Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Jan-Christopher Horak

The Archeology of Vision

 


 

 

_The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography_

Edited by Dudley Andrew

Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1997

ISBN 0-292-70476-3

331 pages

 

In his introduction to _The Image in Dispute_, Dudley Andrew notes that his volume is about 'the politics of Representation' and 'its evolution from classical to modern conceptions of the image'. The published proceedings of a 1992 Obermann Faculty Research Seminar at the University of Iowa, The Image in Dispute: Visual Cultures in Modernity, Andrew's volume nevertheless seems to be less about constructed images than about vision: Vision as a form of knowledge, as a means of ordering the chaos of the world. In this sense, the volume tries to reframe many of the film theoretical debates of the last century, while at the same time contextualizing the evolution of cinema as one more paradigm in a continuously evolving discourse on vision and modernity. As is often the case with such anthologies, the volume displays a high degree of heterogeneity, yet it is to the credit of its authors that individual essays are consistently rewarding.

 

The most thought provoking chapter in the volume is undoubtedly Jacques Aumont's essay, 'The Variable Eye, or the Mobilization of the Gaze', which is translated here for the first time. Explicitly critiquing much of the structuralist and postmodern film theory that has dominated film studies for the last twenty years, Aumont locates the genesis of cinema in late seventeenth century painting, in particular, in the development of the etudes (as opposed to the ebauche). Contradicting materialist 'apparatus theories', as put forward by Jean-Louis Baudry, Stephen Heath and others, Aumont downgrades the importance of the development of Renaissance perspective as a key factor in cinematic vision, focusing instead on the art historical moment that he defines as the genesis of a modernist vision. While the ebauche utilized optical devises to construct an exact replica of a given scene, the etudes was a rapidly executed sketch that documented the artist's first impression. At stake here is not so much an aesthetic technique, as a wholly different mode of perception. Monocular vision, geometric perspective, and an omnipotent point of view, give way to a modern vision, encompassing multiple perspectives, subjectivity, and the overt acknowledgment of a spectator's gaze. In the words of Aumont: 'What matters in this effort to seize a fleeting moment and, at the same time, understand it as fugitive and aleatory . . . is the emergence of a new vision, of a new confidence in seeing as an instrument of knowledge, even of science'.

 

Aumont then goes on to discuss such 19th century phenomena as the railroad, photography, panoramas, and mountain climbing as part and parcel to a new vision, which will culminate in the cinema as a cultural practice. What all these practices have in common is their inscription of the spectator and his/her mobile gaze, whereas the camera obscura's earlier form of exacting vision presupposed the immobile gaze on an object without a subject. Even more surprising, Aumont returns to the texts of such classical film theoreticians as Hugo Munsterberg, Bela Balazs, and Andre Bazin, arguing that the cinema can 'thus be described as a symbolic machine for describing points of view', while the 'film spectator implies a 'variable eye', subject to relentless processes of historical change', in the words of translator Charles O'Brien. Aumont's argument draws on modernist aesthetic concepts of 'a new vision' (multiplicity of perspectives) to define the cinema as the modernist medium par excellence.

 

Concepts of vision also inform numerous other essays in the volume, beginning with John Durham Peters's eclectic meditation on Walter Benjamin, 'The Ambivalent Iconoclasm of Kierkegaard and Benjamin'. Peters analyzes the iconoclast's prohibition of image-making as a moral choice to resist the temptation of vision, of treating subjects as objects and objects as subjects. According to Peters, 'the image evokes anxieties about hubris, fetishism, prostitution, necrophilia, adultery, and lust'. Dudley Andrew's analysis of Francois Truffaut's _Jules et Jim_, while focusing more heavily on an analysis of a particular film, does reference Benjamin's notion of cinema as a casual form of narrative, potentially capable of expressing a multiplicity of points of view.

 

Citing Benjamin's essay on 'The Return of the Flaneur', Anke Gleber and Lauren Rabonowitz, on the other hand, discuss the appearance of a female spectator, a female flaneur in public places, such as the streets of Weimar Germany and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, respectively. Both make the point that while unescorted, respectable women had begun cautiously to enter previously forbidden public spaces, e.g. the street -- the literature from Benjamin to Kracauer still ignored or denied the existence of a flaneuse, because these authors couldn't conceptualize anything like a female subjectivity. Both contributors then go on to identify female flaneurs: Gleber finds a window shopper in _Berlin, die Sinfonie einer Grossstadt_ (1926), whom male critics have previously identified as a prostitute (what else would a woman in a forbidden zone be doing?), while Rabnowitz discovers in popular late 19th century cartoons from the Chicago World's Fair the triangular gaze of men looking at women and women looking at the scene.

 

Aumont's 'mobilization of the gaze' is also a key concept in James Lastra's discussion of photography and early cinema as not only new media in the 19th century, but, more importantly, ontologically different ways of organizing visual impressions. While classical painting organized 'every pictorial element' into a legible, signifying whole, the new photographic media suffered from an overabundance of visual information that could not possibly be contained by a homogeneous signifying practice. Furthermore, while the former presupposed an ideal, even omnipresent subject, the new media stipulated an invisible, yet specific subject 'who is part of the same world as the represented scene'. In such a scenario, the random and the accidental are constituent elements of the work, allowing for the notion that 'vision and experience could be artistic phenomena in their own right'. The challenge of classical modes of cinema, then, was to incorporate such forms of vision within a legible system of signification.

 

Both Robert B. Ray and Timothy Corrigan expand on these arguments in reference to amateur snapshot photography and new video technologies, respectively. Corrigan, in particular, relativizes Jurgen Habermas's concept of the public sphere, stating that the 'private' modes of video-image-making, privileging the immediate, unstructured, and constantly fluctuating nature of vision, have come to redefine public forms of narrative, away from stable forms of signification (as in classical film narrative) to images that are constantly in the process of renegotiation. In this sense, the image is truly in dispute.

 

Universal Studios

Universal City, California, USA

 

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Jan-Christopher Horak, 'The Archeology of Vision',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 39, December 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n39horak>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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