Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation / Edition 1

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In Parables for the Virtual Brian Massuni views the body and media such as television, film, and the Internet as processes that operate on multiple registers of sensation beyond the reach of the reading techniques founded on the standard rhetorical and semiotic models. Renewing and assessing William James's radical empiricism and Henri Bergson's philosophy of perception through the filter of the post war French philosophy of Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault, Massumi links a cultural logic of variation to questions of movement, affect, and sensation. If such concepts are as fundamental as signs and significations, he argues, then a new set of theoretical issues appear, and with them potential new paths for the wedding of scientific and cultural theory.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Have you been disappointed by books that promise to bring ‘the body’ or ‘corporeality’ back into culture? Well, your luck is about to change. In this remarkable book Brian Massumi transports us from the dicey intersection between movement and sensation, through insightful explorations of affect and body image, to a creative reconfiguration of the ‘nature-culture continuum.’ The writing is experimental and adventurous, as one might expect from a writer who finds inventiveness to be the most distinctive attribute of thinking. The perspective Massumi unfolds will have a major effect on cultural theory for years to come.”—William Connolly, Johns Hopkins University

“It is not enough to describe Massumi’s book as a brilliant achievement. Seldom do we see a political thinker develop his or her ideas with such scrupulous attention to everyday human existence, creating a marvelously fluid architecture of thought around the fundamental question of what the fact of human embodiment does to the activity of thinking. Massumi’s vigorous critique of both social-constructionist and essentialist theorizations of embodied practices renews the Deleuzian tradition of philosophy for our times.”—Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

“This is an extraordinary work of scholarship and thought, the most thorough-going critique and reformulation of the culture doctrine that I have read in years. Massumi's prose has a dazzling and sometimes cutting clarity, and yet he bites into very big issues. People will be reading and talking about Parables for the Virtual for a long time to come.”— Meaghan Morris, author of Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture

"After Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Guattari, the great radical empiricist protest against naïve objectivism and naïve subjectivism resonates again, bringing wonder back into the most common day experiences. After reading Brian Massumi you will never listen to Sinatra or watch a soccer game the same way again."—Isabelle Stengers, Free University of Brussels

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328971
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,242,197
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Massumi is Associate Professor of Communications at the Université de Montréal. He is the author of User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari and First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot.

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Read an Excerpt

Parables for the virtual

Movement, affect, sensation
By Brian Massumi

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2897-6

Chapter One



A man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye and leaves.

Just images, no words, very simple. This was a story depicted in a short film shown on German television as filler between programs. The film drew complaints from parents reporting that their children had been frightened. That drew the attention of a team of researchers. Their subsequent study was notable for failing to find very much of what it was studying: cognition.

Researchers, headed by Hertha Sturm, used three versions of the film: the original wordless version and two versions with voice-overs added. The first voice-over version was dubbed "factual." It added a simple step-by-step account of the action as it happened. A second version was called emotional." It was largely the same as the factual version but included, at crucial turning points, words expressing the emotional tenor of the scene under way.

Groups of nine-year-old children were tested for recall and asked to rate the version they saw on a scale of "pleasantness." The factual version was consistently rated the least pleasant and was also the least remembered. The most pleasant was theoriginal wordless version, which was rated just slightly above the emotional. And it was the emotional version that was most remembered.

This is already a bit muddling. Something stranger happened when the subjects of the study were asked to rate the individual scenes in the film both on a "happy-sad" scale and a "pleasant-unpleasant" scale. The "sad" scenes were rated the most pleasant; the sadder the better.

The hypothesis that immediately suggests itself is that in some kind of precocious anti-Freudian protest, the children were equating arousal with pleasure. But this being an empirical study, the children were wired. Their physiological reactions were monitored. The factual version elicited the highest level of arousal, even though it was the most unpleasant (that is, "happy") and made the least long-lasting impression. The children, it turns out, were physiologically split: factuality made their heart beat faster and deepened their breathing, but it also made their skin resistance fall. (Galvanic skin response measures autonomic reaction.) The original nonverbal version elicited the greatest response from their skin.

From the tone of their report, it seems that the researchers were a bit taken aback by their results. They observed that the difference between sadness and happiness is not all that it's cracked up to be and worried that the difference between children and adults was also not all that it was cracked up to be (judging by studies of adult retention of news broadcasts). Their only positive conclusion emphasized the primacy of the affective in image reception.

Accepting and expanding upon that, it may be noted that the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect: it would appear that the strength or duration of an image's effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way. This is not to say that there is no connection and no logic. What is meant here by the content of the image is its indexing to conventional meanings in an inter-subjective context, its sociolinguistic qualification. This indexing fixes the determinate qualities of the image; the strength or duration of the image's effect could be called its intensity. What comes out here is that there is no correspondence or conformity between qualities and intensity. If there is a relation, it is of another nature.

To translate this negative observation into a positive one: the event of image reception is multilevel, or at least bi-level. There is an immediate bifurcation in response into two systems. The level of intensity is characterized by a crossing of semantic wires: on it, sadness is pleasant. The level of intensity is organized according to a logic that does not admit the excluded middle. This is to say that it is not semantically or semiotically ordered. It does not fix distinctions. Instead, it vaguely but insistently connects what is normally indexed as separate. When asked to signify itself, it can only do so in a paradox. There is disconnection of signifying order from intensity-which constitutes a different order of connection operating in parallel. The gap noted earlier is not only between content and effect. It is also between the form of content-signification as a conventional system of distinctive difference-and intensity. The disconnection between form/content and intensity/effect is not just negative: it enables a different connectivity, a different difference, in parallel.

Both levels, intensity and qualification, are immediately embodied. Intensity is embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin-at the surface of the body, at its interface with things. Depth reactions belong more to the form/content (qualification) level, even though they also involve autonomic functions such as heartbeat and breathing. The reason may be that they are associated with expectation, which depends on consciously positioning oneself in a line of narrative continuity. Modulations of heartbeat and breathing mark a reflux of consciousness into the autonomic depths, coterminous with a rise of the autonomic into consciousness. They are a conscious-autonomic mix, a measure of their participation in one another. Intensity is beside that loop, a nonconscious, never-to-be-conscious autonomic remainder. It is outside expectation and adaptation, as disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration, as it is from vital function. It is narratively delocalized, spreading over the generalized body surface like a lateral backwash from the function-meaning interloops that travel the vertical path between head and heart.

Language, though headstrong, is not simply in opposition to intensity. It would seem to function diverentially in relation to it. The factual version of the snowman story was dampening. Matter-of-factness dampens intensity. In this case, matter-of-factness was a doubling of the sequence of images with narration expressing in as objective a manner as possible the commonsense function and consensual meaning of the movements perceived on screen. This interfered with the images' effect. The emotional version added a few phrases that punctuated the narrative line with qualifications of the emotional content, as opposed to the objective-narrative content. The qualifications of emotional content enhanced the images' effect, as if they resonated with the level of intensity rather than interfering with it. An emotional qualification breaks narrative continuity for a moment to register a state-actually to re-register an already felt state, for the skin is faster than the word.

The relationship between the levels of intensity and qualification is not one of conformity or correspondence but rather of resonation or interference, amplification or dampening. Linguistic expression can resonate with and amplify intensity at the price of making itself functionally redundant. When on the other hand it doubles a sequence of movements in order to add something to it in the way of meaningful progression-in this case a more or less definite expectation, an intimation of what comes next in a conventional progression-then it runs counter to and dampens the intensity. Intensity would seem to be associated with nonlinear processes: resonation and feedback that momentarily suspend the linear progress of the narrative present from past to future. Intensity is qualifiable as an emotional state, and that state is static-temporal and narrative noise. It is a state of suspense, potentially of disruption. It is like a temporal sink, a hole in time, as we conceive of it and narrativize it. It is not exactly passivity, because it is filled with motion, vibratory motion, resonation. And it is not yet activity, because the motion is not of the kind that can be directed (if only symbolically) toward practical ends in a world of constituted objects and aims (if only on screen). Of course, the qualification of an emotion is quite often, in other contexts, itself a narrative element that moves the action ahead, taking its place in socially recognized lines of action and reaction. But to the extent that it is, it is not in resonance with intensity. It resonates to the exact degree to which it is in excess of any narrative or functional line.

In any case, language doubles the flow of images on another level, on a different track. There is a redundancy of resonation that plays up or amplifies (feeds back disconnection, enabling a different connectivity) and a redundancy of signification that plays out or linearizes (jumps the feedback loop between vital function and meaning into lines of socially valorized action and reaction). Language belongs to entirely different orders depending on which redundancy it enacts. Or, it always enacts both more or less completely: two languages, two dimensions of every expression, one superlinear, the other linear. Every event takes place on both levels-and between both levels, as they resonate together to form a larger system composed of two interacting subsystems following entirely diverent rules of formation. For clarity, it might be best to give different names to the two halves of the event. In this case, suspense could be distinguished from and interlinked with expectation as superlinear and linear dimensions of the same image-event, which is at the same time an expression-event.

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 favor of structure. Much could be gained by integrating the dimension of intensity into cultural theory. The stakes are the new. For structure is the place where nothing ever happens, that explanatory heaven in which all eventual permutations are prefigured in a self-consistent set of invariant generative rules. Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity, of rules into paradox. It is the suspension of the invariance that makes happy happy, sad sad, function function, and meaning mean. Could it be that it is through the expectant suspension of that suspense that the new emerges? As if an echo of irreducible excess, of gratuitous amplification, piggybacked on the reconnection to progression, bringing a tinge of the unexpected, the lateral, the unmotivated, to lines of action and reaction. A change in the rules. The expression-event is the system of the inexplicable: emergence, into and against regeneration (the reproduction of a structure). In the case of the snowman, the unexpected and inexplicable that emerged along with the generated responses had to do with the differences between happiness and sadness, children and adults, not being all they're cracked up to be, much to our scientific chagrin: a change in the rules. Intensity is the unassimilable.

For present purposes, intensity will be equated with affect. There seems to be a growing feeling within media, literary, and art theory that affect is central to an understanding of our information- and image-based late capitalist culture, in which so-called master narratives are perceived to have foundered. Fredric Jameson notwithstanding, belief has waned for many, but not affect. If anything, our condition is characterized by a surfeit of it. The problem is that there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect. Our entire vocabulary has derived from theories of signification that are still wedded to structure even across irreconcilable differences (the divorce proceedings of poststructuralism: terminable or interminable?). In the absence of an asignifying philosophy of affect, it is all too easy for received psychological categories to slip back in, undoing the considerable deconstructive work that has been effectively carried out by poststructuralism. Affect is most often used loosely as a synonym for emotion. But one of the clearest lessons of this first story is that emotion and affect-if affect is intensity-follow different logics and pertain to diverent orders.

An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognized. It is crucial to theorize the difference between affect and emotion. If some have the impression that affect has waned, it is because affect is unqualified. As such, it is not ownable or recognizable and is thus resistant to critique.

It is not that there are no philosophical antecedents to draw on. It is just that they are not the usual ones for literary and cultural studies. On many of these points there is a formidable philosophical precursor: on the difference in nature between affect and emotion; on the irreducibly bodily and autonomic nature of affect; on affect as a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of what might be called "passion," to distinguish it both from passivity and activity; on the equation between affect and effect; and on the form/content of conventional discourse as constituting a separate stratum running counter to the full registering of affect and its affirmation, its positive development, its expression as and for itself. On all of these points, it is the name of Baruch Spinoza that stands out. The title of his central work suggests a designation for the project of thinking affect: Ethics.


Another story, this time about the brain: the mystery of the missing half second.

Experiments were performed on patients who had been implanted with cortical electrodes for medical purposes. Mild electrical pulses were administered to the electrode and also to points on the skin. In either case, the stimulation was felt only if it lasted more than half a second: half a second, the minimum perceivable lapse. If the cortical electrode was fired a half second before the skin was stimulated, patients reported feeling the skin pulse first. The researcher speculated that sensation involves a "backward referral in time"-in other words, that sensation is organized recursively before being linearized, before it is redirected outwardly to take its part in a conscious chain of actions and reactions. Brain and skin form a resonating vessel. Stimulation turns inward, is folded into the body, except that there is no inside for it to be in, because the body is radically open, absorbing impulses quicker than they can be perceived, and because the entire vibratory event is unconscious, out of mind. Its anomaly is smoothed over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality.

What happens during the missing half second? A second experiment gave some hints.

Brain waves of healthy volunteers were monitored by an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. The subjects were asked to flex a finger at a moment of their choosing and to recall the time of their decision by noting the spatial clock position of a revolving dot. The flexes came 0.2 seconds after they clocked the decision, but the EEG machine registered significant brain activity 0.3 seconds before the decision. Again, a half-second lapse between the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression.

Asked to speculate on what implications all this might have for a doctrine of free will, the researcher, Benjamin Libet, proposes that "we may exert free will not by initiating intentions but by vetoing, acceding or otherwise responding to them after they arise."


Excerpted from Parables for the virtual by Brian Massumi Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Concrete Is as Concrete Doesn't
1. The Autonomy of Affect
2. The Bleed: Where Body Meets Image
3. The Political Economy of Belonging and the Logic of Relation
4. The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc
5. On the Superiority of the Analog
6. Chaos in the "Total Field" of Vision
7. The Brightness Confound
8. Strange Horizon: Buildings, Biograms, and the Body Topologic
9. Too-Blue: Color-Patch for an Expanded Empiricism
Works Cited
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