Before I couch the concept of affect within the specific political concerns of my study, I intend to spend some time understanding it as a force that cannot be reduced to one context, and as a concept that allows us to describe the intensities of the ordinary- the seeming insignificance of which are said by Seigworth (1999: 7) to “make up more (much more!) of who you are” than the conscious powerful emotions that are traditionally assigned such importance. Since my research is centred on the formation of subjectivities, I feel that locating affect outside of politics (for now) will permit a broader exploration of processes of subjectification, and of the meaningfulness of everyday experiences.
For the purpose of this post, then, I would like to engage in a discussion of the affective power of music, in which hearing certain songs can provoke involuntary, unexpected, and (in)corporeal sensations of familiarity that seem insignificant, but have the potential to yield an enhanced self-understanding, thus influencing the trajectory of one’s subjectivity (DeChaine, 2002: 86). More specifically, I would like to integrate this discussion with an account of my own recent experiences, where listening to music seemingly folds moments of my lived history into my present, creating an “aura of lived space-time” (Siegworth, 1996: 5). This approach provides an opportunity for me to not only better articulate the concept of affect- in part, by way of appealing to the empathy of my audience- but it also allows me to engage in a process of personal theoretical reflection.
First, I will attempt to provide a working definition of affect, which is understood here to be an intensity that exists prior to conscious thought. Affect is a primary condition that facilitates our ability to feel and, as such, comprises our fundamental relationship to the environment in which we live (ibid; Seigworth, 1999: 3). However, Seigworth (ibid) cautions here against confusing affect with emotion, which, while linked, are not synonymous (ibid). Emotions exist secondary to affect, operating transcendentally by marking the subjective moments of lived experience that belong to “you” as a conscious subject (ibid: 4). Affect, however, takes place outside of, and before, the subjective person that says “I”, characterising the involuntary train of intensities that register underneath consciousness (ibid; DeChaine, 2002: 86).
Explaining affect coherently poses something of a dilemma, given that its primary nature escapes signification. Due to our mode of communication being wedded to structure, with a vocabulary derived from signification, it is difficult for us to express the complexity of affect with sentences and syntax. Affect, DeChaine (ibid: 87) suggests, could be termed “pre-structural”, and, as such, necessitates the development of a more nuanced mode of expression for the purpose of advancing research into the concept.
Brian Massumi, in his 1995 (: 85) essay, The Autonomy of Affect, notes that the primacy of the affective is due to its intensity as embodied in purely autonomic reactions, which are disconnected from any possibility of meaningful narration or sequencing. He argues this in response to an experiment in which three versions of a film, two dubbed (one termed “factual”, and the other “emotional”), and one wordless, were watched by children (ibid: 83). The recorded physiological reactions demonstrated that, while the children displayed higher levels of physical arousal during the dubbed versions (possibly due to increased expectation as a consequence of their juxtaposition to the narrative), their electrodermal activity was far higher in the non-verbal version (ibid: 86). Language, here, dampened the effect of the images (ibid). The linear nature of the narrative ran counter to the intensity of affect which, Massumi argues, operates as a disruptive state of non-linearity (ibid). Affect cannot be captured by any linguistic expression that is directed toward the future; it is better associated instead with a constant motion that is vibratory, suspenseful, resonating, and void of any functional narrative (ibid).
This sense of affect as a resonating force is explored further by Robert DeChaine in his 2002 (: 88) essay Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience, in which he discusses the affective power of music to evoke a feeling of nearness, both spatially and temporally. As I write, I am certain that many readers will instantly recognise this curious sensation. The invariably shared nature of the experience further qualifies why music, here, serves as an appropriate and valuable entry point through which to discuss affect as located within everyday experiences.
For DeChaine, there are many moments he recalls at which songs have generated in him senses of recognition, and feelings as immanent, with no seeming point of origin (ibid: 85). Attributing this to the power of affect to “fuse our senses and our minds”, DeChaine imagines affect as a continuous circuit through which past and present become confluent (ibid: 86).
Through this, remembering is “felt” (ibid: 87). DeChaine likens the sense of nearness evoked by musical experience to “crystallised formations that, though buried, can be [re]activated” by way of an “acute jarring to consciousness” (ibid: 88). Excavating memory through music “shocks” us into delivering to ourselves involuntary remembrances that re-connect us with a past that is not so forgotten as we might have thought (ibid: 89). I am reminded at this moment of the short chapter Still Life in Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (2007: 18), in which she describes stillness in ordinary life as an “intensity born of a momentary suspension of narrative”. Here, the affective capacity of music can be considered to (re)ignite moments that “lurch into view without warning” and then sit there, like a weight, holding captive the listener (ibid). In his autoethnographic account, DeChaine (ibid: 87) describes his version of such an encounter:
“It’s only about fifteen seconds into the song- I already know I’ll be listening to the whole thing. I can feel that peculiar warmth welling up, upward from my stomach to my neck and my face and my ears flash, hot. And now, suddenly, it’s five in the morning, and you and I are teenagers, huddled together, freezing, in the ripped passenger seat of your old, faded yellow Toyota…..I can’t move”
My own recent past, too, can be “shocked” into my present through music, with a stillness that is paralysing at the same time as transcendental. There is one song in particular that catalyses an ineffable malaise which arrives suddenly, without warning, and seeps through me neither hot nor cold, but always heavy. An embodied experience, the memories and half-memories, sensations and recognitions, present themselves as chimerical as they are real, and as near as they are distant.
It is the bridge of the song that hits me the hardest. The rest I can tolerate; I can permit the music to surge through the interstices of my being while I instruct the rest of me to hold on to the empty comfort of my immediate reality. There is some agency there. But the bridge, with its tones all dissonant yet dulcet, sends me reeling (back) to the passenger seat of his car with a pain that is jarring. I find myself utterly compliant with this affective shock, and helplessly exposed to a series of timeless moments that have a cinching effect which remains long after the song has finished.
This is an intensity that escapes language, and my attempt to capture it as such provides little more than a sterile account.
Of course, the affective capacity of music will often evoke sensations of past events that are replete with a warm nostalgia that is neither happy nor sad, and this, for DeChaine (ibid: 82), is critical for procedures of self-reflection and understanding. There can be, however, and certainly in my case there is, an unhelpful immobilising effect. The song with which I am concerned occurs at the liminal boundary of my past, and pollutes my present with a haunting lull. To cease listening to it would be the most logical preventative strategy. But I do not want to; I like the song. Besides, this one song is simply at the forefront of an entire library of music that catapults me (back) to the pain of the intense encounter from which I am trying to disconnect. To disregard it all is an unreasonable request; there must be a way to manage the issue without having to remove myself from the music that I love.
At this point, Siegworth’s (1999: 5) caution against misunderstanding affect as “wistful”- in the sense that it is easily perceived to be primarily associated with memory- is helpful to discuss. Instead of remaining caught up with the body’s relation to the past, we can conceive of affect as a potential for constituting the body’s relation to the present and future. Siegworth (ibid: 6) relates affect to the steady accumulation of daily insignificances within the body that are brought by the past, travel alongside the individual’s present, and reach a certain density at which they no longer seem so insignificant, thus culminating in the crossing of a threshold- where the individual finds that they are “no longer the same as [they] were before”.
Siegworth’s (ibid) example of the film Groundhog Day, makes this a little clearer. Bill Murray’s character is subjected to re-living the banal events of the previous day as if it were present time. The insignificances of the day, repeated, begin to accumulate within Murray’s character until he eventually identifies their value, the affirmation of which results in his waking up to find that it is finally tomorrow, and that he is not the same person he was before.
Through this, we can see the value of affect in how it contributes to processes of becoming. Affect does not have to remain with a sense of stepping backwards, it can instead connect us to a sense of where we are going. The infinite components of our past can be variably re-experienced, over and over, with the effect of sending us toward reaching a new capacity or potential (Massumi, 2008: 2). DeChaine (2008: 87) picks up on the term the déjà vu effect here which, although incorrect- given that déjà vu describes the evocation of events that have never taken place- is possibly the nearest example that can illustrate the enigmatic sensation these affective “shocks” have. Their arrival- an accumulation of past insignificances that are embodied (“I feel the remembering”)- governs the body’s transition toward a future that is markedly different from what went a moment before (ibid; Massumi, 2008: 3).
When considering affect in this way, it becomes apparent that my memories do not have to remain as a repository of painful experiences that, elicited through musical experience, surface in my present and deliver uninvited reminders, the acuteness of which prevent me from stepping forwards. Instead, it is possible for me to re-frame how I experience my recent past, for the benefit of my present and future.
Like the example of Groundhog Day, it is necessary for me to identify the value of the insignificances within the memories that surface when I listen to the song, in order to move toward a threshold of becoming. Unlike Groundhog Day, however, this threshold does not have to be arrived at suddenly. Siegworth (1999: 6) describes how there can instead be a process that exhibits a much more “subtle and ongoing kind of soul-realignment”, and that harnessing this necessitates engagement with a repetitive process of re-remembering that edges the individual toward a different future by gradually shifting their articulations of past events across space and time.
This provides the basis for an interesting “experiment” for me to undertake. Excavations of memory in the way explained above can be thought of as having an “architectonic force”, that is to say, personal perceptions do not accede to chronological “accuracy” and, as such, the “re-living” of events are always repeated differently (DeChaine, 2002: 89). For my experience, listening to the song initiates the process of re-remembering, but I have found that it is my immediate surroundings that are influencing the way I re-order and experience the memories. The pull between the memories evoked by the song, and the affective power of my present context combine to generate a different re-living of past events. Each time I listen to the song, the memories are repeated differently.
Deleuze’s ideas on the phenomenon of repetition are significant here. Repetition, for Deleuze, is tied up with the notion that there is no time other than the present (Deleuze, 1968: 94). The past and future is instead inscribed in the present (ibid). Repetitions are moments without privilege; they allow us to re-consider the relationship between sameness and difference as one that is void of hierarchical functions (Somers-Hall, 2013: 56). Sameness is not subordinated to difference, and difference is not drawn from sameness. Neither existed before, nor after the other; they are always already in existence.
With this in mind, I have started to use my social milieu as a way with which to target these memories, and to reconfigure their elements to make something new. I have started to deliberately listen to the song, repeatedly, in new environments through which new memories will be formed. What makes this task particularly interesting is that my living circumstances changed drastically immediately following the violent end of my impassioned encounter. I have found myself in a new house, in a new city, and surrounded by new people- all of which are completely removed from, and unbeknown to him. Now, when I listen to the song, I am back in the passenger seat of his car, but I am also walking up Park Street in the sunshine. When the bridge of the song arrives, I am next to him again; I can smell cigarettes, I can hear his criticism, and I can feel his lies. But I am also next to my new friends; I can smell fresh coffee, I can hear their laughter, and I can feel warmth.
Affect plays an instrumental role in this as each repetition of my memories are presented as anew, yet at the same time they are not isolated from the moment before. This brings us back to the earlier point of understanding affect as non-linear; my present is infused with my past, neither coming before nor after it. What is created is a network of moments, none of which are original. Each moment is always already a repetition, and each has no limits because they are always in a state of becoming.
Each time I listen to the song, the insignificances of my past and my present are accumulating together, gradually shifting the way I experience my memories. Imagine layered sheets of illustrated acetate; you can still see the original design on the bottom layer, but the subsequent layers add new colours, lines, and textures, such that the final design reveals a new composition. With each repetition of the song, the memories are steadily reconfigured as they become inextricable from the sensations of my present. The smell of cigarettes gradually mixes with, and is displaced by, the smell of spring arriving in the city. Likewise, the overwhelming sense of my former anxiety is drowned out by the chatter of the crowd, and is replaced with a sense of invigoration.
Through this process, I am affirming the meaningfulness of everyday ordinariness; I am allowing the events of my past to be repeated in my present, and for my present to re-shape how I experience my past. It is not that I am trying to forget; it is just that I am trying to remember differently. With this, there comes a new recognition of what went before, one that is less painful, and can be harnessed for my future benefit. It is this that pushes me toward a threshold, the crossing of which will reveal my becoming as someone I have not been before, awash with new potentials and new capacities.
DeChaine, D. Robert (2002) Affect and embodied understanding in musical experience, Text and Performance Quarterly, 22 (2), pp. 79-98
Deleuze, Gilles (1968) Difference and Repetition, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London
Massumi, Brian (2008) Of Microperception and Micropolitics, available at: http://www.senselab.ca/inflexions/volume_3/node_i3/PDF/Massumi%20Of%20Micropolitics.pdf (accessed 05/03/2016)
Massumi, Brian (1995) The Autonomy of Affect, Cultural Critique, 31 (2), pp. 83-109
Siegworth, Greg (1999) Sound Affects, available at: https://www.academia.edu/5686569/sound_affects (accessed 09/03/2016)
Somers-Hall, Henry (2013) Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, Edinburgh
Stewart, Kathleen (2007) Ordinary Affects, Duke University Press, USA