Emotionally Altering Masculinity: Links between Affect Theory and Pluto's Transit in Capricorn

Joel Kinnaman in Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’ (2019)

I’m reading an academic book called ‘Affect and Emotion’ alongside watching a show called Altered Carbon on Netflix. The connecting point between these two things is a focus on the body, emotions and conscience. In the movie the main character’s body becomes the focus of the story – a man called Takeshi, an ex-military guy, loses his original body only to have it replace with another (a ‘sleeve’). He also receives his consciousness back, which is encrypted into some sort of microchip and this is how he is able to exist in a different body, after his death.

Takeshi’s new body is also the body of a tough guy, an army-trained detective, Alpha male and hypermasculine, and conventionally sexy. However, his new sleeve is problematic since it is that of a typical white hegemonic male, because Takeshi’s body and face were originally of Japanese-Slavic descent. One way to interpret this could be a reflection on post-colonial appropriation. How whiteness and all that it represents dominates other ethnicities in our collective unconscious, and this becomes problematic since politically we seem to be focused so much on borders between people and nations, in a general revival of nationalism.

What I liked about the show was Joel Kinnaman’s ironic and mellowed performance of his Alpha male role. For examples, an interesting stylistic choice is to have Takeshi wear a pink Unicorn child’s backpack as he goes around performing toxic, hypermasculinity by shooting aggressors. In a sense, I assume this detail tries to mock the image of the Alpha Male or in a sense humanize him, by showing his attachment to ‘kitsch’, a remnant of the wounded and traumatized little boy narrative that the viewer gets glimpses of as Takeshi has flashbacks from his violent childhood (once again, Freud seems dully appeased in yet another Hollywood script).

Takeshi goes from his original body sleeve, on the right, to Kinnaman’s one on the left

What makes it more puzzling is that not only has his consciousness been transferred but also his intense emotions associated with a past traumatic event (losing the woman he was attached to, who also trained him into combat techniques and was together with him in his past life and as part of a military resistance against the process of re-sleeving people). In a sarcastic twist of faith, Takeshi ends up physically living out the same thing he was fighting against in his previous life: re-sleeving and priviledge (even if a veiled one, in which he seems to be more a prized slave rather than a dominant White male).

I think the show was trying to counter-weight the post-colonial argument, by portraying Kinnaman as a slave to another White rich man (this time a British, London-born man) who threatens periodically to terminate him if he doesn’t help him solve the mystery of his own murder. Interestingly, this White rich guy, chose a hypermasculine blonde male to solve the crime for reasons not so well clarified; it is almost as if Takeshi’s overwhelming physical prowess – the guy is literally ‘dripping muscles’ – does not always equate his mental capacity for analysis and puzzle-piecing.

Even if he is good at neatly ordering holograms, as we are shown how in one scene Takeshi leans back into a chair and conducts some ‘criminal detective research’, he does neglect leading clues and ends up being captured and tortured by some evil Russian-accented guys (in American movies the villains always must have either a British or a Russian accent, so not much creative imagination there).

Continuing with Wetherell, she unpicks the trajectory of how affect has been understood and studied across various domains: cultural, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, hystorical (in parts) and psychological. She is proposing an understanding of affect as affective practice, and tries to consider how discourse completes and organizes affect through the body:

Massumi’s affect is pre-individual and pre-personal in all senses. Bodies affecting bodies comes to include all of social and material life. For these scholars of affect, ‘body’ is generalised away beyond the animate obvious. A body can be a rock, a capitalist exchange relation, a cat, a philosophy, a psychotherapy group, a social movement – any whole, that is, which is composed of parts where those parts are related together in ways that can be characterised in terms of their motion, speed and rest (Baugh, 2005, p. 30; Colebrook, 2006). The subject–object distinction is irrelevant, therefore, in the analysis of affected bodies, as is any distinction between inside consciousness and outside. Affect is a post-personal force exceeding the human (p.59, Wetherell)

However in Altered Carbon bodies are easy commodities, some of them are low value and interchangeable while others are best things money can buy, they are classed and thus organized hierarchically in terms of their usefulness, age and beauty and also enhanced to produce certain hormones or substances (perfected or engineered through ‘upgrades’ and ‘downgrades’, the privately owned expensive models or the state-provided reusable ones taken from dead people).

From another perspective, and in Takeshi’s case if emotions are influenced by consciousness and they in turn permeate it, BUT at the same time these reside in a specific body, what happens when you remove the consciousness of a person and place it into a new body? I would imagine that emotive memories might still remain but they would be reordered by the individual through the experience of being in a new body, as this creates ‘fresh’ affects (distinctive to that body). Say if you switch from a frail to a muscular tough body, or from being a man to being a woman, surely the ways in which you take in the world shift slightly, not only because of your experience of being in the world has changed but also because of how other react to you (so physiological but also socially constructed). Wetherell adds: “(…) both films and politics engage through rollercoasters of affect: identification, investment, disgust, cynicism and immersion.” (p.59)

Affect in relation to time and especially of taking ones time to register experiences, could be expressed physically through meditation. This also encourages towards paying attention to bodily movements and I believe also to affect or the control over negative affect especially through stilness (indirectly through the body), but I disagree with the last sentence, since Eastern thought attributes a lot of value to what happens non-consciously as a portal into enhanced awareness and a more comprehensive processing of the mind through its constant connection with the environment:

Paying attention strongly amplifies the patterns of activation, and is correlated with the experience of consciousness. It is likely then that much of what goes on non-consciously, and the kind of phenomena revealed by priming experiments, can be made conscious given enough time, information and context. In addition, it seems likely too that much of what occurs non-consciously is perhaps simply too weak, habitual and/or unimportant to mobilise the resources for more complex processing in the particular moment (p.65)

Looking at affect and emotions is important because it reminds us that we live in bodies and in a sense, activity and non-activity pass through the body or the body brings them into being. A still body could be resting but ultimately if it’s alive it has to move to prevent muscular atrophy. Being alive and bodying therefore pushes us constantly in an imperative to move. And taking action, at least in my understanding is connected to the process of emotionaly moving along. As Wetherell adds “Affect is always ‘turned on’ and ‘simmering’, moving along, since social action is continually embodied” (p. 12). Pluto in Capricorn is all about tangible and material results, and what could be more tangible than our body, perhaps the only thing in this lifetime that we can truly ‘own’. However, Altered Carbon reminds us that even this material attachment can be temporary and superficial.

With universal love,

Lexi ❤

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