Affect Notes

(All notes below have been lifted, sometimes directly, from Ch. 7 of your textbook. )

Pathemata: what it is in a “text” that provokes emotion. (Plural: pathemata, singular: pathema)

Aristotle attributes three functions to any emotion:

  • a bodily condition (affect)
  • a cognitive interpretation
  • a behavioral disposition

If you’re angry, your heart may beat hard and fast and your temp may rise (affect); you will be angry at someone for doing something (interpretation); and you may curse or pound your fist on something (behavioral disposition).

The affect and the interpretation are very difficult to tease apart, but we’ll do it for instruction purposes.

You are watching a horror movie, and the music or something in the film tips you off that something bad is about to happen. You feel suspense and probably “a series of other things as the scene unfold[s]: terror, disgust, and then relaxation, as the tension in your body quickly dissolve[s].”

  • Suspense involves a bodily response (sweaty palms, accelerated heart rate, etc.) and an interpretation of the situation: “something is about to happen.”
  • Terror involves the same bodily responses but a different interp: “unspeakable danger is nearby.”
  • Disgust can involve physical nausea and an interpretation of the situation: you don’t want to ingest or be near someone’s guts hanging out, maybe also that the killer is so horrible s/he is not even human.

Often when someone is disgusted, they revolt (turn away), which is a behavior prompted by the interpretation. The interp says: eeeuuuww! And the behavior turns away to shield the senses: “get that thing away from me!”

Disgust can be parsed into an affect (nausea), a behavior (revulsion), and an interpretation (a belief that the killer is inhuman). The connection between revulsion/nausea and the judgment that someone is not human plays a role in most horror films, so that when the crazed killer is killed in the end, sometimes in the most brutal way, we cheer! We have been persuaded by then that s/he doesn’t deserve a dignified end, and we’re happy they’re gone. Phew!

But this is also close to what happened during the Nazi pogroms. Jews were made to do disgusting thing—scrub toilets, relieve themselves in public—to make them seem less human and more deserving of the cruel treatment they were getting, up to and including mass extermination. Something similar frequently happens to prisoners today—they are refused restrooms or sanitary facilities. As they become increasingly soiled, their captors begin to feel nauseous at their presence and more willing to see the imprisoned as less than human. This affect and its allied interpretation can be quickly tied to a set of behaviors that include indifference, cruel treatment, and perhaps torture.

Once we parse the three elements (affect, interp, behavior), we can see that it’s possible to disagree about feelings. We often imagine that emotions are just natural, that they can’t be changed. But we can argue for different feelings about and different behaviors toward the same object.

When confronted with a soiled and unsanitary prisoner, you may not be able to control the nausea that washes over you, and you may not be able to keep from recoiling, but you can incorporate these bodily responses into various interpretations, making for very different emotions. Rather than deciding that soiled prisoners are less than human, you may believe that their captors are unpseakably cruel for allowing such indignity.

A skilled rhetorician will be able to locate an affect, note a behavior, determine the allied interpretation linking the three, and begin theorizing a new emotional appeal, incorporating the same affect into a new interpretation, a new behavioral response, and thus a wholly different argument. When watching the protagonist (Spurlock) in the film Supersize Me throw up after pigging down supersized burger, fries, and drink, you will likely feel disgusted, but it could play out at least two different ways:

First Possibility

  • Affect = nausea
  • Interpretation = this person is really gross
  • Emotion = disgust with Spurlock
  • Behavior could be to turn off the show and/but keep eating at McDonald’s.

Second Possiblity

  • Affect = nausea
  • Interpretation = this food is really gross
  • Emotion = disgust with MacDonald’s
  • Behavior could be to keep watching the show and to stop eating at McDonald’s.

A skilled rhetor can zero in on the interpretation linking an affect to a behavior, and intervene in that interpretation to offer another one.

Pathemata, remember, are things that provoke pathos. We’ve covered three sorts of pathema:

  • Images: vivid description or enargeia that incites the audience’s imagination. Enargeia is a Greek word meaning “making things move as if alive.”
  • Language: charged word choice and excited punctuation
  • Values: emotionally resonant symbols (like hope or change or any ideograph or even a brand) that tie into a network of affects, behaviors, and experiences.

But anything could serve as a pathema, say in an image or film or song. Often colors operate as pathemata, or body positions, or facial expressions, etc. A beat or rhythm can operate as a pathema, as well. As a rhetorician, you need to learn to read a text (which could be alphabetic or visual or aural, for example) carefully enough to identify pathemata and how they are working, what affect/interp/behavior they are likely to provoke.