Affective Performance and Cognitive Science

Affective Performance and Cognitive Science: Body, Brain and Being. Edited by Nicola Shaugnessy. London: Bloomsbury, 2013; Pp. 300.

Although Affective Performance and Cognitive Science: Body, Brain and Being serves as an introductory text, its usefulness is not in the structured and fixed definitions and equations a novice might desire, but instead in the illustration of the disagreements and instability that necessarily come with an interdisciplinary approach. The twelve essays utilize a range of methodologies as well as different writing styles that model the variety of ways cognitive science and affect theory can be applied to performance studies.

The book is clearer in its use of cognitive science than in affect theory, in that the authors often explicitly state which aspects of cognitive theory they are employing while the inclusion of affect theory is subtler. This illustrates accurately the disagreements still surrounding how to define and use affect, and how affect, emotion, and feelings differ. The elements of cognitive science appear more consistently throughout the work, although not without some variation, and many of the essays provide examples of applying popular cognitive science approaches such as mirror neurons, conceptual metaphor theory, embodied cognition, and distributed cognition.

In the introduction to the first section, “Dances with Science”, Evelyn B. Tribble and John Sutton suggest some of the difficulties of interdisciplinary work but also introduce commonly used aspects of cognitive science in the study of performance. The essays that follow outline different ways of structuring this cross-disciplinary dance. Matthew Reason and his co-authors describe an empirical study to determine a spectator’s response to watching dance. The chapter focuses mostly on the collaboration of artists and neuroscientists, highlighting the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach, but also the challenges. Anna Furse also writes on dance, and though she suggests that empirical analysis is forthcoming, the essay itself focuses on a theoretical concept of historical identity located within the body. She describes her plans to retrace her steps, both figuratively and choreographically, with her partner Esther Linley, in order to determine “what happens in the act of retrieving a forgotten or atrophied learnt embodied action, that also carries with it emotional significance?” (57). In the section’s final chapter, Erin Hood discusses the difficulty of representing pain and understanding it in others. Using the performance piece Sssshh…Succour, in which the solo performer cuts herself in a methodological fashion, Hood introduces a theme that is repeated in later essays in this book, that the presence of the body onstage reminds the spectator that the body is not separate from cognition and affect, but instead they are essentially connected.

The next section, introduced by Amy Cook, focuses on embodied cognition in more traditional performances. Cook provides the first extended introduction to affect theory in this section and also introduces metaphor and conceptual blending theory as a way of relating text and cognition. Affect theory is an important concept for the first essay in this section, in which Natalie Bainter considers the many blushing faces in Thomas Heywood’s play, A Woman Killed with Kindness. The blush helps to illustrate that affect is not simply an individual bodily response, but is relational. John Lutterbie suggests in his essay that language is a dynamic system and that gesture, instead of supporting language, helps create and shape it. Language is not, then, created simply in one’s mind, but instead is embodied. Naomi Rokonitz continues to examine this relationship between text and body by considering the dying bodies in Wit and 33 Variations. Though the protagonists in both plays cultivate their minds more than their bodies, it is their bodies that we see fall apart and suffer. Again, the body on stage provides an affective experience that leads to empathy.

In the third section, “The Multimodal Actor,” Rhonda Blair provides an overview of cognitive science history and two different approaches to affect theory. These essays consider the embodied cognition of the actor. Neal Utterback considers the relationship between gesture and memory. He provides an example of an empirical study and concludes “Clearly gestures are valuable tools for actors. … Gestures have a profound effect on our ability to memorise text and construct meaning” (155). Martin Welton, like Furse, gives an early overview of a performance as experiment before it has been completed. He also makes use of affect and another recurring idea, James Gibson’s “affordances”, to discuss the relationship between cognition and the feeling of one’s feet on the ground. Gabriele Sofia finishes out this section by describing the benefit performance studies can provide to cognitive scientists. She discusses the “performative body schema” actors must create, based off of their individual body schemas, and relates this to a benefit seen in Parkinson’s disease patients who attended theatre workshops. Sofia suggests that “theatre’s peculiar strength lies in providing another reality that makes it possible to work on the ability of creating relationships” (179).

In the final section, Bruce McConachie suggests that actors and spectators, like children in a sandbox, have an active relationship with each other as well as with the environment that affords them opportunities. The essays that follow in this section discuss interactive performance, which relies on the active cooperation of the spectators. The first two articles discuss the solo audience experience of the production Rotating in a Room of Images.Josephine Machon examines her experience based on the cognitive idea of synaesthesia, in which multiple senses are stimulated simultaneously from one trigger. Machon describes her experience of the immersive theatrical performance as (syn)aesthetic, as being both cerebral and corporeal. Adam Alston’s analysis of the same performance looks at it instead through the lens of risk perception, affect, and emotion, and suggests that “[w]hen considered as an affective presence, my relationship to risk was political given the influence it exerted; it controlled as much as spurred on thought and action”(227). The final essay of the collection describes the effects interactive and immersive performance had on autistic children who participated in Imaging Autism. Melissa Trimingham suggests that the children’s opportunities to touch and interact with objects, costumes, and set pieces allow them a momentary participation in a world in which “objects are steeped in meanings” which “seems to pass autistic people by” (232).

Nicola Shaughnessy introduces this book by discussing the performance Schrödinger, which provides an entry point into her discussion of “intermediary spaces” (19), which is where the many disciplines in this text come together. As in the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, the essays in this book can “exist in simultaneous multiple states” (2): as studies of science and performance, as examples of cognitive and affective theories, as empirical approaches and personal journeys. The variety of approaches and topics provide multiple entry points for those interested in applying cognitive theories to their work and for those who are looking for solid examples of the relevancy of cognitive and affect theories to performance studies.

Natalie Tenner
University of Mary Washington

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 29, Number 1 (Fall 2016/Winter 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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