‘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 of his anguish brought about by listening to Faure was his only comfort, no matter how deeply discomforting that sensation actually was. It was important to him. But why was the intensification of this grief, brought about by listening to Faure’s music, so important to him? He was obviously not trying to repeat the agonizing grief which had wracked his mind and body in the days and weeks following his wife’s sudden death, the grief that had, in every likelihood, transported him to terrible moments of lonely despair. Rather, he was attempting to revisit a feeling of grief that still held him in touch with his wife as an act of love, that still expressed something of that which cannot be taken away by death.That was its importance for him.
Faure’s ‘Requiem’, a piece of music suffused by an acute sense of the quiet contemplation and peaceful acceptance of death, seems to express something deeply concentrated, measured and reflective about grief. Faure himself described his setting, in D Minor, of the Catholic Mass for the dead as a ‘lullaby for death’, and refused to acknowledge it as being specifically inspired by his own grief at the death of his own parents. He preferred to think of the work as artistically expressing a deeply personal sense of faith in death as a gentle and peaceful transition from the mortality of earthly life into a spiritual life of eternity. Whether you share such reassuring religious faith, or have, like my former teacher, experienced the death of somebody close to you, the sustained simple beauty of Faure’s ‘Requiem’, in its ‘Sanctus’, ‘Pie Jesus’ or ‘In Paradisum’, has the power to bring you into contact with the feelings of grief, sorrow, remembrance and acceptance. Each and every time this music is played its affective power is overwhelming, transporting us back to the sensory realm of exquisite melancholy. That is its importance for us as art.
We are sensuously entangled beings. We are inextricably entangled within a sensuous continuum, and inhabit rhythms of life that resonate with our own corporeal existence. I am bound within a body that is affectively engaged with its surroundings, its environment, and with others. I am held suspended within the sensuous element of air that sustains my physical body. Invisible and omnipresent. Sometimes, at the edge of the sea or at the peak of a hill, air becomes a moving wind that I can feel on my skin, on my face, that shifts my body and causes me to sway. At such moments I can feel this invisible element, its affective presence has risen to a threshold of conscious awareness. How many other elements support my fundamental existence – food, water, heat, light – and how often do they rise to that threshold of awareness. Despite their ubiquity and, some might say, their invisibility, I display the capacity to be affected by them within my body. These fundamental affects sustain my life, hold it within a delicate ecology whereby the slightest changes can have profound consequences. The effect of being starved of air becomes urgent within a matter of seconds, warmth and water in a matter of hours, food a matter of days and a lack of light might not begin to consciously effect us for a matter of weeks or perhaps even months. Whatever the basic element and whatever the time period involved, our corporeal being is dramatically caught up in a network of basic affects. The withdrawal of basic elements of subsistence undoubtedly diminishes us to a point of absolute zero, death. The subtraction of basic sustenance of any of these forms will be felt in and by our body, it will be physically experienced as lack and need.
For many in the world the distinct lack of such basic sustenance is an urgent corporeal need – the lack of water, food and shelter for so many produces an appalling painful awareness of the body’s sources of sustenance. At the same time, for many in the developed late-capitalist West the affective awareness of such fundamentally sustaining elements comes through a certain visceral excess, certainly in relation to food. Growing levels of obesity and related health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease serve as urgent affective reminders of our own dysfunctional entanglements with the sustaining element of food. Yet other elements, such as water, exist in a state of radical affective invisibility. Most of the time we perceive water as ubiquitous, the result of its perceived unlimited plenitude. The levels of affective invisibility that surround the element of water are incomprehensible to many of those in less developed parts of the globe, whereas for most of those in the developed world the fundamental affectivity associated with water has almost totally receded to a point of scandalous insensibility.
According to the Seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, affects are the capacity to affect and be affected that all entities, whether living or not, possess. Affects are the immediate modes of sensual responsiveness to the world, and form a body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. For us they are an irreducible aspect of our corporeal, embodied and situated experience, of our lives as sensually lived in the world, and play a vital role in determining the relationships between our bodies, our environment and others. In addition to being viscerally entangled with the most basic affective elements of sustenance, our bodies are also intertwined with an array of other elements, entities, rhythms and qualities. If our most grounding affective entanglements in being were perhaps a little more urgent, just a little more viscerally immediate and a little less ubiquitous, they would serve to remind us of our dependent status as a living biological entity enmeshed within an ecology, an interconnected environment of physical co-dependences.
We are augmented or diminished at the most fundamental level by these elemental relationships, and as such we remain corporeally vulnerable. Our living bodies are sensitively attuned to the environment, and have an array of capacities for being viscerally affected, both positively and negatively, by intensities and rhythms in our environment. At the most basic level such attunements are aimed towards those elements that either support our ongoing persistence in life, in order to continue to go on living from moment to moment, or at those which most threaten it. This is how we are affectively calibrated. We have the vulnerability to be affected at the most fundamentally physical level by the things around us. In hunger I search for food, in thirst I search for water, in cold, rain, wind or extreme heat I search for shelter. It is in the movement away from environmental equilibrium that the affective intensities of the world are raised to a physical threshold of awareness.
What other affects hold us in their sway? As animals we are social beings – held into, and sustained by, a complex affective network of relationships. Community, kinship and family structures, friendship and peer groups, sexual and erotic relationships. The affective web that is woven across the social fabric is immense and produces an immeasurable field of visceral affective qualities. We are sustained and supported, delighted and excited, exasperated and frustrated, depressed and anxious, angered and horrified, frightened and diminished, strengthened and expanded. We can flourish and grow within our relationships with others or wither and retreat into a lonely despair. Our erotic and sexual lives display the same extreme affective vicissitudes and diversity, drifting from extremes of violent sexual savagery to the gentle nuanced erotic frisson of a stolen glance with a stranger, the flirtatious conversation and the complex mutuality of the sexual act. In all of our social relationships we display an extraordinary capacity to be affected in ways that seem to defy proper linguistic classification. The extreme diversity of affectivity, the degree to which we are enmeshed within the complex chaosmos of affective transmission, is quite remarkable. The extent to which this affective dimension is simply reducible to cognitive, linguistic or conceptual schemas is certainly questionable. The most fundamental quality of all our lives is irreducibly visceral, sensorial, corporeal, supra-linguistic and irrational, rendering our proclaimed status as primarily rational agents into question at the most elemental level, as well as at the social level.
Our perceptions and feelings towards our own bodies or the bodies of others are often structured by collective religious and ideological participation, and are expressed in a variety of different modes of individual and collective acts of celebration, prayer, anger, protest and violence. Within the ever-increasing swell of entangled relationships, with others, things, aspects of our own selves, our own bodies, environment, polis, or culture, we remain enmeshed within the flow of affects that penetrate, seize and move us, that transform and transport us, that make us, construct us and undo us. In this rich and intensive continuum we are also as much an affective capacity as we are something that has the capacity to be affected. In human history affective expressions have involved transformative ecstatic practices including ritual, trance, prayer, drugs, alcohol, pain, pleasure, intellectual or visceral augmentation and transformation. Essential to these expressive acts are the vehicles for the transmission of intense affectivity – dance, music, body modification and decoration, engravings, sculptures, pottery, costumes, decorative jewelry, mask making and painting.
Trying to define these different activities of affective transmission as ‘art’ is a difficult, if not impossible, venture. Nevertheless, numerous and often conflicting attempts to try to do this have been undertaken in philosophy and art theory. Apart from such ongoing theoretical conflicts displayed in these works, another obvious sign of the kind of difficulty involved is evident in the fact that much twentieth century Western art appears, from Dada to Postmodern Conceptualism, is either addressing the question of what art is in a whole myriad of different ways, or trying to seriously subvert and upset any established and existing answer. Often it is trying to do both. The approach to art I will try to develop in this book does not try to impose any single definition of art. I will try to adopt a more mosaic approach, both theoretically and practically. In piecing this mosaic together I am attempting to develop a meaningful picture of what art might be through concentrating a great deal of attention on the question of what it might be for. However, I am also aware that this latter question has also been subject to a whole plethora of different answers. As I proceed it will become clear that various elements of this emerging mosaic are often in tension with one another, and occasionally in direct conflict. This is deliberate. Holding such divisive tensions together in a single composition is necessary if this work is to ever get close to the immense complexity, diversity and difference across cultural and historical intentions, formulations and interpretations of art-like practices and artifacts.
The theoretical mosaic I try to elaborate here around the question of affectivity in art and what it might be for, has some of the following features:
*The affective moment produces an intense visceral encounter with life, which intensifies the sense of being a body and being alive.
*The affective moment is not a vehicle for a determinate message; it is not a carrier of meaning. It transmits sensation rather than communicating meaning. Experiencing affectivity does not involve deciphering a symbolic, linguistic meaning. In fact, it often resists meaning, disrupts communication and remains incommensurable to linguistic sense. This is not at all to say that language cannot be affective.
*The artwork is an operator that produces and transmits affects. As an operator it is ceaselessly experimental and is engaged with deep levels of experience beyond the linguistic and visual – the realm of feelings, moods and emotions.
*In the affective moment produced by encounters with art we undergo an ecstatic transportation.
*The affective moment is trans-historical and intercultural. It is the ‘Eternal Present’ that subsists as a geological substrata across different times and places.
*The affective moment’s formation and expression involves hybridity and the anomalous.
*In the affective moment there is a performative annihilation of the present self; the self is transported beyond the human condition. There is often a violent dismantling of reified subjectivity and identity and the production of abstraction back into a shared pre-individuated realm of substance.
*Through the affectivity of an artwork a different world is elaborated – a space in which new and different things can come to presence.
*The dismantling of the present self and its world assists in the overcoming of a deep sense of ontological loneliness. The affectivity of art serves to restore a primal unity to life.
In the piecing together of this type of theoretical mosaic, I do not want to simply equate works of art with the different theoretical and interpretative frameworks that might be put around them. Such frameworks are there only in order to allow the works to emerge into a different form of visibility. When they do not function to serve this purpose the framework will be removed or bracketed off. My intention is not to merely produce abstract linguistic substitutes for the artworks themselves. Despite being engaged in a theoretical dialogue, I do not want to end up equating the works of art in the form of artifacts, performances, and practices, or the affective intensities bound up with experiencing them, with any of the theoretical frameworks that might temporarily envelop them in these pages. This work will have failed, along with numerous other examples of art theory, if it ends up producing little more than an abstract linguistic substitute for the work and the affective experience it solicits. The aim is always to solicit an understanding of artworks as diverse affective operators, and not reduce them to a dry analytic category. Part of the reason for this work’s theoretical dialogue is to provide a counter-weight to the vacuous proliferation of verbose theory-mongering in connection with the arts – where sophism, sham art and deception seem complicit. My own efforts to elaborate a complex multi-theoretical mosaic seek to resist this superficial miasma – to harness the rigorous diversity of theory to not only illuminate art and affectivity but to argue the case for the absolute centrality and necessity of affectivity.
As well as living with the tension of theoretical contradiction in the attempt to construct such a mosaic, I also take seriously the idea that what we in the West like to call art is entirely a modern ideological construction with little apparent resemblance to what other cultures, at different times, have accorded visual, aural and performative artifacts. As I hope will become obvious, when I talk about art in this book it will be in a far broader and more inclusive sense, one that goes beyond a narrowly Western conception of fine art. At the same time as invoking a more pluralistic sense of artistic practice, I do want to solicit the role of affectivity in art as a constant touchstone, as a single form of global geological strata existing across a vast array of different times and places. Whilst the cultural and historical artistic climate in distinct geographical regions differs markedly, the underlying geological strata remains as a common underpinning substance transgressing such surface bio-diversity. By drawing extensively on Ellen Dissanayake’s idea of art as a universal process of affective elaboration – one that involves a creative process of ‘making special’ – I will argue that artifacts and performances are demonstrations to others of underlying intense feelings and of things that matter. Artworks are the unmistakable signs of the feeling of care and caring. In order to succeed as affective markers they must also operate as the vehicles for transmitting the intensity of affect. Over time various forms of art came to exist as a materialization of an affective flow and intensity. Human beings developed the capacity to actualize the intensity of affective force into a shaped material thing, into a formed object that enables a controlled affective encounter. Such encounters engage, enhance, intensify and energize lived worldly existence. Highly developed artistic capacity involved cultivating the ability to form a powerful continuum of affective flow between the most fundamental elemental levels of life and forms of artistic expression. The key motivation for the creation of this continuum between life and art is affective sustenance in response to the continued need for the enervation of our existence, the need for an affective enlivening of life. In all of us there is a hunger for affective intensification in order that we can continue to feel alive and be able to flourish amidst our immersion in the wider web of affective flows in nature. The need for such primal affective sustenance is felt as urgently as any other more prosaic visceral sustenance. It is needed for us to be able to repeatedly reconnect to the wider affective fabric of life regardless of its immediate sensorial threshold – to be reminded of our own individual capacity to be affected as one body amongst others, to reawaken our sense of collective affective entanglements with other bodies, as well as raising awareness of our own capacity to affect the ecology of our sustaining environment. Art re-sensitizes the flesh. Affective art practice and artifacts which express a deep ontological continuum with life serve to periodically raise awareness of our deep corporeal entanglements with life, to hold us into contact with the affective intensities of nature. In this book my point will be to try and elicit the constant bedrock of affectivity at a time of great forgetfulness and crisis in the Western art world, and provoke a renewal of the senses in this new dark age of information.
‘Every work of art is presented to us as an enigma, a mystery full of sense. At the root of its being, it passes through what is there and points back to an essential absence whose being we know, however, inasmuch as we ourselves are it, inasmuch as we are not of the world, and inasmuch as we are alive.’ (Michel Henry, Barbarism, p. 36)
Artworks should encapsulate and transmit important feelings, feelings that have a collectively shared substance, that have the power to hold us into the concrete specificity of individual visceral moments by enfolding us within the embrace of a more general sense of life as something shared. They should sensually transmit something collectively considered important, vital, mysterious, and affirmatively worthwhile. By participating in the artworks affective sway one is somehow reminded and re-invested with a sense of life that one has either forgotten about, neglected, ignored or felt as slipping inexorably away. Slowly, the habits of thought and life inevitably begin to deaden our senses and rob us of our sense of being alive. The intensities of life begin to drift away like so much dust blown amongst the winds of time. Only by repeatedly and ritualistically staging intensely affective moments through artworks can we periodically be re-inspired and re-awakened to life. Through the enigmatic presence of its affective power, art engenders our lives with a sense of life, enabling us to feel again the stoniness of the stone, the treeness of the tree and the birdness of the bird. Without it we are condemned to a senseless oblivion. To feel life in its fathomless and immeasurable scale, depth, variety and ceaseless becoming.
Do you feel alive? Do I feel alive?
I remain unsure as to whether I am actually alive, but it does seems to me that in order for me to feel as if I am alive, to feel as if I am truly enmeshed in a visceral reality that is larger than myself, I must undergo encounters that offer me the opportunity to affectively experience an intensified reality. I constantly need to learn, and re-learn, how to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ as opposed to merely ‘looking’ and ‘thinking’. The question isn’t what do I look at and think about, but what do I see and feel? However, we all increasingly come to exist in a semantic, codified and descriptive reality which privileges looking and thinking. In order to practically function we make all the proper perceptual interpretations that conform to the description and thereby validate it. Within such a programmatic schema there is an inevitable tendency towards habit, towards routine, repetition, and boredom which needs to be resisted if we are to continue to feel alive. Many areas of our lives, our working lives, relationships, politics and art, are becoming systematically dematerialized, rendered virtual and ephemeral. We are being overwhelmed by calamitous information created by the simultaneity of virtual presences on the internet, where the flattened nature of its reality threatens to overwhelm the transformative affective dimension. Being able to interrupt and ‘stop this world’ is the first step towards being able to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the world again, and this is one of the the most important things that art actually does. By effectively stopping the world the prosaic reality of the everyday is altered by the artwork, because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been interrupted by a set of affective intensities that run counter to that flow. Art is the ideal medium for suspending the everyday and for making contact with the transcendental, or at least for attempting to get close to it. It enables matter to become affectively expressive, to resonate and become more than itself.
Art is the art of affect more than it is representation, a system of dynamized and impacting forces rather than a system of unique images that function under the regime of signs. Different types of art produce and generate an affective intensity that directly impacts our nervous systems and produces moments of visceral sensation. Art provides the vital link between our lived, or phenomenological, body and cosmological forces, forces of the outside, that the body itself can never experience directly. Despite our economic and technological developments there is ongoing yearning for this kind of interruptive affective intensity typically contained within the affective arts. Such craving for interruption and contact with an outside goes on increasing in direct proportion to the increasing erosion of such nourishment within our developed cultures. The implications and consequences of this erosion are dramatically catastrophic. In this book I try to develop a complex and detailed picture of this rapidly disappearing affective dimension, its contours, depth and details, and try to make a strong case for its rediscovery, recovery from oblivion, and its renewal. In the last few years I have become obsessed with the promise of a renewed affectivity in art – the idea that something will advance toward us from out of the future, perhaps even something transfigured and transfiguring, opening up previously unheard possibilities. Through its affective moment, art has the capacity to open a transcendental future beyond the increasingly deadened nihilism of the present. The affective moment is a moment of ecstatic transposition, where what we currently are is taken apart and we are placed back again into a primordially intense relationship with life. The affective moment intervenes at the subjective level but effects a reduction to a shared pre-individual level through sensation. In the creativity of art, the human community can renew its quest for understanding the ultimate. The affective moment’s intensification of existence can transport us beyond the diabolical humanism of the present into a dynamic and unconditioned future. Beyond the present human condition. Art offers the promise that comes from the future, that things can and will be different, that there is an elsewhere, and that there is an alternative.
‘By remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.’ (David Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 166)
This book is the beginning of an effort to place the affective dimension back into the cultural discourse around art, to challenge the dematerialized realm of contemporary conceptual art, and restore the mysterious sensuous connection and affective moment of rapture to art. At times this book will be aphoristic, fragmentary and speculative. At other times it will be argumentative, theoretical and polemical. I will always maintain a first person perspective. This is a deliberately self-conscious strategy conducted in the belief that the only convincing accounts of those truths that matter in art, that we all share and participate in, can only be carried out from a personal point of view. It is a book necessarily informed and infused by my own personal experiences of affective intensity gained from encounters with different types of art and cultural artifacts. This kind of study cannot be carried out dispassionately in an abstracted and neutral fashion, in the style of yet another academic treatise. It is a study with a point of view, unapologetically. It is, however, not a series of arguments claiming that my own taste is somehow superior, more educated, informed or sophisticated than yours. Far from it. Rather, my intention is to provoke you through your own forms of meditation upon and relationship to affective intensity in art. Throughout this book my own point of view will be consistently accompanied by a ongoing dialogue with theoretically informed writings, ranging from archaeology, anthropology and art history to philosophy and cultural theory.
By conducting this book from a personal point of view and as a genuine dialogue, there is considerable element of critical self doubt. For example, I don’t really know if, in this book, I want to try and somehow evoke the ongoing intensity of affectivity in art and pursue a polemic that argues for its potential for (re)awakening or restoring our sense of life, or whether it is really a memorializing act intended to intensify the sense of grief at its irrecoverable loss. It is certainly a work marked by a sense of sorrow at the ongoing atrophy of intense affectivity in art. Perhaps it is me who is more or less lost here, but if so, to what extent am I any more lost than anyone else. Lost and alone in a flattened reality. To what extent do I feel any more or less nostalgic than many other when it comes to this fitful atavistic urge or craving for mortal sustenance. We are, after all, all lost, and it is hard to feel this sense of being lost as anything other than abandonment. Many of the things that used to sensorially anchor us within life and to each other do seem to be absent, seem to be missing. Or perhaps they just hard(er) to find?
Despite this feeling of being lost and alone we continue to be sensorially and cognitively alive, and we radiate our thoughts and feelings to the outside, to others. None of us really know what it is like, what it is truly like, to be inside the feelings and thoughts of another. Music, painting, poetry, literature, film and theatre are the things that allow us to climb over the wall of the separated self and to converse with another at that deeply affective level so necessary for real contact and communication. At such moments of affective contact I feel less alone, less abandoned, more alive and connected to something much larger than my separated and atomized self.