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Before COVID-19 changed everything, I read Massimiliano Tomba’s 2013 publication, Marx’s Temporalities (Haymarket Books). Tomba’s compelling discussions of how Marx theorizes multiple levels of time and being brought clarity to a question I have long had about Sara Ahmed’s oft-cited (and wonderful) essay, “Affective Economies” (Social Text 79, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 2004).

Tomba’s second chapter, “A New Phenotype” discusses the type of human produced by capital. In doing so, it demonstrates how Marx’s well known delineation of C-M-C and M-C-M in Part II of Capital is a feint. The familiar, street-level, brightly-illuminated exchange and circulation of products is not the real argument, and neither is its inversion from the pre-capitalist, use-oriented economy, C-M-C. Rather, Marx uses the formulaic shift of C-M-C to M-C-M (an inversion drawn from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and familiar to Ricardo and Smith) to show how “Value becomes the aim” for capital (84), and also to reveal the explanatory power of circulation as mere appearance, a delusion wrought by the torque of power. As we know, Marx goes on to argue that surplus-value is not extracted through market circulation, but requires occluded exploitation. The real force of capital lies not in exchange but in the blood and sweat of laborers and the surplus labor expropriated from their bodies. Marx’s long chapter on “The Working Day” steers readers away from “free” market exchange and shows us the vampiric conditions of labor extraction. For Marx, then, surplus-value is both in circulation and not in circulation. It is in circulation because it can only be realized as profit through the exchange of commodities, but surplus value is also not in circulation because it is a structural condition of capitalist production. He summarizes in a note toward the end of the chapter:

“It is for this reason that it is logically impossible to represent the capital-labour relationship in terms of equality. That which is formally correct and falls within the rights of the sphere of circulation, the buying and selling of labour-power, becomes an injustice when placed within the production-process, where the labour-power to be provided during the process of labour necessarily entails the wearing out and ruining of the body. Wages pay for the use of labour-power, but cannot pay for the wearing out of the body.” (Tomba 91)

Ahmed’s “Affective Economies” draws on Marx’s discussion of value-creation and makes an analogy to the ordered social circulation of emotions.  The essay doesn’t parse the doubled (or dialectical) layering of Marx’s argument, however; it refers only to Part II of Capital, before Marx takes the reader’s hand and leads us (with Mr. Moneybags) down to the factory floor. Ahmed’s powerful analogy between capital and affect draws from Marx’s sly presentation of the premises of bourgeois economists and not from his subsequent undoing of those premises. She writes,

“That is, emotions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but is produced only as an effect of its circulation….In Capital, Marx discusses how the movement of commodities and money, in the formula M-C-M (money to commodity to money), creates surplus value. That is, through circulation and exchange M acquires more value. Or as he puts it, ‘The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but increases its magnitude, adds to itself a surplus-value or is valorised. And this movement converts it into capital.’ I am identifying a similar logic: the movement between signs converts into affect.” (120)    

As I’ve said, this account of the formation of capital is slyly partial. It’s true that capital doesn’t reside in a commodity, but it also is not only produced as an effect of circulation. The ruthless effectiveness of capitalism also requires the hidden extraction of surplus value from workers. It takes both the above-ground circulations and the obscured forces and relations of production to generate capital. Likewise, it takes not only the between-bodies circulation but also the obscured, differential gradients of valuation to generate affective economies.

Ahmed is not theorizing Marx, of course, but using Marx to theorize affect. She cites Marx’s theories of capitalist circulation to dislodge contemporary, liberal presumptions that affect is individual and interior. Like Marx’s claims that “value” (as socially necessary labor time) is objective even though it is immaterial, Ahmed shows us that affect is also immaterial and objective. We can’t touch it or hold it like an object, but we can feel affect through its embodied and social dynamics–we can toss it around, dump it on the unwary, disavow it, unpack it, etc. Ahmed attends to these embodied and social dynamics in their public circulation.

But what would be the correlate in Ahmed’s affective economy to the production of surplus-value in exploitation of labor? [Here I happily give a shout-out to Andrew Ridgeway, a graduate student in my spring 2020 Marx/Foucault seminar whose response to Ahmed spurred me to this line of thinking.]

Ahmed seems to answer in terms of shared histories and shared cultural contexts. She cites Freud, for instance, writing that, “the sideways movement between objects, which works to stick objects together as signs of threat, is shaped by multiple histories. The movement between signs does not have its origin in the psyche, but is a trace of how histories remain alive in the present” (126). The same paragraph cites Fanon, shivering in response to a barrage of icy, racist narratives thrown at him by a small white boy. Later Ahmed discusses the post 9/11 assault against Muslim “bodies, psyches and rights” as an economy of hate that requires “stereotypes already in place” even as it cements a new figure of social fear (“the Muslim terrorist”) in the present (131).

But what are the conditions that fuel and sustain the formation of these histories, cultural contexts and already-existing stereotypes? Like the conditions of the factory floor that produce surplus-value through exploitation but are unseen in the public realm of exchange, I suggest that our affective responses may be seen in social circulation but are triggered and sustained by unseen histories of trauma or/and privilege.

Ahmed’s notes at the beginning of her essay:

“I argue that emotions play a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs” (117)

This is a powerful thesis and crucial insight. And to really flesh it out, I think Ahmed needs something like Silvan Tompkins’ script theory, something that can theorize how emotion works hinge-like between individual and society (cf. Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson’s chapter on “Scenes and Scripts” in A Silvan Tomkins Handbook, Minnesota UP, 2020). For Tompkins, emotion does crystallize in “a” psyche but the psyche is itself embodied and directly networked with others in textured proximities of interest and value (material proximity and digital proximity, say). In this famous essay, Ahmed seems to write about this hinging work from an outside, as if she is observing the “surfacing” of an individual body as “white nationalist” through its reception and deployment of certain signs, affects, and emotions. I’d suggest that this individual body also sediments as white nationalist in the concretion and sustaining of the habits (affective scenes and scripts) formed and maintained by these same circuits of reception and deployment.

Take this specific assertion about one affect:

“Importantly, then, hate does not reside in a given subject or object. Hate is economic; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement.” (119)

For hate to register this way, as an affect worthy (i.e., valuated) to be received and redeployed, doesn’t it have to have other social and embodied anchors? I would posit yes, and suggest that we know this to be true, because we know that very young children do not hate. A young child can be angry, even violent, but they don’t have a narrative thickness of experience that assembles, over time, one scene of negative affect with other, contextualized and associated scenes of negative and positive affect in the child’s life, in loved-ones’ lives, in literature, television, film and social media… such that that first scene–as it repeats and resonates through the psychic and bodily sedimentation of future experiences–can come to be valuated as repulsive, purely negative, and “to be avoided” (or eradicated), that is, as hate.

I am still working through this question, still seeking a firmer sense of the relation between affect and valuation.