In diving into this mess of theory, I am easily distracted. First I latch onto affect but then am side-swept by conversations of residue and touch and—oh! The infra-thin! Somewhere in between the affected, the state of being affected, and the process of affecting—all intermingling in a furious boil. (Thanks to Brennan Manning, I have bouillabaisse on the brain.) All in good time… no need to get overwhelmed. Because that always leads to frustration. Confusion. And Netflix.
So to counter this, I am embracing the mess. And as I hang my toes over the diving board and gaze down deep, my body leans forward. As if propelled by sheer will of its own.
Such is affect. We are easily affected, whether by relationships or experience or by memory. In-between-ness. If there ever was a state of unknown, this is it. Even though we apply glossy, fresh painted terms, it still doesn’t hide the fact that affect is still a mystery to us.
One of the clearest (and confusing) descriptions I’ve seen is by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader: titled, “An Inventory of Shimmers.” (Shimmers, not sparkles.)
Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.”
Breaking this down into morsels we can actually chew (breathe in)—(breathe out) we feel our bodies. We encounter our (often mediated) surroundings through at least the five senses. As artists, viewers, and humans in general, we are limited by our own need to categorize things, to place happy boundaries around experience. Let’s log that away. I have at least two copies of that filed in separate places. Can you imagine if we loved people that way? Dealt with relationships that way? Our minds are incredible machines that hold onto some memories while discarding others. Some of the dearest or most intrinsic moments are just too slippery to hold onto, no matter how hard we try.
Affect sticks to us: our environmental surroundings, our bodies, and the physical objects between and around moments where we are affected. Like syrup, affect keeps turning up on my elbow. Each time I lay my arm down on the table, there is something unknown sticking to me—and I’m left wondering if it’s from me or the person that sat here before me. Sentimental and gross at the same time, the disgust only surfaces when we have no idea of what the residue is or where it comes from. Either through or in spite of a performance, meeting with a stranger or a friend transfers something onto me; trying to define that thing is another struggle on its own. All we can do is give examples of how it looks and sounds, and then maybe we can say what it doesn’t taste like. Another thing to consider: within a performance or outside of it, there is a possibility that I have imprinted onto someone else.
Affect is in this passage between bodies. A dark hallway, a winding corridor inside a labyrinth that seems to have no easy escape. Yet somehow I find myself in another mindset after a performative encounter. Why is that? How do experiences between audience-participants and performers create such a strong impression? (Or leave no impression? Ambivalence and rejection are also remnants of affect.) Impressing onto something (or someone) insinuates closeness or, as in Affect Theory, beside-ness. Taking a print of oneself.
Gregg and Seigworth state (later on in the reading) that affect can also be interpreted as force or “forces of encounter.” Use the force, Luke. How a person is affected might not necessarily be forceful or forced upon them (though it is evident in cases of trauma.) What is often seen (or missed, if you prefer) is the way a person is just barely affected. Even at the most microscopic level, we are always affecting. (Ask my roommate—she’s a scientist.)
How am I, ever so subtly, being affected by the people (and environment) around me? Canned corn tastes like can. This is the very reason why my mom refuses to drink diet coke from anything but a bottle or a soda fountain. But then again, eggs poached in buttered water have yolks like golden orbs of happiness compared to the ones cooked in regular tap (No, seriously, they taste like cheese. Julia Child was on to something… Heck, all of France is onto something!)
I am affected. You are affected. We affect each other. What are you left with after a one-to-one performance? Or after spending lunch with a friend (or lover?) A lingering flavor rests on your tongue. After you leave me, your clothes will smell faintly of garlic or burnt sugar—or coffee. And you might not even notice.