Emotional Species Bodies: Intention and Attention within Artistic Form Peta Tait

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Peta Tait

Professor, La Trobe University and the University of Wollongong.

(This paper is an edited version of the keynote address given at CARPA4, 12 June 2015, but without the visual examples.)

Recent theoretical approaches that attempt to bridge the separation between the human and the nonhuman often do so by contesting the primacy of visible materiality and hierarchies of species bodies. In relation to contemporary performance and visual art, these ideas present somewhat of a theoretical and practical conundrum for artists who work with visible form. Even performance has become increasingly focused on the creation of a visual text and what is seen. The way in which the arts and contemporary performance generate aesthetic and environmental forms appears to contradict the aspects of posthuman new materialism advocating devolved forms and formlessness. How might artistic form be reconciled with and potentially illuminate such (nonhuman) approaches?

This discussion muses on intention in and attention to artistic form and its bodily phenomenologies in relation to this aspect of new materialism thinking. It proposes that tangible artistic form attracts sensory attention, but that sustained attentiveness depends on less tangible bodily responses which are inseparable from emotional experience.

Theatrical performance might be the most expressly embodied art form, but the longstanding depiction of bodies in the visual arts includes a diverse range of species bodies set in a natural landscape – that is, framed as nature. Art’s species bodies appeal to viewers because they are emotionally meaningful, albeit in objectified ways. Even though artists in recent posthuman performance and the visual arts who work with humans and nonhumans set out to make them the subjects of the art rather than the objects, this art implicitly assumes that bodily form orientates attention in the immediacy of an encounter and in its lingering aftermath. Further a process of viewing continues to be embodied after the event since artistic form engages bodily phenomena such as sight and the other senses and sensations of lived experience.

Artistic representation in particular confirms that humans perceive their surroundings through the domain of emotion, although this is invariably reduced to familiar emotional tropes, the recognisable social patterns of emotions. The term “emotion” is used in this discussion to encompass: social emotions, sensory mood, personal emotional feeling as well as expanded ideas of affect. Put another way: is it possible to make art without emotion? A productive effect can be that a viewer puzzles over what the emotional effect of the form is. I suggest that emotion can be like a glue that activates intention and visible form and attracts and holds the attention of the viewer.

I am interested in what engagement with and through artistic form can achieve. I am not arguing for fixity of form, but for form in contemporary performance and visual art that might come within the sphere of an optimistic post-anthropocentrism outlined by Rosi Braidotti (2013), arguing for porous subjectivity. She theorises an expanded subjectivity of humanness that additionally reinforces the human-animal bond within our shared environment, rather than the “dialectics of otherness” being perpetuated by bio-capitalism (Braidotti 2013: 68).

Through examples of body-based performance, I have been considering what potentially interrupts or disrupts the seamlessness of how we bodily inhabit the world. I’m curious about what is revealed by interspecies communication and its longstanding denial in culture. For example, a surprise encounter might involve both species stopping completely still, momentarily, in curiosity, delight or fear. It suggests bodily forms in movement that stabilise sufficiently to catch and hold attention. This opens out the possibilities for humans to relearn to perceive ourselves as animals in our environment. As Bruno Latour points out in his public lectures, however, only some people are living in the anthropocene by recognising human impact on a geological scale, although he might also acknowledge that this comes with some worrying ideological tendencies (Baskin 2015).(1)

A surprise and a momentary hesitation in the lived moment, in liveness, can make us aware of how we live in the instability and constant motion of live forms, and how these are inseparable from the shimmer and elusive flux of emotion. Is it e/motion that allows embodied forms to be perceived in open-ended ways? I have come to appreciate that animals are central to the schemata of the human phenomenology of emotions. But when human emotions humanise or anthropomorphise the nonhuman, there can be dire consequences. The emotional framing of species bodies in artistic forms potentially scrutinises these processes and notions of liveness.

Artistic Form to New Materialism

Artistic form: Tuija Kokkonen’s performance event “Chronopolitics – III Memo of Time” in Helsinki in 2010 began with “Homo performans” inside the Natural History Museum, Helsinki. Participants then journeyed through the streets of Helsinki to a warehouse performance space, and this was followed by a walk through snow to the shoreline observatory.(2) The artistic form involved human participants walking, looking, listening and touching. Sensory responses to this artistic event underpinned posthuman or post-anthropocentric issues raised within its open-ended form in which participants could choose to attend only one venue or select only one performance to view. At the same time, the complete performance event had a clear trajectory and intentionality and participants were given headphones to listen to extracts from Darwin’s writing about evolution as they left the Museum and moved towards the space containing an animal-like (Sony) robotic pet and other interactive performances. The third space involved the viewing of planets in the night sky – or was that looking to the heavens? A spectator was probably phenomenologically aware of walking and listening, but did this awareness extend to the other embodied processes of seeing, smelling, touching, thinking? The artistic form offered a glimpse of our animal physicality as it pointed to human manipulation of animal species. The robot pet was captivating; the poetry and short films were affecting; but the sight and especially the smell of the Museum had a powerful, lasting effect. Participants walked through the Museum storeroom where an increasingly potent smell became emotionally disturbing as the source of thousands of dead carcasses was gradually identified.

At the time, I recorded this experience of the performance:

The smell assails from the entrance to the room of trays and drawers. The head of a lion pokes out at eye height as we walk through. Leopard skins in another section with llama laid flat. Hundreds of small animal bodies, shelved. There is a lone elephant with tusks in the vestibule, grey wrinkled skin preserved with his or her whiskers. Birds, preserved, stuffed, upright or lying in dozens of the same species, then fish and their skeletons, and trays of insects and eggs. Dead bodies laid out like books on shelves. A record of carnage and what humans do with bodies stored in museums across the world.

A diverse range of visible forms was crucial to the open-ended artistic form of “Chronopolitics”, spanning the biological, electronic and cosmic.

Even though Brian Massumi (Massumi 2002) argues that intensity and affect flows can be formless, and Jane Bennett’s (Bennett 2010) “vital materialism” contends that nonpersonal affect spans objects and even particles, I am unclear about what this affect and vitalism connects to and therefore how we know that it exists. This seems to be an argument for what our senses cannot perceive (so far so good) and what feeling might perceive (this is where I begin to struggle). It is unclear how humans might know that this type of affect exists without an accompanying embodied reception, without bodily form. Does this imply accepting what science reveals and adhering to scientific belief – or should that be holding faith with an invisible force?

Bennett writes: “[I]n lieu of an environment that surrounds human culture, […] picture an ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable or mineral. All forces and flows (materialities) are or can be lively, affective” (2010: 116–7). She advocates “one matter-energy”, of “things seen and unseen”, and “heterogeneities” constantly “doing things” (Bennett 2010: 122). But does such idealism about unchecked energetic formlessness have accidental consequences for the nonhuman?

New materialism emphasises the knowledge of how matter is composed of imperceptible elements. Bennett’s wonderful illuminating exploration of “vibrant matter” as self-organising systems and “thing-power” opens out the horizons of human experience and how a field of affect might operate across environments, things and humans, because matter itself is vibrant, alive. This idea of affect that is not specific to human bodies elaborates on Spinoza and ideas of force in “effects intrinsic to forms that cannot be imagined” as personified (Bennett 2010: xii). Expanding on Deleuze and concepts of becoming in what is being termed “new materialism”, Bennett writes: “[A] life thus names a restless activeness, a destructive–creative force-presence that does not coincide fully with any specific body” and she theorises “geoaffect”, which points to flows within larger ideas of the Anthropocene and geology (Bennett 2010: 54).

Elizabeth Grosz is uneasy about the term “new materialism” as she seeks “a concept of matter that involves something incorporeal, a spark of life” and she finds “tenuous forms” in the inseparable condition of how “life brings art to matter” so that matter “intensifies and transforms life”, and “life makes matter artistic” (Grosz 2011: 17, 19, 24). “Tenuous forms” sounds promising for artistic endeavour in the visual arts and performance, except that this life-matter which Grosz is discussing is not meant to be fabricated forms and art. She seems to mean something beautiful without artistic human intervention.

I am once again in a conceptual dilemma. The new materialism where science and the arts and humanities meet seems to offer the necessary way forward and, for once, this also potentially encompasses my preferred body phenomenology theory, except I have two nagging doubts. These doubts can be summarised as the urgent need for attention to species bodies and recognition that artistic intention is expressed through bodily form which garners attention. One of my concerns is that posthuman ideas of vital materialism arguing for movement across dissolving assemblages, and with the singularity of cells as a primary mode, inadvertently flatten out the recognition and appreciation of nonhuman animals to their detriment at this crucial time. In the twentyfirst century, human intention and attention might mean life and death for larger nonhuman animals and parts of the biosphere. This new materialism, however, does seem to represent a divergence from cyborgian posthumanism – which seems completely focused on a larger, human-like life form – that is, on what the human-like form will become in the future.

Artistic intention – deliberate or otherwise – reflects on how we live in the world and with others. But artistic form is not self-organising, although it can seem to obviate cognitive deliberation and often seems to be more akin to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of perceptually opening outwards. It induces responses through sensory forms but these invariably implicate the felt experience of a viewer or a spectator.

Bennett recognises that “human affect is a key player” in public worlds but that it exists beyond bodies as “impersonal” or “nonpersonal ahuman forces, flows” (Bennett 2010: 61). Yet affect remains political in her approach to devolved life and connected to how political ecologies come into existence, since the vital force of materiality has agency which is not mechanical or ethereal, Marxian or metaphysical, but closer to Bruno Latour’s (Latour 2005) “actant” and explanations of the social as flat. But I am left asking: where does that leave intention in and attention to artistic forms?

In places, Bennett’s writing is beautifully lyrical – which keeps me reading – and not dissimilar to literary descriptions of nature. What is happening for a reader or a viewer to make philosophy and art of interest? I hesitate to ask, but do other readers fall in love with ideas – like their authors? Here I am attracted to the intentional material form. Art and philosophical discourse are not emotionally impersonal or neutral and they become imbued with the sensibility of a creator. If emotional experience holds our attention to a book and its ideas, surely this implicates personal affect? Merleau-Ponty’s “mass of affective sensations” in lived experience invariably implicates emotion (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 251). Braidotti admits to counteracting panic over the displacement of the human (Braidotti 2013: 64). I admit to affection or distaste for other species, which is intensified to love or repulsion over our treatment of them. The specific emotional responses may elude familiar object words and remain hard to quantify and explain. In the uneven distribution of vital materialism, however, the elements that encourage movement and resist stasis are unclear. Importantly, a human experience of coming together is rarely about nonpersonal feeling. Humans gather – in new materialist thinking, they “cluster” – because of felt emotional affinities.

Art forms might be ideally placed to meet Latour’s definition of “any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference” (Latour 2005: 71). Yet the promise of new materialisms to unravel human-centred experience seems to have the side-effect of creating a vacuum of human emotional feeling.

Emotional Intention as Action

Performance and visual art are more than the manifestation of imagining with and through materiality, even for artists working with cellular forms in bio-art. If the premise behind art is not merely for the artist to capture an experience for him or herself, it must be assumed that artists strive to communicate. They communicate through form. Then artistic intention becomes a process of action. But Bennett and others are arguing against singular intention. Undoubtedly, artistic intention and viewer reception of performance and art and attention to its purpose are not interchangeable. Nonetheless individual artists take action in ways that take us with them, and to different points of experiential perception and understanding along the way.

Theatrical performers in particular make the artistic form through human bodily processes and, even with spoken language, the form is inherently unstable and must be constantly stabilised in expressive and gestural ways to make it socially interpretable. Communicated meaning arises with the tone and the emotional colour of the delivery. Performance is intentional – that is, it is intended for someone. It becomes imbued with emotion through the process of communicating to other humans and the nonhuman. But performed emotion does extend out beyond its social and bodily shapes to surround living forms.

The intention of performers and artists can expose how emotion is threatening, so that the separating out of elements draws attention and scrutiny as it does in other modes of investigation. For example, theories of emotion have long distinguished bodily feeling such as thirst from emotional feeling, and grappled with the contentious issue of human intention and/or will and whether it happens before or after bodily sensations. Feeling and emotional feeling can be distinguished through cognitive categorisation. On an individual experiential level, however, I am thirsty but I am anxious because there is no water, and I cannot separate out these two sets of bodily sensations. Importantly then, how is it possible for nonpersonal affect to be understood when it seems impossible to avoid experiencing bodily affect?

Since artistic engagement implicates cognitive, emotional, affective and visceral responses in phenomenological body perception, this messy, momentary coming together can be potentially shared with others through form and its intentional arrangement. Art and especially performance inclusive of nonhuman bodies potentially interrupts the seamless habitual responses of lived bodies in the world (Merleau-Ponty 1996). Usefully, phenomenological awareness creates and opens up spaces of hesitation and uncertainty in perceptual worlds. As sensory intention functions through artistic form, it potentially reveals how the flesh of the world becomes encrypted with Foucault’s discursive bodies – expanded to include nonhuman species bodies.

Art and its strangeness – even enchantment or wonder, as Bennett (Bennett 2001) frames the affective attention that nonhuman objects or forms draw – has the potential to counteract obliviousness to the pervasive manipulative power of human emotion which underlies bodily blindness towards other species, the surroundings, the environment and climate change. Our inability to perceive our emotionally affective body from within contributes to the outward human destructiveness towards other species and the biosphere.

Unquestionably, artistic form offers a crucial way to challenge how nature and animal species are framed by reductionist social emotions such as greed. Encounters between different species are never simply cognitive and sensory visceral responses with impersonal flows. Moreover, human emotional feelings would seem to be inseparable from beliefs about the world. Yet the assumption that beliefs about emotion shape what is experienced and that emotions underlie and magnify beliefs has been challenged in emotion theory. In some advanced thinking on emotion and its threats, Nico Frijda, Antony Manstead and Sacha Bem (Frijda et al. 2000) explain that emotion is belief. Frija et al’s idea of emotion beliefs might be crucial to animal species survival and climate change, and arguments for and against.

In her discussion of how other species have subjectivity that is comparable to that of humans, Braidotti writes of how “empathy” is important in a “posthuman theory of subjectivity” (Braidotti 2013: 78). But empathetic responses should not be reserved for our own species.

Our planetary problems such as species extinction and climate change are being framed as human-to-human problems. Braidotti’s concern for the unbridled expansion of post- anthropocentric bio-genetic capitalism leading to a “colossal hybridization” of species necessitates a posthuman replacement of the “anthropos” and “bios” of human nature with “zoe” as the life force of the nonhuman (Braidotti 2013: 65). She is arguing for a politics of zoe-egalitarianism which seems to require attention to forms. Further it seems possible to recognise the phenomena of emotional force in relation to zoe-egalitarianism. Certainly we seem to be phenomenologically attuned to external movement – even in philosophy.

Vitalism or Animism

If aliveness is akin to bodily feeling, then it is continuous even though our awareness moves in and out of attention to the experience of feeling. If emotional energy is part of a process of vitalism, then it needs to be considered for its helpful and harmful effects. Humans also need to give attention to how their own processes of embodiment, including emotional feelings, produce intention within the world, and they need to take responsibility and pay attention to its effects. Where emotional energy functions in unrecognised ways, it is frequently a destructive force.

Anthropomorphism is not simply attributing human-like behaviour but also, much more significantly, attributing comparable emotional lives. It is clear that many species do not merely behave, but live with emotional intention. David Abram draws on Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of body–world dialogue in nature for his phenomenological environmentalism. He explores how Merleau-Ponty extended Husserl’s ideas of an experiencing self located in the body to appreciate that all encounters with others and the phenomenal world can only happen through the living, breathing body (Abram 1997: 45). Merleau-Ponty situates the body self or attentive subject in continual motion within the world, which Abram describes as the environment of nonhuman beings, soil, plants and elements (Abram 1997: 46–7). Humans exist in the world through sensory perception and “reciprocity” and exchange (Abram 1997: 52). Importantly, Merleau-Ponty points out that the perceived phenomena, the “sensible thing” is alive in a “field of animate presences” (Abram 1997: 55–6). Therefore Abram writes “we are all animists” (1997: 57).(3) He is describing his encounters with the knowledges within traditional societies premised on how human life exists surrounded by the elements of nonhuman life and the forces of the environment, and these must be continually acknowledged – placated – for survival. This process can be also fearful (Abram 1997: 69). Traditional Australian Indigenous knowledge seems to personify life in ways that are comparable to the examples given by Abram, which attribute emotional experience without distinguishing between organic and inorganic in order to actively conserve resources in the environment. If this presents a hopeful ideal for the anthropocene, this is not through the recognition of impersonal affect. Instead traditional knowledge of the environment seems to arise through emotive intention and exchange. Indigenous engagement with the living environment accords everything an emotional life, albeit one that humans understand. Behaviour in the environment is coded, premised on life itself being sensitive to personal emotional experience, and this crucially engenders a process of obligation and emotional responsibility.

Human emotion might come into meaningful frameworks in passing, but as it shifts and slides and eludes the grasp, then Western thought tends to overlook it. If we sidestep behavioural compulsion – summarised as, for example, hubris, fear, anger, love – we avoid how emotion is a continuous, active, vital force that both fuels intention and holds attention and potentially underpins all our behaviour action. It has consequences, especially if its existence goes unrecognised.

Living Forms

By interpreting “animal behaviour as intentional, the phenomenological method reveals that meaningful relations” exist between living entities and the environment but that an entity has goals or preferences (Toadvine 2009: 79, 83). Nonetheless human exceptionalism also troubles phenomenology.

Ted Toadvine argues that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology offers a way of thinking about the human as an immanent being in nature and thinking of nature from within nature and fully mindful of this transcendence (Toadvine 2009: 7). He seeks to explain “the dual sense of both nature and animal that either wholly includes or excludes us” (2009: 10). This is not a neutral blank process and nature is not pristine (Cronon in Toadvine 2009: 14). Merleau-Ponty proposes that human relations with nature are expressive (in Toadvine 2009: 131). In the example of art forms, Merleau-Ponty writes about Cezanne’s painting of an inhuman nature as he explains about Cezanne’s claim that landscape thinks within him. Toadvine writes: “Just as perception already ‘humanizes’ the natural world onto which it opens (or, as Merleau-Ponty will later say, ‘stylizes’), reflection is always in some sense a reconstruction after the fact of this perceptual moment” (2009: 69). The posthuman effort to escape the bodily limits of human perception seems to ignore rather than integrate such reflective aspects of perception.

As Louise Westling explains, Merleau-Ponty offers us a radical challenge to “anthropocentric arrogance” by making us reconsider lived body existence (Westling 2014: 5). He writes: “We have to reject the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or, conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box” (Merleau-Ponty 1995: 138). Instead there is “flesh applied to a flesh” and unfolding in and through a surrounding world, and flesh is an element of ontological being, and chiasma describes the process of crossing over (Merleau-Ponty 1995: 138–9). The examples of reversibility are gentle and fleeting: meeting someone else’s glance or touching left and right hands. These could extend to interspecies encounters. The sensations denote constant motion and movement but become known through bodily experience.

Performers and visual artists might be phenomenologically driven to encapsulate and communicate their embodied perceptions. Bodily feeling that arises within and towards the surrounding world is the crucial dimension to artistic effort. This is the expression of what is enfolding and unfolding in and through us bodily and perception is potentially reversible in the environment. Toadvine explains that Merleau-Ponty understands that the environment “has its own meaningful configuration to which we are orientated at a level more originary than thought, at the level of our bodily engagement with the perceived” (Toadvine 2009: 131). Applied to new materialism thinking, however, the question becomes: what limits perceptual flesh and its dissipation if it is not how living entities exist within the constant movement of emotional intention and attention in and to form?

Toadvine elaborates on Merleau-Ponty’s notion of ideas as “invisible hinges or folds within the visible” and “animal being” as “an interrogative fold within the world’s flesh” (2009: 87, 96) – that is, all animals are questioning beings. Toadvine explains that the body and its environment exist in “lived space” which is “sensible” space rather than physical or conceptual, with relations between the body and the environment contingent on motive or intentionality (Toadvine 2009: 97–8). Does emotion create a further space?

Unquestionably, emotion arises in the spaces created by performance and visual art forms. In addition what I find really interesting with Toadvine’s exploration is that he points out how melody offers a metaphor for the structure of consciousness. Melody, that most emotionally expressive and evocative artistic form, received and perceived in sensory bodily ways, mimics awareness itself. This idea of consciousness links to how artistic form structures experience and emotion. It suggests how intention to create melody and attentive listening are crucial as intention and attention are in other forms of awareness.

In an explanation of intention linked to attention, Merleau-Ponty writes: “Bodily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading out, because it is the darkness needed in the theatre to show up the performance” (quoted in Toadvine 2009: 99). Forms are distinguished from the surroundings by how they draw specific focus. An intentional sensory orientation is needed to hold and sustain attention.

If performance and visual art offer responses to the “coherent deformation” of what might be termed “nature” (Toadvine 2009: 127), this seems to be achieved in and through an emotional space. This is not one offering a coherent explanation for social emotions or personal feelings. This is an unfolding space in which emotional experience pulsates, resonates and moves in tandem with other feeling but does the important work of orientating attention and facilitating coming together and remaining attentive. I contend that closer attention to our embodied emotion is crucial for species survival at this time.


1) The term “anthropocene” was popularised by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen.

2) Author viewed 26 March 2010.

3) I wrote this work before I encountered more recent theoretical arguments against animism, although I contend that its emotional knowledges can expand our understanding. For example, see Crusin (Crusin 2015).


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Carpa4 Proceedings

The Non-human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts — Bodies, Organisms and Objects in Conflict