Affectivity, Art, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 3)

The arguments presented by those archaeological and anthropological theorists discussed in Part 2 are obviously deeply flawed, and these flaws need to be exposed. Between their different ways of thinking we are in danger of being herded into a space evacuated of aesthetic intensity and affective response.

An overarching assumption (or presupposition) dominates this type of thinking – i.e. that when one associates an experience of aesthetic affectivity with a particular non-Western or prehistoric artifact, one is merely uncritically applying (wholly subjectively) a late Western construct linked to individualism, taste, and decoration. Our concern with experiences of aesthetic affectivity solicited by different visual and material cultures is consigned to being a peculiarly post-Rennaisance form of cultural embroidery that is an entirely inappropriate frame for approaching prehistoric, non-Western or hunter-gatherer visual culture and crafted artifacts. Little or no consideration is given, however, to the view that aesthetic affect is an ongoing trans-historical and transcultural cognitive and existential feature of human beings. Each of the thinkers assume consideration of aesthetic experience to be nothing more than a late Western cultural product, and, as such, totally inadmissible when considering Paleolithic images. Any derivation of aesthetic affect generated from one’s experience of works from prehistory is always an unwarranted projection and an unjustified supplement to the work itself. It is just a superfluous and entirely unnecessary feature that should be eradicated from the ethno-archaeological pantheon for good. If one succeeds in evacuating Paleolithic images Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 2)

I was queuing for tickets to visit the cave of Les Combarelles when I overheard a conversation between two American prehistorians attending a conference at the International Centre of Prehistory in nearby Les Eyzies. Both were animatedly conversing about their recent visits to other cave paintings and relief carvings in the local area, and were severely criticizing people who visit the caves and thoughtlessly produce speculative interpretations of the prehistoric images ‘on the spot’, as opposed to giving more careful and sober consideration to published archaeological and anthropological scholarship. One of them was bemoaning the sheer interpretative naivety of many who visit the caves, evident in their desire to quickly impose uninformed and determinately biased ideas upon them (often without any proper grasp of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ milieu or mindset). All that results from such immediate speculations about their status as art, they argued, were biased projections and analogies that were more telling of the cultural prejudices, expectations and sentiments of non-specialist twenty-first century spectators. Their conversation reminded me of a vivid observation made by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that fetishization of recently derived historical categories is a particularly serious flaw in much art history, which ‘never having really broken with the tradition of the amateur, gives free rein to celebratory contemplation and finds in the sacred character of its object every pretext for a hagiographic hermeneutics superbly indifferent to the question of the social conditions in which works are produced and circulate.’ (Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 1)


As I listened to the prehistorians talk I felt a certain degree of sympathy with their views. It is undoubtedly the case that non-specialists visiting the caves do speculate somewhat haphazardly as to the work’s meaning, intention and purpose, sometimes producing very little in the way of insight. However, for all of their interpretative naivety, I was not at all comfortable with the implication that the only true response to the affectivity of prehistoric art be restricted to historical ‘experts’ or archaeological scholars. Their conversation implied fixed truths associated with the imagery in the caves, the meaning of which was only accessible to the detached and dispassionate eyes of informed experts. Yet, I knew that this view had been challenged in recent years by archaeologists such as Ian Hodder. Hodder’s work emphasizes the irreducible subjectivity of archaeological interpretation and advocates a much more pluralistic Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 1)

In the flickering lamplight, deep in a cave at Bedeilhac in Southwestern France, a creature’s eye stares out from the rock, a perfectly placed natural circular hole in the rock. Around it, described by the addition of a few graceful curving lines 14, 000 years ago, is carved the outline of a reindeer. Its head is almost entirely composed of a natural shape on the cave wall, and the engraving continues to use the natural relief of the cave wall for the animal’s back and the undulating shape of its body. It look as if the reindeer is advancing, turning slightly and looking directly at us. It is caught and held in a moment of alert stillness, and seems to be about to run away. This creature expresses an audacious sense of life and possesses an odd ‘in-between’ quality. Its hesitant pause at a point of imminent retreat extenuates its spiritual status as something existing between two different worlds. It stands at a point of organic emergence, coming out of oblivion to meet our look, yet about to flee and disappear back to its hidden realm.

This reindeer is a consummate example of prehistoric art’s ability to summon life from inorganic material. It is one of the earliest examples of prehistoric art’s capacity to draw out animals (perhaps understood as a spirits, ancestors or representations of some higher power) out from base material, to bring them to life and hold them into view – caught in the magical instant of their emergence – an ancient hypostasis. One can only imagine the wonder evoked by those who were originally privileged to witness a glimpse of this subtle yet breathtakingly art. In the moment of wonder and astonishment a delicate affective thread is spun between then and now. I do not think this is an entirely fanciful notion. The affectivity of this instant, this moment, this glimpsing, seems, at its most basic and fundamental foundation, to be similar. Wonder and astonishment. Because of our different way of life from that of the Magdalenian era, their myths, beliefs, knowledge, thought and way of being, the degree of intensity associated with this affectivity will almost certainly have differed from our own. Yet, at its most radical, primary and originary, the affective moment associated with this ancient reindeer persists through time. Its affective moment is intrinsically tied to a display of fusion between the organic and the inorganic, a birth and transfiguration. The evident ancient affective alchemy of the art is still full of transformative potential.


The archaeologist Paul Bahn, in his popular guide to the decorated prehistoric caves of Southwestern France and Northern Spain, insists that the only difference between viewing the original paintings and relief carvings in the few remaining sites still open to the public, and the modern facsimiles at Lascaux and Altamira, is a ‘psychological’ one. Any aesthetic differences between experiencing the originals and reproductions are negligible. For him the knowledge that what you are seeing is actually original is merely psychological and largely irrelevant to the appreciation of the ancient images. But surely this apparently Continue reading

Art, Books, Philosophy

The Affective Moment – A Draft Introduction

‘Art and nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction of life, the great stimulant to life.’ (Nietzsche, ‘The Will to Power’)

A former teacher of mine at university, whose wife of nearly thirty years had been killed in a road accident, once told me of how he had subsequently developed an obsession with Faure’s ‘Requiem’. He told me of his regular compulsion to listen to this particular piece of music as he sat alone late into the night. I remember saying something to the effect that it must be a great comfort to be able to listen to a piece of music that so reminded him of his wife. No, he replied, it wasn’t a reminder of her or any kind of comfort, I have other things for that, other pieces of music, photographs, memories of being together, and our children. Why then do you listen to it at night, I asked. His answer changed how I thought about art and the world, and has stayed with me in the years since our conversation. His grief at his wife’s death was, he said, like an hourglass filled with sand. At first he had been filled with an almost incalculable amount of grief, but over time that grief had, like the grains of sand in an hourglass, simply begun to drain away. As the habitual routine of his everyday life inevitably returned, little by little, any remaining sensation of grief had subsided. As it began to fade he was able to return to living his life, but he also began to feel increasingly numb, empty and less alive. Less alive to the memory of his wife and her loss, and less alive to the fact that he continued to live. Listening to Faure’s ‘Requiem’ had the effect of inverting the hourglass of grief, and helped him to recover an almost overwhelming sensation of intense sorrow and, by virtue of such a sensation, return him to a sense of life. The momentary restoration Continue reading


The Invisible

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

David Foster Wallace

Art, Philosophy, Photography

364 Dead Swiss


Christian Boltanski – 364 Dead Swiss (1990)
Exhibited as part of the ‘Between  Memory and Archive’ Exhibition at the Berardo Museum in Lisbon

I’ve been to see this installation by Christian Boltanski at the Berardo museum twice in the last week, and is only the second piece of his work I’ve actually seen face-to-face. The other occasion was twenty years ago at the old Tate (before the Tate Modern). I don’t remember the title of that work, only that it was composed of several enlarged blurry sepia photographs of children hung on the wall of the gallery, with each having a small angle-poise lamp positioned in front. The cables from these lamps spilled down like a weird collection of tentacles which tangled into one another on the floor. A friend had told me of how powerful this piece had been for him, so I was intrigued to see it for myself. I remember finding the collection of anonymous blurred photographs very melancholic, and it immediately brought to mind a holocaust exhibit or the collection of documentary photographs taken of doomed political prisoners in Cambodia in the 1970s. But there is nothing Continue reading

Books, Film, Philosophy

The Eye and the Razor

Today sees the publication of my first book, Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, which is available through Zero Books.

Here’s a brief extract from it, in fact it is the conclusion. anybody who knows me well knows that I do like to give away endings…

The Eye and the Razor

“I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. What have we done to our images? We need images in accordance with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeol- ogist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. It can sometimes be a struggle to find unprocessed and fresh images.” (Werner Herzog)

In the opening scenes of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 silent surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou a middle-aged man sharpens his razor at his balcony door before testing its sharpness on his thumb. He then opens the door, plays with the razor while gazing up at the moon, which is about to be engulfed by a thin white cloud. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman being held from behind by the man as she stares, calm, straight ahead. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by a cloud; the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor, the vitreous humour spills out.

Cinema, like poetry, is capable of revealing dimensions of meaning that are deeper than the level of truth on the surface of things. Cinema has the capacity to disturb our perceptual Continue reading