work in progress
This post will explore ideas of affect and embodiment, and how they might relate to the kind of work undertaken by community theatre practitioners. To quickly introduce the terms:
Affect: the way we experience things physically and directly, before we try to label and explain them. Callard and Papoulias distinguish between affect (a “physiological experience” felt in the skin and guts) and emotion (the label we apply after identifying the physical experience with a particular feeling.)(1)
Embodiment: the notion that our feelings, experiences and ideas are all affected by our physical presence in a body. Theorists who emphasize embodiment are keen to stress how our image of the world, and of other people, comes through a physical engagement with the world: we aren’t simply minds floating abstractly around. Our experiences and perceptions are closely tied to our particular physical location.(2)
How might these ideas provide a language for community theatre practitioners to discuss their processes and impacts?
There has been an increasing interest in affect across the arts, humanities and social sciences recently, as a kind of experience which is immediate, direct and unfiltered. Paying attention to affect, the body’s direct encounter the world, might help some people reflect on their experiences without having to label them immediately with categories such as “happiness”, “anger” or “fear”, which have rigid positive or negative associations. Trying to talk about experiences via these categories may force people’s memories into a particular narrative template before they have decided what sort of story they want to tell. For example, they might want to explore and examine their experiences without first building a clear plot in which they were labelled “victim”, “hero”, or “survivor”.
Affect may be a particularly useful term for companies which work with memory in other ways, since physical experiences can be strongly associated with particular times and places. For example, when Hanby and Barrett were gathering material for their piece on the old Raleigh bicycle works, they talked to several of ex-workers who instinctively repeated the same set of movements they’d performed years ago on the assembly line. Those actions were part of a complex of feelings and associations which didn’t equate with simple explanations like “nostalgia”, “fond memories” or “hard work”. Affect can highlight the way that not all of our memories and experiences can be articulated easily in words, since they’re not always experienced via words. Adding this term to our vocabulary might allow physical performances to access experiences which don’t easily translate verbally, for whatever reason.
Embodiment is close to the idea of affect, because of its insistence that we experience everything through our specific physical circumstances. This allows us to focus on the value of different perspectives as equally valid, and insist that lived experience cannot be “explained away” by an abstract perspective. For example, it would highlight the specific experiences which the closing of a coal pit caused in a community, which are often dismissed as “unfortunate but necessary” by a grand economic narrative. We don’t live life as an economic or social theory, we live through it as a series of personal events and feeling, and embodiment might help us talk about that.
Another aspect of embodiment appears in the writings of the performance theorist Peggy Phelan (3), who has laid a great deal of emphasis on the fact that live performance involves “art with real bodies”. She sees our culture as “buffeted on one side by the claims of virtual reality and electronic presence, and on the other by a politicised and commodified spirituality”, and finds that live performance allows people to relate to each other in a sincere and “real” way. This “art with real bodies” means the audience cannot rewind or skip or manipulate parts of the performance as we could on a DVD, and may mean we value and attend to the performers in a different way. It might encourage audience and participants to empathise and honour each other more fully than they would via media images.
Do these linked ideas make sense, and find any echo in your arts projects? Do you think they might help us build a vocabulary which makes a wider range of impacts visible?
(1) Felicity Callard and Constantia Papoulias. ‘Affect and Embodiment’, in Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, Eds. Fordham University Press, 2010, pp. 246-262.
(2) Merleau-Ponty Phenomonology of perception trans Donald A Landes. London, Routledge 2012
(3) Peggy Phelan, Mourning Sex. London: Routledge, 1997. p.3