Let’s talk about “affect” – part two

Maurizio Cattelan, HIM, 2001 installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Copyright: Maurizio Cattelan.

Last week, I introduced, from the essay by  Michelle Henning, Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media in Exhibition Experiments, the concepts of remediation and affect. She quotes Brian Massumi‘s book Parables for the Virtual, which “describes affect as distinct from emotion and expression and in terms of intensity of sensations.” So, in the case of the introduction of spotlighting at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s, “it seems that the exhibition lighting increased the intensity of the viewing experience, without necessarily determining the exact emotional content or meaning of the charts and models.”

Now, this seems a little suspect to me. Here, she appears to be suggesting that “affective” lighting works as an amplifier of emotion response, having set it up, in her earlier discussion of theatre lighting, as a trigger of emotional expression. Admittedly she does also say that “other writers on affect see less distinction between affect and emotion.” But, continuing her theme of affect being more about intensity of emotion that the emotion itself, she goes on to talk about affective multimedia, describing the thrilling rides and technologies of the mid-twentieth century worlds fairs, and experiments in interaction at art exhibitions of the 1930s (apparently the use of peepholes at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery was mocked by critics as “a kind of artistic Coney Island”).

Another essay in the same book, Exhibition as Film by Mieke Bal also describes affect as an amplifier of emotion. She compares the 2001 artwork Him (pictured above) by Maurizio Cattelan as a cinematic close-up:

A close up immediately cancels the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of our linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.

In her definition of affect, Mieke Bal at least admits that she is understanding affect “without resorting to psychology”. She describes affective media (mostly images) as those which give us pause: “between a perception that troubles us and an action we hesitate about, affect emerges.”

All of which makes me think of the more prosaic “wow” moments or “anchor experiences” mentioned in my two recent posts on Interpretive Planning. So is that all affect is? A fancy “academic” word for “wow”? Maybe, in cultural theory it is. But, unlike Bal, I want to resort to psychology to see if I can understand it a little better.

I’m on holiday next week, but I’ve found a great book to take with me for a bit of light reading. It’s called The Archaeology of Mind, by Panksepp and Biven. It is, I hasten to add nothing to do with archaeology, but as I study in an archaeology department, I just had to give it a go. Lets see what they think “affect” is, or even if they mention it at all…

 

 

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