Monday, January 07, 2008

“Emotions” are visceral before they are mental

Some modes of consciousness are more expansive (or, to the contrary, more sharply focused) than others; some are more clear and distinct than others; some are more bound up with logical precision, while others give freer reign to imaginative leaps and to insights that break away from our ingrained habits of association. But in Warren’s account, none of these modes seem to be modulated by different affective tones, and none of them seem to be pushed by any sort of desire, passion, or obsession. Affects and desires would seem to be, for Warren, nothing more than genetically determined programs inherited from our reptilian ancestors (and exaggerated in importance by the likes of Steven Pinker) which our consciousness largely allows us to transcend.
Another way to put this is to say that Warren writes as if we could separate the states (or formal structures) of attentiveness, awareness, relaxation, concern, focus, self-reflection, and so on, from the contents that inhabit these states or structures. This is more or less equivalent to the idea — common in old-style AI research — that we can separate syntactics from semantics, and simply ignore the latter. Such a separation has never worked out in practice: it has entirely failed in AI research and elsewhere. And we may well say that this separation is absurd and impossible in principle. Yet we make this kind of separation implicitly, and nearly all the time; it strikes us as almost axiomatic. We may well be conscious of “having” certain emotions; but we cannot help conceiving how we have these emotions as something entirely separate from the emotions themselves.
It may be that consciousness studies and affect studies are too different as approaches to the mind (or, as I’d rather say, to experience) to be integrated at all easily). Indeed, in this discussion I have simply elided the difference between “affect” and “emotion”: the terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably, but I think any sort of coherent explanation requires a distinction between the two. Brian Massumi uses “affect” to refer to the pre-personal aspects (both physical and mental) of feelings, the ways that these forces form and impel us; he reserves “emotion” to designate feelings to the extent that we experience them as already-constituted conscious selves or subjects. By this account, affects are the grounds of conscious experience, even though they may not themselves be conscious. Crucial here is James’ sense of how what he calls “emotions” are visceral before they are mental: my stomach doesn’t start churning because I feel afraid; rather, I feel afraid because my stomach has started churning (as a pre-conscious reaction to some encounter with the outside world, or to some internally generated apprehension).
The affect is an overall neurological and bodily experience; the emotion is secondary, a result of my becoming-conscious of the affect, or focusing on it self-reflexively. This means that my affective or mental life is not centered upon consciousness; although it gives a different account of non-conscious mental life than either psychoanalysis (which sees it in terms of basic sexual drives) or cognitive theory (which sees non-conscious activity only as “computation”).

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