Critical Affect: The Politics of Method by Ashley Barnwell

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  • 1 University of Edinburgh, , UK
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Ashley Barnwell Critical Affect: The Politics of Method Edinburgh University Press ISBN 978-1-4744-5132-1 £95 (hardcover) 176 pp

In the age of ‘post-truth’, fake news and alternative facts, writers and scientists all grapple with the question of what method is better equipped to capture the complex dynamics of social experience. Has post-structural critique ran out of steam and is indeed so contaminated with suspicion, it is no longer a viable approach to reading people’s everyday experiences for what they are? Can creative methods, associated with affect theory, provide a more authentic account of the social world? This debate lies at the centre of sociologist Ashley Barnwell’s Critical Affect: The Politics of Method, locating its inquiry in the ontological turn of recent years from rational forces towards post-human theories across the social sciences and humanities. The monograph focuses on a specific body of literature in affect theory, which has emerged following the seminal essays of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995) and Brian Massumi (1995). The variations in affect theory are not the book’s focus; instead it seeks to investigate how an interest in affect anchors specific shifts in social methodologies, which are characterised by an intellectual turn away from causality and social scientific methods. To do so, Barnwell follows Avery. F Gordon (2008) and Barbara Johnson (1980), using close reading as a matter of sociological inquiry. This is done by examining an array of scholarship ranging from Bruno Latour’s Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’ (2004), Nigel Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory (2007) and the work of Rita Felski (2009; 2015), among others. Rather than subscribing to one method of inquiry over another, Critical Affect works with tensions and unease, investigating how scholarly debates about fact and fiction are pinned down by methodological codes that define the structures by which scholars think and write, as well as what happens to what falls in between them.

As a starting point, Barnwell contextualises current critical debates about method and affect in a scientific legacy of enduring, polarised conflict. Current debates about method still follow a lineage of division and the polemical disciplinary structures of the two cultures, and more recently, the science wars of the 1990s. Traditionally thought of as the division of factual truths and affective truths, the two cultures divide between scientists and literary scholars is widely understood as the partition between scientific and humanistic disciplines. Barnwell’s mapping of these polemical understandings of what is verifiable and emotional serves to illuminate how disciplinary structures are in themselves narratives, the creation and maintenance of which scholars participate in. These narratives continue to frame the value we assign to genres, which Barnwell uses interchangeably with method. In other words, how we determine the rules and value of genres might in turn determine the kinds of truth that can be told. The intellectual legacy of the conditions of truth verification often works to dismiss or denote certain genres for the sake of theoretical innovation. Thinking critically about how the rules of genres came to be and continue to be shaped, Barnwell aims to bridge the two seemingly agonistic structures.

Following from that, Barnwell first asserts that the narrative of what is considered truth and how it is verified, both socially and emotionally, works on several levels: historical, empirical and emotional. Social lives, and people’s subjecthood, do not follow the neat analytical lines separating critique from affect, nor do they follow a coherent line that can be tracked down or easily represented with one method rather than another. Thus, positing creative methods as a new turn that is capable of engaging with the alleged flux of affect in the contemporary world better than critical approaches, may actually be working against a more generous engagement with the stories we tell. Therefore, the significance of the debate lies in its centrality to the ethical doing of social science – committing to a certain set of assumptions means that we might be missing out anomalies, paradoxes and contradictions.

The three chapters constructing the body of the book delve deeper into current debates. Barnwell conducts a close reading of a wide range of interdisciplinary proposals to make her case for deconstructing the hierarchy that privileges one genre of truth telling over another. Through a close reading of these proposals, Barnwell points out the dynamics behind the terms by which veracity is negotiated. This serves to highlight the lingering suspicion in the turn against critique as evidence of a paranoid zeitgeist that informs methodological assumptions. Barnwell turns to proposals from scholars such as Nigel Thrift and John Law, among others, as they argue that creative genres of representations such as fiction and performance are more affective and can thus capture the truth better than scientific and previous critical methods. To counter this monolithic understanding of affect versus critique, Barnwell examines a variety of key contemporary cultural texts, from ‘The X-files’, to Margaret Atwood and George Orwell. These examples demonstrate how creative methods cannot escape paranoia and suspicion, as they are widespread in popular readings as much as in the ivory tower of science. Barnwell contends that since all forms of storytelling are equally entangled ‘in the matrix of social authorship’, then when read closely and side by side, the divisions between critical and creative become less adamant.

The fourth chapter, ‘Ordinary paranoia’, builds on a Kathleen Stewarts’ Ordinary Affects (2007). Here, Barnwell offers us to rethink descriptions of critique as out of touch with everyday matters of concern. She argues that when read as structuring, affect in itself conjures an everyday hermeneutics of suspicion, entrenched in the real-life response of people to structural shifts around them. Barnwell reading of Stewarts’ ethnography shines a light on how social structures are saturated in affect. In this sense affect is socially generated and also embedded in a social atmosphere that pulls people into particular structures, rather than a static intermediary. According to Barnwell’s argument, setting affect as the antidote to critical analysis is essentially setting a hierarchy that undermines scholars’ endeavour to engage with the complex ways people account for and verify their lives. In doing so, the polarisation of fiction and fact echoes both an ongoing and a historical conflict – an enduring structuring of social science’s methodological thinking. In their attempt to counter questions of representation, social scientists end up reiterating the same enduring methodological structures that pit affective and factual truths against each other. Maintaining the static division between emotional and verifiable facts is therefore counterproductive to this crucial intellectual project. Barnwell thus calls to develop a capacity to be both critical and respectful of genre.

In this timely monograph, Barnwell challenges an intellectual structure that posits two separate methodological orientations towards social life while essentially creating an artificial division between them. Since the understandings of what form of storytelling is more authentic are what motivate us to choose a method or put it down, these questions are meaningful in the broader, ethical sense of how we frame what truth is. Critical Affect does not aim to offer a new mode of inquiry, or to push for one form of social inquiry over another. Rather, it seeks to intervene in current discussions and to blur the artificial intellectual line between critical and affective approaches. It prompts us to ask different questions: how do we come to understand veracity, and how in turn it might permit or foreclose our inquiry? Critical Affect prompts us to rethink our own ethical dispositions and even prejudice, as an imperative to allow our inquiries to stay open to novelty and surprise, but also to continuity and retelling of stories. The questions raised in Critical Affect offer a meaningful contribution to literary scholars and social scientists, and in particular to researchers who work with affect theory, critical genres and non-representational methods.

References

  • BBC World Book Club (2011) Bernhard Schlink – The Reader, broadcast 2 January, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00cp7t1

  • Felski, R. (2009) After suspicion, Profession, 1(1): 2835.

  • Felski, R. (2015) The Limits of Critique, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Gordon, A.F. (2008) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edn, London/Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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  • Johnson, B. (1980) The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading, London/Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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  • Latour, B. (2004) Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern, Critical Inquiry, 30(2): 22548. doi: 10.1086/421123

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  • Massumi, B. (1995) ‘The autonomy of affect’, Cultural Critique, 31: 83109.

  • Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (1995) Shame in the cybernetic fold: reading Silvan Tomkins, Critical Inquiry, 21(2): 496522. doi: 10.1086/448761

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  • Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, London/Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Thrift, N. (2007) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London/New York: Routledge.

  • BBC World Book Club (2011) Bernhard Schlink – The Reader, broadcast 2 January, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00cp7t1

  • Felski, R. (2009) After suspicion, Profession, 1(1): 2835.

  • Felski, R. (2015) The Limits of Critique, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Gordon, A.F. (2008) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edn, London/Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johnson, B. (1980) The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading, London/Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Latour, B. (2004) Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern, Critical Inquiry, 30(2): 22548. doi: 10.1086/421123

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Massumi, B. (1995) ‘The autonomy of affect’, Cultural Critique, 31: 83109.

  • Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (1995) Shame in the cybernetic fold: reading Silvan Tomkins, Critical Inquiry, 21(2): 496522. doi: 10.1086/448761

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, London/Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Thrift, N. (2007) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London/New York: Routledge.

  • 1 University of Edinburgh, , UK

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