Film Studies, Affect and Ethics

Victoria Grace Walden

In-keeping with Mona’s recent ’10 things I know about…’ blogs, I have accepted the challenge of attempting to summarise my own research in such a way. Here are 10 thoughts about affect and film scribed without reference to notes or quotation:

  1. Film phenomenologists such as Vivian Sobchack consider ‘affect’ to be the corporeal relationship between spectator and film;
  2. Laura Marks focuses specifically on the notion of haptic visuality (and briefly haptic aurality) considering the ability of the camera to ‘graze’ rather than gaze over surfaces, textures and spaces –to bring us closer to things which provoke sensuous memories of touch or movement;
  3. Psychologist Tomkin considers ‘affect’ to refer to intensity changes rooted inside the body;
  4. While, phenomenologists consider affect in relation to bodily reactions, it has often been used as an umbrella term of emotions, feelings and mood;
  5. Cognitive film theory, in its thinking about emotions, might be considered to identify ‘affect’ as related to character- or narrative-identification. Such thinking reinforces Christian Metz’s notions that the cinema screen is an illusionary, post-Lacanian mirror where we identify with a fantastical Other;
  6. This approach would suggest we respond to the diegesis as ‘that world over there’ –a hermeneutically closed space;
  7. If we are positioned outside the space of meaning-making during the film experience, it could be suggested that it is the film, not us, that is the ethical subject because the audience is considered a passive consumer of the film’s message. In this sense, Catherine Wheatley suggests that Hollywood-style narrative films encourage the spectator to only consider ethical questions after the film has finished and such questions tend to relate to the final consequences of narrative actions;
  8. However, sometimes films are playful with style, montage and reflexive in such ways that they slip between emotionally and critically engaging the spectator, and in doing so, turn the spectator’s attention towards their own body as well as the film’s. Thus, according to Wheatley, such films encourage spectators to confront their position as a participant during the experience. These films might be considered to be ‘morally consequent’ (to use Wheatley’s term);
  9. Ergo we might consider affect and ethics as intertwining concepts: when we watch a film we are an ethically inscribed body; we are embodied in the film experience as an ethical being. Ethics is after all, always inscribed in the actions we perform in our life;
  10. By turning our attention to the film experience rather than the film text we are turning towards a study of the ethical relationship between film and spectator.