Recently, I watched a documentary where an older woman described watching a film of her younger self in a children’s mental health institution. Viewing the footage, she recalled the difficulty she experienced as a child of matching her emotions to her expressions and gestures. She explained that all the emotions she felt then — whether happy or sad, angry or curious — occupied the same internal register, the same high pitch. As her emotions migrated from an interior to an exterior, they surfaced with sameness, blankness, or sometimes appeared mismatched from the popular perception of what emotional expression can or should be. Her behaviour was frequently misunderstood. It was hard for her, and whoever was around her at the time, to tell different emotions apart. The film hoped to portray the need for connection between emotion and action.
Emotions desire a witness. As short-lived but nonetheless intense experiences, the need for their expressions to be understood by others as they arise comes with some urgency. Anger, for instance, always seeks immediate form and recognition. But for recognition to be successful, two things are required: firstly, the emotional space of the interior requires an exterior surface or malleable membrane upon which an emotion can be successfully etched as an equivalent image of the interior (most often the face, or a set of physical gestures); and secondly, a receiver or witness must be able to comprehend the language of this emotional surface.
The success of understanding an emotion is based not only on the individual’s self-reflexive ability to identify their own emotions they wish to project, but also on the capacity of the witness to perceive and recognise a variation of emotional expressions. In short, both require a general understanding of emotion. This mainstreamed lexicon of emotional expressions and responses might be better understood as ‘behaviour’ — a general compilation of mannerisms, gestures, actions and movement. As emotions attempt to enter into the physical world, behaviour becomes its image.
As immaterial, fugitive moments of the interior, emotions originate without image, while behaviour comprises the range of physical actions that emotions produce. The emotion of sorrow has no image without behaviour, for example. But there is a fundamental split between emotion and behaviour (besides interior/exterior): while emotions are triggered, behaviours can be learned. Crying, clenching a jaw, baring teeth — these actions do not necessarily even require emotion, but they do require performance. From the point of origin to the point of reception, one can subject ones emotions to amplification, suppression, and even invention. There is also the risk of emotional leakage — a tell in a game of cards, an involuntary ability to stifle a laugh at a funeral. The measure of emotional expressiveness thus has value and, like any value, it can be claimed and used as if it is a transaction. Once learned, it can be manipulated and practiced out of a desire to create certain outcomes. Good cop. Bad cop. Aping behaviours thus produces false impressions of emotion.
The most archetypal example of such pretence is film. Film is the ’emotion machine’, where its temporal aspect is the structural trigger of emotion; a sequence of gestures is made equivalent to an emotional scene. The refined performance of behaviours (by which I mean ‘good’ acting) comes to resemble emotion so perfectly that it can stimulate genuine emotional responses within its viewers, regardless of its own authenticity. Fine behaviour can allow one to suspend belief, to enter into the emotion with catharsis. The close-up is the most emotive aspect of cinema, so perfectly does it record the expressive emotional surface of the face and its micro gestures. It offers itself as a recorded index of behaviour regardless of emotion.
But film is only the index of possible behaviours of a single individual, whether the subject’s emotions are authentic or not. It records responses one at a time, but does not forecast or predict behaviour of groups, and thus it less of an index than it is an archive of past expression. The index of generalised or group behaviour instead relies not on an image or surface, but on the accumulation of numbers, most commonly categorised as RFE, Recency, Frequency, Engagements. Unlike film’s record of behaviours, nothing in RFE relies on content. It does not count crying, what we say, whether we try to flirt when we say it. It simply counts the number of behaviours that are repeated and, within that repetition, the duration of repetition.
RFE seeks to predict the patterns of future behaviour, but the problem with RFE is that it fails to account for emotion within behaviour. And therein lies the hack in the system. My father, for example, has a disliking for supermarkets. A few years ago, he took out a loyalty card at a major chain in order to buy their ‘loss leaders’, cheap lines they run on products that are undersold and lose money overall but get people into the store to buy other profit-producing products. When my father goes to the supermarket, he buys only their loss leader in bulk, acquires loyalty points, and in turn feeds the loyalty points back into the loss leaders. He hopes that this will help erode the supermarket’s existence. The data for his RFE may look positive when one disregards what’s in his shopping basket. But RFE has failed to examine its statistics for hatred.
A version of this text was commissioned and published by Scott Rogers