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Invoking affect: cultural theory and the ontological turn

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This article interrogates the contemporary emergence of affect as critical object and perspective through which to understand the social world and our place within it. Emphasising the unexpected, the singular or the quirky over the generally applicable, the turn to affect builds on important work in cultural studies on the pitfalls of writing the body out of theory. More importantly for this article, the contemporary interest in affect evidences a dissatisfaction with poststructuralist approaches to power, framed as hegemonic in their negativity and insistence of social structures rather than interpersonal relationships as formative of the subject. The article focuses on the recent contributions of Brain Massumi and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in particular, unpacking their celebration of the difference that affect makes. The author's critique of the affective turn focuses on both the illusion of choice that it offers the cultural critic, and its rewriting of the recent history of cultural theory to position affect as ‘the new cutting edge'. While affect may constitute a valuable critical focus in context, it frequently emerges through a circular logic designed to persuade ‘paranoid theorists' into a more productive frame of mind - for who would not prefer affective freedom to social determinism? Yet it remains unclear what role affect may have once this rhetoric has worked its persuasive magic. In addition, and more worryingly, affective rewriting flattens out poststructuralist inquiry by ignoring the counter-hegemonic contributions of postcolonial and feminist theorists, only thereby positioning affect as ‘the answer' to contemporary problems of cultural theory.

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