Cinema's Exhaustion and the Vitality of Affect

Curator's Note

Like an expired body that blends with the dirt to form new molecules and living organisms, the body of cinema continues to blend with other image/sound technologies in processes of composition/decomposition that breed images with new speeds and new distributions of intensities. The cinema does not evaporate into nothingness, but transmutes in a becoming that has no point of origin or completion. Does the affect disappear when the image is emptied out of feeling? But perhaps, one shouldn’t start with the feeling, but always with the image. Is the image strong enough to know of its own capacities for creation and destruction—what it can bring together, what it will tear apart? Can the image portend our own becoming? If post-cinematic affect strikes us as a draining away of traditional modalities of feeling or emotion, an exhaustion of vital forces, there must still be a remnant of affect or vitality (in us, in the image) that allows for the hollowed out affect to resonate with palpable intensity. For affect always emerges through difference—a shocking divergence between two quantities giving rise to a new quality. Difference disorganizes the relation between the two things, which can no longer be gauged through comparison, analogy, or resemblance. Affect throws into disarray the system of recognition and naming. At once, the image gives something to feel and takes away my capacity to say “I feel.” How does affect fare in the age of global capitalism? If we believe we have reached a point of exhaustion, is this also the end of affect as an emergent possibility? Exhaustion without vitality is the zero degree of the body without organs, the emptied out body that has sabotaged its own capacity for transformation. But I believe, on the contrary, that the commodifying frenzy of global capitalism, its equalizing powers, cannot obliterate affect, or even tame it into a bland proliferation of commodified emotions. Instead, as Deleuze says in his book on Foucault, “when power becomes biopower, resistance becomes the power of life, a vital power that cannot be confined within species [or] environment.” We are clearly at a point where the cinema has begun to transform itself beyond the stage that Deleuze envisioned in The Time-Image. But, is the distinction between the crassly commercial and the creative that he affirmed still possible or necessary, and does this distinction have any relevance to the production of affect?

Comments

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

The Exhaustion of Affect Theory

Thanks Elena for getting us off to a great start. I wanted to get you to say something more about exhaustion and affect theory. Frederic Jameson, of course, talked about the “waning of affect” a long time ago now. But there has been a recent turn against or away from affect theory and since your post argues for the “vitality” of affect, I wondered if you might talk about the field of affect theory more broadly. Ruth Leys, the historian of science, in a recent article in Critical Inquiry, has been extremely critical of affect theorists and the affective turn in general: http://www.jstor.org/pss/10.1086/659353

Leys  wonders why “so many scholars today in the humanities and social sciences” are “fascinated by the idea of affect”?  One of her criticisms is of affect theory which privileges the image and Deleuzian intensities and becomings. She is also critiquing a general tendency to theorize affect as a way of disciplining subjects but also the more positive politicized understanding of affect as a vitality with its own potentials for disruption—whether we use Malabou’s notion of plasticity or Deleuzian becomings to describe this lively embodied energy. These two criticisms seem like ones you would be well positioned to respond to.

In the end, Shaviro is cautious about his “affective mapping” and the possibilities for “resistance”. Interestingly, accelerationism is described as the “emptying out” of capitalism through a “process of exhaustion” but Shaviro is not at all hopeful about accelerationism as a political strategy. However, he does see value in the “intensity effect(s)” of an accelerationist aesthetics. Do you think that your vitalized affect can effect something more than a temporary suspension of the “monotonous” logic of capital? Are the “untamable” disruptions you describe sustainable?

MOR.

Elena del Rio's picture

the exhaustion of affect theory

thank you, karin and michael for your thought-provoking comments. there are many things to say about this topic and the questions you raise. jameson’s ‘waning of affect’ makes sense if one thinks of affect as emotion or feeling in the traditional subjective or collective sense. in that sense, our age is either wallowing in clichéd sentimentality or utterly numbed. affect, as I understand it, is a capacity or power of transformation. just as life or death don’t belong to the person who undergoes them, affect is not a product or creation of a subject, but rather the network of forces that circulate around and through us while we are alive. In the spinozist sense, affect is rather synonymous with the vital force. and the affirmative sense both spinoza and deleuze impart to this is probably one difference between the way I understand affect and the way shaviro, it seems to me, understands it. i hope he can comment on this and clarify this point, which i’ve found to be a question that came up again and again as i was reading his brilliant book on post-c affect. so i now will segeway into the book just briefly and will come back to other things. for me affect carries a capacity for rupture (and also rapture) that i see happening in the works shaviro discusses in very sporadic and faint ways. but these few places where i can identify a strong affective component are interestingly those where shaviro finds an interruption of ‘the reign of universal equivalence’ that takes us ‘outside the circle of capital.’ that is how he describes the final scene in boarding gate, for example. but sporadic moments like that contrast with the more general trend to identify capitalism as a quasi totalizing process that extracts value from affect itself, a process where affect and capital come to be indistiguishable. if affect is taken to have the same equalizing value/effect as capital, is there any difference between the two? is there any need to speak about affect at all? i think at that point affect has become so utterly evacuated of any capacity for action that using the word itself is pointless. might as well just describe the devouring powers of capitalism for their own sake. what remains transgressive about capital’s unremitting self-expansion? how can more of the same give birth to difference?

Elena del Rio's picture

the exhaustion of affect theory (part 2)

Coming back to other points you make, I am not familiar with Ruth Leys’ argument against affect theory, but thank you for sending the link. It will be interesting to read. All I can say, without having read it, is that affect for me represents the only notion that expresses something not quite susceptible of colonization or cooptation. When ideas centering around consciousness, reason, or even subjectivity, have proven utterly incapable of keeping up with the complexity and the fundamental non-humanity of life, affect, for the time being, is the only concept that to me is capable of approximating the complex texture of life’s mechanics and one that takes the human centrality out of the picture. Just like any other theory, affect theory that I know of is anything but coherent. Unlike what I said about affect, some people speak of affect as a more sophisticated word for emotion or feeling. I’ve found that a lot in film analysis. Shaviro brings this up as well, and in that I am in total agreement with his position. I’ve also found Massumi’s writing on affect right on the mark. I think what’s needed in affect theory, and I think Shaviro’s book is beginning to articulate that in very important and eloquent ways (in my opinion, without enough emphasis on resistance) is a symbiosis of the affective and the political. I agree wholeheartedly with him that we shouldn’t oppose affect theory and Marxist theory. How or where can we find transformative affective flows amidst the social, political, or economic processes of transnational capitalism? As rare as these flows might be, I don’t think they stop happening, but they don’t always take on the actual forms, or at the quantitative scale, that we might qualify as substantial or visible changes. In any case, the affirmation of life’s differences is the most potent expression of resistance. That is why affect (my perspective) is inherently a form of resistance, as its very foundation is difference, divergence, dislocation. Here, I couldn’t disagree more with Leys’ critique of affect as a vehicle for disciplining subjects. Affect and discipline are diametrically opposed concepts. For me, Massumi/Deleuze/Spinoza’s distinction between pouvoir and puissance is a very useful one when dealing with the intersections between affects and politics. When affects become institutionalized or they acquire normative meanings, they becoming congealed into recognizable or capitalizable emotions. That’s the realm of pouvoir.

Shane Denson's picture

Metabolic Affect

Great post—eloquent and very thought-provoking! Though I have no answers to the questions being raised here, here are some ideas that I hope might complement the effort to think through these issues (for technical reasons, my comment is split into two parts):

Deleuze’s “vital power that cannot be confined within species [or] environment” might be thought in terms of “metabolism”—a process neither in my subjective control nor even confined to my body (as object) but which articulates organism and environment together from the perspective of a pre-individuated agency. Metabolism is affect without feeling or emotion—affect as the transformative power of “passion” that, as Brian Massumi reminds us, Spinoza identifies as that unknown power of embodiment that is neither wholly active nor wholly passive. Metabolic processes are the zero-degree of transformative agency, both intimately familiar and terrifyingly alien, conjoining inside/outside, me/not-me, life/death, old/novel, as the power of transitionality—marking not only biological processes but also global changes that encompass life and its environment. Mark Hansen defines “medium” as “environment for life”; accordingly, metabolism is as much a process of media transformation as one of bodily change.

Shane Denson's picture

Metabolic Affect (Part 2)

(continued from previous comment):

 The shift from a cinematic to a post-cinematic environment is, in your description, a metabolic process through and through: “Like an expired body that blends with the dirt to form new molecules and living organisms, the body of cinema continues to blend with other image/sound technologies in processes of composition/decomposition that breed images with new speeds and new distributions of intensities.” To the extent that metabolism is inherently affective (“passionate,” in a Spinozan vein), you’re right that post-cinematic affect has to be thought apart from feeling and subjective emotion. Your alternative, which (apposite with Deleuze’s mode of questioning while thinking beyond his answers) asks about the image, taking it as the starting point of inquiry, is helpful. The challenge, though, becomes one of grasping the image itself not as objective entity but as metabolic agency, one caught up in the larger process of transformation that (dis)articulates subjects and objects, spectators and images, life and its environment in the transition to the post-cinematic. This metabolic image, I suggest, is the very image of change, and it speaks to the perspective of metabolism itself—to affect distributed across bodies and environments as the medium of transitionality. As you suggest, exhaustion—mental, physical, systemic—is not at odds with affect; rethinking affect as metabolism (or vice versa) might help explain why: exhaustion, from an ecological perspective, is itself an enabling moment in the processes of metabolic becoming.

Anyway, thanks for the great post!

Elena del Rio's picture

metabolic affect

Hi Shane. Thank you for all your comments split into two parts, which totally resonate with what I was talking about. I find the metabolism idea very apt to describe affective processes. I am also in total sync with your comment on how we need to make the image itself a metabolic agency disengaged from human agency or consciousness. I’ve found sometimes when submitting a paper that speaks of the image as something that thinks, the editor wants me to change that to make it sound like it is the director’s choices or whatever. I think that’s really annoying because it totally misses the point which has to do with the autonomous process in which images engage regardless of what we mean or not mean. And to your point about exhaustion. The more I think about this, the more I see exhaustion is itself an affect, and not at all that which opposes affect. The exhaustion that bodies exude on screen has often a lot to do with the intensity that comes from changes/differences in speed, and what strikes me usually about these exhausted bodies is their deeply unconscious power to become the vehicles for forces and forms that to me speak of vitality far more than of exhaustion. I think there’s a deep irony in images of exhaustion vis-a-vis this issue of affect and vitality. 

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Resistant Affect

Thank you indeed, Elena, for your inspiring post, which opens up an array of questions regarding affect in the time of global capitalism. I would like to add a dimension to Michael and Shane’s responses, by inviting you to extrapolate on the ways in which your truly explosive film clip collage engages with your suggestion that a vitalising affective "resistance" remains.

Capitalism is one aspect of contemporary culture - another aspect is the pressing awareness of a continual state of exception, as theorised by e.g. Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler, and the drawn-out (although often indefinable) threat of war and apocalypse. I was taken by your interweaval of WWII home-coming scenes and the particular moment in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive where all images break down. Lynch’s film seems to ask a similar set of questions as your post. Is there truly nothing beyond our worn-out cinematic tropes and pre-rehearsed calls for affect? Naomi Watts’s search for the “truth” throughout the first half of the film – and her violent spasms of emotion when she finds it (whatever we decide that “it” is) seem to indicate that there is. The unnameable and unspeakable affect that cannot be contained in a post-cinematic society eventually break through, in a resistant Deleuzo-Foucauldian power-surge of life.

Elena del Rio's picture

RESISTANT AFFECT

Hi Karin. I will try to reply to your two comments beginning here. Thank you for such a rush of ideas that literally jump off from the page. The clip that I posted is part of an 18 minute film that a friend and I put together some 5 years ago. The idea of making it came to me as I was falling asleep one day, probably because I was thinking of images in the films I was writing about in my book. You can watch the whole thing on Vimeo (it was uploaded by Cinephile, so if you enter Cinephile you’ll find it among others. It’s the one with a shot of sand/desert as the first image). Anyway, the most exhilirating experience for me in making this was to realize that I didn’t have to make any decisions on where to cut or how to edit the sound, that the images themselves were deciding that. I know it sounds ridiculous, but for me there was no doubt about it. What we were looking for in the selection and sequencing of the images was the highest possible intensity in the changes between body speeds and patterns of movement. It was a bit like releasing the force of the body to the max, and I think your choice of the word ‘release’ or ‘relief’ is very appropriate here. Because this sequence has no psychological, moral, or representational content, the only thing remaining is the force of the body itself. This for me is a vitality that goes beyond the political at the same time that is traversed by the political and everything else. The political acts that impact this may revolve around either releasing this force (potentializing it, as Spinoza might say, composing a more powerful body by joining other bodies/affects) or repressing it, arresting it, obstructing it (although this may be an oversimplification, the state of exception that we permanently live in, as you put it, definitely works along these lines of decomposition and weakening of forces through exclusionary methods that purport to safeguard and maximize life, but actually release nihilistic forces of death such as war, or any form of fascistic repression. I think it’s much easier to find resistant affects in art, definitely in cinema, than in the life we live outside art. Maybe art shows us the way.

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Resistant Affect Continued

Most of the scenes in your clip seem to signal a sense of relief or release. They are of course excerpts, but together they form a procession of violent outbursts of relief (at the return of the soldier) and explosive release of pent-up fear and emotion. I understand this as a demonstration of the affective “untameable” that resists the codification – as counter-examples to Shaviro’s conductive tropes, if you like. Seen together like this, these affective eruptions invoke something very different, however. Your clip becomes a fascinating portrayal of a perpetual state of exception. It’s a catharsis that never ends. The clip collage starts and ends with music and/or movement, and Naomi Watts’s spasms of affect in Mulholland Drive are of course also induced by Rebecca Del Rio’s singing. I can’t help being reminded of Nietzsche’s work on tragedy, where music features as a violent and purely Dionysian expression. What I find most interesting, however, is that when they are compiled like this they feel almost empty. The resistant affect is no longer resisting anything, and becomes another affective trope in the chain of coded similitude.

KS 

Elena del Rio's picture

RESISTANT AFFECT CONTINUED

Lynch’s cinema for me is somewhere between the cinematic and the post-cinematic. One of the features Steve aligns with the post-cinematic is the absence of an ‘absolute, pre-existing space.’ Especially in his last films, Lynch never constructs such a referential space. Cinema is the space; there is nothing outside it as a real or transcendental ground. But what’s interesting about Lynch is that although space ceases to have unity or solidity, the sense of duration is very strong. Maybe this is what separates it from the post-cinematic as Steve describes it through Grace Jones, Boarding Gate, Southland Tales, etc. In Lynch cinema is folded into itself and realism loses all meaning. But, as you say, this creates a power-surge of affect rather than its waning. What the example of Lynch makes me think is that the line between cinematic and post-c is much more diffuse and difficult to identify than one might think and that while one needs to look at specific cases, like Steve does, to be able to elaborate a theory of the post-cinematic, in practice this theory may undergo all sorts of changes, qualifications, and in a way, even a bit of scepticism towards theory as a unified system. But it goes without saying that Steve’s work has bridged a huge gap in addressing issues about the transformations cinema is experiencing. In a way, he’s telling us that we cannot go on pretending that things haven’t changed, and that the cinema is still the cinema as if embalmed for eternity. This reminds me of a question I’d like Steve to respond to if he can: what do you think of the history of cinema as seen by Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema? He talks about cinema as a living being with a childhood, adolescence, and maturity, even of its death, although he never envisions the kind of almost ontological shift that the digital brings about. Anyway, just to address Karin’s last point, which I find one of the most amazing: you say that the images in the clip feel almost empty and that the affect is no longer resisting anything. Exactly. Either you take them all as resistant images (resistant to narrative, certainty, etc) or they are always already liberated from the cycle of action and reaction. This is a schizo-violence of free floating affects. It’s a full emptiness. Like me right now. More tomorrow.

Adrian Ivakhiv's picture

KS wrote: "What I find most

KS wrote: "What I find most interesting, however, is that when they are compiled like this they feel almost empty. The resistant affect is no longer resisting anything, and becomes another affective trope in the chain of coded similitude."

I don’t feel this at all… I find a rhythm surging through the movements (kinesthetic, affective), a rhythm that propels itself forward according to its own internal (immanent) measures, not according to an external code or even in terms of anything being resisted.

Elena writes: "Either you take them all as resistant images (resistant to narrative, certainty, etc) or they are always already liberated from the cycle of action and reaction. This is a schizo-violence of free floating affects. It’s a full emptiness."

Since they are taken out of the contexts within which they might arise as resistance, I’ll go along with seeing them as "always already liberated." (Of course, having seen the films, I add my own interpretations of what the liberation may be *from,* but then I draw back from that, wanting to see them as movements/images/rhythms in themselves.) There’s nothing obviously violent or empty in them (for me). Especially not empty. There is energy, flow, passion, and it is for me as a viewer to feel and work with…

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Panpsychism and the Image

I was struck in reading through the comments by the ways in which the image is being thought as having a “mental pole”. Shane in his fascinating description of an “anthropotechnical interface” he calls the “metabolic image” says that: “The challenge, though, becomes one of grasping the image itself not as objective entity but as metabolic agency, one caught up in the larger process of transformation that (dis)articulates subjects and objects, spectators and images, life and its environment in the transition to the post-cinematic”. This disarticulation (which Elena talks about in terms of a vitality which exceeds species and environment) is one she endorses: “I am also in total sync with your comment on how we need to make the image itself a metabolic agency disengaged from human agency or consciousness. I’ve found sometimes when submitting a paper that speaks of the image as something that thinks, the editor wants me to change that to make it sound like it is the director’s choices or whatever”. Responding to Karin, she goes further: “the most exhilarating experience for me in making this was to realize that I didn’t have to make any decisions on where to cut or how to edit the sound, that the images themselves were deciding that. I know it sounds ridiculous, but for me there was no doubt about it”. These comments take us in the general direction of Shaviro’s own post-Post Cinematic Affect work on panpsychism (http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=763) and his controversial insistence in “The Universe of Things” that “vital materialism and object-oriented ontology both entail some sort of panexperientialism or panpsychism”. He admits that “this is obviously not a step to be taken lightly; it can easily get one branded as a crackpot. Most metaphysicians today, analytic or continental, science-oriented or not, tend to reject panpsychism out of hand”. Without Criteria, he says , was too hasty in dismissing the panpsychical dimensions of Whitehead’s thought because, he now thinks, “a world of objects is really a world of experiencings; as Whitehead insists, we must at least be open to the prospect that ‘having-experience’ is already intrinsic to all existing actual entities. I will not argue this proposition any further here, but I wish to leave it as a lure for thought, a prospective consequence of the fact that we find ourselves in a universe of things”. MOR

Elena del Rio's picture

panpsychism and the image

This gets me interested in reading Whitehead and Shaviro on Whitehead. I wasn’t thinking of the concept of panpsychism itself, but more of the concept of ‘subjectless subjectivities’, which in many ways I think is similar. (in fact, Bains mentions panpsychism in this essay). Paul Bains’s essay in A Shock to Thought was very inspiring to me in terms of this aspect of Deleuze and G’s thinking. Besides talking about singularities as pre-individual, non-personal events or sensitive points, he talks about auto-poietic bubbles of perception, self-surveying systems that do not perceive themselves from a distance (the distance of the human cogito), but rather from their own interiority. I want to quote a line from this essay that fits in with Paul Bowman’s question as to what affect might contribute. It’s sort of related: "A plane of consistency, an absolute survey that involves no supplementary dimension. Rational modes of discursive knowledge cannot adequately grasp this kind of metalogical approach which can only be fully appreciated through a non-discursive, affective pathic awareness."

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Subjectless Subjectivities

 Thanks Elena, I can see how Bains’ idea of subjectless subjectivities (isn’t this much the same as Deleuze’s larval subjects which are also singularities prior to any subjectivity?) links up with both your post on the vitalities of affect (and the image) and Shane’s metabolic images. 

Your wonderfully evocative opening lines ("Like an expired body that blends with the dirt to form new molecules and living organisms, the body of cinema continues to blend with other image/sound technologies in processes of composition/decomposition that breed images with new speeds and new distributions of intensities") remind me that, for Deleuze, "human" "subjects" are a bundle of sensory and material elements (matter, air, water) or what he calls "organic syntheses": “We are made of contracted water, light, earth, and air-not merely prior to the recognition or representation of these, but prior to their being sensed. Every organism, in its receptive and perceptual elements, but also in its viscera, is a sum of contractions, of retentions and expectations” (Difference and Repetition).

MOR.

Kristopher L. Cannon's picture

Image and Thing

Hi Elena. Thanks for a wonderful post, which seems to have been followed by equally interesting conversation in the comments.

I was particularly fascinated by the thread of comments about images, as they were placed in conversation with the notion of metabolism and also Shaviro’s recent writing on Things. What I noticed, while people were discussing this topic is the general use of the word "image," and I wonder if you have thought about some of the discussions emerging in visual culture studies where, following the work of people like W.J.T. Mitchell or Mark B.N. Hansen, people have started to differentiate "images" from their material "picture(d)" manifestations (e.g. photographs, celluloid, etc.). I find this distinction useful because it allows us to consider the life of images as they may escape the confines of anthropocentic concerns–escaping with and enabling their own desires.

I also find beneficial, as Shaviro mentions in his essay on Things, to anthropomorphize things as a means to fight against anthropocentrism. It seems that this connects with part of your response to Shane, where you mention how images "think" and function within/as affective processes. Does this move allow us to better understand the thing-ness of images, where images imagine themselves through the affective processes of imag(in)ing, similar to how humans imagine the meaning of pictures through the process of imagining?

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