Article written by DPDF 2009 Cultures and Histories of the Human Sciences Research Director Emily Martin.
Historical scholarship on the banishment of subjectivity from experimental psychology led me to explore a current theoretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by the name “affect theory.” This approach, tied to contemporary neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish subjectivity from human experience and introduces the apparently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The potentiality revealed by affect theory lies deep in the human brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Affect theory draws on a long history in the human sciences going back to the late nineteenth century. Therefore, in this paper I take a fresh look at the early history of experimental psychology from the vantage point of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898. I intend this early anthropological approach to subjectivity to serve as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the later banishment of subjectivity from the methods used in experimental psychology and from the models proposed in affect theory.