The Uses of Sadness
These days, film theory courses in the universities have gone crazy for 'affect' — which is not exactly the same thing as old-fashioned emotion, but comes close. In any case, it's all about feeling — often strong feeling. Affect theory adds back into film studies what it has so often lacked: the current or charge of the spectator's experience, which usually eludes discussion based squarely on theme or genre or the director's signature...
Affect also puts drama — melodrama, even — back into cinema analysis. Film, in our passionate encounter with it, becomes the heated terrain of life or death, ecstasy or despair, breakthrough or breakdown. Along this path, theory-talk shakes hands, at last, with the kind of wild testimonies long associated with the outpourings of cinephile critics. Indeed, a century of the best film criticism now becomes not only an archive of insights, but also an ever-changing archaeology of filmic affects as lived out (as Raymond Bellour proposes in the latest issue of Trafic) in the special, unique memory of each committed spectator.
Affect, as currently paraded in books, articles and conferences, has something glamorous and romantic about it. It's a matter of excess, interruption, force, sudden potentiality as triggered in the mind and body of a spectator. An emotion that interferes with the standard codes and assumptions of social knowledge, and explodes a space for a possible future.
This is exciting work. But it's just as important, sometimes, to begin from the everyday, mundane emotions, the ones more modestly involved with negotiating the travails of public and private life: shame, irritation, niggardly neurosis... signs of discontent that don't necessarily lead straight to a revolution, but make up the map of a complex, daily world.
I have been pondering sadness lately. Not the grander affects of melancholia (which gives rise to Lars von Trier films and psychoanalytic novels) or depression (which calls for medication), but mundane sadness. The kind of sadness (arising from workaday social misery) captured so well by Jean-Luc Godard in the immortal métro scene of Bande à part (1964).
Sadness is not only an affect we experience; it is also a label is ascribed to us, or that we ascribe to others. In English, to call someone 'a sad case' is not compassionate but derisive; it means they are pathetic, hopeless. In a forgotten, early 'cultural studies' essay of 1960, the windy, conservative American poet Randall Jarrell evoked "a sad heart at the supermarket": "It is a standard joke of our culture that when a woman is bored or sad she buys something to make herself feel better; but in this respect we are all women together, and can hear complacently the reminder of how feminine this consumer-world of ours is".
In contemporary philosophy, Gilles Deleuze returned to Spinoza to spin the illustrative tale of Pierre and Paul: Pierre is the 'toxic' guy who makes me feel not just bad but weak, cramped, nervous; while Paul enlarges my sense of my own capacity. These are the poles of sadness and joy in daily life. And, being inter-relational, they are also social; Deleuze notes that "both the despot and the priest need the sadness of their subjects", because "people who have power, in whatever domain, need to affect us in a sad way".
Is this why the 'Occupy' movement that is now spreading from Wall St to many cities of the world is so truly joyful, because it collectively resists the daily power-drainage of sadness?