After affects

How do surveillance cameras, and increased monitoring and security procedures affect you? Such causes have undoubted effects on material circumstances and well-being. Actions affect things, and thereby produce effects. The verb, to affect, results in a noun, an effect. But there’s also such a thing as an affect, as a noun.

Last Friday I attended a conference in Copenhagen on Invisibility and Unawareness: Ethico-political Implications of Embeddedness, where the spotlight was on ubiquitous digital technologies: smartphones, networks, location sensing and the like. According to presenter Susan Kozel,

Studies into affect are burgeoning, not simply in philosophical or theoretical domains but with the realization that the affective lives of citizens are increasingly ‘choreographed’ by technologies of all sorts.

“Affect” is a term used in psychology loosely equated to emotion and feeling, but only approximately.

Lookout tower above treetops

My own contribution to the conference was on the theme of tuning, how technologies are involved in the way people tune their relationships with one another.

The penny dropped. Affect and tuning are the same thing. Attunement is a term developed in phenomenology to account for the general mood of a group or individual. It’s a potential, a horizon, an atmosphere that prepares you for a particular feeling or emotion. Jonathan Flatley, in his book, Affective Mapping, provides a simple example,

Only when I am curious can new objects present themselves to me as interesting.

In this case curiosity is the mood. Without that mood I can’t feel interested.

Anxiety is also a mood. It’s only when I’m anxious (as a mood) that things (shadows, creaking stairs, surveillance cameras, my boss) strike me as fearful.

“Attunement” is a good word for mood. It’s Stimmung in Martin Heidegger’s writing. Stimme is German for “voice.” Stimmung relates to harmony and tuning. Attunement is the condition in which we are tuned to each other, the environment, the circumstances, the atmosphere of a place, pleasant or unpleasant, for good or ill: picking up on a mood.

So attunement is really the same as affect. It’s a pre-emotional, primordial, shared condition that provides the precondition for a certain feeling or emotion. Flatley also relates the condition to William James’ understanding of the primacy of bodily engagement in understanding emotion, but that’s another story.

To what extent do you participate in surveillance anxiety, the mood of the times, attunement to panoptic stress, affective choreographies of surveillance?


      • Flatley, Jonathan. 2008. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
      • Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth (eds). 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.
      • See Accidental people, E-motion and Tuning as ….


  1. yujia dong says:

    My mom worried about me when I failed to reply to her calls or messages. I felt unsecured when I forgot to bring my phone with me. I remembered when I was small, we didn’t have mobile phone or internet, but the life was not boring at all.

    actually, I got a chance to re-experience the kind of life with less influence by technology this year. I had to stay at a distant village in Indonesia, which even the signal of mobile was not so strong, not to mention the broadband internet. most of the family, they didn’t have fridge,air-conditioner or shower. in the village, only several families had a television which had no more than 5 channels. I could go to the internet cafe only once a week. at the first week, I was really worried that I might missed some important messages, some disasters might happen to my life. but actually, nothing bad happened.

    the village people are kind, simple and warm as always. from my own observation, the families are very close to each other. they are not ambitious but they worked really hard. It is a pity that they don’t read a lot, or that would be a seclusive life.

    I am not sure that which kind of life style is better. when I didn’t have a mobile phone, my mom worried about my safety. when I had a mobile phone, she supposed that I would be under a safer condition, but she worried even more when I didn’t reply for a long time.

    the technology changed us, and probably the change is not reversible. who knows, maybe this is one key of the human evolution.

    1. Bing Liu says:

      I have a similar feel like yours. In a flight, I have to turn off my cell phone and keep away from internet. The environment gives me a chance to think about my life or enjoy the time. I am very happy for the time without any disturbing. But I realized that I could not live in this plane forever. In the end, I have to go back to my normal life. It seems a nap in our daily life. I do not talk about which kind of life is better, it is just the life. Do we have any choice? I think we have not.
      I do agree with your point about the human evolution. Actually, the internet is like an extension of our body. And human have limited capabilities. In the point of Professor Kevin Warwick, who was surgically implanted into the median nerve fibers of the left arm, the cyborg is like next step of human being.
      In addition, compare with the past, the people in that village have changed their life. They have TV set, tourists and sort like. Do they think their life goes better or worse. There are not good or bad, it’s just the different step of life.

  2. Peter Terner says:

    This introduction made me think…

    While admitting the explanatory potential of interpreting the meaning of the terms of affect and attunement synonymous, I can’t stop thinking of what we might loose with using them as fully substitutional. Doing so, we risk the danger of messing up the explanatory domain of a term whose definition is already a bit problematic.

    First of all, we should always keep in mind which definition of affect we refer to, the psychological (, or the philosophical ( Even in the case of the latter we should distinguish whether we’re referring to Spinosa’s definition (“affects are states of mind and body related to (but not exactly synonymous with) feelings and emotions”), or how Deleuze and Guattari understands it (In Massumi’s words: “it is a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act.”)

    In the more functional definition of psychology, affects are also a sort of predisposed states or configurations that antecedes emotions or feelings, but what is important is that they are non-conscious processes. As I learnt it, they mean a certain framework that gives the fundament to arousals that are responses to outer stimuli. They co-evolve with the subject’s development, but are rigid ‘sturctures’, in order to let the subject respond quicker to the stimuli. Affects are a sort of non-conscious ‘computational black-boxes’ that makes us possible to have predefined ‘answers’ to incoming information, thus saving us from constantly evaluating every stimuli as totally new. They are rigid structures and lead to certain preconceptions (I’m using the word here without the usual negative value-judgment to it), but of course, if the subject is introduced to completely new information, an effect called ‘cognitive dissonance’ arise, which leads to certain restructuring in the affect-system.

    What important is, is that we’re speaking here about a non-conscious process, but the arousal that spring from an affect leads to states (emotions, feelings, moods) that are formulated through cognitive processes. There is no cognitive process and hence, no vocabulary to grasp affects, but it is exactly the case with emotions: we refer to them cognitively through grammar.

    Affect and attunement are both complex and subjective processes, and attunement seems to me a strong concept to use for referring to how technology forms our moods and emotional predispositions towards our surroundings. But if we make their meaning equal, we don’t take into consideration that the latter is formed through conscious processes, and by doing so, we erase the very difference between the two terms.

    Some stories also came into my mind I heard a few years back in a lecture on e-privacy and the relation of informational technologies to freedom. The professor mentioned two examples of protest in London against CCTVs when they were still quite a new issue, both I found quite neat. One of them was that a group of people started to organize city excursions with children from kindergartens. They gave them balloons covered with aliminium foil each, and stopped for longer periods on corners with surveillance cameras. The physicists should correct me, but the point was that since these cameras were sending their signals through microwave, the alu-balloons messed up their signal-transmission. In the other story, a group of people started to help the work of those in front of the monitors by carrying cardboards with them on which they would always write the purpose why they’re on the street. Such as “I’m going to the shop now.” or “I just run home to use the toilet, then will head back to work!”, and things like this.

    To the questions raised in the end of the introduction: e.g. the fact of how much we can be observed and traced back through the registered and saved data-flow of our telecommunicational devices is indeed alarming. More alarming is to me why I don’t feel particularly bad about this and why we all, when it comes to discussion, shrug simply with a wryly smile, accepting the situation. Not that I’ve heard of anyone who, for instance, stopped torrenting because of this, but this feeling that we can be observed anytime definitely disciplines us, even if it’s not that strong with the internet right now (at least here in the UK), as it is with CCTVs. Perhaps I don’t feel panoptic stress, but definitely feel that the improvements of surveillance technologies point into the direction of the perfect, impersonal Panopticon, and more and more discipline us with their “unverifiable” factor. (“Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” from:

    1. That’s great. Thanks Peter. Some Christmas reading ahead trying to sort out the difference/similarity between affect, emotion, attunement, mood, atmosphere. A key text is Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Brian Massumi. But not simple …

  3. Skaermtrolden says:

    I am very torn between opinions when it comes to surveillance. At one side it makes me feel safe to know that there are cameras when I walk alone in a dark alley – not that it would help me anything if someone was to attack me, but I hope feel that the cameras makes the chances of that a bit smaller. On the other hand I always get a bit surprised when I see a camera in the ceiling somewhere were I didn’t expect to see it and I somehow feel that me right to privacy have been offended.
    In the same way I am not really sure how to feel when adverts pop up on my Facebook page that are so obviously targeted on me based on my personal information or words from a chat conversation that I have just had. Having studied business I know how important and cost-saving it is to aim your marketing activity towards your target audience but I still can help thinking that the 1984 scenario put forward by George Orwell is not always so far from reality as we would wish it to be.

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