Linda Williams, ed., “Viewing Positions”


In the introduction to the edited volume Viewing Positions, Linda Williams refers to both John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s 1975 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as foundational texts for the established notion of the “male gaze,” in Western art and “classical” Hollywood cinema 1. She continues on to describe apparatus theorists, such as Christian Metz (coiner of the “imaginary signifier”) and Jean-Louis Baudry (“representations experienced as perceptions”), who extend the idea of the disembodied spectator in their work 2.

For Mulvey, whose work became fundamental to feminist film studies, only the cinematic avant-garde offered a way out of this trap, largely by subverting the audience’s pleasure 3. What Williams presents instead is the idea of a freer, more imaginatively productive and more wide-ranging observer, one that can only be partly or occasionally accounted for by the trope of the male gaze (Miriam Hansen compares its outmodedness to bellbottoms; Williams suggests they have returned as postmodern pastiche, and so might the male gaze – as “one among many possible costumes, or roles, to be taken on”) 3.

Williams holds that she remains committed to the importance of “a theoretical understanding of relations between films and viewers,” but would like to expand that understanding through historical, cultural, and gender & sexuality studies 4. The volume explores apparatus theory, historicity, and gender & sexuality (via horror) as approaches to altering the narrowness of “the gaze” 5.


“Modernizing Vision” – Jonathan Crary: Against Baudry’s assertion that the “cinematic apparatus represents the culmination of the Western philosophical tradition of a transcendental idealist subject,” Crary argues, as he does in Techniques of the Observer, that the earlier half of the 19th century saw a transition to a bodily spectator who was “the key producer – rather than neutral registerer” – of images 6. For Williams, Crary’s argument “radically alters the standard division of 20th-century art into a classical mimesis and an elite, avant-garde modernism that is supposedly alone in its capability of returning the spectator to an awareness of the effects of an apparatus” by blurring “the boundaries between body and image on the one hand, and body and machine for viewing on the other” in a “Foucauldian approach to the discontinuities of the history of vision” 7.

“Phenomenology and the Film Experience” – Vivian Sobchack: Sobchack complicates the divisions between subject and object by arguing that film “is an act of vision with both a subjectivity that views and a view that is seen” 9. Thus watching the cinema is dialectical and, as for Crary, bodily 9.

“Cinema and the Postmodern Condition” – Anne Friedberg: Friedberg claims that “many of the arguments about the detemporalized and despatialized experience of postmodernity are applicable to modernity as well,” tracing a “mobilized gaze” in the form of the flaneur or flaneuse, according mobility to the 19th century female shopper in addition to the male dandy 8. Friedberg: Jameson suggests a link between schizophrenia and postmodern subjectivity (see also A Thousand Plateaus), based on uncertainty about signifiers of language and time, “the mise-en-abime of referents lost in the labyrinthine chain of signifiers” 72.  What Jameson argues for the nostalgia film Friedberg claims (ala Metz’s “discours” taken for “histoire”) is true of the collapse of narrative, production, and projection for all film 73. This is heightened in the 90s with at-home recording, VCR control, and the many showtimes and screens of the multiplex, arranged as so many shop windows to a flaneuse: “As I’ve begun to indicate, both cinema’s and television’s capacity for endless replay and repetition – the remarketing of the past – consists in more than the textual or thematic use of nostalgia, but becomes a commodity form itself” 76.


“Cinematic Spectatorship before the Apparatus” – Vanessa R. Schwartz: Schwartz traces a variety of 19th century Parisian attractions that were “more like real life” than their predecessors, including morgue and wax tableaus demonstrating newspaper fascinations 11.

“An Aesthetic of Astonishment” – Tom Gunning: As in his “Cinema of Attractions,” Gunning argues here that narrative was not the dominant form of early cinema, bur rather “the exhibitionistic display of events and actions” 11. Williams argues that Gunning’s “description of the difference between early cinema’s spectatorial relations and those of classical narrative has recently begun to vie with Laura Mulvey’s classic formulation of the spectatorial relations of classical cinema as one of the most frequently cited concepts in the field,” probably because these ideas underlie classical cinema as well, and do so at least as much as “the gaze” 11. Gunning: “A film like Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant from 1903 shows the temporal logic of this scenography or display. The elephant is led onto an electrified plate, and secured. Smoke rises from its feet and after a moment the elephant falls on its side. The moment of technologically advanced death is neither further explained nor dramatised. Likewise a fictional film… demonstrate[s] the solicitation of viewer curiosity and its fulfilment y the brief moment of revelation typical of the cinema of attractions. This is a cinema of instants, rather than developing situations” 123. (It would be interesting to compare this to American Psycho).

“Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Transformations of the Public Sphere” – Miriam Hansen: “The spectatorial lessons of early cinema, as Miriam Hansen’s essay so well explains, may have more to do with our own, postclassical and postmodern, sense of existing as heterogenous spectators in an era of fragmented and diverse spectacles that have more affinity to early cinema than to a cinema of classical spectatorship” 12. For Hansen, the aesthetics of “the glance” continue to replace the aesthetics of “the gaze” (this is obviously even more true now) 12. If cinema and mass culture figure in “the structuration of subjectivity” for the Frankfurt School, Hansen argues that the public sphere must be expanded: “The political task of such critique is thus to make connections between isolated fragments of experience – across segregated domains of work and leisure, fiction and fact, and past and present – to identify intersections among diverse and competing publics… The cinema and mass culture can be catalysts for new forms of community and solidarity” (sounds like faceting!) 13. Hansen refers to the recent Frankfurt School critic Kluge: “central to his film aesthetics is a concept of montage predicated on relationality – he refers to montage as the morphology of relations… a textual climbing wall designed to encourage viewers to draw their own connections across generic divisions of fiction and documentary and of disparate realms and registers of experience” (like Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou?) 144. “A film is successful in that regard if it manages to activate (rather than merely usurp) what Kluge calls “the film in the spectator’s head” – the horizon of experience as instantiated in the subject. The specific conections encouraged by the film respond to the structural blockages of experience perpetuated by the dominant public sphere, in particular, in the case of (West) Germany, the divisions imposed by the ossified programming structures of state-sponsored television” 144.

This is a “still to some extent modernist film aesthetics” for Hansen 145. If Frankfurt School theory would encourage a study of film reception able to account for personal memory and the unconscious, this might dangerously reduce such phenomena to the idiosyncratic, “missing out on the more systematic parameters of subjectivity that set off the viewer’s memory, the contrast between the nostalgically evoked local theater setting… and the context of electronic and global postmodernity… the likelihood that the viewer in the third row, like the one behind her, may usually watch soap operas… the fact that the viewer belongs to the social group of women – differentiated according to class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and generation – which renders her relation to the film shown, probably one version or another of classical cinema, problematic in particular ways” 146. “Indeed, the cinema can, at certain junctures, function as a matrix for challenging social positions of identity and otherness and as a catalyst for new forms of community and solidarity. That this may happen on the terrain of late-capitalist consumption, however, does not mean that we should resign ourselves to the range of existing products and modes of production. On the contrary, the category of the public retains a critical, utopian edge, predicated on the ideal of collective self-determination. (this perspective mandates not only maintaining critical distinctions with regard to the commercially disseminated fare but also envisioning alternative media products and the alternative organization of the relations of representation and reception. In that sense, the concept of the public forestalls the idealization of consumption that has become habitual in some quarters of cultural studies” 146. For Hansen, the spectator positioning of classical cinema was a response to the diverse and unruly audiences of early cinema 147. The preclassical and the postclassical are periods “characterized by a profound transformation of the relations of cultural representation and reception and by a measure of instability that makes the intervening decades look relatively stable by contrast… Both stages of media culture vary from the classical norm of controlling reception through a strong diegetic effect, ensured by particular textual strategies and a suppression of the exhibition context…. a greater leeway, for better or for worse – in interacting with the film – a greater awareness of exhibition and cultural intertexts… Both early modern and postmodern media publics draw on the periphery – then, on socially marginalized and diverse constituencies within American national culture, and today, on massive movements of migration on a global scale that, along with the globalization of media consumption, have irrevocably changed the terms of local and national identity” 149. Hansen concludes that “Drawing a trajectory between these two moments in the history of public life may make classical cinema and the classical mass culture of the New Deal and Cold War eras look more like a historical interlude, a deep-freeze perhaps, than the teleological norm that it has become and that has shaped our approaches to reception. And once we have shifted the frame, classical cinema itself may no longer look quite as classical as study of its dominant mode suggests” 149.


“Paradoxes of Spectatorship” – Judith Mayne: Mayne deals with the gap between the “ideal” viewer (address) and the “real” viewer (reception) 14. For Mayne, fantasy is vital because “its pleasures are the pleasures of mobility, of moving around among a range of different desiring positions,” and she challenges the notion that the binary of sexual difference is the only source of filmic desire 15. Mayne: “the apparagus can have unexpected effects,” though on the other extreme are theories that “mediate any notion of the cinematic institution out of existence,” which “substitutes one monolithic political notion for another. The challenge, then, is to understand the complicated ways in which meanings are both assigned and created” 159.

“In a series of interviews with teenage girls, for instance, Angela McRobbie concluded that their passion for a film like Flashdance had far more to do with their own desire for physical autonomy than with any simple notion of acculturation to a patriarchal definition of feminine desirability. Now it seems to me that one can be stunned by these tentative conclusions only if the model of the cinematic institution one had in the first place corresponded to the conspiracy theory view of capitalism popular in some New Left circles in the 1960s… Unfortunately, this type of work has led to a peculiar reading of the reception of  mass culture, whereby any and all responses are critical ones… power [should be] analyzed rather than taken for granted” 160. “These claims are reminiscent of the kinds of implications in ‘reading against the grain’ arguments about the classical cinema – i.e., that what appears to be a smooth ideological surface is marred, rather, by rebellion, critique, or even implicit rejection of those norms. What the reading of fantasy brings to such claims, however, is the insistence that investment and pleasure in film watching involve a range of subject positions. Apparatus theory tends to pose a spectator so aligned with one subject position that anything departing from that position would have to seem radical or contestatory by definition. The exploration of the classical cinema in terms of fantasy enlarges considerably what possibilities are contained within the fantasy structures engaged by film viewing and in so doing inflects differently the notion of ‘reading against the grain.’ Far from the vantage point of fantasy, the distinction between with and against the grain of the film becomes somewhat moot” 168. Mayne warns against predicating this simply on sexual difference. Instead, she suggests “negotiated readings,” though even these, for her, fall on a too-predictable scale: if “the dominant reading is one fully of a piece with the ideology of the text,” then “the negotiated reading is more ambivalent; that is, the ideological stance of a product is adjusted to specific social conditions of the viewers. The oppositional reading is, then, one totally opposed to the ideology in question” 171. “I do not wish to evoke a traditional and moralistic Marxism whereby art provides us with a glimpse of the truly integrated human beings we will all become in the communist future… the discussion of utopianism seems to fall into exactly the kind of large abstractions – having to do with the ‘human subject under capitalism or patriarchy’ – that McRobbie sets out… to challenge” 175.

“Film theory has been so bound by the heterosexual symmetry that supposedly governs Hollywood cinema that it has ignored the possibility, for instance, that one of the distinct pleasures of the cinema may well be a safe zone in which homosexual as well as heterosexual desires can be fantasized and acted out. ” 176. I am not speaking here of an innate capacity to read against the grain, but rather of the way in which desire and pleasure in the cinema may well function to problematize the categories of heterosexual versus homosexual” 176. “The notion of negotiation is useful only if one is attentive to the problematic as well as utopian uses to which negotiation can be put by both the subjects one is investigating and the researchers themselves… negotiation seems to be a variation of the Marxist notion of mediation – the notion, that is, of a variety of instances that complicate or mediate in various ways the relationship between individuals and the economic structure of capitalism” 177. Mayne uses Greenblatt to point out that the appearance of simultaneity in capitalism is a balance between “drive toward differentiation and the drive toward monological organization,” so that not all presumably “unauthorized” forms of observation are actually radical 178. Cathy Gallagher has pointed out that “under certain historical circumstances, the display of ideological contradictions is completely consonant with the maintenance of oppressive social relations” 179. For Mayne, “the model is no longer the passive, manipulated (and inevitably white and heterosexual) spectator, but rather the contradictory, divided, and fragmented subject” 179.

“The Eye of Horror” – Carol J. Clover: Taking the horror film’s ideal male spectator to hand, Clover argues “not that horror always forecloses voyeuristic pleasure but that the real investment in this genre is in the reactive or introjective gaze that vaginally takes in and absorbs what comes at it” 16-17. In fact, “one of the most important pleasures of film viewing resides in the journey made by one gendered identity (the male viewer) into the position of another gendered identity (the female victim-hero)” 17. Clover: In Peeping Tom, “the tripod is equipped with a hidden, extendable spike and the movie camera with a mirror, neither of which appears in the visual frame of the murder scenes; when Mark moves in for a close-up, the spike pierces the victim’s throat and she sees her own terrified face in the mirror” 185-6. Thus, the girls, according to Mark, see their own deaths – see their own fear. As it turns out, Mark is continuing his father’s work, the documentary of Mark’s entire life, including Mark’s suicide at the hands of the same “magic camera.” Mark shows Helen the studio, where his Freudian repetition impulse to return to the scene of trauma is evident by many reels of film. The movie should “be taken at face value as a commentary not only on the symbiotic interplay of sadistic and masochistic impulses in the individual viewer but equally as a commentary, within the context of horror film making, on the symbiotic interplay of the sadistic work of the filmmaker and the masochistic stake of the spectator – an arrangement on which horror cinema insists” 191. This eye penetrates, but as the target stuck by an arrow at the very start of the film suggests, it is also penetrable (again, Un Chien Andalou!) 197.

Clover also points to Poltergeist, a film in which the absorptive medium of television (vs the phallus of the camera in Demon Seed or Peeping Tom), “does not strike out and penetrate its viewers but instead sucks them in and swallows them up – in images and language that could hardly be more vaginal” 199. Clover refers to Hitchcock’s directions for Psycho – to make the audience itself feel stabed 201. “Horror movies themselves, in short, bear out in both letter and spirit the double gaze of Peeping Tom. On one side is the killer’s (or monster’s) predatory or assaultive gaze, with which… the audience is directly invited to collude… associated with the camera… resolutely figured as male. What is striking about this male gaze, however, is how often it remains at the level of wish or threat – how seldom it carries through with its depredations and, even when it does succeed, how emphatically it is then brought to ruin… the status of a fiction straining to be a fact… On the other side is the reactive gaze. It too is associated with the cinematic or televisual apparatus – but as its object, not its subject. The frequency, in horror, of images of victim-eyes under attack underlines the interest of horror in hurtable vision, vision on the defense. The reactive gaze too invites our collusion through the steady accumulation of ‘normal’ first-person shots… the usual empathic devices. And the reactive gaze too is resolutely gendered – but as feminine, not masculine.” (again, American Psycho) 203.

If Mulvey allows no place for the female spectator and Metz’s “imaginary signifier” makes the spectator a voyeur, both Mulvey and Metz stop short of this at points, Mulvey acknowledging the issue and Metz acknowledging an “introjective looking” opposed to projective looking, a “receiving, recording, sensitive surface” onto which “things are deposited” or “projected” 205. Clover is concerned with complicating how viewers inhabit and critique such gendered forms, lest we work “to naturalize sadistic violence as a feature of masculinity” 214. Actually, the male viewer does identify with the female victim-hero (it would be interesting to think about the androgyny of Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween). Perhaps our revulsion at horror is not simply that we fear being made to identify with rapists, but with victims – to be so explicitly and vulnerably gendered as female 216.

“Spectatorship as Drag” – Rhona J. Berenstein: Berenstein suggests that this is not only transgressive for male spectators, but for female spectators as well, who might explore Judith Butler’s notion (“gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original”) as a means of inhabiting or desiring the male aggressor 18. Berenstein also focuses on ways in which gay and lesbian viewers might identify with “a socially marginalized monster” in “the safe zone” of the darkened theater 18. Berenstein quotes Lawrence S. Kubie: “from childhood and throughout life… in varying proportions or emphases, the human goal seems almost invariably to be both sexes, with the inescapable consequence that we are always attempting in every moment and every act both to affirm and deny our gender identities” 239. Part of the fearfulness of the monster is its destablilization of gender norms 239. Freud’s oscillation theory between sadism and masochism, then, could be a fulcrum for reading horror 240.

Drag, in particular, as Esther Newton has pointed out, presents a double bind: the shock of it underscores the “naturalness” of binary gender, but the success of it underscores the performativity of it, undermining that same reality or naturalness 246 (here it could be useful to think of Psycho – the success of drag). In some “Afterthoughts to ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,'” Mulvey writes that  female spectators oscillate between passivity and transvestitism – between identifying with the on-screen woman and the male point-of-view 251. Mary Ann Doane tried to improve this model by pointing out its passivity, in which “female viewing” is “overidentification with women and images” 251. Instead, Doane suggests that the distancing female observer constructs herself performatively with distance from the image. Berenstein then describes Williams’ argument for the sympathy between girl and monster, often based on similarity or lust, “shared difference with the male,” though Berenstein thinks this downplays “desire based on sexual sameness” 252. Sedgwick has pointed out the problem of identifying homosexual desire with identification, rather than difference 253.

Berenstein suggests that the conventional permission for heterosexual women to scream and cower is itself a masquerade, a masking and unmasking of the eyes that mimics what is onscreen 258. Berenstein suggests lesbians may engage in the same over-performance to conceal desire, even as they identify with the aggressive fiend and desire the female victim 260. Masquerade is “an apt response to the images of a genre that consistently trades in ambiguous sexual identities and represents the concept of disguise as a narrative, visual, and marketing trope” 260. “If a heterosexual woman identifies with a heterosexual hero, she identifies against her own constructed identity on the basis of sex (she is not a man) and sexual orientation (in her everyday life, she is not a lesbian)… even more striking if we shift the terms of the participants and position a heterosexual man identifying with a heterosexual woman’s point of view… against his own identity… The pattern continues to shift if we posit a lesbian viewer identifying with a heterosexual male… against herself on the basis of biological sex, she identifies with the hero through the operations of desire… transvestitism not only depends on differences but also accommodates similarities” 260. (Is this problematically flat in terms of how desire functions?)

Whether this has impact outside the theater is unclear for Berenstein, but “the masquerade involves distance from the image not only because womanliness is performed (by the monster, the heroine, and the spectator) but also because the sight of the monster (a figure who resembles a woman but is not one) generates a schism between the performer and the sex role adopted…. Masqureade does not indicate that behind a feminine veneer lies a woman who is a man but that behind the mask resides someone who is not a man and who is terrifying and powerful precisely because she resembles a man but does not possess her father’s penis… the terrors offered by the masquerade of manliness are that behind the mask resides a man who is not a woman but who is feminine nonetheless… Spectatorship-as-drag, therefore, transposes classic horror’s sex and gender ambiguities to the spectating domain… transgressive identifications and desires lurk beneath or on the surface of gender displays… the  lure of conventional roles does not counteract social expectations… classic horror’s transgressive spectatorial pleasures are intimately connected to the genre’s simultaneous support of conventional desires” 261.


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