Entranced: Affective Mimesis and Cinematic Identification

The cognitive approach to affect or emotion in cinema has made an important contribution to this area of film studies in recent years. Cognitivism has proven useful in the study of affect in particular genres such as horror,[1] as well as understanding how viewers might experience filmic emotions more generally.[2] However, there is a potential problem with some cognitive approaches: they are unable to account for different emotional reactions among spectators. This article will use utilise use Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s reading of the role of affectivity in Freud’s theory of “transference” to explore this issue. Cognitive film theory’s treatment of the viewer and the text as strictly separate entities will also be challenged. I will argue that they are born together in affect through identification. However, this perspective will not entail a substantial engagement with psychoanalytic film theory. While Borch-Jacobsen’s critiques of Freud and Lacan are potentially significant for this area of film studies, especially for theories of the gaze, this merits a separate investigation.[3]

Cognitive Film Theory and Viewers’ Emotions

Cognitive work on cinema and the emotions is diverse, so a brief synthesis is appropriate. Cognitive theorists have explored a range of issues. They have argued that different film genres can be linked to specific emotions. They have theorised how viewer engagement with film characters can stimulate emotional responses. In terms of the relationship between film emotional reactions, cognitive scholars have concentrated largely on filmic narration. Cognitivists have also contested psychoanalytic models of identification and desire.

The research of cognitive film theorists into emotions is largely based on cognitive philosophy and “cognitive appraisal” psychology. Cognitivists often distinguish the concept of emotion from those of affect or mood. They do not deny that emotions have a physiological dimension, but argue that this is not sufficient explain emotions. Cognitivists have moved beyond the historical dichotomy between reason and passion in much of Western culture. They regard emotions as “a part of human systems of reason” (Murray Smith, 59). Greg Smith contends that emotions prototypically involve actions, goals and objects.[4] For example, fear will motivate us to flee danger: fleeing is the action. We fear some thing, say, a tiger: the tiger is the object. We try to reach safety; that is our goal. “Put simply, our assessment of an actual or fictional situation determines, alters, and/or colors our emotional response”.[5]  These assessments are cognitive because they entail “inferences, appraisals, judgements, hypotheses, etc.”[6] Cognitivists assume that the emotions are comprised of cognitive structures and processes that can be modelled like other mental activities. By contrast, they regard the concepts of affect or mood as broader or more diffuse states of feeling. These may not have clearly defined objects or goals.

Several cognitive film theorists argue that in cinema the viewer’s emotions are connected closely to film characters. Greg Smith shows that for Noel Carroll, Ed Tan and Torben Grodal, “filmic emotions are inextricably character-oriented. Dramatic characters provide clear objects for our emotions. They have goals, and they pursue them through a course of action” (“Local”, 105). Given that character traits and actions are part of a film’s narration, it is not surprising that cognitivists should link emotions to characters because “expectations, goals, and purposive actions are at the heart of both processes” (“Local”, 105). Carroll proposes that, “In horror fictions, the emotions of the audience are supposed to mirror those of the positive human characters in certain, but not all respects” (18). He claims that the horror film generates a particular emotion, “art-horror”. This is predicated on the presence of “good” fictional characters who experience fear and disgust when encountering the monster they judge to be dangerous and vile. If these conditions are satisfied, then audience members can feel art-horror through cognitive processes that involve a capacity to mentally construct and evaluate the circumstances in which the characters find themselves (79-87). In his view, the assumption that audience responses should parallel, and are often cued by, character reactions “enables us to look to works of horror themselves for evidence of the emotional response they want to engender” (30).

Carroll’s theory only applies to the horror film. Murray Smith offers a broader account of how viewer interaction with filmic characters results in emotions. He argues that spectators engage with film characters through a structure of sympathy, which is comprised of recognition, alignment and allegiance. Recognition is the perception and construction of textual elements into a human form around individual agents (82). Character alignment is “the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions, and to what they know and feel” (83). This access extends further than the perceptual alignment accomplished by formal strategies such as POV shots and eyeline matches. It is mediated by the range and depth of filmic narration, although exclusive alignment with a single figure is uncommon. Character allegiance “pertains to the moral evaluation of characters by the spectator” (84). The viewer’s allegiance to any given figure is influenced by several factors, such as information gathered through alignment, character behaviour, iconography and music (84). Allegiance has “both cognitive and affective dimensions” because spectators might be “affectively aroused” in their judgement of a character (84). Significantly, character allegiance does not depend solely on alignment, and can conflict with it.

Carroll and Murray Smith, like several other cognitive film theorists, distinguish their theories of audience interaction with characters from the concept of identification, which is so important in psychoanalytic film theory. Carroll argues that audiences might admire characters or notice similarities between a character and themselves. However, this is not the same being under the illusion that they replace characters in the diegesis. Nor does it involve adopting the emotional states of characters in the manner of the “Vulcan mind-meld” found in the world of Star Trek (89). He claims that in the horror genre, “the audience’s response to the protagonist will be involved with concern for another person (or person-type) while the protagonist beset by the monster is concerned for himself” (91). The relationship between audience and character involves sympathy, not empathy. Murray Smith states: “Neither recognition nor alignment nor allegiance entails that the spectator replicate the traits, or experience the thoughts of emotions of a character” (85).

Cognitivists rely in part on the theories of the viewer’s activity during filmic narration and/or engagement with fiction to contrast their position to the concept of identification. Cognitive film theorists argue that the viewer’s comprehension of narration requires “cognitive skills and strategies which go well beyond a mere registration or mirroring of the narrative material” (Murray Smith, 74). Film narratives promote and even require active viewer participation in the construction of meaning. “The [narrative] film presents cues, patterns and gaps that shape the viewer’s application of schemata and the testing of hypotheses”.[7] The speculation of viewers is confirmed, rejected or modified as further narrative material is conveyed.

Many cognitivists propose that imagination plays a crucial role in spectatorship generally and filmic emotions specifically. Murray Smith, for example, argues that, “Every fictional text requires a minimal inferential activity, which may be thought of as the basis of imagination” (76). He uses Richard Wollheim’s concepts of central and acentral imagining when explaining his argument. Central imagining involves imagining from the inside, as if one is actually having the experience one imagines, and Smith compares it (unfavourably) to the concept of identification. Acentral imagining works from without: “I do not place myself ‘in’ the scenario, so much as entertain an idea [about it], but not from the perspective (in any sense of the term) of any character within the scenario” (77). Cognitivists often discuss the film viewer’s mental activities in terms of acentral imagining (or an equivalent – there is considerable debate among them over the exact nature of this imaginative process). To generalise: a viewer’s capacity to engage with a fictional character depends on an ability to mentally conceive of the character’s individual traits, particular story circumstances, the character’s emotions, and the motivations for feeling them. The viewer may imagine these conditions, and respond to them with his or her own feelings (as Carroll asserts in relation to art-horror). However, this not the same as replacing the character, even though the spectator and character’s emotions are often similar. Murray Smith writes that,

The concepts of recognition, alignment, and allegiance denote not just inert textual systems, but responses, neither solely in the text nor solely in the spectator. This caveat is in part designed to distinguish my model of spectatorial engagement from “hypodermic” models, in which the spectator is conceptualized as the passive subject of the structuring power of the text. (82)
Cognitivists regard viewer emotion as something that emerges in an interaction between a film’s form and narration and the spectator’s cognitive processes.

The cognitivist assessment of identification is problematic. Identification with characters during film viewing is a type of secondary identification according to psychoanalysis because the spectator’s identity is already formed. However, cognitive film theorists frequently treat cinematic identification as an example of primary identification, which constitutes the subject. As Borch-Jacobsen points out, Freud’s concept of primary identification involves a mutual, devouring incorporation of self and other, an “assimilation to and of the other” (13). This “primitive relationship to the object is immediately equivalent to the incorporation that destroys it” (23). Secondary identification is usually contradictory, partial and temporary; it is usually not destructive. Furthermore, Freud’s work on identification was intended to function as “a corrective to the figurative excesses of nineteenth-century psychology. Identification replaces ‘sympathy,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘suggestion’ to describe, in more ‘scientific’ fashion the phenomenon of how subjects act upon one another”.[8] Cognitivists rarely acknowledge this aspect of Freud’s analyses of identification. They also underestimate the complexity of the concept. Psychoanalysis has theorised identification in the following ways: “primary and secondary, feminine and masculine, imaginary and symbolic, maternal and paternal, idiopathic and heteropathic, partial and total, centrifugal and centripetal, narcissistic and regressive, hysterical and melancholic, multiple and terminal, positive and negative”.[9]

Cognitive film theorists have usually ignored the extent to which the concept of identification has been criticised and reformulated within psychoanalytic film theory since the pioneering work of Baudry, Metz, and Mulvey.[10] This neglect includes material that has challenged the notion of an entirely passive viewer constructed via a “hypodermic” textual model. As early as 1979 Janet Bergstrom wrote that “spectators are able to take up multiple identificatory positions, whether successively or simultaneously”.[11] Freud’s work on fantasy shows that viewers can “participate in a variety of roles – sliding, exchanging and doubling in the interchangeable positions of subject, object and observer”.[12] David Rodowick and Elizabeth Cowie have shown that Freud’s ideas on fantasy can be used in film studies to theorise the fluidity of film viewing positions.[13] Although space considerations preclude further discussion, there are affinities between cognitive concepts and psychoanalytic theories of viewer engagement. Murray Smith’s category of “recognition” could be likened to Mulvey’s argument concerning the spectator’s pleasure at looking at the human form, while “allegiance” could be compared to Mulvey’s theory of the viewer’s identification with the ego ideal on screen.[14]

Cognitive film theory’s formulation of filmic emotion reinstates a passive spectator inadvertently. This occurs through an assumption, commonly made by cognitivists, that films not only shape, but direct viewer emotions. Murray Smith’s need for a “caveat” when discussing the interaction between viewer and film points to an anxiety about precisely this issue. Elsewhere he asserts that, “As the ultimate ‘organizer’ of the text, the narration is the force which generates recognition, alignment, and allegiance” (75). Although Plantinga rejects the notion that “films determine spectator response”, he also maintains that, “The fundamental tenet of a cognitive approach is that the spectator’s affective experience is dependent on cognition, on mental activity cued not only by film form but also by story content”.[15] Carroll, we will recall, claims that viewer emotions parallel and are cued by character reactions to narrative entities, namely monsters. He declares that “the work of art-horror has built into it, so to speak, a set of instructions about the appropriate way the audience is to respond to it”, and that horror texts “teach us, in large measure, the appropriate way to respond to them” (31). These “lessons” can be learned through Carroll’s empirical study of textual structures, not actual audiences. Malcolm Turvey argues that Carroll and Murray Smith privilege the viewer’s imagination of narrative scenarios over the immediate, sensuous experience of the film itself.[16] He contends that both writers tacitly posit “a direct, causal relation between cinematic representation and abstract imaginative thought”, and then conceptualise “the latter as some kind of internal copy, inscription, or transmigration of the former” (437). Consequently, film viewing is less a “cognitive activity than a state of mental passivity” because “cinematic representation functions as a perceptual ‘prompt’ for the spectator’s imaginative activity” (437).

There is a relationship between this passivity and the issue of varying emotional reactions among viewers. Film form, especially narrative, may subordinate or even “create” the viewer’s imagination, thereby conditioning the spectator’s affective response. Cognitive film theory effectively argues for a uniform emotional response among viewers. As Robert Stam argues, “In cognitive theory, a raceless, genderless, classless, understander/interpreter encounters abstract schemata”.[17] Cognitivism cannot adequately account for why people can and do have different affective reactions and experiences to the same film. “Why do some spectators love, and others hate, the same films?”[18] Matt Hills provides a useful example of this problem with cognitive film theory in his work on art-horror films.[19] He notes that the responses of 1930s audiences and contemporary viewers to 1930s horror films such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) often differ markedly. These films, of course, remain, unchanged: characters in them express fear and revulsion towards figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Hills suggests that fluctuating reactions can be sourced to the issue of film style: contemporary audiences are less convinced by the visual depictions of the monster (144-145).

Freud, affect, suggestion and psychoanalysis

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s interpretation of Freud can help to theorise the variability of viewer responses. This will involve a return to the concept of identification, although it entails transgressing the limits of psychoanalysis. Borch-Jacobsen is a philosopher who has undertaken sustained critical readings of Freud and Lacan. These analyses have had several concerns. Borch-Jacobsen argues that, despite received wisdom, Freud and Lacan still employ a metaphysical theory of the subject. Even if the subject can only be discerned in repressed representations (of its absence, as Lacan might say) in that “other scene” we know as the unconscious, “the subject can be divided only because it is first of all one subject” (20). He also claims in The Freudian Subject that the psychoanalytic concept of desire is fundamentally mimetic, it operates through an identification between self and other.

Desire (the desiring subject) does not come first, to be followed by an identification that would allow the desire to be fulfilled. What comes first is a tendency toward identification, a primordial tendency that then gives rise to a desire; and this desire is, from the outset, a (mimetic, rivalrous) desire… (47).

We should not attempt to locate the subject in unconscious representations of desire. Borch-Jacobsen “posits an equivalency of subjectivity and identification: the subject is identification; the I is another”.[20] His interpretation of Freud’s exploration of identification as a social bond in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego indicates that Freud did not break from hypnosis as is commonly held.[21] Rather, the social or emotional tie characteristic of identification is the same non-relation or bond that is found in hypnosis.

Borch-Jacobsen continues his examination of the relationship between psychoanalysis and suggestion in The Emotional Tie. His reading of Freud’s work in connection with hypnosis and suggestion can provide a general theory of affectivity. This can be used to explore the problem of differing emotional responses among film viewers. Borch-Jacobsen shows that the subject’s “birth” in affect destabilises the self-other distinction. I will utilise this reading to argue that affect deconstructs the distinct identities of both the viewer and the film. This claim requires some elaboration.

In the years before Freud developed psychoanalysis, he used different forms of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes. He argued that the success of his “psychical treatment” during this period depended on two main factors: the patient’s relationship to the hypnotist and the power of language. The hypnotist must be compelling in order to persuade the patient to accept his suggestions, but therapeutic efficacy actually relies upon the patient’s willingness to be hypnotised, his suggestibility. In medical hypnosis the patient “becomes obedient and credulous – and in the case of deep hypnosis, to an almost unlimited extent”.[22] In hypnotherapy the patient’s world is reduced to that of his doctor. This facilitates the patient’s compliance with the doctor’s instructions. Borch-Jacobsen argues that suggestion employs a kind of medical rhetoric, “a patho-logy, in the double sense of an affecting discourse (capable of provoking certain pathé) and of a discourse on affects” (67). The affects that Borch-Jacobsen is referring to are those that Freud typically finds in the analytic situation: love, hate, anxiety and guilt (43). This rhetoric does not convey a message, but “a state of faith . . . that is to say, both a receptivity to the message and an identification with the emitter” (66). As a result, the patient remains unaware of the hypnotist’s intervention, assuming that his subsequent behavioural changes are of his own volition rather than due to post-hypnotic suggestions. Freud abandoned suggestion for several reasons: it was inefficient, irrational, unscientific, and, above all, authoritarian. Borch-Jacobsen refutes Freud’s claims that psychoanalysis can be distinguished from hypnosis, arguing that the problem of suggestion reappears in the concept of the transference.

In psychoanalysis the patient-doctor relationship is accompanied by the transference of the patient’s feelings on to the analyst (and vice-versa). These feelings can extend from friendly warmth to an explicit sexual demand; they can also be hostile. The patient experiences the transference from the beginning of analysis. Indeed, it is his faith in the doctor that enables him to produce an abundance of memories and associations which facilitate the progress of the treatment in its early stages.[23] This phase does not last. The analysis reaches a point where the patient stops talking. The transference becomes more passionate as the patient resists the analyst and refuses to get well. Freud theorised that the patient’s altered behaviour is caused by unconscious feelings for the doctor that actually revive the patient’s childhood attachments to figures such as the parents. The doctor informs the patient that he is repeating “something that happened to him earlier. In this way we oblige him to transform his repetition into a memory” (444). Gradually issues pertaining to the transference supersede the patient’s childhood problems. Thus, the treatment focuses increasingly on the analytic relationship itself. Freud asserted that this reflexive aspect of analysis differentiated psychoanalysis from therapies that employed suggestion because it facilitated the transference’s eventual dissolution. As the patient’s life history is given a narrative coherence, this enables both recollection and the termination of analysis (453).

Borch-Jacobsen contends that Freud’s method depends on the possibility of the patient actually remembering his past (47-61). This is problematic because the patient’s experience in analysis is affective: instead of recalling repressed representations he feels. These affects are the key to the patient’s apparent amnesia. The reason is that this “forgetting” is not repressed, nor hidden from the analyst; instead, it is displayed overtly. According to Freud, the patient “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past. These reproductions…emerge with…unwished-for exactitude”.[24] Borch-Jacobsen observes that the patient performs his transferential symptoms “in statu nascendi, in the state of being born” as if they were happening for the first time (46). Borch-Jacobsen states:

Affect, in transferential repetition, is acted out in the present, it is unremembered and unrepresented; thus, in the transference gestures accompany speech and thought immediately becomes act, rather than the reverse. (58)

The dissolution of the transference is impossible because the patient’s actions are never re-presented by or to him. Borch-Jacobsen also claims that transferential affect has the same qualities that Freud ascribes to the unconscious: timelessness, and the absence of doubt and negation (123-154).

This assessment of the transference has important implications for affectivity. The indissoluble transference is a bond that disrupts identity profoundly. Borch-Jacobsen argues that there can be no affective subject, an identity to whom affects would belong, because the patient’s feelings are not his own (147-148). This can be understood in two ways. First, in its immediate presence affect imposes itself fully on patients, it possesses them, not the other way around. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud considers the “‘daemonic’ power” of the compulsion to repeat, which manifests itself in analysis as transferential repetition. “The subject appears to have a passive experience, over which he has no influence, but in which he meets with a repetition of the same fatality”.[25] Second, while these affects are unknowable because they are unrepresentable, in some instances the patient does not even feel them. Borch-Jacobsen contends that this is proven by Freud’s insistence that there are unconscious feelings. In The Ego and the Id Freud refers to the concept of unconscious guilt. “But as far as the patient is concerned this sense of guilt is dumb; it does not tell him he is guilty; he does not feel guilty, he feels ill. This sense of guilt expresses itself only as a resistance to recovery which it is extremely difficult to overcome”.[26] Borch-Jacobsen argues that something occurs in the transference that exceeds the patient. “The affect is not experienced by the subject – it is not experienced by anyone – and yet it acts, it exercises its cruel effects” (148).

To whom do these affects belong? The patient’s behaviour in analysis has an unreal quality because it is disproportionate. Something like this also occurs in hypnosis: the extent of a patient’s compliance or suggestibility does not depend on the depth of the trance. In the transference, perhaps surprisingly, the intensity of the patient’s affects is increased by the analyst’s withdrawal. Borch-Jacobsen claims that although the analyst attempts to avoid reverting to suggestive practices, “the more silent and reserved the analyst remains, the greater the patient’s passions for him” (70). As a result of this “the very absent presence of the analyst is indispensable to the birth of the affect, as if there were never affection except by the other, and by an other who is all the more other in that he is no one” (149). If no “one”, no subject, generates affect, then this points to an inherent affective or rhetorical power of language, the same power that is effective in hypnosis.

At bottom, what is transference as described by Freud if not hypnosis without a hypnotist, persuasion without a rhetorician, since it is produced in the absence of any direct suggestion? Paradoxically, the phenomenon of transference reveals that the influence of the hypnotist and/or analyst is based not on a particular technique or power, but rather on an a priori affectability (a “spontaneous receptivity”) in the patient – that is to say, on the “rhetoricity” of the affect as such, a rhetoricity anterior to any verbal persuasion and also to any metaphoric expression of passions. (Borch-Jacobsen 1993, p. 71)

This “rhetoricity” operates through the mechanism of identification. The basis of the hypnotic or transferential rapport consists not (simply) in the fact that the self is (or was) the other; rather it is in the relation with the other, the rapport itself.

What remains is something like a primary tendency towards identification or affective mimesis as the subject’s foundation. It is affective because it is experienced through affects such as anxiety, but also because it involves a radical, total and immediate influence, the rhetorical capacity to affect an other. It is mimetic because it functions via an imitative identification. This is what Freud calls the Gefühlsbindung, or the social or emotional tie. This tie is an identification that constitutes the subject in affect. Borch-Jacobsen writes:

To affirm that “the earliest emotional tie with another person” [as Freud does] is identification is, in effect, to assert that affect as such is identificatory, mimetic, and that there is no “proper” affect except on the condition of a prior “affection” of the ego by another. Another does not affect me because I feel such and such an affect in regard to him, nor even because he succeeds in communicating an affect by way of words. He affects me because “I” am that “other,” following an identification that is my affection, the strangest alteration of my proper autoaffection. My identity is a passion. And reciprocally, my passions are always identificatory. (73)

This relation or bond cannot be remembered or re-presented because there is no “one” here at all to whom memories and representations would belong. Nor can it be narrated; it can only be repeated or mimed. What, then, is the identification or rapport with? It is, “With nothing, with no one, with no object, and yet rapport nonetheless, despite the absoluteness, without limits or exterior, of the narcissistic ego” (153). The self’s bond with others or objects may be entirely narcissistic, but it is still a relation because the ego “is (that with which it has) the rapport” (153).

Viewing Passions and Identities

I would now like to draw some provisional theoretical conclusions from this line of argument in relation to cinema. The logic of affective identification articulated by Borch-Jacobsen’s reading of Freud on the transference can be used to formulate a theory of cinematic affect. It is my contention that affectivity in cinematic spectatorship takes place in a controlled, light trance state. This state functions through a mimetic identification or rapport between the spectator and the film. It is in and through this rapport that the viewer and the text are born in affect. As Borch-Jacobsen states:

As Freud suggested in connection with anxiety, birth is the primordial affect, and we might add that this is so because it is identification, mimetic Gefühlsbindung. Because “I am the breast” (in Freud’s famous phrase), because I am nothing before this earliest identification and because such is my birth, affect comes about – in other words, my being affected (affection) by another (altérité) that is my identity or my “selfness” itself. (60-61)

We can use Borch-Jacobsen’s work to account for differing affects among film viewers. If we are affect, then it is because we are influenced by a kind of rhetoric through which we discover our identity in certain texts but not others. This does not mean that a film simply conveys its affects to us. The success of the cinematic trance relies upon each viewer’s suggestibility. This is one way of understanding the consequences of the disproportionate quality of affects in the transference, and their increased intensity in the analyst’s absence. The affective rapport is a form of autosuggestion, born of the relation between my “self” and a film. Spectators each have their own levels of suggestibility, and this can explain their diverse affective experiences. If the performative dimension of a film text, its capacity to move or persuade us, does not equal its cognitive aspect, then it is because its rhetoric does not convince all spectators in a uniform way.

How does this rapport work in cinema? Who is it between? It is certainly not a bond with a fictional character. Cinematic affectivity is not “propped” on the character’s emotions in the manner that Noel Carroll indicates. Nor is this affectivity linked necessarily to our sympathy for a character as Murray Smith claims. Acentral imagining, sympathy and empathy are, in this context at least, the mental activities and emotional responses of a fully formed, autonomous subject. This is precisely what Borch-Jacobsen’s interpretation of Freud calls into question. Cinematic affectivity does not occur because the viewer shares the emotions of an on screen character. The spectator does not identify with a character. As Borch-Jacobsen argues, the affective rapport (in cinema) is “with nothing, with no one, with no object, yet rapport nonetheless. . .” (153). This affection is possible because the spectator is the film. “He affects me because ‘I’ am that ‘other’. . .” (73).

We need to rethink the insistence by cognitive film theory that viewer emotions are generated by a distinct narrative object or entity, such as a character or a monster. The affective rapport in cinema completely destabilises the boundary between the self and the other, the viewer and the film. As spectators we do not have emotions or affects in the sense that we possess them as if they were separate from ourselves. They do not emanate from the film and happen to us. Nor are our affects the result of our cognitive judgement of narrative “objects” that are somehow external to us. The film does not communicate its affects to the viewer. There is no “one” who would possess or experience such “proper” feelings. Rather, we, that is the film and ourselves, are affect.

The intimacy of this rapport does not mean that the spectator blindly imitates or copies the film because his proximity to the text has collapsed, as cognitive theory might object. The viewer’s emotions are not constructed through the passive absorption of narrative, formal, or stylistic cues. Cinematic affect does not reside in the text waiting to be discovered, transported and reproduced as a mental facsimile by the spectator. It does not involve “some kind of internal copy, inscription or transmigration” of filmic representation.[27] Nor does this type of affective mimesis signify a psychic regression that would subjugate the viewer, as theorists such as Baudry and Metz might contend. This is because affect involves contemporaneous, conscious thinking and acting. There is no delay or spacing that would permit the displacement of these affects to another scene, where they might be re-presented or re-collected as either conscious mental schemata or unconscious representations by an other.

How might we proceed? If, like Gilberto Perez, we regard cinematic “identification as rhetoric”, then our understanding of how formal strategies and techniques produce particular affective responses must presumably include the stylistic dimensions of film form as well as the audience’s engagement with film characters through narration.[28] As Anne Rutherford has argued in relation to the work of Theo Angelopoulos, if we analyse the dynamic qualities of mise-en-scène, we can ascertain how the “materialities of cinematic experience” can be “understood as intrinsically linked with the affective power of cinema”.[29] Some cognitivists have criticised the neglect of film style in the theorisation of emotional responses. Greg Smith argues that, “Carroll, Tan, and Grodal all recognize that style helps films provide their emotional appeals. However, none of them give style a central place in their system’s concept of emotion” (“Local” 105). He claims that cognitivism should study moods as well as emotions. “Redundant cues, including facial expression, narrative situation, music, lighting, and mise-en-scène, all collaborate to indicate to the viewer what emotional mood is called for” (116).[30]

Matt Hills challenges Carroll’s emphasis on narrative entities in the horror film, arguing instead for a “primarily event-based” model (142). He proposes that art-horror can involve a more diffuse affect that bypasses cognitive processing. Hills argues that films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Haunting (1963), and Event Horizon (1997) often disorient the spectator. This is accomplished in part stylistically, either through a “focus on the materiality of ‘graspable objects’ or shift dizzyingly between affective circles, moving from the ‘graspable’ to the ‘cosmic’ and back again” (146). He contends that these elements of the film cannot be easily assimilated to a narrative analysis, but “represent formal and nonnarrative events that are repeated across the picture” (147). Stylistic choices such as the extensive use of hand-held camerawork in The Blair Witch Project(which allegedly caused motion sickness in some viewers), off-screen sound, the absence of light within the frame, and numerous extreme close-ups “disrupt the narrative, which is cognitively unsettling for the audience” (149). These techniques create an “objectless affect or anxiety” that permeates the films (149), what Cynthia Freeland calls ‘art-dread’.[31]

More generally, Charles Affron has analysed the use of a range of formal techniques in sentimental films to generate audience emotions, including framing, lighting, costuming, camera movement, and composition in depth.[32] For example, he argues that the face is “cinema’s most familiar locus for emotional expression” (63). Close-ups of the face can function as “the final element in a series of magnifications leading toward intimacy”, enabling the audience to clearly see, and possibly share, the emotions of a character (59). Chiaroscuro lighting can reveal the painful truth about a character, perhaps leading to increased sympathy or a harsh judgement. The faces of stars can provide a continuing emotional resonance through their “iconic familiarity” (65). A simple expression “shocks us and moves us through its revelations” (66). In the case of Greta Garbo, Affron claims that “the slightest alteration of her well-known features is a sign of affect” (66). A star’s face can also register an affective shift for the audience when the star is playing against type, such as Humphrey Bogart’s “yielding, little-boy glances” during his performance in The African Queen (1953) (67).

This discussion of film form and cinematic affectivity can only be brief and speculative. The problem with Affron’s position, like the cognitivist accounts of Carroll and Murray Smith, is that it assumes that all spectators (will) have the same emotional response to a particular technique or set of stylistic choices. There is no necessary relationship between film form and viewer affect. The logic of Borch-Jacobsen’s argument is that affectivity does not depend on any “particular technique or power” in a film, but rather on the “‘rhetoricity’ of the affect as such, a rhetoric anterior to any verbal [or filmic] persuasion” (71). While stylistic (or narrative) elements can contribute to the persuasion of spectators, the efficacy of any such techniques depends on the suggestibility of viewers, which is always variable.

The logic of the concept of mimetic identification articulated here is that cinematic affect is (found in) the rapport between the viewer and the film. This allows us to question the certainty that a film’s rhetoric is fixed. Affective mimesis forms or creates both terms. The affective rapport of cinema brings both the spectator and the film into being. Through our autoaffection we impose our narcissistic rhetoric upon the text, which collapses into our selfness. Doesn’t Roland Barthes say something similar when discussing the punctum in photography? The punctum is an entirely subjective quality of a photograph that “rises from the scene, shoots out of like an arrow, and pierces me”.[33] Yet the punctum belongs to both the spectator and the photograph. “It is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there”.[34] We feel cinematic affects because our identity is commensurate with them as we find our identity in the affective rapport.

This “rapport” or “between”, this nexus, is inherently mysterious, for it is the enigma of suggestion or the trance. Borch-Jacobsen contends that it is unrepresentable “because I am nothing before this earliest identification and because such is my birth” (60-61). However, the emotional tie can be repeated “in statu nascendi, in the state of being born” (46). What does this entail in cinema? Sergei Eisenstein provides a possible way of figuring the unrepresentable. He claims that the dynamic quality of the image comes from the fact that it is “not fixed or ready-made, but arises – is born“.[35] The power of montage (both within shots and between them) comes from the inclusion “in the creative process [of] the emotions and mind of the spectator”.[36] In his later writings, Eisenstein employed the term “ecstasy” to conceptualise the spectator’s active participation in the creation of the film’s unifying principle or theme. He compared ecstasy to fire. “Fire is an image of coming into being, revealed in a process“.[37] As Greg Smith notes, “Fire can suggest many different forms, but yet it never embodies any of these. It is pure transformation”.[38] Hypothesis: in cinema the affective rapport is the fire in which our identifications burn each time we find our “selfness”.


[1] See Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, (New York: Routledge, 1990). Further references appear in the text.
[2] See Torben Grodal, Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognitions, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), Ed S. Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996); and Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Further references to Smith appear in the text.
[3] See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), Lacan: The Absolute Master, trans. Douglas Brick, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1991), and The Emotional Tie: Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, and Affect, trans. Douglas Brick et al, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993). Further references to The Emotional Tie appear in the text.
[4] Greg M. Smith, “Local emotions, global moods, and film structure”, in Passionate Views; Film, Cognition, and Emotion, eds. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999): 104. Further references appear in the text.
[5] Carl Plantinga, “Spectacles of death; Clint Eastwood and violence in Unforgiven,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 66.
[6] Carl Plantinga, “Notes on spectator emotion and ideological film criticism”, in Film Theory and Philosophy, eds. Robert Allen and Murray Smith, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 378.
[7] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985): 33.
[8] Diana Fuss, Identification Papers, (London and New York: Routledge, 1995): 4.
[9] Identification Papers, 4.
[10] See Jean-Louis Baudry, “The ideological effects of the basic cinematographic apparatus” Film Quarterly 28, no. 2, (1974-1975) : 39-47; Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus”, Camera Obscura 1, (1976): 104-126; Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton et al, London: Macmillan, 1982; and Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
[11] Janet Bergstrom, “Enunciation and sexual difference”, Camera Obscura 3-4 (1979): 58.
[12] Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Beyond, (London and New York: Routledge, 1992): 154.
[13] See D.N. Rodowick, The Difficulty of Difference, (London and New York: Routledge, 1991) and Elizabeth Cowie, Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, (London: Macmillan, 1997).
[14] For a cognitivist attempt to recuperate the concept of identification, see Berys Gaut, “Identification and emotion in narrative film” in Passionate views: film, cognition, and emotion, eds. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999): 200-216.
[15] Plantinga, “Notes”, 382, 379.
[16] Malcolm Turvey, “Seeing theory: on perception and emotional response in current film theory” in Film Theory and Philosophy, eds. Richard Allen and Murray Smith, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 437. Further references appear in the text.
[17] Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000): 242.
[18] Stam, 241.
[19] Matt Hills, “An event-based theory of art-horror” in Dark Thoughts: Philosophical Reflections in Cinematic Horror, eds. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw, Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2003). Further references appear in the text.
[20] Diana Fuss, Identification Papers, (London and New York: Routledge, 1995): 3.
[21] See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989): 202-239.
[22] Sigmund Freud, “Psychical treatment”, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 7, trans. James Strachey et al, (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-1974): 295.
[23] Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vols. 15-16, trans. James Strachey et al, (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-1974): 440. Further references appear in the text.
[24] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, trans. James Strachey et al, (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-1974): 18.
[25] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 20, 21.
[26]  Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 19, trans. James Strachey et al, (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-1974): 50-51.
[27]  Malcolm Turvey, “Seeing Theory”: 437.
[28] See Gilberto Perez, “Toward a rhetoric of film: identification and the spectator”, Senses of Cinema 5 (2000) http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/5/rhetoric2.html
[29] Anne Rutherford, “Precarious boundaries: affect, mise-en-scène, and the senses”, in Art and the Performance of Memory: Sounds and Gestures of Recollection, ed. Richard Candida Smith, (New York: Routledge, 2002): 67. Although it is beyond the scope of this article Rutherford’s use of Walter Benjamin’s concept of mimetic innervation to explore spectator-relation may have resonances with the position I am developing here.
[30]However, it is debatable as to whether this position differs markedly from, say, Carroll’s. “A basic assumption is that a film will encourage viewers to establish a consistent emotional orientation toward the text (a mood), and so the critic looks for highly coordinated sets of emotion cues that communicate the proper orientation to the viewer” (“Local” 117). Cues are still cues, and the viewer is instructed how to feel by the film.
[31] See Cynthia Freeland, “Horror and art-dread”, in The Horror Film, ed. Stephen Prince, (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 189-205.
[32] See Charles Affron, Cinema and Sentiment, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Further references appear in the text.
[33] Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, (London: Vintage, 1993): 26.
[34] Camera lucida, 28.
[35] Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, trans. and ed. Jay Jeyda, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1947): 31.
[36] The Film Sense, 32.
[37] Sergei Eisenstein, qtd in Greg M. Smith, “Moving explosions: metaphors of emotion in Sergei Eisenstein’s writings” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 21, no. 4 (2004): 313.
[38] Greg M. Smith, “Moving explosions”, 314.

Created on: Monday, 27 November 2006 | Last Updated: 1-Dec-06

About the Author

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

Dr Tim Groves is Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include horror and serial killer films, and post-classical film aesthetics.View all posts by Tim Groves →