Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”

2004

CHAPTER 3: WHAT MY FINGERS KNEW

Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.

 

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Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One”

1981

“Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters. Thus the option between ‘masculine’ clitoral activity and ‘feminine’ vaginal passivity, an opposition which Freud – and many others – saw as stages, or alternatives, in the development of a sexually ‘normal’ woman, seems rather too clearly required by the practice of male sexuality. For the clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist (for the boy child), and the vagina is valued for the ‘lodging’ it offers the male organ when the forbidden hadn has to gind a replacement for pleasure-giving” 23.

“In these terms, woman’s erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing” 23.

Irigaray points out that the supposed female penis-envy has nothing to do with her pleasures. Whereas man requires an instrument (hand) to touch himself, “Woman ‘touches herself’ all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two – but not divisible into one(s) that caress each other” 24. The anxiety of “interruption” by the penis causes Irigiray to ask, “Will woman not be left with the impossible alternative between a defensive virginity, fiercely turned in upon itself, and a body open to penetration that no longer knows, in its ‘hole’ that constitutes its sex, the pleasure of its own touch?” 24.

“Woman in this sexual imaginary [of the conquesting erection] is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies… [her] pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar dependency upon man” 25.

Woman does not even know what she wants, so sublimated is her desire in discourse – Freud calls it “obscure… faded with time” 25.

“Within this logic, the predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualization of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation” 25-6.

This places the body in “a double movement of exhibition and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the ‘subject,'” while “her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see” 26. Thus in art, it is rejected as opening: “sewn back up inside” its ‘crack’ 26. This is opposed to “that contact of at least two (lips) which keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching from what is touched” 26. She is not one or two, and her sexual organ is none – she cannot be numbered. “Maternity [touch] fills the gaps in a repressed female sexuality” 27.

Like Cixous, Irigaray emphasizes a diffuse sensuality: “her sexuality… is plural… woman has sex organs more or less everywhere… the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified… in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness” 28. “Ready-made grids” cannot account for her: “she steps ever so slightly aside from herself with a murmur… [women] do not have the interiority that you have… within themselves means within the intimacy of that silent, multiple, diffuse touch” 29. Their desire is a paradox: nothing and everything.

“Must this multiplicity of female desire and female language be understood as shards, scattered remnants of a violated sexuality? …experiencing herself only fragmentarily… what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself… [her] desire… may be recovered only in secret, in hiding, with anxiety and guilt” 30.

“If the female imaginary were to deploy itself… otherwise than as scraps, uncollected debris, would it represent itself, even so, in the form of one universe? Would it even be volume instead of surface? No. Not unless it were understood, yet again, as a privileging of the maternal over the feminine. Of a phallic material, at that. Closed in upon the jealous possession of its valued product. Rivalling man in his esteem for productive excess… By closing herself off as volume, she renounces the pleasure that she gets from the nonsuture of her lips” 30.

Thus self-rediscovery for woman is “never simply being one” 31. Pleasure is not in itself a solution because it serves male enjoyment:

“Woman is traditionally a use-value for man, an exchange value among men; in other words, a commodity. As such, she remains the guardian of material substance… Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men, including the competition for the possession of mother earth” 32.

“How can this object of transaction claim a right to pleasure without removing her/itself from established commerce?” 31. Women do not constitute a class, but are dispersed across classes. Like Cixous, Irigaray does not advocate a reversal of the order, since it would simply reverse again, but a proliferation of language available for women and their sexuality.

Helene Cixous: “The Laugh of the Medusa”

1976

“I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their  bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement” 2039.

“There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman… the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another” 2040.

Cixous turns from the past to face the future, starting with the same concern as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own: why don’t women write? It is because they are discouraged and excluded from its ‘greatness’ 2041. “We have internalized this horror of the dark. Men have committed the greatest crime against women… led them… to be their own enemies… they have made for women an antinarcissism!” 2042.

“We the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies – we are black and we are beautiful” 2042.

This sets up the metaphorization of women, which is the issue at the heart of ecriture feminine. In Derrida’s terms, speech was immediacy and writing was absence or deferral. But both are structured through the difference between the signifier and the signified that make up the sign. Hegel’s binaries and dialectics, supposedly reversed by Marx, nevertheless do not account for language as something between the spiritual and the material. Male writers brought out the repressed or obscured in writing through the symbolic figure of the feminine. Cixous, on the contrary, wants to render those figures literal – as bodies. As a poststructuralist, she is also interested in what the binaries of structuralism have left to uncover in the gender dynamic.

“Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with phallocentric tradition. It is indeed that same self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism” 2043.

“To write. An act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories… she has always occupied the space reserved for the guilty… she must urgently learn to speak. A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter” 2044.

“It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence” 2044.

The network of giving between women is vital to Cixous’  mode. “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing… which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system… by subjects of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate” 2046. Cixous opposes to a “bisexuality” that would collapse difference and refuse to acknowledge gender the “multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire” and both genders “over all parts of my body and the other body” 2047. We are not obligated to “deposit our lives in their banks of lack,” writes Cixous, simply because man “holds the rock” of castration’s lack over us 2048.

Ecriture feminine is the impossible paradox of the assertion of the female body in/as writing and the history and possibility of its being written by men. If man is A and woman is not-A, then one half is essentially destroyed or obscured so the other half makes sense. Therefore, Cixous does not write as “a feminist,” which would be to reproduce the structure of The One, based on a binary (Lacan says this makes One). She opposes this to heterogeneity and multiplicity instead. Though she has been accused of essentialism, she is also battling it here, in the limits of language itself.

“They riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss” 2048. (Interesting that the Medusa myth involves a mirror… Lacanian?) “We’re going to show them our sexts!… Men say there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex… they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters taht gives them a hard-on! for themselves! They need to be afraid of us… a woman’s body, with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor” 2048-9. The female body itself is diffuse, and has many centers – erotically and sensually, it is not focused genitally, as the man’s is 2052 (the rhizome).

“Begetting a child doesn’t mean that the woman or the man must fall ineluctably into patterns or must recharge the circuit of reproduction… Either you want a kid or you don’t – that’s your business… it’s up to you to break old circuits… defamilialization… Let us defetishize. Let’s get away from the dialectic which has it that the only good father is a dead one, or that the child is the death of his parents” 2053/

“Oral drive, anal drive, vocal drive – all these drives are our strengths, and among them is the gestation drive – just like the desire to write: a desire to live self from within, a desire for the swollen belly, for langauge, for blood… I want all of me with all of him… But not because [woman] is gelded; not because she’s deprived and needs to be filled out, like some wounded person who wants to console herself or seek vengeance: I don’t want a penis to decorate my body with. But I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female, because living means wanting everything that is, everything that lives, and wanting it alive. Castration? Let others toy with it. What’s a desire originating from lack? A pretty meager desire” 2054.

There are few texts because few women have won back their bodies. But we are “more bodily” than men – it is how we have suffered, and we should use the body to learn a new speech – to make a new language for women that explodes and turns around phallic language 2050.

“A love that rejoices in the exchange that multiplies. Wherever history still unfolds as the history of death, she does not tread… She gives that there may be life, thought, transformation. This is an ‘economy’ that can no longer be put in economic terms… not her sum but her differences. I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at me in a way you’ve never seen me before: at every instant. When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking” 2056.