The word ‘affect’ is derived from the Latin affectus, which is roughly translatable as passion or emotion. Often, the two are used interchangeably. But one of the most exciting (and profoundly difficult) works on affect – Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual – insists on its difference from emotion. To speak of emotions, Massumi claims, is to reduce sensations that are too rich and complex to express in language. We can signify emotion in gestures, images and words, but affect, Massumi argues, is unrepresentable. It begins deep in the body, beyond the reach of consciousness, in visceral responses that follow a different logic.
Cristiano Volk’s Mélaina Cholé is a photographic exploration of affect. Melancholy – or depression, a so-called disease of modernity that affects more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide – has its roots in ancient Greek humoural theory. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370BCE) was the first to suggest that human behaviour was regulated by four chemical systems or humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each humour was associated with an element. Black bile, or mélaina cholé, was associated with the earth; excess black bile in the system was said to be the cause of depression. Anyone who has suffered with depression will know that the havoc it wreaks is both emotional and physical, emptying the mind and draining life from the body.
Mélaina Cholé begins with a metaphor: a photograph of a dark void, nestled in the gutter and repeated over five pages. From there it moves into near-abstraction with a suite of full-bleed double page spreads that probe deep into the body’s structure – its organs and tissues and cells – and outwards, from the earth’s surface towards the stars. In the middle of the book are two fold-out posters. These are curious things – loosely-constructed collages like stacks of snapshots strewn across a table, they feature close-up shots of hands and heads, their gestures and expressions suggestive, but ultimately unreadable. There’s something voyeuristic about these photographs, as though Volk turned the camera on people around him, seeking to uncover hints of hidden torment. Or perhaps they’re evocations of the melancholic gaze itself, looking for signs in a world that has lost its meaning. The final pages are given over to images of faces – closely cropped, with little in the way of context, and expressions that range from puzzlement to joy. They hint of a journey from despair to recovery, but like most of the photographs in the book, their significance isn’t obvious.
Anyone who has suffered with depression will know that the havoc it wreaks is both emotional and physical, emptying the mind and draining life from the body.
Leafing through Mélaina Cholé’s strangely discontinuous design – a combination of archival imagery and photographs that we assume were shot by Volk himself – feels less like an attempt to make sense of the mystery of melancholy, and more like a persistent state of dissociation. The loose chapterised structure resists the order that narrative typically imposes; what bubbles up to the surface is something much more unruly and visceral. For Massumi, affect operates in parallel with language, resonating with it, but never reducible to it. It’s the failure of language, and of meaning, that Volk’s book evokes most strongly – reproducing the sensation of physical and emotional anguish in the reader rather than attempting to document it in an image. Mélaina Cholé sets the expectation of structure – what Massumi wonderfully refers to as the ‘explanatory heaven’ of visual and written language – against the obscure purgatory of depression itself.