Thursday, January 20, 2011

Week 1: Affect and Commodity

I feel like I should begin by acknowledging that this is my first time engaging affect theory. Excuse me while I struggle to make sense of this.

As a crash course in Affect I feel lucky to have begun with Sara Ahmed’s “Affective Economies” and Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” as both explorations of affective relationships draw heavily from readings of Marx, particularly Marx’s concept of a commodity fetish, a theoretical framework with which I have a bit more experience. Ahmed employ’s the commodity fetish, simultaneous with psychoanalysis and semiotics as a means of exploring economies of emotion. Essentially, this concept of an affective economy suggests emotions are employed and marketed as a means mediating relationships between people and between people and ideas. In this sense, Ahmed suggests that emotions take on an ideological significance and through language and signs may be employed to organize and group subjects. This informs her larger project in which she suggests that fear, as an emotion, has become a political commodity, post-9/11. Her point is that through the use of particular language and signs, politicized emotions like fear (among others) can unify sentiment or organize subjects into a political body.
 In a slightly different project Berlant suggests that commodities exist in our minds as a “cluster of promises” and that the value that we attribute to these objects is informed by what we perceive these promises to be and the attachments that we form in relationship to these promises. So, without ever explicitly stating it (although she does reference Marx and political economy) Berlant is effectively attempting to articulate the psychology of the commodity fetish; the psychology which underlies Marx’s political economy. Berlant’s point is that what we form emotional or psychological relationships not with the object itself but with what we perceive to be its use value. Thus, for Berlant, an object is most significant psychologically when it exists as a promise rather than when it is actually exchanged- she uses the example of stored kinetic energy as an analogy for the use/exchange value of an object while it is possessed rather than when it is used or exchanged. In other words, a commodity has the most emotional significance while it exists as a potential item of use or exchange. In a subtle way this challenges Marx by suggesting that exchange and consumption does not drive capitalism but rather the thought or promise of exchange and consumption.
In both articles it is interesting to consider the relationship between Marxist political economy, psychoanalytic theory, and semiotics. Obviously both authors are concerned with the political and economic function of psychological relationships. However, where Berlant sees psychology mediate subject relationships to objects as commodities, Ahmed sees these psychologies as the commodified objects themselves. Furthermore, despite their divergent approaches to the commodity fetish it seems that both texts recognize the role of semiotics in shaping or propelling these affective relationships.

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