On Affect

Note: This post contains spoilers for the film Inglorious Basterds

Asger Jorn 1961 'The Suicide of Mr. H', Institute of Arts, Detroit ...
Asger Jorn ‘The Suicide of Mr. H’ – at the Detroit Institute of Art

Since reading Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy” earlier this year, my engagement with art has been profoundly impacted Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the subject in that book. D/G think about art in a way that is different from most engagements with the subject that I have seen. For many, a piece of art is imbued with meaning from a variety of factors such as the artist, the cultural environment, the contemporary zeitgeist, or what have you. For Deleuze and Guattari, art does not contain meaning, rather art serves as a means of preservation. For Deleuze and Guattari, art preserves “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects” (WTP 164). The key to art, for Deleuze and Guattari, is its ability to produce sensations in bodies. They key element of this production are the affective capabilities of a piece of art.

The concept of “affect” is one that Deleuze and Guattari borrow from Spinoza. Spinoza defines affect as “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these affections” (The Ethics, 11/139). According to Spinoza, “the human body can be affected in many ways in which its power of acting is increased or diminished, and also in others which render its power of acting neither greater nor less” (11/140). This means that various affects, such as love, hate, anger, hunger, etc., impact our bodies in certain ways that shape the desire or will of the body. The body then responds to these affects. Spinoza gives a number of examples:

“the infant believes he freely wants the milk; the angry child that he wants vengeance; and the timid, flight. So the drunk believes it is from a free decision of the mind that he speaks the things he later, when sober, wishes he had not said. So the madman, the chatterbox, the child, and a great many people of this kind believe they speak from a free decision of the mind, when really they cannot contain their impulse to speak” (11/143).

In each of these examples the actor believes that they are acting freely, but really they are acting as a result of affects which are acting upon their bodies. The infant is affected by hunger, the drunk is affected by alcohol, etc. People are conscious of their actions, so they believe themselves free, but there are other actions which are acting upon their bodies in ways that shape their desire, and ultimately their action.

Deleuze and Guattari expand on the idea of the affect. Affects are central to their notion of becomings. Becomings take place as the affects affecting bodies. They describe affect in their “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal…” Plateau “For the affect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel” (ATP 240). This might not be the most clear description, but the affect is an action or power upon a body. The power of the pack (a multiplicity) which throws itself into a body to cause some action to take place. Affects take place between bodies. One body affects another in shifting its desire or will. The result of the affect is a becoming: “Affects are precisely these non-human becomings of man. just as precepts – including the town – are nonhuman landscapes of nature. Not a ‘minute of the world passes’ says Cézanne that we will preserve if we do not ‘become that minute’” (WiP 169). What this means, roughly, is that a body is infected by another body at a minor level, which shifts the being. This intermingling of bodies is the affect affecting the body, creating a new sensation.


Before we continue, it is important to realize that these sensations are not conscious. Affect, here, is different from the use of affect as an emotional state. If we look a moment at Anti-Oedipus, a text that doesn’t actually touch on affects directly, we can see an example of how the affect works at a level below the intellect. A central question for AO is Reich’s question of “Why did the masses desire fascism?” (AO 345). D/G deny Reich’s answer, which relied on the ideological, subjective, irrational and negative criteria. The cause of this desire took place at a lower level: “There is an unconscious libidinal investment of desire that does not necessarily coincide with the preconscious investment of interest and that explains how the latter can be perturbed and perverted in ‘the most somber organization,’ below ideology” (AO 345). The shift in desire takes place at a pre-ideological level – on the level of affect. It is the rhythms of the Fascists, the rhetoric and the speeches which acted directly upon the bodies of the masses. These rhythms affected the bodies in such a way that their desire was predisposed towards fascism.

At face value this concept – that it was the sounds and rhythms acting upon the bodies of the people which shaped their will to desire fascism – seems absurd. However, if we look at an example in film it might begin to make a bit more sense. In the film Inglorious Basterds by Quinten Tarantino, there is a scene that takes place right after the Basterds (a group of American Jewish militants sent to Europe with the task of “Killin’ Nazi’s”) have defeated a group of Nazi soldiers. Three Nazi’s remain from the conflict, and the Basterds have taken them prisoner. Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, interrogates the commanding officer of the Nazi. The commander refuses to answer Raine’s questions, so Raine threatens him with the “Bear Jew” – a member of the Basterds who “Bashes [Nazi] brains in with a baseball bat.” After the commander continues to refuse, the music begins to swell up, and the “Bear Jew” – Sgt. Donny Donowitz, played by Eli Roth – comes into the scene and, at climax of the music, begins to beat the Nazi commander with a baseball bat. As he strikes the Nazi officer with the bat, the music stops, and Donowitz beats the Nazi soldier to death to the cheers of his comrades.

The horrifying aspect of this scene is that, as it is taking place, you begin to cheer for the man who is about to beat another human being to death with a baseball bat. The music wells up inside of you, affecting you in such a way that you want it to happen, you desire this horrifying event to occur. There are multiple things acting upon you in that moment: The music, the events of the film leading up to this occurrence, the smugness of the Nazi officer, one’s prior knowledge of the horrors committed by the Nazi’s upon the Jewish people, etc. All of these things culminate in our desire to watch a man beaten to death with a baseball bat. Finally, it happens; the music stops; the viewer comes back to reality. We watch a man beaten to death on the screen, to the cheers of others. We hear ourselves cheering and are disgusted that we could cheer for a man to be beaten by a bat. Those things – the music, the events leading up to the killing – are things that have affected us. These affects have shaped our desire. They are affective powers which intermingle with our bodies and render us to act in a certain way. Tarantino’s films are particularly proficient at doing this – moving the audience to desire things that are contrary to the ways that they usually feel.

Returning to art, Deleuze and Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus that “art, as soon as it attains its own grandeur, its own genius, creates chains of decoding and deterritorailization that serve as the foundation for desiring machines, and make them function.” (p. 368). Art opens up new lines of flight and escape; it is able to tear down – deterritorialize – the structures or territories that are built upon a body. Art, then, is able to create sensations that work upon the body, affecting it in various ways, in order to shape desire. This is brought forward even more in Deleuze and Guattari’s final text where, as mentioned near the beginning, they posit that the purpose of art is to preserve and create sensations. For D/G “Abstract art and conceptual art are two recent attempts to bring art and philosophy together, but they do not substitute the concept for the sensation; rather they create sensations and not concepts” (WiP 198). Through these sensations art is able to build monuments, but these monuments are different than we might initially thing. According to these authors “A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle” (WiP 176-177). The purpose of art, then, is to create sensations and build monuments which perpetuate a struggle. Art’s purpose is to affect bodies in ways that shape desire. Art affects bodies – and effective art is art that more strongly affects our bodies.

Advertisements

One thought on “On Affect

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s