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Massumi, 1-2

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Diane Davis

on 29 March 2011

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Transcript of Massumi, 1-2

A short film airs on German TV to fill the gap between two programs; in the film, a man builds a snowman, watches as it starts to melt, takes it up into the cool mountains where it stops melting, bids it goodbye, and drives off. No words or music—just images. Parents complain to the network that the film frightened their kids. To find out why, researchers wired 9 year olds, monitoring their physiological responses while showing them one of three versions of this film: Researchers then tested the kids for recall and asked them to rate what they saw both on a scale of “pleasantness” and on a scale of “happy-sad.” What they found: The original wordless version was rated both the most “sad” and the most “pleasant.” Physiologically, this version elicited the greatest skin response from the kids. Skin response = pleasure. And apparently neither fear nor sadness cancel out pleasure. The factual version was rated the most "happy" but the least “pleasant”; it was also the least remembered. Factuality made the kids’ hearts beat faster and deepened their breathing, but it also made their skin resistance fall. The brain raced to effectively process information, but the skin was bored, —and the kids quickly forgot the info they had processed.No skin response = no pleasure and no sustained effect. The emotional version was ranked almost as “pleasant” (that is, “sad”) as the wordless version; it was also the most remembered. What researchers learned from this experiment is “the primacy of the affective in image reception.” Image reception takes place on at least two levels: the level of qualification (meaning) and the level of (affective) intensity, which describes “the strength and duration of the image’s effect.” Qualification and intensity have no necessary correlation. At the level of qualification, the "heart-brain" positions itself within narrative and cognitive continuity, following the possibilities that unfold in that linear movement. It operates via the *expectation* associated with this narrative/cognitive unpacking If this (x), then I can expect this… Intensity, however, disrupts and jumps outside narrative and cognitive continuity. It operates not via expectation but via suspense. Its pleasure, Massumi surmises, involves a jump cut, a jolt, a shock that re-opens onto potentiality. Intensity is an interruption in meaning-making, and the pleasure of its jolt is the possibility of potentiality. Reminder: Potential is unscripted and unpredictable. It only feeds forward. Possibility is derived from potentiality but is stuck on a preexisting grid of meaning--possiblity refers only to what can happen on that grid. Potentiality is the condition for emergence; it is experienced as futurity, an opening toward something new. Massumi insists that language operates on these same two levels: qualification and intensity. Not one or the other but both at once. There are “two dimensions of every expression, one superlinear, the other linear” (26). One expectation, the other suspense. One about what it means, the other about what it does (to you). We have focused almost exclusively on the semantic or semiotic level, either completely ignoring the dimension of intensity or else turning intensity into a function of meaning, situating affect as a product of reasoning: “I feel sad *because* the snowman is melting.” Okay, Massumi would respond, but what about the pleasure that you're also experiencing? Massumi is trying to sketch out a theory of affect, a vocabulary for studying intensity. the original, wordless version a “factual version,” which added a voice-over offering a step-by-step account of the action as it happened and an “emotional version,” which was similar to the factual version but also included, “at crucial turning points, words expressing the emotional tenor of the scene underway” First story: Second story: President Reagan was considered the Great Communicator. But Massumi relates a story from Oliver Sacks that complicates that description. Sacks observed two groups of patients —watch Reagan give a speech on TV: one with global aphasia, the other with tonal agnosia. Global aphasics are incapable of understanding words as such; they follow meaning by catching body language. Tonal agnosiacs can’t catch tone or extraverbal cues; they follow meaning strictly through grammatical form and semantic content. Both groups found Reagan incomprehensible. Reagan's body language was too jerky for the aphasics to follow, and the agnosiacs complained that he couldn’t “put together a grammatical sentence or follow a logical line to its conclusion” (40). So what gave people the impression that Reagan was a great communicator? According to Massumi, nothing at the level of meaning-making. “His means were affective.” Not emotional but affective. We are not in the realm of empathy or emotional identification here. We are in the realm of intensity and potentiality. Reagan’s speech was powerful not in spite of but *because* it was jerky, *because* it performed continuous interruptions in the narrative/cognitive line. “Each jerk suspends the continuity of movement, for just a flash, too quick really to perceive, but decisively enough to suggest a veer” (40). “Each jerk is a critical point, a singular point, a bifurcation point” (40). Reagan communicated via interruption of expectation, but each interruption opened an incipient potentiality, the potential for something new, a selection or decision, and listeners could take up whatever selection worked for them. “That is why Reagan could be so many things to so many people” (41). What they are rediscovering here is the ancient theory of pathos, but freed from the constraints of logos. To examine the intensity, one asks not so much what the little film means--it means the same in all the versions--but what it *does* (to you). Each version does something different (to you) at the level of the skin, which is the level of affect. It wasn't what he was saying; it was what his saying was doing (to us). Affect describes an ability to affect and be affected. An emotion is a *recognized* affect, an identified intensity that has been resituated on the grid of subject-object relations (61). Emotion is an affect that has been mediated: Massumi’s entire analysis depends, as we noted last time, on the priority of movement over position: movement first. It’s not that you are first situated on the grid that maps your intersubjective position (sex, gender, orientation, socioeconomic class, age, ethnicity, body type, etc.) and *then* that you can move through the possible points on the grid (you can age from 1 to 2 to 3, etc.). “Positionality” begins by subtracting movement from the picture, making it secondary. Freeze-frame. Motion becomes a function of a prior positioning. Again, Massumi wants to start with what is "real but abstract": real but not self present or stable, real but in passing, in motion, not simply pin-pointable--dynamic and alive. Every cell, every second. Body is constantly passing, guided by at least three modes of sensation: exteroception, interoception, and proprioception. Exteroception: registers information from the five exteroceptive senses about the outside world and body’s relation to it Interoception (viscerality): perceives pain and movement of internal organs Proprioception: provides feedback about whether the body is moving with the required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other But Massumi challenges the distinction and the order it implies, noting that viscerality (interoception) “registers excitations gathered by the exteroceptive senses even *before* they are fully processed by the brain” (60). “Walking down a dark street at night in a dangerous part of town, your lungs throw a spasm *before* you consciously see and can recognize as human the shadow thrown across your path. As you cross a busy noonday street, your stomach turns somersaults *before* you consciously hear and identify the sound of screeching brakes that careens toward you” (60). Indeed, “the immediacy of visceral perception is so radical that it can be said without exaggeration to precede the exteroceptive sense perception.” Viscerality registers intensity. It is the “perception of suspense” (60), registering interruptions in expectation. It registers *intensity,* not quality, which comes later. Viscerality “anticipates the translation of the sight or sound or touch perception into something recognizable and associated with an identifiable object. Call that ‘something recognizable’ a quality (or property)” (61). Here thought becomes the function of an affective ecology. It’s not just that emotion is the condition of possibility for practical reason (as Aristotle, Walker, Nussbaum, Damasio, and Brennan have all suggested). It is also that the affective body, which operates *prior* to cognition and exceeds/escapes cognition, is the condition for both emotion and reason. Affect is prior to emotional, ideological, or cognitive indexing. So to critically analyze the persuasiveness of any given utterance, one would have to learn to examine not only its dimension of meaning/quality but also its dimension of intensity. One would have to go beyond the standard investigation of “pathemata,” including the use of enargeia and emotionally charged language. One would surely have to ask what the utterance is *saying* and how its meaning effects or corresponds to gridded ideological positinalities. But one would also have to ask what the utterance is *doing* (to us), what sort of encounter it provokes at the level of the skin. The task for pathetic analysis is to learn to register not only productions of meanings but suspensions of meaning, intensities, affective engagements that do not necessarily jibe with cognitive engagements. "Oh, that's anger I'm feeling..."
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