Affect Mirrors

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In this paper I explore the concept of an affect mirror. By “affect mirror”, I mean the
process by which one comes to understand one’s own affective states by observing
oneself in the eyes of another, by seeing one’s own affective states mirrored in an
encounter with another. I use two films to explore affect mirrors: Call me by your
name (Guadagnino, 2017) and La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996).
People sometimes fail to accurately track their own affective states; they sometimes
fail to notice the precise nature of their feelings or they hide the nature of their
feelings from themselves under a cover-story of one sort or another. In such cases we
can occasionally rely on others to make up the deficit. An obvious way of coming to
understand affective states that are obscure to us is to infer them from the way
others react to our actions. Fear in the eyes of another may demonstrate an otherwise
unnoticed hostility or aggression; pity or overt concern may demonstrate an
emotional fragility one is disguising from oneself. This is, in many ways, an
unremarkable phenomenon. My interest lies in another path to affective selfknowledge.
Is it possible to learn how one feels by seeing one’s feelings mirrored by
another? I think it is both possible and common.
My task is to give an account of this phenomenon – the phenomenon of the
affect mirror. I wish to set out the conditions in which we are likely to encounter it
and what makes it possible. I argue that it is a form of recognition, rather than
inference. I argue that it is crucial in many relationships, especially intercultural
relationships, where it enables mutual understanding across cultural difference. I
develop the argument in terms of the two films. Call me by your name explores the
relationship between a teenage boy and an adult man. La Promesse explores a
burgeoning ethical encounter between a teenage boy and a woman from Burkina
Faso. The two films portray contrasting forms of affect mirrors and put them to
aesthetic work in different ways. In Call me by your name affect mirrors accomplish
the erotic work of the film; in La Promesse they accomplish the ethical work of the
film. In intercultural encounters, such as portrayed in La Promesse, much cognitive
work is done by exploring difference. The boy is attentive to the myriad differences
that mark out the woman from Burkina Faso from himself. But this, I argue, is not
sufficient to explain the boy’s ethical transformation in the film. For this we need to
understand the work done by affect mirrors. The lovers in Call me by your name
play an erotic game, one which informs the film’s title. The erotic force of this game
is explained by affect mirrors.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventThe 5th Annual European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions - Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia
Duration: 13 Jun 201815 Jun 2018
Conference number: 5th


ConferenceThe 5th Annual European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions
Abbreviated titleEPSSE
Internet address


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