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Film

Elena del Ro

The rigorous and systematized application of phe- One of the many radical ways in which The Address
nomenology to the study of film has been a com- of the Eye reconfigures our thinking of cinema is its
paratively late development in film studies. Vivian granting of equal perceptive and expressive agency to
Sobchacks ground breaking book, The Address of the the viewing subject and to the film itself. The film
Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992), has projected on the screen is not a ready-made and fin-
brought to light the relevance of MAURICE MERLEAU - ished object waiting passively to be perceived by the
PONTY s existential phenomenology to major aesthetic spectators consciousness, but rather an anonymous,
and theoretical aspects of the film experience. In so yet present other that carries out its own activity of
doing, her work has also made apparent the reduc- seeing, hearing, and moving. The film is thus not just
tive and deterministic nature of the prevalent models a viewed object, but, just like the spectator, it is also
of film theory used to date, namely, the psychoana- a viewing subject in its own right. For Sobchack, the
lytical and Marxist/ideological approaches. Thinking experience of perception and expression is mutually
about film through such phenomenological notions possessed by filmmaker, film, and spectator, insofar
as the lived body (applied to both film and spectator), as they share common structures of embodied exis-
the embodied and synaesthetic nature of perception, tence . . . [and] similar modes of being-in-the-world
the reversibility of perception and expression, and the (Sobchack 1992: 5). Distancing its perspective from
material and sensuous operations of the technologi- EDMUND HUSSERL s phenomenology of the transcen-
cal film apparatus, The Address of the Eye seeks to dental ego, The Address of the Eye claims to be
overcome, on the one hand, the sexual objectifica- informed by the premises of existential, semiotic phe-
tion performed by psychoanalytical film theory, and nomenology. But while structures of language and
on the other hand, the reifying approach to existence meaning are crucial to the analysis of the film expe-
practiced within the Marxist model. rience, these are not, as in the psychoanalytical model,
To counter the deterministic bent of the psycho- radically at odds with a pre-linguistic or pre-reflective
analytical unconscious and of the social/political realm (what Merleau-Ponty would call wild mean-
relations of a Marxist theory of commodity fetishism, ing). Instead, language and meaning are rooted in the
a phenomenology of film experience emphasizes the perceptive body, continuing or extending its intentions
radical openness and unfinished nature of both the film in and toward the world. In other words, while lan-
medium and the spectator. Instead of the subject-object guage for psychoanalysis functions as a substitute for
relations that prevail in other theoretical accounts of being, a kind of fetishistic representation of presence,
spectator and film, phenomenology considers both existential phenomenology considers language as an
medium and spectator as always already enworlded, extension of the experience of being-in-the-world
always mutually implicated and inclusive of each (ibid.: 102).
other. One of the most valuable and persuasive critiques
of contemporary film theory found in Sobchacks book
E. del Ro () targets the illusory and coercive nature of the film-
University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada viewing experience as postulated by the combined

H.R. Sepp, L. Embree (eds.), Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics, Contributions to Phenomenology 59 111
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-2471-8_21, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
112 E. del Ro

accounts of psychoanalytical and Marxist/ideological perception, Le visible et linvisible, etc.), The Address
theories. While these theories describe the cinematic of the Eye also mentions Le cinma et la nouvelle
apparatus as a substitutive and illusory orchestration of psychologie (1948) as his most explicit and focused
mirror effects, ultimately providing the spectator with a meditation on the cinema. In this essay, Merleau-
deceptive experience of reality that has regressive ide- Ponty lays the ground for the correspondence between
ological and political consequences, her phenomeno- cinematic technology and cinematic ontology. Simply
logical model stresses the expansive and disclosing put, technological instrumentation and mediation
possibilities of the cinema as an ongoing negotiation generate a certain way of being-in-the-world. As
between film and spectators perceptive and expressive mentioned earlier, a phenomenological description of
acts. The spectators experience of the film thus alter- the cinematic situation considers the film as a lived
nates between intentional agreement and intentional body. Just as the human lived body forms the basis
argument with the films own visual and visible expe- for intentionality, perception, expression, and action
rience. As Sobchack puts it, the spectators significant in the world, the films bodyits technological and
relation with the viewed view on the screen is mediated instrumental dimensionforms the basis for the films
by, inclusive of, but not dictated by, the films viewing perceptual and expressive engagement with the world.
view (ibid.: 278). Technology is thus no mere inert and objectified
Within Marxist/ideological accounts of the cinema matter, but rather an intentional field that extends and
such as that of Jean-Louis Baudry and psychoanalyt- alters the existential projects carried out by humans.
ical accounts such as that of Christian Metz, the film Technological methods and processes thus correlate
is construed as a disembodied, hence transcendental, with modalities of thought and consciousness.
tyrannizing influence that subjects the spectator to a Prior to Sobchacks focused attention on the
kind of paranoid delusion. Vision for these theorists phenomenological correspondence between cinematic
is not situated within specific existential and embod- technology and ontology, this question had already
ied parameters, for it springs from a kind of men- been a central concern of French film theorist and critic
tal, incorporeal/invisible locus. By contrast, Sobchack Andr Bazin. Although Bazin did not characterize his
contends that (film) vision can never occur in a state comments on the matter as an explicit phenomeno-
of disembodiment or passive absorption. Our access logical position, his desire to investigate the specific
to the (film) world cannot bypass either embodiment ontology of the cinema and the precise nature of the
or active engagement, however physically inert or film apparatus as a form of perceptual and expres-
static our bodies may seem during the film-viewing sive mediation was certainly driven by an inherently
experience. Equally crucial to the reconfiguration of phenomenological impulse. In the four-volume col-
perception carried out by Sobchacks phenomenologi- lection of essays written in the 1950s, Quest-ce que
cal model is the idea that perception is not only always le cinma? Bazin argues, if somewhat idealistically,
attached to corporeality, but is also synaesthetic and that cinema possesses a unique capacity for giving
synoptic. That is, perception is not grounded in one us access to the world without the forms of subjec-
single sense (vision) in an isolated fashion, nor are tive mediation proper to the other arts. In this regard,
our different sensory modalities fragmented and sep- as Gregory Flaxman argues, Bazins position is, like
arated from each other. Instead, they form a system of Sobchacks, diametrically opposed to such Marxist-
cooperation and commutability whereby any resulting informed film theorists as Jean-Louis Baudry and Jean-
perception is undoubtedly more than the sum of the Luc Comolli for whom the technology was always
different senses participating therein. Merleau-Pontys already ideologically determined (Flaxman 2000:
statement that [the] body is a ready-made system 105 n. 8).
of equivalents and transpositions from one sense to Bazins task of examining the essential proper-
another (Merleau-Ponty 1945: 271) is particularly rel- ties of the cinema in relation to the other arts was
evant to the rich sensorial spectrum that emerges in the prefigured by the work of the philosopher ROMAN
perceptive encounter between the world of the film and INGARDEN. Ingarden situates the film play on the bor-
the spectator. derline between literature and painting. Unlike the
Besides making numerous references to Merleau- literary works essential dependence on words, the film
Pontys major works (Phnomnologie de la play must use words only as a supplement to the more
Film 113

inherently cinematographic visual aspects. And unlike parameters and grounds has been followed by more
the static nature of painting, the film play consists of specific studiesundertaken by both Sobchack herself
a continuously unfolding and changing production of and othersthat apply phenomenology to particular
events. One of his most insightful contributions to a cinematic concepts, genres, or modes of filmmaking.
theory of film aesthetics is his transposition of musi- Thus, for instance, her essay, Lounge Time: Postwar
cal aspects to the organization of both space and time Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir, uses Mikhail
in the film play. Further, without adopting the negative Bakhtins concept of the chronotope to explore the
tone of later psychoanalytical film theory, Ingardens specific spatiotemporal thereness of the film noir
Husserlian description anticipates several important genre. The idiosyncratic spaces/places and temporal
ideas of theorists such as Christian Metz and Jean- rhythms that ground the film noir story emerge in
Louis Baudry. Like these theorists, Ingarden refers Sobchacks analysis as this particular genres form of
to people and things presented onscreen as phantoms embodiment, its unique being-in-the-world. Lounge
that feign to be personally present, and as an illusion Time is an excellent example of the multiple ways
that takes on the character or the phenomenal habi- in which the kind of phenomenological attention
tus of a reality (Ingarden 1962: 328). Such statements to ontological and spatiotemporal description may
establish a clear divide between real and reproduced/ resonate with, and indeed be inextricable from, the
represented objects, thus paving the path for modern historical and sociopolitical conditions that under-
film theorys engagement with film as representation. pin a particular film or genre. It is this necessary
At the level of subjectivity (the way in which the interdependence between the ontological and the
film not only constructs the viewing subject, but is epistemological and/or ideological levels that can
also altered and affected by it), the inherent open- rescue phenomenology from the kind of charges of
ness espoused by the phenomenological approach has idealism or naivet that have been levelled against
some radical and profound implications that are worth former phenomenologically oriented critics such as
examining. Much has been made in film debates and Bazin, Stanley Cavell, or Jean Mitry.
analyses conducted in recent decades of the cultural Jennifer Barkers The Tactile Eye: Touch and the
and social markers that constrain the body within Cinematic Experience (2009) makes another impor-
a specific set of power relations. Psychoanalytical tant contribution to phenomenological studies of film
and Marxist-based analyses of film have identified in its description of the film experience as a tactile
bodies according to preselected binary categories interaction between film and viewer. Barker locates
(male/female, white/black, etc.) whose effect is to tactile behavior in three sites of the spectator and the
homogenize bodies, thereby eliding what Sobchack film bodies: the skin, the musculature, and the viscera.
calls the lived bodys excessive, ambiguous, and over- Barkers study is indebted to existential phenomenol-
running semiosis (Sobchack 2004: 144). Let us take ogys descriptions of perception and subjectivity, as
the issue of sexual difference as a relevant exam- well as to descriptions of the relationship between
ple. Reacting against the patriarchal domination and the senses that have emerged in disciplines such as
repression of the female body prevalent in classical philosophy, anthropology, and art criticism.
narrative cinema, 1970s feminist film theory unwit- Kevin Fishers 2004 dissertation, Intimate
tingly tended to reinforce and extend such repres- Elsewheres: Simulations of Altered States of Consci-
sion by reducing the female body in the cinema to ousness in Post WW II American Cinema, addresses
the Freudian concept of fetishism. Thus feminist- the phenomenological and cultural-historical signif-
informed theorists and critics did not account for the icance of films that attempt to orient the spectator
all-important distinction between the female fetishized within the subjective experiences of characters whose
body resulting from masculinist codes of represen- consciousness has been altered by substances (from
tation and a specific female lived body that might alcohol to LSD), techniques (such as brainwash-
significantly exceed the historical and analytic sys- ing and hypnosis), and/or technologies (such as
tems available to codify, contain, and even negate [the cybernetics and virtual reality).
body] (ibid..: 147). Like Barkers and Fishers, my own work has
Sobchacks attempt to situate film theory within been decisively and extensively influenced by the phe-
phenomenological, fundamentally philosophical, nomenological account of cinema developed in The
114 E. del Ro

Address of the Eye. I have found phenomenological of voyeurismvision, the body, and languagethus
theory to be most valuable and illuminating when emerge in Peeping Tom as cooperative reinforcers of
applied to the areas of technology, performance, and the same voyeuristic and repressive dynamics.
affect. The interlacing of vision and touch is also one
The questions of cinematic technology and ontol- of the grounding concepts in Laura Markss anal-
ogy raised by the phenomenological perspective find a ysis of Middle Eastern video works as featured in
suitable match in those films that are self-reflexively her book The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema,
inclined to probe into the effects of technology on Embodiment, and the Senses (2000). Marks uses the
its user. In The Body as Foundation of the Screen: term haptic visuality as a comprehensive and alter-
Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyans Speaking native approach to the theoretical reduction of the
Parts (1996), I apply the phenomenological premise viewing experience to vision and to the correspond-
of embodied perception to the screen-mediated interac- ing fragmentation of the senses. Markss second book,
tions that take place among the characters in Egoyans Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media
film. Speaking Parts insists on the inherent affinity or (2002), pursues a similar line of investigation in its
continuity between the human body and the techno- analysis of experimental films and videos.
logical artifact. In considering the bodys extension Sobchacks most recent book, Carnal Thoughts:
through/ into the technological, the issue of the users Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004),
engagement, concern, or affect is of the highest pri- extends her former phenomenological investigations
ority. As his films make clear, the user may utilize of film with essays that emphasize the role of bodies
the screen as a way of either exposing or masking in making sense of todays image-saturated culture
his/her vulnerability, dispossession, pain, or loss. Thus (http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10172.html).
Speaking Parts showcases the technological as the This work takes on a more personal and popular
environment where ontological conditions of embodi- stance, showing the relevance of phenomenologi-
ment, temporality, and mortality are played out. These cal philosophy to a broad range of popular media
time-related aspects of human loss also suggest the experiences. Carnal Thoughts thus shows that the
relevance of MARTIN HEIDEGGERs thought to a phe- application of phenomenology, and philosophy in
nomenological approach to film (Dasein as a being- general, need not be restricted to those films informed
toward-death), not to mention the applicability of his by a certain level of self-consciousness; instead,
attention to the ontological effects of modern technol- as she implies in What My Fingers Knew: The
ogy in such essays as Die Frage nach der Technik Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh (2004:
(1954) and Die Zeit des Weltbildes (1950). 5384), phenomenology is equipped to account for all
If, as phenomenology teaches us, embodiment is an kinds of sensual/sensational pleasures of film viewing,
inescapable condition of human perception, it must be those provided by Hollywood film no less than those
present in all forms of perception, even in those, such we encounter in less popular cinematic styles.
as voyeurism, that allegedly take place in a disem- Building upon the thoughts on sexual difference
bodied state. In The Body of Voyeurism: Mapping a provided in The Address of the Eye and in the work
Discourse of the Senses in Michael Powells Peeping of other phenomenological feminist scholars, I have
Tom (2001), I dispute psychoanalytical film the- also been interested in the ways phenomenology helps
orys traditional separation between corporeality and us redefine the female body onscreen by expand-
voyeurism by exploring the ways in which this film ing its potentialities for self-reinvention and agency.
intertwines a discourse of touch with its acclaimed In this sense, the kind of phenomenology practiced
thematics of voyeuristic vision. In Peeping Tom, the by Merleau-Ponty falls short of considering the body
spilling over of fetishism from sight to touch supports in particular gendered ways by simply assuming the
the idea of the body as a sensual unit or synaesthetic white, male body as the universal measure of all
structure. Through its protagonists childlike bodily bodies. In Politics and Erotics of Representation:
gestures and linguistic incompetence, the film also Feminist Phenomenology and Valie Exports The
instantiates the continuity between corporeal semio- Practice of Love (2000) and Rethinking Feminist
sis and verbal semiosis. What critics tend to consider Film Theory: Counter-Narcissistic Performance in
as three distinct and alienated spheres in the realm Sally Potters Thriller (2004), I try to challenge both
Film 115

the neglect of gender within traditional phenomenol- The notion of subjective intentionality central to the
ogy and its rigid parameters within essentialist fem- phenomenological project is closely linked to the lived
inist theory by examining the ways in which certain bodys power of movement. This power lies between
women filmmakers have reconfigured the female body the temporal and spatial limitations of embodied con-
onscreen as something other than a fetish serving male sciousness and the bodys capacity to transcend these
interests and desires. limitations through an intentional selection, transfor-
Performance studies is yet another area within mation, and concretization of temporal and spatial
film that can benefit from the findings and meth- abstractions. Physical action and movement are thus
ods of phenomenology. The theoretical fit between some of the most powerful tools the body has of
phenomenology and a critical focus on performance inscribing its agency in the world. In this regard, the
hinges largely upon two factors: first, the descriptive virtually unexplored field of body performance in film
emphasis they share; and second, their mutual inter- can build upon the research done in other disciplines
est in bodily/ gestural language as both distinguishable such as (feminist) philosophy (Iris Marion Young),
from and continuous with the operating modes of ver- performance art (Amelia Jones), and dance studies
bal language and symbolic systems. In Falling for You: (Susan Leigh Foster). Not coincidentally, some of the
Essays on Cinema and Performance (1999), editors most fruitful applications of performance and dance
Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros adopt an inher- studies to film concern the analysis of the female
ently phenomenological stance when they argue that body. Insofar as objectification has been the prevailing
the act of analyzing cinematic performance is closely mode of representation assigned to the female body,
dependent upon questions of descriptionquestions movement can surely function to counteract it.
that have been taken for granted within the critical lex- As I mentioned earlier, some scholars working on
icon and standardized protocols of film scholarship. body issues in film seem to favor a Deleuzian over a
Thus for both phenomenology as a research proce- phenomenological perspective (Jodi Brooks, Laleeen
dure and for such performance critics as Stern and Jayamanne, Lisa Trahair [in Stern and Kouvaros 1999];
Kouvaros, descriptive acts are crucial to the act of Marks 2000, Marks 2002). The shift from Merleau-
bringing to consciousness that which has been lost Ponty to Deleuze is based upon solid affinities between
to our reflective knowledge through habituation and/or their philosophies. Notwithstanding Deleuzes indict-
institutionalization(Sobchack 1992: 28). ment of phenomenology, his and Merleau-Pontys
Although the descriptive focus advocated by Stern philosophies and their implications for a theory of cin-
and Kouvaros is radically phenomenological in nature, ema remain close in many important respects. Both
neither the editors nor the contributors in Falling Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of perception and
for You adopt an explicitly phenomenological focus. Deleuzes transcendental empiricism dismantle episte-
Instead, some of the essays in this anthology make mological systems that are grounded in non-corporeal
extensive references to Gilles Deleuze, whose ideas acts of signification or cognition. The drive to deter-
on cinema and the body they find rather resonant mine a clear dividing line between subject and world,
with the aims of performance analysis. The reliance perceiver and perceived, objective reality and subjec-
of these critics on Deleuzes philosophy is not coin- tive experience, is equally suspected and accordingly
cidental, for as I will argue presently, one can find undermined by both thinkers. In the continuity of
enough areas of overlapping interest between Merleau- human body and world that both these philosophies
Pontys existential phenomenology and Deleuzes phi- propose, a sensuous/sensational and affective approx-
losophy of transcendental empiricism to warrant an imation to the world replaces the purely mental and
approximation. visual methods of the disembodied cogito.
The phenomenological notion of the lived body as Both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze share a view of
expressive bearer of meaning lays the ground for yet cinema and art as performing a revelatory function vis-
another compelling connection between phenomenol- -vis being. The cinema functions as consciousness
ogy and performance studies. As a complex and multi- does (or in Deleuzes words, the brain is the screen).
layered array of signs, the bodys gestural and kinetic Merleau-Pontys belief in the revelatory function of the
acts make available a crucial, and as yet untapped, gesture is equally at work in Deleuzes cinema books,
resource for the understanding and analysis of film. where the body figures as the constantly moving and
116 E. del Ro

deterritorializing surface that can put us directly in Barker, Jennifer. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic
touch with the unthought. Deleuzes attention to the Experience. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press, forthcoming, 2009.
close-up as an instance of the expressive powers of
Bazin, Andr. Quest-ce que le cinma? Vols. Paris: ditions du
faciality in Limage-mouvement (1983) is matched by Cerf, 195862; What Is Cinema? 2 vols. Trans. Hugh Gray.
his concern with the bodily attitudes and postures that Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 1971.
form the locus of affection in Limage-temps (1985). Casebier, Allan. Film and Phenomenology: Toward a Realist
Theory of Cinematic Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge
But despite the many ideas Merleau-Ponty and
University Press, 1991.
Deleuze share, it is also important to acknowledge the Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology
difference that separates thema difference that ren- of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.
ders their respective modes of thinking unique and Dagrada, Elena, Raffalele de Berti, and Gabriele Scaramuzza,
eds. Estetica e cinema a Milano. Milan: Cuem, 2006.
therefore equally necessary. As many commentators
del Ro, Elena. The Body as Foundation of the Screen:
have noted, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze part ways at Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyans Speaking
the juncture where sensation and affect are variously Parts. In Camera Obscura 38, 1996, 93115.
theorized as either belonging to the realm of subjectiv- del Ro, Elena. Politics and Erotics of Representation: Feminist
Phenomenology and Valie Exports The Practice of Love. In
ity or as operating in a desubjectified field of forces.
Discourse 22:2, 2000, 4670.
Thus while for Merleau-Ponty sensation and affect are del Ro, Elena. The Body of Voyeurism: Mapping a Discourse
subjective phenomena arising out of an intentional and of the Senses in Michael Powells Peeping Tom In Camera
individuated rapport with the world, Deleuze regards Obscura 45, 2001, 11549.
del Ro, Elena. Rethinking Feminist Film Theory: Counter-
the sensational and the affective as material flows
narcissistic Performance in Sally Potters Thriller In
whose individuation and exchange do not rest upon Quarterly Review of Film and Video 21, 2004, 1124.
subjectified intentions, but rather upon the workings of del Ro, Elena. Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance:
a non-organic, anonymous force or life. Powers of Affection. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
2008.
As is apparent from the recent and developing work
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinma 1: Limage-mouvement. Paris: ditions
by film scholars in the field, phenomenological theory de Minuit, 1983; Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans.
has much to contribute to the innovation and expansion Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis:
of cinema studies, even in those areas such as gen- University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinma 2: Limage-temps. Paris: ditions de
der, cultural, media, colonial, and historical studies that
Minuit, 1985; Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh
were previously deemed off-limits to the purview of a Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University
serious philosophical discourse such as phenomenol- of Minnesota Press, 1989.
ogy. This breakdown of disciplinary and institutional Fisher, Kevin. Dasein and the Existential Structure of
Cinematic Spectatorship: A Heideggerian Analysis. In
boundaries shows, in fact, that there is hardly an area
Glimpse: The Journal of the Society for Phenomenology and
of cultural or human concern that can be bracketed off Media Studies 1, 1999, 3745.
from the interests of the phenomenologistthe lived Fisher, Kevin. Intimate Elsewheres: Simulations of Altered
body is no doubt here to stay. States of Consciousness in Post WW II American Cinema.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Los Angeles,
2004.
Flaxman Gregory, ed. The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and
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