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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013 S149

The Potentiality of Ethnography and the

Limits of Affect Theory
by Emily Martin

Historical scholarship on the banishment of subjectivity from experimental psychology led me to explore a current
theoretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by the name “affect theory.” This approach, tied to
contemporary neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish subjectivity from human experience and
introduces the apparently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The potentiality revealed by affect
theory lies deep in the human brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Affect theory draws on a
long history in the human sciences going back to the late nineteenth century. Therefore, in this paper I take a fresh
look at the early history of experimental psychology from the vantage point of the Cambridge Anthropological
Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898. I intend this early anthropological approach to subjectivity to serve
as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the later banishment of subjectivity from the methods used in experimental
psychology and from the models proposed in affect theory.

In a recent foray into an ethnography of experimental cog- not help trying to catch a glance of the varying signal, and I
nitive psychology, I encountered firsthand what the historical wondered how this distraction might affect my responses.
banishment of subjectivity from the experimental model Puzzlement over the origins of this current lack of interest
means. Because it was so difficult to gain ethnographic access in subjectivity led me to the work of historians of psychology
to any of the many psychology labs I approached—run by who have described how subjective experience, “introspec-
colleagues, neighbors, and even friends—I resorted to par- tion,” was central to early German laboratory psychology un-
ticipating as a volunteer subject in various currently ongoing der the tutelage of Wilhelm Wundt. Subjective experience was
experiments accessible through the websites of all major psy- also central for the late nineteenth-century anthropological
chology departments. I was struck by how irrelevant my ex- expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, whose members carried
perience as a subject was to the experimenters. In one ex- out many psychological experiments on the Wundt model
periment, for example, I was hooked up to electrodes used (Richards 1998). Strikingly, introspection largely came to be
ruled out of experimental settings in psychology by the mid-
to measure small facial movements of which I was unaware
twentieth century (Bayer 1998; Danziger 1990; Morawski
that would indicate my emotional responses to photographs
1994). In due course, interest in what a subject’s brain was
presented on the computer screen in front of me. I pressed
doing supplanted interest in the subject’s experience. My in-
keys on the keyboard to register my conscious responses to
terest in the historical banishment of subjectivity from ex-
these images. A software program tallied the results. My re-
perimental psychology made me wonder about a current the-
sponses were produced, I was told, by specific parts of my
oretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by
brain. What the researchers sought were data about how my the name “affect theory.” This approach, tied to contemporary
brain reacted to the photographs. But there were confounding neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish sub-
elements all over the place in this experimental setting. For jectivity from human experience and introduces the appar-
example, although the monitor I was to attend to and make ently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The
my responses to was right in front of me, just on my left was potentiality revealed by affect theory lies deep in the human
another monitor that showed the varying electrical impulses brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Af-
from my electrodes. I noted to the experimenter that I could fect theory thus draws on a long history in the human sciences
easily see the readout of my own responses, and she said, going back to the late nineteenth century. To explore what
“That’s fine; it doesn’t matter.” But it mattered to me. I could has been gained and lost in this extended process, I have
divided this paper into three parts.
Emily Martin is Professor in the Department of Anthropology, New In the first part of this paper, I follow the banishment of
York University (25 Waverly Place, New York, New York 10003, subjectivity historically by tracing what was involved when
U.S.A. [em81@nyu.edu]). This paper was submitted 18 VI 12, human beings came to be treated as experimental psycho-
accepted 1 III 13, and electronically published 22 V 13. logical subjects in the late nineteenth to early twentieth-

䉷 2013 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2013/54S7-0016$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/670388

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S150 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

century expeditions and laboratories organized in Cambridge, written in detail about the technologies that enabled time to
England. My goal in this part of the paper is to identify the be measured in a standardized way and recorded accurately.
specifically anthropological approach to the experimental sub- As Coon explains, laboratory hardware standardized and reg-
ject used in early psychological experiments. Expedition mem- ulated the physical stimuli to which the subject would re-
bers—physicians, anthropologists, and psychologists—intro- spond, and “it also gave quantified, standardized output to
duced an arresting way of understanding the meaning of the introspective method.” Perhaps even more important, the
human social practices as inextricable from their social con- subject himself had to be standardized. Even though “in the
text and from their subjectivity. I intend this early anthro- early stages of psychology’s development, typical experimental
pological approach to subjectivity to serve as a thought-
subjects were professors and graduate students, not experi-
provoking counterpoint to the later banishment of
mentally naive college sophomores and white rats,” there was
subjectivity from the methods used in experimental psy-
still “too much individual variation among these flesh-and-
chology and from the models proposed in affect theory.
In the second part of the paper, I turn to contemporary bone introspecting instruments. In order to standardize them-
experimental neuropsychology and to the ways a number of selves as experimental observers, therefore, psychologists re-
humanities and social science disciplines are using its findings sorted to long and rigorous introspective training periods.
in affect theory as a way of tapping a particular kind of . . . Only if introspectors themselves were standardized could
potentiality: a hidden force emanating from fruitful darkness. they become interchangeable parts in the production of scien-
This darkness, one we have ignored, is located in primitive tific psychological knowledge” (Coon 1993:775; italics added).
parts of the brain where precognitive processes occur. My Edwin Boring (1953), a historian of psychology, reports that
goal in this part of the paper is to ask whether positing that Wundt insisted that “no observer who had performed less
there is a realm in the brain filled with “potential,” an un- than 10,000 of these introspectively controlled reactions was
limited realm that is before and unfettered by meaning, threat- suitable to provide data for published research” (172).
ens loss of the most valuable aspect of the early anthropo- Standardization also extended to “regularity outside the
logical conception of human psychic capacities. In the third context of experimental practice” (Benschop and Draaisma
part of the paper, I present some thoughts about how the 2000:19). One of Wundt’s students, the American James Cat-
insights of the early anthropological researchers could be re-
tell, relates how he followed a strict scheme of physical ex-
covered and deployed as an antidote to affect theory.
ercise, and he remarks in a letter to his parents that he and
the other experimenters were required to walk 3–6 miles a
Early History of the Experimental Human day (Benschop and Draaisma 2000:18–19; Cattell and Sokal
Subject in Psychology and Anthropology 1981:89). In sum, as the psychologist Edward Titchener ex-
plained in 1912, it was not that “the subject should be hooked
Experimental psychology is the discipline that has, perhaps up to machines,” it was that the subject had “virtually become
more than any other, exerted experimental controls over hu- the machine, capable of automatic introspection” (Coon 1993:
man beings. What is important for this paper are the years 776). In this experimental setup, the subject would be pre-
before the process of ruling out subjective experience was sented with a stimulus (a word or a color), and the time
complete, starting from the vantage point of early anthro- would be carefully recorded. With training, the subject could
pological and psychological field expeditions. It was the psy- register the exact time at which he had recognized the stimulus
chological research conducted during and after the Cambridge (understood the word’s meaning or thought of the color’s
Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in name). The difference between the two times was the reaction
1898 that had an important influence on Ludwig Wittgen- time: the delay between the appearance of the stimulus and
stein’s critique of experimental psychology in the 1950s. This the mind’s psychological, introspective recognition of the
connection has helped me see how to give the ethnographic
method a firmer grip in the face of currently fashionable,
Wundt and his collaborators aimed at measuring processes
neurologically oriented accounts of the human mind, in par-
in what has been called “the generalized mind,” those parts
ticular, affect theory, to which I turn in the third part of this
of mental life shared by all human adults alike. As Benschop
(Benschop and Draaisma 2000) explains, “Being practised in
appearing in experiments helped to make sure that the results
Wundt’s Introspective Methods were representative of the ‘universal features of adult human
First, here is some background about the ancestor of the mental life’” (58–59). Viewing the subject as having a gen-
Cambridge researchers, Wundt’s psychological laboratory in eralized mind meant that experimenter and observer could
Leipzig, and its “introspective” methods. The experiments in switch roles between trials without affecting the format of the
Wundt’s laboratory all depended on the precise measurement experiments. A person could run the experimental apparatus
of time. Historians Ruth Benschop and Deborah Coon have one day and be a subject in the same experiment the next.

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography S151

Cattell and the Lip Key allel to the chemical changes in a galvanic battery: the chem-
ical changes take time, but when they have happened the
Into this system came an earthquake. The American James
current does not take any additional time. “The current is
Cattell, who was pursuing his PhD in Wundt’s Leipzig lab in
the immediate representative of these changes” (Cattell 1886:
the 1880s, realized at a certain point that he was unable to
220; Cattell and Sokal 1981:334–335). He concluded, “Mental
carry out Wundt’s directions. As he explained,
states correspond to physical changes in the brain”; hence-
When I was a student in the Leipzig laboratory, attempts forth, his goal was “to inquire into the time needed to bring
were being made to measure the time of perception by about changes in the brain, and thus to determine the rapidity
letting the subject react as soon as he knew from intro- of thought” (Cattell 1886:241). The times he recorded were
spection that an object had been perceived. . . . I attempted now for cerebral processes without the intrusion of intro-
to continue these experiments, but, feeling no confidence spection. Cattell’s innovation paved the way for what Danziger
in the validity of my introspection in such a case, took up was to call the relentless discounting of the subject’s experi-
strictly objective methods in which a movement followed a ence in experimental psychology by the 1950s.
stimulus without the slightest dependence on introspection.
(Cattell and Sokal 1981:335)
Torres Strait Islands: The “Generalized Mind”
What did this mean? Wundt’s method was to let the subject
react as quickly as possible in trial 1 and then in trial 2 wait Cattell opened a new road, but others continued to travel old
until he “distinguished the impression” (like recognizing a roads. Scientists on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedi-
color or understanding a word). The difference between the tion to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898 continued under-
two times gave the “perception-time” (Cattell and Sokal 1981: standings and practices sympathetic to Wundt’s introspection.
99). Cattell (Cattell and Sokal 1981) explains his problem: “I The members of the expedition included W. H. R. Rivers, C.
have not been able myself to get results by this method; I S. Myers, and Charles Seligman, among others, under the
apparently either distinguished the impression and made the leadership of Alfred Cort Haddon. Because the expedition’s
motion simultaneously, or if I tried to avoid this by waiting scientists assumed that the social and natural environment
until I had formed a distinct impression before I make the determined the way the mind perceived the world, they also
motion . . . I added to the simple reaction, not only a per- assumed that after immersion in the daily life of villagers on
ception [i.e., a discrimination], but also a volition [i.e., a the islands, they could serve as appropriate experimental sub-
choice]” (65). What was Cattell’s solution to this problem? jects comparable with the native inhabitants. This enabled
their introspective reports of the time they took to react to
In 1886 he added an instrument to the experiment, namely,
a stimulus to be measured and compared with the reports of
the lip key. This was an electric switch the subject held between
native Torres Strait Islanders. The notion of a generalized
his lips. When he was in the act of perceiving a color or a
mind (now extended to these islanders) entailed that the con-
word, it was assumed that he would move his lips uncon-
text in which such minds were trained determined their spe-
sciously, as if silently naming the object of his perception.
cific characteristics and made them commensurable.1 For this
Hence, the lip key would register the time of the perception
reason, as in the Wundt lab, experimenters and subjects could
without the need for any problematic conscious introspection
trade places. In one expedition photograph we see W. H. R.
on the part of the subject.
Rivers sitting in front of the color wheel, a device used to
Why does such a minute-seeming change as the lip key
measure perception of different colors. Rivers and his Torres
loom so large? It was at this moment that Cattell joined the
Strait companion Tom are seated on the same side of the
mind to the brain. As soon as he finished his experiments
table because Rivers is showing Tom how to use the color
using the lip key, he adopted a relentlessly physicalist per-
wheel. Tom is being trained to operate the device in order to
spective and questioned whether purely mental qualities ex-
gather perceptual information from the expedition scientists
isted. This was in 1886! As he explained this transition, it
(Kuklick 1998; Richards 1998).
takes time for light waves to work on the retina and to gen-
These practices were especially well articulated by Rivers,
erate in cells a nervous impulse corresponding to the light.
who believed that “a resident of the Torres Straits Islands was
It takes time for a nervous impulse to be conveyed along the
no different from any of Rivers’ experimental subjects—in-
optic nerve to the brain. It takes time for a nervous impulse
cluding Rivers himself” (Kuklick 1998:174). Rivers explicitly
to be conveyed through the brain to the visual center. It takes
time for a nervous impulse to bring about changes in the 1. At the time of the Torres Strait expedition, the psychologists on the
visual center “corresponding to its own nature, and to the team (W. H. R. Rivers and C. S. Myers) were haunted by the widely
nature of the external stimulus” (Cattell 1886:220). When all accepted evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer that “‘primitives’ sur-
this has happened, the subject sees a red light. The sensation passed ‘civilised’ people in psychophysical performance because more
energy remained devoted to this level in the former instead of being
or perception of red “does not take any time.” “The sensation diverted to ‘higher functions,’ a central tenet of late Victorian ‘scientific
of a red light is a state of consciousness corresponding to a racism’” (Richards 1998:137). Despite this, their experiments did not find
certain condition of the brain” (220). This immediacy is par- significant differences in the predicted direction.

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S152 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

trained himself to participate with the “minds” of Torres Strait In addition they sought to make a complete record of all
Islanders: he imagined he could immerse himself in the lives sensory modalities: smell, hearing, vision, touch, and taste.
of the islanders and “faithfully follow their way of life”: “If In the published report, they cite comparisons (common at
the anthropologist conducted himself as his subjects did, he the time) asserting similarities between the acute senses of
would become an embodied instrument, literally thinking and nonhuman animals and “savages” as what their experiments
feeling as they did” (Kuklick 2011:21). The Cambridge Ex- set out to confirm or deny. In all cases they denied or at least
pedition scientists realized that this immersion had its limits: complicated such comparisons by gathering evidence that is-
they could not embody the past experience of islanders. So, landers could have less acute hearing or vision than members
for example, when they saw that hearing was strikingly di- of the expedition.
minished in some villagers, they attributed this to previous But besides capturing what people could hear and see phys-
injury from diving for shells among coral reefs (Haddon et ically, they also tried to capture how the islanders saw things
al. 1935:286).2 qualitatively. They collected islanders’ perceptions of natural
I am suggesting that there is resonance between these prac- phenomena, ritual beings, and ordinary objects by asking
tices and the ideas behind Wundt’s laboratory training aimed them to make drawings of how they saw the sun and moon,
to make subjects comparable through experience of the same ritual beings, and canoes. Though the expedition members
regimen. In the Cambridge Expedition, the regimen entailed thought the islanders lacked the components of “high culture”
immersion in the environment and social life of the islanders. familiar to them from the cities of Britain and Europe, they
Perhaps the expedition scientists were on the cusp of a pro- insisted that the islanders could meaningfully render the ob-
found challenge to the assumptions of Wundtian experimental jects that were significant to them: “People of low culture are
psychology: they pushed the meaning of the “generalized often admirable draughtsmen and every opportunity should
mind” far beyond where the Leipzig experimenters intended be taken to make them draw, to illustrate objects of all kinds”
by including children and “primitives.” They also took the (Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912:110).
idea of being an embodied instrument further than the
Wundtians by taking the experimental system and its training Ethnographic Methods
regimen to a different culture altogether. They were stuck on
the cusp, however. Their comparative charts between the Tor- Despite their resonances with Wundtian psychology, expe-
res Strait Islands and British villages did assume that one could dition scientists often departed from expectations appropriate
set “reaction times” from experiments in these different places to the laboratory, devising an early (and underappreciated)
alongside one another. version of the ethnographic method. I will mention three
aspects of their method here.
First, the expedition members took comparison two ways.
Bringing Back Context They immersed themselves in the island environment, but
If shared context was essential to produce minds that could they also extended their experimental comparisons back to
be compared in experiments, shared context was also im- the British Isles. In their studies of smell, hearing acuity, and
portant to achieve communication with readers back home. visual perception, they gathered data from children and adults
The expedition members were extraordinarily devoted to living in Cambridge, Aberdeenshire, and Girton (a village near
bringing back as detailed a record of the islanders’ way of life Cambridge). Immense care was taken to describe the envi-
as possible, as if to immerse their British audience in the ronment in which the experiments were done in both Britain
islands’ environment.3 There were published descriptions, six and the Torres Strait Islands and to acknowledge when com-
parisons were not possible. Smell was the most difficult sen-
volumes’ worth, but also music recorded on wax cylinders
sory mode because “in Murray Island [Torres Strait] every-
and sound recorded with the rhythmograph; this was nec-
thing seemed to have a smell” (Haddon et al. 1901:177).
essary, according to Myers (Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912),
Hence, no odorless substance was available to serve as a con-
because “many kinds of barbaric music have rhythms so com-
plicated that the metronome is useless, and must be recorded
Second, despite their desire for careful recording of the
mechanically” (217). They made the first ethnographic films
experimental setting, they were remarkably able to tolerate
in spite of the limited technology of the time.4
lack of accuracy: they frequently acknowledged “rough ac-
2. They described this labor as the result of “ruthless exploitation” by curacy,” having “no pretense to extreme accuracy,” willingness
traders until the 1881 Pearl-Shell and Bêche-de-Mer Fishery Act was to sacrifice greater accuracy, and the impossibility of identi-
passed “regulating the engagement and employment of natives” (Haddon fying aberrant reaction times (Haddon et al. 1901:209). But
et al. 1935:14). they asserted that, even so, their results had significance and
3. Of course, any expedition worth its salt would bring back shiploads
their experiments were “very far from being unprofitable”
of documents and artifacts (Jardine 2000).
4. See MacDougall (1978). Haddon took a Lumière camera to the (Haddon et al. 1901:209).
Torres Strait, but despite his high hopes for the medium, it was not taken Third, and particularly prescient, looking back from pres-
up seriously again until after the Second World War. ent-day anthropology, was their concern to collect materials

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography S153

in their ordinary, everyday settings. In Notes and Queries of 1937:63). In “The Ethnological Study of Music,” he sum-
1912, they summarized a compendium of what was learned marizes:
in the Cambridge Expedition. Thus it comes about that many examples of primitive music
A not infrequent feature of anthropological work . . . is very are incomprehensible to us, just because they are not so
puzzling. It often happens that you ask for information in readily assimilated as those which are more nearly related
a way which seems to you to be perfectly simple and straight- to our previous experiences. Our attention is continuously
forward, and your informant may be quite unable to re- distracted, now by the strange features and changes of
spond, and yet later, sometimes within half an hour, he will rhythm, now by the extraordinary colouring of strange in-
give what you want incidentally, perhaps in the course of a struments, now by the unwonted progression and character
tale or other narrative. Probably the formal question, framed of intervals. Consequently much familiarity is needed before
on some category of European thought, put the matter in we can regard such music from a standpoint that will allow
an unaccustomed light. In order to grasp its meaning it of faithful description. We have first to disregard our well-
would have been necessary for your informant to see the trained feelings towards consonances and dissonances. We
matter in a light different from that natural to the people, have next to banish to the margins of our field of con-
but when telling the tale the facts are in their natural setting sciousness certain aspects of music, which, were it our own
and rise to consciousness spontaneously. (Freire-Marreco music, would occupy the very focus of attention. Thus in-
and Myres 1912:111) comprehensibility will gradually give place to meaning, and
dislike to some interesting emotion. (Myers 1907:249)
I will return to the importance of finding information in its
ordinary, everyday setting below. The crucial point is that Myers was interested in the physical
world (how people perceived sound with their ears), but he
held that the social and cultural world would determine how
C. S. Myers and Ludwig Wittgenstein
people’s perceptions were experienced. In his writing on mu-
C. S. Myers took the Cambridge Expedition approach some sic after the Cambridge Expedition, Myers may have even
steps farther.5 His studies in the Torres Strait Islands and later gone a step beyond the expedition’s original extension of the
in the Cambridge Laboratory of Experimental Psychology Wundtian experimental method. The expedition extended
(after 1912) focused on aural perception in music and rhythm Wundt’s concepts of the generalized mind and of introspective
(Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912). He founded the psycho- training: Myers may have been moving toward a method that
logical laboratory at Cambridge in 1912, taught experimental was not experimental at all.
psychology, and authored a two-volume textbook on the sub- Another significant aspect of Myers’s work was that he
ject. He was interested not only in recording music, measuring worked for a time with Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge.
its intervals, and measuring reaction times in various sensory Wittgenstein was a student at the University of Cambridge
modalities but specifically in the subjective components of reading moral science, and at the time, moral science included
sensory experience. So, for example, using a Wundtian ap- philosophy and experimental psychology. In his later writings,
paratus in Cambridge, he could present subjects with sounds turning away from the logical system he laid out in the Trac-
separated by various intervals (Myers 1909:96). The subject tatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein frequently referred to
would try to replicate the pattern, and these patterns would “anthropological facts” and “anthropological phenomena.”
be recorded on the smoked surface of a revolving drum. “The He articulated some of the central tenets of anthropological
subject should carefully record the results of introspective analysis; here, he restates Notes and Queries on the everyday,
analysis” (Myers 1909:97). Metronomes were also used: “The natural setting: “What we are supplying are really remarks on
subject should observe and record the varying affective values the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing
(pleasant, wearisome, etc.) of different rhythms and the as- curiosities however, but observations which no one has
sociated experiences which they may revive” (Myers 1909:99). doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they
An “objective” accentuation could be added by enclosing the are always before our eyes” (Wittgenstein 1953:415).
metronome in a box, which could, unbeknownst to the sub- My argument up to this point is that the members of the
ject, be opened or closed. The point of the experiments was Cambridge Expedition took the elements of the Wundt lab-
to identify the conditions under which subjects “heard or oratory that placed introspection and intentional action at
read into a sequence of beats a rhythm which was not in fact the center of human psychological experience and ran with
there” (McGuinness 1988:127). them.6 They devised a remarkable way of looking at human
Throughout his career and well into the 1930s, Myers psychology as inextricably embedded in its context, right
stressed that the aesthetic aspects of music and rhythm had down to the bottom. Even the most raw, “natural” perceptual
to be understood comparatively in different cultures (Myers inputs from eyes, ears, nose, and skin were only graspable as

5. Myers trained in medicine. He went in this capacity to the Torres 6. I am deliberately emphasizing those elements of their work that
Strait Islands and worked there with Rivers, who also trained in medicine. exceeded the experimental model. For another view, see Schaffer (1994).

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S154 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

products of specific human social environments. As we will An affect is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a
see in the following section, many other descendants of early moment of unformed and unstructured potential. . . . Affect
experimental psychology have come to see things otherwise. is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness. (Shouse
Enamored of what seem to be new reservoirs of potentiality 2005)
with creativity and free play unleashed, affect theorists depict
the social as stopping well before we get down to the bottom. There are a number of importantly different varieties of
Language, meaning, and cognition are separated from “the affect theory. Some are indebted to Silvan Tomkins’s (2008)
affects” by a “gap.” After describing the landscape of affect writing and others to Francisco Varela’s work on open sys-
theory, I will return for an alternative view to Wittgenstein tems, often in the style of Deleuze and Guatarri (1987; Varela
and the legacy of the Cambridge Expedition. 1999). But taking into account their differences, historian
Ruth Leys (2011) summarizes some of the main assumptions
they hold in common: “For the theorists in question, affects
The Move Away from the Social
are ‘inhuman,’ ‘pre-subjective,’ ‘visceral’ forces and intensities
Wittgenstein’s thought looped back to the Cambridge Ex- that influence our thinking and judgments but are separate
pedition’s sensibilities after his excursion in the logical fields from these. Whatever else may be meant by the terms affect
of the Tractatus. Experimental psychology, meanwhile, trod a and emotion . . . the affects must be non-cognitive, corporeal
single-minded path for the most part into models that processes or states” (437).7 For such theorists, affect is, as
stripped the human subject of subjectivity. Perhaps sparked Brian Massumi (2002) asserts, “irreducibly bodily and au-
by James Cattell’s innovation of the lip key, there was a pro- tonomic” (28). Other enthusiastic contributors to affect the-
gressive elimination of the experience of subjects from psy- ory from a wide range of fields, include Eve Sedgwick, Patricia
chology. Kurt Danziger has pointed out that where the effort Clough, Lauren Berlant, Elizabeth Grosz, Rosie Braidotti,
has been made to reintroduce subjectivity, the refusal has been Kathleen Stewart, Lawrence Grossberg, Elizabeth Wilson, and
absolutely relentless. “It became a key principle of the dom- Antonio Damasio.8
inant model of psychological experimentation that the sub- This work relates directly to the theme of potentiality. Mas-
ject’s experience was to be discounted. Attempts to change
sumi, one of the most widely read writers on affect theory,
this state of affairs have always evolved the most determined
stresses its connection with “potential” in a chapter called
resistance” (Danziger 1990:183).
“Autonomy of Affect.”
The story of how this happened is a far longer one than I
can tell here, including, in recent years, a growing rapproche- Something that happens too quickly to have happened, ac-
ment between experimental psychology and neuroscientific tually, is virtual. The body is as immediately virtual as it is
imaging technologies. Here, in order to follow the theme of actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and
potentiality, I will develop a case study of the ally of neuro- tendencies, is a realm of potential. In potential is where
scientific thinking I mentioned earlier, affect theory, which is futurity combines, unmediated, with pastness, where out-
being used in the humanities to explain phenomena on one sides are infolded and sadness is happy (happy because the
scale (e.g., those embodied in social relationships, places, prac- press to action and expression is life). (Massumi 2002:30–
tices, and institutions that have a material existence apart from 31; italics in original)
the brain) by means of phenomena on another scale (those
The definition Massumi gives to the concept of potential here
embodied in the brain).
seems to be “unlimited.” In particular, the affective realm is
not limited by what he sees as the constraints of sociolinguistic
Affect Theory
meaning. What motivates these scholars? They do not all agree
Many scholars in the humanities have recently engaged with on every point, and I will be glossing over their differences
research in neuroscience to posit a view of a precognitive, here, but Leys identifies some common motivations. Cen-
preindividual stage of human perception that promises un- trally, they claim that the role of reason and rationality in
realized dimensions of potentiality. Here are some descrip- politics, ethics, and aesthetics has been overvalued. It is too
tions of affect in the words of two theorists from quite dif- disembodied and “unlayered” an account of the way people
ferent disciplines. actually form opinions (Leys 2011:436). Given this, they adopt
Nigel Thrift, a geographer, writes, the position that humans are corporeal creatures with im-
In this paper I want to think about affect in cities and about portant subliminal affective intensities and resonances that
affective cities . . . and, above all, about what the political are decisive in the way we form opinions and beliefs. They
consequences of thinking more explicitly about these topics share an insistence that we ignore affects at our peril because
might be—once it is accepted that the political decision is
itself produced by a series of inhuman or pre-subjective 7. See this astute overview of commonalities and differences among
forces and intensities. (Thrift 2004:58) affect theorists (Blackman and Venn 2010).
8. See, e.g., the papers in Gregg and Seigworth (2010) or Clough and
Eric Shouse, a cultural critic, states, Halley (2007).

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography S155

they can be manipulated deliberately and because they contain icized.9 Some critics have shown in detail how the psycho-
the potential for creativity and transformation. logical evidence that is the basis for the tenets of affect theory
In sum, the affects are independent of and before language. is questionable and out of date (Leys 2010). Others have
They are before “intentions, meanings, reasons, and beliefs”; detailed the ways affect theorists sometimes misread biological
they are “non-signifying, autonomic processes that take place and psychological research (Papoulias and Callard 2010). For
below the level of conscious awareness and meaning”; they example, in a 1985 experiment by Benjamin Libet, subjects
are “‘inhuman,’ ‘pre-subjective,’ ‘visceral’ forces that influence were asked to decide to flex a finger at will and to note the
our thinking and judgments” even though they are noncog- exact time they made the decision. The experimenters also
nitive and corporeal (Leys 2011:437, 443). Among the affects, measured the exact time of any rise in the subject’s brain
at the physiological level, categories that are cognitively sep- activity and the exact time of the subject’s finger flexing. The
arate (such as sad or pleasant) get connected, and this is one results showed that there was a 0.2-second delay between the
way the affects are thought to open up new and creative brain’s activity spike and the subject’s decision, then a 0.3-
potential (Massumi 2002:29). Massumi—following De- second delay between the subject’s decision and his finger
leuze—considers that the affects are characterized by “inten- flexing. In all, there seemed to be a half-second delay between
sity” rather than content. Affective states, characterized by the subject’s brain’s initial activity and the subject’s finger
intensity, are nonsemantic, nonlinear, autonomous, vital, sin- actually flexing (Libet 1985). This half-second gap provides
Massumi (2002:29) with the evidence of a gap between
gular, indeterminate, and disruptive of fixed (conventional)
(lower) brain activity and (higher) decision, intentionality and
meanings. Hence the affects provide a rich reservoir of un-
action. He concludes that material processes of the brain gen-
predictable potentiality.
erate our thoughts; conscious thoughts, decisions, and inten-
All this means there is a gap between the signifying order
tions come too late to be very significant. At most they are
(content, meaning, convention) and the affective order. What
reflections after the fact. No one would doubt that the brain
exactly is the gap? According to Leys (2011), there is “a con-
is necessary for thought and action. But Massumi and other
stitutive disjunction between our emotions on the one hand
affect theorists place too much weight on this experimental
and our knowledge of what causes and maintains them on
evidence. Other studies have shown that Libet’s evidence is
the other, because . . . affect and cognition are two separate
open to contrary interpretations from its publication in 1985
systems” (437). These theorists generally argue that affect is
up until the present (Banks and Isham 2009, 2010; Gomes
independent of meaning and signification; they deny the role 1998). At the very least, before drawing such far-reaching
of intentionality and meaning at the affective level (Leys 2011: conclusions, one would hope scholars of cultural phenomena
450). There is a gap or “radical dichotomy between the ‘real’ would consider the experimental structures that generate psy-
causes of affect and the individual’s own interpretation of chological data. As I noted earlier, the psychological subject
these causes” (Tomkins, quoted in Leys 2011:437). In Tom- becomes a particular kind of stripped down entity, a data-
kins’s view, affects are “phylogenetically old, automatic re- emitting being whose subjective experience is outside the
sponses of the organism that have evolved for survival pur- frame of the experiment. Perhaps this is not the most adequate
poses and lack the cognitive characteristics of the higher-order model for understanding human intentionality.
mental processes and are separate from them” (Leys 2011: The mistakes and confusions in this position are laid bare
437). The affects are located subcortically in the brain, in the by the approach pioneered in the Cambridge Expedition and
part of the brain that processes universal, natural kinds (such later pursued in Wittgenstein’s account of intention, remem-
as the so-called basic emotions). The “basic emotions” or bering, and other psychological terms. That account argues
“affect programs” are genetically hardwired responses, prod- that our criteria for whether they have happened are nor-
ucts of human evolution, that are expressed in autonomic mative and conventional. These criteria are located in use,
behavioral patterns (such as characteristic facial expressions not in the interior psyche. Saying that criteria for meaning
for fear or disgust) (Damasio 1994; Leys 2011:438–439; Sedg- are normative and conventional does not mean that everyone
wick 2003). must agree, that there is harmony, or that there is not conflict
There is one part of affect theory that relates directly to or change. It means that criteria for meaning cannot arise
the theme of potentiality. This is the supposition that there from the mind of a single, isolated individual or from a prim-
is no way to include both mind and body in an account of itive part of the brain. Drawing on Wittgenstein, Elizabeth
meaning, making it necessary to posit a level below the gap Anscombe argued for a social account of intentional actions.
where bodily aspects of affect go on; it is the unformed, pre- Anscombe was arguing against the common-sense view of an
cognitive aspects of the lower level of the affects that make intention as composed of an action plus an interior mental
them seem filled with potential. This move separates inten-
9. The point is too tangential to elaborate here, but I would add that
tionality or meaning from affect and assumes that intention-
the theory involves a troubling alliance with neuroscientific findings
ality and meaning are purely mental or cognitive. rather than a critique of the pervasive cultural effects of neuroscientific
There are many points at which this argument can be crit- findings.

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S156 Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

state. Looking at the ways we speak of an action as done In this view there is a vast reservoir of potential for change
“intentionally,” she concluded that “intention” in everyday and creative adaption. But this view also entails that there are
language means something done as an action of a whole per- limits to human experience set by whatever social contexts
son, a moral agent, “under a description.” The relevant de- are relevant. It does not compare with Massumi’s (2002) vir-
scription would include the past and present social contexts tual realm, the “pressing crowd of incipiencies and tenden-
relevant to the person as much as his or her interior states cies” (30). Perhaps it is any limitation that seems unbearable
(Anscombe 1957). in the present era, where the drumbeat of the necessity for
What is at stake is whether we understand intentional hu- constant growth is heard and felt everywhere.
man action as gaining its meaning in an interior, hidden, and Saying that social context limits what is relevant does not
thus socially inaccessible space instead of in the light of social close off experiences that are unconscious, inchoate, or un-
experience. Anscombe worked in a Wittgensteinian mode to speakable. Anthropologists and sociolinguists have long found
move intentionality away from the private interiority of the ways to address the entirely social meanings of things that are
mind into the space of social interaction, where meaning in repressed from speech or action but nonetheless contain pow-
language is constituted. Wittgenstein conveyed this message erful kinds of potentiality.
through many homely examples: Years ago Gayle Rubin (1975) analyzed the “sex/gender
I tell someone: “I’m going to whistle you the theme . . .” system” as a “set of arrangements by which a society trans-
It is my intention to whistle it, and I already know what I
forms biological sexuality into products of human activity”
am going to whistle. It is my intention to whistle this theme:
(159). More recently, in Brainstorm, Jordan-Young (2010) re-
phrases this: “Gender . . . is a social effect, rather than the
have I then already, in some sense, whistled it in thought?
result of human biology. Sex in this regard is conceived as
(Wittgenstein 1967:2e)
the remainder—the material body, and those bodily inter-
One would like to ask: “Would someone who could look actions that are necessary to reproduce it” (13). Borrowing
into your mind have been able to see that you meant to say from this way of putting it, we could say that like the sex/
that?” Suppose I had written my intention down on a slip gender system, the affect/intentionality system is a set of ar-
of paper, then someone else could have read it there. And rangements by which a society transforms neurological pro-
can I imagine that he might in some way have found it out cesses into products of human activity. Affects are a social
more surely than that? Certainly not. (Wittgenstein 1967:8e; effect rather than the result of human biology. Intentions in
italics in original) this regard are conceived as the remainder—the material brain
and those neurological interactions that are necessary to re-
The point is that intentionality emerges from the whole struc-
produce it.
ture of events from the inception of the notion to the exe-
Looked at this way, what we see as the affects are the prod-
cution of the action. We decide whether someone had a cer- uct of a social process that has separated them from larger
tain intention not by referring to an event or template in the contexts rather than a new entity we have discovered in na-
mind but by whether his or her gestures, postures, words, ture. The feminist concerns that motivate Rubin are relevant
and actions fit with a socially defined notion of being about to analysis in terms of the affects. We need to ask whether
to whistle a tune or meaning to say something. Sometimes a one result of seeing the affects as biological phenomena is
mental event (whistling the tune or saying the words in one’s losing the insights that feminism can provide.10
head) might precede the action and sometimes not, but in
any case, that interior event could not constitute a usable
criterion for whether someone was intending to whistle or
meaning to speak. It is clear that the trait of potentiality is sometimes thrown
Removing any interest in intentionality—conceived as a up as an object of desire because it seems to imply creativity,
social process, as affect theory does—removes socially pro- openness, and infinite possibility unconstrained by social con-
duced contexts of use as a necessary and sufficient basis for ventions. I want to suggest that in the ethnographic method
what actions and words mean to people. Tackling mathe- lies another kind of potentiality: the potential to examine the
matics, the realm of symbolic life perhaps most difficult to ontological position that comparison between two social
regard as contingent on social norms, Wittgenstein com- worlds opens up. One key to what is unique about the eth-
mented that people found the idea that numbers rested on nographic move is that it allows us to see an ordinary, ev-
conventional social understandings “unbearable” (Rhees eryday, natural setting in its context but from a certain point
1970). Why is there resistance to allowing the meaning of of view. Wittgenstein muses,
human acts to rest on social understandings all the way down? Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up and we see
Why such an idea is unbearable returns us to the Cambridge someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting
Expedition. Rivers and the others thought that plunging into a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are ob-
a different social and physical environment would make them
different people, comparable in many ways to the islanders. 10. A particularly useful reminder is Lutz (1995).

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography S157

serving a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily that generate the affects? Have the affects been discovered?
we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a Or are they an effect of social processes that have worked to
chapter from a biography with our own eyes,—surely this make them materialize? Is contempt for the particular con-
would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful tempt for anything that limits the kind of commensurability
than anything a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken that our markets and systems of governance demand?
on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.—But then we
do see this every day and it makes not the slightest im- Conclusion
pression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that
point of view. (Wittgenstein 1984:4e) My interest is piqued by the ways Wittgenstein opens up to
theorize what kind of knowledge ethnography is. After my
It is obvious that the theater creates its own context, but the early surprise while being a subject in a lab that was studying
playwright/artist/ethnographer allows us to view that context emotions while disregarding my emotions, I have found a
from a certain point of view, namely, from the point of view number of labs in which I can observe and participate, labs
of another embedded context: we can adopt “the way of whose members are interested in the history of introspection
thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it in psychology, for example, the work of Robert S. Woodworth,
the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight” (Witt- who continued Wundt’s introspective methods and questions
genstein 1984:5e).11 (against the grain) into the 1930s. It would be a nice irony
In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein (1984) wrote of the if the practices of Rivers and the other Torres Strait research-
“ethnological point of view” and said that this point of view ers, indebted as they were to experimental psychology, could
allows us to take up “a standpoint right outside so as to be clarify both what is important about ethnographic fieldwork
able to see things more objectively” (37e).12 What could he and why some contemporary psychologists are now beginning
possibly have meant by “more objectively,” given his insis- to return to questions involving intention and introspection.
tence that there is no external point, outside the immersion Although Cattell’s lip key opened a path to removing intro-
in everyday forms of life, from which those forms of life can spection, the historical record of earlier experiments that re-
be understood? I think “more objectively” means from a com- lied on introspective reports is extremely rich. A shared in-
parative point of view. Comparing two contexts means de- terest in this history is what opened laboratory doors to me.
scribing their differences—it does not mean placing them on If some experimental psychologists are becoming interested
the same scale. Recall Myers’s remarks on music: the eth- in the role intentionality plays in their experiments, why are
nographic goal in understanding unfamiliar music is to “ban- some humanities scholars trying to rule out intentionality
ish to the margins” our habitual focus of attention and make from the literature, art, and media they study? Whatever the
the incomprehensible meaningful through “faithful descrip- reasons, it seems clear that to counteract the appeal of affect
tion.” theory and its notion of potentiality, we will need robust
Editor and biographer Rush Rhees (1970) wrote that what ethnographic accounts that are specific about how humans’
Wittgenstein called the anthropological point of view had perceptions are social all the way down. Our history in the
often been misunderstood. He cited a comment of Wittgen- Torres Strait guides us toward a limited and socially con-
stein’s about language games: “The advantage of looking at strained but creative notion of potentiality.
language games is that they let us look step by step at what
we otherwise could only see as a tangled ball of yarn” (Rhees
1970:50; my translation). Wittgenstein warned against “the
craving for generality as the real source of metaphysics.” He Acknowledgments
added, “Instead of ‘craving for generality’ I could also have Thanks to the spring 2011 seminar in the anthropology of
said ‘the contemptuous attitude towards the particular case’” science at New York University for discussions of affect theory
(Rhees 1970:51). Ethnography could be said to be about par- and to Max Black, Georg von Wright, Norman Malcolm, and
ticular cases set alongside one another but not balled up into Bruce Goldstein in the philosophy department at Cornell Uni-
one another. Two tangled balls of yarn can look very much versity for their lectures and discussions on Wittgenstein when
the same; only when we look at them step by step (untangling I was in graduate school there. I also appreciate help with the
the ball of yarn) can we gather the details that make a context historical sources from John Forrester, Alison Winter, Michael
specific, not general. Perhaps we could say that affect theorists Sokal, David Robinson, and Christopher Green. Most pro-
crave generality. found thanks to all of the members and organizers of the
Is the widespread contempt for the particular case today Wenner-Gren symposium on potentiality and to the anony-
part of what drives the search for universal neural processes mous reviewers.

11. Thanks to Michael Fried for his interesting discussion of this point
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