The intersubjective or relational world of Dirty Looks is not well catered for in the academic literature (as a phenomenon in its own right), and so Margaret Wetherell’s new book Affect and emotion: a new social science understanding is a welcome addition to the work in this area. The aim of the book is to help move forward the recent ‘affective turn’ in the social sciences, by in effect providing an interdisciplinary account of emotions and their place in the social world. Wetherell views the disciplines and their paradigms as potential blockages to more nuanced and insightful accounts of the emotional domain – this view provides a powerful rationale for the book in general.
Borrowing from other authors, she states that an emotion is ‘above all a relational pattern and as such, I would say, is automatically distributed across the psychosocial field. Affect is never wholly owned, always intersecting and interacting.’ This understanding of the affective domain sits well with the core tenets of Dirty Looks, and promises much, but a quick review (and it is quick) suggests that Dirty Looks and Affect and emotion are not automatic bedfellows.
After reading the book, it does make one wonder if talking about emotions is similar to talking about the creation of art; no words are adequate to describe joy and pain, hurt and humiliation. Even so, emotions themselves are more or less absent from Wetherell’s account, which no amount of reference to objectivity can mask. There are other reasons for this absence – the need to engage and critique various analytical frameworks, for example (always an occupational hazard). But this objectivist stance is inevitably in danger of contributing to the conventional way of treating the affective turn – i.e., ‘adding emotion to the inventory of social research topics’. If Wetherell really wishes the affective turn to radicalise the social sciences, to signify ‘a more extensive and epistemological upheaval, marking a moment of paradigm change’, the impression given (unintended, surely) that emotions are what happen to other people, does her no favours. But the battle will always be lost if the starting points continue to be borrowed from ‘conventional’ approaches – discourse, intertextuality, embodiment, representation and so on. It has been noted before that academics can become prisoners of their own discourses, and while this is not quite the case with Affect and emotion, the language of the social sciences (and humanities) hang heavy over the text, acting as a burden on Wetherell’s potentially insightful arguments.
That said, there is much to digest in this book – Dirty Looks will return to various chapters in future posts, and make its own contribution to some of the arguments that Wetherell is developing across specific topics (e.g., bodying affect, feelings, habitus and emotional capital, subjectivities and the psychosocial). The book may not be perfect, but show me a book that is. And it’s better than most.