For An Affective Anarchism

Joseph Kay’s call for an affective politics is one I agree with and have made in other (non-anarchist) circles. For me part of the problem of leaving affect out of the picture is that affect is a significant driver of motivation for active participation in politics. Reactionary capturing of affect is predicated on exactly the point that it is through the stimulation and management of affect that you can mobilise people to a cause (EDL for instance), to a political party or, much more commonly, to a tabloid media witch hunt. The power of this affective expertise is such that non-issues and non-existent threats from a generalised paedophile epidemic to the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction can quicken the pulse and boil the blood of entire swathes of the working class.Are the affects and the post-spectacular media terrain really things that we want to exclude from our politics and ethics? In what follows I want to discuss the consequences of relieving politics and ethics of the pathos of our corporeal affectivity.

Beyond politics it has been an accomplished fact of advertising since the 1920s/1930s when Sigmund Freud’s nephew percolated his uncle’s theoretical writing (via his experience as a wartime propagandist) into creating the field of public relations. Edward Bernays laid much of the groundwork in the invention of advertising in order to assist the post-Depression drive to increase American consumption by seeking to apply Freudian insights into human psychology. While we might question the validity of psychoanalysis as anything other than an impressive piece of mytho-poetics (my own problem with it is more to do with the idea of it being a symptom of a belief in “deep interiority”), it is nonetheless the case that its application to the manipulation and production of desire has been a resounding success. If we take the example of cigarette smoking. In the 1920s it was uncommon for women to smoke and Bernays wanted to change this, to create a new consumer market who would go out and spend their dollars on Lucky Strike tobacco. In order to do this he orchestrated suffragette-type marches in which all the women symbolically took out and lit their cigarettes on queue.

Meanwhile, Bernays had consulted a psychoanalyst to ask about the potential meaning of the cigarette to the female psyche. The analyst returned what seems to us now to be the obvious and perhaps pat answer that cigarettes represented phallic symbols- the very symbol of masculine privilege, authority and power. In accordance with this Bernays also had stories running that this “suffragette” march was to culminate in the women lighting up and thereby symbolically reclaiming (and destroying) the power and visibility that men held as their own exclusive domain. The papers turned out; the march was a success; the subsequent advertising for the “Torches of Freedom” campaign chimed on the idea that ‘an ancient prejudice has been removed’. Sales of cigarettes shot up.

Bernays poster campaign for Lucky Strike. Part of the “Torches of Freedom” campaign.

In effect the campaign succeeded in producing the linkages between smoking, male power, and women’s liberation. Smoking was a symbolic act of freedom. Of course, women’s material freedom remain unaffected by this- but the people producing and selling cigarettes certainly saw material rewards. Bernays later went on to use incredibly similar tactics to assist in creating public support in the United States for the US orchestrated coup of the democratic government of Guatamala.

The reason I go through this example is because although as an early example of the power of advertising it is impressive, it is also part of the history of what today has become a banal and often invisible part of our everyday life. Advertising penetrates everywhere and thus disappears. The strategies of psychoanalytically inspired public relations penetrate right into the heart of our lives to such a degree that (paraphrasing Slavoj Zizek) it teaches us how to desire. It was embedded in the heart of the politics of the Blair years in the form of the consumer-cum-electorate focus group.

Even today the man that sits in Downing Street at the head of the Coalition that is pushing through austerity measures that can’t but appear as part of a vicious class war is a former public relations man. Cameron’s presentation is every bit that of the Reaganesque man playing the politician that JG Ballard foresaw as the wedding of politics and the media in the 1968 pamphlet “Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan”. We can also detect the appeals to a mass-market in his constant empty policies and pseudo-philosophical stands like the Big Society and pronouncements of the existence of ‘strivers and skivers’. By sending out meaningless speeches and contentless policies Cameron is able to rely on his PR acquired ability to manipulate affect- although thankfully in a far from consistently successful way. The concerted effort to stimulate and harness affect through inciting “mimetic desire” is also at the heart of rhetoric around an “aspiration nation”. This point isn’t that these statements are meant to reflect the existence of an aspirational subject but to produce it: if everyone is “aspiring” then you ought to be aspiring to- this is what others want to achieve so you should want to achieve it to. That there is nothing of substance behind these claims is completely besides the point. Cameron and the Coalition’s advertising team are trying to get us to light up a cigarettes we don’t yet even want.

None of this even touches on the more extreme example of the capturing of affect. It hardly bears mentioning as everyone is surely well aware of the “mass psychology of fascism”. This is perhaps the most destructive historical example of the reactionary incitement and capture of affect, and one that remains important to keep in mind when we see the rise of groups like Golden Dawn as mainstream political entities.

One the theorists of the current affective horizon is Lauren Berlant, whose book  Cruel Optimism is on my too-long to-read list. In an interview with Variant magazine she discloses the linkage between affect and austerity:

The state might say it’s austerity or you don’t matter, you are not deserving of the social. Or it might say, it’s austerity: think of your grandchildren’s future; or think of the pensioners who are about to go down with no safety net. The absence of compliance would not necessarily involve shame, but resolute narcissism coded as autonomy and pride, or pathos and weakness, or some combination of rationales that would appear as affective noise. It would be interesting to think of austerity in relation to claims that the vulnerable should recode loss as sacrifice and therefore produce an affective cushion to replace the loss of other material ones, which were both real and affective, a sense of trust that all lives fallen from productivity would not land hard on the concrete. The affect not to be borne might be experienced in transmissions of disgust, shame, a tragic sense of not mattering, or an ironic, manic-comic sense of not mattering. It might be unbearable to discover how little one matters to the reproduction of life, but shame is just one of the many moods of affective relation that locates persons and groups in the anxiety of forging an idiom of response.

Here, the state is figured as caught up in the work of coordinating the horizon of our affective responses to reality. Coding material loss as sacrifice is an attempt to turn shame and suffering into a source of pride. Sure, we can’t afford to pay the bills…but we’re helping to sort out the economy. While this is unlikely to be the conscious thought process of the majority of people when they look at their bills or the reduction in their benefits (often the main source of income for a great many people) it is likely that people will feel despondency, anxiety, despair. Beneath the level of explicitly conscious thougt the attempt to recodify these affective responses as necessary or force them to sit alongside the feelings of being a good citizen-consumer are undoubtedly part of the strategy of naturalising austerity as an unfortunate but essential way to “get the nation back on track”. A number of writers have pointed out that we live in an increasingly cold world where depression and anxiety are the consequences of our affective coupling to capitalism and I have previously written about the political physiology of the attention economy in the way that it assists in producing these affects. As austerity occurs as a tool of neoliberalism it also occurs at the same moment that we are encouraged to view these social pathologies as psychic maladies interior to the individual’s cognitive-schemas and/or neurochemistry. This “responsibilisation” of social symptoms only serves to accelerate and heighten the prevalence of the negative affective fallout of the finance catastrophe and its afterlives. As psychiatric diagnoses, use of psychopharmacology and suicide rates continue to rise (albeit with other coextensive considerations alongside them) we begin to see another mode of capturing affectivity.

First it is identified along individualist lines with a psychic problem that may or may not be received as a moral judgement. That identification can be merged with a further identification of a chemical imbalance in individual neurology, despite the fact that no such imbalance has been demonstrated as the aetiological cause of depression, anxiety or any other psychiatric disorder. Social pathologies are then indexed, measured, named and treated as psychobiological problems of individuals with barely any reference to the social whatsoever. The fact is that this situation has even been recognised a figure of no less standing in the profession than the American Psychiatric Association’s then president Steven Sharfstein. In 2005 Sharfstein declared that rather than deploying an inclusive “biopsychosocial” model of mental illness psychiatry, in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies, was had an operational “bio-bio-bio model” determining its theory and practice.

As a consequence of this individualisation of socially conditioned embodied distress, our the psy-disciplines are allowed unparalleled power to pathologise increasing aspects of our affective life. Our affectivity is thus captured once more by psychiatry and psychotherapeutic management. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with an adjustment disorder and put on a combination of neuroleptics and benzodiazapines after a succession of failed suicide attempts and self-harming behaviours. It should be noted that adjustment disorder is defined as the occurring when an individual is unable to cope with a given stressor. That stressor might be a bereavement or the break-up of a relationship. It might also be the loss of employment or being forced to move from your home because you can’t afford to pay the bedroom tax or because you’ve finally reached the point where continued and increasing economic hardship is becoming too much to bear. Rather than seeing this “stressor” (a neutral bit of technical jargon; a nice empty signifier) as the direct affective response to the aggressive austerity of the recomposition of capital it is translated into an individual pathology treatable by olanzapine and its ilk. I wonder how many activists, rioters or other people who experience an angry rather than sad passion in response to the same circumstances have been diagnosed with the equally dubious diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder. Listen anarchist! It’s not a political riot, it is the pathological expression of broken minds from broken homes in a broken nation: such was the mainstream opinion of the 2011 riots in England [0].

We can see now that the psychiatrist and the psychotherapist or counsellor are used by (and make use of) a state that would rather not have to worry about public discussions of the problem of the catastrophic psychological costs of the recomposition of capital and it’s own increased authoritarianism. Such awkward conversations can be silenced simply by pointing out that they are technical problems for the psychiatrist to solve and for the individual to engage with and nothing to do with public policy or political activism. Rather than being bodies that affect and are affected by all our ecological relations that to coexist within ‘affective circuits of sociality’ (Berlant) we are reduced to atoms that relate only to themselves. Just like with Bernays role in the development of a simulation that engendered a reality, I would contend that this is a conscious strategy of statecraft that deploys a specific kind of psychopower for neuropolitical ends. Here neuropolitics accords specifically with William Connelly’s definition of the term as relating to ‘. . . the politics through which cultural life mixes into the composition of the body/brain process.  And vice versa’. In other words, alongside the current movement in the recomposition of capitalism via the recompostion of labour we also see the parallel emergence of a recomposition of affect. 

To put the problem plainly, if we don’t develop politics that are capable of integrating and appealing to affectivity then we leave it open to its captivation by capital, the state and reactionary populisms on the “public” side of things, and its deprivation via its management within psychiatry and psychotherapy, alongside the increase in people assimilating these discourses into their self-conceptions, on the “private” side of things [1]. To neglect the affective dimension in our politics and our ethics is to leave it’s vulnerable territory open to colonisation by these forces and other forces.

Appeals to affect have a more immediate if non-cognitive function insofar as they are able to produce a resonance among those bodies who occupy a similar position within the structural relations of the capitalist ecology. The affective tone of the post-work imaginaries evinces how workers who corporeally apprehend their own position of exploitation, alienation and struggle to survive respond to that affectivity before they respond to theoretical articulations of why a post-work future is desirable and how it might be possible. We see this in other ways too with the visceral aversion many people have to the presence of fascists on the streets and in the numerous ways that people’s stories of the effects of austerity can make front page news. In the affects these and many other phenomena produce we can see what bodies share in the same affectivity and how such a shared affectivity can be produced. That people feel differently is often the result of the fact that our affectivity is decoupled from the very circuits of sociality that allow them to be synchronous or desynchronous in different circumstances. Who can doubt that the majority of political situations that have emerged in recent years have had an intense affectivity behind them? None of this is to say that an affective politics is the panacea for anarchists and Marxian politics in attempting to build popular support- but it does suggest that the affective is a territory that we can’t afford to ignore. If affectivity has to be politicised then politics also has to become affective, and it must do so without negating the cognitive in favour of a pure politics of emotion.

Coming from another perspective, Paul Virilio has written disparagingly about our present being conditioned what he calls a “democracy of emotion” or a “communism of affect”. In his words from 2005’s City of panic

We today face the threat, no longer simply a democracy of opinion which would replace the representative democracy of all political parties, but the excess of a veritable DEMOCRACY OF EMOTION; of a collective emotion, simultaneously synchronised and globalised whose model could well be that of a post-political televangelism.

A massified perception, flowing through massified media- media that pass relatively uncontested into and remain in the hands of the “1%”- produces a singularisation, a synchronisation, of input-demand-output. There is no time in the simultaneity of event, perception, demand for a response, and the enunciation of that response for deliberative reasoning, for cognitive examinations, for sustained critique. There is only the visceral reaction, and on this point the managers of our emotions understand our embodied being better than we ourselves often seem to. For Virilio it seems clear that we have reached an acceleration of the event-action circuitry to a point where conscious registration passes swiftly to emotive outcry (given Virilio’s conservatism he’s bound to include rioting in this, although its not without its truth) that is essentially mindless. There is a fear of the mob undoing everything. This isn’t anti-democractic elitism, because it is a kind of elitism in favour of democracy; the people, and their representatives, must have time to think! I share Virilio’s concerns about having the time to think and would generalise it across a work-society that demands ever more hours with ever diminishing real-term wages and that pushes and punishes bodies to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, physiological exhaustion may be the chief means whereby the dimension of affect is recomposed. Exhausted from work and combined with exhaustion from having no time to eat/no time to eat healthily we lack the bodily capacity (as well as the time) to sit down and think, to formulate a proper response; and this applies even to those of us who try to do exactly that! Ideology’s success is explaining in part by these very effects of an economy of political physiological interventions.

For Virilio, the path to more time to think and to think properly lies in the rehabilitation of parliamentary democracy- the one feature of our political life that enjoys almost universal indifference. This isn’t just a weird position for a philosopher who has previously described himself as an anarchist, it is also particularly striking for its complete disconnection from the awareness of the growing irrelevance of parliamentary democracy for both the majority of people and specifically for political radicals [2]. Of course, anarchists have long argued for the irrelevance and noxiousness of parliaments, a position that many philosophers today seem to openly agree with whilst being quite unable to allow themselves to speak the “a” word.

Deterritorial Support Group propaganda poster

The position of Paul Virilio seems incredibly conservative and even a little “dromophobic” [3]. Yet he is not alone in his distrust of affect being seen as crucial to our politics and our ethical life. Critique of affect and the media landscape will remain trapped within a reactionary conservatism for as long as they are unable or unwilling to engage in the work of re-purposing the tools that currently lie in the hands of capital, the state and the psy-disciplines in order to weaponise them for radical, even revolutionary, ends. Projects like the Deterritorial Support Group’s use of post-spectacular media strategies to actually make contact with the bodies of those being destroyed by capitalism’s secular crisis and its attempts to self-manage the catastrophe are only one kind of example. Affect, media, and the strategies of the spectacle all exist and all remain firmly in the clasp of capital and the state. Isn’t it about time that we realise our coupling to these phenomena is already established, that they aren’t simply things that can be ignored but with which we are already in an ecologically complex relation, and that we accept that they might be key to an ecological ethics and a revolutionary politics. Against Virilio’s “democracy of emotion” and “communism of affect”, I think we need to develop an affective anarchism. To paraphrase a slogan circulated by different anarchist and feminist projects, part of our effort must be to RECLAIM AFFECT. 


[0] Before going on I want to point out that I am not against the use of diagnoses where people find them helpful (I’m a post-nihilist pragmatist, after all) and nor am I suggesting that there are no experiences of mental distress that diagnoses try formulate into discreet bundles. Ontologically, the diagnosis has a separate existence from the experience it attempts to reduce into its technical formulae and as such the relationship between diagnosis and experience must always be examined as a relational and translational one (ie: the tool and the material act on and alter one another).   

[1] It is interesting to note that while some areas have been the ambiguation and/or obliteration of the public-private dichotomy, psychiatry retains an almost absolute distinction between the two realms via its locked-wards and its conceptualisation of “the community” beyond the hospital walls. 

[2] This kind of appropriation of “anarchism” is increasingly notorious among philosophers who allow a philosophical concept (an-arche) slip into a political praxis (anarchism). The most recent of these weird slippages is probably to be found in Simon Critchley’s Infinitely demanding. At a lecture (on divine violence) I attended at London’s LSE shortly after Critchley published this text, he described himself as a Bakunin minus violence. I remain confused. For a sustained look at this philosophical appropriation of anarchism and its discontents see Nina Power’s “Which anarchism? On the advantages and disadvantages

[3] From Virilio’s neologism “dromology”: the study of speed.


I wanted to ask whether it is possible to see peer-support groups and projects like the Hearing Voices Network and Intervoice as examples of autonomous therapeutic organisations that could be seen as corresponding to the anarcho-syndicalist commitment to the self-management of labour? Revolutionaries have to seriously consider how persistent aspects of mental health problems could be dealt with in a way that departs from psychiatric and psychotherapeutic orthodoxy without falling into an idealist anti-psychiatry that would see severe mental distress as magically disappearing “after the revolution”.

7 responses to “For An Affective Anarchism

  1. In a recent interview with Obsolete Capitalism, speculative media theorist (and interlocutor with speculative realism/object-oriented philosophy) Jussi Parikka responds to a question on the resurgence of fascism in Europe. His reply includes the observation that

    ‘there is a need for an analysis of affect in the midst of the economic crisis. We should take seriously the ideas of Gabriel Tarde concerning the affective constitution of economics, and consider in what ways are these different destructive affects mobilized, which relate to our sense of the social (the pathology of we-ness through its exclusive qualities, the Schmittian condition that persists) and its variations across our capacities for cognitive and affective evaluation of the crisis’.

    Further on, again referring to Tarde in response to the question of the construction of “the people”:

    ‘For instance UK has had a fair range of events the past years, from student demonstrations to the riots in 2011. There might not be an overarching explanation of what they “meant” politically but we need to understand what happens on the ground, on affective levels, on levels what Tarde would call imitational, and what produces attachments and detachments’.

    The interview is well worth reading in full at

    Jussi Parikka is the author of four books, including Insect Media (2010) and What is media archeology? (2012).
    He blogs at Macinology:
    and is followable on twitter via @juspar

    In my psychiatric nursing training (and with limited opportunity in my practice) I found that the attachment theoretical discourse of people like Donald Winnicott was quite helpful in discussing on only processes of subjectivation in clinical terms but in wider terms as well. When we talk about structural coupling and/or ecological linkages in the mesh and weaving of coexistence we are always also discussion various forms of attachment and detachment, corporeal, structural as well as affective. The strength of the language of attachment is that it entirely eschews the need to speak in terms of subjectivations and niche-construction in terms of identity and identification-disidentification. The language also reaches back to the traditions like Stoicism (a fully corporealist ontology) and Buddhism (an ontology that as Tim Morton continues to argue was always outside of the problem of Ego/the correlationist circle).

    In Teresa Brennan’s terms, the ongoing transmission of affect has been occluded from view in favour of “affective self-containment”. In this way, the affective dimension of fascism can easily disappear from view, leaving liberal commentators scratching there heads and attributing its success to any number of spurious causes. Fascism appears to me as an affective virus from outer-space.

    • may be a poetic gesture on your part but I think that we should avoid literal-minded JohnProtevi-like talk of transmission of affect (and ‘ideas’ for that matter) both to avoid making feelings/moods into things/agents, like say cholera, and to lose sight of the variations in impacts on, re-actions of, individuals, if we can avoid the sort of gross misdiagnoses/characterizations that some in the OOOish corner of the blogosphere made around the protest movements in the “Arab Spring” that would be helpful to getting more accurate/useful assessments of what’s actually evolving, back to the rough-ground!

      • When I say “transmission” I’m not intending it in a literal sense such as in the chain of infection but more closely to the idea of radio or television transmission…broadcast… this allows for a subtler understanding that again I hope doesn’t fall into paranormal ideas of telepathic empathy- although I think that bodily transmission of affect can have an effect that “telepathy” is a kind of mystification of.

  2. Perhaps “broadcast” doesn’t cut it either…too much of an insinuation that something within is doing the broadcasting through the body-signification complexes- as if reactivating the very “depth interiority” that our corporealism is partly ended to eschew; a kind of reorientation rather than departure from the psychoanalytic unconscious-symptom relation. It might also retain too much of a contemporary media emphasis on the broadcast of “content”, bringing the kind of flattening of the richness of genres and metaphor that “content” implies into the affective sphere. In fact, “broadcast” is probably the apposite metaphor for the view from affective self-containment rather than its counter. Although, thinking it from this perspective opens up the possibility to think in terms of the culture-jamming of affect- is there a form of affective sabotage that would mirror Hakim Bey’s idea of art sabotage (“To seize TV transmission & broadcast a few pirated minutes of incendiary Chaote art would constitute a feat of Poetic Terrorism–but simply to blow up the transmission tower would be perfectly adequate Art Sabotage”).

    When we start to look at this idea of broadcast, it also starts to point to the question of whether- for all its undeniable illuminative value- understanding the effects of the infinite of cyberspace and cybertime on our finite physiological systems as “overload” might itself remain too close to the image of the broadcast-receiver model. As “overloaded” we can’t help but be conceptually figured as things to be “loaded”- a metaphor that points both to the image of the container and to the image of the gadget/app. In other words, does the term “overload” already concede too much? It kinda looks like it does.Once we start looking at the field like this, it might be that a raft of conceptual figurations reveal themselves less as what the hand-holds they should be and more like crags in the cliff face, lacerating our hands as we struggle to hold on.

    The “transmission of affect” that Brennan refers to is worth holding onto I think- esp. due to the evidence re. phenomena such as chemical entrainment. She tends to think of it as the direct communication of humans on the corporeal level via complex neuroendochrinological interactivity, and this is a weakness. While embodied experimentation in the sciences can allow humans to get to grips with understanding and making use of these interactions I don’t think we can call them “human communication”: perhaps it is rather that a whole sub-set of the organism and, unknown to itself materially and phenomenologically, the organism itself enter into communicative agencies that the conscious person remains entirely unaware of- except in terms of the sudden rush of lust or revulsion, fear or excitement etc.

    It seems like this is another aspect of transcoporeality- of the folding of the flesh- and so less like broadcast and more like a weird tele-auto-affection? Would a better metaphor be something like a “material miasma”?

    At any rate, these ideas require further philosophical unpacking before we could see what praxis they might open up.

  3. Pingback: hyperstition is the cure for depression | synthetic zero·

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