Post Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro

Jan 2nd, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

boardinggateIn this book, I look at four recent media productions – three films and a music video – that reflect, in particularly radical and cogent ways, upon the world we live in today. Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (starring Asia Argento) and Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (with Justin Timberlake, Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, and Sarah Michelle Gellar) were both released in 2007. Nick Hooker’s music video for Grace Jones’ song “Corporate Cannibal” was released (as was the song itself) in 2008. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s film Gamer was released in 2009. These works are quite different from one another, in form as well as content. “Corporate Cannibal” is a digital production that has little in common with traditional film.Boarding Gate, on the other hand, is not a digital work; it is thoroughly cinematic, in terms both of technology, and of narrative development and character presentation. Southland Tales lies somewhat in between the other two. It is grounded in the formal techniques of television, video, and digital media, rather than those of film; but its grand ambitions are very much those of a big-screen movie. Gamer, for its part, is a digital film made in emulation of computer games. Nonetheless, despite their evident differences, all four of these works express, and exemplify, the “structure of feeling” that I would like to call (for want of a better phrase) post-cinematic affect.

Why “post-cinematic”? Film gave way to television as a “cultural dominant” a long time ago, in the mid-twentieth century; and television in turn has given way in recent years to computer-and network-based, and digitally generated, “new media.” Film itself has not disappeared, of course; but film-making has been transformed, over the past two decades, from an analog process to a heavily digitized one. It is not my aim here to offer any sort of precise periodization, nor to rehash the arguments about post-modernity and new media forms that have been going on for more than a quarter-century. Regardless of the details, I think it is safe to say that these changes have been massive enough, and have gone on for long enough, that we are now witnessing the emergence of a different media regime, and indeed of a different mode of production, than those which dominated the twentieth century. Digital technologies, together with neoliberal economic relations, have given birth to radically new ways of manufacturing and articulating lived experience. I would like to use the four works I have mentioned in order to get a better sense of these changes: to look at developments that are so new and unfamiliar that we scarcely have the vocabulary to describe them, and yet that have become so common, and so ubiquitous, that we tend not even to notice them any longer. My larger aim is to develop an account of what it feels like to live in the early twenty-first century.

I am therefore concerned, in what follows, with effects more than causes, and with evocations rather than explanations. That is to say, gracejI am not looking at Foucauldian genealogies so much as at something like what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling” (though I am not using this term quite in the manner that Williams intended). I am interested in the ways that recent film and video works are expressive: that is to say, in the ways that they give voice (or better, give sounds and images) to a kind of ambient, free-floating sensibility that permeates our society today, although it cannot be attributed to any subject in particular. By the term expressive, I mean both symptomatic and productive. These works are symptomatic, in that they provide indices of complex social processes, which they transduce, condense, and rearticulate in the form of what can be called, after Deleuze and Guattari, “blocs of affect.” But they are also productive, in the sense that they do not represent social processes, so much as they participate actively in these processes, and help to constitute them. Films and music videos, like other media works, are machines for generating affect, and for capitalizing upon, or extracting value from, this affect. As such, they are not ideological superstructures, as an older sort of Marxist criticism would have it. Rather, they lie at the very heart of social production, circulation, and distribution. They generate subjectivity, and they play a crucial role in the valorization of capital. Just as the old Hollywood continuity editing system was an integral part of the Fordist mode of production, so the editing methods and formal devices of digital video and film belong directly to the computing-and-information-technology infrastructure of contemporary neoliberal finance. There’s a kind of fractal patterning in the way that social technologies, or processes of production and accumulation, repeat or “iterate” themselves on different scales, and at different levels of abstraction.

What does it mean to describe such processes in terms of affect? Here I follow Brian Massumi (2002, 23-45) in differentiating between affect and emotion. For Massumi, affect is primary, non-conscious, asubjective or presubjective, asignifying, unqualified, and intensive; while emotion is derivative, conscious, qualified, and meaningful, a “content” that can be attributed to an already-constituted subject. Emotion is affect captured by a subject, or tamed and reduced to the extent that it becomes commensurate with that subject. Subjects are overwhelmed and traversed by affect, but they have or possess their own emotions. Today, in the regime of neoliberal capitalism, we see ourselves as subjects precisely to the extent that we are autonomous economic units. As Foucault puts it, neoliberalism defines a new mutation of “Homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings” (2008, 226). For such a subject, emotions are resources to invest, in the hope of gaining as large a return as possible. What we know today as “affective labor” is not really affective at all, as it involves rather the sale of labor-power in the form of pre-defined and pre-packaged emotions.

However, emotion as such is never closed or complete. It also still testifies to the affect out of which it is formed, and that it has captured, reduced, and repressed. Behind every emotion, there is always a certain surplus of affect that “escapes confinement” and “remains unactualized, inseparable from but unassimilable to any particular, functionally anchored perspective” (Massumi 2002, 35). Privatized emotion can never entirely separate itself from the affect from which it is derived. Emotion is representable and representative; but it also points beyond itself to an affect that works transpersonally and transversally, that is at once singular and common (Hardt and Negri 2004, 128-129), and that is irreducible to any sort of representation. Our existence is always bound up with affective and aesthetic flows that elude cognitive definition or capture.

southlandOn the basis of his distinction between affect and emotion, Massumi rejects Fredric Jameson’s famous claim about the “waning of affect” in post-modern culture (Jameson 1991, 10-12). For Massumi, it is precisely subjective emotion that has waned, but not affect. “If anything, our condition is characterized by a surfeit of [affect]… If some have the impression that affect has waned, it is because it is unqualified. As such, it is not ownable or recognizable and is thus resistant to critique” (Massumi 2002, [27-28). “The disappearance of the individual subject” with which Jameson is concerned (1991, 16) leads precisely to a magnification of affect, whose flows swamp us, and continually carry us away from ourselves, beyond ourselves. For Massumi, it is precisely by means of such affective flows that the subject is opened to, and thereby constituted through, broader social, political, and economic processes.

Indeed, and despite their explicit disagreement, there is actually a close affinity between Massumi’s discussion of transpersonal affect which always escapes subjective representation, and Jameson’s account of how “the world space of multinational capital” is “unrepresentable,” or irreducible to “existential experience” (Jameson 1991, 53-54). Intensive affective flows and intensive financial flows alike invest and constitute subjectivity, while at the same time eluding any sort of subjective grasp. This is not a loose analogy, but rather a case of parallelism, in Spinoza’s sense of the term. Affect and labor are two attributes of the same Spinozian substance; they are both powers or potentials of the human body, expressions of its “vitality,” “sense of aliveness,” and “changeability” (Massumi 2002, 36). But just as affect is captured, reduced, and “qualified” in the form of emotion, so labor (or unqualified human energy and creativity) is captured, reduced, commodified, and put to work in the form of “labor power.” In both cases, something intensive and intrinsically unmeasurable – what Deleuze calls difference in itself (Deleuze 1994, 28-69) – is given identity and measure. The distinction between affect and emotion, like the distinction between labor and labor power, is really a radical incommensurability: an gamerexcess or a surplus. Affect and creative labor alike are rooted in what Gayatri Spivak describes as “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate – super-adequate – to itself” (Spivak 1985, 73).

This super-adequacy is the reason why neither the metamorphoses of capital nor the metamorphoses of affect can be grasped intuitively, or represented. But Jameson is quick to point out that, although the “global world system” is “unrepresentable,” this does not mean that it is “unknowable” (Jameson 1991, 53). And he calls for “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (54) that would precisely seek to “know” this system in a non-representational and non-phenomenological way. This proposal, again, is closer than has generally been recognized to the cartographic project that Massumi inherits from Deleuze and Guattari, and that I would like to call, for my own purposes, an aesthetic of affective mapping.6 For Jameson and Deleuze and Guattari alike, maps are not static representations, but tools for negotiating, and intervening in, social space. A map does not just replicate the shape of a territory; rather, it actively inflects and works over that territory. Films and music videos, like the ones I discuss here, are best regarded as affective maps, which do not just passively trace or represent, but actively construct and perform, the social relations, flows, and feelings that they are ostensibly “about.”


Zero_Books_master_coverPost Cinematic AffectSteven Shaviro

This book ponders the fate of the movies in a world of digital media, globalization, and massive financial flows.

ISBN: 978-1-84694-431-4, $19.95 / £10.99, paperback, 200pp

EISBN: 978-1-84694-687-5, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
Post-Cinematic Affect is about what it feels like to live in the affluent West in the early 21st century. Specifically, it explores the structure of feeling that is emerging today in tandem with new digital technologies, together with economic globalization and the financialization of more and more human activities. The 20th century was the age of film and television; these dominant media shaped and reflected our cultural sensibilities. In the 21st century, new digital media help to shape and reflect new forms of sensibility. Movies (moving image and sound works) continue to be made, but they have adopted new formal strategies, they are viewed under massively changed conditions, and they address their spectators in different ways than was the case in the 20th century. The book traces these changes, focusing on four recent moving-image works: Nick Hooker's music video for Grace Jones' song Corporate Cannibal; Olivier Assayas' movie Boarding Gate, starring Asia Argento; Richard Kelly's movie Southland Tales, featuring Justin Timberlake, Dwayne Johnson, and other pop culture celebrities; and Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's Gamer.

Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University,US. He is the author of Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (1990), The Cinematic Body (1993),Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism (1997), Connected, Or, What It Means To Live in the Network Society (2003), and Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (2009), together with numerous articles on film and video, cultural theory, American popular culture, and science fiction. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory:


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