Recently, my colleague, Zachary Braiterman, asked me to elaborate on my concept of the affecognitive. I thought I already had but true to my scholarly habits, I had written it out, numerous times, and never inserted it into anything published. Put succinctly, affecognitive posits that all cognition embeds affect. As C. S. Peirce would say, all Thirdness includes Firstness, that is, all concept, generality, or law embeds quality, intensity, and possibility—and all affect arises out of a streambed of existing and sedimented thoughts and feelings.* The term is phenomenological and critical; it does not enter cognitive science debates about the origins and causes of cognition (thoughts) and feelings (named affects).

It turns out that I first used affecognitive in a 2010 paper for the IAPL conference in Melbourne Australia. The paper, titled “Fleshing Discourse,” was a newly excited discussion of epigenetics, Foucault, Rancière and social construction. It is rather more situated in the discourses of biological sciences than I am right now (I used to be a biochemist, remember, and genetics was always a path-not-taken career for me), but I offer this excerpt from it as a quick and public reference for those who might be interested in this term and its development.

In considering familiar twentieth-century analyses of hegemony, commonsense, and ideology, it is clear that the success of these cultural and economic critiques lay in part in their agile attention to the powers of the ordinary and the everyday to thread together the habits of thought and feeling within communities, societies, and nations. Hegemony, common sense, and ideologies are particular social fabrics that constitute the comfortable vestments of quotidian social interaction, and critiques of them are critiques of those patterns of comfort and those vestments of power.

I was trained in these critiques and I still admire their materialist commitments, but increasingly I found them too oriented toward reason and discourse. I became frustrated by their failure to attend to feeling and to the bodies that generate and distribute feelings. It seemed to me that Rancière’s analyses of “the distribution of the sensible” and Foucault’s suggestion that society’s various “technologies” can be understood as “matrices of practical reason” could be seen to improve on ideology critique by successfully extending sensation and understanding (sens) to the social plane, thereby evincing the fact that one’s sensory habits and willed actions are not simply one’s own but are formed, triggered, channeled, and sustained through various social venues. The fluid machinations of these models are reminiscent of Raymond Williams’s earlier notion of “structures of feeling,” but to me, Rancière and Foucault go beyond Williams by theorizing specific bodily arrangements and their particular capacities to sustain and interrupt the social status quo.

My contribution to this line of thinking is the term affecognitive, by which I intend to encompass the social nexus of sensation and understanding, like Rancière and Foucault, but in ways that stress the biological channeling of this nexus through the impulses and intensities of affect (e.g., chemicals, electricity, pheromones, subconscious awareness). Rancière and Foucault emphasize the social distribution of human sensation and practical reason, but my term inverts the lens and emphasize the biological condensation and flashpoint of the social. Affecognitive is about bodies; it refers to the ways in which the social circulation of affect (re)settles in a body and weaves into that body’s extant physical and psychological makeup. In referring to the biological, I do not claim it as a dimension of life cleanly separable from the social (epigenetics newly clarifies this imbrication), but neither is the biological simply reducible to the social. My premise is this: If in today’s world of intensifying social media and media prosthetics, the social comes to biological bodies predominantly through visual and sound images, the fabric of social life—biological, technological, institutional, and temporal—requires the actions and reactions of affecognitive circuits to generate, sustain, and (also) interrupt social consensus.

I developed the term ‘affecognitive’ in light of reading two sets of scholars. First cultural critics such as Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Kathleen Stewart, Teresa Brennan, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Wilson, Charles Altieri, Brian Massumi, and even WJT Mitchell, all of whom underscore the importance of attending to the affective dimensions of global capitalism. Second, media and communication theorists such as Lev Manovich, Tiziana Terranova, Katherine Hayles, and Alex Galloway, scholars who deploy notions of affect and intensity to capture the changing dimensions of subjectivity, technology and social interconnectivity within globalization. The first set of scholars deploys vocabulary and theoretical rubrics that tend to reinscribe a hierarchal split subordinating affect to rationality. Though this reinscription is not surprising, considering how the legacy of the Enlightenment continues to pressure scholars to prioritize words, arguments, and reasons, it does underscore the difficulty of theorizing affect within and alongside cognitive categories and not as beneath or sublated by them. On the other hand, the second set of theorists focuses so much on affect and intensity that they risk losing the enfleshed and discursive sociality that always inevitably accompanies them. The various turns to affect, in other words, appeared to me not to undo or avoid our shared Enlightenment legacy but merely to sink into its seductive invaginations.

The term affecognitive thus indicates the bodily, institutional, and personally and technologically mediated circuits of both felt response and thought response, circuits that both do and do not change according to the temporal scale of one human life. Affecognitive enables me to think about bodily, cultural and historical processes that are enfleshed and social, both personally idiosyncratic and transgenerationally effective. Affecognitive circuits are at once singular and collective: they inhabit single bodies, but they are also triggered and relayed through local, regional, national, and transnational collectives, shifting considerably in significance and impact as they shift physiological location, and thereby constituting the variegated pattern that is the lived commons of citizenship and democracy. Increasingly over the past century, these circuits include images and non-proximate information—cinema, magazine and newspaper advertisements, television, billboards, encircling advertisements in sporting venues and on corporate skyscrapers, footage from drones, the hyperlinking Internet and its social media, and now smartphones and smart (prosthetic) devices for home and body. Each technology registers an intensification and proliferation of our image and information culture.

In my 2010 paper I termed the analysis of affecognitive circuits ‘fleshing discourse’ in order to indicate the triple interpretive trajectory of (1) discursively delineating affective bodily circuits in their fluidity and socio-historical contingency, (2) suggesting how socially-distributed affects can harden into psycho-physiological habits that are environmentally conditioned, para-conscious, and somewhat transmitted (epigenetically) through the germline, and (3) modeling publicness as a fluid social tissue that coalesces through ontologically complex forces (affective and cognitive) of self-production.

Eight years on, I still find this account helpful, though I have let go the notion of “fleshing discourse.”


*I’ve omitted Peirce’s Secondness here for simplicity, but Thirdness includes Secondness and Firstness, and Secondness includes Firstness.