Thursday, 24 April 2014

They Draw Us Into The Compound

I stumbled across this article by Nathan Altice, on his Metopal website, which ponders the appeal of the Fast and Furious franchise. Responding to a series of tweets in which fellow academic Ian Bogost described the films as 'entirely without affect', Altice suggests that this isn't exactly true—it's just that the appeal is something more rudimentary than the things we traditionally expect from storytelling, along the lines of emotional investment in characters or meaningful narrative. He invokes the definition of 'affect' put forward by well-known philosophical types Deleuze and Guattari, quoting this definition, from their book, What Is Philosophy?:
The affect is not the passage from one lived state to another but man's nonhuman becoming...becoming is neither an imitation nor an experienced sympathy, nor even an imaginary identification. It is not resemblance, although there is resemblance. But it is only a produced resemblance. Rather, becoming is an extreme contiguity within a coupling of two sensations without resemblance...
Burnout Paradise screenshot: sparks flying between car and concrete barrier

This is pretty vague on its own (my first reaction: what?), but in other words, Altice says, 'it's a sensation of vibrant in-betweenness', which in Fast and Furious is located between human and car. The appeal of the films is the 'human-car affect', the sensation of experiencing this weird, indeterminate blend between the two, which then stimulates and excites us in its own specific ways. Altice concludes,
It isn't a matter of liking or disliking the films according to their technical acumen or storytelling or even their car showcasing. It is a question of participating in its peculiar affectivity. As D+G say, 'It should be said of all art that, in relation to the percepts or visions they give us, artists are presenters of affects, the inventors and creators of affects. They not only create them in their work, they give them to us and make us become with them, they draw us into the compound.'
This was my first encounter with Deleuze and Guattari, so I ended up reading around the subject a little bit to get a better handle on the concept. The first handy article I found was this one by Eric Shouse, which explains the difference between 'affect' and 'feeling' or 'emotion'. Skip to paragraph seven, read through to the end and you'll get the idea. It seems to have a lot to do with our inescapable nature as nervous meatsacks, and the fact that we kid ourselves about having any such thing as a mind-body distinction. 'At any moment,' says Shouse, 'hundreds, perhaps thousands of stimuli impinge upon the human body and the body responds by infolding them all at once and registering them as an intensity. Affect is this intensity.'

Burnout Paradise screenshot: sparks fly as two cars grind against each other

As far as I can tell, it's about how we physically respond to the world—and art—as full-body reactive circuits, hormones pumping, heart beating and nerves tingling. It's an abstract thing that has to do with our bodies always being tuned into our environment, as much as it relates to any specific emotional attachment or meaning. Shouse, quoting Teresa Brennan, says:
"The transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the 'individual' and the 'environment'" [...] The importance of affect rests upon the fact that in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her non-conscious affective resonance with the source of the message.
The most obvious example of how this works is music:
Music provides perhaps the clearest example of how the intensity of the impingement of sensations on the body can "mean" more to people than meaning itself. As Jeremy Gilbert put it, "Music has physical effects which can be identified, described and discussed but which are not the same thing as it having meanings, and any attempt to understand how music works in culture must ... be able to say something about those effects without trying to collapse them into meanings." In a lot of cases, the pleasure that individuals derive from music has less to do with the communication of meaning, and far more to do with the way that a particular piece of music "moves" them.
Burnout Paradise screenshot: a car flies into the air, leaving a trail of smoke

Similarly, to go back to Fast and Furious, it seems like common sense to suggest that the appeal of an action film is the excitement of the action itself, as much as any interest in the story or emotional attachment to the characters enacting it. Thinking of it this way, I guess 'affect' is something that can be for its own sake, or it could be used in tandem with any other meanings we want to convey (like in a concept album or an attitudinal narrative, say). In any case, we engage with art like we engage with the world, responding in ways inseparable from our physical bodies.

Where this Deleuzian idea of 'affect' gets really interesting, though, is with the concept of 'becoming'. I came across this glossary that defines it pretty well (and I present no explanation for those non-sequitur 'back to' links... investigate for yourself). It seems to come hand in hand with the definition that's given on the same page for 'assemblages', so it helps to read both. But in the words of author Davin Heckman:
As Deleuze and Guattari explain, the process of "becoming-" is not one of imitation or analogy, it is generative of a new way of being that is a function of influences rather than resemblances. The process is one of removing the element from its original functions and bringing about new ones.
 In other words, Altice suggests that in Fast and Furious, this 'new way of being' is generated by the merging influences of human and car—'"passing one to the other" in a "zone of indetermination, of indiscernability"'. According to Deleuze and Guattari, 'in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification'. These movements of destratification are 'becomings'.

Burnout Paradise screenshot: a glitched-out car silhouette against a blurred background

Importantly, there's a difference between 'becoming' and 'being': the 'human-car affect' in these films is not about audience or characters literally identifying as cars, or wanting to 'be' them. 'Car-becoming' is an abstracted, somewhat indefinable experience where the boundaries separating car and human are broken down, both points of reference changed by each other to create something new.

One of the first things I thought of after reading the Metopal article was the video game Burnout Paradise. It's a game where you choose from a variety of cars to engage freely in aggressive, destructive activities all around its open world city, essentially smashing up either your own car or the cars around you. You perform stunts that hurtle you through billboards, ram other drivers off the road during races, or simply cause as much wanton destruction as you can.

When you crash, which happens a lot, the game slips seamlessly into slow motion so you can see it all play out at various cinematic angles, metal crumpling, vehicles spinning, parts flying everywhere. Aside from the annoying DJ voiceover, there are no humans; it's a city populated entirely by vehicles, devoid of pedestrians and even of drivers (save for when you ride motorbikes and it'd look weird without one, though that's jarring in its own way). There's no meaning here, no story, and even the challenges of the game seem subordinate to revelling in the destruction. The experience is almost totally about affect, to an even greater degree than Fast and Furious.

If 'car-becoming' sounds a bit absurd, or like some especially off-the-wall branch of New Age pretension ('breathe in, breathe out, feel yourself flowing through the gear shift, the engine, the wheels; meld your soul to the leather bucket seats...'), a game like Burnout Paradise might just be that absurd. At literally any moment during the game, you can press a button and enter the ridiculous Showtime mode, which allows you to bounce and catapult your car around, colliding with other vehicles for points and causing complete mayhem all around you, sometimes until there's nothing left of your vehicle but a compacted steel cube.

It's this weird, abstract, scrap metal joy, a bizarre liminal state between being and controlling, agency and metal objectness, without quite being either. If we consider the ways we're traditionally thought of as projecting onto in-game avatars, how do we project onto these cars in this city with no humans? 'Car-becoming', or something like it, seems like it might just explain what's happening there. (I also wonder how far this would go to answering the ontological trickery of video gaming in general—are you, say, 'being Lara', or 'Lara-becoming'?)

Essentially, in every 'becoming', we're recontextualised, our bodies and selves reframed, and this is something that's supposed to happen to us all the time. Again, from What Is Philosophy?:
We are not in the world, we become with the world; we become by contemplating it. Everything is vision, becoming. We become universes. Becoming animal, plant, molecular, becoming zero. [...] This is true of all the arts: what strange becomings unleash music across its "melodic landscapes" and its "rhythmic characters," as Messiaen says, by combining the molecular and the cosmic, stars, atoms, and birds in the same being of sensation? What terror haunts Van Gogh's head, caught in a becoming-sunflower?

Burnout Paradise screenshot: a crumpled car wreck

But there can't be resonance without movement. The affective resonance of anything is located in the back-and-forth instability between it and you, always in flux, never quite settling. We could draw a parallel with how metaphors work: what's interesting and compelling about any metaphor is exactly where its two points of reference blend, the strange alchemy that goes on there, creating something mercurial and new that's both and neither of those references. A good metaphor is inherently destabilising, breaking down conceptual territories.

The Deleuzian model of assemblages and becomings is neat because it allows for the fact that meaning in art is never quite stable, always subject to contexts that are shifting and fluid, while at the same time still allowing us to explore the aesthetic effects of things. Incidentally, I think this is a very good reason to move conversations about art away from objects to experiences, as advocated in discussions of games by critics and creators like Mattie Brice. Focusing on experiences gives us access to the affects and 'becomings' that slip beyond our more rigid meanings and definitions, rather than simply leaving us to talk about features, about 'technical acumen or storytelling or even [...] car showcasing' (Altice). After all, when you try to describe what any piece of art 'does' aesthetically, what you're actually trying to figure out is how you respond to it.

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