Comics of The Senses: Fluorescent Mud and the Comics of Post Digital Affect
According to Brian Massumi in “The Autonomy of Affect”, a work influenced by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, affect is a primary and unconscious feeling or atmosphere that we sense, but cannot cognize. It is the thing before the emotion. Affect is ambivalent and nameless, while emotions have names that their subject can own. Affect is neither representable nor recognizable while emotion is. Affect is a potential where contradictory things can co-exist. Emotion is actual, while “affects are virtual synaesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them.”
Steven Shaviro employed the concept of affect to analyze contemporary late neoliberal capitalist society and its arts, calling them Post Cinematic Affect: “what it feels like to live in the early twenty-first century… a kind of ambient, free-floating sensibility that permeates our society today, although it cannot be attributed to any subject in particular… These works are symptomatic, in that they provide indices of complex social processes, which they transduce, condense, and rearticulate in the form of what can be called, after Deleuze, “blocs of affect.”
As Massumi and Shaviro, after Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism), argue, the characteristic of contemporary late neoliberal capitalist society is the excess of affect. “The disappearance of the individual subject” with which Jameson is concerned leads precisely to a magnification of affect, whose flows swamp us, and continually carry us away from ourselves, beyond ourselves.
Comics, where the virtual and the actual can coexist without provoking the Uncanny Valley and which do not have a burden of realism (in the sense of verisimilitude) unlike other narrative arts, are a fruitful medium to examine how Post Cinematic Affect — which I will later redefine as Post Digital Affect — is displayed and reflected in contemporary arts. The body is a critical aspect of affect, as the body is the embodying thing where affect occurs. As Massumi said, “The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual.”
In Eli Howey’s Fluorescent Mud, the affect of “disappearance of the individual subject” is manifested as dissociation with both the body itself (depersonalization) and the world at large (derealization). The dis/embodied protagonist explores a fragmented, abandoned space filled with demolished buildings, construction materials, and exposed soils existing in disjointed time.
Fluorescent Mud defamiliarizes its protagonist, characters, settings, and even the narrative. It takes several pages for the reader to discover the identity of the narrator. Everyone has a similarly ambiguous facial expression, and we cannot read anyone’s emotion. The narrative halts in the middle, only to restart in a more disconnected timeline. Spacetime fuses, folds, converges, and diverges. While the overall story is not too complicated — the protagonist, a person of ambiguous gender, walks around, meets friends, walks around, leaves them, and walks around — the plot is not continuous. What knits the whole story together is not the logic of cause and effect but the atmosphere, the “affect”. It is not only the reader who cannot identify with the protagonist. They themselves cannot either. (“playing a character will divert you from your path. / pretend / and you will only create limitations”) Their body becomes a skeleton. They lose their subjectivity, and the only thing left is their body, which defies volition and the law of physics. It flies, co-exists in several spacetimes simultaneously, and even moves through walls. (“I am a passenger of my body”; “where was I going and why did my body keep pulling me back from it”; “I try to move but it comes out as a twitch / I try to say words but the thought and action don’t connect”). Sometimes the body loses a hand or its head, and amputated body parts appear in different places. At one point, space subsumes the central part of the body and divides the remainder into the upper part, the lower part, and the right arm.
However, the disembodied imagery in Fluorescent Mud is different from stereotypical misogynistic horror images where women’s bodies are mutilated and assaulted for voyeurs gazing from the distance. The latter represents the scopophilic desire to own the object/image, i.e., women’s bodies. This is optical visuality, which concerns the representational value of the object/image, as opposed to the haptic visuality that Fluorescent Mud employs. Haptic visuality emphasizes the texture and materiality of the image rather than the meaning of the object of the image. According to Laura Marks in Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and Senses, who developed the concept of haptic and optic visuality inspired by Deleuze, haptic visuality “does not invite identification with a figure.”
Reading Fluorescent Mud, the reader can see the touch of the brush, the motion of the paint as it disperses on the image, and the texture and materiality of the image on the page. We perceive marks of the artist’s touch. We feel the artist’s tactile presence. The color scheme of Fluorescent Mud, tinted predominantly with violet and magenta, is alluring and unnatural– i.e. “not representational” rather than “fake” — and implies that there is an artist’s hand involved. This synesthesia of the tactile and the visual is characteristic of affect.
The oneiric color scheme hinders the reader from discerning the specific settings that materialize. The protagonist wakes up twice over the course of the narrative, and the reader is not sure whether what they have seen is a dream, objective reality, subjective reality for the protagonist, and/or a hallucination (“no matter what anyone said, they couldn’t make the situation real for me”). The indeterminacy and virtuality are elements of the affect.
Even objects are not embodied in spacetime in the way they are supposed to be. Sometimes even spacetime itself does not make sense (“spirits reach each other across an impossible void / and become the catalyst for the others changing shapes”). Bricks, concrete, cracked things, exposed soil, and fences appear out of nowhere while characters are walking; the protagonist passes by wrecked buildings, ruins, and even a forest in the middle of the city; plants and animals such as bats and foxes abruptly appear out of nowhere.
If abandoned space is the primary setting of Fluorescent Mud, it is mainly the act of passage or crossing that occurs in that setting. (“Let’s cut through here.” “I could feel myself moving to / the other side. / No longer on the outside, past the skin, but the legs keep moving.”) The protagonist traverses doorways, windows, walls, and fences that crop up unexpectedly. Plants and animals emerge from spacetime in impossible ways, crossing the boundary of reality and ecology. Construction materials scattered across the city wait to be combined into buildings whose ontological purpose is to set up the boundary between inside and outside. The fact that characters walk through deteriorated buildings, not extant ones, highlights the significance of crossing/ passage in Fluorescent Mud. Often we see cross-sectional diagrams of space, objects, and subjects — including the protagonist’s skeleton — that in reality are imperceptible. Passageway is the title of Eli Howey’s latest exhibition, which features paintings similar to the imagery in Fluorescent Mud.
One of the most intriguing boundary crossings occurs when a panel transforms into a diegetic space, like a cube encompassing the protagonist. The protagonist senses and yearns for confined space even few pages later, on a rooftop (an open space) they grab some tiny objects and try to persuade others to build a barricade (closed space) around them, confusing them. We see them and their friend go inside of a water tank (closed space) even when in reality they are actually crossing a lake (open space). This dialectic of confined and open space is the problem of passage. Doors, fences, windows, and walls separate closed space from open space. Buildings are closed spaces, but broken buildings are open spaces. Spaces in Fluorescent Mud are equivocally open and closed, being affective.
Iris Marion Young, in her seminal paper “Throwing Like Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,” studied female (and queer) bodies’ spatiality phenomenologically, illustrating the reasons behind dysmorphia and women’s dissociation with their own bodies, as well as women’s perception of space around them as limited, rather than limitless or open. According to Young, quoting Maurice Merleau- Ponty, “the body’s movement and orientation organize the surrounding space as a continuous extension of its own being”, and the body “synthesizes itself.” Thus a body exists as a subject. However, due to society’s misogynistic objectification of women’s bodies, the woman’s body becomes both a subject and an object. This ambivalent ontological position and subsequent self-consciousness induces “lack of body unity” and women feel distant from their own bodies. Furthermore, this depersonalization — as well as patriarchal social norms that prevent women from occupying space and moving freely — cause women’s movement to disconnect “between aim and enactment,” prompting the “projection of an enclosed space” and a “sever[ing of] the continuity between a “here” and a “yonder.” The space of “yonder” is where a woman projects the possibility of someone else’s body, but not her own; thus she only “look[s] into, rather than move[s] in” space by herself.
Comics are a potent medium to illustrate the feeling of dissociation because they are discrete, heterogeneous, combinational, discontinuous, and modular, as I have argued in “College/Comics/ Appropriation” in The Comics Journal (#305). Not only does the overall structure of comics as a collection of panels have these characteristics, but the boundary lines of objects inside the panel make these characteristics inherent to comics images, unlike other forms of visual art.
Fluorescent Mud’s haptic visuality is not unique in comics. Contemporary comics have seen the rise of works with emphasis on the materiality, texture, viscerality, physicality, sensuality, tactility, and corporeality and embodiedness, as well as on employing affect and haptic visuality in parallel with the growing popularity of risograph printing and art comics in general. These Comics of the Senses include the work of Lale Westvind, Mickey Zacchilli, Lala Alberts, Margot Ferrick, Tommi PG, Amy Lockhart, Gina Wynbrandt, Chloe Perkins, Kate Lacour, Rantan, Aidan Koch, Molly O’Connell, Eleanor Davis, Gabrielle Bell, Maria Medem, Son Ni, Disa Wallander, Angela Chen, Kim Joo Young, Shin Min, Fern Liberty, Pia Melisa Laroch, Nina Bunjevac, Julliacks, Andrea Lukic, Kendra Yee, Sylvia Nickerson, Aurelie William Levaux, Austin English, Conor Willumsen, Joseph P Kelly, Jason Murphy, Sammy Stein, Hugo Le Fur, Julie Doucet, and many more.
I borrowed the term Comics of the Senses from the contemporary French Cinema of the Senses, such as the films of Claire Denis, which share similar attributes. Martine Beugnet, who defined them in Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression, wrote that they “pay great attention to surfaces, textures, colors, and the haptic effect … to evoke a contemporary state of existential malaise,” which is displayed as the affect of dissociation in Fluorescent Mud. “The relation of the subject to others and to his/her environment is one of profound disjunction, and the encounter with nature and the inanimate world is infused with fear, throwing into relief the vulnerability of the human body and of human subject-hood… unsettling or confusing the border between subject and object, between the human figure and its animate and inanimate surroundings” as in Fluorescent Mud.
In the last issue of LAAB (#4), I examined the ubiquity of Deskilled Comics in contemporary Post-Digital visual culture and argued that comics is the language of the Post-Digital age. The crux of Post-Digital aesthetics is the nostalgic affection for analog and physical media of yesteryear, rather than the mainstream aesthetic of advanced high-definition digital technology. Risograph, the most prominent method of contemporary comics and zine making, is the exemplar Post-Digital media: it is an old technology being revived out of nostalgia rather than technological superiority. Imperfections — including ink grains and misaligned color plates — are some of its charms. To appreciate its distinct saturated color schemes, you need to hold it in your hands, for PDFs do not do it justice. When seeing the intense hues and feeling its grain and texture, reading a Risograph zine becomes an immensely tactile experience.
We go back to the past because our imaginations have already materialized IRL and been exhausted. Reality is faster than our imagination. The future is the present; omnipresent and omnipotent technologies embedded in our bodies metamorphose us into cyborgs of voluntary surveillance. In the Post Digital age, we want to touch real objects, not merely screens. We long for the physicality of actual things. The more time we spend in the virtual world, the more we become nostalgic for the actual world. As we infinitely scroll the conspiracy theories of the world, we get lost in both our world (time and space) and ourselves. Who am I when Google and Facebook know more about myself than I do?
This “existential malaise” is parallel to the aforementioned Post Cinematic Affect, or Post Digital Affect as I would like to redefine it. Artworks incorporating Post Digital Affect inherently emphasize the dialectics of the bodily and the dissociated. This also explains the contemporary renaissance of Comics of the Senses.
Indeed, Beugnet suggests likewise for the Cinema of the Senses: “In its flaunting of the corporeality in all its visceral presence extreme cinema offers itself as the counterpoint to digital postproduction’s perfected female body, a reminder of the existence of actual sentient gendered bodies beyond the dematerialized of digital imaging and communication.” The haptic visuality of Comics of the Senses becomes a way to negotiate or fight against the omnipresence of digital media.
Comics are a great medium to employ haptic visuality — or any other sensual visuality, for that matter — because no other visual medium allows the viewer to touch the art. Comics are democratic and cheap. The viewer is not distanced from the art but encouraged to come close and hold the art. We can smell the comic. (After purchasing the comic inexpensively, you can even taste the art, if you insist.)
When there is no distinction between the actual and virtual; when nothing is certain, even the existence of the future — or the present — comics become the lingua franca. Can comics save the world?
This essay originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #2: Eat/Shit, published by Beehive Books, 2021.