Literary and Critical Theory Affect Studies
Mathew Arthur
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0103


Across and between political, cultural, literary, and media theory; feminist, Black, queer/trans, and disability studies; neurohumanities; critical anthropologies and geographies; ethnographic or other compositional methods; performance pedagogies; and empiricist philosophies, the notion of “affect” shifts the impetus of study toward imbrications of body and world that move at the fringes of attention, overwhelm description, or have historically been neglected. The word “affect” holds a glut of meanings in generative drift: from emotion, feeling, mood, sensation, and vibe to action, atmosphere, capacity, force, intensity, potential, or relation. Affect studies attend to those near-imperceptible, too-intense, interstitial, or in-the-making visceral forces and feelings that accompany and broker the entangled material—especially bodily—and conceptual potentials of an emergent or historical phenomenon. Affect can be invoked in the singular to gesture at an indivisible field of affecting intensities or as plural affects to give contour to specificities of event or encounter and vectors of experience. It is a rangy term that resists any easy genealogical tack, with roots spanning philosophy, psychoanalysis, and later, cultural studies. Myriad non-Western ways of knowing have long been alert to the unruliness of world- and subject-making forces beyond the capture of stratifying knowledge formations. As such, historicizing affect as a field of study hazards mistaking the citational scaffolding and circulation of a galvanizing instance of critical theory for a heterogeneity of approaches to a world in flux and wider-ranging notions of subjectivity. At base, and with political and ethical implications for subjectivity and knowledge work, affect studies short-circuit inherited representational schemes in the temporary bracketing-out of categories like cognition, intentionality, or language (as delimited from a wider field of emergence) in order to inquire of the forces and feelings that ongoingly make and are made by human, nonhuman, nonliving, and incorporeal bodies in movement, impasse, and encounter. From new materialist political ecologies to feminist of color cultural politics of emotion, affect studies rewire and disrupt configurations of and connections between the sciences and humanities, working ethologically and pedagogically to home in on the harnessing and sedimenting felt intensities that characterize an event, process, or set of relations, all the while stretching disciplinary problematics and methods. Affect calls into question the taken-for-granted status of the human and the body in science, theory, literature, and media. It is an analytic of power that takes capacities of affecting and being affected—and how such capacities are written into variously configured theoretical frameworks—as relentlessly political and informing constructions of race, sex, gender, ability, and debt. As a constellation of texts, sensibilities, theoretical stylings, and methods, affect’s ambit of expression is capacious: politicizing philosophies of immanence; writing with the always-shifting interface of bodies, knowledges, and their surrounds; and attuning to everyday vicissitudes entangled in wider forcefields of nature, culture, or technology. Given affect’s reach, this bibliography is not comprehensive but aims instead to give a sense of the theoretical and interdisciplinary liveliness of affect inquiry.

Fielding Affect

Affect studies resist canonicity. While Schaefer 2015 deftly sketches a minimalist genealogy of affect, and Clough 2007 identifies an affective turn in critical scholarship, Seigworth and Gregg 2010a proposes infinite configurings of affect and theory as diverse as their motley sites, authors, archives, framings, and concerns. As such, affect is not a boxed-in field of inquiry, so much as a proliferation of shared interests in embodiment, power, and the material across sometimes-divergent areas of study—though the edited volumes, book reviews, introductory chapters, and journal listed here help to articulate affects’ connective tissues and tensions. Clough 2007 charts the problems and possibilities for critical theory of thinking bodily vitalities beyond the individual or the organic. Similarly, Schaefer 2015 suggests that to study affect is to explore the nonsovereign and the nonhuman. Shaefer’s lucid chapter on affect’s theoretical underpinnings suggests that trajectories of affect inquiry map onto investments in the distinction—or blurring—of affect and emotion as unstructured or asignifying protosensation versus the personally felt (see Prefixes and Politics). Yet as the authors of Robinson and Kutner 2019 discern, notions of subjectivity are likewise at stake in approaching affect from an inherited or singular citational arc. Rather than insist on distributed forms of subjectivity as a disavowal of personal experience (or vice versa), their article positions affect inquiry as a search for conceptual tools that might disorient accepted patterns of theory-making. Noting that affect’s slipperiness is variously narrated, the multiple book review Ibbett 2017 outlines genealogical and definitional anxieties while foregrounding how mixed conceptualizations of affect might hang together without tidy resolution. Notably, the field-consolidating volume Seigworth and Gregg 2010b indexes renderings of affect from fields as diverse as cultural studies, postcolonial and subaltern studies, Italian autonomism, the neurosciences, artificial intelligence, process and vitalist philosophies, feminist technoscience, and new materialism (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article New Materialism). As Seigworth and Gregg 2010a observes, attention to affect has long been central to feminist, queer, disabled, and anti-racist work. Cvetkovich 2012 characterizes queer feminist theory as itself an affective turn, tracing out the depatholization of negative feelings like shame or failure and reworkings of happiness and utopia. Garcia-Rojas 2017 focuses on queer Black, Chicana, and Latina theorists whose works predate the widespread uptake of white affect studies but correspondingly reckon with embodiment and subjectivity. Murphie 2018 describes how affect evades attempts to specify or police a field of study, and necessarily includes among its expressions the history of Chinese philosophy, Indian aesthetics, Indigenous governance, art, music, ritual, and magic. The open access Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry assembles a discipline-sweeping array of approaches to affect from emerging and established scholars.

  • Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry. 2017–.

    An open access journal that aims to provoke new avenues for affect inquiry, publishing a diversity of approaches by students and early-career, independent, and established scholars engaged in ongoing conversations in and, crucially, about affect studies.

  • Clough, Patricia Ticineto. “Introduction.” In The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Edited by Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean O’Malley Halley, 1–33. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    Notable for its focus on graduate student writings on affect across sociology, cultural studies, and feminist theory, this introductory chapter to an edited volume takes a Deleuzian slant in formulating an affective turn that might broker critical-theoretical response to shifting configurations of bodies, technologies, matter, and capital. Available online by subscription.

  • Cvetkovich, Ann. “Introduction.” In Depression: A Public Feeling. By Ann Cvetkovich, 1–26. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822391852-001

    Introducing developments in thinking emotion and/as affect as well as the author’s larger project of reading depression as a political and social feeling, this chapter gently counters an affective turn, offering instead a brief overview of longer-standing histories of feminist and queer work and cultural studies methods capable of accounting for felt experience in relation to knottings of the everyday and the social.

  • Garcia-Rojas, Claudia. “(Un)Disciplined Futures: Women of Color Feminism as a Disruptive to White Affect Studies.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 21.3 (2017): 254–271.

    Arguing that affect studies are properly white affect studies—citationally and with regard to conceptualizations of affect and the social—this article centers queer feminist of color theory. Available online by subscription.

  • Ibbett, Katherine. “When I Do, I Call It Affect.” Paragraph 40.2 (2017): 244–253.

    This multiple book review is generous in its approach to debates surrounding the distinctiveness of affect and offers a succinct run-through of affect’s multiple genealogies and trajectories. Beyond the texts reviewed, it serves as a clear introduction to key thinkers and themes in affect studies. Available online by subscription.

  • Murphie, Andrew. “Fielding Affect: Some Propositions.” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1.3 (2018): i–xii.

    DOI: 10.22387/CAP2018.21

    By way of a series of short propositions, this open access article outlines the challenges and risks of delimiting affect as a theory or field of study and puts forward a set of generative possibilities for affect inquiry that resist institutionalization.

  • Robinson, Bradley, and Mel Kutner. “Spinoza and the Affective Turn: A Return to the Philosophical Origins of Affect.” Qualitative Inquiry 25.2 (2019): 111–117.

    This detailed reading of Spinoza’s concept of affect disorients a prominent genealogy and therefore conceptualization of affect, while introducing some of the key stakes of Spinoza’s work for affect inquiry, including theorizations of posthuman subjectivity. Available online by subscription.

  • Schaefer, Donovan O. “Religion, Language, and Affect.” In Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. By Donovan O. Schaefer, 19–35. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

    Developing a dual genealogy of affect along Deleuzian and phenomenological lines, this chapter charts both the crystallization of a notion of affect—via Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, and Brian Massumi—that is alongside but autonomous of what is personally felt or registered as emotion and a theory of affects, working off Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s reading of Silvan Tomkins, that includes the personal and emotional. Available online by subscription.

  • Seigworth, Gregory J., and Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” In The Affect Theory Reader. Edited by Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, 1–25. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010a.

    This introductory chapter outlines a wide and vibrant range of orientations and approaches to affect inquiry, exploring affect’s theoretical tetherings and possible future routes. Available online by subscription.

  • Seigworth, Gregory J., and Melissa Gregg, eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010b.

    Spanning diverse disciplinary leanings and theoretical styles, this edited collection gathers chapters from contributors committed to the expansive theoretical, aesthetic, and political possibilities of affect, offering a wide-ranging view of affect as it plays out alongside and between human and nonhuman bodies. Available online by subscription.

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