Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 9, May 2002



Benjamin Wurgaft

How Heavy Light Can Be




Cathryn Vasseleu

_Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty_

London: Routledge, 1997

ISBN 041514233 (hbk) 0415142741 (pbk)

157 pp.


'If Bunuel himself, after filming of the slit-open eye, remained sick for a week . . . how then can one not see to what extent horror becomes fascinating, and how it alone is brutal enough to break everything that stifles?' [1]


According to Georges Bataille, Luis Bunuel's illness is tied to the filmmaker's profanation of the visual in _Un Chien Andalou_, the surrealist film containing the famous shot of an eyeball split by a knife. The shot reminds us of the vulnerability of the eye, so easy to imagine as a tool disconnected from the body, but still a physical thing. By treating the eye as an organ, not a tool (a distinction owed to Maurice Merleau-Ponty), Bunuel broke with tradition and suffered the consequences.


Cathryn Vasseleu's book, _Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty_, is about the re-embodying of light itself, not by filmmakers, but by phenomenologists. She is concerned not with the eye or with visuality, but with the metaphor of light in philosophy. Much of philosophy following from Plato takes for granted an association between light and the understanding of abstract truth -- vision, the sense dependent on light, is also understood in abstract, or tool-like terms. The philosophers Vasseleu considers are not themselves influential within film theory, but all three have had considerable influence on the phenomenological tradition, and thus on those working on phenomenological film theory. Vasseleu's interest is in one of philosophy's oldest images, and its modern and deconstructive inheritors. Thus her book is part intellectual history, part phenomenological investigation, and is itself a thorough deconstruction of the central metaphor for philosophical rationality.


The book is particularly interesting for those working in the phenomenological wing of film theory, of course, but holds interest for others as well. Light is at the core of the filmic apparatus. Vasseleu's study opens up space for a reconsideration of that apparatus, addressing something more basic than the projector, the dark space of the theater, the sound. A film theory following from Vasseleu's work might hold that light is the part of the apparatus most in need of assessment, for film offers an opportunity to explore the investments we have made in light. Vasseleu mentions the role of magic lantern shows and other visual displays in the scientific advancements of the 19th century (Jonathan Crary's _Techniques of the Observer_ provides one of the most complete accounts, from a film studies perspective); recalling Plato, light is once again associated with the display of truth. Our interest in film as a medium that makes the claim to represent the real (as in documentary film and realist cinema) may contribute to the association between light and truth. The idea is not only that we take philosophical positions through art, but that we receive those positions as habits, as subtle influences that shape our understanding. Film may be light, and only light, but light is far more than a method for bringing forms to a screen.


The book begins with Plato's concept of reality, 'based on an original self-presentation of beings which can be clarified through vision' (4), and ends with Luce Irigaray's notion of an 'erotic light' that reminds us that the light that clarifies also communicates an intentionality of desire; in other words light is not a neutral clarifying agent. This use of Irigaray to mark boundaries, and the book's otherwise chronological arrangement (Vasseleu considers Plato, then Merleau-Ponty, then Emmanuel Levinas, then Irigaray), could suggest a teleological progression towards contemporary feminist theory, and an assertion of its values over those of classical philosophy. Yet there is no effort made to back one thinker over another, and Vasseleu never explicitly identifies her own views with Irigaray's -- she creates more complicated relationships with her subjects of choice, making this a more interesting read.


The image of light: can a metaphor function too well?


Why light? Why this metaphor above all others, and what secures the perfect match between philosophical truth and illumination? Vasseleu explores the Greek origins of this metaphor: 'In Plato's formulation light is the means of expression of truth's wholly exemplary nature, or a difference transcending the physical world and its history.' (4) Light is separated from vision for Plato, and can be treated as an image in its own right, without considerations of how it is perceived. Light, not perception of light, is taken as a metaphor for truth. Vasseleu then draws on the Derrida's reading of metaphor: a path from the signified to a signifier that is disrupted by a period of loss. Meaning is transferred from one to the other, but there is a moment in between when we lose track of the signified object, when meaning disappears. The art of the metaphor is actually in the forgetting or concealing of this transition, and in the process of making the connection between signifier and signified seem natural.


Illumination comes to represent truth through such a metaphorical path. The corollary association between light's absence and falsehood simply follows. By Derrida's account, light, because it is either present or not present, is the perfect way to represent the binary truth of philosophy. Either a statement is true or else it is false, with no room for a halfway position. Light then becomes an elegant metaphorical mechanism because it reveals so much about the thing it is taken to represent; it is thus a mechanism that reveals its own inner workings.


The moment of loss, or slippage of meaning represented by light's appearance or disappearance, is especially interesting. It is not just the loss of philosophical truth, but can be related to a more psychoanalytic reading of loss. An imaginative investment has been made in the ideal of the True. Desire has been poured into truth, for Plato -- and 'desires' is a word too complicated to simply mean 'wants something'. To play with the image of light in philosophy as Vasseleu's thinkers do, is to play with the motif of desire, and to play with the metaphor that most accurately represents philosophy's way of slipping in and out of connection with its object of desire.


Philosophy after Plato accepts this metaphorical association willingly. It forgets that light and truth had ever been separate. The term left out of the story, of course, is desire. I could say that the match between the metaphor and the object it describes is almost too perfect, that the metaphor functions too well. As a result there is a sense that the metaphor, because of this proximity, smothers more subtle aspects of the desires of philosophy: what form does philosophy want the truth to take? How does philosophy imagine its progress towards the true and good? Vasseleu has responded to this smothering of desire by writing this book. Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray's investigation of carnality tries to return the idea of want or need to philosophy by investigating how tactile experience shapes the perception of light. Giving their attention to perception, and to the strengths and failings (Irigaray is, of course, concerned with sexuality) of the perceiving organs, they deliberately move against the Platonic model.


This allows an easy segue into Vasseleu's approach to her three main thinkers, who take up this question of desire. Writing in the 20th century, their works all include responses to the great science of desire, psychoanalysis, and the idea of scopophilia: the pleasure of a look, aided by light. Irigaraian language is very resistant to translation into Freudian terminology. This is a book marked by the Lacanian rather than Freudian psychoanalytic heritage, by a Gaullic not Teutonic character, but the term most useful for relating this work to film studies comes to us from Freud: scopophilia. The displacement of carnal desire onto the visual field is what we get from Freud; from Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray we get the opposite, the 're-education' of the visual as we learn just how shaped by carnality our visual modes really are. Levinas gives us something different, separating all methods of visual representation from the sphere of ethics -- there is less room for a critique (meaning a correction) of visuality in Levinas, because Levinas is more enthusiastic about describing the ethical relations possible without the dominating presence of visuality.


Each writer has their own point of investment in the critique of light -- Merleau-Ponty is the one whose view comes closest to the simple criticism that photocentric philosophy overlooks the epistemological complications of an embodied human subject. Irigaray's critique follows from the idea that the photocentric subject is also a masculine one -- that a light-based philosophy leaves no room for the contributions of a non-masculine (i.e. feminine) epistemology. Levinas's critique goes further. He sees philosophies based on light not simply as epistemologically misguided, but as missing the most important dimension of human experience: ethics.


Merleau-Ponty sees flesh as conditioning perception and experience -- as helping to define the phenomenological world -- but also as undefinable before reason; it is impossible to reduce flesh to a phenomenological theme. 'Flesh in contrast (to biology) refers to the body as a living substance, or existence which must be assumed contingently as the condition for the expression of a point of view.' (28) Light is implicated in the carnal nature of perception; light is taken not only to be simple illumination, revealing objects, but lighting, creating the perceptual atmosphere. Merleau-Ponty's subject then responds to that perceptual environment, which is defined by light, in meaningful ways (45); this is distinguished from using light to pick out the details of objects, because the subject comes to perceive in a way that takes into account their relationship with the thing perceived (47). Merleau-Ponty's own language for this is: 'A carnal adherence of the sentient to the sensed.' [2]


Vasseleu's discussion of Irigaray unpacks the meaning we knew was hidden in the word 'carnal', but which Irigaray handles forthrightly: desire. For Irigaray, the carnal is impossible to define via philosophical reason, and the carnality of light is not simply a matter of perception's grounding in organic functions (Merleau-Ponty). Light is a source of wonder and passion for the detected, desired world; it does not illuminate objects alone, but also illuminates the feelings motivating our relationship with those objects. Finding something valuable in light is, for Irigaray, a way of reclaiming light from the Platonic tradition. Irigaray does make the claim that a truth-system based around the light metaphor is biased towards masculine approaches to philosophy; Levinas, seeing light as a problematic image, moved away from it, whereas Irigaray tries to rediscover the kind of interactions with the world made possible by light. She seems to extend Merleau-Ponty's speculation on the carnality of lighting, returning the erotic undertones to the term 'carnal' and exploring the implications of eroticism for the pursuit of truth.


There are questions about the inclusion of Levinas in this study that I must raise. Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray offer accounts far more consistent with Vasseleu's general project than Levinas, who divides philosophical work into that defined by visuality, and that involved in ethics, and identifies his own work with the latter. Levinas introduces one chapter of his seminal _Totality and Infinity_ with the image of a 'black light' of philosophy, which establishes a visual regime of truth consistent with the idealist world-understanding. For Levinas, light has no potential for carnality in the sense that it does for Irigaray. It is in the absence of light that the caress, which Levinas sees as a contact where the difference between two touching entities is preserved, becomes possible; neither tries to define the other, as they would through sight. Levinas's thought both provokes and inspires Irigaray's. Her 'Fecundity of the Caress', a response to the 'Phenomenology of Eros' chapter in _Totality and Infinity_, is one of the premier examples of Irigaray's philosophical critique of light. It may be appropriate that Vasseleu's account of Levinas feels somewhat off-topic -- she needs to quote Bataille and Blanchot extensively in order to get a carnal critique of light from Levinas -- because he is the odd third wheel in this study, if a necessary one because of his connection to Irigaray.


Vasseleu examines philosophy itself rather than its intersections with other disciplines, and if there is a (pardon) blind spot in her study, it is present because psychoanalytic discourse on the visual relates very directly to Vasseleu's concerns. Scopophilia is not about light or truth, but about the displacement of desire onto the visual field. Visuality becomes a metaphor for the desires of the flesh, on Derrida's understanding of metaphor as the path that desire takes from one object to another. This is similar to the way that the rendering of light in metaphor has helped to cover up carnality. The scopophilic gaze allows lookers to engage their pleasure centers without bodily contact; the scopophilic gaze is shaped by carnality, but it incorporates the safety and tension of distance as well.


It is helpful to linger on psychoanalysis because of its centrality for film studies. Vivian Sobchack, in the preface to her _Address of the Eye_, writes that psychoanalysis and Marxism have: 'Converged in a mutual recognition of the originary nature and productive function of language and discourse in constituting the libidinal 'economy' of the 'self' and the political 'unconscious' of the social formation.' [3] It is easy to connect Vasseleu's project -- revealing the carnal dimension of light and its visual truth -- to this detection of the libidinal in language. It is Merleau-Ponty whom both Sobchack and Vasseleu draw on to effect much of this 'submerging', and Vasseleu can be seen as contributing to an existing body of work on the phenomenology of film experience. Sobchack refers to this as the 'fleshing out' (the pun is very deliberate) of film. [4] By examining phenomenology and semiotics together, she looks for the libidinal mechanism that lies at the root of semiotics; phenomenology is the branch of philosophy most concerned with bodily experience, and a filmic phenomenology is most concerned with showing us the ways in which film -- which is just light, as above -- is carnal.


Vasseleu does hesitate to delve into the question of desire itself. This is understandable -- not forgivable, which would imply that she should have explored the topic, but understandable -- because to write on the motif of desire in the three thinkers, plus Plato, could have filled two additional volumes. However, because each thinker's approach to light and visuality involves integrating desire into philosophy in some way, the change is whether desire means 'desire for the truth', or desires more rooted in carnality, which in turn could mean a reinterpretation of what we mean by the word truth. The relationship between metaphor and desire, so deeply investigated by critical theorists and literary critics, is a topic that borders on Vasseleu's, and which the reader would be wise to explore in order to fully understand what Vasseleu moves towards in her book.


All my comments thus far -- the book's applicability to a number of fields, its raising of topics that could fill many volumes -- should not suggest a deficiency, but rather a strength. Vasseleu explores light without trying to exhaust her topic, without trying to 'dominate' it (to use a term that Levinas and Irigaray would appreciate). Her book alone is not enough to fully understand the phenomenologists' critique of light -- for that a historical study such as Martin Jay's _Downcast Eyes_ is helpful. To apply this to phenomenological film theory, Vivian Sobchack's _The Address of the Eye_ provides a discussion of Merleau-Ponty's applicability to film, and the development of a notion of 'film's body'. Vasseleu cites both works, however, quite aware of her book's specialized role in a much wider-ranging conversation. Vasseleu offers us a focused entry point into that conversation, one of the best services a book can offer.


Somerville, Massachusetts, USA





1. Georges Bataille, _Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939_, trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 19.


2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, _The Visible and the Invisible_, trans. Alphonso Lingus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 142.


3. Vivian Sobchack, _The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. xiii.


4. Ibid., p. xviii.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Benjamin Wurgaft, 'How Heavy Light Can Be', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 9, May 2002 <>.




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