To speak today of “affect” is to evoke several scholarly discourses. It is reasonable to identify a rather diffuse turn to affect, or what some call “the affective turn,” which relates to the turn to the body. Evidence for an affective turn exists in a variety of fields—including phenomenology, feminist theory, political philosophy, queer theory, psychoanalysis, literary studies, and religious studies. This multidisciplined phenomenon reflects a number of different genealogies and a range of meanings for “affect,” as well as terms that at least some (but not all) would treat as synonymous — “emotion,” “feeling,” or “sense.” It is, therefore, difficult to capture succinctly the surfeit of the term’s usage. At risk of oversimplification, “affect” generally refers to an anthropological (though often decidedly not anthropocentric) category that reflects an understanding of humans as permeable, feeling, sensual, biological beings affected by other bodies, systems, environments, and relations alongside and/or before cognition or language.
This diverse and growing interest in affect often presents itself through projects of excavation, which identify underappreciated themes in various intellectual traditions. One of the most prominent figures of this sort is philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who argues for the resuscitation of a classical, pre-Enlightenment anthropology that understands the significant role emotions have in human behavior — and politics in particular. Theology and religious studies have evinced a comparable tendency. Church historian Paul M. Blowers argues for a positive assessment of desire in Greek Patristic theology, concurring with attempts to resuscitate positive valuations of the body in early Christianity. Sarah Coakley draws on these historical theological conversations and applies them to systematic theology. Emotion and affect also emerge via theological engagement with psychology and neuroscience, involving both theoretical and practical theological projects. And, as I will consider below, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians often evince the turn to affect in step with trajectories within critical theory.
“Affect theory” has emerged as an explicit interdisciplinary site of reflection on affect. The origins, aims, and trajectories of this theoretical framework are contested. Religious studies scholar Donovan O. Schaefer has completed some of the most important up-to-date work tracing the multiple tributaries of affect theory. According to Schaefer, there are now generally two iterations of formal academic discourse about affectivity. One tradition traces its origins to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and a broad constellation of terms in post-Cartesian continental philosophy that relate ultimately to plasticity and transcendence. For Deleuze, “affect” is distinct from “emotion.” As Schaefer explains, the Deleuzian stream (via philosopher Brian Massumi) follows in the steps of Spinoza, treating affect as a transcendent field of becoming. In this light, affect is “a register of intensity.” Affects are boundless pre-cognitive forces, or powers of influence, that take shape or meaning in their impact on bodies, far upstream of conscious “experience,” or what is called “emotion.”
Others reject this Deleuzian split between affect and emotion. These theorists object that this bifurcation alienates the embodied experiences of those things that are given names like “malaise,” “rage,” or “desire.” This leaves the idea of “affect” unhelpfully abstract and, perhaps, complicit in patriarchal and Enlightenment relegation of embodied knowledge and experience to minimized significance. Schaefer has an explicit preference for this second genealogy, which has its origins in phenomenology and critical theory. This iteration, associated most fundamentally with Silvan Tomkins and Eve Sedgwick, emphasizes the close relationship between emotion and affect. It insists that affectivity must involve embodied experience.
The idea of a unique critical-theoretical and phenomenological strain remains an important and increasingly dominant emphasis, even for scholars who provide more complex mappings of affect theory than Schaefer’s dualistic one. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth are the editors of a helpful introduction, The Affect Theory Reader. They consider no fewer than eight versions of affect theory, though much of what they survey probably belongs under a more general umbrella of the “affective turn” rather than explicit theorization. Gregg and Seigworthidentify themselves with a “fifth approach,” which closely resembles Schaefer’s. Theirs is one that situates itself in critical theory and relates to a preceding tradition of “hidden-in-plain-sight politically engaged work—perhaps most often undertaken by feminists, queer theorists, disability activists, and subaltern peoples living under the thumb of a normativizing power.” Such thinkers and voices attest to the complex “experience” of “practices of power” as feelings, or (more fundamentally) as forces existing on, in, and between bodies.
The feminist/queer/postcolonial theorist Sara Ahmed is particularly important in contemporary critical affect theories. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Ahmed examines what she calls “affective economies,” as the social networks of “feelings.” Affects and affective economies do not exist singularly in either the feeling subject or a felt object. Rather, they exist in the “circulation” between (8). Consequently, Ahmed thinks about the social construction of emotions, both as corporate and internal-psychological phenomena, which are shaped by and themselves shape arrangements of power. To feel derision toward the immigrant, she reflects, is to be entangled in the formations of identity that the polity imposes (1). Affect theory, therefore, becomes the critical work of naming political systems of feeling and sense, and the arrangements of power these reinforce or occlude. It is this sort of affect theory that carries the most potential for political theology as a critical project.
Euro-centric approaches to political theology, rooted in Carl Schmitt and then moving to Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, may not at first seem to have much to say about the affective dimensions of human life or politics. For this tradition, political theology has both critical and constructive dimensions—observing theological foundations for modern political systems (Schmitt), and offering alternatives (Metz/Moltmann). In both cases, this sort of political theology privileges the role of theological concepts and the critique of ideology. However, Metz’s interest in memory and Moltmann’s emphasis on Divine passibility open doors for thinking about emotion and feeling as sites of political-theological solidarity and resistance.
Other political theological traditions reveal rich resources of relating politics, theology, and affect/emotion. James Cone delineates the positive and essential theological function of anger in the face of anti-Black racism. He makes this point especially clear in his comparison of James Baldwin and Reinhold Neibuhr in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone reflects that both may have expressed some of the same thoughts on racism, but only Baldwin expressed a meaningful affect of appropriate rage and passion. Jon Sobrino, in Christ the Liberator, coins the term “orthopathy,” which refers to a mode of discipleship by which Christians are “affected” by Christ and his liberating mission. Queer and womanist theologies attempt to replace body-denigrating practices and theologies with those that positively appreciate bodies and their desires; Kelly Brown Douglas does this sort of work in Sexuality and the Black Church. Emilie M. Townes’s Womanist Ethics and The Cultural Production of Evil closely parallels the work of Sarah Ahmed, analyzing the “interior life” of evil, including the ways that fear and disgust are socio-politically constructed.
What is still nascent, however, is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances. How does social Trinitarianism feel? What would constitute orthopathic tools of resistance?
Intentional engagement between theology and affect theory is beginning to emerge, however, particularly in work by theologians (or theology-adjacent scholars) such as Wonhee Anne Joh, Stephen D. Moore, and Karen Bray. The edited volume Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies demonstrates intersections between queer theory and theology, on themes of desire and affectivity. In another collection of essays, Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies, theologian Dong Sung Kim illustrates particularly meaningful pathways toward more constructive political theological projects. Kim (drawing on Sedgwick) makes the important, if relatively brief, linkage to spirituality—a field of study that is similarly implicated in the turn to affect, with long traditions of reflection on emotions in spiritual and pastoral practice. Kim describes spiritual practices of mourning in response to the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol between Incheon and Jeju in South Korea, which killed 304 passengers. He situates his own spiritual praxis of mourning in relation to a “hydraulic affectivity,” that connects the Korean concept of Han (emotions of mourning), and the symbol of water as a site of loss and injustice—for the victims of Sewol, or refugees across the Mediterranean, or the Middle Passage. He embeds this further within “the rivers of Babylon” in the mournful Psalm 137. Mourning becomes a practice of memory and solidarity, witnessed as a powerful force and linked across time by shared settings and movements (e.g., of water). In this way, Kim demonstrates ways that reflection on the theorization of affect might contribute to meaningful political theological reflection and spiritual practice.
Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
Sedgwick is largely responsible for bridging a turn to affect in psychology with critical theory. In these essays, she reflects on affect in relation to performance as a function of feminist and queer theory.
Donovan A. Schaefer, The Evolution of Affect Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Schaefer offers a thorough taxonomy of the two main streams of affect theory (Deleuzian and phenomenological) and makes a meaningful contribution to further progress in theorizing the field. Unlike the approach that Gregg and Seigworth take in The Affect Theory Reader, Schaefer resists settling for a diffuse understanding of affect and hopes to further its precise theorization.
Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies, edited by Karen Bray and Stephen D. Moore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020).
This collection of essays and its orienting introductory essay involve helpful focused applications of affect theory to the analysis of theology, primarily from religious studies scholars.
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2014).
Ahmed makes a crucial intervention into both affect theory and critical theory with this increasingly influential work on the way that emotion operates in and between bodies to determine political relationships.
The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Featuring essays by some of the most important contemporary thinkers in affect theory, this volume is an immersive introduction to the contours and applications of affect theories. It is not, however, a comprehensive collection of foundational or classical texts in the field. The introductory essay is a meaningful topography of affect theory.