Documentary Affect: Filming Rubbish

by Gay Hawkins

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I come to questions of documentary affect courtesy of a plastic bag. I am referring to that enchanted plastic bag in the film American Beauty. That dancing, swooping bag shot on digicam that ruptures the narrative catching the viewer utterly by surprise. How is it that a piece of rubbish choreographed by the wind can prompt such a wholly unexpected sadness?

When I first saw that bag I had one of those freak cinematic moments when one is captured by the screen, engulfed by the vivacity of an impression. It was an event, a singular moment. It was, what Barthes might term, an experience of punctum.1 I was struck by that bag. Not just figuratively, my reaction involved an intense bodily experience that made sense after the event, that was only meaningful retrospectively. It was not a question of liking this scene, it’s much more than that – it’s got a hold on me, it’s worked on me. When I talk to people about American Beauty and the plastic bag everyone remembers it but they aren’t obsessed about it, they didn’t experience it as an event, they don’t share my amazement. And I am reminded, again of Barthes, ‘life consists of these little touches of solitude’2 or of the student staring at me uncomprehendingly after I had given a whole lecture on that scene and declaring ‘but it’s just a bag!’ For me it quite obviously wasn’t ‘just a bag’ and with this realisation comes the warning that when we talk about affect we are talking about individuality not identity, affect forces you to speak only of yourself.

My first experience of this scene had the insistent singularity of arriving out of nowhere. Sitting in the cinema, enjoying the show, engaged but not enraptured and then there is this bag. Now we know the actual cinematic language of this scene is deliberately and self consciously singular, that the logic of this sequence is discontinuity: from slick, high gloss Hollywood production values to digicam aesthetic with its documentary and avant-garde resonances. But I don’t think that an opposition between documentary and fiction gets anywhere near explaining this singularity. It cannot be reduced to an irruption of the real into the fictional, it cannot be explained by invoking referentiality or objectivity. An analysis driven by some kind of genre fundamentalism does not get us far. As so much documentary and film theory has explained fiction and non-fiction inhabit each other. The nature of that bag’s capacity to surprise, to move the viewer, comes not from the shock of genre impurity, a little dash of documentary ‘out of context’, it comes from quite different forces and these are the concerns of this paper.

Three ideas have helped me make sense of the plastic bag. First, the idea of affect as relationality. Or, in other words, affect is a relation, it’s not a self having feelings, it’s a distinctive being in and of the world. Then there is the performative dimension of cinema, specifically its capacity to animate everyday things, to make things move, including the audience. And finally, that bag forces us back to questions of reality and objectivity- what happens when the real exceeds its representations? When looking at waste suddenly touches the heart of ethical experience? In pursuing these ideas I’ve drawn on two quite disparate theoretical sources: poststructuralist philosophy, particularly the Deleuzian inflected work on affect by Brian Massumi and William Connolly, and recent film theory looking at what Lesley Stern calls the ‘specifically cinematic rendering of things’.3</a>

A body and a bag

We need to understand what is meant by ‘affect’, what the implications are of using this term rather than ’emotion’ or ‘feeling’. What much recent writing on affect insists on is that affect is in many senses prior to feelings and emotions; having a feeling is not the same as knowing it’s a feeling. Being able to name a feeling, to classify feelings within some kind of emotional taxonomy is to render affects available to consciousness, make them knowable, to recognise them. But we are in affect, participating, before this happens, affect precedes these kind of classificatory and cognitive activities. For Massumi the gap between affect and emotion is a protosubjectivity. Affects remind us of the body’s intensities and multiplicities, of the autonomy of experience. They are a surplus, an excess; they are about those registers of the self that escape the knowable, manageable subject: ‘the unbiddeness of qualitative overspill’.4

What is valuable about this account of affect is the way it makes trouble for all those epistemologies that begin with a knowing subject ready to act on the world or be acted upon. For the body in affect is not subjectivity to the world’s objectivity, it is a body in transition, a body in relation. To respond, to have a response is to be in a relation. This is why Massumi argues so emphatically and beautifully that affect is relationality. Drawing on the work of William James he argues that relationality is already in the world, to be in the world to participate in it is to be in an ever unfolding relation. Thinking about affect in this way means an abandonment of the subject/object dualism. What is needed instead, according to Massumi, is a notion of continuity and discontinuity that is not framed in terms of opposition but as aprocessual rhythm. This opens up an understanding of how we are in and of the world, how being is a kind of ontological tension between manipulable objectivity (reality and all those things that represent it: language, documentary) and elusive qualitative activity (becoming: all those things that break in from the outside, that surprise, that enliven, that introduce unpredictability, a plastic bag, for example).5

How then does this account of affect develop our understanding of the plastic bag? Massumis’s idea of continuity/discontinuity as an ongoing processual rhythm shows that it is not so much a question of the generic shock of a documentary moment rupturing the diegetic space of narrative – though the bag scene obviously does this – it is more a question of how that bag performed. It wasn’t just that it was real but that it was more than real, it was alive, it was animated, it was full of pathos and in this viewer it generated an unexpected, unpredictable surprise, an intense affect. It registered somatically, beneath and before consciousness. I was participating in that scene before I knew it, it triggered a different rhythm or process in my watching, one in which I lost my self in a new relation. All this thinking and talking now, all this trying to ‘read’ a scene is inadequate in the face of the force field of response, of affect; a lived complexity reduced to conference paper.

My point is that to think about ‘documentary affect’ is to think about a relation, not the dualism of a cinematic text and a spectator, a subject and an object but an unpredictable, uncontained multiplicity, in which the viewer is not conforming to the logic of identity but is participating in, connected to, in this case an enchanted plastic bag: a body and a bag. To understand affect is to think about this and, or ‘the connective power of relationality’, as Paul Patton calls it when outlining Deleuze’s idea of multiplicity. ‘And’ is the ‘indeterminate conjunction which subtends all relations, “and” comes to stand for that which is in-between any two things brought into a relation with each other’.6 New becomings, events, beings emerge from this ‘in between’ it is a potential line of flight, and is where things happen.

Cinematic Things

If affect is relationality how then to talk about particular forms like ‘documentary’ affect? How to move from the force, the power, the singularity of experience to the specific techniques of one part of that relation: the cinema and a cinematic thing? Especially when, as Barthes says, affect annihilates the medium, when affect has that metonymic power of expansion? 7 I can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, I can only say that in trying to make sense of that bag, thinking about the perfomative dimensions of cinema opens up another important angle, one attentive to how things in the cinema (ordinary, everyday, trivial, familiar things) can generate an excess of affect.

In American Beauty the plastic bag does not have much narrative function, the movie would do fine without it. It appears to be there just to generate affect. But how does it do this? We can’t explain this exclusively by the logic of the referent, bags aren’t usually that moving. In fact, thanks to environmental education plastic bags are the ultimate bad object, something to be avoided or at least reused. There is no question that this is an image of redemption – but that is not really the issue – it is what cinematic techniques do to things that is important. Lesely Stern argues in her paper on cinematic things, that the ways things acquire meaning and affect in the cinema has to do with how they are captured by the camera, with their mutability and their implication in the quotidian, the social life of things before they are framed by the cinematic gaze.8

Stern’s argument makes trouble for analyses of documentary as a genre. Rather, she insists on the need to theorise cinema’s relation to the quotidian, the different ways in which cinema captures or frames the everyday. She posits a tension between two specific cinematic techniques, the histrionic and the quotidian, which exist in a generative tension with each other. Cinema has always been about ordinary things, it is what it does with them that is important, how it conjures them, invites them to perform. In American Beauty there is no question that the plastic bag is performing for the camera, dancing for it and that in this long evocative sequence while the digicam stays on the bag, we experience a suspension of narrative, a diversion, we go outside the drama. Using Stern’s argument we can see how in this diversion narrativity and histrionic techniques are suspended in deference to the quotidian, to a perfomative technique that involves a gestural framing of the thing, highlighting it, watching it move. We have a sense of the ‘world caught off guard, unposed, real’.9 As Stern says: ‘editing is deflated in deference to the primacy of the real allowing a kind of minimal inflation of real time’.10 This discontinuity creates a new rhythm, where a different relation between temporality and affectivity is established one that is in the realm of emotional duration.

Cinema’s fascination with the gestural framing of things is highlighted in American Beauty with the continual references to the home video/camcorder culture. Ricky uses his digicam to frame the world in a number of different ways. As a technique of surveillance and voyeurism: Jane standing at her bedroom window or Lester working out in the garage; as a way of rendering some kind of ‘authentic’ subjectivity: Jane and Ricky’s first intense conversation told in the format of a video diary each passing the camera to the other to be filmed as they reveal intimacies. And as an amateur documentarist: the plastic bag scene. In this scene the digicam functions as a sign of the desire to capture the ineffable singularity of the real. Ricky isn’t using the camera to mediate the world, to separate himself from it. Rather, it is a tool for trying to simultaneously render the material force of objects and convey the insistent autonomy of his experience of them. Or, to use another term, affect. Listen to his narration of the plastic bag scene:

It was one of those days when it’s a minute way from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just …dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever… Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember.

This is exactly what Massumi means when he says that the real exceeds all attempts to standardise it, to represent it. All representational systems and techniques (language, cinema) struggle to adequately capture the world and what it can do to subjects, the rhythm of continuity and discontinuity. To quote Massumi: ‘Reality is not fundamentally objective. Before and after it becomes an object it is an inexhaustible reserve of surprise’. 11

The digicam dramatically foregrounds cinematic performativity, what a camera does to things, how it frames things, conjures them up, makes them seem enchanted but at the same time things have a life of their own. As Ricky says: video’s a poor excuse. I think documentary affect comes from the glimpses we sometimes get of that quotidian world of things existing not as passive objects waiting to be documented but as elusive qualitative becomings: the plastic bag that is also a little kid begging us to play, the plastic bag that reminds us of the inextricable connections between the organic and the inorganic, life and death, the plastic bag that touches the most visceral registers of the self.

Waste and Affect

I began this paper with an account of that plastic bag’s impact on me and an insistence that affect is singular, it is about individuality not identity. As I said I have found few other people who have had the same reaction, who have felt the same emotional force field that I had when I first watched it. Plenty of people will confess to finding the bag beautiful, few found it unbearably sad, as I did. No-one has used grief to explain their reaction. Without wanting to put myself up for some kind of public psychoanalysis I think that this question of grief is important to think about. How does the bag come to have so much pathos? Why is it so sad? What gives the bag this affect?

There is no doubt that the bag is an image of redemption, the absolutely worthless, dead, discarded made absolutely beautiful and alive. Waste is constantly used to stage this redemptive transformation. But I actually think this is a pretty uninteresting and limited analysis. Surely what this scene recognises, what it affirms, is the efficacy of affect. For me, the dancing plastic bag is implicitly an endorsement of the cultural force of emotions, the inevitable inescapable power of affect in the everyday. In this sense it challenges a whole history of documentary that would either exclude emotions or emotional connection as a kind of mess, a lapse on the part of the filmmaker, or gaze on them as great footage, the money shot.

And this brings me to Agnes Varda’s extraordinary waste road movie The Gleaners and I that, like the plastic bag scene in American Beauty, is interested in the affect of waste. I can’t do justice to the complexity and beauty of Varda’s documentary. I just want to consider one scene that resonates with me, that signals why this film manages to be funny, politically astute and moving all at the same time. As much as this is a film about the ethics of gleaning and the obscenity of waste for those who face endless scarcity, it is also a reflexive film about Varda: her objects, her pleasures in gleaning, her inevitable death. At one point we see her playing around with her digicam in her flat showing us some of her favourite paintings, discussing their provenance when suddenly the camera inadvertently captures her free hand. She pauses on it, does a close up, talks with horror about its wrinkles, blotches and lines. She describes it as an object, a thing utterly separate and alien from herself. She is describing death at work, in the image of her hand she sees her death, the hand appears to us as inert, lifeless, worn out. Varda pauses to mourn her own loss.

The surprise of the hand is that the digicam captures it as already dead, it signals its imminent status as waste. The surprise of the plastic bag is that it’s alive. As I’ve argued this is partially about the performative dimensions of cinema, what cinema can do to things but it is also about the affect of waste. Both these scenes put us into new relations with waste, they allow us to experience our profound implications with it. To be moved by waste, to be disturbed by it is to be open to our own becomings. It is to touch those visceral registers of the self where grief and loss lurk not as some force to be dealt with, managed, got over but as an affect that suffuses our most everyday sense of being alive.


Gay Hawkins teaches in the School of Media and Communications, UNSW. She has just edited with Stephen Muecke Culture and Waste: the creation and destruction of value (Rowman and Littlefield, Boulder, US). This paper was presented at the Visible Evidence Conference, Brisbane, December 2001.


1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)

2 Barthes, p 3

3 Brian Massumi, ‘Too Blue: Colour Patch for an Expanded Empiricism’ Cultural Studies 14 (2) 2000, William Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Lesley Stern, ‘Paths That Wind through the Thicket of Things’ Critical Inquiry 28, (Autumn, 2001)

4 Massumi, p 185

5 Massumi, pp 185-187

6 Paul Patton Deleuze and the Political (London: Routledge, 2000) p 10

7 Barthes, p 45

8 Stern, pp 320-321

9 Stern, p 327

10 Stern, p 327

11 Massumi, p 182

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