Theory’s Affective Scene: Or, What to Do with Language after Affect

— Michael Eng

This presentation offers a critical assessment of the affective turn in the humanities and social sciences as it has taken place in the context of the contemporary U.S. academy. Within this context, the affective turn has emerged as a supposed antidote to the linguistic and cultural turns of previous decades and presents itself as a sign of intellectual progress. No longer are we stuck in language or culture, proponents of the affective turn hold. With the discovery of affect as the new theoretical object, their thinking goes, we are finally back to the real matter of things. In addition to hearing such claims as expressions of an affective attachment (Gefühlsbindung) to Theory, my paper regards them as harboring a desire to re-assert the authority of the critic against the neoliberal University’s dismantling of humanistic research. I thus take the University as a central, yet often overlooked (at least in the U.S situation), site of the public sphere, and I view the affective turn as a moment in the public sphere’s contestation.