Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect


Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; or a physical injury [or response to].

Brian Massumi explores the primacy of the affective in image reception and suggests that sometimes our responses to images involve a “crossing of semantic wires” with sadness being experienced as pleasant. He suggests that intensity (understood as equal to affect) is embodied in purely autonomic – unconscious and involuntary - reactions predominantly manifested in the skin. It is outside expectation and adaptation, and when a person responds emotionally to an image, it is because it is in a moment that registers a state, or rather re-registers an already felt state – affect. Eric Shouse compares affect to emotion and feeling. He simply defines affect as the ability to affect and be affected: “It is a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act”.

But, according to Massumi at least, emotion is also different from affect. Whereas emotion is personal and subjective, affect is neither ownable nor recognisable. However, once it is owned and recognised, affect becomes emotion. There is, thus, a slippery relationship between affect, feeling and emotion. Affect is an unconscious, immediate response to stimulation and free will, what Massumi calls higher functions. It is achieved through autonomic, bodily reactions outside of consciousness and prior to any action or (linguistic) expression. Intensity is used by Massumi in correlation with affect. Massumi and Shouse agree that affect is, therefore, a pre-personal, non-conscious (prior to or outside of consciousness) experience of intensity and a moment of unformed, unstructured potential. Affect is the body’s way of preparing itself for action and always precedes will and consciousness. Affect is experience: “… you cannot read affects, you can only experience them”.

Lisa Blackman and Couze Venn suggest that a consequence of affect or non-conscious experience is a reengagement with sensation, memory and perception. Bodies are characterised by their intercorporeality (embodied experience and the way humans can share and extend their bodily experiences) and agree with Shouse and Massumi that bodies are always an entangled process, and defined by the capacity to affect and be affected, this relates to his relationality that is intrinsically affective.

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