MA2 Studio Practice – Presentation on Affect

We were asked to make a presentation on various subjects and myself and Rachel were given the subject of ‘Affect’. Here is the presentation. Info graphics were made by Rachel.

The original concept for our presentation was to think of  ‘The Art World’ as the only news source available to us in the world. To get news, we would have to visit a gallery or exhibition and try to view the work. What is it going to tell us and how will it affect us? At this exhibition you are imagining the world and everything that is going on in it and this has been channelled and absorbed into the artwork that you are looking at and then filtered back out to you as the viewer. What kind of affect or affects would this viewing experience have on you?

So we played with the idea of delivering ‘The Art World News’ and talking and discussing works in the fashion of a news programme. Hence it was one single presentation with duel commentary. However in reality, it just proved to be far too time consuming and too much in terms of choreography and scripting. We did present it together, but omitted the news reader concept.

Affect theory

Rachel Macmanus & Alan Rutherford

1.0 The definition of Affect

An affect must occur before you can have an effect.

2.0 What is Affect Theory ?

  • The noun affect entered the English language in the 14th century. Derived from
    the Latin word affectus, disposition
  • First recorded in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troylus and Cressida
  • Affect is often, but not exclusively, used as a synonym for passion, sentiment,
    mood, feeling or emotion.
  • Affect Theory: Most discussion of affect in aesthetics and media theory revolves
    around questions of the production and transmission of affect.

2. 1 The roots of Affect – Aristotle

He argues that affect is:

“that which leads one’s condition to become so transformed that his judgment is affected, and which is accompanied by pleasure and pain”
(Aristotle, “Rhetoric” 6).

Aristotle’s affect is a force embodied through pleasure and pain that shifts our condition and our judgement.

2.2 The roots of Affect – Plato

Is affect produced through mimesis?
Music’s ability to produce affect – In The Republic, Plato proposes that each mode of music is distinguished by its imitation of human action. For example,

“that mode which would appropriately imitate the sounds and accents of a man who is courageous in warlike deeds and every violent works”

is designed to:

“produce the finest imitation of the sounds of unfortunate and fortunate, moderate and courageous men”

and thus – inspire virtue.

2.3 The roots of Affect – Eduard Hanslick (in relation to Plato)

19th century music theorist, Eduard Hanslick, insists that the claim that music produces affect is philosophically incoherent. Hanslick argues that for an affect to be produced, there must be an object of attention. For example, when we are afraid, we are always afraid of something (the bear, the dark, the serial killer in the closet). Music cannot be a significant object for our affects, therefore it cannot produce any affects (Kivy, 26).

2.4 The roots of Affect – Spinoza (1632 – 1677)

In the Ethics, he defines affect as

“the modifications of the body whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modification”

Affects are states of mind and body that are related to (but not exactly synonymous with) feelings and emotions, of which he says there are three primary kinds: pleasure or joy (laetitia), pain or sorrow (tristitia) and desire (cupiditas) or appetite

Affects are difficult to grasp and conceptualize because, as Spinoza says,

“an affect or passion of the mind [animi pathema] is a confused idea”

which is only perceived by the increase or decrease it causes in the body’s vital force.

2.5 Affect: contemporary theory – Guattari and Deleuze

‘Affect is a process of existential appropriation through the continual creation of heterogeneous durations of being and, given this, we would certainly be better advised to cease treating it under the aegis of scientific paradigms and to deliberately turn ourselves toward ethical and aesthetic paradigms’
(Félix Guattari in Gary Genosko’s The Guattari Reader, 1996: 159).

Or this can be translated as….

“Affects make up the relations within the temporary worlds we are constantly creating, and by which we are constantly being created. Affect involves the moment to moment question of being in the world, in all its constant change.”
Andrew Murphie

3.0 Affect- ‘The excluded middle’

Brian Massumi, a highly regarded contemporary Affect theorist, used Aristotle’s term ‘The Excluded Middle’ to structure his theory that affect sits between the thinker and the thought, the subject and the object, the feeler and the felt for example.

Affect is the excluded middle between these entities.affect-2.png

4.0 Affect: contemporary theory – selection

4.1 Brian Massumi: Affect is a visceral, raw pre-feeling. Feelings are socially constructed distortions of affect. Affect is the manifestation of the body’s internalization of an intensity. It cannot be rendered by language or any other kind of transmittable information. Affect is perpetually undulating and reforming. It is more bodily than cognitive

4.2 Theresa Brennan: Teresa Brennan defines affect partially as, “any evaluative (positive or negative) orientation towards an object.” This idea identifies affect as a judgement rather than an emotion or an expression of an emotion. The parts of affect that can evaluate and judge will distinguish the physiological responses it evokes from those associated with influxes of passion or emotion

4.3 Sarah Ahmed: In contrast with Massumi, Ahmed doesn’t believe affect to be autonomous. Affect is a corresponding element of a preexisting object. She observes affect through how it relates to the experiential, and how our surrounding worlds affect us

4.4 Megan Watkins: Affect has the ability to rouse people in one moment, and then move quickly away from the minds of the affected. Watkins questions whether or not there are residual effects of affect. She notes Spinoza’s distinction between affectus (the force of the object catalyzing affect), and affectio (the impact of affectus)


5.0 How Affect Theory is applicable to the Art World

Is the work the affect and the audience the effected?


How does this artwork below affect you?

Martin Creed, Light going on and off. Work no 227. (2000)

Taking the idea that the artist’s job is to produce an affect/affects through their
How does the artist use affect?

In What Is Philosophy, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze use these conceptions of affect to develop their sense of the aesthetic. They argue that art is:

“a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects”

(Deleuze, 163). Here, affect is both embodied and bound up with consciousness. For the two, the artist can and must invent new affects,

“A great novelist is above all an artist who invents unknown or unrecognized affects and brings them to light as the becoming of his characters”

From this, Guattari and Deleuze suggest that the artist’s job is not just to create affects, but to endeavour to create new affects through their works.


6.0 Categorical Affects V Vitality Affects

There are two well recognised categorical pathways in Affect Theory:

Categorical Affects V Vitality Affects.

A number of theorists, from Aristotle to Tomkins, attempted to categorize affects, in order to explain the spectrum of human emotion. Vitality affects, in contrast, are defined as affects that possess infinite variety. (Daniel Stern)

Vitality affects are worth considering in a little detail because they explain a great deal about affect in general. We will first look more at Categorical Affects.


7.0 Looking at the ‘Nine Affects’ of Silvan s. Tomkins


Charles Darwin (The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals [1872]) there were six basic emotions: Surprise, Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Disgust, Anger.

Silvan S Tompkins (1911-1991), who was a psychologist and personality theorist went on to develop this further and defined 9 distinct affects. Tompkins categorized the affects in an attempt to explain the expression of emotion in all humans.

The nine affects are mostly in pairs, and represent the least and the most intense expression of a particular affect. They are accompanied by its biological expression. It’s important to note that these affects are different to emotion, which is a much messier combinations of aspects of affect.

7.1 Categorizing the Nine Affects

The six negative affects include anger-rage, fear-terror, distress-anguish, disgust,
dissmell (a word Tomkins coined to describe “turning up one”s nose” at someone
or something in a rejecting way) and shame-humiliation. Surprise-startle is the
neutral affect, which functions like a reset button. The two positive affects are
interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy.

These affects combine with each other and with any form of experience to become
our complex emotional life.
(Ted Wachtel, Paul McCold, 2004)


Positive: Enjoyment/Joy
For example: a reaction to success or an impulse to share. Typical facial expressions include smiling, lips wide and out.

Positive: Interest/Excitement
For example: a reaction to a new situation/impulse to attend. Facial expressions include eyebrows down, eyes tracking, eyes looking, closer listening.

Neutral: Surprise/Startle
For example: a reaction to sudden change/resets impulses. You might observe someone’s eyebrows up, or eyes blinking.

Negative: Anger/Rage
For example: a reaction to threat/impulse to attack. A person could be frowning, have a clenched jaw or a red face

Negative: Disgust
For example: a reaction to bad taste/impulse to discard. You might see the lower lip raised and protruded, head forward and down.

Negative: Dissmell
A reaction to a bad smell/impulse to avoid – similar to distaste.
You would see the lower lip raised and protruded, the head might be forward and down

Negative: Distress / Anger
Classed as a reaction to loss/impulse to mourn.
Expressions would include crying, rhythmic sobbing, arched eyebrows, mouth lowered.

Negative: Fear / Terror
This is a reaction to danger/impulse to run or hide. You would observe a frozen stare, a pale face, coldness, sweat, erect hair.

Negative: Shame / Humiliation
The reaction to failure/impulse to review behaviour. Eyes could be eyes lowered, the head down and averted, blushing.


8.0 Vitality Affects V Categorical Affects

We know from Slide 15 that we can differentiate “categorical affects” from those that possess infinite variety (Daniel Stern).
For Daniel Stern the latter are “vitality affects”. Vitality affects are worth considering in a little detail because they explain a great deal about affect in general.

“Vitality affects do not fit” with the theories of categorical affects, “Yet they are definitely feelings and belong in the domain of affective experience .. Vitality affects occur both in the presence of and in the absence of categorical affects. For example, a ‘rush’ of anger or joy, a perceived flooding of light, and acceleration of thought, an unmeasurable wave of feeling evoked by music … can all feel like ‘rushes’”
(Daniel Stern [2000] The Interpersonal World of the Infant Basic Books: 55).

Vitality affects are largely where the action is in terms of change, or fundamental affects.
(Andrew Murphie)

Does this art work affect you in a categorical or vital way?

2 Fried Eggs and a kebab. Sarah Lucas, 1992.

Now we move on to look at artists and a selection of responses to their work within a critical context in relation to affect.


8.0 Work within a critical context in relation to affect


8.1 Francis Bacon


… there are no feelings in Bacon: there are nothing but affects; that is, “sensations” and “instincts,” according to the formula of naturalism. Sensation is what determines instinct at a particular moment, just as instinct is the passage of one sensation to another, the search for the “best” sensation (not the most agreeable sensation, but the one that fills the flesh at a particular moment of its descent, contradiction or dilation …

(Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation:39)


8.2 Clement Greenberg

Art which exists to produce affect is “kitsch.”
In his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch“, Clement Greenberg compares two paintings, one by Illya Repin (top), one by Pablo Picasso (bottom) to demonstrate his conception of Kitsch. He writes:

“Where Picasso paints cause, Repin paints effect. Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin,or kitsch, is synthetic art”
(Greenberg, 15)

Kitsch produces affect without demanding any work by the viewer.


8.3 Modernism vs Postmodernism – Waning of affect

Fredric Jameson said shifts in social arrangements produce changes
in both media and affect.

A distinctive characteristic of the postmodern era (or late capitalism)
is the ‘waning of affect”

Jameson compares two images, Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and
Andy Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust Shoes’ to demonstrate this ‘waning’.

Munch’s image is an exemplary demonstration of the way affect
functions in modernist images. Affect shapes representation itself —
the anguish of the screamer mutates the landscape.

In the ‘postmodern’ Diamond Dust Shoes, human affect has waned.
What remains is an endless field of cool commodities.


8.4 Personal affect


This painting by Jenny Saville affects me, the viewer very strongly. I feel its power and
calm sense of identity. Others will be very differently affected. How does this affect you?


9.0 Has affect actually waned?

Examples of artworks that we think create affect and demonstrate the
different types of affect.


‘Straight’ by Ai Wei Wei, (90 tonnes of re-bar, straightened by hand). The bars
were mangled and twisted in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed over 69,000 people


damien hirst.jpg‘Mother & Child Divided’, Damien Hirst, 1993
Why do we need art to have affect and therefore create an effect?

Is there more value in just looking at the real issue or the object itself?


9.1 The Human Affect

‘House’ Rachel Whiteread, 1993
The geographic setting of an artwork greatly influences the affect it has. The artist wrote about this piece representing the humans who lived here in this house and this particular area. As the previous slide asks, does an artwork have to have an ‘affect’ or can it be appreciated purely as an object?


9.2 The Non-Political  Affect

‘Plexus & Pain’ by Gabriel Dawe (2012)
Works do not have to convey strong political message in response to death & destruction

They can work on their own volition and can be an act of beauty that counters the ills and negatives in society

Art for art’s sake, such as this colourful work.



The Art World as your news source.
Imagine this – that the next time you visit a gallery or exhibition, you try viewing the
work as your only source of information with regard to what is happening in the
world around you. If this is your only source, what is it going to tell you?

At this exhibition you are imagining the world and everything that is going on in it
has been channelled and absorbed into the artwork that you are looking at and
then filtered back out to you as the viewer. What kind of affect or affects does this
viewing experience have on you?



The Chicago School of Media Theory – Ben Shepard. 2017. Affect. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 October 2017].

Adventures in Jutland – Andrew Murphie. 2017. Affect—a basic summary of approaches,. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 4 October 2017].



One thought on “MA2 Studio Practice – Presentation on Affect

  1. Pingback: MA2 Studio Practice – Presentations 30/10/2017 | Alan Rutherford

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