The Return of the Body: Affect and Embodied Perception

During this lecture we discussed how we perceive images, specifically looking at affect and frameworks against the Cartesian theatre theory.

The Wester subject is…

Monosensory                   Disembodied

  • Believed the only sense that is important is vision.
  • Blushing, pimples when scared are things that we can’t control, which goes against the Cartesian theatre theory.
  • Affect contagion

Representational thinking:

representational’ thinking is ‘the belief that representations serve a mediating function between knower and known’, and a faith in ‘the power of words to mirror preexisting phenomena.’ Barad 133

Screening and filtering what we see.


  • Important tool, linguistic signs attached to the picture. Trap mediated by language.
  • Has limitations, can’t get very fair only using semiotics when analysing fashion.

Crary and ‘embodied vision’

  • How the eye was formed. Scientists look at how the eyes made.
  • Idea of seeing camera obscura change.
  • Unstable physiology and temporality – bodies always changing (we get a headache when we’re hungover).
  • The idea of ‘subjective vision’
  • Vision is always grounded in a body.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century a science of vision will tend to mean increasingly an interrogation of the physiological makeup of the human subject, rather than the mechanism of light and optical transmission. It is a moment when the visible escapes from the timeless order of the camera obscura and becomes lodged … within the unstable physiology and temporality of the human body.” Crary, p70

Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810

‘physiological colours’: optical effects produced within the body of the observer.

Believed that in paintings when complimentary colours were placed next to each other the eye mixes them together. Our eyes don’t actually do this, the colours just look separate.




Crary’s key ideas about vision…

– modern vision is the product of relations between the body, and institutional and discursive power (cultural forces)
– vision is a  ‘historical practice’ with “no autonomous history. What changes are the plural forces and rules composing the field in which perception occurs.” Crary p6
– Vision can be shaped and malleable.
Discursive: Body of thought and understanding.
Michel Foucault Madness and Civilization – Manic depression and hallucinations were celebrated but institution said they were not normal, phycology has shaped the way we see people with these illnesses.

Embodied subjects, embodied perception

From a cognitive neuroscience perspective …

Our minds would not be the way that they are without the input from the body the mind functions on the basis of the frame of reference that the body continuously provides mind and body form an indivisible organism, which interacts with the environment as an ensemble.
Mind functions on the basis of the frame of reference that the body continuously (physically and emotionally) provides mind and body form an invisible organism, which interacts with the environment as an ensemble.
The body cannot function without mind.

 Charles Taylor

  • Phenomenology
  • Invisible from mind, body and world.
  • Sharing of emotion.

“I am part of the world, I perceive things from somewhere within it. Being myself a body, I have as it were charter membership among the things of the world which surround me. I understand them from the inside because I am one of them.” (Taylor, p13)

Case study:
“I found to my horror that at times I was less conscious of myself, of my own existence, than I used to be the case. This sensation was so novel that at first it quite bewildered me. I felt like asking someone constantly if I were really George Dedlow or not; but, well aware how absurd I should seem after such a question I refrained form speaking of my case, and strove more keenly to analyse my feelings. At times the conviction of my want of being myself was overwhelming and most painful. It was, as well as I can describe it, a deficiency in the eogoistic sentiment of individuality.”

  • Sense of self compromised.
  • Born without vs. lost later in life.

“If one had to sum up Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical legacy in a phrase, one might say that he more than any other taught us what it means to understand ourselves as embodied agents. … The human subject is an agent, engaged in activity, and engaged in a world, which is his world. He is an embodied subject.” Taylor p1

Perception involves more than vision and rational thought; it involves all the senses.

Proprioception – Sense of where your body is in space.
Kinesthetic sense – How you tell if your body is moving or not.
Vestibular sense – Sense of balance.

Embodiment, Affect, and Meaning

 Meaning refers “to the ways in which our world is non-indifferent for us. Features of the world have meaning for a subject because they touch her/him in various ways. That one is so touched, concerned, non-indifferent is a [basic] fact about subjects.” Taylor, p2

  • Situation photographer or model experience.
  • The way it touches us.
  • Non-indifferent, touch people in various ways
  • Photography shaped not only by discourse but by affect, when we are altogether conscious it creates meaning to us.
  • Acknowledge our feelings towards the images, if not images would be meaningless to us.

Affect = Emotion (synonym)

 Affect = Silvan Tomkins

  • How particular emotions are linked with bodily emotions.
  • May not be able to control.
  • Motivating response.

Affect = Brian Massumi

  • Argues against affect as emotion.
  • Parallel to cognitive process.
  • Affect based in body- cognitive drivers.

‘Intensity’ [affect] is embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin – at the surface of the body, at its interface with things. … [Language] doubles the flow of images on another level, on a different track.’ Parables, pp25-26.

 The truths which intelligence grasps directly in the open light of day have something less profound, less necessary about them than those which life has communicated to us in spite of ourselves in an impression, a material impression because it has reached us through our senses.’ Marcel Proust

 ‘Approaches to the image in its relation to language are incomplete if they operate only on the semantic or semiotic level, however that level is defined (linguistically, logically, narratologically, ideologically, or all of these in combination, as a Symbolic). What they lose, precisely, is the expression event – in favour of structure.’ (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p27)

‘… there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect. … Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be … expressed.’ (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p29)

‘Intensity [affect] is asocial, but it is not presocial – it includes social elements but mixes them with elements belonging to other levels of functioning and combines them according to a different logic.’ (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p29)

Dennis Del Favero, Parting Embrace, 1998

Favero’s work shown above has a negative affect and creates a feeling of discomfort to the viewer even before knowing it’s subject is child sexual abuse.
The work is hard to describe using semiotics because you can’t be sure what it is you’re looking at in the images.

Antony Gormley, Blind Light, 2007

Gormley’s work consisted of walking through a room full of mist. When walking around you have to use all your sense other than sight to find your way around the room.

Cildo Meireles, Volátil, 1980-94

For Volátil you had to take off your shoes and walk on what felt like corn starch or flour (people weren’t aware what it was) in the dark. In the room it smelt like gas and as you felt around the room you finally came to a lit candle at the end of a room. This makes you use all of the senses.

Joana Vasconcelos, Passerelle (Catwalk), 2005

Joana Vasconcelos work shows ceramic dogs hung up like animal carcasses, there was a button you pressed which turned the machine on and as the ceramic dogs moved around they swung into each other and smash leaving parts of them left on the floor.

Joana Vasconcelos, Pantelmina #2, 2001

This is another piece by Vasconcelos, even though what we see is just a giant knitted object the way that its constricted against the wall gives connotations of cruelty.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s