Once More, with Feeling: Cinema and Cinesthesia
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Once More, with Feeling:
Cinema and Cinesthesia

1. Affect/Theory

Asked to characterize the critical history of cinema studies over the past several decades, one could do much worse than to speak of the age of affect of affect.1 This is a big claim, of course, but it’s not without precedent or parallel. The engagement with affect describes a remarkably widespread shift in the humanities, social sciences, and the neurosciences. Cinema studies is among a number of disciplines that have sought to prioritize matters of sensation and feeling, and for roughly the past thirty years the persistence of affect has played a critical role in the field. In the historicist recovery of the “cinema of attractions” and the feminist reappraisal of film melodrama (“weepies”), in the cognitivist study of film emotion and the growing neuroscience of cinematic experience, in the renewal of film phenomenology and the avowal of cinephilia—in all these instances, and still others, cinema studies has declared its “affective turn.”2

Few readers will be surprised by this suggestion, but what ought to raise our interest is the extent to which cinematic affect implies an active subject. There are many terms for this attribute (engaged, actualizing, creative, even interactive), but what they tend to imply is the kinship of affect and agency. This conceit appears even more starkly when we weigh the alternative: if the activity of affect has been increasingly proclaimed in recent years, cinema studies remains decidedly more reluctant to embrace a passive spectator. Of course, there are exceptions, as we see in the study of certain film genres (e.g., melodrama, horror), but perhaps fewer than we’d imagine if we designate by passivity something more, or less, than identification. In any case, what’s surprising is that in the very places that we would expect to encounter the avowal of passivity (in cognitivist, phenomenological, and other discourses), we tend to find a spectator promoted as the agent of her affects. As a result, affect is conceived in the language of operating functions, response and recognition, affective schemata, subphenomenal consciousness, and embodied intentionality. While these processes can scarcely be deemed conscious in any traditional sense, they have been deployed in the interest of making the spectator an active, participative, even collaborative agent. As Laura Marks declared in The Skin of the Film, a landmark of cinematic affect theory, “the characterization of the film viewer as passive, vicarious, or projective must be [End Page 174] replaced with a model of a viewer who participates in the production of the cinematic experience” (149-150).

In the sixteen years since Marks’ book was published, the participative viewer has become a widespread presupposition in cinema studies, and not without reason. Of course, we actively engage the image, but as I argue, this engagement constitutes a second-order system that only emerges because the moving image immediately acts upon us. As Siegfried Kracauer wrote in Theory of Film, cinema moves the spectator “physiologically before he is in a position to respond intellectually” (158). The aim of this essay is to recover a sense of this immanent passivity before the image, both as matter of film experience and as a project of film-philosophy. I say “recover” because, as I hope is already clear, the rise of affect theory has rendered passive affection alternately marginal and suspicious. My sense is that such condemnation is inextricable from of the widespread effort to affirm affect as not only active and activist but, ultimately, as ethical. In her notorious critique of affect theory, Ruth Leys takes such ethical predilection to task, and though she doesn’t mention cinema studies, it’s hard to imagine that her derision wouldn’t apply.3 In so many words, Leys suggests that a kind of self-importance underwrites the attribution of an ethical prerogative to one’s own feeling. It’s not without sarcasm that she borrows Foucault’s phrase—“the technologies of the self”—to characterize the aspirations of affect theory. In Leys’ words, affect theory insists that “we human beings are corporeal creatures imbued with subliminal affective intensities and resonances that so decisively influence or condition our political and other...