In Search of a Radical Formalism

Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects

Duke University Press, 368pp, £15.99, ISBN 9780822356561

reviewed by Tom Hastings

Eugenie Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects is overflowing with words that splice subjects together in numerous, thrilling combinations. At times a nightmare to read (when one wishes to sense something beyond their running form), Brinkema’s use of language otherwise brilliantly materialises the book’s central thesis. And as we shall see, it is important that the readerly movement from pleasuring discomfort, to Angst, to joyful understanding is captured; that it is there, in the form of the text.

I first encountered Eugenie Brinkema – a film and media theorist who teaches in the Literature department at MIT – in 2012, at the Action conference, run by World Picture Journal, and held at the University of Sussex. The 20-minute paper she presented there performed a close reading of a horror film titled L’Intérieur (2007), directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Whatever diegetic exegesis took place has long since slipped from memory, leaving in its stead a strong sense of horror, and what it means to act, that I cannot now lay claim to because it is tied to the act of reading that exposed it.

To expand, horror itself remains linked to Brinkema’s interpretation; an interpretation that (and this is what I remember) did not lay its spoils at the feet of the ‘psychologized characters who express emotion… [or the] corporealized spectators who consume it.’ Instead, horror was shown to assume a form of its own that was not for-me but was still visibly there, in the ‘cinematic structure’ of the film. But what does it mean for the structure of a film to contain, or give rise to a form that exists outside it in some way; to one that ‘points to a subjectless affect, bound up in an exteriority, uncoupled from emotion, interiority, expressivity, mimesis, humanism, spectatorship, and bodies’? This is the question posed by The Forms of the Affects; because for Brinkema, affect is not any of these things – not the spectator’s ‘shuddering skin’, but the sequencing of a movement; not the ‘theorist’s private buzz’, but a specific form that needs to be read for.

The book opens with a historicising line: ‘Is there any remaining doubt that we are now fully within the Episteme of the Affect?’ As Brinkema informs the reader through an introductory ten-point manifesto, 90s film theorists such as Steven Shaviro, Giuliana Bruno and Lisa Cartwright turned to affect – here read emotion, feeling – to correct a perceived omission in the post-structuralist 70s and 80s criticism of the Screen school. This Lacanian and Althusser-led scholarship was charged with positing a ‘disembodied, immobile, textually-positioned spectator’. Brinkema’s aim in writing here is to awaken and reverse the disciplinary stakes of the ‘affective turn’; by rehabilitating a degree of ‘theoretical generalizability’ proper to scholarship’s extensive, questioning movement. Yet as the author carefully instructs the reader through the tracing of an intellectual history, the terms of the debate are not so simple.

As the reader is led to discover, the point is not to dispense with the body’s reactive states altogether, but to read them as already apparent ‘with and in forms’ that have historically been available to the reader’s ‘interpretative labour’. This, the author argues, necessitates a ‘radical formalism in film and media studies [that] would take the measure of theory for form and the measure of form for affectivity’; one that would unfold what is named the mise-n’en-scène, or that which is ‘not enough put into the scene’. In other words – and this is the book’s self-professed ‘panic’ – ‘we have not yet asked enough of form’…

Eugenie Brinkema’s monograph comprises a non-linear sequence of chapter pairings, which chart a circuit through grief, disgust and anxiety till finally, the reader reaches the summit of joy: Gaudete. The formal structure of each affect is first extrapolated from a theoretical corpus, before the author sets about surveying its plasticity through the unravelling of a text. For example, take Brinkema’s treatment of grief. This weighty affect is historicised through a consideration of misery (dolore in St. Augustine) and the unbearable misery of light. Grief is then set against the work of mourning (Trauerarbeit) in Freud’s Trauer und Melancholie, and its subsequent configuration by psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche as Daueraffekt (‘an affect with duration’). In this way, Brinkema lays the grounds for a (critically) moving exploration of Roland Barthes’ meditations on Camera Lucida [La chambre Claire: this room, flooded with light]. The reader of Brinkema’s text will thus witness grief transform from a vague, stultifying burden into a form that endures beyond the subject (Nachleben) through that which remains illuminated.

By tracing a line from the early Freud of Mourning and Melancholia (1917) to the later, ‘well-lit’ writing of Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926), Brinkema demonstrates how the ‘work of mourning’ is wilfully transmuted into ‘melancholia’s productive play’ through the structuring of light. But rather than end there, Brinkema mobilises this early development as an antecedent to telling examples of recent bad critical writing. For instance, the reader is alerted to an anthology titled Loss (2003) (eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian), which claims to serve up the ‘positive potential of melancholia’:

No longer a private psychic experience, melancholia in this school of thought is figured as what grounds collective politics and remembrance… Melancholy comes to take on every positive conceptual attribute previously denied it.

Brinkema solders her line of argument through proofs such as these that ‘ring true’ because they bring to light a kind of critical jouissance we know (at heart) to be unproductive. In this way, the author first accelerates and diffuses the target-affect’s emissive vitalism, before returning it to a historically grounded form. This is how I imagine it must feel to encounter a text from the standpoint of a mobile erudition. As Walter Benjamin writes in one fragment of The Arcades Project: ‘The text is a forest in which the reader is a hunter. Rustling in the undergrowth – the idea, skittish prey, the citation – another piece “in the bag”. (Not every reader encounters the idea.)’ Brinkema’s incisive ability to read against the grain does more than just locate the idea –she actively transforms it through a rendering that says something about the sciatic lining of the ‘bag’ without tipping its contents on the floor…

In the next chapter, grief’s formal relationship to illumination is clarified through a turn to Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games (1997), in which two ‘well-dressed young men’ invade a bourgeois residence and ‘play a series of sadistic Spiele with the family, ranging from betting that the family will be dead in twelve hours… to dares involving the mother’s undress.’ Working against the standard critical reception of the film’s slow violence, Brinkema turns our critical gaze to ‘a stunning, ten-minute, spectacular (read, non-narrative) presentation of light’, in which the victims are captured in an unchanging pose: alone, still, weeping.

Brinkema masterfully checks the audience’s knee-jerk response, before suggesting that grief is most legible here, at the point of least expectation: the ‘affectless’ apex of Haneke’s ‘rigorous avoidance of classical narrative, character psychology, and diegetic affectivity in place of a polemically formalist modernism.’ Brinkema figures this scene as a separable ‘tableau’, informed by iconographies of Dutch painting and ‘a collapse of the cinematic into the theatrical’ that is also akin in ‘its play of posture and stillness to the general image of a photographic image.’ Crucially, the nothingness, or ‘suspension of revelation’ that one witnesses here, is a result of the structural intrusion of other media (theatre, photography) and not just the slowing down of action:

The undialectical is given its force, its power and affect as the duration of suspended form. Grief does not dialectically trans-form; it inheres in and distorts form. The image thus does not represent affective force but is illuminated by this force, and the image does not represent the form of grief for a spectator but is constituted as illumination by it.

A careful distinction is made; it is because form itself is put to work, through choreographed lighting and the sequence of fixed long takes, that grief is able to crease the film’s fabric, without simply dyeing it red. The reader of Brinkema’s narrative is thus transported from the ‘productive labour of Trauerarbeit’ [work of mourning], which, upon reflection, begins to feel as unspecific as it sounds.

‘The task’, as the author artfully surmises, ‘is to read for the form of the nothing without obliterating it, to read with loss instead of reading to fill loss.’ One might argue that this kind of reading is impossible – that theory always wins at the expense of the text’s particularity. However, The Forms of the Affects shows how this obviously legitimate concern also allows the reader to settle for their psychological reactions, which are then unashamedly narrativised and written back in to the text. This book functions as an emergency brake. Not only does the author establish disciplinary grounds for a continued conversation between film studies and affect theory but also, more importantly, she practically shows how a close reading can and must restore meaning to form without collapsing the reader into the text and the text into the reader.
Tom Hastings is a PhD candidate at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at University of Leeds. He runs the art writing blog