How do you know?

You know it when you see it
You know it when it’s there
Like Michael Jackson Thriller
Like Farrah Fawcett Hair
It’s good shit.

…But really…how do you know? What is it about that instant attraction to something/someone/someplace? What do you feel? What is that undeniable bodily response – the excitement that seems to come from your gut, the sense of urgency that starts to run through your veins, the unstoppable head bob, the surprise smile?

Is it affect?

Massumi (2002) sees affect simply as –  “the capacity to affect or be affected—not an action but a capacity for activation” (Clough, 2009, p. 49).

Such an “activation” could be thought of literally, like Capital Cities and Andre 3000 sing about in their song: “You know it when you see it, you know it when it’s there.” In this sense, when you see/feel “it”  you experience something of a mental turning-on. But, if we were to take this idea a little further, past the literal, we could understand this activation or the “capacity for activation” as intensities coming together, as “an event, or a dimension of every event” (Massumi, 2008).  The entanglement of intensities creates new feelings, or more specifically, what Erin Manning (2009) calls “feeling-tones” (p. 95).

– You know it when you see it, you know it when it’s there –

Do you “know it” through feeling? In a discussion of Etienne-Jules Marey’s art (Chapter 5 in Relationscapes), Manning touches deeply on affect and affective ability and the resulting feeling-tones.  Manning explains, “to look at Marey’s photographs is to feel them” (p. 95). She sees feeling as “an amodal experience that is a passing-between of sense-modes” which comes to constitute perception. Perception brings about feeling, “coalescing visual experience into a force of feeling” (p. 95).

Chronophotograph of a fencer by Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904)

Marey’s photographs are particularly affective, because even though they are still, they undeniably represent movement as well as the preacceleration of movement. How? The perception of them brings about a force of feeling, and well, you know it when you see it

Is that what the song means? Can we envision our affective experiences, or for the sake of this post, the “good shit” (although affect should not be regarded as something necessarily positive or negative, it takes many forms) in the same way that Manning views Marey’s photographs? You see/feel/hear something, then (simultaneously) you feel it’s movement that results in a movement within you – physical, mental, and ontological.

Is that how you know?


Clough, P.T. (2009). The new empiricism: Affect and sociological method.  European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1): 43-61.

Manning, E. (2009). Relationscapes : movement, art, philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Massumi, B.  (2002).  Parables for the virtual:  Movement, affect, sensation.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Massumi, B. & McKim, J. (2008). Of microperception and micropolitcs: An interview with Brian Massumi.

2 thoughts on “How do you know?

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