‘Against Affect: For a Feminist Neo-Enlightenment’ Professor Lisa Downing (University of Birmingham)

‘Against Affect: For a Feminist Neo-Enlightenment’ Professor Lisa Downing (University of Birmingham)

School of Modern Languages and Cultures
Date: Wednesday 03 May 2023
Time: 16:00 - 17:30
Venue: Yudowitz Room, Wolfson Building or Via Zoom (contact Teresa Newman SMLC for details- Teresa.newman@gla.ac.uk))
Category: Public lectures
Speaker: Professor Lisa Downing

In this talk, Professor Lisa Downing discusses some of the ideas emerging from the book she is currently writing, Against Affect. The book sets out to interrogate a number of shibboleths about feeling and reason, and their relationship with ideas of identity, gender, and freedom in the 21st century.

Downing starts from the familiar premise that emotion has been historically gendered and racialized since the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century, with women and people of colour associated with emotionality and only white men with logic and reason. The ‘affective turn’ in the academic humanities, which began in the mid-1990s and continues to be popular today, constitutes an attempt to privilege and revalorize what has been excluded from Logos: the bodily, the emotive, the experiential. Downing asks how effective this has been in changing perceptions of marginalized forms of knowledge and subjectivity.

More broadly, she argues, it can be seen that the academic affective turn has coincided with the increasing deployment of a public rhetoric that prioritizes – and exploits – feeling over reason, issuing from both the left and right wings of politics in the UK, the USA, and Europe. Via a series of case studies, Downing explores how the strategic deployment of a language of emotion in both the academic and cultural ‘affective turns’ constitutes a ‘new normativity’ in the Foucauldian sense of a privileged and hegemonic set of ideas, underpinned by the exercise of power, that emerge as both truisms and apparent virtues.

In thinking against affect, Downing questions both the efficacy and the desirability of the strategy of idealizing feeling, rather than reclaiming, for previously disenfranchised subjects, the value of reason. She argues, in closing, for a feminist neo-Enlightenment on the basis that the emphasis on affect may neither benefit those subjects historically excluded from reason nor result in a more edifying public discourse – in fact, quite the reverse.

Lisa Downing is Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality at the University of Birmingham. She is a specialist in interdisciplinary sexuality and gender studies, critical theory, and the history of cultural concepts, focusing especially on questions of exceptionality, difficulty, and (ab)normality. Her most recent books are After Foucault (as editor, Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Selfish Women (Routledge, 2019). She is currently editing a Special Issue of the journal Paragraph on ‘Critical Freedoms’, as well as writing a monograph-manifesto entitled Against Affect for Nebraska University Press’s ‘Provocations’ series. The research for Against Affect was funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship in 2021-22.


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