Review of Networked Affect Networked Affect (eds. Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, Michael Petit)

(Long version. Much shorter, pithier version published in Mobile Media and Communications)

What is a productive way to approach social networks in order to understand how questions of agency and affordance are playing out in the everyday of contemporary capitalism? Networked Affect addresses this question via a selection of essays that closely scrutinize how entities implicated in the reproduction of social networks — software, sites, platforms, file types, code, non-human materials and human bodies, for example — affect one another. The volume draws on an emerging body of affect theory (Clough and Halley 2007, Massumi 2002, Protevi 2009) and its philosophical antecedents (Deleuze 1998, Spinoza 1992) to throw new light on social networks’ historical place and significance.

In his foreword to Clough and Halley’s edited volume, Michael Hardt contends that a focus on affects is more than a focus on bodies and the senses. ‘[A]ffects refer equally to the body and the mind,” he writes. “[T]hey involve both reason and the passions. Affects require us, as the term suggests, to enter the realm of causality but they offer a complex view of causality because the affects belong simultaneously to both side of the causal relationship. They illuminate… both our power to affect the world and our power to be affected by it, along with the relationship between those two powers” (Hardt 2007: ix).

Similarly, the editors of Networked Affect aver, an affective appraisal of social networks is productive because it offers a middle way between the technological and linguistic determinisms that haunt media studies. It is not enough, they argue, to conceive of agency solely in terms of humans’ mastery over technology, as the mass uptake of smartphones drives home the increasing blurredness of boundaries separating humans from machines. “At the moment when information machines are becoming so powerful and seemingly lively that we know we are know longer fully in control, theorizations of affect offer ways to understand and explain the implications of the particular technological conjuncture at which ‘networked society’ now finds itself” (p2).

The editors also acknowledge that turning towards affect involves a qualified turn away from the privileged role systems of representation and signification have played in cultural theory in recent decades. Not all dimensions of the world, they argue, are analyzable in linguistic terms as texts. Materials, surfaces, scapes, sounds and images leave traces on the human sensorium that are decidedly extra-linguistic, and can only be accounted for through recourse to the more intuitive concepts and looser worldviews afforded by affect theory. The editors propose an “intermeshing of the semiotic and the material in networked exchanges. It follows that bodies need to be considered in terms of their thick materiality alongside their manifestation and textual depictions, images or surfaces encountered on the screen” (pp5–6). A point raised repeatedly throughout the volume is that Spinoza’s and Deleuze’s insights gain currency in the present, because affects play an increasingly central role in the generation of capital.

The 14 essays in the volume are organized into three sections: intensity, sensation and value. Respectively, these explore the passions, fantasies and desires that are released in social network engagements, the dynamics set in motion by the interaction of bodies, images, materials and words, and the laborious styling of selves that affords social networks value.

Section 1, ‘Intensity’ contains five chapters. In ‘A Midsummer’s Bonfire: affective intensities and online debate’, Susanna Paasonen examines debates on Facebook about the inclusion and exclusion of queer Fins from a midsummer dance party. She argues that the case reveals crucial features of “stickiness” and provides insights into popular debates about issues with widely accepted social currency. The stickiness of a thread, she argues, does not reflect deep-seated concern for the issue at hand; t is merely suggestive of the “jolt”, or respite from the boredom of browsing, that the heated offers to users. Possibly, this jolt is enabled by the presence of trolls in heated debates, and the ongoing polarization, rather than deliberative resolution, of differing viewpoints in rational-critical fashion (pp27–42).

In ‘Queer Reverb: tumblr, affect and time’, Alexander Cho explores the platform’s image economy which, he argues “traded in affect” (p44) (not just emotions, but gut), and follows a temporal logic that is not linear but bent back on itself and repetitive. In ‘Affective politics or political affection’, Veronika Tzankova discusses itaraf sites devoted to sharing stories of sexual experiences, Unlike Tumblr, these sites are heavily wordy, and their very wordiness constitutes a source of sexual pleasure for the producers and consumers of those words. These sites sketch Turkish sexualities that depart from the state ideal and, as such, can be understood as counter-publics (pp59–74).

In ‘The Avatar and Online Affect’, Ken Hillis expands o the notion of indexical relations originally developed by Charles Pierce, positing the avatar’s relationship to its human composer as an example of indexicality. The proliferation of avatars in digital culture, he contends, calls for fresh enquiries into the relationships between the actual and the virtual (pp75–88).

In ‘Affect and Drive’, Jodi Dean considers what it means to participate in social media. Our stuck-ness in social media, she argues, can be understood with the Lacanian notion of desire as ultimately unsatisfiable, and with the notion of jouissance — the enjoyment to be gained from the unsatisfiable-ness of desire.

Noting the importance of ordinary people’s participation in social networks for sustaining communicative capitalism she writes: “It’s not like cinema, where people only have to show up. For communication networks to function at all… people have to use them, play with the, add to them, and extend them. Our participation does not subvert communicative capitalism. It drives it…. [C]ontemporary information and communication networks are essentially affective networks” (p94).

I do not have space to overview all the chapters here. Suffice to note, the sections could work well as a guide for conceptualizing questions students of affect might ask of social networks, although the extent to which the chapters in each section successfully work together to compellingly speak to the themes is variable. I found the section of value too facebook heavy and was eager for more discussion of how platforms and applications relying on affective labour, such as Youtube or gaming, could help sketch a more complex picture of the new questions networks bring to notions of use and exchange value.

But the essays collected here are solid and weighty; they don’t shy away from hard questions nor refrain from dissecting affect to throw up truly innovative conceptualisations of networks. Therefore, the collection is layered and invites multiple ways of reading it. It could be read as a series of discrete mediations on three themes, but it could also be read as a collection of essays taking to task the deep-seated philosophical questions that developments in communicative capitalism force us to reconsider. How does the character of social networks cause us to reconsider the distinction between the animate and the inanimate, the sentient and the non-sentient? What are the shapes of their contents’ routes of circulation and what new rhythms of daily life result from such circulation? How do they cause us to reconsider what constitutes structure, and what constitutes a commodity? How do they cause us to reconsider what constitutes the analog?

It needs to be noted that the tackling of these questions proceeds largely in the absence of any discussion of methods, with the exception of Susanna Paasonen and Michael Petit’s contributions. In the introduction, the editors touch on the styles of writing that enable scholars to ‘get at’ affect: “While it may seem ironic for there to be a certain seduction by, and preoccupation with, language when writing about the extra-linguistic, such attention and care evince a need to rethink established research concepts and to imagine and develop alternatives to them” (p11). Do such alternatives include alternative methods of data collection? The dominant method in this volume appears to be netnography (although this is not explicitly stated), and the voices of non-scholars affecting and affected by networks is meekly expressed. What are the best methods for approaching a study of affects on networks? The volume does not address this question.

It also needs to be noted that, like much of internet studies, the volume displays a heavily Western bias, specifically towards the Anglosphere (with the exception of Veronika Tsankova’s chapter on sexualities in Turkey and Susanna Paasonen’s on online debates that proceed in Finnish). I call for a heightened global consciousness in internet studies literature; there is a need for scholarly volumes that discuss networked life via a bias towards the Anglosphere articulate some awareness of the limitations that bias sets on an holistic understanding of the historical continuities and ruptures suggested by various kinds of digitally equipped everyday life in all corners of the planet. In regard to the topic at hand, I look forward to a volume that considers how platforms that are popular outside the Anglosphere — Path, Line, WeChat, Whatsapp — can provide insights into networked affects.

I came to this volume as a novice, with zero knowledge of affect theory, and hungry for studies of the digital everyday that conceptualise the historical significance of networked communication in innovative ways. My reading practice, then, was less suggestive of a knowing and critical expert, and more of an inquisitive child visiting a new friend’s toy-filled bedroom. With my own under-theorized, unfinished essays on social networks in mind, I underlined passage after passage, scribbling ‘Use this!’ etc in the margins. I surmise that for other novice students of the dynamics of agency and domination in everyday social networking, this volume could also be useful for inspiring new paths of thought, when other available scholarship feels either too steeped in broadcast logics, not attentive enough to the novelties of the digital everyday, or too celebratory of participatory culture to enable a critical analysis of the role social networks play in enabling/disrupting established patterns of capital accumulation.

Jodi Dean’s essay, for example, is remarkable for her ability to evoke the shapes and rhythms of networks by writing affectively in the manner advocated by the editors in the introduction. After several readings, the image of networks as many-to-many grids began to ebb from my mind. In its place, a series of high velocity sushi trains appeared, laid out wonkily on uneven surfaces, and messily hemmed by unruly crowds who swapped, shifted and ate at breakneck speed the contents of these trains. “Affect, or jouissance in Lacanian terms, is what accrues from reflexive communications, from communication for its own sake, from the endless circular movement of commenting, adding notes and links, bringing in new friends and followers, layering and interconnecting myriad communication platforms and devices. Every tweet or comment, every forwarded image or petition, accrues a tiny affective nugget, a little surplus enjoyment, a smudge of attention that attaches to it, making it stand out from the larger flow before it bends back in” (p90).

Networked Affect Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, Michael Petit (eds), Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2015. 267 pp. ISBN978–0–262–02864–6 (hbk)

References

Clough, Patricia Tineto and Jean Halley (eds), The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Deleuze, Gilles, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans Richard Hurley, San Francisco: City Lights books, 1998.

Hardt, Michael, ‘Foreword: what are Affects Good For?’ in Patricia Tineto Clough and Jean Halley (eds), The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, pp ix-xiii.

Massumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Protevi, John, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Spinoza, Baruch, The Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters. Ed. Seymour Feldman. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992