In Thrall

Affect Contagion and the Bio-Energetics of Media

How to Cite

Gibbs, A. (2005). In Thrall: Affect Contagion and the Bio-Energetics of Media. M/C Journal, 8(6).
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

Let’s begin with the paradox of disavowal. On the one hand, we all “know” that television is hypnotic. On the other hand, we tend to imagine that we each – perhaps alone – remain impervious to the blandishments it murmurs as we watch it, often without being fully aware we are doing so.

One of the many things contributing to the invention of television, according to Stefan Andriopoulos, was “spiritualist research into the psychic television of somnambulist mediums” (618). His archaeology of the technological medium of television uncovers a reciprocal relation (or “circular causality”) between the new technology and contemporary cultural discourses such that “while spiritualism serves as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the invention of electrical television, the emerging technology simultaneously fulfils the very same function for spiritualist research on psychic telesight” (618). Television and the occult seem to be inextricably linked from the outset, so that perhaps the claims of some schizophrenics: that television addresses them personally and importunes them with suggestions, are not so outlandish as one might at first think. Nor, perhaps, are they merely a delusion able to be safely located in the pathology of the other.

In fact it could be argued, as Laurent Gerbereau does, that television, as distinct from film with its historical imbrication of crowds with the image, aims to create the illusion of intimacy, as if the viewer were the only person watching and were being addressed directly by the medium. With two exceptions, the illusion of direct contact is sustained by the exclusion of crowds from the image. The first is major sporting events, which people gather to watch on large screens or in bars (which Gerbereau notes) and where, I think, the experience of the crowd requires amplification of itself, or parts of itself, by the large screen images. The second is the more recent advent of reality TV in which contestants’ fates are arbitrated by a public of voting viewers. This illusion of direct contact is facilitated by the fact that viewing actually does take place more and more in individual isolation as the number of TV sets in households multiplies. And it is true in spite of the growth in what Anna McCarthy has called “ambient television”, the television of waiting rooms, airport terminals and bars, which enables us to be alone with the illusion of company, without the demands that being in company might potentially make.

Television can be understood as a form of refuge from the crowd. Like the crowd, it offers anonymity and the voyeuristic pleasures of seeing without being seen. But it requires no special skill (for example, of negotiating movement in a crowd) and it seems, on the face of things, to obviate the risk that individuals will themselves become objects of observation. (This, however, is an illusion, given the array of practices, like data-mining, that aim to make new segments of the market visible.) It also enables avoidance of physical contact with others – the risks of being bumped and jostled that so preoccupied many of the early commentators on modernity. New mobile technologies extend the televisual illusion of direct address. You can receive confidences from a friend on the mobile phone, but you can also receive a lot of spam which addresses “you” in an equally intimate mode. You are, of course, not yourself under these conditions, but potentially a member of a consuming public, as the availability of many visual subscription services for 3G phones, including televisually-derived ones like one-minute soap episodes, makes clear.

Television cathects (in Virginia Nightingale’s suggestive psychoanalytically-inflected usage) aspects of the human in order to function, and I have argued elsewhere that what it primarily cathects is human affect (Gibbs). We could think of this investment of media in the human body in a number of different ways: in the terms suggested by Mark Seltzer when he writes of the “miscegenation” of bodies and machines, of nature and culture; or we could adapt Eugene Hacker’s term “biomediation”; or again Bolter and Grusin’s concept of “remediation”, which have the advantage of moving beyond earlier models of the cyborg (such as Donna Haraway’s), in the way they describe how media repurposes the human (Angel and Gibbs). Here I want to focus on the media’s capture of human attention.

This returns me to the question of television as a hypnotic medium. But on the way there we need to take one short detour. This involves Julian Jaynes’s remarkable book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind published in 1976 and only since the late nineties beginning to be rescued by its uptake by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Antonio Damasio from its early reception as an intriguing but highly eccentric text. The book proposes taking literally the fact that in The Iliad the gods speak directly to the characters, admonishing them to perform certain acts. In this way, the voices of the gods seem to replace the kind of psychic interiority with which we are familiar. Jaynes argues that people once did actually hallucinate these voices and visions. Consciousness comes into being relatively recently in human history as these voices are internalised and recognised as the formation of the intentions of an “analogue I” – a process Jaynes suggests may have happened quite suddenly, and which involves the forging of closer relations between the two hemispheres of the brain. What drives this is the need for the more diffuse kinds of control enabled by relative individual autonomy, as social organisations become larger and their purposes more complex.

Jaynes views some forms of consciousness (those which, like hypnosis, the creation of imaginary friends in childhood, religious ecstasy, or, arguably, creative states, involve a degree of dissociation) as atavistic vestiges of the bicameral state. While he insists that the hypnotic state is quite distinct from everyday experiences, such as being so lost in television that you don’t hear someone talking to you, other writers on hypnosis take the contrary view. So does Dennett, who wants to argue that the voices of the gods needn’t have been actually hallucinated in quite the way Jaynes suggests. He proposes that advertising jingles that get “on the brain”, and any admonitions that have a superegoic force, may also be contemporary forms of the voices of the gods. So we arrive, again, from a quite different avenue of approach, at the idea of television as a hypnotic medium, one that conscripts a human capacity for dissociation. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that, while we tend to associate dissociation with dysfunction, with splitting (in the psychoanalytic sense) and trauma, Jaynes sees it in far more positive terms – at least when it is accompanied by certain kinds of voices. He characterises hypnosis, for example, as a “supererogatory enabler” (379) militated against by consciousness which, to save us from our impulses, creates around us “a buzzing cloud of whys and wherefores”, so that “we know too much to command ourselves very far” [into the kinds of superhuman feats made possible with the assistance of the gods] (402).

Most writers on hypnosis speak of the necessity for inducing the hypnotic state, and I want to suggest that televisual “flow” performs this function continuously, even though, as Jane Feuer and Margaret Morse respectively have suggested, television is designed for intermittent spectatorship and is often actually watched in states of distraction. While the interactivity of the internet and the mobile phone militate against this, they do not altogether vitiate it, especially as video and animation are increasingly appearing on these media. The screen has ways of getting your attention by activating the orienting reflexes with sudden noises, changes of scene, cuts, edits, zooms and pans. These reflexes form the basis of what Silvan Tomkins calls the surprise-startle affect which alerts us to a new state of affairs, and technologies of the screen constantly reactivate them (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi).

No wonder, given the need for surprise, that sensationalism is such a well-used technique. While some writers (like S. Elizabeth Bird) link this to the production of “human interest” which creates a focus for everyday talk about news and current affairs that might otherwise be unengaging, I want to focus on the less rational aspects of sensationalism. Televisual sensationalism, which has its origins in the gothic, includes the supernatural, though this may appear as frequently in the guise of laughter as in horror, even if this laughter is sometimes uneasy or ambivalent. Hypnotism as entertainment might also qualify as sensationalism in this sense.

A quick survey of Websites about hypnosis on television reveals that stage hypnosis appeared on American television as least as early as 1949, when, for 10 minutes after the CBS evening news on Friday nights, Dr Franz Polgar would demonstrate his hypnotic technique on members of the audience. It has featured as a frequent trope in mystery and suspense genres from at least as early as 1959, and in sitcoms, drama series, comedy sketches and documentaries since at least 1953. If on one level we might interpret this as television simply making use of what has been – and to some extent continues to be – popular as live entertainment, at another we might view it as television’s mise-en-abyme: the presentation of its own communicational models and anti-models for the reception of commands by voices. It’s ironic, then, that the BBC Editorial Guidelines treat hypnotism as a special kind of program rather than a feature of the medium and – in conformity with the Hypnotism Act 1952 – require that demonstrations of public hypnotism be licensed and authorised by a “senior editorial figure”. And the guideline on “Images of Very Brief Duration” (which follows the wording of the Agreement associated with the BBC’s Charter) states that programs should not “include any technical device which, by using images of very brief duration or by any other means, exploits the possibility of conveying a message to, or otherwise influencing the minds of, persons watching or listening to the programmes without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has occurred”.

Finally, though, if psychoanalysis is, as Borch-Jacobsen suggests, one more chapter in the history of trance (in spite of its apparent rejection of techniques of suggestion as it attempts to establish its scientific and therapeutic credentials), then perhaps screen-based technologies should be taken seriously as another. What this might suggest about the constitution of belief requires further investigation – especially under conditions in which the pervasiveness of media and its potentially addictive qualities efface the boundary that usually demarcates the time and place of trance as ritual. Such an investigation may just possibly have some bearing on paradoxes such as the one Lyn Spigel identifies in relation to her observation that while the scripting of the “grand narratives of national unity that sprang up after 9/11 were for many people more performative than sincere”, Americans were nevertheless compelled to perform belief in these myths (or be qualified somehow as a bad American) and, further, may have ended by believing their own performances.

Author Biography

Anna Gibbs