An Apology: Pop Culture and Theories of Affect

I’d like to begin with a confession: I end every Glee episode in tears, and I particularly enjoy it. The sense of closure I get at the climax to most films, especially musicals, my nostalgia for old Backstreet Boys songs, and even my recent obsession with Justin Bieber (unabashed supporter, partly because I believe he might signal the end of the Enlightenment, and partly because of this, but that’s for another post) are all things that I’ve frequently been called to task for, but bear with my apparent lack of cultural discernment for a moment.

While this emotive connection to cultural objects isn’t new by any means, theory about such relationships has been shaky at best. We have psychoanalysis, which would tell us about repression of desires and sexual failure, and we have the much-maligned culture industry argument. While I’m a die-hard fan (yes, affective, emotional fan) of Adorno and Horkheimer, I do believe the most valid criticism of their work is its extreme elitism. To recap, their essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, is a seminal text in critical theory, both for its point in history – their critique of the Enlightenment and their commentary on emerging media (particularly film, and radio). In the essay, amidst several brilliant theoretical moves, one that bears questioning is their repeated lament of the ‘massification’ of culture, or rather, that cultural products such as film are necessarily controlled by the entertainment industry, which functions as a tool of repressive ideology and leads to the submission of its audience. This is held in contrast to ‘real art’, which possesses a certain dignity accorded by its totality.

My contention is that this distinction is particularly elitist. However, decades have passed, much academic writing has hated on A&H for their arguments, but there is still a push to denigrate ‘mass culture’ (here I have in mind mainstream ‘pop’ culture) in a variety of ways – from questions of authenticity, lack of talent, etc. While this isn’t a defense of their actual validity as ‘art’, what I do find productive is taking the responses of their audiences seriously. A whole body of theory, particularly rising out of queer theory and technoscience criticism, is making a similar argument through theories of affect that arise out of the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, Spinoza, and Henri Bergson.

Patricia Clough, in her introduction to The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, explains that the generally unassuming word ‘affect’ theoretically refers to “the augmentation or diminuition of a body’s capacity to act, to engage, and to connect, such that the autoaffection is linked to the self-feeling of being alive – that is, aliveness or vitality.” But this affect isn’t just an individual, singular response, it is also “in relation to the technologies that are allowing us to ‘see’ affect and to produce affective bodily capacities, beyond the body’s organic-physiological constraints” (Clough, 2). While the implications of such work, particularly within the fields it addresses, are far broader than I’ve fully understood, I do think that the argument to take seriously one’s affective response – as much as it is a sensual, irrational one, is valid.

Here’s another attempt at explaining the effect of affect as a theoretical construct, this time from Lauren Berlant’s excellent blog,

“I’ve been arguing that a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet), and not, ontologically, an extreme solidity of form constantly under threat of dissolution by the fragile infrastuctures for maintaining fantasy.” (Berlant, “Combover, Approach 2”) This ontological argument is a marked shift from epistemic questions of representation then to ontological maps of these impulses. This shift moves me from asking, “How best do I represent myself?” to “what are all the things/impulses/ideas/emotions/bodies/technologies that make me (that make me move/that make me do something)?” We move then from the endless tangle of insufficient representation, to the acknowledgement of insufficient knowing of what we are, the contingency of our beings, and our constant state of becoming.

I will end this long-winded apology of my love for pop culture with Deleuze and Guattari,

“We will never ask what a book means […] We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed”.

Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Taking this method seriously would involve asking how Glee functions rather than arguing about whether it sufficiently ‘represents’ minorities through its characters. Disclaimer – I’m not endorsing the fact that appropriation, misrepresentation, tokenization, and outright discrimination are part of any media artifact, Glee, Justin Bieber, and romantic comedies included. I just believe that there’s more to their work than just that; but who knows, that’s just my feeling.


Adorno, T. and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Englightenment as Mass Deception”, Dialectic of Enlightenment:Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Gunzelin Noerr, California:Stanford University Press, 2002.

Berlant, Lauren, “Combover: Approach 2″

Clough, Patricia, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

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Lakshmi is a former graduate student in the M.A. Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University. Her academic interests include critical theory and cultural studies as applicable to two specific areas – the institutions of education and their functioning as a site of knowledge, power and ideology and the effects of new technologies and popular culture on the process of identity formation, especially within marginalized groups and sub-cultures. This year, she will also be working as a Teaching Assistant for the Introductory class of the CCT program and working on her thesis which will examine the ways in which terrorism shapes national identities in Indian visual media.