Affect is often thought of in relation to emotion, feeling or mood. 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.

by Dorothea Trotter

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.

The group ‘Affective Societies: Dynamics of German-Language (Contemporary) Literature’ extends this tradition, taking into consideration recent work done in postcolonial, gender and queer studies by, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Here, researchers from ten disciplines in the social sciences and humanities have moved beyond the philosophical, psychoanalytic and neurological concerns of affect theory’s beginnings to show how it contributes to our understanding of culture.

According to ‘Affective Societies,’ affect, or affectivity, is the “dynamic, relational process that brings various actors into a relationship with each other.” Affect hence plays an important role in the working and cohesion of society. The group’s sixteen sub-sections investigate affective and emotional dynamics within such a cultural context. The key ideas of these theories rely, in part, on a new understanding of Spinoza and his dynamic–relational concept of affect. Working paper–author Jan Slaby terms this “relational affect.” According to Slaby, affect “is a relational dynamic between individuals and situations – a dynamic that is prior to individual experience, even, in a sense, prior to the individual subject as such.”

This understanding of affect as a dynamic relationship between people, whether intentional and articulated or not, extends beyond the definition of the OED and psychological or neurobiological textbooks. Viewing affect in this way can lead to new understandings of literature. The sub-group “Mixed Feelings – Shared Feelings: Narratives of Belonging in Contemporary Transcultural German-Language Literature” turns its attention to affect in contemporary German literature written by multilingual or exophonic writers.

A recent conference held at the Freie Universität in November 2017, ‘Affectivity and Multilingualism’ [‘Affektivität und Mehrsprachigkeit’], opened this discussion to the larger academic community and the public. The conference hosts, Anne Fleig, Marion Acker and Matthias Lüthjohann, aimed to bring together scholars from previously unrelated research fields and to determine to what extent multilingual literature is particularly fertile for reflecting upon the affectivity of language.

The conference opened on 2 November 2017 with an engaging conversation between project leader Anne Fleig and the German–Hungarian writer Terézia Mora, who read from her book Das Ungeheuer. Conference attendees had a chance to hear insightful lectures about works from the Dadaist movement, Rose Ausländer, Paul Celan, Rike Scheffler, Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, Hélène Cixous, Marica Bodrožić, Katja Petrowskaja, Ilma Rakusa, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Rafik Schami, Yoko Tawada, Herta Müller, Feridun Zaimoglu and Tomer Gardi. The unifying idea behind these presentations was not just to present the multilingual and polyphonic nature of these works, but to explain a possible link between multilingualism and the affectivity of the language the author, narrator or characters of text use. Some presenters, such as Monika Schmitz-Emans, also looked at the script the authors used, discussing or even challenging the idea of “affectivity” and what can be considered an affect.

Whilst presenters were almost exclusively from German universities, the conversation ranged from Romania, Hungary, Turkey and Egypt to France, Germany, the United States of America and Japan. In the closing discussion, the group seemed to want to find unifying trends across this body of literature. One of the considerations brought up was that fear and shame were the two most prominent affects handled by multilingual authors: the multiplicity and  ambivalence of belonging are a central theme of transnational literature and are reflected in the compositional choices of multilingual authors. A further important consideration was trauma – its circularity, how it is represented in a text, and how trauma’s presentation and discussion can perhaps better be understood by considering relational affect, as opposed to individual subjective experience. Identifying an affect like trauma is important not only for individuals to address it at a personal and psychological level, but to see how it affects the ways individuals interact and causes a society to function (or not) in a certain way.

Proceedings of the conference will be published in a special volume by ‘Mixed Feelings – Shared Feelings: Narratives of Belonging in Contemporary Transcultural German-Language Literature.’ Interested readers can find out more about the publication and the project on the project website.