CUSP, Research in the School

Affective transformations: changing the world by changing feelings?

Professor Paul Stenner’s work features as the lead chapter in a newly published international volume called ‘Affective transformations: politics, algorithms, media’. Edited by Bernd Bösel and Serjoscha Wiemer, the book is published by meson press and is freely available online. 

The volume addresses two recent developments which at first appear contradictory but have deeper shared roots. Both involve transformations with respect to emotions and affective life more generally. On the one hand, in recent years a number of technological innovations have concentrated on targeting human emotions, feelings, sentiments and passions. For example, a growing number of technological interventions – including affective­ computing,­ mood tracking,­ sentiment­ analysis and social robotics­ – all aim to recognise and modulate ‘human affectivity’. These affective media often build upon and incorporate psychological research on affect and its regulation and use algorithms to nudge the users of personal digital devices into ‘preferred’ patterns of feeling and conduct. 

On the other hand, as made clear by the recent US elections and their aftermath, the political sphere has gone through its own affective transformation, and in a manner that many perceive to be increasingly irrational and disruptive.  Political discussion,­ journalism and social­ media­ usage more generally are now routinely characterised by cyber-mobbing, hate speech, public shaming, the stoking of resentment­ and other forms of ‘feeling-based’ communication that appear closer to fanaticism than rational debate. As the editors of the new volume put it: ‘politics and power have become affective’. 

Affective transformations: politics, algorithms, media is a comprehensive effort to make sense of the relationship between these two seemingly divergent affective transformations. In this context, Paul Stenner’s chapter – Affect: on the turn– does two things. First, he provides an overview of the “affective turn” which has transformed many social science and humanities disciplines in the last decades. This turn, he suggests, has great potential for diagnosing the current situation, but risks ignoring its more destructive side. Informed by the psychology of emotions, he offers a powerful new way of thinking about affective transformation that is grounded in the anthropological concept of liminal experience. He traces the new proliferation of ‘affective media’ to a long history of techniques for generating andmanaging affective experiences associated with significant personal and social transitions. Amongst the oldest of these is ritual. Far from denying the distinctiveness of the present moment in which affectivity is routinely summoned and manipulated by a host of new technological means, this approach locates it in a bigger picture which provides new possibilities for constructively navigating significant personal and social changes. 

Bernd Bösel and Serjoscha Wiemer (Eds) (2020) Affective transformations: politics, algorithms, media

Read about Paul Stenner’s work here

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