Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”


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.


David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”


Fiction writers like to watch, not be watched. TV is an expedient way of doing this. TV is the medicine-poison by which we watch people trained to take the pressure of millions of gazers. Even those of us who hate it – “graduate school poets” – seem to need to watch it with “weary irony” rather than “rapt credulity.”  TV has stopped pointing outside itself and become “otiose”: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” The metafiction of the sixties came out of readerly taste, and TV just caught on later.

Self-conscious irony is where TV and fiction meet. TV undercuts sight with what’s being said, rather than presenting 2 conflicting images or sayings. Television is low because people have more in common in their low taste than their refined taste. TV can be addictive though, since it can cause problems but “offers itself as relief” for those problems. We are so trained to enjoy trite TV that we discourage variation.

Postmodernism deployed materiality and brand names differently than modernism’s “dirty realism” (Joyce). Mimesis is achieved through these objects, though older writers don’t agree or see it this way. He names Nabokov as the key shift in metafiction, Pynchon as its best example, and DeLillo as its prophet (Murray and the photographed barn he can’t get outside the problem of).

Postmodern fiction is now trying to transfigure a televisual world just as that world is invulnerable to assault. In a genre he names “hyperreal” or “image-fiction,” Wallace argues authors attempt to play out a response to TV culture in their work, rather than just its representation. If realism made the strange familiar, we now need the familiar to be made strange [hysterical realism].

Wallace says, however, that image-fiction is almost always too “surfacey” a jeer at the very surfaces it critiques. TV has robbed ironists of the ability to use irony against it. US pop culture and US serious culture have always engaged the tension of the strong individual and the warm community. Earlier TV was about community, but the individual began to win out in the 80s. TV has become a medium that not only sells us separate commodities but teaches us how to look [Raymond Williams]. Commercials and shows are made to look more alike so the former are seen less as interruption [Mad Men].

TV no longer seeks our rapt attention, but flatters us for being bored by it. TV and postmodern fiction “share roots” that go both ways, Wallace insists. TV was “a hypocritical apologist” for a lost set of values in the 60s – it invited ironic readings. But irony is impossible to pin down, so how do we rebel against “TV’s aesthetic of rebellion?” We could become reactionaries against TV, or we could separate networks and viewers from the problems of the medium. He problematizes this by describing the utopian possibilities of the internet, which are imminent. If in Pynchon and DeLillo the gloom is that the pattern does not inhere, will it be one of terrible efficiency now?

He points to Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as the edge of fiction – it has swallowed not TV, but TV’s whole objective into itself. It challenges the reader to “prove you’re consumer enough” to “absorb me.” But its “ironic genuflection” to TV is just reabsorbed into TV itself. Maybe the new rebels will rebel against “ironic watching,” Wallace suggests [the New Sincerity]. Would this be “too sincere?”


Jennifer Hayward, “Consuming Pleasures”


Jennifer Hayward’s treatise on “active audiences” and serial fictions moves from Dickens to melodrama to soap operas in its scope. Hayward highlights the “low” quality of her texts: “Again we see the serial audience equated both with femininity and immaturity, and the texts themselves with pernicious social influences” 7. Yet she urges against using the master’s tools to undo the master’s house [is this really what hooks meant by that phrase?] – that is, she cautions against arguing for the uniqueness or exceptional value of some of these texts above others. Instead, she wants to consider them as potentially collaborative spaces that incorporate many characters and marginalized figures [Woloch]. “It is time to stop mourning a lost authenticity and start acknowledging – and working to increase – the real power that audiences can have over mass culture” 20. (I would like to compare this to Lauren Berlant’s use of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in The Female Complaint).

Hayward’s emphasis on the self-effacing nature of the serial is clear – Dickens, comic strips, and soap operas are not meant for preservation. (I will have to argue differently for postmodern novels and serial TV.) She flirts with the double-edged sword of gender essentialism in this chapter: “Critics such as Tania Modleski and Robert C. Allen have seen soaps’ decentered narratives and refusal of closure as reflecting essential differences between male and female ways of knowing and experience of temporality… obstacles between desire and fulfillment” 141. However, “the trope of refusal of closure reflects the material conditions of generic development” in the soap, and we should stop before we diachronically represent all female production in a certain vein 141. What she focuses on is the fact that most soaps are still focused on women and written by women, and that women still collaboratively read, write, and respond to them 143. She concludes:

“Serial producers and consumers actively appropriate what has long been perceived as a junk genre and recycle it, transforming it to satisfy audience desire for a collaborative narrative experience. Because of their continued accountability to consumers, inscribing responsiveness to audiences within the production process, serials may offer cultural models for material transformation, models that come not from the directives of academic critics, not from marginal pockets of cultural resistance, but from within mass culture itself as a result of the influence of fans’ voices over time… a past that allows a viable future” 196.


Raymond Williams, “Television”


In this text, still a staple of televisual studies, Williams investigates the cause-effect relationship between television and the social changes it has allegedly wrought on our world. He considers whether the technology itself is accidental, or whether its uses and manipulations are unique to it as a medium [the internet’s TV outgrowth would seem to support this]. Both views hand the agency to TV itself – technological determinism. This is opposed to another class of opinion, less determinist – that TV is an “element or medium in a process of change that is in any case occurring or about to occur” 6. Technologies are symptoms, more than agents, of change here: symptomatic technology.

Williams proposes a third view – more intentional than the chanciness of technological determinism and more directly feeding social needs and purposes than the symptomatic reading. Whereas in fascism, broadcasting would be used for “direct political and social control” [arguably Communist too, Williams!], in capitalism it focuses on economics 18. Television both fills a purpose of capitalism and is taken advantage of for purposes of capitalism.

In the most famous chapter of the book, Williams presents TV programming as “sequence or flow” 86. [Suture again?] The intervals between programming, once filled by some signifier that the signal was still active, have been filled in by commercial advertising 90.

“What is being offered is not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with particular insertions, but a planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items but this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence, so that these sequences together compose the real flow, the real ‘broadcasting'” 91.

Williams examines the flow in detail and finds links between the kinds of programmes and commercials between them and the potential connections a viewer would make: “this is the flow of meanings and values of a specific culture” 120 [faceting].

dir. Chantal Ackerman, “Jeanne Dielman”


Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a 1975 film by director Chantal Ackerman. 3 hours and 20 minutes in length, the film shows 3 days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian widow and housewife with one grown son, a university student, who sleeps at home and for whom Jeanne is still financially responsible. Jeanne fills her days from morning to night with the same routine she kept when her husband was alive, going to the market, making tea at a certain time, making particular meals on certain days (Ackerman said in an interview that “she didn’t need a man to go on living in that same way because she was so imprinted”). To make ends meet, she babysits for the neighbor in the morning and sleeps with men between 5 and 5:30 on weekday evenings. On the second day, Jeanne begins to “slip up” and make small mistakes in her routine (dropping a spoon, overcooking the potatoes), which rattles her. On the third day, she ends up with a span of free time because of some more slip-ups and sits in her living room in a restless panic. In the final sequence of the film, she reluctantly orgasms during sex with her client, fixes her hair in the mirror, takes a pair of scissors from the drawer, and stabs her customer to death.

The film is a little over the top in its feminist twist on Lacan (Ackerman said that her “unconscious” starts to come through when Jeanne’s schedule deteriorates and she makes her “slip-ups”), but it is a fascinating exploration of what “the female gaze” is, or what women are outside of their symbolic or exhibitionist value for men. The tiresome repetition with a difference is reminiscent of Stein, though the payoff in the ending here is much more shocking. This is certainly another ‘flat’ film in its shooting, though not in exactly the same way as some of the others. There are very few long shots or closeups in Jeanne Dielman; instead, most of the action unfolds in the mid-range shot typical of TV. The camera is conspicuous through its very lack of movement – we become aware of it because it does not follow Jeanne’s face. It is often positioned so that she is exactly at the center of a head-on meatloaf-mashing session, directly overhead during sex, or squarely off to the side of the kitchen, where she enters in and out of the frame as she continues her routine. It is this very passivity (itself a “feminine trait”) that makes us aware of how little of a woman’s world a movie actually shows, and absorbs us (again, in a yonic mode) in the non-action the film portrays.

Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.

Linda Williams: Chapters 6 & Conclusion, “Screening Sex”



Williams focuses on Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as “primal scenes” in American cinema. “Lynch’s sex scenes are audacious, less for their explicitness than for the unsettling feelings they generate” 223. For young viewers in the 90s, Williams argues, Lynch’s film was a kind of parallel to the European avant-garde films she herself encountered ‘not exactly at the right time.’ She turns to Freud’s focus on the “primal fantasies” of “the child watching parental coitus… the child’s seduction by a parent (usually the son by the mother); and the scene of the threat of castration (usually… the son by the father)… as a kind of prehistoric ‘phylogenetic’ truth (the individual’s ontologenic memory of the species) that underlay psychic reality” 225. “The origin of desire is the enigma around which our Blue Velvet examples circle” 226. “Lynch’s multiple variations on the primal fantasies of the origin of sexuality are a tour de force of a new perverse sexual ritualism introduced into mainstream American cinema” 235 (think of American Psycho).

“Jameson identifies Blue Velvet’s violence and sadomasochism as the postmodern debasement of an earlier 1960s-style transgression… its postmodern play with an evil… that is merely a simulacrum and no longer really scary… a parable of the end of the sixties, ‘a parable of the end of theories of transgression as well, which so fascinated that whole period and its intellectuals.’ In a sense, Jameson is right… films that usher in violent originary fantasies in the late eighties are not politically transgressive in a 1960s, modernist way. But does that mean, as Jameson seems to say, that their sex is therefore pseudotransgressive in a postmodernist way that is historically inauthentic, unimportant, basically not sexy?… In place of Jameson’s dismissal of such films as mere symptoms of the loss of the sixties, we do better to take the primal scene seriously as the popular staging of a new kind of sex scene for a generation no longer aligned with the high-culture Marquis de Sade or with an idea of sexual liberation suited to the antirepressive ideologies of the 1960s. When Foucault writes that ‘modern society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism… in actual fact, and directly, perverse,’ he describes a general tedency to isolate, intensify, incite, consolidate, and implant ‘peripheral sexualities’… Sadomasochistic perversions and sexual fantasies that partake of originary fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene begin to become ‘stuck’ in the eighties American popular culture through these films… a new understanding of sex as a desubjectified scene… the injunction to the audience in a film which… forbade a more direct look at sex” 236.

Turning to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Williams states: “If sadomasochistic pleasures in American movies are now recognized as pleasures, however complicated they may be with pain, anal sex between men has previously been recognized, if at all, as only pain and humiliation, especially to the one penetrated” 237. The film became “something very much like a primal scene’s first witnessing of a sex act initially understood by the inexperienced child as pain and only later as pleasure” 237. Williams cites D.A. Miller’s complaint that the film focuses on scenes of spying by the women as “vitrified” by “views of ‘the Homosexual’ viewed by another character through glass” 238. Perhaps Miller would “prefer this ‘gay love story’ to come more overtly out of a self-recognized gay culture rather than at least partly out of Proulx’s heterosexual female imagination of sexual desires that do not, at their point of emergence, acknowledge themselves as gay” 238. Miller explicitly finds the film far less radical, for example, than European cinema. “I argue, to the contrary, that by staging a mythical primal scene in which homosexual desire emerges from something that does not preexist, and in also staging the threat of castration against which it emerges, that this Hollywood film precisely does not reduce homosexuality to a minoritized problem but makes it a fear, and a desire, sympathetically, and even melodramatically, felt by all” 238. It is, for Williams, about how Americans “paid attention to themselves watching it” 239. (Think of the melodramatic implications of Jack Twist dying because he is more “out,” while Ennis Del Mar lives in a closeted way.)

Williams turns to the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas case (based on the Bowers v. Hardwick case of 1986), which asserted privacy as a right over the illegality of sodomy. It is interesting that the call of the wilderness in this American film parallels a call to sexuality (my idea: the space is normally free of women – adventure-land of homosociality, versus homosexuality) 242. Their initial seduction involves the masculine tropes of not looking, of not speaking, finally of wrestling and “facing off” that ends in Ennis’ violent taking charge – we hear more than we see of this union 246. In Proulx’s story and the film what Ennis “wants none of” is passivity – he makes himself the “male” in the act accordingly. Daniel Mendelsohn argues that the uniqueness of the film is to highlight the self-hatred in this barrier-crossing that does not occur in films that pose “familial or ethnic impediments” to sexual union 247. Castration figures literally here, not only in the internalized fears of homosexual killings and beatings, but in fact the act of castrating cattle. Proulx writes that Ennis’ shirt is “one inside the other, two in one” in Jack’s in the final trailer scene 249 (also an interesting parallel of the penetrative act). Unlike the fetish of blue velvet, however, these will not stimulate Ennis sexually: “We might call it a fetish that works in the service of melodrama to evoke the acute sense of loss… an avowal of love that is both too little and too late” 251. When Ennis switches the shirts, it acts as a sort of “outing” for Williams, serving as a juxtaposition of Jack embracing Ennis as he breaks down, versus a previously unseen tender scene of Ennis embracing Jack from behind 252.

While critic Daniel Mendelsohn found the marketing unseemly in its avoidance of publicizing the homosexuality in the film, producer James Shamus insisted “that the film is both a love story and a gay story, and that it solicits every audience member’s identification with the film’s central gay characters” 254 (think about Toni Morrison’s similar move?). “In their debate, Mendelsohn and Shamus occupy the two binary positions laid out by Eve Sedgwick’s influential study, The Epistemology of the Closet, the always inadequate either-or of a minoritizing gay desire particular to a specific group of actual homosexuals (Mendelsohn’s claim) and a universalizing view that sees homosexual desire in relation to that of other sexualities (Shamus’ claim)… Shamus’ claim… of ‘shattering the ‘epistemology of the closet”” 254. However, “the closet constitutes a place of deep contradiction not easily shattered,” so if the film is “about the epistemology of the closet, then it cannot be about a proud proclaiming of gay love, a definitive emergence from the closet into the bright light of day. If the film is the product of a postcloset world, it is looking back on an era of the closet… Ultimately, this movie’s depiction of the closet concerns some rather small rearrangements of what hangs inside… important… that it does not aim to show us a bold image of illicit desire, but instead the tension between desire and the fear that inhibits but also eroticizes it” 255. (Me: In other words, it inducts gay love into the same tradition of taboo that heterosexual love has celebrated?) “We do not know how gay desire suddenly becomes speakable or representable in a culture… Human sexuality… seems always to be caught between the too early and the too late occurrence of the event” 257.


Since porn is “now consigned to a space of supposed privacy and is not acknowledged as part of the cultural mainstream, it has become a kind of elephant in the room… treated as unofficial knowledge” 300. The private space of the home has become more public as it is connected to home viewing, the internet, etc. and “Conversely, what was once considered public (the movie theater) can now be brought into the home… a world of many small screens” that are mobile as well 300. Williams returns to Edison’s 1896 film, which received little attention “in the small peephole device of the Kinetoscope” but far more attention when projected on the big screen. If the big-screen movie depends on the “gulf” between viewer and screen necessary to take in the image, what of the small screen’s affordances? “Film-makers love to vilify the small screen experience… solitary, obsessed men become even more antisocial through their absorption into the small television screen” 303 (recall the argument that it is vaginal!). Williams considers how shows like SEx and the City & The L-Word have remade sex on the screen, focusing on TV’s soft-core sex is similar to coitus interruptus. The “hard-core” sex of Tell Me that You Love Me” is “new” – where would we place Girls?

“The onetime ‘vice’ of ‘onanism’ no longer carries the stigma of self-pollution that Thomas Laqueur tells us it quite suddenly acquired in the early eighteenth century… However, event he more recent rehabilitation of solitary sex has been an uneven process,” emphasizing masturbating women, not men 305. TV’s situation in the home invites masturbation, as does, perhaps, its more ‘life-size’ depictions 305. The fear that the internet “user” will replace cyberporn with real intimacy peaked in 1995 in a Time article depicting a man embracing (penetrating?) a glowing computer monitor, whose “lips” seem enormous (SURFACES). “Home screens have grown larger, movie theaters have grown smaller, and mobile screens and now touch screens of laptops, cell phones, and iPods complicate the whole issue by bringing the once private, small screen out into a public space that is simultaneously more privatized” 309 (think about TOUCH/TACT here!).

Williams turns to Sobchack, who “asserts that the only thing that holds identity together in this regime [of the digital] is the ongoing affirmation of our connections to these media themselves. In this flattened, superficial space lacking both temporal thickness and bodily investment, the dominant ‘techno-logic’ or the electronic leaves us diffused and disembodied” 310. However, Williams points out, “we become habituated to this screening and to our sympathetic relations to the sex of others as a kind of carnal knowledge felt in our own bodies. The techniques of cinema have led us to an embodied relation to movies that allows us to play with these moving images even while sitting immobile in our theater seats or holding an image on a mobile device in our laps. My irreducible bodily basis of experience has thus been conditioned by the technical dimension of movies. ‘Mixed reality’ is [Mark] Hansen’s term for the fact that there is no escape ‘into’ the virtual, no leaving the body behind, no complete going through the virtual window – only increased awareness of imaging, and of active relations to images, as an originary element of our organism’s very being” 311 (SURFACES).

Interestingly, in the cyberporn with Jenna Jameson that Williams explores, the Innocent/Nasty buttons seem to denote nothing more than the difference between descriptive (“That feels good”) and prescriptive (“Jam your fingers in”) – in other words, “just polite” and “just a woman who bluntly commands what she wants”) 317. This is free of the linear narrative of porn, but also of Sobchack’s “gravity” of “moral and physical… real-world consequences” 317. (Is this also bizarre in the extent to which it makes a woman purely manipulable, endlessly inexhausible?) Like other porn, it ends on a money shot (click ORG) with CGI’s impossible proportions 318. “It is tempting to agree with Baudrillard and all the other harbingers of the condition of the post-human that such a  patently fake sexual effect mixing real body and CGI cannot be good for real human sex” 320. It is at least true that phallic pleasures continue to dominate on/scene, but free amateur porn is changing this.

For Williams, Benjamin “is the scholar who has most eloquently articulated how closeness and reproducibility work against qualities of uniqueness and aura” 321. Going back to Schauer’s argument, which Williams defended film against, is it true of new media? Are they nothing more than sex aids encouraging mimicry? No, for Williams – the viewer and object are closer, but the divide never closes. “Utopian faith in the possibilities of virtual reality sometimes suggests that a break with the culture of the screen is imminent as once passive, immobile spectators become active and mobile… Whatever mimesis occurs in our bodies is never the kind of slavish imitation Schauer imagines. What we see in that same or other time and distant (but now closer) space may rebound back upon our own bodies in the more solipsistic and masturbatory way Sobchack describes, or it may, as Benjamin held out, offer an imaginative form of play that can lead us back into the world” 324. Williams ends by arguing that

“The publication of sex… has never been a making public of that which properly belongs to the private… Publicity is not necessarily the exposure of something that is more properly private…[it] is promiscuous, it exposes us to, it involves us with, others, even and perhaps especially others who are not physically present to us there with us in the same time and space. The carnal knowledge that we gain from screening sex is, finally, not a matter of seeing ‘it.’ … arriving at an ultimate degree… we cannot cure the dishonesty and bad faith about sex with more explicitness. And however much I would root for the sight of a few more convulsing clitorises to answer the seeming ubiquity of money shots, I do not really believe that more realistic depictions of female pleasure are the answer… the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality. The point, therefore, should not be to discover that screening sex brings us so much closer, spatially or temporally, to ‘real sex.’ Rather, it should be to discover that viewers, and now users, have become habituated to these new forms of mimetic play with, and through, screens… an opportunity to see and to know what has not previously been seen so closely. This carnal knowledge never fully reveals the scratch we imagine ‘it’ to be, but the itch that keeps us screening” 325.

I love this ending’s play on embodiment, the prolongation of the itch, the Foucauldian implications of proliferating discourse, the never-quite-arrival (comparable to affects like paranoia and the language arts), and also the idea that there is always something we haven’t seen (here’s where Girls & Mad Men seem particularly interesting – one for showing sex now that we haven’t seen, one for imposing – perhaps even problematically – on history a sexual intensity heretofore dissociated with our screened visions of the past.)

Linda Williams, Chapter 1: “Screening Sex”



Kisses “no longer carry the burden – or the enormous electrical charge – of being the whole of sex that can be seen. The movie kisses of the era before the 1960s sexual revolution were both more infantile and more adolescent than the kisses of today – infantile in their orality and adolescent in their way of being permanently poised on the brink of carnal knowledge” 26.

“What is its role as textual punctuation – as period, comma, question mark, and, most important, as the dot, dot, dot of ellipsis?” 27. Edison’s 1896 film is the first recorded kiss, and Williams describes its necessary theatricality, in which the actors are torn “between the necessary close contact between bodies and the requirement to make that contact visible” 29. It is also like later sex in that it could be called ‘gratuitous’ 29. “What seems to be at stake is a visceral attraction or repulsion on the part of viewers. Fragmentation, repetition, and magnification make possible an anatomization that turns the kiss of The Widow Jones stage play into a culturally new combination of prurience and pedagogy… a new kind of sexual voyeurism unleashed by moving pictures” 30.

Williams goes on to describe “What Happened in the Tunnel,” a screened kiss between a man and a black maid (he thinks he’s kissing her mistress) in the darkened interval of a train going through a tunnel 31. This is an example of a kiss deemed “obscene,” since interracial kisses would not come “on/scene” until much later (think of the threat of the interracial kisses in Birth of a Nation) 31.

Williams next considers the era of the Hollywood Production Code, from 1934 (“when the code began actually to be enforced) to 1966 (when the ratings system took hold) 33. “Eroticism, as George Bataille teaches, can be surprisingly complicit with the law, or the morals, that prohibit it” 34. In the case of Casablanca, the film’s famous song emphasizes that “a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh,” and the film does not aid its viewer in imagining the sexual act that might follow or accompany the kiss 35. Because of the 3-point lighting system so famous in Hollywood cinema, “all white women in Hollywood films glow with a light that works to purify the darker lusts their kisses may evoke” 37. Williams calls the constant interruption of such kisses osculum interruptum, with similar connotations to coitus interruptus 38. If “ellipsis is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a word or words required by strict grammatical rules are omitted… the missing words are implied by the context… Ellipses are especially frequent and felt as ellipses – noticed as dot, dot, dot – when they elide sex acts” 39-40.

“Sexual desire ultimately exists in this, and many other Code-era films so that it may be sublimated to a more purified, ideological and aesthetic ‘good’ – whether the good of the family or, in this case, the good of the American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual pleasure as positive values in themselves have no legitimate, acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges… the special, perverse pleasure of watching sex in movies of this period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for this reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous…” 41.

For Williams, much of the erotic tension comes from the “internal resistance” of the male hero to the kiss in question, such as the one Jimmy Stewart succumbs to in It’s A Wonderful Life 42. Williams draws attention to how the mouth’s function to suck is highlighted in the silent eros of Garbo in Flesh and the Devil 45. The focus on the kiss is a sort of ironic lingering in the phase of the Freudian perversion to avoid showing the obscene, which is actually, for Freud, the normal aim of any erotic encounter 47.

The eros of the kiss lies at least partly in the fact that “unlike so many other se acts that depend on penetration – one convex organ fitting into another concave one – the kiss is a contact in which one can touch the other with the same body parts – lips, tongue, mucous membrane – with which one is touched oneself” 49. (Interestingly, this suggests the fascination with lesbian scissoring in porn.) Williams, in fact, claims that “one reason why women are the great connoisseurs of romantic kisses” may be “not, as has sometimes been suggested, because of an innate female predilection for soft-core, soft-focus romanticism, but because kisses are so potentially egalitarian. There are few other (equipmentless) sexual acts in which a woman can be both penetrator and penetrated” 49. A kiss is a sexual act, but also alludes to one.

Hitchcock seems to “get away” with screening bigger, longer, and more frequent kisses than other Code-era directors 56. Williams points to the scene in Proust when Marcel is dismayed to see Albertine break down into fragments as he approaches her, which is different, she argues, from the cinematic kiss, where the viewer never suffers the intimate fragmentation that the actual kisser would 57. This translates as a “diffuse sensuality” in us, rather than an actual mimic of the kiss 57 (“viewers have responded viscerally, though not necessarily imitatively, to what they see 63). Warhol’s 1963 Kiss was the first of his films to be projected in a theater 58. It consists of 13 kisses, each longer than the last, adding up to 58 minutes total (slowed to a ritardando 16 frames per second). All the kisses are in progress when the camera begins filming, and all but one continue after the camera stops. Warhol wrote that “se is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway” 61. (I like this between the sheets pun.) The film, overall, explores the limits of the kiss, but also disrupts the Hollywood tradition, showing more active and diverse kinds of kissers.

In the end, as the code faded, violence flourished and became a fully American expression, while sex often seemed like “an import item” 64. While violence was always fake, sex could be hardcore (unsimulated) or softcore (faked) 64. “A certain spectacle of violence revealing the aggression to or penetration of one body by another – in the form of various kinds of fights, along with displays of blood, wounds, and even inner organs – has become a normal part of the movies. However, the mainstream has not as easily absorbed a similar spectacle of sex – also often a penetration of bodies – even though in its own exclusive form, cordoned off as the separate genre of pornography, it is arguable the most enduring and popular of all moving-image forms” 64-5. (Interesting to think of Lolita & American Psycho here.) The “ecstatic body ‘beside itself'” is also mirrored in both acts – why should one be simulated and the other not? For Bazin, at least, art must remain in the realm of the imaginary, and sex can unfold in the cinema rather than theater precisely because it is a sort of imaginary space 66. Why, too, should the novel “tell all” if the cinema cannot “show all”?

Linda Williams, Introduction: “Screening Sex”


“Much has been written about the way we lose ourselves or identify with those glorious, magnified images of human bodies in movement on the ‘silver’ screen; much less has ben written about the ways we reencounter our own bodies, and our own sensuality, in that process… Sex in movies… distances us from the immediate, proximate experience of touching and feeling with our own bodies, while at the same time bringing us back to feelings in those same bodies” 2-3. Williams claims that while the novel began to describe sex explicitly in the 1920s and on (she cites mostly white male authors – Joyce, Lawrence, Miller, Updike, Roth, McEwan – though Toni Morrison is there), the “American movie experienced what I will call… a long adolescence… carnal facts of life were carefully – often absurdly – elided, but also, as a result, much wondered about 2. “Today, we epect that to know what sex a person likes to screen is a clue to the kind of lover he or she might want or might want to be” 2. Williams explains that this hinges on the use of “to screen as both revelation and concealment” 2. “We must keep the stress on imagination. This story is never a matter of a teleological progression toward a final, clear view of ‘it,’ as if it preexisted and only needed to be laid bare… not a stable truth… a constructed, mediated, performed act and every revelation is also a concealment that leaves something to the imagination” 2.

Williams begins by comparing two 2005 films – Pride and Prejudice and Pirates. In the first, the last scene (interestingly only in the American version, which Williams does not note!) shows the couple at leisure sharing an intimate kiss in their nightclothes, and nothing else. In the second, “the most expensive porn ever made,” the only elisions are made as the figures rearrange themselves – the sex is prolonged and staged for maximum visibility 4. “How did movies arrive at this juncture, not only of these two, conveniently opposed, examples of concealing and revealing sex, but of art house, mainstream, adult, simulated, and graphic instances of sex screened today on big and little screens?” 5. (Think about how Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley does both!) Williams is concerned with the “gratuitous” in moving image culture – that which has come nonetheless to define narratives (whether a character achieves orgasm) and ruin videotapes and DVDs (from overplaying specific parts) 7. (This would be interesting to compare to Foucault, given his concern with the proliferating discourses of sex.)

“Acts once considered ob-scene (literally off scene) because they had the capacity to arouse have come “on/scene.” I have coined the term on/scene to describe the way in which discussions and representations once deemed obscene… have insistently cropped up, and not only in the realm of pornography. In the face of the pervasive and nearly ubiquitous presence of many different kinds of visible and audible sexual acts and sexual scenes we should cease futile arguments about the definition of the obscene. We should consider, rather, the dialectic between revelation and concealment that operates at any given moment in the history of moving-image sex… It is a waste of time to blame the increased sexualization of all aspects of American life on the rise of pornography. The now pervasive influence of pornography needs to be viewed, rather, as part of a much larger proliferation of all manners of screening sex, from chaste kisses to the most graphic and frenetic of penetrations… a social and cultural history of sex ” 7.

Williams ties the sexual revolution of the 60s to previous developments in cultural and technological change, an “antiwar, antiracist, anticapitalist… antipatriarchal activity,” and work in psychology and social studies by Alfred Kinsey, Wilhelm Reich, and William Masters & Virginia Johnson 8. Williams points out that the kinetoscope and Edison’s early film of the kiss (1896) indeed functioned to displace the idea of sexuality as primarily reproductive and replace it as potentially pleasurable. It was not, however, a fullblown revolution of the kind that took place between the mid-60s and the mid-70s, when the majority of Americans shifted to no longer condemning premarital sex 9. In the feminist debates on pornography in the 70s, Williams points out the need to quote and detail sexual positions, acts, and images 10. This forms speaking sex, Williams’ idea that “speaking about sex presumes a stable object of invesigation; speaking sex implies that the very speaking forms part of sex’s discursive construction, and discourses of sexuality proliferated exponentially in the midst of intensifying sex wars and pornography debates” 10. The book is interested “not so much in how behaviors changed but in how movies did” 10. (Again, how does this jive with Foucault’s notion in the 80s that the sexual revolution did not exactly effect such large changes?)

The line between private and public was constantly renegotiated (homosexuality became a “private” concern while spousal abuse became a “public” one) 11. There is “a dynamic tension between the two categories that prove essential to the analysis of this book: revelation, on one hand, and a newly discovered right to concealment, on the other” 11. Part of this has to do with the feminist critique of the possibilities of sexuality for women. “The story told here will thus not be that of a triumphant march toward unfettered sexual freedom. For with sexual revolution came a new increase in sexual discipline – a greater control over and monitoring of the sexual body as we came to expect to see, hear, and know more about it” 11. A history of screening sex is not “a simple rise of explicitness,” for what is “viscerally strange and intractable about sex” are “the  many ways in which it does not submit itself to visual and aural explicitness, its incoherence, its troubling enigmas” 11. What is going all the way? How do we know sex when we see it now?

“Sex screened since the sixties has become more graphic in some ways, but it has also become more heterogenous and theoretically elusive” 12.

“Foucault understands sexuality not as a force of libido to be repressed or liberated, but as a discursive form of entwined power, knowledge, and pleasure. His proposed history of sexuality, never actually written as outlined in this first volume, was to have been a history of proliferating discourses of sexuality centered on historically emerging figures: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the homosexual. The force of Foucault’s thesis is to minimize the existence of sex as a preexisting thing – say as the repressed drive of psychoanalytic theory – and to see instead how apparatuses of sexuality wrap around the body and its sexual organs to produce different kinds of pleasures and relations of alliance” 12.

His challenge to Freud’s ‘repressive hypothesis’ “deflated the understanding of the sexual revolution as liberation… we flatter ourselves if we think that by speaking sex, we overcome its prohibitions and therefore liberate it” 12-13. “We cling to the notion of sex as repressed” to believe in its utopian potential 13.

“We need to think of the more slippery relations between a power that does not come from on high to repress but comes from below to conjoin discourses of knowledge and pleasure… It is in the spirit of this putting-into-discourse of an intertwined power-knowledge-pleasure that I hope to relate the history of screening sex. The rise of sexual explicitness in the movies cannot be viewed as a transgressive exception to the rules of previous repression, but as the continuation, in Foucault’s sense, of a larger discursive explosion of perverse sexualities… Fellatio, prolonged and multiple female orgasm, sadomasochistic excitement, and homosexual relations – all have clear moments of emergence in the mainstream and the marginal history of screening sex and all will be traced in this study, not as liberating transgressions, but as the two-edged swords of liberation and further disciplinary control” 13.

Williams does not abandon psychoanalysis completely for Foucault, however. Her notion of the “long adolescence” of film concerns the “latent sexual knowledge in which movies seemed to simultaneously know and not know about the existence of sex” 14. Williams lingers on Freud’s own hesitation about “perversions,”  where Freud admits as normal those forms of lingering which serve to build necessary tension for the ultimate act. Williams would like to use this “for analyzing the activation of new cinematic erogenous zones” 13. “Bataille explains the erotic in terms of the tension between continuity and discontinuity, rather than between individual and society or between nature and culture, as Freud does” 15. “The truly successful erotic transgression is one that maintains the emotional force of the prohibition” 15.

“How are our bodies engaged through vision and sound in a kind of vicarious touch, taste, smell?” 15. This accessibility of the once-intimate act hearkens back to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility,” representing “profound changes in apperception that have severed earlier practices of auratic and distanced contemplation such as painting. Yet when it comes to the reception of sexual contents, culture critics and legal scholars often fail to invoke the lessons of theorists like Benjamin and Taussig and confuse contact with literal touch” 16. Williams points out that some scholars hold that highly or perfectly mimetic porn should not be protected under the First Amendment because it is essentially a sex aid, even a sex act 16. Williams insists on the “medium that necessarily distances the viewer” 16. “Schauer thus ginores what Benjamin appreiciates: we do not simply imitate what we see, we play with it too. Getting hold of something by means of its reproduced likeness is not the same as getting hold of the thing itself” 17. While many scholars read Benjamin’s piece as defending the way the shock of cinema is an antidote to the shocks of modern life (and this runs the risk of an endless cycle of one-upping shock values), Miriam Hansen holds on the idea of innervation, edited out of Benjamin’s third and final draft 17.

For Hansen, we are less concerned with the energy output of ourselves than the input from the outside world. This concept “allows us to see mimesis as a two-way process, one taking in, but also reconverting ‘psychic energy through motoric stimulation’ to extend back out toward the world… our bodies both take in sensation and then reverse the energy of that reception to move back out to the outside world… instead of just absorbing shock, in this case the shock of eros, the body is energized as what Hansen calls a ‘porous interface betweent the organism and the world'” 18.

“In Foucault’s terms we are disciplined into new forms of socialized arousal in the company of others, but in (Hansen’s understanding of) Benjamin’s terms we are more than just disciplined; we may also learn to play at sex the way a child might play at being a windmill or a train by incorporating more subtle forms of psychic energy through motoric stimulation…a way of habituating our bodies to a newly sexualized world in which vicarious forms of sexual pleasure are now on/scene. The mimetic faculty is a kind of tactile training that habituates viewers to adapt to changing environments. What is lost in the decay of the aura is potentially gained, then, in the scope of play – a play that is, as Benjamin puts it, ‘widest in film'” 18.

What if we consider Deep Throat as a perfect example of mimetic sexuality, which in 1972 had the same power to shock as Edison’s kiss in 1896?  We play with all kinds of sexual experiences, and imagination is as much a part of viewing porn as viewing Pride & Prejudice: “even if movies do seem to invite us to crudely mimic the acts they show, our bodies are not quite the mechanistic mimics that Schauer imagines” 19. Consider Sobchack’s mode of reading cinema as a series of “embodiment relations” 19. Sobchack “conceives embodied viewing as an intentional arc that originates not with the world but with the spectator… her body’s intentional trajectory ‘will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible,’ which is her own ‘subjectively felt lived body'” 20. This is neither an identification with the male gaze or a Cartesian distancing from the object 21.

“Our entire sensorium is activated synesthetically, all the more so… when the moving image shows two (or more) beings touching, tasting, smelling, and rubbing up against one another… With Benjamin and Hansen’s innervation, then, we have a model for taking in energy through motoric stimulation that extends back toward the world, and with Sobchack’s rebound we have a model for taking energy from the image back into the self… screened sex has always been and is now even more central to our culture; whether it leads to Sobchack’s commuted, diffuse encounter with one’s own flesh, or to Hansen’s Benjaminian notion of one’s body as a ‘porous interface’ extending back toward the world” 20-21.

The book will begin with the kiss, a section on thirteen kisses from Edison’s in 1896 to Warhol’s in 1963. The second chapter moves to the possible, even requisite sex scenes of later films, beginning with The Graduate. The third chapter considers Last Tango In Paris and Deep Throat. The fourth addresses Jane Fonda as a woman whose “orgasms mattered” in film. The fifth chapter focuses on In the Realm of the Senses, a fusion of hard-core and erotica. The sixth addresses Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as primal scenes, stagings of the taboo in America’s heartland. The seventh chapter reads contemporary hard-core art film. In her conclusion, Williams will consider the small screen and the interactivity of the spectator and cyberporn.

Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”


Chapter 1: Modernity & the Problem of the Observer

Crary identifies the medieval/Renaissance split, the mid-19th century, and the present as moments of “a transformation in the nature of visuality” 1. The first improves mimesis, the second perfects it, and the third surpasses it. The focus of the book is on the “reorganization of vision” that created “a new kind of observer” in the first half of the 19th century, vis a vis new relations between the body and institutional/discursive power (re: Foucault) 3. Crary calls “the myth of the modernist rupture” the narrative that aligns Manet and the “end of perspectival space” with what would become modernist art, severing it from visual technologies like photography that are considered as a “continuous unfolding of a Renaissance-based mode of vision” 4. For Crary, however, a fundamental shift in modes of vision took place before these changes in art or technology, so that the two realms are “overlapping components of a single social surface” 5. The observing subject is “both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification” 5.

It’s useful to consider that Crary deliberately uses “observer,” rather than “spectator,” emphasizing the individual’s role in “complying” with certain codes of seeing, whereas the latter is more commonly used to emphasize the passivity of “looking” on as the passive recipient of the mass spectacle 5. In terms of faceting,

“What determines vision at any given historical moment is not some deep structure, economic base, or world view, but rather the functioning of a collective assemblage of disparate parts on a single social surface. It may even be necessary to consider the observer as a distribution of events located in many different places” 6. (Note: read Paul Feyerabend, Problems of Empiricism, vol 2 p 5).

Crary’s mode seeks to outline the “hegemonic” transformation of how the “observer was figured” in the nineteenth century, largely from the shift from the camera obscura of the 17th and 18th centuries to the stereoscope of the 19th century 7-8. Oddly enough, the “realism” created by the stereoscope and similar instruments is constituted from “a radical abstraction and reconstruction of optical experience, thus demanding a reconsideration of what ‘realism’ means in the nineteenth century” 9. Further, Crary maps a development of the “subjective vision… the productivity of the observer,” which was suppressed by the 17th and 18th centuries, brought to light by visionary Romantics (see M.H. Abrams – “The Mirror & the Lamp), and brought to bear on the potential for individual “seeing” in the 19th century, making that subject both “a product of and at the same time constitutive of modernity” 9.

Crary cites Baudrillard (“measurable in terms of objects and signs”) and Benjamin (“the phantasmagoria of equality”) on the need to measure and quantify the happiness capitalism was meant to guarantee in visual terms (what Adorno calls “Anschaulichkeit,” the reification of the visible 139 AT) 11. For Baudrillard (like Benjamin in “Mechanical Reproduction”), the serial production of objects creates a world in which there is no longer original and counterfeit, analogy, or reflection, but sheer equivalence 12. Crary goes so far as to make photography and money equivalent as well, in that they “are equally totalizing systems for binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valuation and desire. As Marx said of money, photography is also a great leveler, a democratizer, a ‘mere symbol,’ a fiction ‘sanctioned by the so-called universal consent of mankind'” 13.

Crary’s book, however, precedes photography itself, contending that the stereoscope and phenakistiscope entail “an uprooting of vision from the stable and fixed relations incarnated in the camera obscura” 14 (shift from geometrical to physiological optics 16). He cites Foucault on how “dispersed mechanisms of power coincide with new modes of subjectivity” in the 19th century to emphasize the importance of “normality” and “codes of behavior” 15-16. The limits of such “norms” were tested with “retinal afterimages, peripheral vision, binocular vision, and thresholds of attention… imposing a normative vision on the observer” 16. (See Foucault: “Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance… we are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage but in the Panoptic machine” D&P 217, as well as Deleuze’s Foucault 46 and Rajchman’s “Foucault’s Art of Seeing” 1988.) For Crary, “spectacle” and “surveillance” can coincide before the full emergence of the 20th century spectacle, namely in the “discipline or mode of work” that visual consumption itself becomes in the early 19th century 18.

If, for Debord (18), visuality, the most easily deceived sense, severs itself from touch, once the most precious of senses, this autonomizes sight, isolating vision and giving its objects “a mystified and abstract identity” 19. In The Arcades Project, we see Benjamin, a 20th century observer mapping 19th century developments, observe

“a convergence of new urban spaces, technologies, and new economic and symbolic functions of images and products – forms of artificial lighting, new use of mirrors, glass and steel architecture, railroads, museums, gardens, photography, fashion, crowds. Perception for Benjamin was acutely temporal and kinetic; he makes clear how modernity subverts even the possibility of a contemplative beholder. There is never a pure access to a single object; vision is always multiple, adjacent to and overlapping with other objects, desires, and vectors” 20.

In this world, modernity “coincides with the collapse of classical models of vision and their stable space of representations… observation is increasingly a question of equivalent sensations and stimuli that have no reference to a spatial location” 24. (Think about how this would relate to Jameson & postmodernism.) At the same time, situating visuality in the individual body opens it up for training, control, and prevention from distraction – “disciplinary techniques” through which capitalism resorts vision to “time, to flux, to death” 24.

Chapter 2: The Camera Obscura & Its Subject

“It has been known for at least two thousand years that when light passes through a small hole into a dark, enclosed interior, an inverted image will appear on the wall opposite the hole” 27. But from the 1500s to the 1700s, the artifact itself of the camera obscura “coalesced into a dominant paradigm through which was described the status and possibilities of an observer” 27 – “in both rationalist and empiricist thought, of how observation leads to truthful inferences about the world” 29. (Think about how this relates to Kant’s idealism and the essential unknowability of the object, versus the potential universality of the comprehending subject.)

By the 19th century, for Marx, Bergson, and Freud, the camera obscura becomes a tool to conceal or disguise truth 29. What changed? Well, if the camera obscura defined hegemonic vision as individuation and askesis (isolated, witndrawn from the world into darkness), it is also a representation of a “metaphysic of interiority,” a “free sovereign individual” and a “decorporealize[d] vision” 39. How? As Nietzsche holds in The Will to Power, “the senses deceive, reason corrects the errors; consequently, one concluded, reason is the road to the constant; the least sensual ideas must be closest to the ‘true world.’ It is from the senses that most misfortunes com – they are deceivers, deluders, destroyers” 40. (Again, recall Kant’s disinterestedness.) Newton, Locke experience this, as Descartes does: “solely an inspection by the mind” in a dark, introspective space, for one knows the world “uniquely by perception of the mind” – one can see how this will lead to the cogito, also essentially idealist in nature 41.

Crary calls this “a radical disjunction of eye from observer,” not least because Descartes also advocates making a dead human or animal eye into the lens of a camera obscura through dissection and experimentation, what Crary calls “an infallible metaphysical eye more than… a ‘mechanical’ eye” 48. Knowing that the “cone” or “cylinder” of rays that allows vision fixes on a certain point to create harmony from chaos 51, the camera obscura offers a “monocular aperture,” a “perfect incarnation of a single point,” versus the “awkward binocular body of the human subject” 53.

“By insisting that knowledge… is built up out of an orderly accumulation and cross-referencing of perceptions on a plane independent of the viewer, 18th-century thought could know nothing of the ideas of pure visibility to arise in the 19th century. Nothing could be more removed from Berkeley’s theory of how distance is perceived than the science of the stereoscope. This quintessentially 19th-century device, with which tangibility (or relief) is constructed solely through an organization of optical cues (and the amalgamation of the observer into a componnt of the apparatus), eradicates the very field on which 18th-century knowledge arranged itself” 59.

Interestingly, for Crary, this is deeply tied to the idea of the senses not being severed from one another, but part of the same apparatus: “From Descartes to Berkeley to Diderot, vision is conceived in terms of analogies to the senses of touch” 59 – “the certainty of knoowledge did not depend solely on the eye but on a more general relation of a unified human ssensorium to a delimited space of order on which positions could be known and compared” 60. (Think of the ‘synesthesia’ of Faulkner’s Compsons – Benji smells cold, Quentin sees with his hands, etc.) Chardin’s still lifes, then, are “both the product of empirical knowledge about the contingent specificity of forms” and “an ideal structure founded on a deductive rational clarity” – they are “not about a surface design, but rather a permanent space across which are distributed ‘the non-quantitative identities and differences that separated and united things'” (in-qtd. Foucault The Order of Things 218) 62-3. Interestingly, for Crary this also confirms

“the 18th-century preoccupation with ensuring transparency over opacity… to confirm the unity of a single homogenous field in spite of the diversity of media and possibilities of refraction within it. Dioptrics (science of refraction) was of greater interest to the 18th century than catoptrics (science of reflection)… It was crucial that the distorting power of a medium, whether a lens, air, or liquid, be neutralized, and this could be done if the properties of that medium were mastered intellectually and thus rendered effectively transparent through the exercise of reason… vision and touch work cooperatively… the coidentity of idea and matter and their finely set positions within a unified field discloses a thought for which haptic and optic are not autonomous terms but together constitute an indivisible mode of knowledge… vision performs like the sense of touch, passing through a space of which no fraction is empty” 64.

Chapter 3: Subjective Vision & the Separation of the Senses

Crary begins by Goethe experimenting with retinal after-images in by staring at a bright circle of light allowed through a camera obscura, then sealing the hole and staring at the darkest part of the room for colored circles in a “post-Kantian” mode of experimentation that is both rationalist (empirical) and Romantic (autonomous) 69. Here, “the human body, in all its contingency and specificity, generates ‘the spectrum of another colour,’ and thus becomes the active producer of optical experience” 69. This is related to Kant in that representations do not conform to the things as they are, but to our perception of them as subjects (though it differs from Kant’s universality, as well as his emphasis on outline over color) 69-70. Thus vision itself becomes an object of knowledge rather than a form of knowing 70, and “the kind of separation between interior representation and exterior reality implicit in the camera obscura becomes in Goethe’s work a single surface of affect on which interior and exterior have few of their formare meanings and positions… color… [is] cut off from any spatial referent… the body itself produces phenomena that have no external correlate” 71.

In Foucault’s terms, this means that the body itself is the site of the structures of knowledge, not separate from it – in Maine de Biran’s work, the “immediate awareness of the presence of the body in perception… the simultaneity of a composite of impressions inhering in different parts of the organism” 72.

“Although formed by Kant’s aesthetics and epistemology in fundamental ways, Schopenhauer undertakes what he calls his ‘correction’ of Kant: to reverse Kant’s privileging of abstract thinking over perceptual knowledge, and to insist on the physiological makeup of the subject as the site on which the formation of representations occurs… what Kant called the synthetic unity of apperception, Schopenhauer unhesitatingly identifies as the cerebrum of the human brain” 77.

Adorno will critique this idea for its assumptions that such perceptions are authentic and its avoidance of the instrumentalization of the body, Nietzsche for retreating from the body’s sexual potential 77-8. Schopenhauer followed the scientist Bichat in atomizing the body and its life and death into separate parts and functions (faceting?) 78. This connects back to Foucault – when sovereignty fades in favor of discipline (biopower of populations to be controlled), life is the new object of power (re: History of Sexuality – also, the proliferation of scientific discourse and enumeration here81. The wave theory of light also challenged theological and scientific images of light as rays in earlier, more classical forms of optics, and stimulation of the eye demonstrated “false” reactions to “light,” making man the purveyor and victim of such knowledge 86. “The issue was not just how does one know what is real, but that new forms of the real were being fabricated, and a new truth about the capacities of a human subject was being articulated in these terms” 92.

This gets related to Marx (labor division akin to sense division), though “the problem for Marx under capitalism was not the separation of the senses but rather their estrangement by property relations; vision, for example, had been reduced to the sheer ‘sense of having'” 94. Marx actually anticipates a kind of modernist aesthetic of sheer separation and disinterested perception, where the eye revels in sight free of objects of exchange value 94. This appreciation is similar to Ruskin’s “innocence of the eye,” and Helmholtz holds that “Everything our eye sees it sees as an aggreate of coloured surfaces in the visual field – that is its form of visual intuition” 95. For Crary, this is not so much innocence as

“a vantage point [for the eye] uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified ‘real’ world. It was a question of an eye that sought to avoid the repetitiveness of the formulaic and conventional, even as the effort time and again to  see afresha dn anew entailed its own pattern of repetition and conventions And thus the ‘pure perception,’ the sheer optical attentiveness of modernism increasingly had to exclude or submerge that which would obstruct its fucntioning: language, historical memory, and sexuality” 96.

The flip side of “liberating sensation from signification” is control:

“a comparable neutrality of the observer that was a precondition for the external mastery and annexing of the body’s capacities, for the perfection of technologies of attention, in which sequences of stimuli or images can produce the same effect repeatedly as if for the first time…”It was the remaking of the visual field not into a tabula rasa on which orderly representations could be arrayed, but into a surface of inscription on which a promiscuous range of effects could be produced” 96.

Chapter 4: Techniques of the Observer

While subjective retinal afterimages were classically reduced to “spectra” or “mere appearance,” Goethe and his generation make them appear less as deceptions than as constitutive of  human vision 97. The “presence of a sensation in the absence of a stimulus” cut sight from its external referent in vital ways, focusing on a process unfolding over itme 98. Schelling argued that “our knowledge is piecework, that is, it must be produced piece by piece in a fragmentary way… a series of processes following one another, in which the later always involves the earlier, brings each thing to maturity” 99. (This sounds a lot like Genette’s theory of narrative.)  Both Goethe and Hegel see perception dialectically, as the interaction of forces and relations, rather than contiguous and stable sensations a la Locke 100. For scientists like Hebart, “the mind does not reflect truth but rather extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas,” a concept deeply tied to his somewhat creepy interest in instilling moral ideology pedagogically 101-2. (Jan Purkinje’s drawings of afterimages are strikingly crystallographic 103.)

The afterimage becomes key for the thaumatrope (“wonder turner” c.1825), a disk with an image on each side that is held on two strings and can be twirled to create a coherent picture 105 – a device that “made unequivocally clear both the fabricated and hallucinatory nature of its image and the rupture between perception and its object” 106. Roget demonstrated how this could lead to manipulations of temporal experience itself (train wheels seen moving through a fence) 106. This leads to the phenakistiscope (“deceptive view,” c. 1830),comprised of either one disk (facing a mirror) or two, and acting like a flip book, where the eye comprehends “continuous movement” through a series of slits in the turning viewing disc in the 8 or 16 pictures in the segments of the second disk 109. Horner’s zootrope (“wheel of life,” c. 1834) reproduces this effect in a cylinder, thus enabling multiple viewers (a precursor to spectacle?) 110. Crary would like to consider these not as “nascent forms of cinema” only, striving for “higher standards of verisimilitude,” but as devices with singular features 110. They at least created a feedback loop between entertainment and scientific knowledge-gathering: “This is where Foucault’s opposition between spectacle and surveillance becomes untenable; his two distinct models here collapse onto one another” 112.

Other examples include the kaleidoscope (1815), which for Baudelaire dissolved unitary subjectivity, as well as Daguerre’s diorama, which forced the reader to walk or at least turn her head to comprehend its whole 113. By the 1840s, “the multiplicity [of the kaleidoscope] that so seduced Baudelaire was for [Marx and Engels] a sham, a trick literally done with mirrors. Rather than producing something new the kaleidoscope simply repeated a single image… ‘composed entirely of reflections of itself’… symmetrical repetition” 114. Inventor Brewster saw the kaleidoscope as a means of producing natural symmetry for new art – “it will create in an hour, what a thousand artists could not invent in the course of a year… with a corresponding beauty and precision,” but for Marx and Engels it proves “the appearance of decomposition and proliferation,” and the appearance alone 116. The real focus of the chapter is in fact the stereoscope:

“a major mode of experiencing photographically produced images… its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are throughly independent of photography. Although distinct from the optical devices that represented the illusion of movement, the stereoscope is nonetheless part of the same reorganization of the observer, the same relations of knowledge and power, that those devices implied” 118.

Again, Brewster helped invent it (also Wheatstone, c. 1830), though it was not popularized until the 1850s and after 118. It focuses on the synthesis in the optical chiasma, “the point behind the eyes where the nerve fibers leading from the retina to the brain cross each other, carrying half of the nerves from each retina to each side of the brain” 119. Thus he focused on an “object placed so near the eyes that to view it the optic axes must converge… a different perspective projection of it is seen by each eye, and these perspectives are more dissimilar as the convergence of the optic axes becomes greater” 120. Thus for Crary “its ‘realism’ presupposes perceptual experience to be essentially an apprehension of differences… the observer to the object… [as] disjunct or divergent images” 120. Again, the fusion takes place as process, over time 120.

More than a simple superimposition, the stereoscope relies on rapid alternation of the optic axes successively, so that there “never really is a stereoscopic image… it is a conjuration, an effect of the observer’s experience of the differential between two other images” 122 (dialectical?). This raised the image, for Brewster, to the level of tangibility – the eye produces depth out of 2 flat images (vs the 2 similar retinal images produced to view 1 flat image or the 2 dissimilar retinal images for 1 solid object) 124. For the full effect of 3D in the stereoscope, there must not be simply a view with natural perspectival recession, but

“objects or obtrusive forms in the near or middle ground; that is, there must be enough points in the image that require significant changes in the angle of convergence of the optical axes. Thus the most intense experience of the stereoscopic image coincides with an object-filled space, with a material plenitude that bespeaks a nineteenth-century horror of the void; and there are endless quantities of stereo cards showing interiors crammed with bric-a-brac, densely filled museum sculpture galleries, and congested city views” 125.

For Crary, the “planar” arrangement of these shapes like “flat cutouts” among one another creates “a vertiginous uncertainty about the distance separating forms… some superficial similarities between the stereoscope and classical stage design, which synthesizes flats and real extensive space into an illusory scene… but… the movement of actors… rationalizes the relation between points” 125.

“In the stereoscopic image there is a derangement of the conventional functioning of optical cues. Certain planes or surfaces, even though composed of indications of light or shade that normally designate volume, are perceived as flat; other planes that normally would be read as two-dimensional, such as a fence in a foreground, seem to occupy space aggressively. Thus stereoscopic relief or depth has no unifying logic or order…. a fundamentally disunified and aggregate field of disjunct elements… a localized experience of separate areas. When we look head-on at a photograph or painting our eyes remain at a single angle of convergence, thus endowing the image surface with an optical unity …[vs] an accumulation of differences in the degree of optical convergence… a patchwork of different intensities of relief within a single image…” 125-6

“…part of the fascination of these images is due to this immanent disorder, to the fissures that disrupt its coherence. The stereoscope could be said to constitute what Gilles Deleuze calls a ‘Riemann space,’ after the German mathematician… ‘Each vicinity in a Riemann space is like a shred of Euclidian space but the linkage between one vicinity and the next is not defined…. Riemann space at its most general thus presents itself as an amorphous collection of pieces that are juxtaposed but not attached to each other'” 126.

Overall, this demonstrates a reorganization of space therefore not unique to painting, though that medium also mixed flat and molded shapes (think Cezanne) 127. Crary calls this literally obscene – scene-shattering of the theatrical setup of the camera obscura, and indicative of Benjamin’s idea that the need to possess the object in the image and its reproduction was increasing all the time 127. “It is no coincidence that the stereoscope became increasingly synonymous with erotic and pornographic imagery… the very effects of tangibility that Wheatstone had sought from the beginning were quickly turned into a mass form of ocular possession… in part responsible for its social demise as a mode of visual consumption… it became linked with ‘indecent’ subject matter” 127. Crary aligns this, like 3D movies, with an uneasy limit of “acceptable verisimilitude,” since the stereoscope presents to each eye the projection on a plane surface of the object as it appears to that eye, rather than the object itself, or its holistic representation 127-8. It is “the technical reconstitution of an already reproduced world fragmented into two nonidentical models, models that preced any experience of their subsequent perception as unified or tangible” 128.

The Wheatstone model, with its mirrors and angles, laid bare the device of fragmentation, while later models enabled viewers to feel they were looking directly in 129. As Marx discusses with the tool, for Crary the new 19th century visual devices make man into a metonym of the machine. “The content of the images is far less important than the inexhaustible routine of moving from one card to the next and producing the same effect, repeatedly, mechanically… transubstantiated into a compulsory and seductive vision of the ‘real'” 132. The ‘real’ becomes nothing more than mechanical reproduction, then.

After 1850, “phantasmagoria” (Adorno, Benjamin) take over – the “magic lantern” shows that emphasize the sui generis mode of the image and efface the machine (suture?) 133. Spectacle and pure perception both entail “a fully embodied viewer,” but ultimately they triumph through the denial of the body “as the ground of vision,” Crary concludes 136.

Chapter 5: Visionary Abstraction

Turner’s paintings problematize the “loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer fromt he site of optical experience” 138. The scientist Fechner sought to quantify sensation and succeeded in measuring it via the external stimulus for the first time 145. Sensation proceeds at regular intervals, and stimulus at first exceeds its capacity. Psychophysics and other sciences “beginning with the prefix psycho are part of this strategic appropriation of subjectivity” 148. As money moved things from qualitative to quantitative, so the real is “less useful” than that produced by a “more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer… to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” 149. The “immense legacy” of the 1830s and 40s is “all the industries of the image and the spectacle in the 20th century” 150. “What is important is how these paths continually intersect and often overlap on the same social terrain, amid the countless localities in which the diversity of concrete acts of vision occur” 150.