Affect Theory and Trauma Theory

railway-station-1363771_1920Affect theory is coming to trauma theory.  In fact it’s already here.  The best account I’ve read is Ruth Leys “Trauma and the Turn to Affect.”  A historian of science, Leys is the author of the highly regarded Trauma: A Genealogy.  This post is indebted to her work. 

The main thing to understand about affect theory is that it has nothing to do with affect–that is, feeling and emotion.  According to affect theorists, affect is a

pre-subjective force that operates independently of consciousness or the phenomenological concept of subjectivity. (Leys, 2012) 

Affect is a mental state, separate from belief and desire, the affect program system as it is called.  Affect is the body acting on itself, free of cognition and emotion on the one hand, the quality of the stimulus, or stressor, on the other.  If this sounds weird, stick with me. 

As Patricia Clough puts it,

Trauma is the engulfment of the ego in memory. But memory might be better understood not as unconscious memory so much as memory without consciousness and therefore, incorporated, body memory, or cellular memory. (p. 6)


Where is trauma located?

Freud located traumatic memories in an unconscious psyche, that is the mind. Patricia Clough and other affect theorists, such as Brian Massumi, locate traumatic memory entirely within the brain/body.  An affinity exists between affect theory and Cathy Caruth’s well known view of trauma.  According to Caruth, trauma is experienced as the

literal registration of an event . . . Modern neurobiologists have in fact suggested that the unerring “engraving” on the mind, the “etching into the brain” of an event in trauma may be associated with its elision of its normal encoding in memory. (Caruth, 1995, pp. 152-153)     

Neither Caruth nor affect theory have any place for Freud’s (1898, 1909) characterization of trauma in terms of the concept of Nachträglichkeit, in which trauma is the memory of trauma, constantly being reworked by the unconscious mind.  For both Caruth and affect theory, trauma is outside the world of intention and meaning.  Trauma cannot be signified.

Leys says that both affect theory and Caruth locate trauma in the body. So does Clough.  That is not strictly correct.  It is not trauma’s location in the body, but its location in that part of the brain that cannot know the source of its own experiences, and so cannot understand its own intentions, that is key. 

Affect is emotion disengaged from narrative convention.  Affect is raw, unmeaningful, premeaningful emotion.  Untied down emotion.  As Eric Shouse puts it,

Affect is not a personal feeling.  Feelings are personal and biographical, emotions are social . . . and affects are pre-personal . . . . An affect is a nonconscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential . . . . Affect cannot be fully realised in language . . . because affect is always prior to and/or outside consciousness. 

Conversely, emotion is intensity owned and recognized (Massumi, 1995, p. 88; Leys, 2011, pp. 441-442). 

Because it abandons Freud’s concept of a psychical unconscious, affect theory only reinforces the mind/body split, for there is nothing in the middle. 

On this postpsychoanalytic model, what is not fully conscious must necessarily be corporeal or material. (Leys, 2011, p. 459, n. 43) 

Unconsciousness now belongs to the body, where it becomes unknowable. 

Affect Theory and Therapy

It is easy to see how affect theory fits with a powerful trend in trauma theory, one which makes trauma essentially meaningless, as it is not experienced by the mind.  Only instead of stemming from an ineffable encounter with the real, affect theory renders trauma as powerful stimuli that have no meaning in the first place.  To give it meaning is always to lie. 

Affect theory is not simply mistaken.  If one takes Bessel van der Kolk seriously, as I do, then trauma theory has paid too little attention to the body.  Asked about how he treats the victims of acute trauma, van der Kolk replies,

Holding them, rocking them, giving them massages, calming their bodies down is a critical issue. I am probably the minority among my colleagues in that I am much more focused on bodily state than on articulating what’s going on.  I think that words are not really the core issue here. It is the state of being, of tenseness, of arousal, and of numbing, and that people need to learn again to be safely in their bodies. (

The problem with affect theory is not that it emphasizes the body, but that it is all body all the time.  Or, more accurately those parts of the brain, particularly the limbic system, whose sensations are not readily translated into meaning. 

To me the obvious conclusion is that therapy should involve both body work and talk.  Body work includes yoga, therapeutic massage (including Feldenkrais and craniosacral therapy), neurofeedback, mindfulness training, dance, and drama.  This list is not inclusive.  The work of talk therapy is to transform affect into emotion, about which traumatized persons can speak, and eventually tell a story.  If mind and body are really integrated, then therapy should be similarly integrated. 

Few affect theorists seem interested.  In fact, none do.  (Eve Sedgwick is sometimes mentioned as an affect theorist interested in psychoanalysis.  I find no evidence of that, certainly not in Touching Feeling, an otherwise interesting book.)  Any story about trauma will always be a lie, never integrated with affect, always sitting precariously on top.  At least for now, affect theorists seem more interested in the way affect lives a life of its own, a life some see as the epitome of freedom, unconstrained by retrospective effects to give intensity meaning, and so tame it.  As Nigel Thrift puts it,

Individuals are generally understood as effects of the events to which their body parts (broadly understood) respond and in which they participate. (Thrift, 2004, p. 60)

We do not experience affect.  Affect experiences us, and what is generally called the self just comes along for the ride. 

Affect theory and culture

Affect theory is most troubling as a view of the world.  Art and literature mean nothing in themselves.  Or rather, their meaning is unimportant.  Important is the effect they have on the viewer or reader. 

For again this is what art is: a bundle of affects, or, as Deleuze and Guattari would say, a bloc of sensations. It is also what art does, that is, produces affects. Indeed, you cannot ‘read’ affects in this sense, you can only experience them.  (O’Sullivan, p. 43)   

The result, as Leys (2012) argues, is to treat art as though it were a factory for the production of intensities in the reader.  There is nothing very important to say about plot, character, narrative.  The only thing that is important about the text or other artistic work is the way it works as a technology to produce affects.

The result is that ontology replaces thought.  Affect is about what exists, not what something means, or whether it should exist.  If something is, then it can’t be judged.  It is just an intensity.  If ontology replaces ideology, or concepts of meaning, what moral basis do we have to judge anything except that it is?

Conclusion: have we lost our minds?

Leys (2012) concludes that

For many reasons the idea of non-intentionality has a powerful grip on our cultural imaginary and is not easily dislodged.

Recall that intentionality is a synonym for meaning.  What Leys is saying is that the idea that trauma, or anything else for that matter, has meaning is no longer in vogue among the humanities.  One response, my response, is that we have lost our minds.  Twenty-five hundred years of Western culture are no longer a reservoir upon which to draw in order to understand ourselves because the terms of understanding have changed.  We have become the people of the brain. 

Does this mean that neuroscience has taken over?  Not really.  Massumi characterizes the sciences as seeking to tame, instrumentalize, and render profitable the liveliness of a world in flux (Leys 2011, p. 467).   

Scientific method is the institutionalized maintenance of sangfroid in the face of surprise. . . . Scientific activity starts from a preconversion of surprise into cognitive confidence.  (Massumi, 2002, p. 233)

This is not the attitude of someone who wants to draw upon science in order to better understand the world.  This is an attitude of someone that wants to use the idea of science to shake up the humanities, including psychology, so that it does not imagine that it is about the meaning of anything.  Not meaning, but intensity, feeling, for its own sake, is the goal.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is something fundamentally nihilistic about this project.  Nor is it difficult to imagine why it would appeal to jaded academics.  


Cathy Caruth, Introduction.  In C. Caruth, editor, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, pp. 151-157.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 

Patricia Clough and Jean Halley, editors, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2007.

Sigmund Freud, Sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses.  Standard Edition 3 (1898), pp. 259-285.

Sigmund Freud, Analysis of a phobia in a five-year old boy.  Standard Edition 10 (1909),   pp. 3-149. 

Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Ruth Leys, The turn to affect: a critique.  Critical Inquiry, 37 (2011), 434-472.

Ruth Leys, Trauma and the turn to affect.  Cross/Cultures (January 1, 2012).

Brian Massumi, The autonomy of affect.  Cultural Critique, 31 (1995), 83-109. 

Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation.  Durham, N.C. (2002).

Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 

Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Eric Shouse, Feeling, emotion, affect.  M/C Journal, 8 (2005).

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

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.  New York: Viking, 2014. 



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