CACS Case studies: Affect

 Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.



Loh, Maria 2011, ‘Outscreaming the Laocoön: Sensation, Special Affects, and the Moving Image’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 393-414.



That which the body and mind suffers (in the classical philosophical sense), which means simply that it is something we experience passively rather than actively. One may be affected both by internal stimulus, from the imagination, the instincts, or more generally the unconscious (psychoanalysis as a whole is premised on this idea), or external stimulus, which may take a huge variety of forms, from simple physical or sensorial stimuli to complex and cognitive stimuli. Affect is sometimes treated as a synonym for emotion, but as Brian Massumi argues in Parables for the Virtual (2002) it differs from emotion in that it is beyond our voluntary control. For example, we may be able to discipline ourselves to ignore pain in the course of physical training, but we will still feel that pain. Pain, then, belongs to the order of affect and it is autonomous from the circuit of emotion, which is effectively our psychological response to it. In cultural studies, in part because of work by Massumi, and also Lauren Berlant, Lawrence Grossberg, Meaghan Morris, and Elspeth Probyn, affect has become a key term for rethinking ideology. It is generally used to explain why ideology has the hold it does. To some degree this interest in affect is sparked by an interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze, but it also marks a strong turn toward cognitive psychology. In philosophy, affect is central to the work of Baruch de Spinoza and Henri Bergson, authors from whom Deleuze drew a great deal of inspiration.

(Buchanan 2010, 5)



The French word for enjoyment. It has become part of the vocabulary of Anglophone critical theory and more particularly psychoanalysis because of the translations of the work of Roland Barthes, Georges Battaile, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, among others. In contrast to the English word ‘enjoyment’, jouissance can also mean orgasm. Early attempts at translating it as ‘bliss’, as for instance in Richard Miller’s translation of Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (1975), lack this dimension, and though it captures something of the spiritual dimension of the word it still lacks its intensity. Central to its usage in critical theory is its opposition to ‘plaisir’ (pleasure)—pleasure is usually seen as the opposite of jouissance in that it is seen as a coming to an end, whereas jouissance is regarded as limitless. The connection to orgasm is quite ambiguous in this respect because the implication is that jouissance occurs on a higher plane to that of the merely physical; it is an orgasm of the mind or spirit not just the body. The opposition between pleasure and jouissance is modelled on G. W. F. Hegel‘s opposition between ‘Lust’ (pleasure) and ‘Genuss’ (enjoyment), as discussed by Alexandre Kojève. In psychoanalysis this opposition is interpreted as a prohibition on jouissance—the pleasure principle regards jouissance as excessive and destabilizing. On this view, pleasure can only be pleasurable so long as it is not too pleasurable. In contrast, jouissance can only be jouissance if it goes beyond mere pleasure and risks death and courts disaster.

(Buchanan 2010, 263).


A widely used term to designate pathological symptoms of either a physical or psychical nature for which no physiological cause is apparent. Hysteria in this sense is often used as a pejorative for an imagined illness. The word is derived from ‘hystera’, the Greek word for ‘uterus’ or ‘womb’, and has its origin in the idea current in ancient Egypt as well as classical Greece and Rome that the female reproductive organ is able to move throughout the body and that this movement is triggered by an unsatisfied longing for a child. For this reason, at least until the middle part of the 19th century hysteria was thought to be an exclusively ‘female malady’ (as it was commonly referred to in the Victorian era). Inspired by the great French neurologist, Jean Charcot, Sigmund Freud became interested in hysteria and in the course of the development of psychoanalysis he proposed an aetiology which starts from the premise that hysteria is the product of psychical conflict between thoughts generated in the unconscious and the censor protecting the conscious. He identified two types of hysteria:

(i) conversion hysteria—in which this conflict is expressed in bodily symptoms; (ii) anxiety hysteria—in which the conflict is deflected onto an object, manifesting as a phobia (e.g. fear of spiders).

(Buchanan 2010, 239).





Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus of Rhodes 25BC, Laocoon and his sons, marble, 208 cm × 163 cm × 112 cm, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.


Laocoon and his sons is a marble sculpture that is held in the Vatican which shows a man and his two sons writhing in agony as they are devoured by a giant snake. Read this week’s set reading by Loh for an emotive and detailed look at the discovery of this sculpture and a detailed analysis of the functioning of affect in relation to this piece.


Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU 2012, Birds With Skymirrors, Dir./Chor. Lemi Pontifasio.


Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio’s piece Birds with Skymirrors discusses humanity’s relationship with their natural environment. Described as an “agonised scream” (, this is a work that is designed to evoke affect, to draw the viewer into an evocative and emotive world. This dance, which draws on Polynesian tradition, movement and visual elements, intermingles dance, theatre and visual arts to immerse the audience in a reflection of both themselves and the world they interact with.

Read Buchanan’s definition of ‘affect’, then watch the following excerpt. As you watch, keep an eye on how you are feeling and try to note what elements of the performance evoked the strongest affective responses.

Ontroerend Goed 2013, XXXO, Dir. Alexander Devriendt. 


Nathalie Marie Verbeke and Charlotte De Bruyne are young theatre makers from Belgium, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have stories to tell. XXXO is a play about the emotional impact of the Internet that focuses on crying, emotions and how these are represented and induced online. The performance is a contrived piece, blended with multimedia pop culture ‘sad moments’ and brings forward questions of the value and legitimacy of emotions that we only feel alone, bathed in the glow of the screen.

What does it mean to take these moments and put them on stage? Is it still real emotion if it is shared on stage? Thinking about this piece, go back and look at the main case study, Laocoon and his sons. Does the affect of this new piece have the same impact as the faces of the marble sculpture? Why/why not?

Janine Antoni 1992, Gnaw, three-part installation: 600 lbs. of chocolate gnawed by the artist; 600 lbs. of lard gnawed by the artist; display with 130 lipsticks made with pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard removed from the lard cube; 27 heart-shaped packages made from the chewed chocolate removed from the chocolate cube, dimensions variable, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


If chocolate is the food of the gods, then Janine Antoni surely is a high priest. Her works range across the spectrum of eatability and cause havoc for gallery conservators, but they also ask important questions. Gnaw involves multiple elements, most of which are edible by the strictest definition, and all of which are exhibited uncovered. The scent of the chocolate and lard add extra sensory elements to the exhibition as well as increasing the risk of audience ‘participation’.  The Museum of Modern Art claims that the last time the chocolate cube was exhibited “someone stuck a fingernail in it” ( The convergence of the delicious (chocolate) and the disgusting (lard) in this piece makes it a work that teeters on the verge of affect, inspiring both jouissance and aversion.

Watch this video (jump to 2:50 to skip the Gehry bit) for an interesting discussion about the use of the ‘bite’ as a tool to create this piece and a discussion of the feminist drive behind this work.

Louise Bourgeois 1999, Maman, steel and marble, 9271 x 8915 x 10236 mm, TateModern, London.


Moving on from the work of art that you want to bite to the work of art that you want to run from brings us to Louise Bourgeois’ enormous steel spider, Maman.  The Guggenheim called this work “a creature escaped from a dream, or a larger-than-life embodiment of a secret childhood fear” ( and the size and menacing positioning of the piece loan themselves well to this reading. The giant hulking figure, held more than 30 feet in the air by it’s spindly legs, while protectively carrying its clutch of marble eggs, would seem designed to evoke fear and disgust in viewers. However, Bourgeois’ intent is very different from this: “The Spider is an ode to my mother,” she said. “She was my best friend… Like spiders, my mother was very clever,” (

Use your online research skills to find images of Maman. Thinking about the line between affect and hysteria, think of ways that your own artistic practice might reflect personal experiences which inspire a different response in others than your own.

Nina Simone 1972, “My Sweet Lord”,  Emergency Ward, RCA Victor.

“My Sweet Lord” was written by George Harrison and has been reimagined by numerous artists but Nina Simone’s 18-minute rendition performed live at Fort Dix before a group of black soldiers is held up as one of the best versions of the song. The joyfulness and passion which Simone brings to the song, changing and improvising her own version of the lyrics, intermingled with a David Nelson poem “Today is a killer”, brings whole new layers of meaning to the text. Richard Elliot calls this song “a particular unfolding affect” (, an unfolding which is attained through the layering of the rhythm, melody, and interplay of the two sets of emotive lyrics that build to a screaming prayer that celebrates human existence.

Use your online research skills to find the original version of this song and the Nelson poem. Think back to our discussions of remix in week 4 and try to find the moments in the remixing here that kick off your affect.

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