semiotics. visual poetics. intermedia. oblanguage. portfoliage.

Stasis to Ecstasis and the Delocalization of Narrative

andrea-balducci-300x300

by J. Cassar Scalia

Essay from A Transmission Beyond Histories

In a passage recounting the resulting effects of an “image reception” experiment, Brian Massumi, a social theorist at the University of Montreal, takes the reader through a treatise on what he calls the “force-relations of affect”.  In the experiment cited, subjects that are wired for measurement of physiological changes are shown a series of emotionally charged images.  Results of the study indicate that the intensity (level of arousal measured by changes in heart rate, breathing) of a subject’s impression of a given image is immediately bifurcated into an emotional happy or sad response.

Massumi focuses on this affective intensity prior to the affective bifurcation, “the level of intensity [of the emotional effect of viewing a given image] is organized according to a logic that does not admit the excluded middle. This is to say that it is not semantically or semiotically ordered.  It does not fix distinctions. Instead it vaguely but insistently connects what is normally indexed as separate. When asked to signify itself, it can only do so in paradox” (2002).

So, a deep, base-cognitive and intense feeling is aroused by a stimulating image. But in order for this arousal to reach a state of conscious reflection within the subject that is having the arousing experience–and perhaps more interestingly, in order for the subject to even know and thus further reflect on whether this arousal is pleasurable or not (become involved in the ‘effect of affect’)– the feeling must be bifurcated. It must be split into a fixed binary set (positive/negative, happy/sad, etc.). The energetic frequency of the arousal itself though, is not subject to such binary fixing and therefore, stands in some sense beyond the binary constraints of cognition. Massumi goes on to emphasize that movement as opposed to stasis should be regarded as crucial to any theoretical conception of affect.  And it is this holding to movement as a conceptual lynchpin that is crucial to my explanation of the experience of ecstatic equilibrium– the ecstasis, in the context of capoeira, as I will detail below.

But let us first examine the primacy of movement against the “law of the excluded middle”. This classic Aristotelian law essentially states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true.  There is no third or middling possibility. But this ambiguous middling non-possibility is precisely what Massumi is interested in, understanding it and introducing it as the “zone of indistinction” between two fixed states. It is something outside the purvey of conscious, indexable observation, yet plays a role in driving that which ultimately becomes indexable as distinct qualities or states.

Changes in qualities/states are measurable over time and across space yet the nature of what impels such changes remains hidden (excluded), and necessarily so. As Massumi indicates, the law of the excluded middle is essential, not only for measurements to be accurate or for propositions to be either wholly true or false, but for analytic or semiotic function to even occur or have any meaning.

For if the murky middle were included, the distinction between one state and another would cease to be.  Truth and falsity would become intermeshed, united by this middle bridge. Gazing from the point of view of the theoretical threshold that binds truth and falsity, here and there, now and then, would render semiotic function and meaning a senseless, babbling enterprise.

Professore Camara’s reflection on his experience of capoeira play in the roda seems to reference this kind of semiotic incapacitation. As his capoeira experience intensifies the law of the excluded middle begins to be excluded. The exclusion is excluded, which is to say that the mysterious ‘middle’ begins to be re-included, implicitly linking what is explicitly indexed as opposite. It is an infra-logical bodily experience that is all but impossible to express through the dia-logic of language:

At the same time I’m connected to the capoeira but not connected to my body. It’s really an outer body experience. I would be in the roda but I wouldn’t necessarily feel my body, and I would be moving. I would feel just like- it’s hard to explain.

Embodied Semiotics in the Roda

The roda (capoeira circle of play) is a constantly moving series of overlapping circles.  The capoeiristas (including instrument players) rotate, sliding into the center to meet the challenger at which point they play capoeira until another capoeirista cuts in.  The music is circular. It goes round and round in a call and response way (one call voice and the rest responding voices).  Ginga (the fundamental movement of capoeira) itself, in a pure sense, is a circle with no beginning or end and no distinction between successive movements. The ongoing circular quality combined with the rhythm and emotionality of the music is vital to moving the experience of capoeira out of the static realm of fixed states and positions and toward the ecstatic.

The experiential process of the roda is one in which the capoeirista’s consciousness moves from a state where a mental-symbolical semiotics is primary (that which we are quite beholden to in the past-to-future world of speech and memory) to a state where a corporeal-energetic semiotics becomes primary, as would be the case generally with any rigorous physical activity. The more energy taken up by a physically engaged and challenged body, the less energy there is to be absorbed into the symbolical orientation of mind.

I make the point to introduce semiotics, which is traditionally understood in symbolic/linguistic terms, as an umbrella category that covers both mental-symbolical communication and corporeal-energetic communication. The corporeal-energetic communication is what is meant by embodied semiotics. In this sense, the full spectrum of human experience– neurocognitive, linguistic, social, psychological, emotional, physical, biological– is semiotic.

In the following passage Camara, again foregrounding the role of music, talks about the emotional experience of the roda and he links it to a ‘spiritual connection”:

If the music’s exciting I get excited. When the music is calm and slow, sometimes we have calm slow music and sad kind of lamenting music and I would feel that as well. Sometimes I’d be playing in the roda and I’d feel like crying not because the game was bad or whatever but just because I was having some kind of experience. That really translates into why- the reason I do capoeira is so much more than just a thing that I do. It’s almost like I have a spiritual connection to it. And that’s why a lot of capoeiristas feel like they have a spiritual connection.

In a highly ‘spirited’ roda where a capoeirista may even begin to cry without explanation, experience of something ineffable, something for which words are incapable of retelling, are not uncommon. That said, the practice of capoeira from an observational standpoint at least is subject to a kind of semiotic order, as I have indicated above. Like language it is an interactive, communicative experience. It is a corporeal semiotics, bodies in a kind of dialogue.  In this sense it is linked with the discursive representational world of “excluded middles” where cognizance depends upon segmented ex-changes, reading the world from past to future through a succession of fixed and sequential states. This is the bifurcated world.

As Massumi points out, this bifurcation teases apart sadness from happiness, and both of them out of a pre-differentiated or unqualified intensity (2002). This intensity may be in some sense felt in experiences of the liminal, of becoming, of moving from one state to another. It is that which has not yet been perceptually screened into an affected state that, when it is affected, will locate itself somewhere along a spectrum of pleasure and pain, here and there, now and then.

Camara’s description of a spiritual connection where he may be crying but not sad is indicative of a kind of affective, pre-differentiated feeling of intensity that takes on the outward index of a particular emotional effect, in this case tears. His emotional state is less associated with the effect of crying in the ordinary sense of it but rather with the intensity out of which his tears have been affected; the same intensity out of which any and all other fathomable indices of emotion may be affected. This is to say that his emotional state has become deeply and powerfully balanced as it reflects the pristine equilibrium of a core, unqualified intensity; that which lies beneath and beyond any subsequently qualified emotion.

The swinging ginga, the empathic circle of capoeiristas singing and playing instruments, the mirrored engagement with the other capoeirista, the continual circular movement of bodies and music in concert all flowing in rhythm creates a powerful experience for all involved.  Within such a multisensory zone the swaying fluidity of ginga may bring one to penetrate the ‘excluded middle’, marginally including -integrating really- its affective power into the semiotic field of fixed distinctions.  The experience feeds and coaxes an underlying sensorial knowing of non-linearity, non-separation, an empathic sensation of trans-static, to the point of ecstatic union.

Massumi positions his idea of a pre-qualified intensity beside the “conscious-autonomic loop”, calling it a “non-conscious, autonomic remainder… It is narratively delocalized, spreading over the generalized body surface like a lateral backwash from the function meaning interloops that travel the vertical path between head and heart” (2002).

The concept of narrative delocalization, to move beyond narrative and its semiotic rules- it (or rather its localized energy) becoming delocalized and spreading over the body’s surface, reflects the esoteric meaning in the transmission beyond scriptures quote:

Masters don’t teach the truth; there is no way to teach it. It is a transmission beyond scriptures, beyond words. It is a transmission. It is energy invoking energy in you.

A ‘transmission beyond scriptures’ can be understood as that which goes beyond the bifurcation that defines all dialogical mind-based transmissions. It is something held in the body that is at the same time deeper and subtler than ‘head knowledge’; it is a sensorial-energetic knowing, a (re)linking of conscious and unconscious energies that, so it would follow, had somewhere along the way become separate. This linkage amounts to a reversal of the bifurcation that animates the verbal: words, texts, narratives- the various qualifications that symbolic phenomena embody.

The Mental-Lingual Energy Loop

*save for limited outsourcing to non-verbal gesturing that is auxiliary to verbal communication: hands, arms, eye contact, facial expressions, written word

From a broader evolutionary perspective these qualifications may be better understood as the result of a brain/nervous system that has over millennia increasingly offloaded to the tongue* ever greater shares of nervous energy that had formerly been relatively evenly dispersed and diffused throughout the entire body. What once escaped pan-corporeally through the movements of torso, limbs, extremities vibrating outward into the world, through the skin in a 360 degree emanation from the body’s core, began to be concentrated into a lingual laser, channeled toward and flowing off the fine and flexible tip of the tongue.

This offloading of energy may be linked to a strengthening, deepening, mutually-reinforcing relationship between the brain and the tongue, which is to say that it is of central importance to the firm establishment of a kind of mental-lingual energy loop. In a sense, the hyper-sophisticated activity of the tongue and its corresponding mental component, including the ideological structuration of thought, can act like a mild tranquilizer on the rest of the body.

Over hundreds of generations, the implicit vibrations and movements of the tongue, in its unique strength, flexibility, and anatomical perch between the voice box and the mouth, became more intentional and sophisticated conforming to an emerging lingual (anatomical) syntax– mirrored of course by a mental syntax. The movement and vibrations of the tongue (and mind) became increasingly animated within its growing morpho-syntactic/semantic system as the species crossed evolutionarily into a zone of true symbolic function. As these movements and vibrations became more and more animated, movement in the rest of the body saw a softening.  This linguistic pacifying of bodily movement seems quite obvious from a synchronic analysis of humans in terms of behavior, but it is also arguable from a diachronic analysis of the human species in terms of evolutionary biology.

Over huge swaths of evolutionary time, this offloading of energy to the tongue may be understood as the catalyzing force for the endowment of humanity with the capacity for symbolic, linguistic and cultural acuity, which is to say a capacity for a deepening, lengthening and more critical gaze into the socio-cognitively structured intersection of time and space. It’s been a shifting from a corporeal-energetic semiotics to a mental-lingual semiotics.  From this perspective, the narrative delocalization that Massumi describes as a “lateral backwash that spreads over the body surface” amounts to the physical sensation of previously constricted mental-lingual energy being released into the body. Such narrative/lingual delocalization is evident, in so many words, in the capoeira song, Porquinho: Free your body boy. Stop talking. You’ve got to have feeling to play Capoeira Angola.

Capoeira, or any total body practice like yoga, tai chi and many other types of martial arts and sports, achieves a degree of narrative delocalization or ventilation if you like, by giving some controlled relief to the narratively fixated mind that is often partner to a physically constricted, unfeeling body, allowing for the temporary ebbing of a symbolic, bifurcated mentality (stasis) and the flowing of an energetic corporeality (ecstasis).

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