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How to Do Things with Affects

Affective Triggers in Aesthetic Forms and Cultural Practices

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Edited by Ernst van Alphen and Tomáš Jirsa

How to Do Things with Affects develops affect as a highly productive concept for both cultural analysis and the reading of aesthetic forms. Shifting the focus from individual experiences and the human interiority of personal emotions and feelings toward the agency of cultural objects, social arrangements, and aesthetic matter, the book examines how affects operate and are triggered by aesthetic forms, media events, and cultural practices. Transgressing disciplinary boundaries and emphasizing close reading, the collected essays explore manifold affective transmissions and resonances enacted by modernist literary works, contemporary visual arts, horror and documentary films, museum displays, and animated pornography, with a special focus on how they impact on political events, media strategies, and social situations.

Contributors: Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal, Maria Boletsi, Eugenie Brinkema, Pietro Conte, Anne Fleig, Bernd Herzogenrath, Tomáš Jirsa, Matthias Lüthjohann, Susanna Paasonen, Christina Riley, Jan Slaby, Eliza Steinbock, Christiane Voss.

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Pietro Conte

Abstract

A clean-cut separation between the reality of the life-world and the (alleged) “unreality” of the image-world has been traditionally considered as the sine qua non of aesthetic enjoyment. Accordingly, framing devices have been identified as crucial tools capable of ensuring the island-like structure essential to pictures. This structure goes hand in hand with the beholder’s awareness of being in front of “nothing but pictures.” A particular subset of images, hyper-realistic pictures tend on the contrary to conceal their iconic nature: their affective power lies precisely in the ability to blur the threshold between image and reality. Yet both the aesthetic value and the affective power of ordinary hyper-realistic puppets are usually considered minimal, if not non-existent. This essay offers an explanation of how it is that deceivingly life-like pictures, which at first one would be tempted to define as ultra-affective, come instead to be judged as almost non-affective. After focusing on the most common strategies of anaesthetizing hyper-realism, I will show how these very same strategies can be reverted so as to achieve the exactly opposite effect, i.e., to give back to hyper-realistic likenesses their unparalleled affective charge precisely through a process of un-framing.

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Christiane Voss

Abstract

This essay deals with the poetic mediality of the affective, arguing for the case of a new hybrid unit composed of human and media form called ‘anthropomediality.’ Using the example of the phenomenon of the habitat diorama—a visual mode of presentation that emerged in the late nineteenth century—this type of affective mediality is explored as a specific aesthetic function of immersive dispositives. First introduced by natural history museums, the habitat diorama comprised a collection of taxidermied animals, faux terrains and naturalistic landscape paintings. In showing scenes of unspoiled idyllic nature, the form was intended to move the observer and promote ecological awareness, while functioning as a fictional reenactment of nature as constructed by the theories of evolution. Through its perspectival arrangements, atmospheric effects and unique performative gestures of address, the habitat diorama places the viewer affectively and imaginatively in a foreign world. The result is an immersive aesthetics of modal relocalizations realized through a medium of synaesthetic affection.

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Tomáš Jirsa

Abstract

What happens when a human face begins to lose its familiar form, falls apart, becomes an uncanny, formless object? And how can language mediate such a brutal experience? Shifting from an affective ontology of the face towards the affective operations of the faceless, this essay examines, through both historical and aesthetic experiences, several encounters between subjects and disfigured faces that took place during the second decade of the twentieth century. Drawing on the war experiences of the gueules cassées—the term given to the survivors of World War i who suffered extensive facial injuries—and several modernist texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Gaston Leroux and Richard Weiner, I argue that far from merely provoking horror, shock, disgust or fascination, the faceless image operates both in literature and the visual arts as a figure, embracing on the one hand the aesthetics of the ‘formless’ and on the other the traumatizing experience of war. Placing the relational and formalist approaches to affect in dialogue with each other, the formless is explored as an affective operation based on the generative deformation of forms, triggering latent experiences in all those who encounter it.

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Eliza Steinbock

Abstract

Filmmaker and photographer J. Jackie Baier stated in an interview that she “follows the protagonist, always.” Her portraiture projects begin with establishing a collaborative relationship through and in the camera. The result is often the black and white grainy aesthetic of night photography, which captures someone barely emerging in the mist of the night, on the prowl. In my following of Jackie into the photographic dissolve, I contend that affect’s analysis—there, at the point of indication—involves at least one subject that participates in the affective exchange, and also I argue that affect is a virtual force with the potential to be activated. The exchange of affect in portraiture as I analyze it here is 1) between Jackie the portraitist and her muses, 2) between those muses’s bodies forming in her portrayals and the viewer, but also 3) between the researcher and the protagonists of my research portraits. I propose that Jackie Baier’s dedicated aesthetic of following her trans feminine muses—in the documentary film JULIA, and photographs of REAL COOL TIME, and the Royal Project—activate the affective operations of interest and love to capture individuation on the brink of dissolve.

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Mieke Bal

Abstract

This essay prioritizes art’s solicitation of viewers’ engagement through affect. It focuses on the interactivity between artworks and their viewers. Instead of taking what is there to be seen, affective analysis will establish a relationship between that spectacle and what it does to the people looking at it and being affected by it. Detailed affect-oriented analysis of artworks seems more difficult to achieve than a form-based analysis of the artwork-only. Yet, such analysis is needed to account for the cultural processes in which art functions. ‘Affect’ helps us articulate the effects hitherto called political or ethical, aesthetic or sexual, under a unifying rubric that does not depend on the figurative quality of a given artwork, but seeks out the performative elements and aspects in the artworks that ‘trigger’ the occurrence of affective intensity. Calling on philosophical ideas developed by Bergson (memory) and Deleuze (affect), I analyze how the most recent work by Doris Salcedo (Palimpsesto, 2017) deploys slow time, humble materials, and forms together to entice affect for political awareness. Then, I briefly consider the video installation The House (Eija-Liisa Ahtila, 2002) to analyze the participation of mood for an awareness of care (Heidegger) to oppose indifference.

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Edited by Ernst van Alphen and Tomáš Jirsa

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Christina Riley

Abstract

After the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, an anonymous young woman dubbed ‘The Girl in the Blue Bra,’ became a viral sensation when civilian footage was released of her being severely beaten by Egyptian militia. Her image derived from a video-still shows a woman with an abaya pulled up over her head and a pair of blue jeans and bra on. This critical investigation considers the image of violence by utilizing feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s theories of affective economies and “the stranger,” to examine the affective dynamics that inform The Girl in the Blue Bra’s virality. Incorporation of digital affect-centric work from Zizi Papacharissi among other new media scholars broadens the critical scope exploring how these affective economies unfold online. How does the affective interchange between bodies and objects online effect the nature of viewer response—its ignition, motivations, events, and tone? This essay explores the intersecting factors that construct this commanding, affective digital image, not only to increase visual and media literacy but to enhance praxis-oriented discussions for social movement workers and theorists alike.

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Bernd Herzogenrath

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Whilst the Affective Turn, as Eugenie Brinkema has suggested, suffers from a repetition-without-difference-complex, this essay wants to speculate on the possibility of an affective writing, in the context of academia. Academic writing still sticks to (the illusion of) objectivity and critique. According to Brian Massumi, if you go from the assumption that activities such as thinking and writing are inventive and not about this world, but part of this world, then critique is an approach marked by a disavowing of this (its very own) inventiveness, whereas affect comes close to an inventive force that acknowledges a radical situatedness. So, what would a non-objective (rather than subjective) and affirmative academic writing look like? By referring both to Deleuze’s idea of affect and perspectives from the field of artistic research, with their stress of both different kinds of knowledge, and the importance of the personal signature in research, this essay explores the possibility of an affective academic writing, in which it is not a question of right and|or wrong, but of fostering, of transmitting affects that increase the power of acting.

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Anne Fleig and Matthias Lüthjohann

Abstract

Affect is of central importance in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: A prominent element of the novel’s many discourses and reflections, it is at the same time at the heart of the text’s essayistic movement. However, studies of the text have long neglected this trajectory. This appears to be somewhat symptomatic for the relationship of literature and the study of affect; set out as a fruitful critique of the predominance of theories of signification and representation, some influential strands in the “turn to affect” have also presented themselves as a turn away from the study of literary texts. In this chapter, we argue for an integrative approach towards language and affect via an interpretation of the essayistic quality of Musil’s text. Drawing on theories of performativity and social practices, we understand the text’s affective dynamics to be closely related to the practices of the modern life-world, especially those of modern sports. We develop the thesis that by way of integrating affect and language the on-going practice of Musil’s essayism performs a critical inquiry into modernity’s polyphonic and agonistic complexity.