Algorithmic media and the becoming ir/rational of affect. A book review.

Affective Transformations. Politics – Algorithms – Media contributes to the growing academic literature on the relations between affect and algorithmic media. The anthology emerged from a conference organized by the Affective Media Studies research group at the University of Potsdam and includes critical and interdisciplinary, albeit predominantly philosophical engagements with the increasing automation and regulation of affect through networked media, digital infrastructures and the so-called psychotechnologies. The contributions are organized along two seemingly contradictory developments that are outlined by Bernd Bösel in the Introduction.

Bösel contends that, on the first hand, current technological developments in affective computing and mood tracking devices that identify, monitor and even simulate body data increasingly regulate human emotions and delegate us to “normalized” ways of behaving, feeling and moving. Affect thus gets increasingly automatized. On the other hand, he points to the rise of right-wing populism, extreme speech and cyberviolence – a development that Jean Clam refers to as “the unleashing of affective impulses” (p. 213) in his contribution to the book. Bösel describes these developments as the simultaneous becoming rational and becoming irrational of affect. While the (re-)introducing of such dichotomy might set off the alarm bells among scholars of affect, it must be noted that what Bösel describes as “becoming rational” refers to how affect becomes computable, predictable and increasingly molded by algorithmic environments. The “becoming irrational” emphasizes the novel forms of excessive communication and hostile affects that emerge online and disrupt Western communication cultures.

Of course, what seems to be a contradiction is a rather complex unfolding of the practices that interactions between media technologies, algorithmic and human agents engender. As affect is not a static category of experience but takes different shapes and intensities, it becomes clear that digital infrastructures afford – and also actively modulate – different forms of affection, modes of affecting and being affected. Moreover, while some of the features of social media are specifically designed to shape affective expressions according to pre-programmed categories, in other cases they emerge more freely and unexpectedly (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019, p. 147). The recently published anthology edited by Bernd Bösel and Serjoscha Wiemer (2020) unpacks these developments in fourteen essays dealing with the entanglement of affect and technology in different settings, while also offering promising theoretical concepts to understand the different layers of how affect and media are interconnected.

Paul Stenner kicks off with a discussion of widely contested “affective turn” and recalibrates the term to describe affect as an “experience on the turn” (p. 28). As he advocates for processual thinking and relates affect to transformation, Stenner also sets the tone for how affect is conceptualized throughout the book. Drawing on his previous work on liminality, he introduces the concept of “liminal affective technologies” which refer to different means, media or occasions that evoke and manage liminal or transformative experiences. Bernd Bösel examines the increasing opacity of affect automation. He provides a working definition of “affective media” that takes into account the relationality of affect and also stresses the regulative function of such media. He discusses how affective media nudge us to a supposedly happier and more satisfying life and, at the same time, are designed to reduce the versatility of human affect. Bösel makes a strong argument against the “blackboxing” of algorithmic media arguing that this diminishes affective capacities of humans and “might lead to a serious disempowerment of moral and political subjects” (p. 67).

Gabriele Gramelsberger discusses a new hybrid form of knowledge that emerges in algorithmic environments, which she conceptualizes as “artifactuality”. The hybridity refers to the externalization of individual data (by gathering and analyzing personal data) and their mapping back to the individual (by using aggregated data to make projections). To the detriment of her contribution, she only briefly touches upon the ethical and political issues that such knowledge might entail e.g., in case of the so-called predictive policing or racial profiling. Questions of ethics are explored by Pierre Cassou-Noguès, who argues that recent technological innovations engender a new kind of sense, which he terms “synhaptic sensibility”. Wearables such as hug shirts as well as remotely manageable sex toys, he argues, disrupt the reciprocity of touch but at the same time give birth to a new kind of sense that combines visual and haptic impressions. Cassou-Noguès engages in a curious discussion on how synhaptic technologies not only transform affective relationships but also expand the notion of surveillance as surveillance and social control no longer depend on seeing everything.

Drawing on Marx, Oliver Leistert looks into how digital technologies and tech-companies monetize body and mental health data to nurture and discipline a neo-liberal subject that is fit for a lifetime of labor. Irina Kaldrack in a way continues this discussion as she unpacks the relationship between dwelling, autonomy and care in context of eHealth and smart homes developed for older and ill people in need of care. Such homes collect and analyze behavioral data of the resident to evaluate whether s/he is healthy or more precisely, whether s/he is behaving healthy. Kaldrack hypothesizes how autonomy here is equated with one’s ability of self-care, while the aspect of free will is subverted.

Andrew A. G. Ross and Jean Clam deal respectively with networked media and political affect. Ross critiques mediated practices of neoliberal digital humanitarianism that operate as outlets for cultural authority and hegemony reproducing imaginaries of liberal internationalism, and at the same time, producing sites of enjoyment and amusement. Jean Clam delineates the challenges posed by the rise of so-called alternative facts to liberal democracies. However, the affective dimension of this development remains somewhat vague in his essay. Clam’s focus is rather on how populist communication cultures increasingly destabilize the notion of truth and factuality. The ways in which affect may fuel populist politics and polarization within networked public spheres has been discussed elsewhere (see e.g., Dahlgren, 2018) and is by no means unnecessary but urgent. However, as Clam argues that “pre-existing” or shared structures of belief as formed under “convictionally weak normation” (p. 214) are destabilized by the “becoming irrational” of affect, we must be aware not to fall back into denying or even demonizing the affective nature of any form of politics. After all, as Stenner points out in his essay: “the turn to affect is not a rejection of the discursive turn but a deepening of it” (p. 21).

In these and further essays, the authors deal with the wide-ranging contingency of affect – rather than its dichotomy – in relation to algorithmic infrastructures. The collection is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the intersection of media theory, affect and new-materialism, as it provides timely theoretical concepts and discussions focusing on material interactions between bodies, technology and media.


Bösel, B., & Wiemer, S. (Eds) (2020): Affective Transformations: Politics – Algorithms – Media. meson press (open access).

Dahlgren, P. (2018): Public Sphere Participation Online: The Ambiguities of Affect—Commentary, in: International Journal of Communication, 12, p. 2052–2070.

Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2019): Emotions, Media and Politics. Polity Press.