Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema & Suture”

1969

Oudart uses the term suture and applies it to cinema. Here, the gaze in the fiction (the character/subject) conceals the gaze outside the fiction (the camera and production), so that the viewer is aware of his own absence as speaking subject and is aligned with the male gaze of Laura Mulvey’s argument. (Interesting also to consider how the ‘grand theorists’ resist the idea that the cinematic apparatus must enact Althusser’s ISAs). Shot relationships are considered as syntactic elements would be in discourse. If the viewer becomes aware of the frame, he also becomes aware of the absent or ghostly presence of the camera, and of his own partial hold on the scene.

That camera is a speaking subject, absent and controlling as a father. To prevent this, the film attempts to hide its own frame, denying any extra-fictional reality. The shot/reverse shot conceals this by making the viewer feel more potently observing. In this sense, suture is like ISA in that it encourages the viewer to identify with the viewing subject or gaze to which it is directed (think of Fish and Poulet on reading…)

“Suture is best understood through a consideration of what is at stake in the process of ‘reading’ film… To understand this demands reading the image to its detriment, a reading with which the contemporary cinema has sometimes made us lose our familiarity, since its use of images without depth hides what the depth-of-field cinema revealed all the time: that every filmic field traced by the camera and all objects revealed through depth of field – even in a static shot – are echoed by another field, the fourth side, and an absence emanating from it.”

“Every filmic field is echoed by an absent field, the place of a character who is put there by the viewer’s imaginary, and which we shall call the Absent One. At a certain moment of the reading all the objects of the filmic field combine together to form the signifier of its absence. At this key-moment the image enters the order of the signifier, and the undefined strip of film the realm of the discontinuous, the “discrete”. It is essential to understand this. since up to now film-makers believed that. by resorting to cinematic units as discrete as possible, they would find their way back to the rules of linguistic discourse, whereas it is cinema itself, when designating itself as cinematography, which tends to constitute its own énoncé in “discrete” units.”

The spectator is doubly decentred in the cinema. First what is enunciated, initially, is not the viewer’s own discourse, nor anyone else’s: it is thus that he comes to posit the signifying object as the signifier of the absence of anyone. Secondly the unreal space of the enunciation leads to the necessary quasi-disappearance of the subject as it enters its own field and thus submerges, in a sort of hypnotic continuum in which all possibility of discourse is abolished, the relation of alternating eclipse which the subject has to its own discourse; and this relation then demands to be represented within the process of reading the film. which it duplicates.

Thus what we are here calling the suture is primarily the representation of that which. under the same heading, is now used to designate “the relationship of the subject to the chain of its discourse”: a representation sliding under the signifying Sum and burdened with a lack – the lack of someone – and with an Absent One which abolishes itself so that someone representing the next link in the chain (and anticipating the next filmic segment) can come forth.

The ideal chain of a sutured discourse would be one which is articulated into figures which it is no longer appropriate to call shot/reverse-shot. but which mark the need – so that the chain can function – for an articulation of the space such that the same portion of space be represented at least twice, in the filmic field and in the imaginary field – with all the variations of angle that the obliqueness of the camera with regard to the place of the subject allows. This ideal chain consists, as it progresses, of a duplicating representation, which demands that each of the elements composing its space and presenting its actors be separated and duplicated, and twice read or evoked in a to-and-fro movement which would need describing more precisely.

Up to now (except among a handful of great film-makers who understand that the absent field is as important as the present field and that the fate of the signifier is governed by their mutual articulation) the problem of the cinematic has only been raised by modern film-makers. In rejecting a space which today is still largely only one of fiction, they have put cinematic language under exemplary pressure, but at the risk of leading it to the threshold of reification.

For it is nevertheless essential to recognize that, in articulating the conditions and the limits of its signifying power, the cinema is also speaking of eroticism….For too long eroticism in the cinema has only been exploited or located on the filmic level; people talked about the eroticism of a camera-movement as improperly as they did about the camera-eye and possession of the world by the film-maker, etc. A substantial shift in point of view has in face taken place; today the phenomenon of quasi-vision, peculiar to the cinema, only appears as the condition of an eroticism recognizable in the articulation of the filmic and the cinematic, and affecting the signifiers and the figures conveying them. thereby demonstrating that the very nature of the cinematic discourse is in question. The discovery that the cinema, in speaking itself, speaks of eroticism, and is the privileged space where eroticism can always be signified…

In the very process which is at the same time jouissance and “reading” of the film – a “reading” which in turn is signified and annulled, and by which the spectator is subverted – something is said which can only be discussed in erotic terms, and which is itself given as the closest representation of the actual process of eroticism.

If we can think of the shot-reverse shot of film as chiasmus in language

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Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”

1976

As the self-proclaimed “inventor” of reader response theory, Stanley Fish remains a controversial figure. One of many critics to overturn the centrality of the text to New Criticism, Fish nevertheless ruffled feathers even in his own community of thinkers (Wolfgang Iser wonders how Fish’s refusal to acknowledge subjectivist readerly tendencies can account for different readings of the same text). Nonetheless, his ideas remain highly influential; I am particularly interested in how a focus on the reader can help us understand the way that viewer assimilates new knowledge over time, especially in a long-form text that the reader enters and exits, and which is so clearly imbricated in the period of life they spend consuming it. It is worth comparing Fish’s “interpretive communities” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” a term Lauren Berlant uses in The Female Complaint. 

Fish uses the Milton variorum, with its “surveying of the critical history of a work in order to find disputes that rested upon a base of agreement with the experience of a work, and argued that formalist criticism, because it is spatial rather than temporal in its emphases, either ignored or suppressed what is really happening in the act of reading” 2071.

“The facts that I cite as ones ignored by a formalist criticism (premature conclusions, double syntax, misidentification of speakers) are not discovered but created by the criticism I was myself practicing… that a bad (because spatial) model had suppressed what has really happening – loses its force because of my realization that the notion ‘really happening’ is just one more interpretation… the problem of accounting for the agreement readers often reach and for the principled ways in which they disagree” 2071.

“It was at this point that I elaborated the notion of interpretive communities as an explanation both for the difference we see – and by seeing make – and for the fact that those differences are not random or idiosyncratic but systemic and conventional” 2071.

“What if the [readerly] controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?” 2073.

“In other words, it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description” 2074.

“In a matter of seconds, then, line 7 has led four experiential lives, one as we anticipate it, another as that anticipation is revised, a third when we retroactively identify its speaker, and a fourth when that speaker disclaims it. What changes in each of these lives is the status of the poet’s murmurings – they are alternately expressed, rejected, reinstated, and qualified – and as the sequence ends, the reader is without a firm perspective on the question of record” 2078 [uncertainty]

“This, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience – the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it. It is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader, a reader for whom those associations are less precise will not have that experience because he will not have rushed to a conclusion in relation to which the word ‘misused’ will stand as a challenge… the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other… [to] realize at the end of ti that he has been asked to take a position on one side of a continuing controversy” 2080.

“It would be possible to continue with this profile of the optimal reader, but I would not get very far before someone would point out that what I am really describing is the intended reader, the reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences, and so on make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide… it seems obvious that the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) the author’s intention. I would only object if that realization were conceived narrowly, as the single act of comprehending an author’s purpose, rather than (as I would conceive it) as the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings” 2080.

“It would appear that I am open to two objections… the procedure is a circular one. I describe the experience of a reader who in his strategies is answerable to an author’s intention, and I specify the author’s intention by pointing to the strategies employed by that same reader. But this objection would have force only if it were possible to specify one independently of the other. What is being specified… are the conditions of utterance, or what could have been understood to have been meant by what was said… The second objection is another version of the first” if the content of the reader’s experience is the succession of acts he performs in search of an author’s intentions, and if he performs those acts at the bidding of the text, does not the text then produce or contain everything… have I not compromised my antiformalist position? This objection will have force only if the formal patterns of the text are assumed to exist independently of the reader’s experience… they are in the text before the reader comes to it …[but this is] the spectacle of an assertion supporting itself” 2081.

“It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense (I intend ‘making’ to have its literal force), and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption (and therefore the creation) of a completed assertion” 2081. [faceting, facere]

“How easy it is to surrender to the bias of our critical language and begin to talk as if poems, not readers or interpreters, did things. Words like ‘encourage’ and ‘disallow’… imply agents, and it is only ‘natural’ to assign agency first to an author’s intentions and then to the forms that assumedly embody them. What really happens, I think, is something quite different: rather than intention and its formal realization producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out” 2082.

“What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not ‘in’ the text, and I would make the same argument for intentions” 2083.

“The form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise… what produces them?… if intention, form, and the shape of the reader’s experience are simply different ways of referring to… the same interpretive act, what is that act an interpretation of? I cannot answer that question, but neither… can anyone else, although formalists try to answer it by pointing to patterns and claiming that they are available independently of (prior to) interpretation… I would argue that they do not lie innocently in the world but are themselves constituted by an interpretive act, even if, as is often the case, that act is unacknowledged” 2083.

“What is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy… the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself… I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay… that a bad… model had suppressed what was really happening… just one more interpretation” 2085.

“The price one pays for denying the priority of either forms or intentions is an inability to say how it is that one ever begins… why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same…? … both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts, something which produces them” 2085.

“The notions of the ‘same’ or ‘different’ texts are fictions. If I read Lycidas & The Waste Land differently (in fact I do not), it will not be because the formal structures of the two poems (to term them such is also an interpretive decision) call forth different interpretive strategies but because my predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies will produce different formal structures. That is, the two poems are different because I have decided that they will be” 2086.

Augustine advocates the opposite, in a tradition of Christian exegesis: that every reading conform to the scripture and the love of God.

“Why should two or more readers ever agree…? …Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” 2088. (think Marxist critics, often)

“This, then, is the explanation both for the stability of interpretation among different readers (they belong to the same community) and for the regularity with which a single reader will employ different interpretive strategies and thus make different texts (he belongs to different communities). It also explains why there are disagreements and why they can be debated in a principled way: not because of a stability in texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” 2088 (Althusser/ ISAs).

“The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop” 2088.

“Interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned… How can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us?… The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” 2089.

 

 

Guy Debord, “Society of the Spectacle”

1967

Debord’s assertion that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” is central to his neo-Marxist arrival at the failures of image culture (reminds me of Jameson and Adorno) – “the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” The most Jamesonian moment is perhaps the assertion of a failure of history in the spectacle, which obfuscates the past and fuses it with a future to create a neverending present. The waves of ecstasy and obsessive product trends also parallel religious fervor of ages past.

One might also think of the spectacle – which Debord argues arises in the 1920s as the confluence of mass media, advanced capitalism, and governments – as parallel to Benjamin’s concern with mass culture and fascism in “Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” though Benjamin seems to have more faith in film…

In the “society of the spectacle,” we see “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,” so that “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.” Debord takes Marx’s idea of the social relation between objects, rather than subjects, as an origin point:  “The spectacle is not a collection of images. Rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Debord’s situationism proposes to wake up ideologically drugged spectators by using spectacular images to disrupt the flow of spectacle (detournement) – to interrupt suture, as it were (Oudart).

Louis Althusser, “Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses”

1970

Althusser builds on a Marxist notion of ideology here by arguing for how “ideological interpellation” constitutes a self-conscious subject. Like the naturalization of the commodity and the illusion of consumer choice, subjectification is the process by which the state inculcates the individual’s belief of his position in society as a natural one. This occurs through the presentation of various institutions (ISAs) which espouse ideologies supportive of the overall power structures. In an illusion of choice, individuals can join these ISAs, believing she does so by individual choice, and come to recognize herself in/as these institutional categories. When this occurs, the subject has been interpellated and will go on to reproduce hegemonic social relations.

Althusser’s neo-Marxist concept of the ideological state apparatus seeks to expose the social causes that permit continual class exploitation via the “reproduction of the conditions of production” as the “ultimate condition of production” (85). For Althusser, “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order” (89). The superstructure, or ‘upper floor’ of the societal ‘house,’ so to speak, is sustained by the production of the ‘lower floors,’ whose “know-how” is generated by the members of the superstructure “in forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology” (89). Though the ruling ISA (alongside the family) was once the church, Athusser claims that it is now the school, which at every phase holds its young audience captive five or six days a week and has a number of different disciplines through which to disseminate its coded ‘know-how.’ It is important that ideology is somewhat coded, because it is thus self-effacing; its erasure of its own coming-into-being gives the illusion of consciousness and free will to the subjects which it actually materially constructs, or “interpellates” (113). What is important in ideology as “a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” is the relation to those conditions that is represented therein (109, 111). The ISA finally constitutes “the reproduction of the relations of production and of the relations deriving from them” (124).