Interview with Lisa Blackman, Mike Featherstone and Couze Venn on Affect and Body & Society

 

For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

The Body & Society Special Issue on Affect, edited by Lisa Blackman and Couze Venn, makes a major contribution to the now widespread interest in affect. Its aim is both to introduce readers to the key issues which have been the focus of debate over the last 20 years or so, and to present innovative approaches. These include the development of research on affect which addresses problems relating to sound, rhythm, belonging, body image, relationality, the work of Simondon, voice hearing and other aspects of non-conscious body/mind phenomena. The issue also doubles as the relaunch issue of the journal.

As a Special Issue Extra for the TCS Website, Simon Dawes has interviewed Lisa Blackman, Mike Featherstone and Couze Venn on this Special Issue on Affect and the relaunch of Body & Society.

 

 

 

Simon Dawes: Why the need to relaunch the journal?

 

Mike Featherstone: The relaunch was prompted by the sense that Body & Society had enjoyed ten years of relative success, but badly needed a revamp.  It was started as a companion journal to Theory, Culture & Society   in 1995, but has achieved far less impact.  After Bryan Turner decided to permanently leave the UK, it provided an opportunity to rethink the journal.  The decision was made to critically examine every aspect of the editorial side to the journal and endeavour to raise Body & Society to the Theory, Culture & Society level.  This has entailed putting in place: a more thorough and detailed refereeing process, better planning of special issues and sections, the formation of an editorial board, more regular editorial meetings, and in general a greater attention to quality control etc.

 

A further important factor was the sense that the journal needed a change of intellectual direction.  The Sociology of the Body had gained some of its initial impetus from my own work on ageing with Mike Hepworth in the late 1970s (Surviving Middle Age), which was taken up by Bryan Turner a few years later with his influential sociological theorization of the body in his The Body and Society book.  Also in the 1980s from the first issue of Theory, Culture & Society onwards, we regularly featured papers on the body (Bryan’s ‘Discourse of Diet’ in TCS 1(1) 1982 and my ‘Body in Consumer Culture’ in TCS 1(2) 1982 started things).  Many of these papers were reprinted in the collection The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, published in 1990 and edited by the three of us.

 

The journal Body & Society was strongly influenced by the success of this volume and followed similar largely sociological concerns, mixed with some of the latest social and cultural theoretical developments which TCS regularly featured.   After a period of relative neglect, the journal badly needed more active editorial guidance and to engage with the more recent cutting edge theoretical developments in body studies, such as the paradigm of life (biopolitics, biocapital, biomedia, vitalism, affect, creaturely life, companion species, prosthesis and technological supplementarity, animation, intercorporeality etc).  Theoretical approaches and topics which call into question the division between the human and the biological sciences.

 

 

SD: Could you tell us about the expertise that the new editorial board brings to the journal?

 

MF: In forming the new board we sought to provide some theoretical continuity by bringing in Roger Burrows, Nick Crossley and Chris Shilling who had previously published in Body & Society and Theory, Culture & Society and who had been influential in the development of the sociology of the body in the UK.  At the same time we wanted to introduce the new directions work in body studies was exploring – especially the affective body – through bringing on board Lisa Blackman, Patricia Clough and Couze Venn.  All three had published in TCS and had strong backgrounds and interest in cultural studies and cultural theory.   Lisa, in particular, had recently finished a book on the body which addressed the new directions, and therefore had the ideal background and capacities to become editor.

 

 

 

 

SD: What contribution do you think B&S has made so far, and what contribution would you like it to make from now on?

 

Lisa Blackman:The journal has made a significant impact on how all sociological issues to do with the body might be conceptualised, examined and analysed; this includes the sociology of health and illness, the sociology of medicine and broadly speaking all issues to do with the sociology of body-practices, rather than approaching the body as a static biological entity. The journal has also opened these debates up to a broader intellectual heritage and set of transdisciplinary concerns represented by the diversity of scholars who regularly publish in the journal. This includes anthropologists, feminist scholars, and scholars working in interdisciplinary ways across cultural studies, religious studies, psychology and psychoanalytic studies, science and technology studies, media studies, sports studies, and studies of new and digital media. Body & Society has provided a forum for the transdisciplinarity which is needed to advance the field of body studies. Indeed, without the existence of the journal arguably one might not have seen a distinct field of body studies/theory emerging. Since the launch of the journal in 1995 studies of embodiment have been recognised as increasingly central to how we might understand and re-examine the human, technologies, subjectivity, power, media, architecture, life, medicine, regeneration and consumer culture, to name some of the foci. Indeed, with the turn to affect across the humanities there is an important and timely opportunity to create more cross-dialogue between the human, biological and life sciences in order to advance our understandings of the body and embodiment taking into account the shared ontologies that are emerging across such disciplines. As well as keeping the important continuities with the sociology of the body, we want to engage readers and contributors in some of these emergent debates and to promote and encourage theoretical and methodological innovation. We are working on our themed issues and special sections of open issues which will give space to these commitments and include, following our affect re-launch issue, a special section exploring bodily integrity and forthcoming special issues on animation and automation, medicine, and movement (particularly exploring the movement of people, objects, and entities in relation to medical tourism). We are currently discussing themed issues on architecture, and war and the body and are also keen to develop special issues/sections on the senses, the face, eating, creaturely life, environment, aesthetics, diaspora and therapy. We want to encourage readers and contributors to respond to papers and special issues/sections so that we can develop a distinctive emerging body-studies that can do justice to the complexity of the current milieu(s) we inhabit. We are open to suggestions for special issues and are keen to bring new disciplines into the fold.

 

 

SD: Could you tell us more about what theoretical and methodological direction you’re taking the journal in?

 

LB:We are particularly interested in the innovation of thinking that will come about through transdisciplinary dialogue not just across the humanities disciplines, but also through collaboration and engagement with those in the sciences who are working with phenomena and concepts that dissolve and trouble notions of the body as a bounded entity; or even the body as a distinctly human entity. Phenomena such as microchimerism within immunology, emotional contagion within psychology, and affective transmission within the humanities are just three examples of processes that require a radical re-thinking of embodiment and corporeality. Although all of these phenomena pertain to distinct fields of analysis there are commonalities that have the potential to challenge inherited thinking on the body and to open the way for new ways of thinking, acting, researching and doing. We cannot do this methodological innovation and conceptual reformulation without the help and participation of our readers and contributors, so we are keen to not only provide a forum for work on the body and embodiment that parallels the theoretical sophistication of work published in Theory, Culture & Society, but to encourage debate within the journal itself in order to advance the field of body-studies.

 

 

SD: The first issue of the new look journal is a special issue on Affect. Does this tell us anything about the future direction of the journal?

 

LB: It does hint at some of the themes and issues we are interested in taking forward. It is also an important debate for body-studies as it places a re-examination of the senses, body image, cognition, memory, attention, feeling and emotion as important to understanding embodiment. This will entail humanities scholars getting much closer to work in the psychological, life, biological and neurosciences, but also importantly to be aware of some of the problems and pitfalls in such engagements. Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard have written an important article in the affect issue which draws attention to some of the potential problems that affect scholars need to be mindful of when engaging with theories that have their own histories of circulation, legitimation, contestation and authorisation within the sciences.

 

 

 

SD: What is Affect? Or, at least, do you agree on what affect is? How has your thinking on affect altered your own research?

 

 

Couze Venn: I have used affect in my research because it radically de-centres the subject. So, it provides ways of breaking with the assumptions of anthropocentrism, individualism, and logocentrism or the privilege of the individual subject or entity as starting point and foundation – of thinking, of social processes, of emotional behaviour, of existing.

 

Maybe someone out there knows what it is. A bit like gravity, we all experience it, we think we know what it is (because physics tells us), but it remains elusive, and difficult to pin down at the level of theory. So, there are many theories. Psychoanalysis has been playing around with it for ages, in recognition of the fact that human beings are a complicated mass of more than just flesh and circuits. Maybe all living beings are complex compositions of mind and matter joined up by stuff like affect, that is, some basic visceral way that makes communication from body to body possible. It would be something which appeared with life, as an aspect of what life is. Culture and history and development – scientists relate this to epigenesis, phylogenesis, and their dynamic interconnection in the process of somatic change and speciation and individuation – have added layers to this process, so that in real life, we communicate affect in the form of emotions. For humans, the development of a symbolic universe and a technical infrastructure has altered the operation and expression of affect, adding historicity to the process.

Some of us have been trying to use the concept of relationality to speak about the affective quality of life. This insists on the more-than-one character of all beings. So, we have the idea of dynamic co-emergence and co-constitution. We start with the view that there are always-already at least two, in reality many, and then work towards explaining individuals, or singularity. Affect comes into it because from the beginning some force – feeling if you wish, or a symbiotic process – functions to bind the one to the other and others. Or, indeed, affect is produced as part and parcel of the process of relating whereby beings exist at all. Physicists, when they run out of individual entities like electrons and positrons to explain how particles come together to form more complex entities, invent things like gluons to give an idea of forces that basically bind individual components, but we don’t know what they are because we only surmise their existence because of their effect in the process of relating, or gluing. Affect is maybe something that acts like that.

 

 

LB: I think we have been very careful and hesitant in providing a generic definition of affect as if we can understand affect as a thing, an object that we can uncover in any self-evident and unproblematic way. There are commonalities that link studies of affect, which are definitely encompassing a move to an examination and study of what we might call the non-conscious and the trans-subjective. However, affect points towards processes which are difficult to see in the conventional methodological sense, and which manifest in registers which have been occluded by work across the humanities which has developed from discursive, linguistic and post-structuralist approaches. We would rather ask the question what does affect do in our theorising rather than ask the question, what is affect? My own work is very influenced by genealogical thinking and I came to affect through my engagement with how the knowledge practices of early social psychology dealt with suggestion, or what became known as a mimetic paradigm. Suggestion, as we find in the work of Gabriel Tarde, was considered an ordinary mechanism of how we bond and how ideas, practices, beliefs and even emotions are transmitted, such that what we see is a more relational conception of subjectivity. I became interested in what happened to this conception as it became taken up and transformed within the psychological sciences and an engagement with what we might call affect is central to understanding these transformations.

 

 

 

SD: What texts would you most recommend to anyone beginning to think about the role of affect in their own work?

 

LB: My recent book, The Body: The Key Concepts (Berg, 2008) I hope provides a very accessible introduction and overview to work on affect and the affective body within body-studies. Brian Massumi’s seminal work on affect can be found in his book, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002, Duke University Press). This might be followed up by Patricia Clough’s edited book, The Affective Turn, (Duke University Press) which brings together her own seminal thinking on this subject with work of her PhD students which reflects her own particular intellectual formation through ethnomethdology and autoethnography (particularly through the work of Norman Denzin) and her engagement with work on embodied cognition (through Maturana and Varela). Much of the important work on affect can be found in numerous and diverse journal articles across disciplines and we hope that our affect special will provide the beginnings of an important archive and introduction to work on affect that our readers can take forward. The editorial introduction written by myself and Couze Venn aims to provide such an overview. There is also an important book forthcoming this year with Duke University Press which promises to provide an important overview of work on affect. It is edited by M. Gregg and G. J. Seligworth and is called, The Affect Theory Reader, 2010 (out in October). I also think it is important to take a broader genealogical approach to the emergence of affect and to situate current concerns with affect to broader histories of personhood, corporeality and subjectivity. I would recommend Ed Cohen’s recently published book, A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body, (Duke University Press, 2009) as this book convincingly shows how concerns with affect are also a concern with what became occluded by the rise and authorisation within the legal system and biomedicine of a very particular way of specifying the human, and particularly the limits and boundaries of the human body, which became enshrined within immunology by the concept of immunity-as-defence. Cohen rather audaciously deals with the current turn to affect within a footnote, which I think shows how current concerns are part of much longer genealogies which extend our own thinking out to knowledge practices, events and problematics which at first glance may seem to have little to do with current thinking. This is certainly important to my own thinking on affect which has developed from a genealogical approach and particularly with how affect became constituted within early social psychology and the tensions and paradoxes that this has produced for thinking about embodiment.

 

 

CV: Of the texts I would recommend for those wanting to use affect in their research, I would also start with Brian Massumi’s (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. This is because it trails all the key problems in a challenging and engaging way, though his speculative leaps need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Then there is Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s (1993) The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience, which provides a wider vista from which to locate the place of affect in the human sciences. The book also presents enough material from the biological and neurosciences to alert readers to the need to expect inter-disciplinary approaches to be more productive than narrowly disciplinary ones. It also makes one wary of the kind of theorisation that assumes that some paradigm, such as cybernetics and its model of ‘information’, has cracked it already. I would add A. Damasio’s (2006) Descartes’ Error or (2000) The Feeling of What Happens, so that the neurosciences are seen to be part of how to re-think affect.

 

Those who wish to dig into the foundational problems could check out M. Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible (trans. 1968), B. Ettinger’s (1995) The Matrixial Gaze, and Simondon’s work – not much in translation, but my ‘Individuation, Relationality, Affect’, in Body & Society, Vol 16 No 1 includes a longish introduction.

 

Finally, for those who think that affect has suddenly jumped out of a bush only recently, there’s Andre Green’s The Fabric of Affect in Psychoanalytic Discourse (1999 [1973]).

And, of course Body& Society’s special issue on Affect.

 

 

Lisa Blackman is Editor of Body & Society

Mike Featherstone is Editor-in-Chief of Body & Society and Editor of Theory, Culture & Society

Couze Venn is Reviews Editor of both Body & Society and Theory, Culture & Society, and Managing Editor of Theory, Culture & Society

 

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant for Body & Society and Theory, Culture & Society

 

Go here to see the table of contents for the Special Issue or here to access the articles

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