Being Human: Natural, practical and social affectivity

In a previous post I introduced Archer’s idea of emotions as commentaries on human concerns. Her account construes emotions as relational and situated, clustering around specific human contexts: the natural order (body/environment relations), the practical order (subject/object relations) and the social order (subject/subject relations). In this post I’ll expand on the particular form of emotionality which is taken to be emergent from each of these relational orders. In the next post I’ll discuss Archer’s account of social normativity in greater detail, before moving on to the process through which first-order emotionality becomes second-order emotionality.

In the natural order emotions are “emergent from the relationship between nature’s properties and our bodily properties – this of course being a necessary relationship given the way the world is constituted, the way we are made and the fact that we have to interact ceaselessly” (Archer 2000: 201). These are “emergent from our bodily/environmental relationship in the natural order, where the standards for commentary are inscribed physiologically in our organic make-up and its capacity to feel pain and pleasure, which we, as conscious beings, having the ability to anticipate” (Archer 2000: 209). It’s in this sense that we need to see the emergence of affect as intrinsically relational: “it is from the interaction between environmental circumstances and embodied concerns that, because we are conscious beings, we can anticipate their conjunction and supply this to ourselves as an emotional commentary” (Archer 2000: 204). The affectivity which arises from this anticipation becomes possible because of the capacity of the body to ‘remember’ pleasures and pains: “we know what the bodily consequences of fire or icy water will be, and somatically this is projected as fear: if we did not anticipate it there would be nothing other than the pain of the event” (Archer 2000: 202). Our physical concerns are laid down in our constitution as organisms (as true of human animals as non-human animals) and it is our anticipatory orientation towards environmental stimuli combined with these underlying concerns which produces affect in the natural order. Natural affectivity “functions to modify the relation between body and environment”, manifesting as the body “removes itself and severs contact or prepares itself and inspects, establishes or even abandons itself to closer contact” (Archer 2000: 204-205). In this sense we can talk of natural affectivity as producing emergent action tendencies (in a way which is not the case for affectivity in the practical and social orders). With natural affectivity there is “both urgency and emergency attached to protecting our bodies from their liabilities or granting them exercise of their enablements in desire fulfilment” (Archer 2000: 207-208). However this urgency which characterises natural affect does not imply either its infallibility, functionality or uncontrollability. We often get things wrong, in the straight-forwardly cognitive sense of diagnosing things as environmental threats to our bodily well-being which simply aren’t (e.g. fear of mice or spiders). Furthermore the intensity of particular affective responses can mean we misdiagnose or otherwise fail to recognise certain environmental characteristics because of our preoccupation with one underlying element.

In the practical order there is “no sense in which our concerns are laid down biologically under those two  mentors, physical pleasure and pain” as was the case in the natural order (Archer 2000: 209). However Archer argues that confrontation with the practical order is no more optional than confrontation with the natural order where “we are dealing with those emotions emergent from people’s necessary labour, from performative relations, from practical imitation and curiosity, from involvement in all doings which entail material culture, and this includes those of the spectator” (Archer 2000: 210). In this domain performative achievement is the generic concern underpinning practical affectivity. Archer’s argument is that the emotional commentary “is what emerges between the subject and in its relationship with the object; it is, as it were, the object’s judgement of competence or incompetence upon the subject’s dealings with it” (Archer 2000: 210). It is of course the subject who passes the judgement but they do so on the basis of an objective performance. We frequently err or misconstrue this feedback but we do so in relation to an objective standard. What Archer is invoking here is the material affordances and liabilities entailed by the material constitution of the object. Positive or negative feedback emerges from the relation between these affordances and our embodied engagement with them. This embodied aspect can be seen in the “enhanced attention, readiness and self-control which is manifestly associated with delicate tasks” as when “tongues protrude when threading a needle; children sub-vocalise on their first maths problems; and only the exceedingly well practiced can open a champagne bottle without holding it at arm’s length and grimacing in anticipation” (Archer 2000: 211). Practical affectivity in turn emerges from the relation between this feedback and our generic concern for performative achievement: “if we consistently fall short on a particular task, meaning that we cannot match up to objective standards of performative achievement, then frustration, boredom and depression ensue as emotional commentaries, leading ceteris paribus to its abandonment”. Alternatively, if we “perform well in relation to a challenging task, ‘catching on’ quickly, then the feelings of satisfaction, joy or even euphoria, themselves encourage further activity for the enhancement of competence”. This can be profoundly motivating and is “what gets the competitive swimmer up at four in the morning for training and keeps the musician to hours of daily practice”, “it is what sets the green fingered’ at their winter gardening tasks, gets knitted garments finished and keeps people sitting under green umbrellas on river banks”  (Archer 2000: 212-213).

In the social order we respond to the “judgements of approbation/disapproval that are rooted in social norms and which have an impact upon the social subject”. This is the equivalent to the “environmental threat or benefit in relation to the body in the natural order, and the task’s ease or difficulty in relation to the undertaker in the practical order” (Archer 2000: 215). Archer sees social affectivity as socially constituted rather than socially constructed and dependent for its emergence upon “our subject status in society, the receipt of moral evaluations from the social order, and the conjunction between our personal concerns and the nature of society’s norms” (Archer 2000: 215). What sharply differentiates the feedback received in the social order (moral judgement) from that received in the practical order (affordance or resistance) and natural order (damaging or benign to our bodies) is the minimal mediation of subjectivity involved in the latter two. We can and frequently do misconstrue the feedback we receive in the natural order and practical order but it arises from situations which “were as they were independently of human evaluations of them: something did not become less menacing or testing because we subjectively viewed it as such” (Archer 2000: 216). In contrast social affectivity depends upon our subjectively acknowledging a particular situation as such. This is the problem with accounts of normativity such as that offered by Dave Elder-Vass: it fails to distinguish between ‘endorsement’ and ‘enforcement’. It is obviously the case that “societies can sanction unwanted behaviour, but without any concordance, all the individual feels is the punishment not the shame …. they may of course feel shame at being punished but this does not entail being ashamed of the action which precipitated it” (Archer 2000: 216).

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