Capacity stems from a Late Middle English word that means “taking” or “holding.” These two verbs don’t usually appear as synonyms since taking is an aggressive or assertive act of pulling in, and holding is a defensive or solicitous posture of maintaining a state without overt change. Capacity, however, is precisely the state in which taking and holding converge, because the term embeds both a sense of a cavern or abyss–like a womb or other cavity–that can be filled when something is taken from the outside and put into it–and a sense of potentiality, since if that abyssal womb or other cavernous cavity is filled, capacity refers to the sense of holding what’s been received in readiness for release or action. Capacity is thus both void and potency, that which is formed as a hollow to receive and, after receipt, formed to enable ability.

In his analysis of Spinozan ontology and ethics, Deleuze famously asks “What must we do in order to be affected by a maximum of joyful passions?” (Expressionism in Philosophy, Zone Books, 273) The first step in an ethic that will produce and express beatitude is, he argues, the creation in oneself of more joyful passions. This is because ethics and salvation are not produced or expressed by actions but fundamentally by capacities.  Joyful passions, in Deleuze’s reading, are the capacities for joy, such that the taking of or being affected by more joyful passions results in a greater holding of or capacity for joy. Put differently, the reception of joyful passions, that is, the ability to open up one’s body and relations to joyful passions, comes over time to orient oneself to joy(fulness) or as C. S. Peirce might say to create the habit(s) for joy. The taking of joyful passions into oneself transforms one’s life by trans-forming the number, kinds, and qualities of relationship into which one enters and by which one’s self is formed (taken) and sustained (held).

At the end of his remarks that opened last week/end’s “Capacious: Affect Inquiry/Making Space” conference, Super-Aefftman*, Greg Seigworth put forth a vision for affect studies that resonates in affective affiliation with this dual sense of capacity as taking and holding, as the reception and production/expression of joy:

“I would like to believe that the journal Capacious and this conference are modest attempts at enacting such a thing: testing out other — more welcoming — ways to enter into scholarship, to build empathetic intellectual communities, to live an academic life that is not about claims to mastery and hyper-competitive one-down-manship but rather looks for the means to produce affective encounters and generative relations that will need to do something more-than-merely-sustain us through the ethno-nationalisms, kleptocracies and climate catastrophes that shape our existence in the present, for the future” (cut and pasted from Seigworth’s post on the Capacious FB page).

In an age when neoliberal tactics of debt, precarity, and hyper affect-management have seeded profound cynicism and distrust in all theaters of labor, including academia, Greg’s words are a balm, a charge, and a feasible ideal. The study of affect considers not just the goals of research or the whats and whys of life, but the hows, the emotional and sensorial measure of things. Greg’s words inspire us to turn our questions of how we do things–how we take and hold, how we produce and express–to all arenas of our intellectual, academic, and life endeavors.

I don’t have pictures of the conference because I was too caught up in it. I was like a resonance machine. But perhaps we can think about affect through this picture of Three-Mile Island that I snapped on my phone as the plane was landing in Harrisburg. Nuclear power starts with uranium, shakes up its atoms, and then splits them asunder in order to release energy. The process sounds neutral enough but the fission of uranium atoms creates waste that will still be on earth long after we humans have figured out how to finally kill each other off. Greg’s conferences–and his stated hopes for the joyful passions of affect studies–do something quite the opposite. They start with unpredictable encounters of people, art, music, walking, ideas, food, and arguments that shake up and pull threads of all of these things together into new and unexpected patterns. This fusion results in the heat of intellectual (and other) passion but does not leave us with toxic waste. Quite the contrary, it spools out into generative focus and fuel for further thought, further encounter, further….

In other words, it leaves us (capaciously) with capacity.


*I get the neologism “aeffect” from superthinker-writer-poet-rhythmicist, Fred Moten.