Contagious Feelings: Pauline Hanson and the Epidemiology of Affect

by Anna Gibbs

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=Bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear – in short, communicable affect can inflame nerves and muscles in a conflagration of every conceivable kind of passion1. We are all aware of the way in which affect can be catching in one to one situations, and also of the ways in which it may happen in more public forums – as for example, when a speaker’s anxiety is overwhelming and communicates itself to the audience so that everyone feels uncomfortable. But the mass media, especially the electronic media, television and (talkback) radio, introduce a powerful new element into this state of affairs. Not only do they act as amplifiers of affect, heightening and intensifying affects (by amplifying the tone, timbre and pitch of voices and, in the case of television, by means of close ups which provide a concentrated focus on facial expressions), but of course they dramatically increase the rapidity of communication of affect, and they extend its reach to the point where it is now almost global.

Affect is, according to American psychologist Silvan Tomkins,2 part of a larger cognitive system which does not operate on the command-control principles which are usually assumed in discussions of cognition, but rather as a series of distributed functions which include affect, sensory perception and memory. In practice, what this implies is that, just as cognitions take on an affective colouring, so too does affect call forth certain ideas and attitudes with which it has become associated in the inner world of the individual. This is consonant with the work of somatic practitioners such as Feldenkrais3 and with contemporary neurobiology, such as the work of Antonio Damasio4. We might say, then, that the media act as vectors in affective epidemics in which something else is also smuggled along: the attitudes and even the specific ideas which tend to accompany affect in any given situation. Perhaps it is even the case that affects act as triggers that activate a kind of sero-conversion of ideas already at play in the milieu of the event.

In any case, we are now plugged into the media: it is a source of power from which we constantly mainline, and in turn we feed it with our own affects, attitudes and ideas. In other words, as Virginia Nightingale’s recent work5 makes clear, we are now all part of a whole series of relatively new ensembles of media and people, participating in the new ‘mediatised’ forms of subjectivity these ensembles generate. These forms of subjectivity pose new challenges for psychoanalysis both as clinical practice and as a mode of social and cultural analysis. Classical and Kleinian psychoanalysis have tended to view culture simply as a psychic projection, a corollary of their tendency to view the analyst as a blank screen onto which the analysand projects her fantasies. This has produced a somewhat imperialist tendency in psychoanalytic approaches to culture, in as much as psychoanalysis feels free to turn its gaze anywhere and be accepted as the ultimate explanatory sytem. However, more recent intersubjectivist approaches have stressed the effect of the analyst as ‘observer’ on the ‘observed’6, reformulating the analytic couple as a‘dyadic system’ in which each member of the couple impacts on the other in an asymmetrical mutual regulation of affective, somatic and cognitive levels of experience. This may open the way to a more complex psychoanalytic understanding of the relationship between psychic and social realities.

A central focus of work on intersubjective systems has been the phenomenon of ‘interaffectivity’7, and at this point it seems important to examine more closely the role of affect – and interaffectivity – in self-formation. In trying to think about affect as a constituent of that structure we call the self (the characteristic mode of organisation of subjectivity), and more specifically about the nature of affective contagion, I’m drawing on the work of Silvan Tomkins (and later, mostly self-psychological or American intersubjective, writers who have attempted to use his work) for its understanding of affects as ‘neuro-physiological events, correlated sets of physical sensations’8 (muscular and glandular responses) which, when linked with thought, become feelings able to be elaborated into the more complex blends of affects which comprise emotion. Tomkins distinguishes nine discrete innate affects9 each of which acts to amplify the gradient and intensity of a neural firing, producing a positive feedback loop in which more of the same affect will be evoked in both the person experiencing the affect and in the observer (a phenomenon known as ‘affective resonance’).10 The face, according to Tomkins11, is the primary site of affective communication and plays a crucial part, along with the voice, in the phenomena of feedback, resonance and contagion, because any one component of affective response will trigger the other neurological and physiological components of the entire pattern of response. (Faces and voices are communicative and observable, unlike visceral responses).

The subject’s response to her own affective experience, which draws on memory (socially and familialy produced or learned sequences of affects, as well as defenses against particular affects, and specific meanings attached to them) but which also includes future-oriented projections,12 will be of cardinal importance in determining how or whether new experiences will be able to be integrated into the existing self-formation. Affects exist in complex interaction: in the therapeutic situation, some affects can be used to modulate or amplify other affects: here as elsewhere familar sequences of affects (of which the subject is unaware) will often be triggered. Prolonged unrelieved distress is an innate activator of anger13, though for social reasons it may also trigger shame, which may in turn produce contempt towards the self or others – and all this may happen internally and automatically, outside awareness. It is precisely such affective sequences that, I want to suggest, may be activated by media coverage of Pauline Hanson in which she functions as a vector for the media’s affective amplification, intensifying rage (and outrage), magnifying fear, and, not coincidentally, inciting hatred.

I think there are two aspects of Hanson (or indeed any media figure, under certain conditions) that have been supremely amenable to media amplification. The first is her face. It is the face (rather than the viscera) which is characterised by Tomkins as ‘the primary site of the affects’14, since it communicates our affective state to others, but also, importantly to ourselves, via feedback. The face, then, is an extremely rapid medium of communication, and the televisual close up, especially when it is extreme, enhances its communicative possibilities by drawing our attention to details (trembling lips, rapid eye movements, twitching muscles, and so on.) Hanson’s face, with its green eyes under the red hair, was a magnet for cameras used – for the most part in political coverage – to the tedium of grey suits and grey male faces.

But there was also something else at work: the fascination of critical commentators with the Hanson phenomenon often translated into an attempt to psychologise her, and this was one of the factors, I think, that encouraged the extreme close ups in which her face was so often held on television. These shots represented an attempt to ‘get inside her’, but what they tended to produce was a phenomenon Therese Davis has described in a beautiful essay on the ‘defaced’ face of Paul Eddington15. As she points out, the face can be produced as isolated not so much in space as in another dimension, a dimension – critic Bela Balazs identifies as that of ‘physiognomy’. This is a cinematic phenomenon not usually associated with the small screen of television where, as Davis reminds us, the talking head is ‘simply the most banal unit of visual language.’ But, as she also points out, this kind of close up and the very material reality it focuses, take us ‘beyond recognition, beyond identity and its corollary identification… to the experience of a space in which the emotional and the physical merge, in which the conscious and unconscious, mix’. I think this is the space of affective contagion, or at least of one particular form of it, the form Tomkins terms ‘redintegration’16, as when the yawn or the smile of the other (which we perceive visually) can form ‘a sufficient part of the total matrix of feedback experience of the face to redintegrate the yawn or smile.’ As he points out, this kind of contagion is an automatic process whose results can be quite unwelcome. (Or not). An extreme close up may solicit this kind of involuntary mimicry, and the resulting facial expressions will actively produce in us the affective response they are often said simply to ‘express’, because to activate one component of affect will tend to activate all the others.

The second aspect of Pauline Hanson that lent itself to beautifully to televisual amplification was her voice. Arguably, when it comes to television, sound is in some ways more important than image: even when we can’t see the tv we listen with a kind of selective inattention to its chatter of voices and to the canned laughter, film music and program themes that follow us as we move from room to room, or hover at the edge of consciousness as we read or talk or do other things in front of the screen. In such a context especially, the emotional tone of a voice will come to the foreground, as meaning slides into the background. In the pragmatic context of day to day communication, it’s the other way round.

Now Hanson’s voice in the broadcast coverage of the last federal election often conveyed acute distress, as if she was about to burst into tears, and the communicability of this affect in turn set in motion a number of affective sequences in those who listened to it. The distress of the other, if distress itself particularly distresses the observer, often produces an impulse to put an immediate stop to it, as when a baby cries and the greater its evident distress, the more quickly the parents will respond. In discussions with friends, it appeared that a number of people couldn’t bear to listen to Hanson precisely because of this, as much as because of her ideas, and would solve the problem by simply switching off the tv or radio. But distress may also be very affecting for people already feeling a more diffuse form of the same emotion, people whose own distress has not been responded to and who tend to look after in others what cries out, sometimes silently, for attention in themselves. (It is this tendency of affect to generate more of the same affect in the observer that Tomkins has termed ‘affective resonance’17: other writers have stipulated that one is drawn to the affect already felt – a tragic disposition will seek out occasions to weep – to sad movies, country and western music, and so on).

It seems to me that Hanson’s distress often evoked this kind of affective resonance: those whose distress had not been responded to by public policy or by particular politicians responsible for making it were, not surprisingly, particularly susceptible. Traditional political representatives of the group who most actively supported Hanson (white, predominantly male, little educated, older blue collar workers from rural or outer suburban areas) had failed them, and this constituency had lost not only the economic security it once enjoyed, provided by protectionist policies of successive postwar governments, but also its status as iconic Australians, ideal representives of a certain familiar ethos, of which mateship is a metonym. Their distress and those of their families was real, and it found its amplifying echo in Hanson’s voice, as well as a form of legitimisation in her attitudes and a prescription for action in her campaign for election.

But I think the distress in Pauline Hanson’s voice also affected people who don’t fit the usual profile of a One Nation Voter – people who belonged to the educated (in some cases, highly educated) metropolitan middle classes. It was with horror and a kind of appalled fascination that some of my friends and I discussed our parents’, our other older relatives’ and their friends’ responses to Hanson, and considered the possibility – and in some cases the certainty – that this translated into a vote for One Nation. In our discussions, relative social isolation in the form of retirement or semi-retirement emerged as one common contributing factor to sympathy for Hanson’s views, especially if retirement had meant some loss of purpose and loss of pleasure, and a concomitant loss of belonging to an ideal community – in other words, if retirement had produced low level distress. (This factor seemed to outweigh previous political allegiances – which weren’t all necessarily right wing: one of us remembered handing out Labor how to vote cards with one of her parents when she was a child; some remembered their parents’ support for the 1967 referendum at which the Constitution was amended to enable Aboriginal people to be counted in the census for the first time.) I think the significance of such an experienced loss of belonging, of shared commitment (or, more accurately, imagined shared commitment) to some kind of ideal however nebulously defined, materialised in conversations about the virtues of a multi-racial society as opposed to the presumed perils of a multi-cultural one.

In any case, certain televisual images seemed to be extremely potent affective triggers: the jeering faces of protesters outside Hanson’s political meetings, which on a couple of occasions had actually to be cancelled, carried a particularly strong affective charge in which anger seemed to play a major part. Tomkins speaks of anger as the most socially dangerous affect both because of its high rate of contagion and because of its link to violence18. For these reasons it is also highly socially regulated, and only certain groups under certain circumstances are permitted open displays of anger. Moreover some people’s anger is thought to be more threatening than others’ – the anger of women, youth and of oppressed or minority groups in general is rarely tolerated. In the restricted context of the demonstration, it is the protestors who are targeted as a minority, and whose raised and angry voices seem to threaten violence in the face of order, symbolised by the democratic right to free speech. But arguably less important than the explanation for it, is the sheer contagious force of affect. The anger of the protestors generated more anger on the part of those who felt themselves – directly, because they were attending the meeting, or by identification with those attending – to be its objects. Here it seems that not only can anger be contagious in and of itself, but pre-existing low levels of anger (say, resentment at loss of status) can be amplified by the expression of anger over something else.

However, if Hanson herself had been less distressed and more angry, she may well have been less successful, because the expression of anger by a woman is less tolerated than it is for men, even if it is anger expressed on behalf of other groups. Such intense social regulation of anger, however, generates affect-control scripts in individuals, who may then not display overt anger, but who may be unable not to communicate what Tomkins calls ‘backed up’ anger19 – a highly complex signal which may enable the similtaneous expression and denial of unseemly affect. Because it is frequently chronic, the expression of backed up anger may be more consistent over time than other affective displays, but it may also be in and of itself a source of distress. In any case, I want to suggest here that Hanson’s distress at finding herself become the reviled object of opposition, a distress communicated by televisual close up, and most affectingly, by tone of voice, was a contagious affect that attached itself to an idea – the idea that individual freedoms were being restricted by protestors at One Nation rallies and by the government policies to which Hanson objected, such as so-called ‘special treatment’ for Aboriginal people. This idea that freedoms were being curtailed, however, actually belonged to another, more immediately personal, context (for her addressees) from the wider more public and political one Hanson explicitly claimed to evoke. The amplification of existing anger and distress made the affects powerful enough to be transposed from one context into another, where they became attached to ideas which seemed to give legitimate public voice to them.

As affect migrates from body to body through the intermediary of television, it carries ideas along with it. To trace precisely the processes of affective contagion and its associated communication of ideas, one would need much more detailed data than the anecdotal kind to which I have access here. Starting with in depth clinical interviews, one would then need to work with Tomkins’ script theory20 to map the differential ‘magnification’ (ie increasing relevance) of affects in individuals and the strategies – both characteristic and socially-approved – used by them for affect management. Further interviews (possibly filmed to enable affective analysis of facial expression and body movement) would then be needed to chart processes of contagion via mediatised affects and to elaborated the ideas and attitudes associated with specific affects or afect complexes21. In lieu of such research, I want to make some further speculative comments on the reasons for Pauline Hanson’s success.

In the context of affect contagion, Hanson’s very inarticulacy was efficacious, at least insofar as it functioned as an immediate manifestation of distress rather than simply as a sign for it. However, the same inarticulacy may have functioned to counter the threat posed by a woman in public life. (On the contrary, Hanson’s wrapping of herself in the Australian flag and her statement that she was the ‘mother of the country’ backfired badly: the image of the mother, one might speculate, produced fear of reversion to forgotten childhood affect states – states, as Tomkins says, which can remain inactive only for so long as we are treated as adults)22. Hanson’s inarticulacy not only communicated the immediate affect of distress, but formed part of a more general attitude in which distress combined with a backed up anger which leaked out as defiance, stubborness, and unwillingness to think and to argue rather than simply to assert. She communicated, in short, the attitude of some one who has ‘had enough’, and this attitude, if not the detail of all of her actual ideas, evoked a ready sympathy in many people. This sympathy, even when it did not translate into a vote, concerns me because of the shift to the Right of mainstream politics it enables. I might also say that this attitude, that of the person who has ‘had enough’ is an attitude that is validated, even celebrated, by popular cinema – and it’s an attitude that can be turned in a number of different ideological directions, – the path to crime and the leap to death taken by Thelma and Louise, for example, takes it in a direction quite opposed to Hansonism.

We might say that an attitude is a fluctuating ensemble of positive or negative affects (in this case negative: distress, anger, possibly also fear) which may be contagious in the sense Tomkins terms ‘redintegration’ (as opposed to identification, in which some one is imitated out of liking and admiration). Attitudes tend to carry with them certain very general ideas about the way the world works. Because of this, the affects that comprise attitudes may be thought of as media for such ideas. Further, because particular affects are innate activators of other affects, or can activate learned affective sequences, if one of these affects is ‘caught’ it may trigger the sequence of other affects which reactivate a characterisitic attitude (or possibly produce an available, culturally familiar, attitude as a posture). Affective sequences and they attitudes they comprise have their roots in ’emotional memory’, which is a ‘felt residue of the… past’ as distinct from memory with a high level of conscious content. It may be described as a

cluster of ways of knowing, reexperiencing, and expecting, largely non-cognitive and nonverbal… It includes transference, dreams, body memory, vague and particular dreads, many moods, overreactions, and the experiences underlying some forms of repetition.’23

Emotional memory in fact makes up the bulk of memory: it is memory encoded in our very being, rather than articulated in language – it is ‘operational and structural, not representational and recollective’.24 The psychosoma’s habitual affective actions and reactions constitute a repertoire of forgotten memories, so much a part of the present which has recalled it that it is next to impossible to recognise as something returned. Memory here is not something deriving from a particular point in the past, but something that has been repeatedly confirmed – it is the past which has snowballed (to borrow a term Tomkins uses in a slightly different context) into an attitude, an affective complex that may be contained, organised, and given manageable form by a series of ideas which will also serve to explain and justify it. Hence an attitude assembled in a particular cultural and poltical milieu may carry with it a prescription for action, and here the media also plays an important role at a more cognitive level as it defines what is a worthy subject of debate, what the terms of the debate will be, and who is authorised to speak in support of one position or another.

But attitudes may not always be adequately organised by ideas: to the extent that the affects comprising them remain outside awareness, they imply desire, or what Brian Massumi has characterised, in less explicitly psychoanalytic terms, as ‘yearning’. Yearning, according to Massumi,

is not an emotion (the content of a specific identity) nor even an affect (the inherence of an emotion in the body), but free-floating affectivity: uncontained ability to affect and be affected. Yearning is a tendency without end; it is unexpiring, unself-consuming. … [I]t can’t be purchased or accumulated, only embodied.25

And embody it is what Pauline Hanson did, not in spite of, but, arguably,because of her inarticulacy. This free floating affectivity lends itself to the operation of the form of affective contagion Tomkins calls ‘redintegration’ – a form he distinguishes from the more familiar form of imitation by identification, which implies some positive affect in regard to the figure identified with – liking, or perhaps admiration) and which has been so exhaustively figured in psychoanalytic work, and in popular culture, in both its negative and positive aspects 26. Redintegrative contagion is less organised, less predictable, less stable. It finds a hospitable milieu in the contemporary cultural forms Margaret Morse 27 has termed ‘modes of distraction’, (television, the freeway, the mall) and in the subjectivities generated by these forms. These are subjectivities characterised by disequilibrium rather than equilibrium, punctuated or otherwise, and they are not necessarily amenable to classical or Kleinian psychoanalytic readings. Clinically, they underline the necessity for for what Tomkins calls a ‘person-field’ theory of personality, which acknowledges the on-going interdependence of organisation and environment and which recognises a variable degree of independence of early and late experience, problematising neatly archaeological models of personality and seeing it instead as a potentially very labile and historically discontinuous formation, rather than as the ultra-stable nucleus assumed by so much teleologically oriented developmental theory, in practice if not avowedly in principle. In terms of cultural analysis, these contemporary modes of subjectivity might entail a rethinking of the notions of inside and outside, and they tend to render redundant the concept of boundary. Massumi is certainly right when he says that as we try to account for contemporary cultural forms and current events we may have to abandon the concept of cause, and examine instead ‘effects and their interweavings’: in other words, syndromes. ‘Syndromes mark the limit of causal analysis. They cannot be exhaustively understood – only pragmatically altered by experimental interventions operating in several spheres of activity at once.’28 Affective contagion is one such syndrome.

Massumi further maintains that any mode of cultural, political or social analysis has a problem to the extent that it continues to treat the self ‘as a bounded space’, even if that boundary is conceived as porous. He gives as an example of such difficulties analyses of the social functioning of fear in terms of moral panics, ‘which rest on the Freudian notion of the projection of individual fantasies and desires onto collective processes’29. This suggests that psychoanalysis itself has a problem with the way it thinks boundaries between self and other, and I want to end by suggesting that affect theory (including theories of interaffectivity), combined with systems theories, may provide a way out of this impasse and may lead to the renewed efficacy of psychoanalysing modes of cultural critique, even if these are not precisely the modes we have come to associate with classical or Kleinian psychoanalysis.

Anna Gibbs, Affect, Image, Media Research Group (AIM), School of Communication, Design and Media, University of Western Sydney



1 Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Contagion Conference, Sydney University, April 1999, the Deakin University Freud Conference, Melbourne, 1999, and the graduate Seminar at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, 1999. Another version was also presented to the Postgraduate Seminar in Womens’ Studies at the University of British Columbia, and I’m grateful to the participants for an engaging discussion, and to Sneja Gunew for her invitation. My thanks to all the participants at these occasions for many helpful comments, and especially to the members of the Silvan Tomkins Research Group (Maria Angel, Susan Best, Melissa Hardie, Doris McIlwain, Gill Straker and Elizabeth Wilson) whose passionate discussion, immoderate laughter and sheer brilliance have illuminated the work of Silvan Tomkins for me.
2 Silvan Tomkins, Affect, Imagery, Consciousness 4 vols, (New York: Springer, 1962-92).
3 Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behaviour: a study of anxiety, sex, gravitation and learning, (1949)
4 Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness (London: Vintage, 2000). See also Alan Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origins of the Self, (Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994)
5 Virginia Nightingale, ‘Are Media Cyborgs?’, in AJ Gordo-Lopez and I Parker, eds, Cyberpsychology (London: Macmillan Press, 1999)
6 Robert D Stolorow and George E Atwood, Contexts of Being: the Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life (Hillsdale NJ: The Analytic Press, 1992)
7 Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985)
8 Virginia Demos, ‘Empathy and Affect: Reflections on Infant Experience’ in Lichtenberg, J, et al (eds) Empathy I (Hillsdale: Analytic Press, 1984) pp9-33
9 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, eds, Shame and its Sisters: a Silvan Tomkins Reader. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995).
The nine affects are Interest-Excitement, Enjoyment-Joy, Surprise-Startle, Distress-Anguish, Shame-Humiliation, Contempt-Disgust, Anger-Rage, and Fear-Terror.
Others have argued for the inclusion of sadness as another discrete affect, and there is debate over whether or not these precisely differentiated affects are innate universal occurrences. (See, eg, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia , trans Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) for a dissenting argument centered on a reading of the face as a culturally specific ‘diagram’, or, in support of the universality of affects, Paul Ekman, ‘Afterword’, in Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals , Third Edition (London: Harper Collins, 1998).
10 Demos, p12
11 Tomkins, vol 1, pp204-242
12 Demos, p12
13 Tomkins, vol 3, pp200-201
14 Tomkins, vol 1, pp204-242
15 Therese Davis, ‘Becoming Unrecognisable’, UTS Review, vol 4 , no 1, 1998 pp169-179
16 Tomkins, vol 2, pp39-40
17 Tomkins, vol 2, 342-343
18 Tomkins, vol 3, pp111-113
19 Tomkins, vol 3, p430
20 Tomkins, vol 3, throughout. A script is ‘a set of rules for the interpretation, prediction, production, control and evaluation of a set of scenes’, while a scene renders salient a particular affect, and gives it meaning. (Tomkins and Mosher, ‘Scripting the Mach Man: Hypermasculaine Socialisation and Enculturation’, The Journal of Sex Research, 1988.
21 Funding for research of this kind focusing on the the negative affects in horror genres to be carried out in 2002 has been sought by the Affect, Image, Media (AIM) Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.
22 Tomkins, vol2, 334-338
23Donna Orange, Emotional Understanding: studies in psychoanalytic epistemology, NY: Guildford Press, 1995, p105.
24Christopher Bollas, cited in Orange, p111
25 Brian Massumi, ‘Everywhere You Want To Be: Introduction to Fear’, in Brian Massumi, ed, The Politics of Everyday Fear, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) pp3-37
26 For example, films from the classicsAll About Eve and Rebecca, to the more contemporarySingle White Female and The Very Talented Mr Ripley all examine the negative aspects of identification.
27 Margaret Morse, ‘The Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, The Mall, and Television’, in Patricia Mellencamp, ed, Logics of Television: essays in cultural criticism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990) pp193-221
28 Massumi, p38
29 Massumi, p31

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