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Theory Salon with Linda Zerilli, “The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment”

October 29, 2015

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow

On October 19, graduate students and faculty from in and outside Columbia came together to discuss Linda Zerilli’s recent article “The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment.” A professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, Zerilli is also currently the Faculty Director of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality

Zerilli’s opening remarks situated her article within debates in political theory and philosophy, specifically the “mind-body” problem associated with René Descartes. Cartesians view the mind—that is, processes like reason and judgment—as independent from the matter of the body, though the mind can influence the body. Many political theorists and philosophers have questioned both the extent to which reason can be disentangled from the body’s material processes as well as the importance of conscious, rational judgments to the analysis and crafting of political projects. Feminists in particular have asked how people interact with the world through impulses other than disembodied reason; given the Western tradition of negatively associating women with sentiment and irrationality, it’s unsurprising that feminist thinkers have sought to reevaluate the importance of emotion to politics. Yet, Zerilli distinguished these critiques from the “affective turn” of the last decade. Instead of viewing reason and the affective responses of the material body as interdependent, many key figures in affect theory have continued to separate affect from reason and judgment. They argue that the affective responses of the material body preexist the cognitive functions which produce knowledge; what distinguishes their approach from Descartes’ inheritors is that they privilege the pre-rational body over the rational mind. Zerilli calls this approach “layer-cake ontologies.”

Though critical of these “layer-cake ontologies,” Zerilli seeks to understand why affect theory has been so attractive to scholars across disciplines. According to Zerilli, many are frustrated with how analyses of the socially constructed nature of heteronormative gender haven’t yielded significant progress in displacing these social norms. Why are we still attached to these norms given that feminist and queer theory have revealed them to be harmful and arbitrary? Zerilli sees affect as offering an explanation: even if we “know” these norms are bad, perhaps below our conscious awareness we’re still attached to the enacting of these norms. Still, unlike many affect theorists, Zerilli asks how we might think about how a person acquires knowledge and grasps concepts through their bodily interactions with the world. Just as we learn what a chair is through learning what to do with a chair, perhaps we learn the norm of sexual differentiation not by being told the linguistic proposition “male and female are binary terms” but by learning how to perceive other persons as fitting the aspect of either masculine or female. In exploring these possibilities, Zerilli turns to ordinary language philosophy in the vein of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell.