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This essay is published in Materialities of Communication., eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994): 83-106. A much shorter version also appeared in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanties 10.1 (Fall 1990): 50-59, under the title “Toward a Phenomenology of Cinematic and Electronic Presence: The Scene of the Screen.” It is used here with the permission of the author.

It is obvious that cinematic and electronic technologies of representation have had enormous impact upon our means of signification during the past century. Less obvious, however, is the similar impact these technologies have had upon the historically particular significance or “sense” we have and make of those temporal and spatial coordinates that radically inform and orient our social, individual, and bodily existences. At this point in time in the United States, whether or not we go to the movies, watch television or music videos, own a video tape recorder/player, allow our children to play video and computer games, or write our academic papers on personal computers, we are all part of a moving-image culture and we live cinematic and electronic lives. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to claim that none of us can escape daily encounters–both direct and indirect–with the objective phenomena of motion picture, televisual, and computer technologies and the networks of communication and texts they produce. Nor is it an extravagance to suggest that, in the most profound, socially pervasive, and yet personal way, these objective encounters transform us as subjects. That is, although relatively novel as “materialities” of human communication, cinematic and electronic media have not only historically symbolized but also historically constituted a radical alteration of the forms of our culture’s previous temporal and spatial consciousness and of our bodily sense of existential “presence” to the world, to ourselves, and to others.

This different sense of subjective and material “presence” both signified and supported by cinematic and electronic media emerges within and co-constitutes objective and material practices of representation and social existence. Thus, while cooperative in creating the moving-image culture or “life-world” we now inhabit, cinematic and electronic technologies are each quite different from each other in their concrete “materiality” and particular existential significance. Each offers our lived-bodies radically different ways of “being-in-the world.” Each implicates us in different structures of material investment, and–because each has a particular affinity with different cultural functions, forms, and contents–each stimulates us through differing modes of representation to different aesthetic responses and ethical responsibilities. In sum, just as the photograph did in the last century, so in this one, cinematic and electronic screens differently demand and shape our “presence” to the world and our representation in it. Each differently and objectively alters our subjectivity while each invites our complicity in formulating space, time, and bodily investment as significant personal and social experience.

These preliminary remarks are grounded in the belief that, during the last century, historical changes in our contemporary “sense” of temporality, spatiality, and existential and embodied presence cannot be considered less than a consequence of correspondent changes in our technologies of representation. However, they also must be considered something more, for as Martin Heidegger reminds us, “The essence of technology is nothing technological.”[1] That is, technology never comes to its particular material specificity and function in a neutral context for neutral effect. Rather, it is always historically informed not only by its materiality but also by its political, economic, and social context, and thus always both co-constitutes and expresses cultural values. Correlatively, technology is never merely “used,” never merely instrumental. It is always also “incorporated” and “lived” by the human beings who engage it within a structure of meanings and metaphors in which subject-object relations are cooperative, co-constitutive, dynamic, and reversible. It is no accident, for example, that in our now dominantly electronic (and only secondarily cinematic) culture, many human beings describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs (even as they still describe and understand their lives as movies). Nor is it trivial that computers are often described and understood in terms of human minds and/or bodies (for example, as intelligent, or as susceptible to viral infection)–and that these new “life forms” have become the cybernetic heroes of our most popular moving image fictions (for example, Robocop or Terminator II).[2] In this sense, a qualitatively new techno-logic can begin to alter our perceptual orientation in and toward the world, ourselves, and others. And as it becomes culturally pervasive, it can come to profoundly inform and affect the socio-logic, psycho-logic, and even the bio-logic by which we daily live our lives.

This power to alter our perceptions is doubly true of technologies of representation. A technological artifact like the automobile (whose technological function is not representation but transportation) has profoundly changed the temporal and spatial shape and meaning of our life-world and our own bodily and symbolic sense of ourselves.[3] However, representational technologies of photography, the motion picture, video, and computer in-form us twice over: first, like the automobile, through the specific material conditions by which they latently engage our senses at the bodily level of what might be called our microperception, and then again through their explicit representational function by which they engage our senses textually at the hermeneutic level of what might be called our macroperception. [4] Most theorists and critics of the cinematic and electronic have been drawn to macroperceptual analysis, to descriptions and interpretations of the hermeneutic-cultural contexts that inform and shape both the materiality of the technologies and their textual representations.[5] Nonetheless, “all such contexts find their fulfillment only within the range of microperceptual possibility.”[6] We cannot reflect upon and analyze either technologies or texts without having, at some point, engaged them immediately–that is, through our perceptive sensorium, through the materiality (or immanent mediation) of our own bodies. Thus, as philosopher of technology Don Ihde puts it, while “there is no microperception (sensory-bodily) without its location within a field of macroperception,” there could be “no macroperception without its microperceptual foci.”[7] It is important to note, however, that since perception is constituted and organized as a bodily and sensory gestalt that is always already meaningful, a microperceptual focus is not the same as a physiological or anatomical focus. The perceiving and sensing body is always also a lived-body –immersed in and making social meaning as well as physical sense.

The aim of this essay, then, is to figure certain microperceptual aspects of our engagement with the technologies of cinematic and electronic representation and to suggest some ways in which our microperceptual experience of their respective material conditions informs and transforms our temporal and spatial sense of ourselves and our cultural contexts of meaning. Insofar as both the cinematic and the electronic have each been objectively constituted as a new and discrete techno-logic, each also has been subjectively incorporated, enabling a new perceptual mode of existential and embodied “presence.” In sum, as they have mediated our engagement with the world, with others, and with ourselves, cinematic and electronic technologies have transformed us so that we presently see, sense, and make sense of ourselves as quite other than we were before them.

It should be evident at this point that the co-constitutive, reversible, and dynamic relations between objective material technologies and embodied human subjects invite a phenomenological investigation. Existential phenomenology, to use Ihde’s characterization, is a “philosophical style that emphasizes a certain interpretation of human experience and that, in particular, concerns perception and bodily activity.”[8] Often misunderstood as purely “subjective” analysis, existential phenomenology is instead concerned with describing, thematizing, and interpreting the structures of lived spatiality, temporality, and meaning that are co-constituted dynamically as embodied human subjects perceptually engage an objective material world. It is focused, therefore, on the relations between the subjective and objective aspects of material, social, and personal existence and sees these relations as constitutive of the meaning and value of the phenomena under investigation.[9]

Existential phenomenology, then, attempts to describe, thematize, and interpret the experiential and perceptual field in which human beings play out a particular and meaningful structure of spatial, temporal, and bodily existence. Unlike the foundational, Husserlian transcendental phenomenology from which it emerged, existential phenomenology rejects the goal of arriving at universal and “essential” description, and “settles” for a historicized and “qualified” description as the only kind of description that is existentially possible or, indeed, desirable. It is precisely because rather than in spite of its qualifications that such a description is existentially meaningful–meaningful, that is, to human beings who are themselves particular, finite, and partial, and thus always in culture and history, always open to the world and further elaboration. Specifically, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology departs from the transcendental phenomenology most associated with Edmund Husserl in that it stresses the embodied nature of human consciousness and views bodily existence as the original and originating material premise of sense and signification. We sit in a movie theater, before a television set, or in front of a computer terminal not only as conscious beings but also as carnal beings. Our vision is not abstracted from our bodies or from our other modes of perceptual access to the world. Nor does what we see merely touch the surface of our eyes. Seeing images mediated and made visible by technological vision enables us not only to see technological images but also to see technologically. As Ihde emphasizes, “the concreteness of [technological] ‘hardware’ in the broadest sense connects with the equal concreteness of our bodily existence,” and, in this regard, “the term ‘existential’ in context refers to perceptual and bodily experience, to a kind of ‘phenomenological materiality.’”[10]

This correspondent and objective materiality of both human subjects and worldly objects not only suggests some commensurability and possibilities of exchange between them, but also suggests that any phenomenological analysis of the existential relation between human subjects and technologies of representation must be semiological and historical even at the microperceptual level. Description must attend both to the particular materiality and modalities through which meanings are signified and to the cultural and historical situations in which materiality and meaning come to cohere in the praxis of everyday life. Like human vision, the materiality and modalities of cinematic and electronic technologies of representation are not abstractions. They are concrete and situtated and institutionalized. They inform and share in the spatiotemporal structures of a wide range of interrelated cultural phenomena. Thus, in its attention to the broadly defined “material conditions” and “relations” of production (specifically, the conditions for and production of existential meaning), existential phenomenology is not incompatible with certain aspects of Marxist analysis.

In this context, we might turn to Fredric Jameson’s useful discussion of three crucial and expansive historical “moments” marked by “a technological revolution within capital itself” and the particular and dominant “cultural logic” that correspondently emerges in each of them. [11] Historically situating these three “moments” in the 1840’s, 1890’s, and 1940’s, Jameson correlates the three major techological changes that revolutionized the structure of capital–by changing market capitalism to monopoly capitalism and this to multinational capitalism–with the emergence and domination of three new “cultural logics”: those axiological norms and forms of representation identified respectively as realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Extrapolating from Jameson, we can also locate within this conceptual and historical framework three correspondent technologies, forms, and institutions of visual (and aural) representation: respectively, the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic. Each, we might argue, has been critically complicit not only in a specific “technological revolution within capital,” but also in a specific and radical perceptual revolution within the culture and the subject. That is, each has been co-constitutive of the very temporal and spatial structure of the “cultural logics” Jameson identifies as realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Writing about the nature of cultural transformation, phenomenological historian Stephen Kern sugggests that some major cultural changes can be seen as “directly inspired by new technology,” while others occur relatively independently of technology, and yet still others emerge from the new technological “metaphors and analogies” that indirectly alter the structures of perceptual life and thought.[12] Implicated in and informing each historically specific “technological revolution in capital” and transformation of “cultural logic,” the technologically discrete nature and phenomenological impact of new “materialities” of representation co-constitute a complex cultural gestalt. In this regard, the technological “nature” of the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic is graspable always and only in a qualified manner–that is, less as an “essence” than as a “theme.”

Although I wish to emphasize the technologies of cinematic and electronic representation, those two “materialities” that constitute our current moving-image culture, something must first be said of that culture’s grounding in the context and phenomenology of the photographic. The photographic is privileged in the “moment” of market capitalism–located by Jameson in the 1840’s, and cooperatively informed and driven by the technological innovations of steam-powered mechanization that allowed for industrial expansion and the cultural logic of “realism.” Not only did industrial expansion give rise to other forms of expansion, but expansion itself was historically unique in its unprecedented visibility. As Jean-Louis Comolli points out:

The second half of the nineteenth century lives in a sort of frenzy of the visible…. [This is] the effect of the social multiplication of images…. [It is] the effect also, however, of something of a geographical extension of the field of the visible and the representable: by journies, explorations, colonisations, the whole world becomes visible at the same time that it becomes appropriatable.[13]

Thus, while the cultural logic of “realism” has been seen as primarily represented by literature (most specifically, the bourgeois novel), it is, perhaps, even more intimately bound to the mechanically achieved, empirical, and representational “evidence” of the world constituted by photography.

Until very recently, the photographic has been popularly and phenomenologically perceived as existing in a state of testimonial verisimilitude–its film emulsions analogically marked with (and objectively “capturing”) material traces of the world’s concrete and “real” existence. [14] Photography produced images of the world with a perfection previously rivaled only by the human eye. Thus, as Comolli suggests, with the advent of photography, the human eye loses its “immemorial privilege” and is devalued in relation to “the mechanical eye of the photographic machine,” which “now sees in its place.”[15] This replacement of human with mechanical vision had its compensations however–among them, the material control, containment, and actual possession of time and experience. [16] Abstracting visual experience from a temporal flow, the photographic chemically and metaphorically “fixes” its ostensible subject as an object for vision, and concretely reproduces it in a material form that can be possessed, circulated, and saved, in a form that can over time accrue an increasing rate of interest, become more valuable in a variety of ways. Thus, identifying the photograph as a fetish object, Comolli links it with gold, and aptly calls it “the money of the ‘real’”–of “life”–the photograph’s materiality assuring the possibility of it’s “convenient circulation and appropriation.”[17]

In his phenomenological description of human vision Merleau-Ponty tells us, “To see is to have at a distance.”[18] This subjective activity of visual possession is objectified and literalized by the materiality of photography, which makes possible its visible possession. What you see is what you get. Indeed, this structure of objectification and empirical possession is doubled, even tripled. Not only does the photograph materially “capture” traces of the “real world,” not only can the photograph itself be possessed concretely, but the photograph’s culturally defined semiotic status as a mechanical reproduction (rather than a linguistic representation) also allows an unprecedentedly literal and material, and perhaps uniquely complacent form–and ethics–of self-possession. Family albums serve as “memory banks” that authenticate self, other, and experience as empirically “real” by virtue of the photograph’s material existence as an object and possession with special power.[19]

In regard to the materiality of the photograph’s authenticating power, it is instructive to recall one of a number of particularly relevant ironies in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), a science fiction film focusing on the ambiguous ontological status of a group of genetically manufactured “replicants.” At a certain moment, Rachel, the film’s putative heroine and the latest replicant prototype, disavows the revelation of her own manufactured status by pointing to a series of keepsake photographs that give “proof” to her mother’s existence, to her own existence as a little girl, to her subjective memory. Upon being told that both her memory and their material extroversion “belong to someone else,” she is both distraught and ontologically re-signed as someone with no “real” life, no “real” history–although she still remembers what she remembers and the photographs still sit on her piano. Indeed, the photographs are suddenly foregrounded (for the human spectator as well as the narrative’s replicant) as utterly suspect. That is, when interrogated, the photographs simultaneously both reveal and lose that great material and circulatory value they commonly hold for all of us as the “money of the ‘real.’”

The structures of objectification and material possession that constitute the photographic as both a “real” trace of personal experience and a concrete extroversion of experience that can “belong to someone else” give specific form to its temporal existence. In capturing aspects of “life itself” in a “real” object that can be possessed, copied, circulated, and saved as the “currency” of experience, the appropriable materiality and static form of photography accomplish a palpable intervention in what was popularly perceived in the mid-nineteenth century to be time’s linear, orderly, and teleological flow from past to present to future. The photograph freezes and preserves the homogeneous and irreversible momentum of this temporal stream into the abstracted, atomized, and secured space of a moment. But at a cost. A moment cannot be inhabited. It cannot entertain in the abstraction of its visible space, its single and static point of view, the presence of a lived-body–and so it does not really invite the spectator into the scene (although it may invite contemplation of the scene). In its conquest of time, the photographic constructs a space to hold and to look at, a “thin” insubstantial space that keeps the lived-body out even as it may imaginatively catalyze–in the parallel but temporalized space of memory or desire–an animated drama.

The radical difference between the transcendental, posited moment of the photograph and the existential momentum of the cinema, between the scene to be contemplated and the scene to be lived, is foregrounded in the remarkable short film La jet?e (Chris Marker, 1962).[20] A study of desire, memory, and time, La jet?e is presented completely through the use of still photographs–except for one extraordinarily brief but utterly compelling sequence in which the woman who is the object of the hero’s desire, lying in bed and looking toward the camera, blinks her eyes. The space between the camera’s (and the spectator’s) gaze becomes suddenly habitable, informed with the real possibility of bodily movement and engagement, informed with a lived temporality rather than an eternal timelessness. What, in the film, has previously been a mounting accumulation of nostalgic moments achieves substantial and present presence in its sudden accession to momentum and the consequent possibility of effective action.

As did Andr? Bazin (1967), we might think of photography, then, as primarily a form of mummification (although, unlike Bazin, I shall argue that cinema is not.)[21] While it testifies to and preserves a sense of the world and experience’s real “presence,” it does not preserve their present. The photographic–unlike the cinematic and the electronic–functions neither as a coming-into-being (a presence always presently constituting itself) nor as being-in-itself (an absolute presence). Rather, it functions to fix a being-that-has been (a presence in the present that is always past). Paradoxically, as it objectifies and preserves in its acts of possession, the photographic has something to do with loss, with pastness, and with death, its meanings and value intimately bound within the structure and investments of nostalgia.

Although dependent upon the photographic, the cinematic has something more to do with life, with the accumulation–not the loss–of experience. Cinematic technology animates the photographic and reconstitutes its visibility and verisimilitude in a difference not of degree but of kind. The moving picture is s a visible representation not of activity finished or past, but of activity coming-into-being–and its materiality comes to be in the 1890’s, the second of Jameson’s transformative moments of “technological revolution within capital itself.” During this moment, the combustion engine and electric power literally reenergized market capitalism into the highly controlled yet expansive structure of monopoly capitalism. Correlatively, the new cultural logic of “modernism” emerged, restructuring and eventually dominating the logic of realism to more adequately represent the new perceptual experience of an age marked by the strange autonomy and energetic fluidity of, among other mechanical phenomena, the motion picture. The motion picture, while photographically verisimilar, fragments, reorders, and synthesizes time and space as animation in a completely new “cinematic” mode that finds no necessity in the objective teleo-logic of realism. Thus, although modernism has found its most remarked expression in the painting and photography of the futurists (who attempted to represent motion and speed in a static form) and the cubists (who privileged multiple perspectives and simultaneity), and in the novels of James Joyce, we can see in the cinema modernism’s fullest representation.[22]



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