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From Affect to Mutuality, Openness to Rational Co-expression: Massumi to Spinoza

Massumi writes,

Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things the embody them. The autonomy of affect is its participation in the virtual. Its autonomy is its openness. Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is. Formed, qualified, situated perceptions and cognitions fullfilling functions of actual connection or blockage are the capture and closure of affect.

Parables for the Virtual, 35

I’m entirely with him up until the final sentence. In fact, this is a very strong expression of both Spinoza’s position and my own. But there is slippage in the last contrast with functionality, or “actual connection” because Massumi wants to set up his dichotomous concretization, one in which symbolic or semiotic functional forms are actualized, and to some degree impoverished expressions of the virtual. Affects are a kind of subterranean vivacity which liquidly pours beneath the surface of actualized and incrusted reifications. Well…the part that is missing is that affection is part of the very functionality of the “actual connection”. This is brought out in Spinoza’s prized “imitation of the affects” contribution, which expresses the wholly imaginary resources of mutuality which help anchor rationality itself (and, I would argue, are indispensible for the creations of an objectivity in the first place). This is to say that the trans-personal (or as Massumi would have it, “trans-functional”, “trans-actual connection”) powers of affects, make up the very dimensionality of functionality itself. It is they that express the edge-of-chaos modulations which are both aesthetic and functionally distributed. Another way of saying this is that the “openness” of affects (which communicates its mutuality to other forms), is itself functional and actualizing of connection. There is no disjunction here. You can see how this operates in Spinoza’s theory of the social, which has both a rational path (a collusion of self-interest and liberation which subverts the “self” itself), and an affective/imaginary path, which circuits with speed and directness a mutuality of world and sympathetic coexistence. These two fundamentally resonate (to use Massumi’s terms), though they may be contingently at odds. Because they are not disjunct, it is not that the rational (functional) feeds back into the affective so much as that the affective is always embodying, across bodies, the possibilities for the rational.

I do believe that there are semiotic reasons why functionality is limited, something I expressed under the term Conjoined Semiosis (the way in which functionalities necessarily cut across our cognitive boundaries, and tug with tidal force, both inside and outside), but it is precisely where Massumi loses the functional, semiotic force of affective re-bodying, the way that “mind” is operant through affect, and also where a degree-of-being conception of power is shrugged off, that his solution grows somewhat confused, or I should say, imposed. Perhaps he corrects this sense of mine in later parts or essays, but that is at least where I stand right now.

Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface

There were two primary technological achievements that guided the transmutive possibilities that mark out what made James Cameron’s Avatar special innovations organized around aesthetic problems, and here I just want to sketch them out to give greater depth to my other thoughts about the film: Avatar: The Density of Being,  Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope. Each of these two indicate the very dimensionality of human aesthetic avatarship – the ability, or path to reading worth through inhabited subjectivity – or at least suggest a landscape for future digital and so-called “virtual world” aesthetically culled interactions.

The first of these was the problem of the Uncanny Valley, the way in which approximations of human beings, if too proximate, create a disturbing sense of alienness such that one cannot (or should not) identify with the portrayed subject. (I thoroughly reject a Fruedian or even Lacanian reading of the Uncanny, for both its essentially optical and repressive analogies, but certainly the effect of the Uncanny Valley is an epistemically important one.) The problem that Cameron faced was that no matter how much tweaking was done to motion capture, the actorly performance, the emotionality, one might want to say its reality, was lost within this valley. The Pandorans were both too human, and not human enough. In short I would say this reality involves a kind of temporal and physionomic threshold of reflection, the way in which internal events (taken to be subjective and expressed facially) within certain thresholds of timing and intensity, can be read as expressing both the states of being, as well as their causal relationships to a shared and external world. The reality of this causal interface is one in which something like the musicality of the actor (emphasizing both the structure and expression) allows internal events to enforce the reality of external ones, confirming the appropriateness of our own internal events-experiences, the three of them forming a data-rich, self-supporting resonance. The overcoming of the uncanny valley in faces was achieved by the actors wearing small cameras which hovered over their facial expressions, along with painstaking, algorithmic conversion of that capture into the avatar’s digital “rig” (a framework of facial representations). A feedback loop of Cameron’s aesthetic approval and technique adjustment fine-tuned the effect such that actorly experiences and expressions found their proper topological space within a virtual and artistic world.

The second problem answered was that of Cameron’s own directorial powers, the ability to author directions to actors in the realtime context of the imaginary enviroment itself. This was achieved through a lens-less “swing camera” which in low-resolution allowed Cameron to drift through the volume (virtual environment) in such a way that his vision and actor performance was granted a threshold of interface which surely imbued communications between them with a specific vital co-expression. The result was that the actor’s spontaneous expression driven by character was melded through the director to an unseen environment, in real time.  The actor could express and m0ve with a certain watery autonomy, and her or his director could side by side focus the actor’s attention to this or that, viewing the sythesized result. Intersubjective triangulation  attained a kind of spatial freedom never before in human expression, we might risk,  a ring of Gyges vector of invisible yet corporeal cohesion holding together the creative agents. It was as if Van Gogh could enter his painting and talk to his paints (which is something artists “do” in one way or other all the same). An odd product of this technology of performance and capture was that the actors no longer had to act TO the camera (or even the space), but rather could lock onto the narrative itself, almost with stage purity, freed from even makeup and costume (this freedom is not entirely new, but it is linked to a new communicative assemblage). The volume in a sense, came to be enveloped around them, directed in real time, back upon the narratological thread which inhabited the actors, through the intersubjective creativity of the director. In this manner, narrative and characterization acquire a near novelistic isolation, appearing at the surface of the actor’s affective skin and muscular terminus, forming a layer, sewn back into a wider fantastic perspective come out of the technological and auteur armature, through which the actor is guided. A final remarkable aspect of this artistic process is that the director, after a performance, can then move back through the volume and performance and rephotograph it, in the real time of the performance itself, allowing the performance and volume to dictate to the camera in unanticipated catalysis with the director’s experience of both the space and the emotion. And this synthesis becomes that of the audience member as well, threading the affect and space interface into its final product, aesthetic avatarship proper.

What is sure is that these new capacities: actor freed from camera and costume, director freed to create volume and actor counterpoint, the intersubjectivity of the communications between the two resewing narrative (and character) to volume in a different way, and lastly the emotional richness of a facialized register (a plane on which it all can cohere and appear to emanate), create a synthesis beyond thresholds previously conceived, wrenching out a powerful redistribution of what can be done with the twins: affect and space.

The above produced out of information found at Popular Mechanics: How James Cameron’s Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

[click on either for larger image]

Here in diagram and example are the two registers of space and affect which Cameron’s techique worked to free from each other, an aesthetic freedom of camera/eye selection which both can coordinate performance amid the fantastic environment (volume), and also select out a framing of that performance with temporal autonomy. The actor is given relative narrative freedom from staging, the director becomes inter-subjective toggle, and the facialized plane grounds the emotional and volume real.


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