Frosty the Snowman Melted and it Makes Me Happy/Sad?

Frosty 5_JWO


There have been many times in my life when I wondered how I was able to do things so quickly. By this, I meant how are humans able to transmit their will (decisions, emotions, ideas, etc.) to actions and expression at an imperceptible speed. When I blink, do I think in my mind blink and then I do it? Because I don’t recall ever mindfully commanding myself to blink every four seconds. When I turn my head slowly to the left, it is not narrated by a thought to slowly turn to the left. But it’s not as though there was a distinct moment in my mind when I willed myself to turn my head to the left. I know that decisions are being made somewhere, somehow, but the process is too fast that I can’t capture it or study it or linger on it. Concluding that I would find no immediate answers within myself or through rudimentary experimentation, I gave up and continued to blink, breathe, and make facial expressions without knowing when or how the decision to do so takes place.

By chance, my questions were one day answered in Massumi’s The Autonomy of Affect. The article begins with an analysis of a German short film in which a man builds a snowman on his roof garden and eventually has to take it to the mountains so it will stop melting. A group of researchers wishing to study the emotional effects of media show three different versions of the film to a group of 9 year-old children, who were asked to rate each version of the film on a “scale of ‘pleasantness.'” Below are the results.

Original, Wordless Version of the Film

  • Most pleasant
  • Elicited greatest response from skin

“Factual” Voice-Over, (added simple step-by-step account of action as it happened) 

  • Least pleasant
  • Least remembered
  • Elicited highest level of arousal (hearts beat faster, deepened breathing; skin resistance fell)

“Emotional” Voice-Over, (included words expressing the emotional tenor of the scene)

  • Most remembered

In a nutshell, all of these results were baffling. Why was it that the more sad a scene was the higher the children rated its pleasurability? Why did factuality elicit the highest level of arousal even though it was the most unpleasant film and left the least long-lasting impression? All of these questions led to the concept of the primacy of the affective in image reception.

Primacy of the Affective in Image Reception

  • Gap between content and effect
  • Strength or duration of an image’s effect (intensity) is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way

*Content of Image = its indexing to conventional meanings in an intersubjective context, its sociolinguistic qualification 

Intensity = Affect

  • Duration of an image’s effect
  • Elicits autonomic reactions (mostly skin)
  • Matter-of-factness dampens intensity (interferes with images’ effect)
  • Qualifications of emotional content enhanced images’ effect

II. The Difference Between Affect and Emotion

We talk a lot about affect in class, but I feel like we do so vaguely. We have an abstract understanding of what it is, but if one of us had to describe it we would do so loosely, unable to capture the very essence of what it is. In the spirit of learning by comparison, The Autonomy of Affect and the Transmission of Affect helped solidify my understanding of affect by teaching me that affect is not emotion.

Affect  Emotion

Emotion is something that exists in the mind; it is personal because it belongs to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought. Emotion is qualified intensity, meaning it is affect modified or limited in some way. Emotion is intensity “owned and recognized.”

Affect, on the other hand, is unqualified. If affect is equated to intensity in this text (intensity = duration of an image’s effect), then affect is raw intensity.

III. The Missing Half Second

Brain activity occurs about 0.3 seconds before a decision is made, the beginning of a bodily event comes 0.2 seconds after a decision is made. Researcher Benjamin Libet proposed that these findings may mean that, “we may exert free will not by initiating intentions but by vetoing, acceding or otherwise responding to them after they arise.”

“Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity to be functionally expressed.” 

What we thought were free functions such as volition are actually autonomic, bodily reactions. They take place in the brain but outside of our own consciousness. They occur between the transmission between brain and finger, but also prior to action and expression.

Spinoza’s Basic Definition of Affect: “affection [in other words an impingement upon] the body, and at the same time the idea of affection.”

Spinoza proposes that you can only consciously reflect on affect when you think about the idea of the idea of the affection.

Perhaps I’ve been going about this whole affect thing wrong when visiting my media ecology. My assumption was that I would walk the grounds of the Green-Wood Cemetery and wait to be affected, to feel something, anything. But now I need to pay closer attention so I can distinguish affect from emotion. Similarly, I need to be thinking about affect in Spinoza’s meta way (the idea of the idea of the affection). It sounds complicated, but affect is this very two-sidedness of the virtual and the actual. It’s the two-sidedness “as seen from the side of the actual thing.”


~ by Victoria Cana on October 5, 2014.

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