Gradations of intensity differentiate one object from another. To illustrate this Garcia talks about scales of comprehension. We can better comprehend other objects because of certain functions of perception unique to us. This is a different intensity of comprehension from the room’s comprehension of us, which is a matter of containment. The room’s comprehension of us is not intellectual, but spatial. Comprehension, in Garcia’s usage, is not exclusively about intellectual comprehension, but rather about the capacities some objects have, which other objects do not have. Therefore, as we can comprehend such things as the laws of nature, social structures, love and fiction, we attain a certain comprehensive potential over other things, such as animals, hotel lobbies or fountains, which cannot perform these acts of comprehension. However, many animals, hotel lobbies or fountains may comprehend things in ways we cannot. For example we cannot see other visual registers, contain a group of people or feel what water on stone is.
We can comprehend ourselves as objects, which indicates that our perceptiveness is a unique intensity. But this comprehension is limited. The apothegm ‘know thyself’ famously etched above the doorway of the Delphic oracle, is not, according to Garcia, something we are really capable of. This is because we are more than the minds that we spend every waking and sleeping moment with. We are also the microbiome supporting, in a strict sense, the act of consciousness. We are a compendium of processes, without which we are incapable of being what we are. These are not things we can pinpoint at any moment. Of course, ‘know thyself’ is not suggesting these processes necessarily. Nonetheless, shouldn’t they be included definitionally through the humility of an object-oriented insight? If we rely on objects for the definition of our processual-being from less intense to more intense (i.e. the rapidity of our progress in building technological infra-structures, or the particular way our neurology is wired to prepare us for conscious being and the creation of technology) being-objects, it stands to reason that we don’t have exclusivity of importance (which is Garcia’s central focus in Form & Object). It is only because of these other objects, of seemingly peripheral importance, that we can be in a position to think of ourselves as exclusive. We mistakenly think that as inventors we owe little to nothing to objects because they wouldn’t have reality if we hadn’t produced them. However, this misses the point. What we do by attributing exclusivity to ourselves is create a mode of perception which neglects the affectivity of objects in their innumerable potentialities. We moreover miss an opportunity for acutely defining ourselves. Finally, we are born into a world waiting for us. This is what Heidegger called throwness, which meant that the “world” is here, ready for our use.
Marx tells us in the opening page of Capital that organic materials are the main source of materials for the production of objects (commodities) ‘whose qualities enable it, in one way or another, to satisfy human wants’ (3). Fast forward a hundred years or so and we find this discovery of the ‘use-value’ of materials one of the defining conundrums of our current expression of society. We are now all too familiar with the destructive potential of our myopia in the effort to regulate our unhealthy abduction of organic materials. Moreover, we struggle to recognise that provided within an object-oriented habit of thinking is the operative means for producing a definition of human-beings: objects entangled with objects to produce an ecology of objects related and reliant on each other. As Garcia explains, “Humanity not only has an environment, like all other animals, it is an environment” (238). But we are an environment of a different order to a worm, which despite living in its own shit, nevertheless, by shitting its environment creates a sustainable place in which to live. We too, it may be concluded, live in our own shit. However, the ramifications of this are not so stabilising. Regardless of the proximity of a landfill to where you live, because we are enmeshed with the objects which compose the environment we are, we in some sense continuously live in our own shit.
Most human comprehension of things is intellectual. If we stand in a forest the forest comprehends us spatially as we are contained in it and it is never contained in us. However, as an event in time, the forest can be comprehended as a process and as an object that has an affective influence on other milieus outside the forest, as well as the objects which inhabit it. This is the reason why we need to stop deforestation. Because exterior objects are influenced by and thus comprehend the forest (it is an ecosystem regulated by weather phenomena which influences other forests and ecosystems) it is a thing that is comprehended and comprehends. This is not a paradox. Milieus affect milieus. That’s just a fact. Forests affect humanity and vice versa. In short, this is due to the affective properties of being in something with other things. You cannot have a lonely object, as something is always inside, beside, between or outside another object. Food is pulled out of the earth and moves into the body, where it is shared between the different processes regulating the body. The formal system (biological regulation) is a matter of movement, which perpetuates the life of beings. Therefore, we cannot define ourselves (even in the passing melee of the everyday) as an immovable lump of humanity, but as an event, currently positioned in a span of time that we will one day point to intellectually and say ‘this happened then and contributed to this happening later.’
Affect theory is a mode of perception which acknowledges the importance of the interface between different things and how these interactions and relations influence affectively the thing encountering them. Affect, is in short, about the encounter of objects with other objects; how the affectivity of objects is, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s language, ‘sticky’ (“Happy Objects” 29).
Taking on board Deleuze’s vocabulary of bio-philosophical terms, affect theory recognises the interfacing body as the receptacle of affective influence. It is through the body that affective potentials are received and disseminated into a confluence, which is again reacted to or against. We only have to consider the preemptive attitudes of governments in times of war (as Brian Massumi illustrates in “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact”). We don’t always need a fact to materialise for us to agree to preemptive action against groups of people. Another example is the refugee crisis. Without knowing much about the context, large demographics of people pre-emptively disregard their right to safety. This is because some people trust the demagogues who pre-empt our response by persuasively making it know that if these people could destroy our way of life they would, unless we stop them. Pre-emption works because the actual fact doesn’t need to emerge before the affective fact (the potential for the actual fact).
Garcia is prescribing a similar mode of perception toward things and objects, except that in Garcia’s system ‘bodies’ become radically objective to the point of ranking alongside all other objects, with the distinguishing marker being intensity. What is beneficial about this flattening of differences into object-intensities is that we must probe the object before pre-emptively assuming, as the objectification invites scrutiny. Scrutinising the potentials and the characteristics of objects is necessarily required not to miss the blind spots created when we assume they are capable of one thing rather than another. COVID has baffled the UK in this way, as we assumed this would be another virus, which would be contained to other countries. The consequence of our assumption has contributed in some part to the UK’s death toll of 151,765. Our government neglected to disseminate the right information because it considered the affective potential of the pathogen less than the right to a normal, consuming mode of existence.
People, according to my experience, struggle with attributing to objects a processual ontology. A product somebody purchases is seldom considered as a process that has already lived out some of its lifespan becoming what it is. I think this particularly the case with the purchase of meat. Only the other evening I was sat with a friend who was explaining that she would rather eat a McDonald’s burger than a burger using responsibly sourced meat. The reason for this was that the slither of meat in a Big Mac looked and tasted less like meat than responsibly sourced meat. The superficiality enables her to create distance from what is a fact: this lump used to breath. The process, if thought about and interrogated leads you down the rabbit hole of animal cruelty, environmental factors etc. But to opt to eat something indistinguishable from the source, is to gloss over that process. The presentation of the product hides the reality of its production. In addition, we struggle to recognise that the purchased object’s temporality isn’t completed once it is used up by the purchaser. Just because an object is no longer owned does not suggest it stops affecting something else, such as an ecosystem. Exeter is littered with McDonald’s plastics.
The irony of this struggle to think in a processual mode, is that we do processes all the time; we are, as the current social expression of humanity, an event in the total timeline of humanity’s becomings and becoming. We couldn’t do this if we were immovable.
We abide by rhythms, which make us feel static because we have an aversion to repetition. This aversion manifests out of our conditioned response to being continuously stimulated by objects, which we live in an epidemic of. Repetition becomes aligned with a lack of motion. But we must remember that repetition is motion. Nothing ever stops, at any scale.
We talk of being ‘stuck in a rut’ because we dislike something about the rhythm of our life; or have taken too much for granted and now groan under the desire for novelty. Unfulfilled, we tend to think ourselves in stasis metaphorically, which carries over into actuality. Perhaps this comes from a habit of taking for granted the complexities of comprehension. Because we take for granted the invisible functionalities of complex objects and how they contribute to the environment we are, we efface ourselves with persistent ennui. Therefore we end up belittling the reality of the environment we are and take little time to imagine the events we will need to live through in the hope of producing novel forms of environment less deleterious to our health. Because we do not feel we contribute to these events we conceive of our lives as a stasis and carry over this misunderstanding to a far more complex object, namely humanity in general, and most devastatingly, futurally. I have often heard it said that humanity can’t change, that we are inherently this or that. This absence of nuance is the presence of stasis.
As Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg explain in their introduction to The Affect Reader:
Affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter…In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule and molecular events of the unnoticed. The ordinary and its -extra. Affect is born in in-between-ness and resides as accumulative beside-ness. Affect can be understood then as a gradient of bodily capacity—a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations—that rises and falls not only through various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility, and incrementalism that coincides with belonging to comportments of matter of virtually any and every sort. (2)
Whilst Garcia is certainly not an affect theorist, what Garcia’s insights share and encourage is a similar mode of operation, which is a recognition of the dynamic interactivity between the affective consequences objects produce. Affect theory, like Garcia’s speculative realism, invests its efforts in making visible the complexities we ignore and thus make invisible. This visibility is nothing more than attention to other objects and a fixity with how they produce consequence and encounter. Put simply, in the words of Seigworth and Gregg, ‘Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon.’ This is how we define ourselves as the object-humanity: acted and acting upon that which we have in-between relations to.
But importantly, affect has emotional as well as influential and ecologically practical implications. The dictionary definition of affect confirms this. For this reason aligning affect theory to Garcia is apposite. What we recognise through Garcia’s insights is the potential fulfilment of an emotional state produced by the subscription to an affective worldview no longer thrusting us into the ennui of stasis. This is because we become emotionally fulfilled by the action of observing—objects within objects between objects within object beside objects—in itself. We produce meaning through giving observation greater importance.
So, we learn that objects affect us in all manner of ways because we inhabit them as much as they infiltrate and influence us. Where else is the affective potential of a fiction or poem than within the human system of intelligence spurred by the networked brain brachiating exponentially into the world of objects, shared with the receiver of this new cultural influence. Where else can an affective potential better manifest itself than in the actions it affects; in the perceptual and imperceptible effects on the object, which manifestly gains visibility in other objects in a relation to the affective object: the fiction or poem changing a person’s attitude manifested in a different habit of behaviour noticed by a colleague or friend, and which makes the environment they are both in richer for the fiction or poem’s alteration of the emotional status of the person affected by the fiction.
This is not exclusively attributable to the potency of fiction to affect so much as it is the overarching potential of all objects, whatever they may be. It is simply a matter of flattening expectation and recognising that potentials exist even when our interests fail to follow. Therefore, we may profit from following Seigworth & Gregg’s hopes for affect theories, to be ‘a generative, pedagogic nudge aimed toward a body’s becoming an ever more worldly sensitive interface, toward a style of being present to the struggles of our time’ (12).
Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn. Edinburgh UP, 2014.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. JM Dent & Sons, 1974.
Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader. Edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke UP, 2010. pp. 29-51.
Seigworth J. Gregory and Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke UP, 2010. pp. 1-28.
Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” The Affect Theory Reader. Edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke UP, 2010. pp. 52-70.