Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow & the Act

1964

In this short essay, Ellison considers several new films about Negroes. He compares the adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust to the classic D.W. Griffith Birth of a Nation, the racist film of “predigested dramatic experience.” We talk about Griffith’s film as technical advancement, but like naval technology, it was used in the service of degrading Negro life. How did this country square democratic ideals and racism? First by denying the Negro humanity, and now it is by working out white questions about that humanity in films that are ostensibly “about” Negroes, but are not for them at all.

Hollywood is but “the shadow” of “the act” that is real racism. It manipulates what is already an extant cultural image. These recent films make explicit how Hollywood focuses on whether Negroes should ‘pass,’ whether they should intermarry, and whether they have ruined the south – white questions for a white audience which still do not afford black characters full human rights.

One of the special dramatizations is of ‘passing,’ which dramatizes how the black community rejects mulattoes, which is simply not true, Ellison argues. Furthermore, it paints the black community as a locus one is condemned to. It would seem in Hollywood that “only white Negroes suffer – or is it merely the white corpuscles of their blood?”

Ellison is particularly fascinated by how moving these pictures are, especially to whites – they are cathartic, they touch a deep nerve despite “their slickest devices.” As an antidote, Ellison suggests watching the films in Harlem, where audiences laugh with a disjointed experience of how far the characters on screen seem from themselves. “Each of us must become the keeper of his own,” Ellison concludes.

Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”

1756

Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.

 

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”

1936

Marx’s analysis of capitalist production was prognostic: that it would exploit the proletariat in new and intense ways, and that it would create the conditions for its own undoing. We must theorize art as it is under the conditions of production today. The dilemma seems to be between aestheticizing politics (fascism) or politicizing art (communism), and clearly Benjamin favors the latter.

Works have art have always been reproducible, but now they are more technically and accurately so. From the woodcut to engraving, lithography to photography, this process has rapidly improved. Photography finally “freed the hand” from the task of reproduction. In Benjamin’s idea of history, “Just as the illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in photography” 102. Benjamin therefore undertakes the study of art as reproduction and the art of film as the two greatest influences today on art in its traditional form.

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place” 103. Authenticity thus eludes the whole sphere of reproduction – it concerns the object as the very same one throughout time, including its wear, its history, its owners, etc. 103. But whereas the reproduction made by hand can be called a forgery, 1) a photo can be reproduced to trick the naked eye. It can even focus in slow motion or zoom on objects “natural optics” would miss in the first place 103. 2) “Reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” 103. The work of art can meet the viewer halfway – music on a gramophone, a cathedral in a studio.

What is threatened here, for Benjamin, is the aura: the authenticity, the historical weight, the physical duration, the testimony of the object as it is here and now 103. (I have to say, this has always seemed like a bourgeois value to me!) “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” – its aura “withers” 104. The most powerful “shattering of tradition” is film. Film is both positive and has a “destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” 104. (Abel Gance is cited – historical figures “await their celluloid resurrection,” he claimed.)

“The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history… And if changes in the medium of present-day perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social detriments of that decay” 104.

“What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” 105. [this is the opposite of trace, which is the appearance of nearness, no matter how far]

Mountains have an aura on a summer’s day, but the aura’s decay now depends on 2 factors: 1) The masses desiring to ‘get closer’ to things and 2) the masses desiring to supersede the uniqueness of a thing “by assimilating it as a reproduction” 105.

“Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image… The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique” 105 [internet memes]

Benjamin provides the increasing use of statistics as an example of this, and demonstrates that the alignment of “reality” and “the masses” signals a change in perception.

The earliest artworks with aura had cult value, and “the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function” 105.  (This model of binaries opposes uniqueness to reproducibility, aura to mechanical reproduction, ritual to political, and cultural value to exhibition value.) Photography is the “approach of that crisis which a century later has become unmistakable,” which coincided with the rise of socialism 105. This crisis has given rise to “a negative theology, in the form of an idea of ‘pure’ art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content” 106. For Benjamin, however, this crisis need not entail a loss.

“For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual… the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility… As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” 106. [I might think here about faceting as camp and this together.]

The first technology versus second technology divide is of cult/exhibition, human sacrifice/remote control, serious/play, and master culture/interplay of human and nature. Cult objects are hidden – paintings on walls or large sculptures, versus canvas paintings or busts made for exhibition 106. Cult made use of human beings, whreas exhibition “reduces their use to the minimum” 107. The scope of reproduction has quantitatively shifted towards the pole of exhibition: the work of art is a construct with qualitatively different functions 107.

Film is the perfect medium to study the center of the second technology: the means by which “human beings first began to distance themselves from nature… in play” 107. [think camp!] “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” 107.

“The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily… technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free” 108.

“In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance…. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time” 108. [think Barthes, Camera Lucida]

But exhibition value wins out – it is superior, as photographs from which the human being withdraws will show. Captions direct our viewership in an ongoing evidence of history on trial, and in film, the sequence of images powerfully directs us as well 108.

The Greeks could not very well reproduce their art, so it had to produce eternal values 109.  “Film is the first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility” 109 [not the novel?]. Unlike the singular artistic object, the film is amassed and asembled from a large number of image sequences edited and manipulated (a Chaplin film that is 3,000 meters but took 125,000 meters of film to make).

“Film is therefore the artwork most capable of improvement… linked to its radical renunciation of eternal value… the pinnacle of all the [Greek] arts was the form least capable of improvement – namely sculpture… all of a piece… the decline of sculpture is inevitable” 109. [again, literature?]

Early film and photography theories waste energy focusing on whether these media are art (Abel Gance called film ‘hieroglyphic’) 110. The focus should not be on whether they are, but how they are actually transforming art (the example of film that is marvelous or supernatural, rather than realist, is offered) 110. To photograph a painting or an actor acting is not art. Art is produced “only by means of montage,” says Benjamin 110. How does this occur, if the stuff of this art is not art? [faceting]. For Benjamin, it is in the repetitive takes, of which one is selected “as the record” 111.

“Film makes test performances capable of being exhibited, by turning that ability itself into a test. The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in fornt of an apparatus… Interest in this performance is widespread. For the majority of citydwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening these masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph” 111.

It would be interesting to compare this form of identification with Oudart’s suture or Mulvey’s gaze. The actor is a character to the audience, but he is himself to the camera. “For the first time – and this is the effect of film – the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person, while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura” 112.  Unlike in the theater, where this can be sensed, “the camera is substituted for the audience” 112. The film actor must not overact, unlike the stage actor. “His performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances” 112. “Art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance,'” since the film actor can be startled by a gun and the sound edited out, or several shots of a jump out the window grafted to make the perfect scene 113. [pure artifice?]

“The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation… the film actor’s estrangement in the face of the apparatus… is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.. But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable… To a site in front of the masses… It is they who will control him” 113.

[Is faceting looking at a broken mirror, trying to cathect onto something so fragmented it has no sense or unity – but this is like us, too? We are fragmented?]

For Benjamin, capitalist (Hollywood) film supplants the commodity as the cult of the star (sex and surfaces), whereas fascist (Third Reich) film supplants class struggles with a fantasy of the cult of the audience:

“There can be no political advantage derived from this control until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses” 113.

[Eisenstein’s ‘dialectical collisions’ in his montages are a form of politicizing art against the unity of fascism. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s proposition here is more one of play – moving through pop culture rather than against it in the interplay of human and nature. For Benjamin, it is not so much about a worry over whether film can have aura as a distinction between cult value (embedded) and exhibition value (Chaplin)].

We have moved from a culture of readers to writers – from the few speaking to the many to the many engaging. Whereas Eisenstein and Vertov allow people to “portray themselves,” whereas “the capitalist exploitation of film obstructs the human being’s legitimate claim to being reproduced… to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film,” Hollywood manufactures the cult of the star 114-15.

“Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority… the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat” 115.

“Film offers a hitherto unimaginable spectacle. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed – the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew (unless the alignment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera)” 115 [suture]

“In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice” 115.

The comparison here is of the distant magician (painter) to the penetrative surgeon (film) [think Lolita and penetration of her organs!] 115. The masses today are entitled to an “equipment-free aspect of reality… on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment” – a paradox 116. The fusion of pleasure and expert appraisal in the masses is a progressive reaction to Chaplin; they have a backward attitude, on the other hand, to Picasso. Normally, the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is shunned. Cinema is an exception. Cinema can present to a large collective audience having individual reactions that swell to collectivity 116.

“The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus” 117. Film shows us the microscopic and the macroscopic: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended” 117. Both add new information as well – unseeable details in the former, a gliding or floating quality in the latter. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” 117. Montage in cinema would create “figures of collective dream” 118.

Laughter is a medicine against psychosis that films exploit – if technology engenders a psychotic character in the masses, it can also inoculate them against the maturation of these disorders through catharsis [think Deleuze & Guattari: schizophrenia] 118.”Dadaism attempted to produce with the means of painting (or literature) the effects which the public today seeks in film” 118. The point of the dadaists was to explore “the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion… through degradation of their material… linguistic refuse… train tickets… a ruthless annihilation of the aura… which they branded as a reproduction through the very means of its production” [pop art] 119. Film has made this shock effect tactile and physical, rather than moral.

Masses create a different participation in art. They are accused of looking at art with distraction, absorbing it into themselves, (<) rather than concentration, or being absorbed (>). (Think about the gender/sexual difference dynamic here.) Architecture is an example of an art that, by necessity, has never not been 120. We approach buildings by use/habit (tactilely) and perception/contemplation (optically). Both are necessary. Film’s shock effects will mobilize the masses via reception in distraction 120.

Fascism wants to organize the masses without changing the material conditions of their existence. “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life” 121. [We can think of the films of the Third Reich rallies; would Benjamin compare them to Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood?]

“All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations.” 121.

“Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands repayment in ‘human material’ for the natural material society has denied it” 121.

“Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” 122.

Miriam Hansen picks up on this in analyzing Benjamin’s footnote as an aspirational form of play. Benjamin writes, “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play. This space for play is widest in film.” She highlights Mickey Mouse, the total disappearance of the human subject, as a kind of Chaplin: “a cheerful barbarian countering the violence unleashed by capitalist technology with games of innervation.” Though he lost faith in this by the time of “The Storyteller” and others, but “the degree to which such practices have become naturalized” should encourage us all to “wage an aesthetics of play, understood as a political ecology of the senses, on a par with the most advanced technologies.”

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.

 

Kaja Silverman, “The Subject of Semiotics”

1983

Kaja Silverman expands on Oudart’s and Miller’s Lacanian interpretations of suture in cinema. She points out that Psycho undermines suture by making us realize we are invited to be voyeurs through the window, victim and killer at once, and we have an ‘unmediated’ relationship with the camera, which ‘exceeds’ Marion’s gaze. Silverman’s argument is that suture can be even more swaying when not tied to a subject. In the shower scene, the camera routinely cuts and returns more than 30 degrees from the last shot, drawing attention to its ruptures.

“Even though we have just lost our heroine, and our own discursive postion, we can afford to finance others. What sutures us at this juncture is the fear of being cut off from narrative. Our investment in the fiction is made manifest through the packet of money which provides an imaginary bridge from Marion to the next protagonist… What Psycho obliges us to understand is that we want suture so badly that we’ll take it at any price, even with the fullest knowledge of what it entails – passive insertions into preexisting discursive positions… threatened losses and false recoveries, and subordination to the castrating gaze of a symbolic Other.” (Silverman)

“Mulvey’s argument… bears a striking resemblance to the suture theory. Both posit a cinematic adventure in which plenitude is fractured by difference and lack, only to be sealed over once again… the lack which must be both dramatized and contained finds its locus in the female body… Classic cinema abounds in shot/reverse shot formations in which men look at women.” (Silverman)

“Suture can be understood as the process whereby the inadequacy of the subject’s position is exposed in order to facilitate (create the desire for) new insertions into a cultural discourse which promises to make good that lack. Since the promised compensation involves an ever greater subordination to already existing scenarios, the viewing subject’s position is a supremely passive one, a face which is carefully concealed through cinematic sleight-of-hand… attributing to a character within the fiction qualities which in fact belong to the machinery of enunciation: the ability to generate narrative, the omnipotent and coercive gaze, the castrating authority of the law” (Silverman)

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

dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”

1982

Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.

 

dir. Douglas Sirk, “Imitation of Life”

1959

Douglas Sirk’s famous 1959 remake of the 1934 John Stahl film and 1933 Fanny Hurst novel changes a number of key features of the story. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) takes the place of the white heroine Bea Pullman, her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) replaces Jessie, and the live-in help they meet at the beach and hire are not Delilah and Peola but Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Instead of selling pancakes and syrup, Lora Meredith is selling herself here – first as a stage, then a movie actress, offering a sort of meta-commentary on film in film (Lana Turner was incredibly successful at this point, and her wardrobe of over $1 million for the film was the most expensive to date). Steve Archer (John Gavin) remains the love interest Susie falls for, but in this version, after refusing Steve for 12 years for the sake of her career, Lora decides to marry him, with Susie going off to school in Colorado to recover from her crush. In this sense, the novel hierachizes the two female leads more as masculine breadwinner and feminine domestic laborer – a “queerer couple” even than the original film. Sarah Jane runs off and changes her name after being beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is “colored.” The massive funeral of the brokenhearted Delilah comes after a trip to see Sarah Jane in L.A., where she is acting and dancing. The funeral, featuring Mahalia Jackson’s gospel singing invites us, as Lauren Berlant points out, to see the scene as satire and melodrama, which Sirk intended. It has nevertheless been read “straight” by many viewers since the film’s release. The spectacle of the funeral, more ostentatious even than any of Lora’s spectacles, reveals to the white woman the entire universe Annie has built, not with fame and notoriety, but action and commitment. The film was largely read as “soap opera” and “melodrama” and only came to be appreciated as one of Sirk’s “masterpieces” later on. The opening credits feature the song “Imitation of Life” Thomas Webster (“without love you’re only living – an imitation, an imitation of life), with weighty, faceted, rainbow-colored falling diamonds piling up and filling the screen, giving the sense of a wall of bubbles as the song concludes.

dir. John Stahl, “Imitation of Life”

1934

In this first version of Fanny Hurst’s novel, released just a year after the book, white Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in black Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter Peola as live-in help. Bea markets Delilah’s pancake recipe, literally making her “the face” (like Aunt Jemima) of the business (this unfolds in the film through 2-dimensional renderings of Delilah’s smiling face that are continually flipped over – like pancakes – emphasizing their flatness). Jessie falls in love with Stephen, Bea’s beau, and they play out a comical “Boxer and the Bobby Soxer” routine before Bea refuses him, prioritizing her daughter’s feelings, and promises to come find him when Jessie has recovered. Like the Sirk film, the early version ends with the same grand funeral for Delilah, who dies of a broken heart after Peola abandons her, but here we see Peola “accept her race” and return to her Negro college. (See Lauren Berlant on both films.)

 

dir. Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver”

1976

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), an “honorably discharged” U.S. marine, is a taxi driver in New York City. He becomes obsessed with the pure and obviously bourgeois Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but things sour on their second date, when he takes her to a dirty movie and she doesn’t want to speak to him again. Travis becomes angry and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He begins plotting to assassinate Palentine, the senator whose presidential campaign Betsy works for, and stockpiles a number of illegal weapons. He works out obsessively and practices integrating the weapons to his body, including through the use of a slider from a file cabinet running down his arm (DeNiro improvised the famous “You talking to me?” scene).

Eventually, Travis redirects his attention to the more helpless “Easy” (Jodie Foster), a twelve year-old prostitute whose real name is Iris (Easy/Iris making a neat pun on “easy on the eyes”), and whose violent and filthy world embodies the “scum and garbage” Travis is so obsessed with cleansing from the city. After killing everyone in her brothel, including her pimp, Travis mimes killing himself to the police, but cannot actually do it, since he is out of bullets. As the camera slowly pans out of the room where Iris weeps, into the staircase, down the hallway, and out into the street, finally ending in Travis’ room (covered in clippings), we learn he has become something of a hero for his actions. In the final scene of the film, we see Betsy’s disembodied face reflected in the rearview mirror of his taxi, surrounded by the flicking lights of the city (like Daisy in The Great Gatsby). She seems interested in him again, now that his violence has garnered him status, but he only gives her a free ride and drives off into the night, his eyes twitching anxiously around.

The film was made in the 1970s at a moment of urban crisis (white flight), conspiracy culture (Watergate), anxiety about children (Children’s Defense Act), and post-Vietnam cultural crisis (traumatized veterans). In particular, Travis’ transition from “copper” to “cowboy” in Sport’s eyes, “pioneering” the merging of his body with guns, and finally to renegade “Indian” (with his mohawk) for the murders, plots a particular mode of psychotic American individuality comparable to both Psycho & American Psycho. His status as an ex-marine also draws attention to a crisis of masculinity. In this sense, it would be interesting to put this film, with its slow-jazz phonograph soundtrack and dark clouds of steam, in conversation with Bladerunner & American Gigolo, which have still stronger “film noir” emphases in their depiction of seedy 1980s LA (rather than seedy 1970s).

I am also interested in thinking about how the film rewrites Lolita, with Jodie Foster as a crass pre-teen Lo, her pimp, Sport, as a sort of Quility (a “director” who lays out the sexual possibilities for Iris’ clients and tells her “If you ever liked what you were doin’ you wouldn’t be my woman), and Travis as a possessive, sociopathic Humbert Humbert who believes he is saving a girl with a wad of money and the murder of another man (a fantasy of himself as a defender, rather than an aggressor).