The Meaning of Affect and A New Humanism: assessing diabetes/obesity in East Harlem

I thought it was interesting that Brennan’s first reference to “affect” pointed to “grief, anxiety or anger” (1). This choice plays an important role in her understanding of this word, in relation to our understanding of the word. In her text, The Transmission of Affect, Brennan makes the distinction between affects and emotions and feelings. While the internet intended to make us more aware of semantics, it has only ruined our understanding of basic morphemic structures. An example of this is when we look for synonyms of “affects”, we are directed towards words like “feelings” and “emotions”. So instead of understanding words within themselves, we make sense of them in relation to other similar words. 

According to Brennan, affect is “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment” (5). Contrary to our intuition, affect is material and composed of an energetic dimension. In other words, Brennan is suggesting that our energies are by no means self-contained, they are influenced by both the environment and other individuals. She also claims that the transmission of affect occurs through smell and not sight, therefore making it an unconscious olfaction. Therefore, when I walk into a crowded bodega in East Harlem, the pungent smell of fried foods immediately reminds me of the diabetes problem that I have come to this neighborhood to study. What I enjoy most about Brennan’s writing is her commitment to not oversimplify concepts for the readers. She gives illustrative examples that can help readers make their own connections. 

The issue of obesity and diabetes in East Harlem is not particularly unique, more than half of adult New Yorkers are overweight (34%) or obese (22%). Bennett’s text, Vibrant Matter, helped me contextualize the problem without it revolving around human life. This might seem counterintuitive because I’m studying a public health issue, but if we think about it, making smarter food choices does not only affect humans. Bennett says, “My claims here are motivated by a self-interested or conative concern for human survival and happiness: I want to promote greener forms of human culture and more attentive encounters between people-materialities and thing-materialities” (ix). This tells us that we don’t have to be anti-human to care about the environment, it’s more about being aware of our surroundings instead of only focussing on the human race. 

I was also fascinated by Brennan’s observation of the depleting life cycles of the things we purchase. When I think of junk-food, processed food and binge-eating, I am reminded of our mentality of capitalism that drives us to consume things quickly and purchase new things in what seems like a never-ending cycle. Walking into the bodegas in East Harlem, and even some supermarkets, I was surprised by the “endless” supply of food that we simply shouldn’t be consuming.

Ultimately, these two readings helped me understand the bigger implications of the ecology that I have chosen. While our work needs to be local and focussed, it is important to remember the larger context of issues in our society. The problem of obesity is not just economical or cultural, like we might think. It has a lot to do with psychology and how we perceive ourselves in comparison to other beings on our planet. In an age where behavior is assumed to be largely genetic, I am rattled by Brennan’s claim that affect is, in fact, transmitted.

~Misha Vaid

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Works Cited:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004.


~ by mishavaid7 on September 28, 2019.

One Response to “The Meaning of Affect and A New Humanism: assessing diabetes/obesity in East Harlem”

  1. Best Overall: I like how you have structured the exploration of obesity around Bennett’s theory where junk food is an independent actant, and how you have connected her “healthy instrumentalization” theory to increased attention to the human liveliness (contrary to what one might presume if they think outside of the materialistic perspective).

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