Affective societies, affected scientists! 5 questions to Robert Seyfert

The interview series poses questions concerning the role of affects and emotions in research practice and contemporary society to researchers on short-term visit and associate members of the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies”. Today, we introduce Robert Seyfert who is Professor of Sociology at Kiel University. During the lecture series Mobility Affects, he gave a lecture entitled “Flaneurs, Cruisers, Scooters: Localized Velocities of Affect”.

1. Which research question affects you at the moment? What is its social significance?

I am currently working on digital technologies, their effects on society and social life. I am interested in how to conceptualize these social phenomena and the changes that result from such technologies. I use a processual-relational theory, which fundamentally changes common research questions, methods, and designs. It redirects our focus from concepts of fixity (individuals, subjects, technological objects etc.) to relational (e.g. sociotechnical and inter-algorithmic relations) and processual concepts (subjectification and de-subjectification). Finally, it reframes questions of individuality and unity that are increasingly being replaced by notions of dividuality and participation. Needless to say, affect theory is really helpful in developing such new methodological and conceptual tools because it offers ways to think about the social world as mutual processes of affecting and being affected and as constant processes of becoming.

2. Can you think of an emotion whose relevance has recently surprised you?

I am quite fascinated by the affective attachment to data and numbers that many people have developed during the pandemic. Checking infection, death and vaccination rates and constantly reporting on them, discussing them with one another, seems to have become a ritual people dutifully exercise on a daily basis. There are feverish discussions about how to the ‘bend the curve’, to reach ‘zero covid’ or the percentage of immunity within the population. Recently, we have even started to partake in some kind of vaccination competition, where we celebrate the nation with the highest rates of vaccinations and scoff at those who fall behind, especially if they happen to be the country we live in. Importantly, this affective attachment is not related to a popularization of statistics, or a critical engagement with the contextuality and selectivity of data and its limited significance. Rather a kind of numbers fever is taking place, something we might call a numerical affect. It is an uninhibited indulging in the daily swayings of numbers, graphs and curves.

3. Do you perceive any affective driving force or affective barrier concerning your research work?

I would have to say curiosity, obviously. I have always liked Hannah Arendt’s definition of a rather passive curiosity: it is not an imperialist desire to have an effect on the world or to be influential or something, but rather it is about understanding how things work. Rancière calls this type of curiosity a “discrete affect”, an “affect of indeterminate effect”. In this process, we do not know in advance what we will look at and what we will think about what we find. It requires processes of transgression, de-subjectification and de-individualization, where we are really merging ourselves with the flows of others.

4. Which book has lately affected you the most?

I am reading very different sources and formats, articles, blogs, comments, papers and so. Sitting down and reading an entire book is not something I am doing on a regular basis. But since you ask, I can recommend David Skrbina’s book an Panpsychism. It is a re-examination of those philosophies that do not limit mind to humans and higher animals. It is really helpful to re-examine these historical approaches, especially today where we are increasingly moving from notions of substantialism and self-referentialism (of social systems, selfs, affects and minds) to concepts of relationality, processuality, distribution and participation. Panpsychism might seem esoteric from a scientific point of view but it can help us to rethink the distributions of perception, cognition and agency between human and non-human beings. Learning about these panpsychisms is not about reconstructing and being true to their original arguments but rather to see how we can incorporate them into our current epistemic regimes.

5. From which feelings or sentiments would you rather refrain at the moment?

The answer would have to be from ‘feeling (covid) numbers’, from the numerical affect of the Covid19 pandemic. Especially from the urge this feeling seems to be attached to, to continuously communicate these numbers to one another. There are really better things to do in a pandemic.