The way our bodies connect to our feelings: A story of affect

Hunts Point has intensity — lots of it — but it depends on the narrative you give it that defines its nature.

Brian Massumi begins his analysis of affect, or “intensity” with an example: one video of a man building a snowman is turned into three distinct versions. The first version is the original, with no audio or effects. The second version describes the video in a purely factual manner. The third version adds an emotional component to the second version. This video was originally selected for research when parents reported that their children were frightened by the video, which played in between certain German television programs. When people were shown the three videos in the experiment, they reacted with the most pleasure to the factual version, but their skin response (the body’s pleasure indicator) were the highest for the emotional version. Since this version was supposed to be sad, the researchers were shocked that children could derive pleasure from negative emotions.

Massumi argues that the connections between emotions like happiness and sadness are just narratives we create about affect, the body’s unconscious, physical response to stimulation. The reason why happiness and sadness read similarly in terms of physicality is because affect is defined by levels of intensity, but not the nature of that intensity in itself. Therefore, negative emotional responses carry the potential to be produce more pleasurable affects than positive emotional responses, given their strength exceeds its competition.

While walking around an industrial section of Hunts Point, I noticed some trash on the side of the road: a Mc Donald’s cup, Arizona Ice Tea cans, and empty bottles of alcohol. If these objects have energy, then they must be able to communicate affect, I thought (Bennett). In media, the distinctions between emotional, factual, and contextual can be minimal, so I wanted to replicate the experiment from The Autonomy of Affect. By editing one photo to convey different emotions, I was able to deconstruct the way affect “vaguely but insistently connects what is normally indexed as separate. When asked to signify itself, it can only do so in a paradox”(Massumi, 25). In this way, affects are shown to be autonomous: they act on their own accord, and emotion is merely a narrative we create to explain the way affect makes us feel. 

The Original
Edited to Bring Out the Image’s Basic Qualities
By adding a narrative, the purpose of the photo changes

I think about some of the struggles people face every day in Hunts Point: poverty, addiction, and systemic inequality. These are not positive things, but if they make us feel bad, in some paradoxical way — can they also give us pleasure through intensity? Perhaps. Why do people get into drugs when they know they can ruin your life? Maybe they think nothing can happen to them, that they’re not the type of people to get addicted to something. Maybe they’re drawn in by the intensity of users: their suffering, and the way drugs numb and create everything you hate. When I found Chris Arnade’s “Faces of Addiction”, I scrolled through every image, reading every story, mesmerized by the stories (Arnade). And these stories were not happy: they detail people living on the street, battling addiction, and hoping for more. I found myself hoping with them.

When we go to the grocery store, we pick out unhealthy food because it tastes good, even if it’s not good for our bodies — and it makes us feel good too. When we go to the grocery store, and there are no fresh vegetables (I have not found a single fresh vegetable on any fruit stand, supermarket, or bodega)  over time, we get addicted to the pleasure and the pain that junk food provides. And no matter what way you frame it: that we do it because it feels good, or that it’s the only option available — the intensity is the same. It drives us unconsciously into ruin, in an endless pursuit of eternal pleasure.

Catherine Benge

Works Cited:

  1. Arnade, Chris. “Faces of Addiction”, Flickr,
  2. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter, U.S.A: Duke University Press, 2010.
  3. Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Parables of the Virtual. Duke University Press, 2002.

~ by catherinebenge on October 12, 2019.