By Dorothea Trotter
“Affect” is an old word with many meanings that vary based on the person using the word and their discipline (if any). The OED defines it as a “feeling or subjective experience accompanying a thought or action or occurring in response to a stimulus.” Affect is often thought of in relation to emotion, feeling or mood and can be manifested in facial expression, posture, gestures and tone of voice, amongst other things. However, as a current working group of the Collaborative Research Centre at the Freie Universität points out, there is much more to affect than individual mental experience.
Affect was always a subject of close scrutiny for those who studied the workings of the human mind, but it was not until the rise of experimental psychology in the late nineteenth century that emotion became a major concern and the study of it in relation to political, economic and cultural transformations became a regulated practice. Nonetheless, literary focus on affect lost some credibility with the advent of the New Criticism in the 1940s. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley challenged critics for becoming emotionally entangled in the texts they were examining and discredited their analyses, which they stated derived from the text’s effect on the reader’s emotion. Today, this idea of the “affective fallacy” has largely been rejected by theorists: the “affective turn” in criticism and science saw a rise during the 1990s in scholars studying the ways in which humans react to certain stimuli and the role of affect in literary composition and reception. Contemporary affect theory derives a lot of its practice from the traditions of psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, with names like Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Brian Massumi and Silvan Tomkins lending legitimacy to the examination of what, at first glance, may appear subjective and irrelevant to serious intellectual criticism.