‘How much philosophical hay can be made with an empirical scythe?’ A review of Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect

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How should thinkers across the disciplines conceptualise emotional life? What role do theories and histories of affect play in how we conceptualise cultural analysis, or in how we think about aesthetics? Birgit Breidenbach reviews Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique.

Despite the seeming ubiquity of the term ‘affect’ in much contemporary research across disciplines, the origins and history of affect theory may lack transparency in the eyes of any researcher willing to dip a toe into this equally vibrant and dizzying field of enquiry. Emotion science – or affective science – a main contributor to this field, is a relatively young discipline, whose emergence over the course of the 20th century was influenced by ideas developed in philosophy, psychology, biology, neuroscience and elsewhere. Due to its indebtedness to various schools and traditions of thought, the field has been divided since its inception and was long torn between, broadly speaking, two competing conceptions of the nature of emotions: on the one hand, cognitive theories of emotion, according to which emotions are based on mental states, and, on the other hand, non-cognitive or physiological theories of emotion, which place the origin of emotions in bodily changes.

The Ascent of Affect, Ruth Leys’ ‘intellectual history’ (Leys 2017: 21) of the competing theories that have dominated emotion science since the post-World War II era, offers a fascinating look at the origins and evolution of this field. But far from providing a mere historical overview, Leys’ book offers a ‘genealogy’ and a ‘critique’ – and, in doing so, is particularly committed to dismantling the conceptual foundations of what has long been the ruling paradigm in emotion science: Silvan S. Tomkins’ and Paul Ekman’s theory of distinct, universal and natural types of emotions, which continues to inform emotion science to this date, having, for instance, influenced the work of the well-known neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Leys traces the development of this theory, and its influence on contemporary affect theory, through her genealogical lens and effectively chips away at its foundations through her rigorous analysis of the assumptions and empirical work that have been used to buttress it. Much of Leys’ book focuses on the genealogy of the ‘basic emotions theory’ (BET) through Tomkins, Ekman and others, as well as on the simultaneous development of a competing strand of cognitivist theories of emotions, and throughout the book it is no secret that Leys favours the latter side. In a nutshell, Ekman et al. have conceptualised emotions as universal physiological patterns which occur in observable bodily changes that are primary to and distinct from cognitive processing. The cognitivists, on the other hand, foreground the intentionality, mindedness and cultural dimension of emotions over their physiology and reject the universality and bodily primacy of emotion assumed by BET. Throughout the book, Leys dismantles the assumptions underlying BET, drawing, amongst others, on the research of Ekman student-turned-critic Alan J. Fridlund. At the same time, Leys turns to cognitivist approaches to the emotion which she considers to present more viable alternatives to BET’s non-cognitivist approach. One such theory is Phil Hutchinson’s ‘embodied world-taking cognitivism,’ which locates intentional mental states ‘ecologically,’ that is, through social interactions and exchanges, and thus considers them to be part of the world rather than being internal to the mind.

What Leys repeatedly criticises in the work of researchers such as Tomkins, Ekman and Richard S. Lazarus is precisely what forms the greatest strength of much of her book: a level of rigour and astuteness that makes her a formidable opponent to the paradigms under scrutiny. At the same time, however, the intellectual history offered in the volume is somewhat selective and lopsided: while Leys dedicates most of her book to the development and weaknesses of BET, much less critical attention is given to the cognitivist alternatives to BET and their development. As a result, the book clearly shows how BET came to be and why many of its premises should be scrapped, but it does not show as clearly how the cognitivist strand of emotion sciences, initiated by Stanley Schacter and Jerome E. Singer, developed and why it would offer a stronger alternative to BET because Leys does not hold its evolution and presuppositions to as close a scrutiny as that of BET. Declarations such as ‘[l]et me say that I have never found convincing the argument for the noncognitive status of emotional responses based simply on the speed with which they are said to occur’ (Leys 2017: 294) indicate Leys’ own conviction that emotions are cognitively driven but are seldom elaborated on, or integrated into a thorough conception of the intentionality of emotions.

In Chapter 7, which was previously published under the title ‘The Turn to Affect: a Critique’ in Critical Enquiry (2011), Leys turns to the rise of affect theory in the humanities, with a scathing assessment of affect theory’s supposed complicity with erroneous methods and assumptions from BET. As intriguing as this chapter is, it is less compelling than Leys’ discussion of the scientific side of this debate, as it crystallises the problematic nature of Leys’ own assumptions about affective phenomena: in reference to the work of literary critic Walter Benn Michaels (who is one of the people to whom Leys’ book is dedicated), Leys here seems to argue that emotions are so diffuse and subjective that they escape meaningful study: ‘Michaels proposes that ideological disputes, or conflicts over beliefs and meanings, are inherently universalizing, because whereas we cannot disagree about what we feel, we just feel different things, we can and do disagree about what is true, regardless of what we feel or who we are’ (Leys 2017: 344). Consequently, Leys argues that contemporary studies of affective experience in the aesthetic process are pointless insofar as ‘[t]he fact that a novel or painting makes me feel or think a certain way may be a significant aspect of my response to the work, but simply as my response, it has no standing as an interpretation of it’ (Leys 2017: 323).

Leys’ view of what interpretation ought to do and the strict distinction that emerges here between ‘meaning’ and ‘affect’ seems oddly regressive in its echoing of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s ‘affective fallacy’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1949). Affective fallacy was a key principle of New Criticism which considered a text’s affective impact on readers as insignificant for the ‘objective’ interpretation of the text. Such efforts ‘to separate rationality from emotion, to safeguard critique from faith, to oppose fact to fetish’ (Felski 2015: 179) have, however, been refuted not only by the reader-response criticism of the 1960s and 1970s, which established the reader’s engagement with a text as foundational for the emergence of textual meaning, but also by contemporary theorists whose work has productively integrated our manifold aesthetic, social and political affective engagements into their critical vocabulary, such as Sianne Ngai, Rita Felski and Sara Ahmed (Ngai 2005, Felski 2015 and Ahmed 2014). Consequently, Leys’ blanket condemnation of affect-oriented work in the humanities seems unhelpful and – compared with the thoughtful scholarship exhibited in other chapters in her volume – weakly argued. Although she shows that some figures linked to the emergence of affect theory, such as Brian Massumi and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, are intellectually indebted to ideas that have emerged from BET, resulting in the concept of affect itself being riddled with certain ambiguities, her book does not make any convincing argument against the value of emotion-driven and affect-driven research in the humanities, social sciences or elsewhere. What this chapter does show, though, is that in practice the interdisciplinary study of emotion can be subject to conceptual and practical problems, and that critical literacy in other disciplines is an often-needed attribute for those pursuing interdisciplinary work. Quoting the philosopher John M. Doris, Leys asks of some emotion researchers: ‘how much philosophical hay can be made with an empirical scythe?’ (Leys 2017: 300), a question that pinpoints the susceptibility of interdisciplinary work to conceptual and epistemological mistranslation.

If one defines the purpose of critique in line with Judith Butler’s reception of Foucault – ‘critique as the very practice that exposes the limits of that epistemological horizon itself, making the contours of the horizon appear, as it were, for the first time, we might say, in relation to its own limit’ (Butler 2001) – then The Ascent of Affect indeed holds its promise as a critique of the paradigms that have been governing the emotion sciences since the 1960s, with a specific focus on the Anglo-American context. Leys’ fairly strict focus on the emotion sciences at times seems to preclude further engagement with other intellectual and socio-political developments that have impacted the development of the field and conceptions of emotions. For example, there are brilliantly intriguing moments in the book in which Leys links the success of Ekman et al. to, first, their indebtedness to cybernetic conceptions of the human mind; second, a Rousseauean romanticist idea of a split between an authentic, feeling self and an inauthentic, culturally-conditioned one; and third, US surveillance and anti-terrorist projects in the post-9/11 age. What starts to emerge here are the outlines of a fascinating broader cultural history of our conceptions of the emotions, which are clearly plugged into wider transdisciplinary socio-political questions. For any researcher working in the interdisciplinary field of affect theory or the history of emotion, Leys’ book will offer an important and thought-provoking insight into the development of the emotion sciences, though some of her own presuppositions and conclusions are to be examined with a careful critical eye.

The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique by Ruth Leys was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press.

Birgit Breidenbach is a Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (https://people.uea.ac.uk/b_breidenbach). Her research focuses on mood and other forms of collective affect, with a particular interest in their aesthetic and political dimensions. She is the author of Aesthetic and Philosophical Reflections on Mood: Stimmung and Modernity (Routledge, 2020) and the co-editor of the interdisciplinary volume Mood: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, New Theories (Routledge, 2019).


Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2001. What is critique? An essay on Foucault’s virtue. https://transversal.at/transversal/0806/butler/en (accessed November 25, 2020).

Felski, Rita. 2015. The limits of critique. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Leys, Ruth. 2017. The ascent of affect: Genealogy and critique. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Leys, Ruth. 2011. The turn to affect: a critique. Critical Enquiry, 37, 3: 434–72.

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly feelings. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe Beardsley. 1949. The affective fallacy. Sewanee Review, 57, 1: 31–55.






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