeons. This is an intellectual history that works to deflate psychological and cognitive neuroscientific research on the emotions—or at least the kinds of laboratory research that have, over the last half century or so, become dominant. At the same time, it insists on how crucial certain traditions of anthropological, historical, ethological, and philosophical research are—not only for understanding but for empirically investigating the emotions. And it does so—unlike many writings that attempt to critique scientific models of mind and of affect—by immersing itself in the specifics of hundreds of the findings and experiments that make up the sprawling terrain of the post-war psychological sciences. Leys’s prose allows readers from multiple disciplines to understand what is at stake scientifically as well as philosophically—in the face of what are, doubtless for many, dense and forbidding materials. The book’s contributions tumble from its 400 pages in multiple directions—and pose theoretical and historiographical challenges and provocations for any scholar who comes in its wake. But the central reason why The Ascent of Affect is such a startling book is surely the uncompromising nature of its conclusions. It is not that the reader does not know what she is getting. The word critique appears in the subtitle, after all, as well as in the title of the final chapter (“The Turn to Affect: A Critique”). But we should recall that there are many styles of critique, and many ways in which academic arguments are made.59 It is, rather, perhaps, that many writing in the humanities today—not least if they were writing as historians of science or as cultural theorists—would veer away from implying that certain positions in the epistemological domain with which they were concerned were unviable. It is worth noticing, here, how faithful Leys is to the project of nonsite.org (of which she is a board member)—namely that of “criticiz[ing] what is and replac[ing] it with what we think ought to be.”60 Readers’ overall reactions to the book will no doubt be inflected by whether or not they are sympathetic to such a project. In the remainder of these comments, I offer, as an interdisciplinary scholar who, like Leys, is interested in the recent history of the psychological disciplines, a few reflections on the ramifications of Leys’s strong commitments in relation to: (i) how she approaches and interprets the terrain with which she is concerned; and (ii) her oeuvre as a whole. (i) I have long been struck by Leys’s particular skill in interpreting experimental scenes. Both in The Ascent of Affect and in her earlier book From Guilt to Shame,61 she demonstrates how several rather odd experiments have become curiously central to studies of emotion as they cross the psychological sciences, social sciences, and humanities. An anthropological film from the 1940s showing Aborigines experiencing initiation rites in the form of subincision of the penis has not only been used experimentally to elicit levels of castration anxiety, but in various studies of stress and on the role of cognitive appraisal in the emotions. A very particular reading of Benjamin Libet’s experiment on the half-second delay, as well as of an experiment from 1980 involving a film of a melting snowman, helped Brian Massumi bolster his arguments about the autonomy of affect. Ekman’s study on differences between the emotional experiences and facial expressions of Japanese and American experimental subjects—which Leys, following Fridlund, argues “has been repeatedly misreported by [Ekman]”—cemented Ekman’s neurocultural theory of the emotions.62 One of the most compelling contributions of The Ascent of Affect is to show in detail how certain theoretical commitments in the interdisciplinary field of emotion research have been consolidated through the luminous power of particular experimental set-ups. Once one really starts to examine those set-ups in close-up, as Leys does, many are not really able to hold the weight that has been given to them, either by the formulators themselves, or by those invoking them elsewhere. Leys’s sustained interest in both the power and the fragility of laboratory and experimental contributions has much to offer multiple disciplinary debates concerning the use of and difficulties associated with psychological experimentation. (The book surely should provide some fascinating openings for those wanting to investigate the current so-called “replication crisis” in psychology.)63 But I cannot follow Leys when—having struggled to find examples of laboratory experimentation that would “make sense in the light of the considerations Cavell raises”—she puts the word scientific in inverted commas in the very final sentence of the book. (“In the field of emotion research there is no intellectually viable alternative to Fridlund’s position, whatever the cost may turn out to be to many of the existing ‘scientific’ studies of emotion.”)64 Such a carving of the “scientific” from the scientific refuses one of the most compelling arguments made by historians of science and science and technology studies (STS) scholars. Namely, that practices of science make new scientific objects—and that these scientific objects “can be simultaneously real and historical.”65 That scientific experiments might be methodologically and conceptually confused does not therefore make them (only) “scientific.” Psychological experiments, as Jill Morawski has argued, “stag[e] the real” and end up also making the real. Through the cultural know-how and role expectations of both experimenters and experimental subjects, as well as through the particularities of the experimental set-ups themselves, new scientific objects—and hence, I would argue, new scientific affects—come into existence and come into legibility.66 Many kinds of scientific enterprise do not make philosophical sense. Making philosophical sense is not their goal. The Ascent of Affect is a work of intellectual history whose narrative arc is held in place by the proper names of individual scientists, and is undergirded by the contributions of particular philosophers. It thereby works at some distance from arguments such as these which come from the history of science and from STS. But I could not help reflecting, as I read the book, how these theoretical literatures would shed light on one of Leys’s own sources of dismay and preoccupation: the “continued success of the [basic emotions] paradigm.”67 In attending to what makes scientific practices endure, it is worth recalling Bruno Latour’s famous injunction (made in 1987, contemporaneous with many of the scientific publications with which Leys is concerned): “stick…carefully…to [the] method of following only scientists’ practice, deaf to every other opinion, to tradition, to philosophers, and even to what scientists say about what they do.”68 I have spent some myself working with or in close proximity to psychological scientists, and have witnessed and analysed both how particular experimental instructions and paradigms become embedded, and how their operational pliability keeps scientific practice going, even as scientists—and indeed experimental subjects—might have very different understandings of, and commitments to, some of the key terms, tools and methods that they deploy.69 Unlike Leys, I find it a wholly unsurprising fact, rather than “an extraordinary fact,” that “even [Ekman’s] critics use his photographs.” Leys is surely right that it is difficult to “handl[e] issues of cognition and intentionality in psychology,”70 which has made it difficult to construct compelling counter-proposals to Ekman’s models. But there is, I believe, much else that we need to understand in order to figure out how we have come to end up with a vibrant interdisciplinary scientific field of research on the emotions in which, to draw from Leys’s own opening vignette, there is “no consensus” regarding the “most basic assumptions.”71 Historical and social scientific investigations oriented towards scientists’ practice and not simply towards their retrospective descriptions of what they’ve done will be indispensable here. (ii) The Ascent of Affect extends Leys’s long-standing and powerful interventions in relation to trauma, psychoanalysis, and, indeed, affect theory in distinctive ways.72 In a certain respect, each of Leys’s three books—she describes The Ascent of Affect as “the third in a trilogy of studies dealing with related topics in the recent history of the human sciences”73—operates through the elaboration and interrogation of a bifurcated field. This bifurcation takes place through the poles of the mimetic and anti-mimetic in Trauma: A Genealogy; across the related though distinctive phenomena of guilt and shame in From Guilt to Shame; and between intentionalist and anti-intentionalist models of the emotions in The Ascent of Affect. Certain phenomena and figures—such as hypnosis, or Diderot’s writings on the actor—appear and reappear, since they mark Leys’s enduring interest, across all three books, in the question of how both mimetic and spectatorial models variously come to constitute models of subjectivity and subject–object relations. But this bifurcation does not operate in quite the same way across the trilogy. In Trauma: A Genealogy, Leys, in explaining her focus on mimetic and anti-mimetic models of trauma, describes what she regards as “structural repetitions” that beset trauma’s history: these are “perpetually resurfacing theoretical and practical difficulties” which all circle around the question of imitation.74 In the second monograph, Leys wagers that her analysis of how survivor guilt has been replaced by shame catches a moment in which the oscillation—the manifestation of the structural repetition—moves from the mimetic (guilt is fundamentally to do with an unconscious identification with the other) to the anti-mimetic (shame establishes a spectatorial relationship where the subject is perpetually subject to the disapproving gaze of the other).75 Eve Sedgwick is the fulcrum here, in that Sedgwick introduces, on Leys’s account, anti-mimetic, anti-intentionalist formulations of Silvan Tomkins to the humanities. (Notably, Leys uses the adjective “brilliant” to describe Sedgwick in both the second and third volumes of the trilogy; this is the same adjective that she uses to describe Cavell’s contributions.)76 And one might observe certain kinds of re-runs—or at least on-going altercations—in The Ascent of Affect, too, even as Leys does not explicitly figure the combat between intentionalist and anti-intentionalist accounts as a manifestation of the structural repetition identified in the first two volumes. But in this third volume, Leys finds little to rescue—little, really, to interest her intellectually—in one pole (the anti-intentionalist pole) of the debate. Or, to put it another way, she finds no real brilliance amongst those scientists she describes as formulating anti-intentionalist models of the affects. In the first volume, Leys argues for the “interpenetration” of the mimetic by the anti-mimetic (and vice versa), or the very “collapse of one into the other”—such that the main goal is neither to tie an individual to either the mimetic or anti-mimetic position, nor to assert that one position is strongly preferable to the other.77 By the third volume, however, a contestatory dynamic takes places on more individualized—and hence in certain respects more familiar—ground. Individuals are interpreted through either an intentionalist or anti-intentionalist lens—and are then pitted against one another. One side is much more heavily favoured than the other. As the trilogy proceeds, then, there is a hardening of the stakes of the argument. Some of this, I suggest, has to do with a shift in who Leys’s main interlocutors are. In her first two monographs, many interlocutors—and sparring partners—are those turned towards psychoanalysis, and/or those within literary and critical studies who are indebted in some way to Alexandre Kojève (such as Giorgio Agamben, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Cathy Caruth, and Michel Foucault). In Trauma: A Genealogy, Freud, the “ineluctable” figure not only in the history of trauma but in the logic of the book itself, is figured as offering both mimetic and anti-mimetic accounts of trauma.78 While psychoanalysis in this first volume provides both the scene for analysis and one of the primary epistemological domains through which analysis proceeds, the third volume draws its primary energy not from psychoanalysis but from certain traditions of philosophy that lie at some distance from it. Psychoanalysis is now installed, straightforwardly, simply on the intentionalist side—the ‘good side’—of the divide that structures the book. This, I suggest, marks a tidying up of Freud—not least in relation to his extraordinarily complex and vacillatory accounts of anxiety, which had, notably, been the focus of some of Leys’s own most trenchant readings of the interpenetration of the anti-mimetic by the mimetic in her first volume. There is much more to be said here. For now, I would suggest that in some of Freud’s work (notably in his work on the actual neuroses, and in particular in relation to anxiety neurosis), it is far from clear whether affect is tied to an object in the kind of straightforwardly intentionalist mode to which Leys assigns it.79 As I read and re-read The Ascent of Affect, I wondered, then, what might have been allowed to unfold if the oppositional structure of the intentionalist versus the non-intentionalist model of the emotions had not so strongly oriented its argument—and had not so definitively been brought to life through individual scientists being positioned as inhabiting the one or the other. Eddies, or patterns, or interpenetrations of one model by another—which Leys’s third volume might have occluded by the brightness of the philosophical gaze which falls on each actor and model—might have been able to come to visibility. Those eddies might open other ways of narrating post-war theoretical and empirical research on the emotions. They might well throw up parts of Freud that have more in common with parts of Tomkins than one might expect—or certain movements within “affect theory” that are significantly closer than Leys imagines to the intentionalist accounts that draw her interest. Brilliance of various kinds might well be found in additional places. And finally: It is impossible in 2019 to read a book titled The Ascent of Affect without turning one’s mind to the political present. This is a moment in which—to invoke the title of sociologist Will Davies’s book—feeling appears to have taken over the world.80 The background for Leys’s discussion of the general turn to affect includes some of the topoi of what we might call the heyday of neoliberal USA (for example, Massumi’s discussion of affect in relation to the figure of Ronald Reagan). The chapter in which she most explicitly addresses the political ramifications of “affect theory” (“The Turn to Affect: A Critique”)—first saw the light of day in Critical Inquiry in 2011.81 2011 was undoubtedly a somewhat different political moment from the one we inhabit in 2019. It will be important for readers to continue pressing Leys’s arguments against these shifting socio-political realities. Much continues to be thrown up by recent geopolitical reconfigurations—and this includes the intensified capacities of our current media ecologies. Leys argues that, for affect theorists, “what is crucial is not your beliefs and intentions but the affective processes that are said to produce them, with the result that political change becomes a matter not of persuading others of the truth of your ideas but of producing new ontologies or ‘becomings,’ new bodies, and new lives.”82 Such an assessment—one with which Leys of course profoundly disagrees—cannot but carry added charge when read in 2019. Indeed, what “persuading others of the truth of your ideas” might mean in a moment now diagnosed as “post-truth,” has become a pressing and politically urgent site of inquiry, when the armamentarium of tools of persuasion is both large and increasingly devoted to affective amplification. We know how fundamental beliefs, intentions, and dispute are for Leys: we can read her commitment to all of them on virtually every page of her book. The Ascent of Affect is exquisitely powerful in its criticizing of the current terrain—whether that comprising the sciences of the emotions or that constituting the cultural-political domain more broadly. But if Leys’s goal is indeed not only to criticize what is, but materially to “replace it with what [she] think[s] ought to be,” that remains, and not just for her, a much more difficult task to envisage let alone achieve. NOTES
[W]hy would one let oneself be led to make the counterintuitive move of relegating our nonconceptual, nonlinguistic yet meaningful comportment to instinct rather than introducing a third space, namely that of meaningful normative forces? […] We have seen that in fully absorbed coping, mind and world cannot be separated. Rather, at ground level, we are directly merged into a field of attractive and repulsive forces. Thus, there is no place in the phenomenon of fully absorbed coping for intentional content mediating between mind and world.97Phenomenal affect is nonconceptual and nonlinguistic, while remaining meaningful comportment. It is not to be understood as, on the model of, or by analogy with, instinct. This is how phenomenal affect differs from brute affect, found in Ekman. Phenomenal affect is the experience of attractive and repulsive forces—we experience the repulsive force of the dangerous dog, without representing that dog propositionally as “the dog is dangerous;” we just “feel the force,” so to speak, while in the flow of fully absorbed coping. So, while not instinctual, phenomenal affect is therefore, equally not explained in terms of propositional attitudes. There is no intentional content. Phenomenal affect makes manifest to us the existence of a space between, on the one hand, the space of the instinctual responses of our first biological nature, and on the other hand, the space of the rational reactions and reflections of cognitivism, when we understand that as implying processes with propositionally structured representational contents. So, the ascent of affect—it’s ubiquity as a way of talking about the emotions and of applying emotion research in disciplines as diverse as philosophy and architecture, film studies, and medicine—draws upon some rather diverse sources. It might draw upon the affective sciences, and what I’m here calling brute affect. Equally, it might draw upon existential phenomenology, and what I’m here calling phenomenal affect. What are the commonalities? Well, in both brute affect and phenomenal affect the invoking of affect serves to illustrate the reflex-like phenomenology of basic emotions and the absence of ratiocination. Regarding the differences, it is illustrative to consider Solomon again. Solomon thought he could recruit phenomenological talk of affect-as-embodied-judgments-of-the-body to defend his judgmentalist account of emotion against criticisms coming from advocates of the affective sciences of emotion, such as Paul Griffiths. This led us to observe that there are two types of affect at large in the wild: brute affect and phenomenal affect. Brute affect can be explained in purely causal-material terms, while phenomenal affect is a kind of—phenomenologically-speaking—reflex-like responsiveness to loci of significance in the lifeworld, which is enacted without invoking cognitive, or mental, processes. So, while both emphasize the reflex-likeness they differ in the explanatory space they occupy. Brute affect occupies the space of natural scientific explanation, a disenchanted objective world disclosed to us by subsuming it under law-like generalities: laws of nature. In contrast, and this where the debate between Dreyfus and McDowell gets started, phenomenal affect is operative in the lifeworld—the world as it is experienced by people who are partly constitutive of that world. Basic interaction with the lifeworld in the flow of fully absorbed coping is still a form of interaction, and is still experienced; only neither as brute affect nor cognitively, so to speak. Phenomenal affect is, then, a quite different beast to the affect discussed by Ekman and Griffiths. Indeed, phenomenal affect is much closer to what cognitivists in the philosophy of emotions have advocated in one significant way: it resists the depiction of emotions as passions and preserves some degree of subjectivity and even agency in emotional experience. Brute affective accounts, by contrast, depict the person experiencing the emotion as subject to that emotion, the emotions can thus be depicted as “passions” and a person who is in an emotional state is passive. I’ve argued elsewhere that the brute affective account of emotions is unsustainable, and I am far from the only one to have done so. In The Ascent of Affect, Ruth Leys provides us with much that draws the account’s explanatory abilities into serious question. Even those prominent recent writers who have tried to defend the approach, such as the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett and the philosopher Jesse Prinz have acknowledged that affect, in its own brute terms, cannot serve as an explanation for human emotions without us finding some way of hybridizing it with elements of cognitivist or social constructivist accounts.98 So, brute affect has failed as an explanation of emotion; the question is whether affect can be defended by finding some way of imbuing it with the capacity for information pick-up, without invoking cognitive processes that serve to represent. Phenomenal affect suggests there is such a way, but the precise nature or the most plausible way of articulating this kind of affect-information is still an open question. The writings of existential phenomenologists on this can seem a little metaphor-heavy, with talk of “flow” and “attractive” and “repulsive” “forces” being employed to try to depict this kind of experience of and responsiveness to loci of significance in the environment without invoking conceptual capacities, much less propositional contents. The task has, in recent decades, been taken up by Ecological Psychologists,99 Enactivists,100 and others who subscribe to 4E—embodied, embedded, extended and enacted—accounts of cognition.101 This work is now filtering through to emotion research, so we now have a born-again Jesse Prinz proposing an enactivist account of emotion and in doing so employing the language of affordances, taken from Ecological Psychology.102 It is notable that in a manner that rather undermines the progress this might be thought to represent, Shargel and Prinz throughout this paper still talk of representations. Similarly, we find Rebekka Hufendiek invoking Gibsonian affordances (via Turvey and Chemero) in her “naturalist” account of emotion, while similarly undercutting the extent to which this might amount to progress over older representationalist accounts by then writing, “[t]he notion of affordances adds something fundamental to the story of how we represent the world when being emotional”[!]103 So, these new enactivist and ecological accounts of affect still, in the final analysis, seek to smuggle in a lot of the old version of content, by still talking of representations. Another trick—otherwise called committing the mereological fallacy—is that of theoretically postulating sub-personal mechanisms as the bearers of content—content which has been denied to the person. Popular theoretically postulated subpersonal candidates in 4E and enactivist cognition are sensorimotors. Other E-accounts of emotion which have recently appeared struggle with similar dilemmas.104 The problem is that the embrace of affect, or, as it came to be called, Basic Emotion Theory (BET)—whether as brute affect, drawn from the affective sciences, or phenomenal affect, drawn from existential phenomenology—is often motivated by a misunderstanding of the alternatives; a misunderstanding in turn based on a conflation of the conceptual with the propositional. One finds, I would suggest, this misunderstanding and conflation in authors as otherwise diverse as Paul Griffiths, Hubert Dreyfus and Dan Hutto and Erik Myin. Throughout his 1997 book, Griffiths depicted cognitive accounts of emotion as “propositional attitude theories” of emotion, rejected them and favored the affect program research on those grounds. Griffiths’ thought seemed to be that if we reject propositions, we reject concepts; and brute affect is what remains. Hubert Dreyfus’s contributions to his debate with John McDowell had, central to them, his rejection of any role for concepts in absorbed coping.105 Concepts, he maintained, served to ensure a gap between mind and world. Nevertheless, when he comes to criticize McDowell his target turns out to be McDowell’s propositionalism and his invoking of linguistic capacities, so the perceived requirement for rejecting concepts remains somewhat obscure. One also finds the conflation active in the Radical Enactivism of Dan Hutto and Erik Myin, in their rejection of content, or what they call CIC—”cognition (necessarily) involves content.” Hutto and Myin rightly want to reject propositional (representational) content, but in executing this task they deny a non- or pre-propositional role for concepts. The conflation in all three cases is of propositionalism—the commitment to content being essentially propositional—with conceptualism—the commitment to our ways of meeting the lifeworld, experiencing and being responsive to loci of significance in that world, being enabled by our conceptual capacities, which are prior to (though essential for) our linguistic capacities. In response to Griffiths, Dreyfus, and Hutto and Myin, I would argue that one can and should reject propositionalism without rejecting conceptuality. There is no need to turn to affect. It should be noted that the ascent of what I’m here calling phenomenal affect owes much to a well-founded rejection of (Cartesian) representationalist cognitive science, certainly in the work of Dreyfus, and in the work of Hutto and Myin. But we can reject representationalist cognitive science, as Wittgensteinians always sought to do, and Ethnomethodologists sought to do, without dispensing with conceptuality. If you do dispense with conceptuality, the result is that you have to exogenously introduce theoretical terms, such as “affordances,” or go to work introducing analysts’ metaphors, such as those of “force” and “flow” to do the work our everyday concepts were already doing before you banned them. For example, “stairs” might afford “climbability,” and “stairs” might exert an “attractive force” on me in the flow of fully absorbed coping, but it is also the case that the concept of “stairs” is internally related to the concept of “climb.” You simply would not be said to have grasped the concept of “stairs” if you had no concept of “to climb.” There’s another way we might go, which is, I believe, shown to us by Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology is one of the great works of the 20th century, is overlooked by philosophers to their cost, but offers, I would argue, a better alternative path for existential phenomenology (Garfinkel was heavily influenced by Alfred Schutz).106 For Garfinkel, people, or members (of social orders), already act in, and are responsive to, loci of significance in the lifeworld; and in so acting and being so responsive they endogenously make these actions and responses accountable, without the need for the exogenously introduced theoretical terms or metaphors imposed on them by phenomenologists, engaged in formal analytic work. Indeed, Garfinkel and Wittgenstein might be seen to complement each other here, for it is not merely the thought that we have no need for the exogenously produced and introduced theoretical terms or for the phenomenologists’ metaphors; it is that in imposing these exogenously produced terms we do violence to, change, or render obscure the phenomena in which we are supposedly interested. If, as the phenomenologists argue, as we saw Dreyfus argue above, the task is to acknowledge, to do justice to, the absence of a gap between mind and world when depicting people in the flow of absorbed coping, then we need to report that lifeworld as it is for the members who are a constitutive part of it. We do not do this by introducing new ways of conceptually configuring that world, which are divergent from the members’ own ways of accounting for their world, as they experience it and as they are partially-constitutive of it; we do it by describing those members’ activities and responses in ways which match their own accounts, drawing on members’ categories and refusing to exogenously introduce concepts (theoretical terms and analysists’ metaphors) unavailable to those members and their ways of accounting for their experience of and responsiveness to the worlds of which they are a part. In short, we need to dispense with affect in both its brute and phenomenal guises and instead undertake an Ethnomethodological study of emotion. NOTES