Networks of Transmission: Intensity, Sensation, Value

Networked communications involve the circulation of data and information, but they equally entail a panoply of affective attachments:

  • articulations of desire, seduction, trust, and memory;
  • sharp jolts of anger and interest;
  • political passions;
  • investments of time, labor, and financial capital;
  • and the frictions and pleasures of archival practices.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb affect as “to have an effect on something or someone.” Most definitions of affect highlight the central role of intensity and agree on the presence of a quality of excess, a quality of “more than.”

Humans do not simply manipulate or control machines, data, and networks any more than machines, data, and networks simply manipulate or control us.

Networked Affect considers how individual, collective, discursive, and networked bodies, both human and machine, affect and are modified by one another.


Affect: Definitional and Theoretical Encounters

Seigworth and Gregg (2010, 6–8) sketch out eight possible turns, or trajectories of thought, related to affect:

  • the tradition of phenomenological and postphenomenological theories of embodiment;
  • explorations of human-machine relations in traditions such as cybernetics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and robotics;
  • non-Cartesian philosophical traditions drawing on the work of Baruch Spinoza, such as feminist research, Italian autonomism, political philosophy, and philosophically inflected cultural studies;
  • psychological and psychoanalytical inquiries;
  • feminist, queer, subaltern, and other politically engaged work concerned with materiality;
  • critiques of the linguistic turn and social constructivism in cultural theory;
  • studies of emotion and critiques of the ideal modern subject;
  • science and science studies embracing pluralist approaches to materialism.

Bodies are distinguished from one another with respect to motion and rest, quickness and slowness—that is, in terms of movement and tempo—as well as their capacity to affect and be affected (see Deleuze 1998, 125; Parikka, this volume). It follows that the bodies affected and affecting one another can be human, animal, individual, collective, linguistic, and social, as well as bodies of thought (Deleuze 1998, 127; Gatens 2000).



In studies of art, conceptualizations of affect have opened the realm of aesthetic analysis to the corporeality of encountering images and texts, and to the mutual inseparability of sense and sensation, sensing and making sense (Armstrong 2000; Sobchack 2004).

A consideration of affect is further present in work that engages the concepts of immaterial and affective labour. The concept of immaterial labour describes forms of work that are about the production of value that is “dependent on a socialised labour power organised in assemblages of humans and machines exceeding the spaces and times designated as ‘work’”. The term affective labour, then, simultaneously grasps “the corporeal and intellectual aspects of the new forms of production, recognizing that such labour engages at once with rational intelligence and with the passions or feeling”.


Internet Studies and Affect

Within the framework of new materialist theory, rather than understanding the virtual as separate from the actual, as was the case in much early utopian cyberculture theory, the virtual is understood as that which orients the actual as it unfolds. The virtual, therefore, can be understood as the potentialities, investments, and imaginations concerning the present and the possible shape of things to come.

The utopian acceptance of the deterministic notion that technology itself leads to social change arguably can be seen to promote, even proselytize for, forms of nonhuman agency.

Recent intellectual activity at the crossroads of affect theory and internet research is fueled by the acceptance of network technologies and applications as constitutive elements of everyday life.

Considerations of individual intention, agency, technology use, and identity construction are, therefore, both complemented and complicated by the need to acknowledge their entanglement in technological networks of transmission and communication, as well as in the (social) networks of privilege and inequality.


Writing Affect

When affect theorists tackle the complex, the extralinguistic, the precognitive, and the intense—elements that depend on and flow through human embodiment—the forms of writing that result sometimes border on the metaphoric and the elusive, seemingly at the expense of the evidentiary.

Writing is therefore an act of mediation where bodily impressions, modulations, arousals, and motions are translated in order to be brought into the representational space of the text.

Nevertheless, writing that focuses on affective force understood as a general vitality and potentiality in relation to cultural products such as visual art, film, and literature, regularly congeals around instances of resonance, as sensed and made sense of by the author in question (e.g., Deleuze 2003; Shaviro 2010). Resonance and potentiality, as identified in these analyses, are generalized into a broader, general, affective dynamic.



The Avatar and Online Affect
  • While avatars can be operated by forms of artificial intelligence, one of the acknowledged purposes for which humans fabricate avatars is so that they can serve as standins for human individuals seeking to communicate affectively with one another both in and through virtual environments or space.
  • Identifying and assessing the fields of intensity produced and experienced through human engagement with avatars that do human bidding across digital networks and platforms is important for internet studies and research, given the distributed forms of agency such avatars exemplify, advertise, assemble, and support.


Virtual Space and Telepresence

Metaphors of virtual space operate by positing a relationship between two-dimensional digital images on a screen and three-dimensional space this side of the interface. A digital image of a tree, for example, has a metaphorical correspondence with a living tree. Understanding the digital as metaphoric is necessary, otherwise operators and viewers could not recognize the images they see.

Telepresence is key to any experience of virtual environments as lively in their affective nature and quality. Defined succinctly, it is the phenomenological experience of presence at a distance and is authorized and supported by the use of networked information and communications technologies.

The possibilities for achieving greater affective intensities through telepresence have grown in parallel with increased bandwidth and more powerful software and hardware applications. Together they have moved the internet from a purely textual medium to the multisensory web that allows for more telepresent forms of intensely affective engagements with online moving images.

The desire to view electronic networks as if they are equivalent to actual material places and spaces is a desire for an alternative or parallel ecosystem amenable to our physical occupation, though in exchange it requires our accepting its psychic colonization of us.


Indexical Signs

Indexical signs are a third mechanism and a component of the assemblage that works to produce networked affect.

Peirce recognized that the relationship between a sign and the object to which it refers lies not only in connotative mental associations between representation and referent but also in a direct, denotative, existential, or causal relation of the sign to its object.

The “more than” quality of indexical signs is powerfully affective.

Online avatars operate in a parallel manner. They are indexical signs of their operators. As moving images that speak and circulate in and through online virtual environments composed of naturalized spatial metaphors that their operators allegorically enter, avatars direct attention to themselves less as representations and more as actual traces of human operators, rendered lively and available through telepresence.



Images of gesturing and moving bodies on the web constitute part of that illusion and are crucial to forms of networked affect.

The image’s ability to move confers on it an intense quality of immanence, which for Deleuze leads to a situation of “more than,” one in which “the image exists in itself. … The identity of the image and movement leads [spectators] to conclude immediately that the movement-image and matter are identical” (Deleuze 1986, 59).

Brain science research using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology confirms that individuals lose track of their body locations in virtual settings.

The dynamics of signification further suggest to human perception that the moving image/icon connects metaphorically and allegorically to the thing it stands for and points toward: the body of its human operator or referent.

The avatar figuratively indicates how networked affect can be induced by digital media’s specific kinds of psychic and experiential effects.



The rise of the avatar moving effortlessly through virtual space points directly to the related issue of mobility.

The moving image of the avatar, part of a larger swirling world of motion, can provide some psychic compensation for feeling insufficiently mobile, precisely because it depicts and therefore promises at least a virtual realization of a broadly based desire for greater actual mobility across all registers of embodied, economic, and social life.

At a moment of almost instinctive support for the idea of mobility as a major resource of contemporary neoliberal life, the online moving image of the avatar—our body double and home away from home— pulls us along in its tow, catching us in the affective field of intensity it establishes at the recursive intersection of material fixity and digital flow.



For many individuals who are online all or a lot of the time, information and communication technology has become the contemporary “something more than” in which they need to believe, with the avatar’s indexical liveliness the necessary fiction borne on the wings of phenomenologically induced affect.



Networked affect, Ken Hillis; Susanna Paasonen; Michael Petit

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