The Affect of Theory

Alongside, and perhaps even before, the meaning of something, there is the way it makes us feel. In an article last year (2010), Jan Teurlings argued that academics must consider the emotional impact of our work as teachers and researchers. Intended meanings and feelings are two different things. As Teurlings points out ‘sometimes the affect of a cultural artefact can be diametrically opposed to its literal meaning’ (2010: 372). He gives the example of Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA in a campaign directly opposed to the intentions behind the song (Teurlings 2010: 371). Affect came before meaning. Similarly, academic theory may have an emotional effect beyond its ostensibly critical intent.


An individualist and atomized consumer society has an affinity with a general belief that institutions are corrupt, strangers are dangerous and everyone is out for themselves. Social pessimism is part of the emotional background of today’s politics. Media industries play their part in perpetuating this. Academics, particularly sociologists and media scholars reveal ways in which the media warp our worldview. Ironically, many of us who should offer a counter-point to this distorted vision, may actually add to the problem, particularly through the way we teach theory.


I have, occasionally, found myself apologizing to students for the grim content of some of my lectures. This is probably, in part, because I somehow feel an onus to be entertaining to maintain engagement. On the other hand, a lot of the theoretical commentary on media is just plain grim. There are plenty of dark theoretical visions of a capacity for universal and inescapable dominance through rationalization, hegemony, the culture industries and so on. These ideas are essential to any commentary on media and society. Nevertheless, they engender pessimism. Moreover, there is a danger that they reify and reinforce what they seek to critique. They may create an affective background where is no prospect of escape from social structures and ideologies. The danger attached to this is that we turn out students who can criticise, but cannot think beyond or change, the status quo. We end up with what Teurlings calls ‘critical apathy’.


Teurlings is concerned with the ‘critical apathy’ of media audiences. A critical knowledge of how television is constructed can allow us to make a knowing comment on how a reality show is edited for sensationalism and ratings. Beyond that, however, we may accept that this is just the way it is. It is not something we can change. We are critical but apathetic. A lot of academic course material seems to breed a similar knowing but impotent stance.


Many sociologists and media researchers rail against current journalistic standards, patterns of ownership, the dominance of entertainment and so on. We often see ourselves to be engaged in forms of resistance against the powers that be. Many academics see themselves as radicals because they are teaching Marx, Gramsci, or material from the Frankfurt School, for example. They overlook the fact that they are giving students analytical tools, which can be turned to any political or economic purpose. They may forget that they are funded by the state and by industry for a reason. As Teurlings put it:


…the theoretical sophistication with which they [students] analyse the media often helps them to become ‘better’ (that is, conformist) employees, once they enter the workforce. Gramscian analysis of culture as a connecting salve becomes a tool for making a show appealing to different groups; narrative theory a tool for writing scenarios that sell; visual analysis a tool for better presenting consumer goods in ads; and political economy a tool for streamlining the production process (Teurlings 2010: 371)


As Teurlings writes, there is no problem with students applying what they have learned. That is part of the job. The problem is with the way ‘these “critical” theories seem to encourage them to think inside the box, to direct them towards accepting the status quo, instead of stimulating them to think beyond it’. 


As academics we may fail to see that we are reifying and reinforcing a dominant culture by creating an emotional atmosphere with no escape. Opposition seems to offer the only prospect of freedom. Yet this leads to a situation where we do not think beyond the status quo, we simply adopt its mirror image. The ‘oppositional’ content of the resulting ideas can be quickly flipped with an adequate salary.


Teurlings concludes by making an appeal that we consider the affect of the knowledge we produce in teaching and research (2010: 371). He’s not calling for self-censorship or shiny-happy-theory but he is suggesting that we consider the affective, and therefore political, qualities of theory. As Adorno and Horkheimer concluded in The Culture Industry ‘the triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them’. Our teaching may be helping people to see through the culture industries and, at the same time, make them feel powerless to change them or world they live in.



Adorno, T and M. Horkheimer. 1998. ʻThe Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deceptionʼ, pp.120—167 in Adorno, T and M. Horkheimer. 1998. Dialectic of enlightenment. New York : Continuum Publishing.


Teurlings, J. 2010. ‘Media literacy and the challenges of contemporary media culture: On savvy viewers and critical apathy’. European Journal of Cultural Studies 2010 13: 359—373.