Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

I recently finished writing an article for a journal for teachers of writing in which I devise a concept called “performative affect.” I use this term to describe the category of experiences that come about when a performer of any sort (writer, dancer, musician, actor, etc.) feels an affective state (you can think of these as “emotions” in the lay sense) and in rendering it in the spotlight (whether genuinely or feigned), the audience feels it as well. I’m sure you can all think of a time that you were affected by someone else’s rendering of an emotional (affective) response. It’s rather a key concept in understanding the power of performance. 

The field of affective neuroscience is making exciting advances in understanding exactly how this happens, especially following the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons,” which are brain cells that activate while watching someone else perform an action or render an affective state. In other words, if you watch someone else do something, somewhere in your brain your own cells are pretending or rehearsing the same action. You can see evidence of this phenomenon in the dance world. Next time you’re at a dance performance, notice that you can spot the experienced dancers in an audience as they are the ones following along with involuntary movements of their head. 

In case you’re unfamiliar, let me introduce you to notion of affect. Affect refers to a moment (indeed affect theory has been referred to as a “theory of moments”) when a internal shift in perceived states occurs for an individual. That’s all—a simple shift in states that is unformed and uncharacterized. Now, we typically take moments of affect and interpret them as feelings. Brian Massumi refers to affect as a moment of change happening “midway between stimulus and response.” Let me give you a simple example: let’s say someone says something hurtful or insulting. Before you ever respond or even reflect on what you’re feeling, you detect a physical change in your state. Maybe you feel your face flush or heartrate quicken. That’s the moment you’ve been affected by the stimulus. It happens before you even have time to decide how to respond and even before you interpret that change (before you even become aware of how you feel). 

In fact, feelings are a different category. Feelings are experienced when we subjectively interpret moments of affect. First there is a moment of affect when you realize you’ve been changed by something that happened. Only then can you interpret it with your own thought processes and, within the context of your own experience, begin to understand how you’re feeling as a result. 

To relate these three important concepts: affect is a simple and neutral change in states, feelings are our conscious interpretations of moments of affect, and emotions are expressions of affect outwardly projected (which can be real or feigned). 

What’s so interesting about performance is that we can play with affect in fictive contexts. The actor who can cry on cue—what are they experiencing at that moment? We are seeing the outward rendering, but what is the actor feeling at that moment? Even if the emotional expression is feigned (acting, for pretend), is there still an internally processed moment of affect? What do you think? 

Or if we consider the audience’s reaction, let’s imagine a gifted actor or dancer or singer expressing an emotion so powerfully that the audience even begins to cry. That’s the most illustrative example I can think of the power of performative affect: that even behaviors put on “for pretend” can actually have real effects/affects. 

In this way, the real and the fictive exist in a dynamic and cyclic relationship. The fictive can prompt the real (in the case of the actor whose “fake” tears can inspire the same in the audience—by way of mirror neurons, of course) but also the audience’s real response an have a further (also real) affect back on the performer (who feels genuinely accomplished to have moved the audience so significantly). This is what affect theorists refer to as contagion: the spread of affect that occurs in ways over which we have little cognitive control. 

The power to affect beyond the cognitive is one of the elements of performance that renders the act of performance so powerful and why I feel that performance has such a prominent role to play in pedagogy not only in the arts but in the larger field of education. It’s hard to measure affect by quantitative means and therefore I don’t think it gets the attention or study it deserves. But the same ineffable qualities that prevent it from being studied through data or under a microscope are the same qualities that render performative affect so powerful. Learning is, after all, decidedly marked by moments of affect.

Anyone have any thoughts or questions?