Geography and affect

Below is a short introduction to some of the recent understandings of, and debates around, affect in Human Geography.

[Extract from Simpson, P. (2010) Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bristol, Bristol, pp. 129-134.]

Geographies of Affect

As Thrift (2004: 59) notes, “there is no stable definition of affect”. The concept has been present in a number of different traditions and therefore has been understood in a number of senses. Very generally though, affect can be seen to refer to the process of transition through which a body goes; it is a “transpersonal capacity which a body has to be affected (through an affection) and to affect (as the result of modifications)” (Anderson 2006: 735). The emphasis here is on a “processual logic of transitions that take place during spatially and temporally distributed encounters in which ‘each transition is accompanied by a variation in the capacity…’” (Massumi cited in Anderson 2006: 735). Thinking through affect implies that “the world is made up of billions of happy or unhappy encounters, encounters which describe a ‘mindful connected physicalism’ consisting of multitudinous paths which intersect” (Thrift 1999: 302). Put simply, an affect “is a mixture of two bodies, one body which is said to act on another, and the other receives traces of the first” (Deleuze 1978).

From this a body here has two simultaneous definitions. First, it is defined kinetically as being a composition of an infinite number of particles being at varying degrees of motion and rest, speed and slowness (longitude). Second, a body is defined dynamically by its capacity of affecting and being affected (latitude). This constructs an ecological map of the body, an immanent plan(e) “which is always variable and is constantly being altered, composed and recomposed, by individuals and collectives” (Deleuze 1988: 128). Deleuze (1988) discusses the modification of the body as being conditioned by two fundamental affects: joy and sadness. Joy refers to a positive affection, a nutrition, an increased speed and motion, increasing our capacity to act. Sadness is a negative affection, a poisoning, a slowing down, that reduces our capacity to act. Affects are then becomings: “sometimes they weaken us in so far as they diminish our power to act and decompose our relationships (sadness), sometimes they make us stronger in so far as they increase our power and make us enter into a vast or superior individual (joy)” (Deleuze and Parnet 2006: 45).

This understanding of affect can be both tied to, and distinguished from, feeling. Affects occur between objects or entities, and these interactions or affects are felt as intensities in the body, or find “corporeal expression in bodily feelings” (Anderson 2006: 736), and in so being are manifest in an alteration in a body’s capacity to act. We can understand affect as “a kind of vague but intense atmosphere” and feeling as “that atmosphere felt in the body” (McCormack 2008: 6). Further, and again, these can both be distinguished from emotions. Of significance here is the work of Massumi (2002: 28) who distinguishes emotion from affect in defining emotion as

“a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward described as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narritavizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognized”.

Emotion is therefore related to an “already established field of discursively constituted categories in relation to which the felt intensity of experience is articulated” and therefore “conceives experience as always already meaningful” (McCormack 2003: 495). This restricts the movement of affective intensities which exist prior to such fixing and framing by reducing them to such framings of meaning and significance.

This emphasis on the affective has produced a number of debates (see Lorimer 2008). Therefore, I will address two of these here. These relate to 1) how we understand affect, emotion, and power, and 2) to the ways in which the body is conceived as always active and agentive.

Debating Affect

This first set of debates just mentioned can be divided into two interrelated themes. Firstly, it has been argued that certain aspects of the language through which affect has been talked about is suggestive of a distancing from the emotional and the personal and instead promotes a focus on the reasonable and the public (Thien 2005). However, I simply do not see how affect can be seen as public. Relational yes – it occurs in the in-between; it does not belong to a subject. But this does not make it public. In fact one of the immense problems posed by trying to study affective experience is finding means through which to convey something of this affective experience given that it occurs outside of the realm of subjective, reflective experience.

In terms of affect being rational, again, this is simply not the case. Affect is precisely about the pre-rational. It comes before any rationalization by a subject. While it has been argued that, in contrast, emotion is not about the rational, for me, in that such works appeals to a (tacit) humanistic universalist logic whereby such emotional experiences mean the same thing to different people (Anderson and Harrison 2006; McCormack 2006), this it fact would be more suggestive of a rationalization of experience than work taking affect as its main focus.

Secondly, it has been argued that work on affect is inattentive to issues of power and that it is universalistic (Tolia-Kelly 2006). While I am sympathetic to the trajectory of Tolia-Kelly’s argument – the development of a non-universalizing understanding of affective capacities that pays attention to the ways in which such capacities are socialized – I cannot help but feel that there are flawed steps in her argument and that due to this it falls foul of the approach she wishes to sidestep. Tolia-Kelly picks up on Deleuze’s laying out of a ‘common plane of immanence’ and suggests that this ‘universalizing’ conception does not pay attention to the ways in which collectives are differently capable of affecting and being affected due to their access to geopolitical power, amongst other things. To an extent this is true, but in a very specific way. While this is a universal plane of immanence, it is only the same for everyone in that it is different for everyone. Therefore, this pays attention to the specificity of each encounter and does not introduce a universalistic principle.

(Further, while Deleuze may not talk about such issues of geopolitical power and the like in his little book on Spinoza, he does elsewhere explicitly discuss the ways in which a body is segmented in a multiplicity of ways – socially, culturally, politically, Oedipally – which affect its capacities to affect and be affected (see Deleuze 1978; 1995; 2006; Deleuze and Guattari 2004a; 2004b; Deleuze and Parnet 2006)).

This means that Deleuze pays attention to the specificity of how each individual can affect and be affected. As such, Deleuze does not homogenize experience under the ‘collective’ capacities Tolia-Kelly suggests as this is reductive of the singularity of each specific manifestation of those collective categories. Deleuze then pays attention to a more radical difference; to a difference in itself which is not a difference between specific manifestations or collectives, but rather a singularity in itself (see Deleuze 2004).

The second debate I will now discuss has arisen regarding the argued prominence of the auto-affective and overly agentive visions of the body and embodied experience that have emerged in recent work in non-representational theory, and the resultant call for there to be more attention paid to the vulnerability and passivity of the body. As such, Harrison (2008: 423) is critical of the recent prominence of what he calls “the body in action” in recent accounts of embodied experience (also see Anderson 2004; Bissell 2008). Harrison (2008: 423) calls attention to the prominence of the body being apprehended as “practically and constitutively engaged in the disclosure of the world and in the creation and maintenance of meaning and signification”. While not wanting to underplay the significance and positive nature of such contributions, Harrison calls attention to the potential lack of consideration being given to the ways in which the body is susceptible and passive, and wants to think about embodiment in and through its vulnerability, and, more specifically, to challenge the predominant notion of such vulnerability as something which is negative and to be overcome. Instead Harrison (2008: 427) wants to think vulnerability in terms of describing “the inherent and continuous susceptibility of corporeal life to the unchosen and the unforeseen – its inherent openness to what exceeds its abilities to contain and absorb”.

Following Harrison, it is important to emphasize that affects are as much about slowing down as they are about speeding up. This is to say that there will always be a variance in any capacity to act. That said, while Harrison calls attention to what he deems to be the “remorseless pressure of immanence and the proliferation of becoming” in the writing of Deleuze, there are affects that slow us down as well as affects that speed us up in his work. There is joy and there is sadness. The coherence of bodies is threatened as well as potentially being expanded upon. There are ‘decompositions’ as much as ‘compositions’ (see Deleuze 1988: 19). This is perhaps something that the geographical literature has not emphasized enough (so far…). This is to suggest that there is vulnerability included within this, but that it is not given a central position – it is not the aspect of our embodied existence, but an aspect. There is always a relative movement – a becoming-faster and a becoming-slower. As Thrift (2007: 10 [emphasis added]) states

“not everything is focused intensity. Embodiment includes tripping, falling over, and a whole host of other such mistakes. It includes vulnerability, passivity, suffering, even simple hunger. It includes episodes of insomnia, weariness and exhaustion, a sense of insignificance and even sheer indifference to the world. In other words, bodies can and do become overwhelmed”.

While there is an ethics of speeding up and a call for what Deleuze calls a “bliss of action” (Deleuze 1988: 28), this is an ethical imperative and not a more general statement about corporeal existence which is about composition and decomposition, joy and sadness.


Anderson, B. (2004) Time-stilled space-slowed: how boredom matters. Geoforum, 35, 739-754.

Anderson, B. (2006) Becoming and being hopeful: towards a theory of affect. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, 733-752.

Anderson, B. and Harrison, P. (2006) Questioning affect and emotion. Area, 38, 333-335.

Bissell, D. (2008) Comfortable bodies: sedentary affects. Environment and Planning A, 40, 1697-1712.

Deleuze, G. (1978) Seminar given on Spinoza on 24/01/1978.

Deleuze, G. (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. City Lights Books, San Fransisco.

Deleuze, G. (1995) Negotiations. Columbia University Press, New York.

Deleuze, G. (2004) Difference and Repetition. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G. (2006) Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004a) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004b) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G. and Parnet, C. (2006) Dialogues II. Continuum, London.

Harrison, P. (2008) Corporeal Remains. Vulnerability, proximity and living-on after the end of the world. Environment and Planning A, 40, 423-445.

Lorimer, H. (2008) Cultural Geography: non-representational conditions and concerns. Progress in Human Geography, 32, 551-559.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables of the virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press, London.

McCormack, D. (2003) An event of geographical ethics in spaces of affect. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28, 488-507.

McCormack, D. (2006) For the love of pipes and cables: a response to Deborah Thien. Area, 38, 330-332.

McCormack, D. (2008) Geographies for Moving Bodies: Thinking, Dancing, Spaces. Geography Compass, 2, 1822-1836.

Thien, D. (2005) After or beyond feeling? A consideration of affect and emotion in geography. Area, 37, 450-456.

Thrift, N. (1999) Steps to an Ecology of Place. In Massey, D., Allen, J. and Sarre, P. (Eds.) Human Geography Today. Polity, Cambridge.

Thrift, N. (2004) Intensities of Feeling: Towards a spatial politics of affect. Geografiska Annaler B, 86, 57-78.

Thrift, N. (2007) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Poltics, Affect. Routledge, London.

Tolia-Kelly, D. P. (2006) Affect – an ethnocentric encounter? Exploring the ‘universalist’ imperative of emotional/affectual geographies. Area, 38, 213-217.



About Paul Simpson

I am currently a lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences at Keele University. I've previously lectured at Plymouth University, and again at Keele before that. I completed my PhD (titled 'Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics') at the University of Bristol in 2009.
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