Action Movies’ Worlding

Affect Theory Conference, Lancaster, PA, 2015

Action movies world us. That is to say, they position us within the world, a position that is affectively determined. Action movies participate in what Paul Virilio has termed the administration of fear (The Administration of Fear), and what Ben Anderson has termed networked affects of contemporary warfare (Anderson, “Targeting”). Action movies can in and of themselves be regarded as “shock and awe” strategies — intense deployments of audiovisual materials that register on our bodies.

My argument is three-fold:

  • Action movies render us part of an ecology of fear through their intensity effects.
  • Through intensity effects, action movies prime us through a nexus of networked affects of contemporary warfare.
  • This nexus of networked affects works as a pharmakon; action movies render warfare sensible, but also render us senseless.

In making this argument, I extend from Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of the world as medium. What this conception helps with, is the recognition that every affect has a public side and a private side. As Whitehead points out, “prehensions have public careers, but they are born privately” (Whitehead 290). This is simply to say that there is a link, an attunement, between how we feel and how a society is primed. Another way of phrasing this is to say that we need to understand the microscopic level — i.e. the feelings rendered by the movies — before we can understand the macroscopic level — i.e. the world that limits and provides opportunity for these feelings (Whitehead 129).

Intensity

Contemporary action cinema has entered the drone age; their audiovisual barrage have reached an unprecedented state of kinetics. They move in all directions, forcefully pulling our bodies along. Steven Shaviro, in Post-Cinematic Affect terms this condition the intensity effect of contemporary cinema, an evolution of the shock effects of early cinema as diagnosed by Walter Benjamin (Shaviro 148).

A brief register of these effects would be:

  • the ultra-low frequencies employed by movies such as The Hurt Locker and Battle: Los Angeles; frequencies that are too low to be audible but are still felt by our bodies. Ultra low frequencies cause palpable sensations such as heart palpitations, sweaty palms and a diffuse, queasy feeling.
  • the frantic camerawork in movies like The Bourne Identity and Man on Fire; the so-called run-and-gun handheld style that refuses a steady perspective and often leaves viewers nauseous. These hectic images also induce intense sensations of stress and tension, producing hyperawareness.
  • the chaotic post-continuity editing of Crank and Transformers, where images shift so quickly that viewers’ perception breaks down, an effect that Michael Bay enthusiastically supports. The effect is one of pure sensory overload that leaves audiences stunned by being unable to keep pace with the audiovisual spectacle.
  • the extreme physical mastery produced by movies like Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road through their elastic spatials and 3D effects that produce a cinematic body far superior to our own. We are made to feel physically powerful by these films.

As is evident, all these effects target our bodies at a level below our conscious perception in a way that makes it feasible to refer to these movies as employing shock and awe aesthetics. What my brief rundown also suggests is a shift to a machinist sensorium that no longer separates cinematic expression from human perception. Expression and perception converge in affect. These affects feedforward to our consciousness in Mark B.N. Hansen’s diagram of media experience in the 21st century. As Hansen argues, a non-perceptual sensibility emerges from media that colors our conscious perception and makes us see the world in a different light. Our worldly sensibility, as Hansen terms it, is impacted and intensified by media’s “non-hermeneutic materiality” (Hansen loc 644). What matters is less their stories than their physical impact. Action movies thus participate in our perception of the world through these intensity effects; not because we necessarily agree with their politics but because we are positioned within the world by the movies. Significantly, this positioning is generalized as an atmosphere or mood.

Another word for this process is priming: our bodies are primed for certain behaviors through the experience of watching action movies. As Brian Massumi outlines in Ontopower, priming is “the capacity of micro-events occurring in the attentional gap to modulate the coming perception” (Massumi loc 1185). Action movies thus condition our emerging consciousness but does not cause a specific response. A heightened state of bodily awareness is achieved through the somatics of contemporary action movies. Working on our bodies, action movies become part of our habits and reflexes, and they register as vectors: intensities of directed force (Massumi loc 2617). In other words, action movies participate as one line of force in the affective modulation of populations, part of the networked affects of contemporary warfare. In other words, action movies amplify existing moods, intensifying and magnifying an already existing structure of feeling.

Priming

As should be evident, the affects rendered by action movies’ intensity effects are in fact instances of biopolitical effects. Directed at groups and crowds rather than individuals, action movies target the audience and in this process produce the audience as a target, what Paul Virilio terms endo-colonization (Virilio, Pure War 125). For Virilio, ends-colonization is a matter of conditioning, or what we can call modulation. The intensities of action movies generate somatic rhythms that vibrate across populations and spread through affective innervation.

Ben Anderson argues that shock and awe is a military strategy targeting morale in the enemy (Anderson, Targeting” 248). But what about the home front? When affect is networked, what registers at one node resonates across the entire network. Whereas drone strikes target morale and produce affects of hopelessness (250), claustrophobia (251) and feelings of impotence (248), action movies amplify affects of resilience domination, and potency. These affects are not symmetrical and do not map onto each other directly, so that the more hopeless the enemy feels, the more resilient we feel, but a relation is at work here. For this reason, I believe that Anderson’s biopolitical effects of contemporary warfare are the social manifestation of action movies’ structures of feeling.

Whitehead’s concept of the world as medium is illuminating here, because it shows that a concrescent subject’s position within a nexus is the result of the actual entities in the concrescent subject’s actual world (Whitehead 284). That is to say, we emerge as a subject with specific feelings depending on how a range of actual entities relate to each other within an environment. Yet Whitehead hastens to say that this is not strict determination but a qualification that allows for novelty, or what we could call individual articulation. To put this another way, the affect of drone strikes in Afghanistan connect and resonate with the somatic effects of action movies to produce an ecological rhythm of that vibrates through the network. Some become targets of impotence and hopelessness, while others become targets of potency and dominance.

Note that everyone is target, although clearly some are targets of positive affects and others of negative affects. What is at stake here is the conditioning of populations, which does not obey geographical space. Everyone is connected in the same swirl of flows and rhythms. Individual articulation is what allows for how bodies may react “in unison without necessarily acting alike” (Massumi loc 3141), yet the significance of one articulation is minimal compared to the affective tide of entire populations. Precisely for this reason, resonance and vibration are good terms to suggest how bodies move.

One action movie alone does nothing. Through its intensity it may augment vibrations that are in phase, that is to say it can fortify those who already agree. Yet through multiplicity, by sheer weight of number, action movies may produce amplification across other vibratory bodies. Through a process of interference and amplification, the rhythms of a multitude of action movies may begin to overpower or drone out other vibrations. In sound theory, a drone effect signifies “the presence of a stable pitch in a sound ensemble” (Augoyard and Torgue 40). Importantly, the drone effect “will present an energy peak at the frequency of the drone” (45). In other words, action movies’ somatic effects make our bodies vibrate in concert, intensifying certain affects but not others. The rhythms of action movies work on a preconscious level, color our perception and solidify structures of feeling.

Robin James significantly posits a drone atmosphere where our perceptual limit reconfigures through “droning” — what she terms the creation of an affective timbre (James 2013). As James argues, “droning rivets you to material conditions, affects, and sensations that compel you to behave in specific ways, and not in others” (James 2013). Once again, we can see how audiences emerge as targets and how we are modulated by droning. Again, we are the corollary of these intensities and vibrations, positioned within an environment that trembles with a host of affects, of which we are only allowed access to some. So while drones currently work overseas to target morale, action movies work on the home front to produce not only an openness to shock and awe strategies but also engenders a mode of sensation that also functions as action.

In Ontopower, Massumi makes much of the preemptive action that is the basis of fear. Yet action movies do not instill us with fear, but rather dispel fear. How does one dispel fear? By inducing a state of having-acted. If I have already performed the preemptive action to which fear is a response, then I have effectively removed the cause of fear. This is action movies’ operational logic, their self-causation as Massumi defines it (Massumi loc 3665). Through somatic effects that amplify across movies and across bodies, affect works as a translator, or conduit, where sensation is displaced into the feeling of having acted. In having acted, we have ensured the continuance of feelings of resilience, domination and potency.

The intensities pumped out of action movies are overwhelming and exert us; they tire us and work over our bodies to the extent that their actions become ours by proxy. The droning of action movies’ spectacular loudness worlds us, paradoxically, into a state of passivity that feels that violent action is a necessary and morally good action, because it relieves us from fear. That this environment or ecology of fear is also self-produced matters less than it being dispelled. What we find at work here is the pharmakon — that which is both poison and remedy.

Pharmakon

Action movies function as a pharmakon by dispelling fear, while at the same time participating in an ecology of fear. From an aesthetic perspective, the movies work by eliciting stress, tension and hyperawareness, only to proceed to bolster our bodies to withstand and overcome those negative affects. One might argue that every movie depends on eliciting a range of affects in what Vivian Sobchack has referred to as the production of the cinesthetic subject (Sobchack 67). Yet the resulting subversive body, which is a mix of our body and the movie’s body, may subvert in two directions, so to speak.1

We might call the first direction the drone rhythm: our bodies begin to vibrate with a fervor that suggests power, potency and domination to be the solution to fear. We would call it drone rhythm to connect it to James’ argument about being riveted to affects and sensations that only allow certain actions as successful. While this drone rhythm may appear as remedy — we feel safe, after all — in fact we have done nothing to remove the cause. Instead, we have simply taken the effect, i.e. the drone rhythm, and made it the cause of our own feeling of safety from fear. The only solution then becomes to take more of the pharmakon, yet it is in plentiful supply.

The other direction could be called a counter rhythm, borrowing Marshal McLuhan’s notion of art as counter environments. This argument would suggest that action movies could make us aware of the underlying affects of fear and impotence inherent in the war on terror. As such, counter rhythms could push us to be out of sync with an ecology of fear, to draw on Ben Anderson’s idea in Encountering Affect of a period resonating with specific emotions which individuals may feel disconnected from (Anderson, Encountering Affect 108). We could see this as a remedy, yet it seems to me that the same logic of having-acted would apply here. The affective outrage we feel after watching The Hurt Locker or Redacted might well put ourselves at odds with current moods, but how to translate that affect into further action? Since affect is action, critics might feel that they have indeed acted once they have written a scathing opinion piece in The New Yorker. There is a parallel here to the pacifying thesis of the Frankfurt school that is definitely worth pursuing, but for now we can simply suggest that individual articulation of affects does not make a movement.

What seems evident to me is that action movies depend on an operational logic of putting us in an affective state of having-acted. We can call this state one of resolution, making us feel that things have been resolved. The word is useful because resolve also suggests a willingness to continue, the determination to keep going due to the conviction that things have been settled or fixed. In other words, action movies target resolve.

When affects are networked, we need to pay attention to the whole of the ecology in which they exist. Whitehead’s concept of the world as medium allows us to recognize that our affects are never isolated from the affects of others. Action movies become one vector along which affects articulate, but they are part of a larger ecology. Drone strikes target morale from above overseas, while action movies are affective drone strikes on the home front that target resolve. This boosting of power, potency and domination is what worlds us, renders us as subjects resonant with affects that respond and adapt to the environment in which we live.

Works Cited

Anderson, Ben. “Targeting Affective Life From Above: Morale and Airpower”. From Above: War, Violence and Verticality. London: Hurst & Company, 2013. Print.
Anderson, Ben. Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014. Print.
Augoyard, Jean-François and Henry Torgue. Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds. Translated by Andra McCartney and David Paquette. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.
Hansen, Mark B.N., Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
James, Robin. “Drones, Sound, and Super-Panoptic Surveillance.” Cyborgology. 26 Oct. 2013. Web. 3 July 2015.
Massumi, Brian. Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. Kindle.
Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010. Kindle.
Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Virilio, Paul. Pure War. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008.
Virilio, Paul. The Administration of Fear. Translated by Ames Hodges. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012. Print.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978. Kindle.


  1. It should be noted here that Sobchack’s subversive body is not necessarily politically subversive. Instead, the subversive body subverts the distinction between the viewer’s body and the movie’s body into a hybrid cinematic body.