Transmission of Affect Presentation Notes

March 30th, 2017

Transmission of affect has been recorded in premodern European history. In the writing of Montaigne,  he describes this exchange of energy in between old man and a young man. After 17th century the idea of transmission disappeared from the philosophical canon. And subsequently with the growing interest in animal magnetism in 18th century, it contributed to the decline in the notion of  transmission of affect. The point Brennan is making is that the notion of transmission of affect fades as we proceed in western history.

What is affect? Brennan uses affect interchangeably with emotion. In Brennan’s words “by an affect, I mean the physiological shift accompanying a judgment” (5). She makes a distinction between affect and feelings. Feelings are sensations that have “found the right match in words”(5). In other words feelings are thoughtful, while affects are thoughtless. Affect has to do with judgment while feeling has to do with discernment. The main point is that affects can be transmitted and are experienced in social situation.

Understanding Transmission of Affect:

Transmission of affect is the idea that our surroundings influence our physiological responses. So transmission of affect is social/psychological in origin, but biological and physical in effect. Affects have an energetic dimension. Transmission of affect means “that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ’environment’ (6). Brennan however is not arguing that their is no difference between individuals. She states, “The point is that, even if I am picking up on your affect, the linguistic and visual content, meaning the thoughts I attach to that affect, remain my own: they remain the product of the particular historical conjunction of words and experiences I represent.” (7). The thoughts that we attach to our affects come from our personal history.  She stresses this point, throughout the first chapter, that she is not arguing that there is no distinction between the individual and the environment.

The Need for a Theory on Transmission of Affect:

Even though we accept social theorist like Marx, Foucault, and Mannheim who have shown that the thoughts of a subject are dependent upon the culture, and socio-economic conditions of the subject, we still resist the idea that “our emotions are not altogether our own” (2). This is a residue of Eurocentric thinking, that we are emotionally contained subject. This denial of transmission of affect leads to inconsistencies in many theories.

Two forms of transmission of affect: one where people become alike whereby “one person’s or one group’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s.” (9). (The neurological term for the process is called “entrainment”)And then there is transmission in which people take opposite positions (the angry and the depressed etc). Entrainment is achieved primarily, according to Brennan, through “unconscious olfaction.” One of her point is that affect is transmitted through pheromones. She asserts, “smell emerges as critical in communicating responses ranging from the aggressive to the soothing; it is also a vehicle for effective changes in another’s hormonal composition” (10).

Foundational Fantasy:

Brennan critiques Freud’s views  that “individual psyche is the origin of the drives and affects” (12). Brennan coins this term “Foundational fantasy” to explain how we (by we I mean western modernity) has seen the mother figure as “the natural origin rather than the repository of unwanted affects.” The infant projects onto the mother all the bad qualities like envy, anger, while the infant is the good and the powerful. Brennan says this fantasy is the foundation of this self-containment myth.

Brennan explains the foundational fantasy as “the belief that “we” the passive infant, are the true fountain of energy and life, and the mother is a hapless, witless receptacle. Situating the mother as the passive repository for the child’s unwanted raging affects is , perhaps, the first powerful instance of the transmission of affect” (13). The foundational fantasy explains why we think of ourselves as self contained and also why we judge others, why we project negative affect onto the other.

Unlike Freud’s work, Brennan’s theory situates the origin of affect outside of the individual. Brennan states “These affects come from the other, but we deny them. Or they come from us, but we pretend that they come from the other. Envy, anger, aggressive behavior-these are problems of the other. Overtolerance, overgenerosity-these are our problems .”(13)

A Note on Brennan’s use of fantasy: it is used in purely negative terms. Fantasy is a tool for self deception. However, in psychoanalysis, fantasy can be generative and productive while also have negative effects.

Main Points:

  • Affects are material and have energetic dimension
  • Transmission of affect happens through smell as well as sight.
  • Foundational fantasy, by denying the mother agency, fosters this illusion of self-containment of the psyche.  But the foundational fantasy doesn’t account for maternal agency in utero.
  • A paradigm based on transmission of affect answers these question and inconsistencies in other theories.

To understand how you can use this theory for the exam, go directly to Chani’s blog where she explores how transmission of affect can be applied to “The Yellow Wallpaper” “The Mark on the Wall”, God of Small Things and a couple of other texts.


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