9/29 – Where Are We?

In Sessions on September 27, 2010 at 5:09 pm

As promised, the second-half of the “Future of Forgetting” (below the cut).

The Future of Forgetting: Rhetoric, Memory, Affect (Continued)

Once More With Memory: Affect, Repetition, and the Mechanisms of Motivation

Much as the “externalization” of rhetorical memory has become increasingly noticeable in conjunction with the growth of networked information systems, the relation to which we now turn—the “internalization” of rhetorical memory through affective structures—has also grown in prominence proportionate to the spread of a particular class of technologies: the PET scans and autonomic response instruments leveraged by the behavioral and neurological sciences. As mentioned above, one of the important aspects of rhetorical memory that disappeared in the movement from Greek mnemosyne to Roman rhetoric’s conception of memory was its focus on the affective capacities of humans as a way of negotiating between, as Vernant writes, the “intellectual” part of the soul or subjectivity and its “sensory” or sensuous faculties (138). On the one hand, such as in the ecstasy of the poet inspired by the Muses, affective and non-rational feeling was itself thought to be access to a “divine” or asubjective memory. On the other, memory of lived experience and of learning was used to affirm decision-making as based on wisdom or willed determination rather than vulgar feeling; knowledge, accessed through memory, was synonymous with an individual’s character and thus provided a defense against the base impulses tied to emotional response. The early encounter between sophistic rhetoric and Platonic philosophy similarly emphasized the role of affect on human susceptibility to persuasion and its relation to memory. For instance, in his defense of memory and knowledge in both the Phaedrus and Meno (85-86d), Plato’s Socrates insists on their value as defenses against the sophists’ exploitation of affective capacities as part of their rhetorical performances.

In what follows, we are interested in rethinking the relation of rhetorical memory and affect in the present, a moment during which affect has once again become a crucial concept in critical theory. More specifically, we argue for the value of positioning affective response as a second way in which the vectors of memory and persuasion have become more flexibly mobilized in contemporary rhetoric. Much as we suggested that the “externalization” of memory in contemporary New Media and information technologies has prioritized the “program” or structural ways in which various inscriptions of memory are made available for consideration and manipulation, affective response—particularly as it has been taken up by contemporary public relations and advertising—might be considered something like the reversal of the same process: the ways that diverse experiences that have been “internalized” become the targets of rhetorical discourses.

Focusing on the ways that social and experiential factors, in addition to biological vectors, shape the connections between affect and memory might also be useful for mediating some of the more problematic aspects of contemporary thinking about affect in the critically-attuned humanities, one that has largely been premised on its value as a response, if not a remedy, to postmodern theory’s ostensible lack of attention to biological materiality. For example, in his influential work on affect, Brian Massumi argues that increased attention to the physiology of human bodies within the humanities can help us pass through the “gridlock” of contemporary cultural studies created by the dominance of theories of social construction and cultural identity (3); for Massumi, focusing on the precognitive capacities associated with emotion can allow us to avoid both the “Scylla of naïve realism” and the “Charybdis of subjectivism” and think more concretely about the co-relation of human bodies and human cultures (4). Similarly, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s equally impactful work (with and without Adam Frank) pitches the turn to affect as a salutary way to challenge the “antibiologism” of contemporary critical theory (101) and to think outside of our tendency, pace Foucault, to concentrate our critical energies on identifying social forces as either “repressive” or “liberatory” (10). For both these theorists, as for the majority of participants in the so-called “Affective Turn” within critical theory as a whole, affective potentials are largely “hard-wired” into human biology—the potentials for such affects as shame, joy, etc., are fairly universal to human experience—so attention to its role in human behavior and identity is taken as promising way to rethink these categories outside critical theory’s narrow focus on sociality as the prime shaper of human subjectivity and experience.

Certainly this renewed focus on affect has indeed proved salutary for contemporary critical theory, particularly in goading scholars to complicate and rethink traditional tools of the enterprise such as ideology critique and social construction. As Michael Taussig argues, the deductions reached through such earlier analytical frameworks—“‘sex is social construction,’ ‘race is a social construction,’ ‘the nation is an invention’”—have too often suggested that belief in or obedience to such institutions is privative, and thus easily dismissed once the cultural and discursive forces underlying them have been identified (xvi). Focusing on the role of biology in human subjectivity and the ways affective experiences impact subjectivity has helped complicate the notion that an “intellectual” understanding of the sociality or contingency of interpolative forces automatically provides some purchase on resisting them.

However, it is worth asking after whether the turn to affect as a critical category, as much as it is meant to be a step “beyond” postmodern thought, has amounted to more of a return to the primacy of “pure feeling” traditionally associated with phenomenology, modernist aesthetics, or even what we used to call “the sublime.” As Clare Hemmings emphasizes in explaining her skepticism of what she calls the “theoretical celebration” (550) of affect in the humanities, the primary focus of such work on affect has been insisting on its ubiquity in human relations and interaction while maintaining its “singularity” as a force that cannot be exhaustively described or generally applied in a strategic fashion. As Hemmings details, it is this singularity and asociality, “affect’s difference from social structures,” that is leveraged to link it with “the hope of freedom from social constraint” (550); its “autonomy” from social or discursive structures is what is taken to give affect its potential for overcoming or exceeding forces of social or cultural interpolation.

Hemmings may go a bit too far in emphasizing theorists’ depictions of affect’s asociality. Although it is true that much of the language used by Massumi and Sedgwick suggests such a conclusion, the sites they analyze in reference to affect, such as the presumed influence of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal on the U.S. stock market (Massumi) or the experiences of queer identity (Sedgwick), not to mention their general leveraging of affect as an intervention into contemporary cultural studies, implies that at the very least they have ears for the abstract intersection of affect with the cultural or social. In other words, and to soften her critique somewhat, what Hemmings underscores in her essay might be better taken as an indictment not of Massumi and Sedgwick’s neglect of culture en toto, but their inability to account for the intersection of affect and culture that is implicitly presumed in their work; to be more precise, their failing might be in finding a way to negotiate how affective systems in general are wholly material (and asocial) but affective responses are conditioned by cultural forces or commonplaces and in turn condition our responses to cultural stimuli. What is missing in their analyses is a category that could mediate the two vectors, or account for how affect and culture are co-implicated or function in a recursive relationship. Our argument below and in the remainder of this essay is that rhetorical memory has the potential to account for this mediation; we are particularly concerned with the challenges that such an “internalized” concept of rhetorical memory—both individually and when coupled with the “externalization” of memory through technological processes described above—poses for the current treatment of affect in the critical humanities and contemporary cultural and political persuasion as a whole.

In fact, the logic of these two systems—memory as “outsourced” to machine realms and the co-implication of affect and memory in human motivation and behavior—may have more in common than we initially think, despite the tendency within the humanities and social sciences to leverage affect as the fundamental aspect of human “nature” and thought that is fundamentally distinct from, and impossible to reproduce within, mechanical systems. Indeed, this forwarding of affect as a constitutively “human” or humanistic process is one of the few interests generally shared across the variety of treatments of affect with these disciplines. [8] However, some of the most prominent research into affective responses in the natural and social sciences have underscored how the “autonomic” nature of affect—its connection to physiological processing—leads not so much to an “autonomy” from social factors as it does a certain culturally and experientially fomented “automaticity”: robust systems of affective dispositions and responses that are conditioned by personal experiences, physiological memories, and cultural commonplaces.

Unsurprisingly, one of the more prominent attempts to conceive of affect in this way was made by Sylvan S. Tomkins, the mid-twentieth-century psychologist whose work encompassed information systems, memory, and affect. For Tomkins, one of the most important, though historically underemphasized, operations of memory was its function in creating perceptual and motivational dispositions on the unconscious and affective levels of experience. He writes in “A Theory of Memory” that memory not only stores information that allows us to interpret our perceptions, but also “provides prefabricated analogs that, when transmuted, are the perceptual experience” (60; emphasis in original). Memory, for Tomkins, had to be taken not only as discrete recollections and learned skills and behaviors, but also as the location of an accumulation of affective responses to categories of stimuli, responses that build up over time but that allow humans to respond much more efficiently, even automatically, to phenomena to which they have already formed some positive or negative association. Much more recently, research psychologists John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand have similarly emphasized the ways that affective response—and corollary categories of emotion and “mood”—are largely predicated on unconscious memories of previous affective experience as well as generalized affective perceptions reinforced by cultural stereotypes. A series of experiments performed by Bargh illustrate how “the frequent and consistent pairing of internal responses and external events” create and maintain individuals’ affective potentials and thresholds and the behaviors that emerge in response to them (468). For instance, subjects “primed” with terms relating to stereotypes of the elderly (“Florida,” “Sentimental,” etc.) subsequently behaved in line with the stereotype (walking slowly down hallways, having difficulty with their short-term memory). In another series of experiments, participants were subliminally presented with the faces of young African-Americans; their subsequent affective behavior was markedly more hostile (as opposed to control groups), presumably based on their stereotypical association of hostility with that group. Such “automaticity” of affect, and in particular, such connections between affective potential and cultural stereotypes should give us pause over what Hemmings codes as the “optimism of affective freedom” dominant in humanistic affect theory, one wherein affective attachments with less than desirable implications—“the delights of consumerism, the feelings of belonging attending fundamentalism or fascism”—have been crowded out by focus on affect’s “autonomy” (551).

These connections between unconscious memory, culturally reinforced conceptions, and affective response were known in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychology as “affective memory”: an “involuntary memory linked to sensory or emotional triggers” as opposed to that of conscious memory organized by intelligence (Terdiman 201). In more contemporary work in psychology and neuroscience, the associations of concepts and objects with particular affects in long-term memory, and the influence of this association with the generalized disposition and motivation of individuals, are attributed to the functioning of “affective tags” or “somatic markers.”  Both terms refer to the process through which individuals’ affective response become tied or cued to particular concepts, identities, or individuals over time and how this impacts their disposition—their inclinations toward responding positively or negatively to particular stimuli—and, concomitantly, their judgment or decision-making processes. When we have an affective response to an object or concept, it becomes “tagged” or “marked” in our memory with that feeling, increasing our chances of responding in similar fashion when confronted with or recalling the original stimulus as well as others that we perceive. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes, affective responses are stored in dormant and implicit “dispositional memories” that record these responses within our nervous systems (260). This bodily memory helps explain, for instance, the rapidity of individuals’ affective responses to objects as well as our tendencies, when such dispositions are challenged, to seek out information that supports our initial feelings.

Diagram of retention/protention effects in decision-making (from Damasio's *Looking for Spinoza,* 149)

Such an affective or bodily memory has significant implications for our conceptions of contemporary subjectivity and social power; much as it was in the concept of mnemosyne, the affective dimension of memory in the present is perhaps best taken as a pivotal component of subjectivity as well as a resource for persuasion. As a method of thematizing human subjectivity, affective memory suggests a co-implication of cultural and biological factors that may be lacking both in more traditional critical considerations of the ideological or “socially constructed” nature of such categories as well as the tendency within contemporary cultural studies to foreground the autonomy of affect from social forces. In other words, if attention to affect is to function as something more than a foregrounding of “pure feeling” we will have to do some hard thinking about its ties to sociality and its role in individuals’ use of, and vulnerability to, forms of influence and persuasion. Our argument here has been that the best way to think of such a relation between affect and sociality is—as it was ancient Greece and early twentieth-century cognitive theory—through memory, and, more specifically, rhetorical memory, or the various intersections of individual and collective memory and the forces of persuasion affecting and affected by them. Beyond its impact on our conceptions of identity or ontology, we take it that this is the primary question of affect today: the ways that affective experience and its persistence in our bodies and memories prime or prepare our responses to the various phenomena that would make claims on our attention, support, or response.

Conclusion: The Future of Forgetting

In The Art of Memory, her canonical study of memory training from Ancient Greek rhetoric to Renaissance scientific culture, Frances A. Yates reproduces a number of diagrams used by teachers in various historical periods to visualize types of items being memorized, or, more commonly, the operations of memory itself. Many of these diagrams share a structure wherein individual markers are connected by lines representing the different relations between items and possible sequential strategies for organizing them. Likely, given the various historical moments during which these diagrams were actively used, they alternately reminded their viewers of blueprints or floor plans of physical structures, cartographic representations, or astronomical constellations. Those viewing them today are likely reminded not so much of such particular images as much as the genre of these images themselves: the network. Most generally, as we have argued in this essay, such a conception is far from coincidental; the network is perhaps the master-trope of any attempt to theorize the operations of social power in the post-Empire, post-disciplinary, or post-postmodern present. More specifically, two particular types of networks—the material and electronic networks of information technology and the affective and biological economy of the nervous system—are perhaps the most vital sites for the conception of rhetorical memory that we have been arguing plays large in contemporary culture and politics.

Detail from Yate's reconstruction of the memory wheel from Giordano Bruno's *De Umbris Idearum*

In the following, we are interested in drawing a finer point on the connections between these systems, and thus begin winding down this essay, by focusing on areas where both the “externalization” and “internalization” of rhetorical memory are particularly prominent: contemporary mass marketing and political campaigning. We choose these two phenomena not only because of their prevalence in contemporary social life and their role as two of the most influential social practices that hold persuasion as an explicit end goal, but also because they both demonstrate a particularly strong mixture of the two types of rhetorical memory systems that have been under review here — information technology and affective response.

Indeed, although affect may have only recently returned to the scene of humanities research, it has long been the coin of the realm for research into contemporary marketing, one made all the more prominent as both corporate and academic research into advertising have made increased use of advanced diagnostic technologies for measuring both affective response generally and the more specific cataloguing of what components of cognition are operative in response to marketing appeals. [9] Take for instance, a relatively recent experiment by the Human Neuroimaging Lab and the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at the Baylor College of Medicine (McClure). Their protocol for this experiment was in many ways itself a reiteration of a famous marketing technique: “The Pepsi® Challenge.” Administers of this experiment tested individuals’ verbal and affective responses (via brain scans recorded by functional magnetic resonance imaging) to drinking both Coke® and Pepsi® in their normal packaging, drinking them independent of their packaging (a “blind taste test”), and drinking them from receptacles that are marked to suggest the alternative drink was being offered (e.g., a cup labeled “Coke®” that might in fact contain Pepsi®). Their results showed that around half of the participants who did not know which drink they were imbibing preferred Pepsi® and that drink tended to produce activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, a region thought to process feelings of reward. The most striking result of the experiment, however, was that when participants knew they were drinking Coke®, three-fourths of participants claimed it tasted better and their brain activity changed correspondingly. Perhaps most surprisingly, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, both associated with the impact of affect on behavior and the latter with memory, were activated, suggesting that consumers were relating their experience to existing pre-conscious memories, particularly their recollection of images and marketing messages and the somatic markers created by those commercial appeals.

Diagram from McClure, et al. (84), showing brain activity during soft drink experiment

Although participants in the contemporary turn to affect in the humanities are fond, as Hemmings emphasizes, of noting scientific research that identify the sometimes “quirky” or peculiar manifestations of affect and those that suggest an “escape” or “freedom” from our usual notions of the cultural impact of mass media and public culture on individual subjectivity, it is likely that operations of the kind described above drive the majority of our affective experiences: quotidian operations and dispositions that underscore the persuasive impact of cultural messages and images that may be more expansive than our traditional “ideological” or discursive notions of such influence, but are equally tied to our memory and experiences. Indeed, it is precisely because the intersection of affect, memory, and persuasion can be detected in such a quotidian interaction that makes this process so pervasive and distinguishes the conception of rhetorical memory we have been arguing for here from both our more traditional tools of critical theory (ideology critique, analysis of the “social construction” of phenomena) and the more recent turn to affect that was designed to remedy the limitations of the former.

Although it would be, of course, ridiculous to suggest that institutional structures no longer largely dictate acceptable “roles” or subject positions for the huge majority of individuals, our argument about the primacy of rhetorical memory is meant to suggest that the constellation of these forces, and, in particular, the processes through which social and cultural ecologies shape subjectivity, have in fact shifted significantly from what these above theoretical perspectives would suggest. More specifically, we are arguing that the priority between the ideational contents (capitalism, heteronormativity) of whatever system is under review and its mechanisms of maintenance (ideology, social construction) have in many ways reversed. To use the vocabulary we have worked with throughout this essay, “program” has become much more important than “content.”

Or, to phrase it another way, rhetoric or persuasion “itself” increasingly drives cultural and economic production, rather than the discrete content it might be used to carry. In this sense the importance of affect for thinking through contemporary forces of persuasion is not that it might reveal some more “authentic” or “resistant” self, but rather because it has increasingly become a crucial component of the process we have been coding as rhetorical memory here, particularly its manifestation in the most common or quotidian operations of daily life. This focused creation and manipulation of personal memory and affective response goes hand in glove with the technologically mediated niche marketing techniques mentioned earlier in this essay; the two come together to form a relatively novel system of persuasive techniques leveraging the overlaps between cognizant, personal memory and both its externalization in mass mediated informatic networks and its internalization, often equally mass mediated, into affective responses and preferences encoded in our nervous systems.

We can see the same intersection in the dominant strategies of contemporary American political campaigning. In addition to the increased attention to affect’s role in “political decision-making” in the disciplines of political science and psychology, work on affect in the critical and cultural studies wing of the humanities have also underscored the importance of affect in public politics (and, in particular, the historical superiority of the right over the left in leveraging affective persuasion). [10] However, as republican political campaign consultant Dan Schnur has recently emphasized, academic approaches to the leveraging of affect in political appeals often neglect the very specific circumstances and strategies surrounding their use in public political persuasion. Most significantly, Schnur argues, researchers get it wrong when they configure political appeals as geared toward a broad swathe of the electorate or claim that the shared affective capacities of potential voters make them a homogenous group. Although empirical researchers into affective politics test hypotheses by crafting emotional appeals and then applying them to test groups, a reverse process is followed by the average “political practitioner,” who first identifies various voter groups and then crafts emotional appeals tailored to these various groups (360). In addition to dividing voters into categories based on whether they are likely to be opponents, supporters, or possible supporters of a particular candidate, the latter two categories are then further divided based on their existing dispositional memories and affective investments, and various “emotion based messaging” is designed to target these deeper niches (363).

It is in this final division, the ever more specific targeting of emotional appeals to voters, that the leveraging of affective memory intersects that of externalized memory and information technology. Although the modern work of dividing voters into targeted categories may have traditionally taken place through the recognition of explicitly organized “interest groups” (for tax decreases, for the preservation of the natural environment, etc.) that could be addressed via public rallies or direct mail campaigns, in the last decade or so data aggregating corporations such as Strategic Telemetry, TargetPoint, and Catalist have combined massive server power and the increasing availability of demographic and consumer preference information to provide their clients with a seemingly infinite amount of cross-indexed voter niches (Strategic Telemetry worked for the ’08 Obama campaign, TargetPoint for Romney, and Catalist for the Democratic National Committee). As journalist Steven Levy reports, the “fuzzy cohorts” such as “soccer moms” and “Nascar dads” that attempted to grasp broad cultural trends have given away to more specific categories based on the documented material, political, and affective investments of individuals: a cache of “education-obsessed Hispanic moms” microtargeted by Republicans in 2004, a niche of “Christian Conservative Environmentalists” microtargeted by the DNC the same year. On the one hand, the increased individualization of these appeals might be read as nothing more than a more intense version of what preceded them: today’s microtargeted niche demographics being little more than smaller or more plural manifestations of the “interest groups” that were in the sights of earlier political campaigns. On the other hand, however, the increasing precision with which such demographic information has been collected, analyzed, and exploited suggests a change not just in degree, but in kind (or, perhaps more accurately that the intensity of the former trends toward pushing it into the latter). One would have to revise Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous description of twentieth-century capitalist political economy as one in which “something is provided for all so that none may escape” (123). Today, it might be more accurate to state that, “everyone must provide something so that none may escape.” If the former suggested the ability to create multiple versions of whatever phenomena are under review (projects, persuasive discourses) so that it might persuade multiple audiences, the latter codes the priority of identifying and analyzing the various niches of whatever audiences are under review and producing the effective persuasive techniques in response. And, for good or ill, one must declare some kind of identity or desire in order to participate in either economic or political exchanges, even if that identity and/or desire becomes immediately vulnerable to contemporary demographic targeting technique. The current, and likely future, contours of contemporary political persuasion are mapped in this calculus of party and product affiliation, spending habits, geographic location, and income level.

These currents in marketing and political campaigning are also perhaps two of the most dramatic examples of changes in the ways that subjective and collective memory are leveraged in the contemporary moment. Of course, marketers and political operatives have long capitalized on subjective and collective memories. In her analysis of the US Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century campaign, for instance, Ekaterina V. Haskins presents a compelling case study of they way that initiative capitalized on Americans’ collective nostalgia (for the “old-fashioned” hobby of stamp-collecting) and commodified participants’ attachments to icons of American history (by voting on what images should be used to commemorate the century and made available for sale via stamps and the associated products offered by the campaign). Similarly, Shawn J. and Trevor Parry-Giles have leveraged Bill Clinton’s rhetorical strategies as a demonstration of how “collective memory works as an interpretive strategy” for political actors, who often “seek to link their character to familiar and secure markers of collective identity draw from the community’s shared past” (419). Such processes, of course, are still prominent in the present; one need look nor further, for instance, than the variety of products recently made available to commemorate the 1969 moon landing, or Obama’s frequent references to the Great Depression and the founding days of American democracy early in his term. However, today these processes run parallel with the more niche- and data-driven practices of today’s political strategists and marketers’ exploitation of affective memory. The pivotal difference between the two is found both in their differing emphasis on the “content” versus “program” vectors of rhetorical memory as well as their treatment of collective versus subjective memory. Whereas the former examples draw our attention to how broad memories and attachments are targeted by agents for the relatively stable responses they can be expected to elicit, the robustness of the latter varieties of marketing and political persuasion is keyed to their ability to, in the case of date-driven campaigning, collect and correlate shifting categories of attachments and preferences, and, in the case of affective marketing, install emotional attachments in individuals’ memories through the careful shaping of brands and advertising appeals.

The latter varieties—the “program-centric” uses of memory in persuasion—are also those that are most likely to become increasingly prevalent in contemporary politics and economics, not so much because, as some have suggested, we increasingly find collective experiences on the wane, but because it is has been the manipulation of externalized memory and affective responses keyed to individual experiences that have been shown to be much more supple and efficient vectors for broad strategies of persuasive manipulation, whether they be the selling of products or the “selling” of candidates. In other words, it is likely that the future of memory as a rhetorical force, will be tied to the “future of forgetting”: the ways in which our experiences are externalized in various media and forgotten by us or become embedded in our very affective dispositions and responses—the obscurity to our present consciousness in many ways proportional to their impact on our future actions.  As today’s persuasive landscape is currently, and one presumes, will continue to be, marked by the recursive connections between subjective interiority and environmental exteriority best thematized as memory, we would do poorly to forget the age-old connections between these forces and rhetoric.


[8] For instance, in “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” Sedgwick and Frank emphasize the context of mid-twentieth century cybernetics—and the interest in thinking of the brain and/or body as structured like a machine—on the affective theories of Silvan Tomkins (Touching 93-122). In N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, affect is leveraged as her primary example for human singularity during a time when machines and information technology have made claims on other human capacities (245-246). Finally, as George E. Marcus, W. Russell Neuman, and Michael MacKuen write in their Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment, their influential work on the role of affect in political decision-making was inspired by Herbert Simon’s early work on how affect divides “human” and “machine” thinking (6-7).

[9] See Wells and Shalit for journalistic accounts of this trend and Lindstrom for an overview by a practitioner.

[10] For a recent survey of work on affect in political science and psychology, see the anthology The Affect Effect: Dynamics of Emotion in Political Thinking and Behavior (the source of the Schnur piece cited above and below). For considerations of affect’s role in public politics, see the conclusion to Massumi’s “The Autonomy of Affect,” which calls for increased attention to affect by the political left and the somewhat gloomier conclusion to Lauren Berlant’s “Unfeeling Kerry,” which, written shortly after the 2004 presidential election, suggests that liberal or moderate politicians may have to adopt the affective comportment or appeal of conservatives in order to succeed in the contemporary political scene.



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