21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Incipience and the Historical Subject

Neil Vallelly


Every year at 4am on the Monday that follows Ash Wednesday, the street lighting is turned off in the city of Basel, north Switzerland. The “Morgestraich” precession that follows signals the start of the Fasnacht Carnival. During the three-day festival, floats and marching bands make their way through the city streets. At night, the city is illuminated with a myriad of intricately designed lanterns. At 4am on Thursday morning, street lighting is restored.

In the opening paragraph of her chapter ‘Happy Objects’ in The Affect Theory ReaderSara Ahmed observes that “to be made happy by this or that is to recognise that happiness starts from somewhere other than the subject who may use the word to describe a situation” (29). To be happy is to be moved towards happiness by the surrounding world and, at the same time, transmit happiness into the surrounding world. “We are moved by things. And in being moved, we make things,” Ahmed asserts (33).



The Fasnacht opens with the Morgenstraich precession through the city streets of Basel 

[Image by Keith under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Emotions, such as happiness, are not simply personal expressions directed towards the world; they are subjective by-products of an energetic process in which the world forces itself upon the body as it moves through the world. All emotion is the recognition, on the part of the subject, of incipient activity: affect. Cultural theorist Brian Massumi defines affect as “intensity” that is “embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin – at the surface of the body, at its interface with things” (Massumi 2002: 25). Affect exists neither exclusively in the world nor exclusively in the body; rather, it exists, in its greatest intensity, at the very moment when the body and world move towards one another.



 Recreating pre-industrial darkness: the Morgenstraich procession reminds us of the intense emotional responses and affect that darkness procudes

[Image by Boosthammer under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Both Massumi and Erin Manning, co-editors of ‘The Technologies of Lived Abstraction’ book series and founders of the journal Inflexions, have written extensively about the incipient world. The body that emerges is the nonteleological body – a body without a subjective goal:

The body is the seat of bare activity: the region of indistinction between the human and matter where something doing is always already just stirring, before it starts to take definitive experiential form. We do not see the electrons travelling down our optic nerve. We see what our body makes of their activity (Massumi 2011: 27).

Affect is the “something doing”; it is the “activity.” Bodies are expressionless vehicles of incipient activity that ultimately arrive at coherent action. When the subject emerges as an emotional, thinking, or active body, potential is lost in the scaffolds of subjectivity. “When movement converges into its taking-form, or when thought converges into words,” Manning observes, “very little potential for creative expression remains” (8). The subject is a finalising form of many possible forms of subjective experience. As such, subjectivity provides structure to the world; it gives names to things; it gives value to the world.


20 52 Movement

Expressionless vehicles of incipent action: how do our notions of the body and subjectivity relate to one another?

[Image by Sergio García Moratilla under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Affect theory deals exclusively with incipience. Emotions, as subjective interjections into the passing of the world, are predicated by incipient emotional potential. “Intensity is not only incipience,” Massumi argues, “it is also the beginning of a selection: the incipience of mutually exclusive pathways of action and expression, all but one of which will be inhibited, prevented from actualising themselves completely” (Massumi 2002: 30). Incipience sees the body emerge as a sentient being; it holds all potential forms of subjective experience, but it is exactly how the world pushes at the body, and exactly how the body turns towards the world, that defines the form of subjective experience: “we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival,” Ahmed concludes (37).[1] So it is not simply how the world affects us, it’s also how we affect the world.

To be is to be anchored in the vast ocean of affect. Subjective experience is a momentary cessation in the infinite passing of the world in order to take in the surrounding vista. Affect, on the other hand, represents the world at the height of incipient potential and thus offers a way of thinking beyond the subject, beyond temporality, and beyond structure. It is important to note, however, that affect is not independent of subjectivity. On the contrary, affect engenders subjective experience; it is the air on which the subject breathes. It is a depersonalised philosophy that occurs prior to semantic and semiotic anchoring, but it never leaves the subject because of the body’s irrevocable connection to the world. In this way, affect theory follows on from phenomenology’s imperative deconstruction of the binary between subject and object: “the distinction between subject and object is blurred in my body,” Merleau-Ponty posits (167).

So, what are the consequences for thinking beyond the subject into the incipient world? The inability to structure affect in semiotic or semantic signification has made it, in Massumi’s words, “resistant to critique” (Massumi 2002: 28). However, he argues that the world beyond the subject introduces the “dimension of intensity” into critical thought:

The stakes are the new. For structure is the place where nothing ever happens, that explanatory heaven in which all eventual permutations are prefigured in a self-consistent set of invariant generative rules. Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity, of rules into paradox. (Massumi 2002: 27; my emphasis).

The “event” is the place where everything happens; it represents the explosion of intensity that holds all potential forms of subjectivity. If affect compels the subject towards certain forms of action then incipience is a necessary component of any investigation into subjectivity, historical or otherwise. The subject originates in the incipient world, not as a thinking or perceptive body, but in unadulterated potential. This world of potential could be of great benefit to historical study.

In 1594, Thomas Nashe penned a pamphlet entitled The Terrors of the Night in which he discussed, among other things, the emotional and cognitive effects of darkness: “So when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight,” he writes, “and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the table of our hearts is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us” (4). Similarly, in the seventeenth century, William Herbert noted that “the night is more quiet, then the day: and yet we feare in it what we doe not regard by day. A mouse running, a Board cracking, a dog howling, an Owle scriching put us often in a cold sweat. What is the cause of it?” (231). Both Nashe and Herbert recognise that darkness loosens the tethers between vision and the material world and this has a significant impact upon subjective experience. Unlike in light, where the surrounding world unveils itself to the eye, darkness requires the surrounding world to be imaginatively created. Shakespeare explores this specific effect of darkness in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Theseus says “in the night, imagining some fear / How easy is a bush supposed a bear” (5.1.21-2).


Street Lights

Street lights: the body spent significantly more time in darkness in the sixteenth and seventeenth century than it does in the twenty-first century

[Image by Igor Srdanovic under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Most theories of affect have explored contemporary experience, but the study of historical forms of experience has the potential to expand the parameters of affect theory. Historical subjective experiences emerge from worlds that are inaccessible to the twenty-first century investigator. For instance, in John Marston’s play Antonio’s Revenge, the character Antonio says “I oped / A large bay window, through which the night / Struck terror into my soul” (1.3.50-52). This emotional expression corresponds with the pre-Cartesian episteme of the sixteenth century in which there was no direct separation between physiology and psychology as “passions” were considered natural forces that resided in the world. Thus, there existed the belief that night actually carried “terror” in its very materiality. It is not that these worlds are entirely alien, but the twenty-first century investigator is denied direct access by his/her position in space and time. This is the obstacle that faces the application of affect theory in historical inquiry. Fortunately, it is not insurmountable. The problem rests in estimating what sort of world the body turns towards and how this world may have forced itself upon the body.

The emotional and cognitive effects of nighttime, that Nashe, Herbert, and Shakespeare refer to, emerge through incipience. As a result, it is up to the investigator to re-construct, to the best of his/her ability, the incipient world through which these subjective experiences materialised. For instance, when the sun set in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, an opaque blanket of darkness descended across urban and rural areas. It was not until the late seventeenth century that European cities started to introduce sporadic street-lighting and it was not until well after industrialisation that lighting resembled the city streets of twenty-first century Europe. The fact is that the body spent a lot more time in darkness in the sixteenth and seventeenth century than it does in the twenty-first century. The Fasnacht carnival, with its three nights of darkness, is one of the very rare moments in which the post-industrialisation subject can experience the night as a natural phenomenon.  


NASA - Central & Eastern Europe at Night

The emotional and cognitive effects of darkness encourage our imaginative powers of creation

[Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center under a CC BY-NC license]


Darkness enforces itself upon the body; it limits the ability to see and this fact often destabilises the subject. Light, on the other hand, invites the body towards it; it separates the world into neat distinctions of colours and shapes which act to stabilise thoughts and emotional responses. Light provides, what Massumi describes as, “matter-of-factness” to the world: “matter-of-factness dampens intensity,” he asserts (Massumi 2002: 25). The stabilising effect of daylight and destabilising effect of darkness are evident in the subjective responses of Nashe, Herbert, and Shakespeare. Darkness provides the setting for more intense emotional responses and cognitive disorientation because it affects the body in a certain way. As a result, the subjective responses of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are not simply a social and cultural construction, such as the subject of new historicism or cultural materialism. More importantly, these experiences are subjective expressions of incipience.

Of course, how early modern people understood emotions and cognition, and how they understood nighttime supplemented subjective experience in the period, but their bodies were pushed towards subjectivity and this fact needs to be integrated into historical inquiry. In the incipient world, cosmologies, ontologies, and teleology are yet to be coherently formulated. The incipient body does not know what is happening; rather, it responds to it is happening. Incipience offers a new way to approach the historical subject, one that integrates conventional historicism with the dynamism of affect theory. The point is not to disregard that Shakespeare and his contemporaries dealt with a different environment to that of the twenty-first century investigator; neither is it to disregard that the early modern subject conceived of emotions and cognition in a different way to the twenty-first century subject. Rather, it is to say that subjective experience emerges from a creative process, one that deals exclusively with potential rather than structure, sensation rather than feelings, incipience rather than finality, affect rather than effect, and one that is as relevant now as it was then.   


CITATION: Neil Vallelly, "Incipience and the Historical Subject," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 5 (2013): n. pag. Web. 9 October 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.5.02.


Neil Vallelly is a Commonwealth Scholar and currently a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Globe, London. Neil is the postgraduate representative for the Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association and is also involved with the Architecture Research Group for the Sam Wanamaker Indoor Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 



[1] “Feel the atmosphere” is a reference to the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect (2004).


Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. ‘Happy Object’. The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Print.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). Print.

Herbert, William. Herbert’s Devotions (London: Wing H1542, 1657). Print.

Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009). Print.

Marston, John. Antonio’s Revenge. Ed. W. Reavley Gair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). Print.

Massumi, Brian. Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011). Print.

–––. Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964). Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (London and New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997). Print.



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