Why I'm Not Sold on Affect (Yet)

Let me be clear: I'm not categorically opposed to film theory - far from it. My worries about the "return of Theory" at SCMS, such as they were in fact worries, had to do with the conditions of its return. Most immediately, the range of theory seems strangely limited, with the same few theorists getting bandied about, the same concepts repeated.

And, too, there's the difference between film theory (which I take to be any broad reflection on the medium and its representational practices) and Theory (which seeks a philosophy of film experience). Whether or not you subscribe to David Bordwell's polemic against Grand Theory, the warning of C. Wright Mills in his Sociological Imagination (which Bordwell is riffing off on) is useful: theorists have a propensity to fetishize concepts, rather than to use concepts to illuminate an object of study.

Let me take up one concept that seems to be in danger of that trap: affect. I'm open to finding this a valuable concept and heuristic device, but so far am unsure. I don't have a fully developed critique or intervention, but wanted to provide a place holder for thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head. Perhaps at some point I can articulate a more sustained response to affect theory, or perhaps readers invested in the concept can point out what I'm overlooking or what readings I should consult.

1) Affect is pretty much a synonym for emotion, yet presumably as a theoretical concept it would mean something more abstract, in distinction to the everyday understanding of emotional response to cinema. But uses aren't always clear on how affect differs from everyday emotion. Or, if everyday emotion is what's at stake, why use the fancier word?

1b) What emotions are we talking about anyway?

2) Affect seems to dovetail with arguments about spectatorial excess, say Miriam Hansen's notion of vernacular modern or Linda Williams' model of body genre, only the path of argument seems to be reversed. Where Hansen or Williams start with observations about historical spectators (fans who swoon at Valentino, women who cry at Beaches) then proceed to speculation about general spectatorial relations, the new spectatorship theorists often start from general speculation about what spectators necessarily experience when they watch movies.

3) Following from #2: How does one assess what emotions people feel when they watch movies? Is some protocol of evidence necessary to assess how viewers actually emote? (And simply relying on personal response does not sidestep this methodological problem.) It's not that affect theorists never provide evidence for their claims, just that scholars with radically opposed expectations of evidence end up rallying around the same critical concept.

4) Even if the move to affect/emotion - and the move to a subjectivist understanding of film spectatorship - is valuable, there seems to be little methodological reflection on what subjectivism entails. For example, the point of subjectivism in social science at least isn't really that objectivist understandings of the world are wrong, so much as that the construction of the object of study determines the kind of meaning - "close-up" study produces a sociology radically different in kind than sociology "from above." How does affect's subjectivism depart usefully from the subjectivism inherent in British Cultural studies (whose proponents were fans of Garfinkel and Goffman) or reception studies (who have the closest thing to qualitative social science research in humanities film scholarship)? It matters a great deal whether we think affect/viewer emotion/spectatorial excess is a supplement to spectatorship studies and textual models or a replacement for those models. Oddly, a number of affect proponents don't think they need to answer that question.

5) Affect is often understood as a discursive construct, in which the scholars treat references to emotion or emotions as a text to be read symptomatically. Yet it's not clear when this discursive formation reflects a true difference in spectatorial relations and when it is merely discursive.

6) At some point, circa 1990, the discipline decided that the 1970s film theory project - generalizing spectatorship as a point of cinematic address - was too ahistorical in that it did not take into account how actual viewers (or at least their group identity) made sense of films. Affect, as a strain of film theory suited to ths post-cultural studies moment, would seem to open space for multiplicity of responses to film. And it does, since spectatorial relations are no longer understood as mechanical textual effects. But there lies a potential problem. Forget the Early Cinema/Late Cinema thesis: affect theorists can and do find the emotional excess of film experience everywhere, in every genre, in every historical period. If the kind of emotional responses to contemporary action films end up being not all that different from the emotional responses to 1930s Chinese cinema, then we've snuck ahistoricism in through the back door. Conversely, if we're content with a methodology that allows for armchair (i.e. nonempricial) speculation about spectatorial relations, why must the 1970s project remain such a bad object?

I realize these thoughts are scattered and come perilously close to the straw man arguments which bash trends without specific examples. So any examples or counterexamples are most welcome.


zoe p. said…
"At some point, circa 1990, the discipline decided that the 1970s film theory project - generalizing spectatorship as a point of cinematic address - was too ahistorical in that it did not."

Did not what? I'm on the edge of my seat. So to speak.
Chris Cagle said…
... whoops. I edited the sentence. You knew how the story ended anyway.
Anonymous said…
Hi Chris,

You are right to call scholars on the term (and I too am sometimes frustrated by the lack of discipline here)--I define "Affect" strictly according to Brian Massumi's work in Parables for the Virtual (also picked up by Shaviro), where he goes to great lengths to distinguish "affect" from "emotion," the latter of which he sees as a cognitive qualification of an affective response (ie "I feel sad"). There's more to it, of course, but that's a starting point.

I use affect in my own work not to connote feelings or emotions but to signify a sort of constant energy in the world, that makes things operate, mobilizes groups and individuals, provokes thought, etc--but is also something elusive and unrepresentable. People don't just do things; people don't just think things. Something (whether its in the body, in the air, in the touch, etc) compels them to.

Again, Massumi articulates all this better than me.

I hope this helps a little in terms of clarification, even if you don't agree ultimately with the logic. (I concede its a complicated thing to articulate).
Anonymous said…
If I can chime in with my own understanding of the matter... in large agreement with Jason, affect denotes something more observable and concrete yet still bigger than emotion. The way that I have broached film studies is from a strictly psychological background, which influences my understanding of film theory's use of affectation.

From the Encyclopedia of Psychology:

"... affect is the expression of emotion or feelings displayed to others through facial expressions, hand gestures, voice tone, and other emotional signs such as laughter or tears."

So affect, in film theory, can mean the behavioral responses to film, not some internal state that can only be known through self-report. Affect does not have to be the spectator's "true" mood but can be something that is "put on" for whatever reason (group cohesion, a need to mimic others' affect for belonging, etc). In this way, it becomes more than emotion, something larger that can account for a variety of responses to film that simple emotion cannot.

I guess an example might help explain what I am saying:

Upon seeing the latest gore / slasher flick with a group of friends, spectator X's immediate emotional response is fear and disgust. Her friends reactions vary from cool aloofness ("Eh, it wasn't that gross." "I wasn't scared.") to delight ("Oh man! Did you guys see that?!" "That was awesome!"). In order to minimize ridicule at her response, X affects a social reaction that is similar to that of the group.

At least that is my interpretation and use of it.
Chris Cagle said…
Thanks for the replies.

Jason - I will need to take a look at the Mussumi book; I appreciate the pointer and your clarification. So I'll have to hold off for a full response til I read Deleuze or Massumi more closely (since they seem to be driving a lot of the critical moves toward affect), but in the meanwhile, I'm wondering how this affective energy would differ from a kind of secular spiritualism - from your description it sounds equally mystical to me.

Jackie - I'm curious about the relation, if any, between psychology's use of the concept and the Deleuzian strain in film studies. Would this behavioral state be open to empirical analysis and if so are we talking about a more sophisticated form of reception study or media effects research rather than a film-theoretical project per se?
Anonymous said…
The relation is, like all things, up for interpretation. My understanding of his use of affect is something like "the expressed state of things", which is closely tied with the expressive material. Expressed state of things definitely fits psychology's definition of affect and expressive material can readily be understood as emotion, the base for affect. I think that it should be (and is) open for empirical analysis (while not happening so much yet).

What this field of media studies, reception studies, film theory, psychology, psychoanalysis, etc all sort of falls under is this newly emerging field of media psychology. Like any field in its infancy, there is a lot of debate as to what it should and should not be. Nonetheless, there is a small group of people from various backgrounds who are researching, not just theorizing, film and media's effects [not affects, :)], bringing film theory into a whole new realm.

My personal work perhaps erroneously attempts to draw on each field to create social science out of theory. I can see how some would have many objections to mixing such things but the connections are all too apparent for me.
Anonymous said…
Well, affect is certainly something tricky to quantify, and that no doubt part of the problem. Its partly why I've tried to focus (not always successfully, mind you) on the body in a very physical material way, and on effects (not affect alone).

First point, there are very real ways in which our body thinks for itself, and in which how our body feels, reacts, does affect cognitive thought. And I'm not just talking about feelings like happiness, sadness, anger, and so forth. That's still too reductive to me. There is thought in the body, and it connects to thoughts in other bodies.

Gardner has already talked about the different intelligences in the body, for example.

There is also Brennan's "Transmission of Affect," both of which take more of an empirical, less theoretical, approach to bodily knowledge--which partly articulates affect as I see it.

As to effects (which is not the same as affect, as jackie notes)--I do think it is a mark of affect. How do people react sometimes the way they do despite the fact that there (appears to be) no logical or rational (or cognitive) cause to do so. People still move (literally and figuratively) though nobody tells them to.

This kind of pushes towards theories of the subconscious for some, of course, but I think affect theory is very much a response (in part) to psychoanalytic theories.

I think the body is no more problematic than the subconscious, which seems very hard to quantify (but that's my bias of course).

Why does the mind continue to be the privileged site of knowledge, with almost no awareness of the body (not the sexualized or objectified body)--the everyday body, and how it stores knowledge, disrupts thought. I think this is one of Massumi's larger goals.

I got into affect theory originally because I rejected psychoanalysis as (ironically, I know) too self-centered, and because I was a disgruntled postmodernist trying to figure out what happens after the simulacrum. As in, what happens next? How does life continue? Where's the real? Where's the unrepresentable? I didn't care about emotions (still not sure that I do).

I only point this out because it might give you a better sense of where I'm coming from on this.


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