Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)


The role of critique in contemporary cinema has been displaced. Consider the story of Chicago gang member Danny Toro, who would watch Scarface almost every day for 10 years despite the film’s heavy-handed critique of its gangster protagonist Tony Montana. Perhaps as equally perplexing, the film American Psycho is popular among many yuppies even though its point is to critique the masculinity and violence of a financial culture much similar to their own. Or even more striking: fraternities across the country hold “Fight Club” events inspired by David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s book although the film is an in-your-face condemnation of preppy social climbing.

Diagnosing this problem, Slovenian philosopher and critic Slajov Zizek writes that we no longer live in an age where “they know not what they do,” but rather: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” To make his argument, Zizek echoes the theory of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that we have entered the age of “cynical ideology” whereby the demystifying correction of ideological camera obscuras no longer motivates social action – or in the words of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the critique has “run out of steam.”

The alternatives suggested by all three are disappointing, however: Zizek proposes empty political doctrines (“signifiers without a signified”), Sloterdijk recommends a return to the irony and sarcasm of the Greeks (“kynicism”), and Latour calls for a “stubborn realist attitude” (“empiricism”).

In contrast to these three alternatives, I propose contemporary theories of affect as replacement for the diagnostic and effective functions of ideology critique. As used here, affect is the felt intensity of shared relation that both circulates as a pre-personal substance and is often categorized through cognition as emotion. One can thus analyze the affects that are produced and circulated by media objects, political subjects, and even social situations. Borrowing from American queer feminist scholars of affect, such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, and Sianne Ngai, I outline the basic elements of a methodology based on affective critique.

To conclude the paper, I apply affective critique to recent transgressive cinema, namely Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and Bernadette Corporation’s Get Rid of Yourself, and suggest media objects and social advocacy campaigns for which such an analysis would also be appropriate.

In the first half of this paper, I will review the theory of cynical ideology – the history, philosophy, and proposals of its proponents – which challenges the efficacy of ideology critique. In the second half, I will propose a different form of critique based on a theory of affect from a media ecology approach.

7 thoughts on “Affective Critique: Mediation as a Response to Cynical Ideology (Paper Proposal)

  1. Have thought about your line of thought (an alternative to false consciousness and all-out cynicism) ever since you aired the possibility here on the blog. Looking very much forward to this. I am somewhat on the same track – it’s a longer research project I think, and currently brewing on lower intensity – but taking up from where contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapy theory is treating affect, similar to how critical theory coupled itself to freudian psychoanalysis in the sixties … I think there is a sense in which theory for movement, communist theory, needs to learn from advances in psychodynamics and leave some parts of Freud and Lacan behind. As I see it, the role of affect in what keeps me paralyzed (or cynic), what is able to change the very stimmung and thus the conditions of my existence, is without doubt the most important “clinical” discovery of the last twenty years in psychodynamic theory. My agenda is very simple: I want to spread anarchy / live communism, learning from and critically assembling those insights.

    P.S. Can you make it possible to comment here without logging in to twitter or wordpress?

    1. I have comment moderation on, but I think all subsequent comments are unmoderated.

      I like your project. As you may know, Guattari wrote on the clinician Daniel Stern, who has a theory of affect. Gregory Seigworth outlines that theory here:

      Let me know once you have something written up on it. I’m very interested in affect theory (although I’m very picky and dislike a lot of it, mostly i/r/t its politics).

  2. I didn’t know, thanks for mentioning it. In general, I am not so familiar with connections between political theory and therapy (Daniel Stern is afaik part of that movement in psychodynamic therapy I talked about), and generally I have come to affect theory from the latter field, which very rarely thinks itself as politically relevant. Which of course is a kind of political standpoint in itsef, most obviously by individually treating common suffering and pain.

    I will let you know if I write something worth reading. Not being enrolled in any formal research position (i.e. getting paid to read and write), it’s difficult to find the concentration and perseverance, if not collectively – which, for me, more often than not plays out orally. I hope to write it though, more systematically. In the mean time it is a great help and inspiration to be able to follow what goes on here. Appreciations!

    1. Though I haven’t done any systematic reading on the subject, I’m interested in the “anti-psychiatry” movement – though it had so many different tendencies, fragments, and contradictions that it’s hard to give a general evaluation.

      The greatest import of alternative psychiatry from the 60s/70s, as far as I’m concerned, is the de-personalization of illness through social psychology. Freud and his precursors also dealt with social psychology, with Civilization and its Discontents as his magnum opus, but it took until the 60s for social psychology to really impact the psychiatric establishment – an impact that, to my knowledge, was partial and aborted.

      What frustrates me about contemporary approaches and makes a return to such a marginal movement interesting, is that recent alternatives to psychiatry are so deeply individualized. In part this is the liberal model of care that goes back the origins of talk therapy whereby patient choice makes psychological care a contract between parties. This is not to deny the horrific attempts by states and their medical practitioners who have forced treatment on abject populations, but to say that social psychology has only been thought of a force of truly collective liberation in quite restricted moments. (The major absence here, of course, is the academic use of social psychology – from the Frankfurt school to feminism and beyond – which I think we can put aside because it only obliquely connects with ‘mental illness’ as such).

      A colleague is working on the contemporary legacy of anti-psychiatry, and it seems focused on self-care, self-help, and individualized treatment. Imagining again a truly mass response to the psychic dimension of social life seems difficult today, which is perhaps what makes it so provocative.

    1. Glenn – I’ll definitely post the paper here when it’s finished. This proposal is for a conference in June, so I have a few other projects that are prioritized above it, but I’ll be making headway on it soon.

      Since first writing this, I’ve re-written two papers & submitted them to journals as articles, but b/c of the weird privacy stuff i/r/t review, I haven’t posted much from them.

      Expect more material soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s