The Gasp

I gasped.
A gasp is a sudden, involuntary intake of break. The mouth opens. Air is dragged down the opened throat. Resonating within the body, the gasp is a sound of subjectivity as it registers a shocking, sudden, unexpectedly affecting encounter with something seen, felt or done to the body….
An acoustic after-affect, it sonorously registers the piercing of what Freud, in his theorisation of trauma, described as the ‘protective shield’ of consciousness… Trauma is a surprise attack, foiling the constantly vigilant defences that would enable the psyche to generate anxiety with which to anticipate the shock. With breached psychic defences, and consciousness knocked out, the subject does know what has happened. The body acts it out affectively.

My gasp signalled, therefore, a moment of potential trauma. But whose.

Griselda Pollock, 2013, p.47

Griselda Pollock gasped in front of Bernini’s statue of Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) — her psychic defences were breached, a moment of vulnerability and the potential for trauma. I want to stay with this moment, the instinctual, non-conscious, affective moment of the gasp. I want to extend that moment before the brain registers or processes the interruption, before we notice our vulnerability and shut it down, before our conscious thoughts start to take hold. Encountering the work of art made Griselda Pollock instantly vulnerable, her body intuitively mimicking the open mouth of the marble Daphne. In that moment, two mouths open, an affective and empathetic connection was made, across time, space, material, difference.
It is this moment I want to be attentive to.

Of course, the human body does not physically allow the moment of an involuntary intake of breath to be suspended, to be grasped and extended. A double-bind – a contradiction. But, despite its physical impossibility, can I theorise what an encountering body suspended in a gasp might mean? By paying attention to the sudden, unexpected, irrational moment of a gasp, we suspend it. To gasp at a work of art is to be affected by it.

What does it mean to be moved by a work of art?

Affect; the effect another body has upon my own body. Affects emerge in the “passages of intensities” (O’Sullivan, 2006, p.41) between encountering bodies (viewer and artwork). Affects are interruptions, resonances and sensations occurring within and across felt experience, but are not to be confused with emotions (Brian Massumi is careful to theorise the difference). Affects occur in the body’s transition between stimulus and response. Each transition is accompanied by a variation in capacity (Massumi, 2002, p.15), a shift in the body’s capacity to act and be acted upon. This transition is a moment of potentiality, “a gap between action and reaction” (O’Sullivan, 2006, p.46). Ethics emerges here, when an encounter with anOther body shifts this body’s capacity for response. In the transition between the stimulus offered by an aesthetic encounter and our response we may gasp, within which lies the potential for an ethical connection to the Other.
It is a moment of potentiality through connection across difference – the potential not just for trauma, but for the production of knowledge. The gasp is primal and does not discriminate; anybody can gasp at a work of art. Visual literacy is irrelevant. The gasp is ignored by the visually literate, the initial response is forgotten as the critic goes about their analysis. Therefore it exists outside of the major narrative of paint, outside of our pre-existing knowledges around painting; how to look at it, how to think about it. By suspending the gasp we create space for a minor practice to emerge within the major narrative of painting*, we produce a new knowledge through our encounter.

*Deleuze describes a minor narrative as not coming from a minor language, but as that which a minority constructs within a major language, which possesses the inherent qualities of deterritorialisation, political immediacy, and collective value (1985). See posts ‘Looking Again; Minor practices within Contemporary Painting and the Production of Knowledge’ and ‘Notes from the Painter’s Studio’

The Gasp // The Gaze —

The gasp can work as an antidote to the violence of the gaze as a structure of looking. How do we see the unknown Other? How do we look at difference?

Levinas’s philosophy of Ethics; in a face-to-face encounter humans are responsible to one another (1967, p.197-200). When we gasp in a face-to-face encounter with an artwork we are response-able to that artwork, we can ethically practice responsiveness. Rather than subjecting the art object to “a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 1975, p.3), we are attentive to our vulnerability, and we connect with the artist’s attentiveness and vulnerability in their making of the work. The viewer becomes alongside the work, as the artist becomes alongside the work’s becoming.

Suspending the gasp differentiates the ‘looking again’ from the initial scopophilic (pleasure in looking) gaze. Practicing responsiveness from this position of vulnerability produces a different kind of knowledge. If the gasp was suspended as an alternate point of departure for critique, in place of the gaze, critique would be different. The critic would be participating in an ethical, attentive, response-able activity – producing knowledge in partnership with the artwork, rather than applying pre-existing meaning. Art “is not made for an already constituted audience but in fact calls its audience into being” (O’Sullivan, p.68). Art preserves sensations (affects) that would otherwise have been fleeting. It has an ongoing presence independent if its producer, and yet holds the traces of their labour, subjectivity and engagement with knowledge.

Under the logic of the gasp neither the artist not the viewer are the producers and safe-keepers of meaning. This is not about the viewer completing the artwork (as in Barthes ‘Death of the Author’), or the art object completing the viewer. Neither one is responsible for the transformation of the other. Rather they are each partial-entities suspended in a moment of affective encounter, which simultaneously ruptures and affirms, moving them to think otherwise.

“Art is that genuinely creative act that actualises the virtual, the virtual here being understood as the realm of affect. This gives art an ethical imperative, for it involves a ‘moving beyond’ the already familiar (our ‘actual’ selves), precisely a kind of ‘self-overcoming’”

O’Sullivan, 2006, p.51

Art exists in-between the real and the virtual — always looking at both, facing in two directions. For O’Sullivan these directions are towards the world – “the forms instantiated by capitalism”, and towards the universe – “the lines of flight from these forms into a realm of potentiality” (p.67) Art is both a part of and apart from this world.
Affects therefore are the “dark precursors of our conceptual system, precursors that subsist alongside the production of knowledge” (p.43). Dark in that they are unknown, resisting language, cognition, analysis; “the terrain of the dark precursor is the terrain of art” (p.43).

It is within the simultaneous rupturing of our existing ways of thinking-being and the affirmation of new ways of thinking-being that art and the viewer encounter each other, in the moment of a gasp.


Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Maclean, M. (1985). Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature: The Components of Expression. New Literary History, 16(3), p.591.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press.

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual; Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), pp.6-18.

O’Sullivan, Simon D. (2005). Notes Towards a Minor Art Practice. Drain, 2(2), ISSN 2469-3022 [Article]

O’ Sullivan, Simon D. (2006). Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari; Thought Beyond Representation. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Published by nataliepullen

Dublin-based visual artist, writer and researcher. Visual art practice: MA Art in the Contemporary World (1.1), National College of Art and Design, 2019

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