Towards a Cinema of Affects: A Manifesto, Part I – From Film-World to Film-Art
The use of audio and visual stimulation to impact, or affect, spectators/participants indicates one of the most powerful media formations of our era. Cinema, or film, is one of the primary ways in which this is done.
Film creates film-impacts, or film-affects, in spectators. Film-affects come in two forms, namely, film-thoughts, and film-emotions. Film-thoughts and film-emotions occur when the images and sounds in a film impact spectators in particular ways. Film-affects are always in-between, they are born of the intertwining of images and sounds and spectators. Film-affects describe the emotions and thoughts which occur when spectators and film interact in the act of spectatorship.
For too long cinema has treated the traditional means whereby film-affects have been produced as ends in themselves. These means, of which characters, objects, plot, and setting are the most important, have dominated the production of most film in our century. Thus, it is often assumed by many that for a film to affect spectators, it needs a main character, a stable plot, and solid objects and settings.
Avant-garde film, of course, does away with these means completely. And yet, avant-garde film, which often produces a pure cinema of the eye and ear, divorced from character, objects, plots, and setting, is often marginalized for being too abstract. Avant-garde films are often, though not exclusively, short, and generally have small audiences. And by dispensing completely with character, objects, plot, and setting, avant-garde film dispenses with incredibly powerful means for creating affects.
What if there were a middle path? If film is constructed so as to emphasize the construction of affects, it could hardly dispense with the four means described above. But it would not be bound to these tools as ends in themselves, but view them merely as means towards the ends of the production of film-affects. Rather than constants, character, objects, plots, and settings can function as variables, each composed of sub-variables. Such a middle path could be called then a cinema of affects.
A cinema of affects would neither allow itself to be dominated by character, plot, objects or setting, nor would it dispense with these notions. Rather, it’s goal would be the production of affects, namely, thoughts and emotions, in spectators. Characters, plots, objects, and settings may serve to assist this end, but they are ultimately secondary to the affective complex which the film works to articulate.
In what follows, the outline of a cinema of affects will be articulated. Before getting to the specifics, namely, the issues of characters, plots, objects, and settings, however, we will describe the larger frame, namely, the theory of film which is presupposed by the call for a cinema of affects. Thus, we will describe what, from the perspective of the cinema of affects, is the relation between film and world, film and art, and film and contemporary times.
What is the purpose of a cinema of affects? Each film that is produced takes the world around us and fragments it, warps these fragments, and then recomposes them into a new, synthetic aggregate. Rather than an image of the world, film presents us with a film-world. The film-world is the world as it appears in a particular film. That is, a film-world is the aggregate of the fragmentations, warpings, and recompositions of the world in a film.
Each film world is an abstraction of the world in which it is produced. As such, it can be thought of as a transformation, a process, which is enacted upon the world at a given location in time and space to create a given film-world. This process of transformation, composed of fragmentation, warping, and recombination, can be thought of as a lens, or film-lens, that transforms the world into film-world by means of the process of flimmaking. Such a transformative process is composed of many sub-processes. Thus, there is a film-lens specific to a given film, which is little more than the the complex aggregate of the film-lenses of each of its aspects, each of which is a transformed part of part of the world into film-world.
Film-worlds present us new worlds which are possible sub-worlds of the world we live in. As abstractions, and static ones at that (for film is not a continuous flow in the manner of television, nor interactive in the manner of the internet or video games), film-worlds present us with finite productions. In the process, they give us views on to new ways in which the world can be. As temporary abstractions, they present models, which can impact the ways in which we dynamically abstract aspects of the world in order to interact with it on a daily basis.
As such, films can teach us how to view the world with new lenses, film-lenses. While a film directly presents us with the film-world of its creation, it indirectly presents us the film-lenses which make this film-world possible. These film-lenses are transformations, processes, which can be applied to new material in the world beyond the film.
In this manner, film can teach us how to see the world with new eyes. For each film-world is a possible world constructed from the world beyond film. And each film-lens that creates a given film-aspect can then be applied elsewhere, to the world beyond the film. Film gives us new eyes and ears, it teaches us again to hear and see.
Many film-lenses cannot be directly transferred to the world beyond film. In films, we see people cast spells, dive into portals between worlds, and do many other things which are difficult to directly integrate into our everyday life-worlds. But films that break with so-called ‘reality’ can still affect us powerfully.
These film-affects, which are emotions and thoughts produced by films, can lead to modifications in our world-lenses, that is, the lenses whereby we fragment, warp, and reconstruct the world into our own life-worlds, the worlds of our daily experiences. For each of us lives in a life-world which is to the world itself just as film is to this world. We are all filming, in a sense, if differently from the camera, simply to live our daily lives.We all fragment, warp, and recombine aspects of the world simply to live in it. Film is therefore analogous to life, parallel to it. In some senses it can be thought of as another life, and one which can affect us deeply. And just as life exceeds film, so film exceeds life, for the camera has potentials which exceed that of our bodies, just as our bodies have potential which exceed that of the camera.
There are many ways in which film-affects may impact the way we lens the world around us. Films may affect the construction of our life-world directly, in that we may integrate aspects of film-lenses with our world-lenses, such that we see the world partially in a way that was revealed to us by film. This occurs when film-affects impact us deeply, we absorb aspects of film-lenses, and then fragment, warp, and recombine them with aspects of our current world-lenses.
However, it is also possible for film-affects themselves to make us modify our own world-lenses without the absorption of film-lenses from the film. In such a case, the emotion or thoughts produced by a film lead us to alter our film-lenses on our own, without a process of absorption of the film lenses. Often a film will present us with film aspects which violate the norms of so-called ‘reality’, but which nevertheless may affect us powerfully. Such films can alter our world-lenses in a variety of ways.
For example, dream and fantasy are powerful tools which can impact the ways people see the world in a wide variety of ways. Dream and fantasy can teach us new ways to desire, remember, hope, fear, think. Films can make us want to change the world or ourselves to be more or less like aspects of the film-world. It would be a mistake to throw away any aspect of the tools of world-creation which film presents to us. For by means of film, we imagine new possible ways of seeing, hearing, and doing in the world.
A cinema of affects would use all the tools at its disposal to create powerful film-affects. It must not be dominated by the tropes of so-called ‘reality,’ for this would be to abdicate the power of cinema to create new worlds, rather than simply reproduce old ones. Nevertheless, a cinema of affects must also realize that to completely dispense with forms which have dominated the past is also an abdication of the clear power such forms have had.
In between these poles, a cinema of affects would look to maximize the power of its affects to create powerful film-worlds, and therefore, it will use any and all tools at its disposal towards this end. For cinema is one of the most powerful ways to make the world new, and to make sure that the past does not dominate the present and future, but merely serves as a foundation upon which change can occur. When film does this, it works hand in hand with the larger goal of a democratization and constant renewal of the world.
Each film-world is a perspective on the world. These perspectives function as ideals, for they are abstracted and separated from the flux of life. These ideals re-enter the world of change and flux, however, when they affect us.
Abstraction, separation, and ideality are both gains and losses for film. As that which is abstract and ideal, film has the possibility of presenting forms of wholeness and completion, harmony and beauty, or even dissolution and debasement, beyond what we see in the physical world. For the physical world needs to harmonize a great deal of elements, while the film-world only needs to harmonize those aspects it selects from the world. This is why film can provoke such strong affects in us, such as wonder or disgust. Film inspires us to see the world anew, and yet, it always presents an abstract ideal. When this abstract ideal is beautiful, even if because of the harmony of its forms of putresence, we call it art.
Film-art, as with all art, may impact us either because it is well crafted, or beautiful, because it is powerful, or sublime, or thought-provoking, or intelligent. Each of these may create strong emotions and/or thoughts in us, namely, film-affects, which may lead to a wide variety of potential actions. The result is world-poetry and world-prose with potentially wide ranging affects beyond film itself.
We cannot know, as filmmakers, the extent to which the affects a film creates in us will be those it creates in others. The most we can hope for is resonance. And yet, because so many of us were formed under similar conditions, there is much in common between us, despite our myriad differences. The most we can do is form film-worlds that affect us, and which we believe will affect others similarly.
Film-art production is a form of self-therapy. It is a way to envisage forms of harmony between our continually shifting pasts and potential futures and our perpetually disjunctive present. What functions for filmmakers as self-therapy may also become other-therapy. This is the hope of towards which all filmmakers strive, namely, that their own forms of artistic production can help not only themselves harmonize with their worlds, but others as well. And we need not think of the production of harmonization with our world as passive. To harmonize with one’s world is in fact to necessarily be active, to mutate that world as it mutates you.
Filmmaking, the production of film-art, can be a large part of this. Thus we make film-affects, and aim to make more powerful film-affects, so as to more powerfully sculpt our relations with our world, to harmonize with its greatest circuits. For the more a film harmonizes with the world, the more it furthers the project of a deep sync with what is. Such a notion of sync would be far beyond adaptation, for it would be a transvidual world-becoming.
Film-art is a part of the world envisioning itself, in and through us. The more powerfully we create, the more our film has resonances beyond ourselves, resonances with the deep structure of what is. That is, the more a film resonates with the deep structure of the world, the more it is affected by the world through its creators, and therefore, the more it has the power to affect more than just the filmmaker, but also the world around it. And thus, the filmmakers must be able to be powerfully affected by the world, so as to powerfully affect it in turn. Filmmakers can become lenses themselves, part of the world’s own perpetual re-envisioning.
And our world is changing. Most recently, in the postmodern era, we have seen many of the unities of the past, unities often depicted in films by means of characters, objects, plots, and settings, starting to fragment and rework in radical ways. This needs to impact the ways in which we make films. For if film finds its power in its ability to create affects, why would we limit ourselves to the traditional film of characters, objects, plots, and settings, particularly if these forms are increasingly being reworked in contemporary society? Or conversely, throw these all out for a pure cinema of the eye and ear?Neither form speaks to the needs of our age as much as those which seem to cut in between and beyond these constraints, those which speak to the radical ways in which subjectivity, objectivity, narratives, and settings in our life-worlds are being reconfigured today.
Might there not be more possibilities than films which tell stories, and those which show us a pure vision of the world? And perhaps might we also be able to create films which exist between and beyond these two poles, but also between the others which have structured film? These include the poles of fiction and documentary, porn and art, essay and entertainment, narrative and spectacle, and likely many more. A cinema of affects would reject all these polarities as limiting its potential to create film-art, film-worlds, and film-lenses to create film affects. Rather, it would see all of these as means rather than ends, and seek to push beyond limiting polarities.
The cinema of affects therefore dispenses with the need for the traditional stabilities surrounding character, plot, objects and setting, even as it also dispenses with the pure cinema of the eye. It dispenses in fact with all such limiting binaries. Therefore, it also dispenses with the distinctions between fiction and fact, narrative and spectacle, eros and art, etc. In doing so, it absorbs many of the radical and avant-garde devices made use of by experimental cinemas of the twentieth century to explode characters, plots, objects and settings from within, while riding the boundaries between and beyond genres of the past, so as to make them serve the affective needs of the film itself, rather than the other way around.