Phenomenology, History and the Image
A Reply to Kathleen Fitzpatrick
'Images of/and the Postmodern'
_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 8, February 1999
In responding to Kathleen Fitzpatrick's excellent and incisive review of my _Spectacular Allegories_, my intention isn't to take issue with her local criticisms of the book, some of which I'd contest, a number of which I'd concede. Rather, I want to address one, much broader theoretical contention which emerges out of her concluding criticism, and which opens up some very significant questions for the future of visual theory.
To recapitulate the steps leading up to Fitzpatrick's criticism: _Spectacular Allegories_ explores, through a theoretical framework which fuses Walter Benjamin's concept of allegory with Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception, the ways in which a range of articulations of the spectacle -- cinema, urban form, television amongst others -- penetrates the narrating eye(s) of postmodern American fiction, generating both crises and reconfigurations of visual agency (for a more thorough account of the book's argument, see Fitzpatrick's review!). Fitzpatrick points up both the strengths and drawbacks of my coverage of such a 'broad spectrum of visuality'. Chief amongst the latter is a tendency to subsume a vast range of visual forms under the generalised sign of 'the image': 'At certain novelistic moments that Cohen unpacks, the image is filmic, or televisual, or otherwise the product of mediated forms of visual representation. At other moments the image is any object of sight.'
Whilst I've sought to be attentive in the book to the internal differentiatedness of the field of spectacle -- for example distinguishing clearly the ways in which film and television are valenced in Mailer's 'metaphysics of vision' -- there are clearly a number of passages for which Fitzpatrick's observation holds good. There are moments, and she identifies them, at which a generalized terminology -- 'the image', 'mass spectacle', 'visual culture' -- is groaning under the strain of the many different visual forms it's trying to carry. What I take issue with, then, is less this specific criticism of the book, than the generalized theoretical claim she draws from it, namely that, 'the phenomenology of perception cannot account for the differences among these images, transforming them into roughly equivalent objects'.
I think this claim depends on a very narrow definition of phenomenology which reduces it to the kind of visual idealism I seek, throughout the book, to contest. It's true that, say, a Husserlian phenomenology, bracketing off the external conditions of the object's being in order to describe its appearance 'in itself' to the consciousness of a transcendental ego, would offer little scope for excavating the specific material histories which inscribe different images.
My use of Benjamin, however, is an implicit attempt to give a much broader scope to phenomenology, more continuous with its Hegelian conception as the tracing of the formation and deformation of consciousness in and by modernity.  Put less obliquely, Benjamin demonstrates that a focus on the ways in which images are experienced (i.e. a phenomenology) doesn't preclude attentiveness to their material nature. Indeed, for Benjamin, the material history of the image is inextricably bound up with its experience by its viewer or reader.
Let me elaborate by way of a reading of the famous 'Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' essay.  The essay is often crudely caricatured as an unproblematic 'defence' of the mass cultural consciousness engendered by film. In fact, it's better read as an excavation of the different futures contained within the medium. One future, which the conclusion of the essay calls 'Communism', and which is anticipated in Vertov's images, would release the viewer's eye from its confinement in a spatio-temporally linear (strictly Kantian) regime of seeing. Another, which the conclusion of the essay calls 'Fascism', and which is anticipated in Riefenstahl's images, would fetishistically reinforce that regime of seeing, to the point where other modes of perception would be paralysed.
The point of this excursion into the 'Artwork' essay is to suggest that a cultural object's history is best reconstructed phenomenologically -- that is, through the history of its collective and individual perceptual experience. Film, Benjamin shows us, has no essential significance, and is as such neither 'positive' nor 'negative': its historical function can be established only by demonstrating the kinds of perceptual experience to which it gives rise in different social and political contexts. By plugging this approach into Merleau-Ponty's more formalized philosophical account of the perceptual interpenetration of subject and object, I seek to provide an account of the shifting and complex encounter of literary subject and spectacular object. Literature's different negotiations of that object -- hostile, ambivalent, celebratory -- compact its different histories. This point can be illustrated with reference to a passage in Mailer's _Deer Park_ which, in Fitzpatrick's review, becomes a focus for her various criticisms. The passage describes 'a smoky yellow false ceiling [that] reflected into the mirror behind the bar and colored the etching of a half-nude girl that had been cut into the glass'.
Fitzpatrick's reading of this image is tied to a further criticism of me for a tendency 'repeatedly to forgive [Mailer's] misogyny'. In arguing that what I miss in the etching of the half-nude girl is an image of Woman as 'the reflection of a false ceiling', there's an implicit attempt to fix the image's place in a particular symbolic economy of gender. In other words, the image is a straightforward articulation of misogyny which my own reading of Mailer (at least partially) elides. But my intention in the Mailer chapter, and indeed throughout the book, is to go further than simply register a misogyny which is often so self-evident as to require very little labour on the part of the critic to draw it out. Rather, I want to show how this misogyny functions, what it signifies in the context of a text's broader strategies of perception. It's a phenomenology, I suggest, which makes this possible. By reading Mailer's images of the eternal feminine not simply as expressions of masculine perceptual authority, but as, simultaneously, articulations of a crisis in that authority, the unstable history of such images is revealed. The material history of an image, in other words, is always the history of its experience in different cultural and historical contexts. It is a phenomenology of the image of the eternal feminine that enables us to reconstruct the different meanings it carries in postmodern America, and, say, nineteenth century France.
Fitzpatrick is undoubtedly right, then, in insisting that any account of the spectacle's function in postmodern textuality must be attentive to the many different forms it may take, and to the different material histories which inscribe those forms. My argument with her, however, is that any shortcomings in this regard -- such as those she's acutely identified in _Spectacular Allegories_ -- stem not from an excess, but from an insufficiency of phenomenological insight.
Goldsmiths College, University of London, England
1. For further elaboration of this reading of Hegel's phenomenology, see Gillian Rose, _Hegel: Contra Sociology_ (London: Athlone, 1992)
2. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in _Illuminations_, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992). My reading of this essay owes much to Howard Caygill's _The Colour of Experience_ (London: Routledge, 1998).
Josh Cohen, 'Phenomenology, History and the Image: A Reply to Kathleen Fitzpatrick', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 11, March 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n11cohen>.
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999
Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle
Join the Film-Philosophy salon,
and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here
Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)
PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England
Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage