The Scene Of The Screen Envisioning Cinematc

The Scene Of The Screen: Envisioning Cinematc And Electronic “Presence” Essay, Research Paper 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.

The Scene Of The Screen: Envisioning Cinematc And Electronic “Presence” Essay, Research Paper

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]

Philosopher Arthur Danto tells us, “with the movies, we do not just see that they move, we see them moving: and this is because the pictures themselves move.”[23] While still objectifying the subjectivity of the visual into the visible, the cinematic qualitatively transforms the photographic through a materiality that not only claims the world and others as objects for vision but also signifies its own bodily agency, intentionality, and subjectivity. Neither abstract nor static, the cinematic brings the existential activity of vision into visibility in what is phenomenologically experienced as an intentional stream of moving images–its continous and autonomous visual production and meaningful organization of these images testifying to the objective world and, further, to an anonymous, mobile, embodied, and ethically invested subject of worldly space. This subject (however physically anonymous) is able to inscribe visual and bodily changes of situation, to dream, hallucinate, imagine, and re-member its habitation and experience of the world. And, as is the case with human beings, this subject’s potential mobility and experience are both open-ended and bound by the existential finitude and bodily limits of its particular vision and historical coherence (that is, its narrative).

Here, again, La jet?e is exemplary. Despite the fact that the film is made up of what strikes us as a series of discrete and still photographs rather than the “live” and animated action of human actors, even as it foregrounds the transcendental and atemporal non-becoming of the photograph, La jet?e nonetheless phenomenologically projects as a temporal flow and an existential becoming. That is, as a whole, the film organizes, synthesizes. and enunciates the discrete photographic images into animated and intentional coherence and, indeed, makes this temporal synthesis and animation its explicit narrative theme. What La jet?e allegorizes in its explicit narrative, however, is the transformation of the moment to momentum that constitutes the ontology of the cinematic, and the latent background of every film.

While the technology of the cinematic is grounded, in part, in the technology of the photographic, we need to remember that “the essence of technology is nothing technological.” The fact that the technology of the cinematic necessarily depends upon the discrete and still photograph moving intermittently (rather than continuously) through the shutters of both camera and projector does not sufficiently account for the materiality of the cinematic as we experience it. Unlike the photograph, a film is semiotically engaged in experience not merely as a mechanical objectification–or material reproduction –that is, not merely as an object for vision. Rather, the moving picture, however mechanical and photographic its origin, is semiotically experienced as also subjective and intentional, as presenting representation of the objective world. Thus perceived as the subject of its own vision as well as an object for our vision, a moving picture is not precisely a thing that (like a photograph) can be easily controlled, contained, or materially possessed. Up until very recently in what has now become a dominantly electronic culture, the spectator could share in and thereby, to a degree, interpretively alter a film’s presentation and representation of embodied and enworlded experience, but could not control or contain its autonomous and ephemeral flow and rhythm, or materially possess its animated experience. Now, of course, with the advent of videotape and VCRs, the spectator can alter the film’s temporality and easily possess, at least, its inanimate “body.” However, the ability to control the autonomy and flow of the cinematic experience through “fast forwarding,” “replaying,” and “freezing” [24] and the ability to possess the film’s body and animate it at will at home are functions of the materiality and technological ontology of the electronic–a materiality that increasingly dominates, appropriates, and transforms the cinematic.

In its pre-electronic state and original materiality, however, the cinematic mechanically projects and makes visible for the very first time not just the objective world, but the very structure and process of subjective, embodied vision–hitherto only directly available to human beings as that invisible and private structure we each experience as “my own.” That is, the materiality of the cinematic gives us concrete and empirical insight and makes objectively visible the reversible, dialectical, and social nature of our own subjective vision. Speaking of human vision, Merleau-Ponty tells us: “As soon as we see other seers…henceforth, through other eyes we are for ourselves fully visible…For the first time, the seeing that I am is for me really visible; for the first time I appear to myself completely turned inside out under my own eyes.”[25] The cinematic uniquely allows this philosophical turning, this objective insight into the subjective structure of vision, into oneself as both viewing subject and visible object, and, remarkably, into others as the same.

Again, the paradoxical status of the “more human than human” replicants in Blade Runner is instructive. Speaking to the biotechnologist who genetically produced and quite literally manufactured his eyes, replicant Roy Baty says with an ironic concreteness that resonates through the viewing audience even if its implications are not fully understood: “If you could only see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” The perceptive and expressive materiality of the cinematic through which we engage this ironic articulation of the “impossible” desire for intersubjectivity is the very materiality through which this desire is visibly and objectively fulfilled.[26] Thus, rather than merely replacing human vision with mechanical vision, the cinematic mechanically functions to bring to visibility the reversible structure of human vision (the system visual/visible)–a lived-system that necessarily entails not only an enworlded object but always also an embodied and perceiving subject.

Indeed, through its motor and organizational agency (achieved by the spatial immediacy of the mobile camera and the reflective and temporalizing editorial re-membering of that primary spatial experience), the cinematic inscribes and provokes a sense of existential “presence” that is as synthetically centered as it is also mobile, split, and decentering. The cinematic subject (both film and spectator) is perceived as at once introverted and extroverted, as existing in the world as both subject and object. Thus, the cinematic does not evoke the same sense of self-possession as that generated by the photographic. The cinematic subject is sensed as never completely self-possessed, for it is always partially and visibly given over to the vision of others at the same time that it visually appropriates only part of what it sees and, indeed, also cannot entirely see itself. Further, the very mobility of its vision structures the cinematic subject as always in the act of displacing itself in time, space, and the world–and thus, despite its existence as embodied and centered, always eluding its own (as well as our) containment.

The cinematic’s visible inscription of the dual, reversible, and animated structure of embodied and mobile vision radically transforms the temporal and spatial structure of the photographic. Consonant with what Jameson calls the “high-modernist thematics of time and temporality,” the cinematic thickens the photographic with “the elegaic mysteries of dur?e and of memory.”[27] While its visible structure of “unfolding” does not challenge the dominant realist perception of objective time as an irreversibly directed stream (even flashbacks are contained by the film’s vision in a forwardly directed momentum of experience), the cinematic makes time visibly heterogeneous. That is, we visibly perceive time as differently structured in its subjective and objective modes, and we understand that these two structures simultaneously exist in a demonstrable state of discontinuity as they are, nonetheless, actively and constantly synthesized in a specific lived-body experience (i.e., a personal, concrete, and spatialized history and a particularly temporalized narrative).

Cinema’s animated presentation of representation constitutes its “presence” as always presently engaged in the experiential process of signifying and coming-into-being. Thus the significant value of the “streaming forward” that informs the cinematic with its specific form of temporality (and differentiates it from the atemporality of the photographic) is intimately bound to a structure not of possession, loss, pastness, and nostalgia, but of accumulation, ephemerality, and anticipation–to a “presence” in the present informed by its connection to a collective past and to a future. Visually (and aurally) presenting the subjective temporality of memory, desire, and mood through flashbacks, flash forwards, freeze framing, pixilation, reverse motion, slow motion, and fast motion, and the editorial expansion and contraction of experience, the cinema’s visible (and audible) activity of retension and protension constructs a subjective temporality different from the irreversible direction and momentum of objective time, yet simultaneous with it. In so thickening the present, this temporal simultaneity also extends cinematic presence spatially–not only embracing a multiplicity of situations in such visual/visible cinematic articulations as double exposure, superimposition, montage, parallel editing, but also primally, expanding the space in every image between that Here where the enabling and embodied cinematic eye is situated and that There where its gaze locates itself in its object.

The cinema’s existence as simultaneously presentational and representational, viewing subject and visible object, present presence informed by both past and future, continuous becoming that synthesizes temporal heterogeneity as the conscious coherence of embodied experience, transforms the thin abstracted space of the photographic into a thickened and concrete world. We might remember here the animated blinking of a woman’s eyes in La jet?e and how this visible motion transforms the photographic into the cinematic, the flat surface of a picture into the lived space of a lover’s bedroom. In its capacity for movement, the cinema’s embodied agency (the camera) thus constitutes visual/visible space as always also motor and tactile space–a space that is deep and textural, that can be materially inhabited, that provides not merely a ground for the visual/visible, but also its particular situation. Indeed, although it is a favored term among film theorists, there is no such abstraction as point of view in the cinema. Rather, there are concrete situations of viewing –specific and mobile engagements of embodied, enworlded, and situated subjects/objects whose visual/visible activity prospects and articulates a shifting field of vision from a world whose horizons always exceed it. The space of the cinematic, in-formed by cinematic time, is also experienced as heterogeneous–both discontiguous and contiguous, lived from within and without. Cinematic presence is multiply located–simultaneously displacing itself in the There of past and future situations yet orienting these displacements from the Here where the body at present is. That is, as the multiplicity and discontinuity of time are synthesized and centered and cohere as the experience of a specific lived-body, so are multiple and discontiguous spaces synopsized and located in the spatial synthesis of a particular material body. Articulated as separate shots and scenes, discontiguous spaces and discontinuous times are synthetically gathered together in a coherence that is the cinematic lived-body: the camera its perceptive organ, the projector its expressive organ, the screen its discrete and material center. In sum, the cinematic exists as a visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of lived-body experience.

Not so the electronic, whose materiality and various forms and contents engage its spectators and “users” in a phenomenological structure of sensual and psychological experience that seems to belong to no-body. Born in the U.S.A. and with the nuclear age, the electronic emerges in the 1940’s as the third “technological revolution within capital itself,” and, according to Jameson, involved the unprecedented and “prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas,” including “a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious.”[28] Since that time, electronic technology has “saturated all forms of experience and become an inescapable environment, a ‘technosphere’”[29] This expansive and totalizing incorporation of Nature by industrialized culture, and the specular production and commodification of the Unconscious (globally transmitted as visible and marketable “desire”), restructure capitalism as multinational. Correlatively, a new cultural logic identified as “postmodernism” begins to dominate modernism, and to alter our sense of existential presence.

A function of technological pervasion and dispersion, this new electronic sense of presence is intimately bound up in a centerless, network-like structure of instant stimulation\ and desire, rather than in a nostalgia for the past or anticipation of a future. Television, video cassettes, video tape recorder/players, video games, and personal computers all form an encompassing electronic representational system whose various forms “interface” to constitute an alternative and absolute world that uniquely incorporates the spectator/user in a spatially decentered, weakly temporalized, and quasi-disembodied state. Digital electronic technology atomizes and abstractly schematizes the analogic quality of the photographic and cinematic into discrete pixels and bits of information that are then transmitted serially, each bit discontinuous, discontiguous, and absolute–each bit being-in-itself even as it is part of a system.[30]

Once again we can turn to Blade Runner to provide illustration of how the electronic is neither photographic nor cinematic. Tracking Leon, one of the rebellious replicants, the human protagonist Deckard finds his empty rooms and discovers a photograph that seems, itself, to reveal nothing but an empty room. Using a science fictional device, Deckard directs its electronic eye to zoom in, close up, isolate, and enlarge to impossible detail various portions of the photograph. On the one hand, it might seem that Deckard is functioning like a photographer working in his darkroom to make, through optical discovery, past experience significantly visible. (Indeed, this sequence of the film recalls the photographic blow-ups of an ambiguously “revealed” murder in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, Blow-Up.) On the other hand, Deckard can be and has also been likened to a film director, using the electronic eye to probe photographic space intentionally and to animate a discovered narrative. Deckard’s electronic eye, however, is neither photographic nor cinematic. While it constitutes a series of moving images from the static singularity of Leon’s photograph and reveals to Deckard the stuff of which narrative can be made, it does so serially and in static, discrete “bits.” The moving images do not move themselves and reveal no animated and intentional vision to us or to Deckard. Transmitted to what looks like a television screen, the moving images no longer quite retain the concrete and material “thingness” of the photograph, but they also do not achieve the subjective animation of the intentional and prospective vision objectively projected by the cinema. They exist less as Leon’s experience than as Deckard’s information.

Indeed, the electronic is phenomenologically experienced not as a discrete, intentional, and bodily centered projection in space, but rather as simultaneous, dispersed, and insubstantial transmission across a network.[31] Thus, the “presence” of electronic representation is at one remove from previous representational connections between signification and referentiality. Electronic presence asserts neither an objective possession of the world and self (as does the photographic) nor a centered and subjective spatiotemporal engagement with the world and others accumulated and projected as conscious and embodied experience (as does the cinematic). Digital and schematic, abstracted both from reproducing the empirical objectivity of Nature that informs the photographic and from presenting a representation of individual subjectivity and the Unconscious that informs the cinematic, the electronic constructs a metaworld where ethical investment and value are located in representation-in-itself. That is, the electronic semiotically constitutes a system of simulation –a system that constitutes “copies” lacking an “original” origin. And, when there is no longer a phenomenologically perceived connection between signification and an “original” or “real,” when, as Guy Debord tells us, “everything that was lived directly has moved away into a representation,” referentiality becomes intertextuality. [32]

Living in a schematized and intertextual metaworld far removed from reference to a real world liberates the spectator/user from what might be termed the latter’s moral and physical gravity. The materiality of the electronic digitizes dur?e and situation so that narrative, history, and a centered (and central) investment in the human lived-body become atomized and dispersed across a system that constitutes temporality not as the flow of conscious experience, but as a transmission of random information. The primary value of electronic temporality is the bit or instant –which (thanks to television and videotape) can be selected, combined, and instantly replayed and rerun to such a degree that the previously irreversible direction and stream of objective time seems overcome in the creation of a recursive temporal network. On the one hand, the temporal cohesion of history and narrative gives way to the temporal discretion of chronicle and episode, to music videos, to the kinds of narratives that find both causality and intentional agency incomprehensible and comic. On the other hand, temporality is dispersed and finds resolution as part of a recursive, if chaotic, structure of coincidence. Indeed, objective time in postmodern electronic culture is perceived as phenomenologically discontinuous as was subjective time in modernist cinematic culture. Temporality is constituted paradoxically as a homogeneous experience of discontinuity in which the temporal distinctions between objective and subjective experience (marked by the cinematic) disappear and time seems to turn back in on itself recursively in a structure of equivalence and reversibility. The temporal move is from Remembrance of Things Past, a modernist re-membering of experience, to the recursive postmodernism of a Back to the Future.

Again “science fiction” film is illuminating.[33] While the Back to the Future films are certainly apposite, Alex Cox’s postmodern, parodic, and deadpan Repo Man (1984) more clearly manifests the phenomenologically experienced homogeneity of postmodern discontinuity. The film is constructed as both a picaresque, episodic, loose, and irresolute tale about an affectless young man involved with car repossessors, aliens from outer space, Los Angeles punks, government agents, and others, and a tightly bound system of coincidences. Individual scenes are connected not through narrative causality but through the connection of literally material signifiers. A dangling dashboard ornament, for example, provides the acausal and material motivation between two of the film’s otherwise disparate episodes. However, the film also re-solves its acausal structure through a narrative recursivity that links all the characters and events together in what one character calls both the “cosmic unconsciousness” and a “lattice of coincidence.” Emplotment in Repo Man becomes diffused across a vast relational network. It is no accident that the car culture of Los Angeles figures in Repo Man to separate and segment experience into discrete and chaotic bits (as if it were metaphysically lived only through the window of an automobile)–while the “lattice of coincidence,” the “network” of the Los Angeles freeway system, reconnects experience at another and less human order of magnitude.

The postmodern and electronic “instant,” in its break from the temporal structures of retension and protension, constitutes a form of absolute presence (one abstracted from the continuity that gives meaning to the system past/present/future) and changes the nature of the space it occupies. Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, and flat–a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action “counts” rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator/user’s interest, but has to stimulate it constantly in the same way a video game does. Its flatness–a function of its lack of temporal thickness and bodily investment–has to attract spectator interest at the surface. Thus, electronic space constructs objective and superficial equivalents to depth, texture, and invested bodily movement. Saturation of color and hyperbolic attention to detail replace depth and texture at the surface of the image, while constant action and “busyness” replace the gravity that grounds and orients the movement of the lived-body with a purely spectacular, kinetically exciting, often dizzying sense of bodily freedom (and freedom from the body). In an important sense, electronic space dis-embodies.

What I am suggesting is that, ungrounded and uninvested as it is, electronic presence has neither a point of view nor a visual situation, such as we experience, respectively, with the photograph and the cinema. Rather, electronic presence randomly disperses its being across a network, its kinetic gestures describing and lighting on the surface of the screen rather than inscribing it with bodily dimension (a function of centered and intentional projection). Images on television screens and computer terminals seem neither projected nor deep. Phenomenologically, they seem, rather, somehow just there as they confront us.

The two-dimensional, binary superficiality of electronic space at once disorients and liberates the activity of consciousness from the gravitational pull and orientation of its hitherto embodied and grounded existence. All surface, electronic space cannot be inhabited. It denies or prosthetically transforms the spectator’s physical human body so that subjectivity and affect free-float or free-fall or & free-flow across a horizontal/vertical grid. Subjectivity is at once decentered and completely extroverted–again erasing the modernist (and cinematic) dialectic between inside and outside and its synthesis of discontinuous time and discontiguous space as conscious and embodied experience. As Jameson explains:

The liberation…from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean, not merely a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings–which it might be better and more accurate to call “intensities”–are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria….[34]

Brought to visibility by the electronic, this kind of euphoric “presence” is not only peculiar. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I would like to suggest that it is also dangerous. Its lack of specific interest and grounded investment in the human body and enworlded action, its saturation with the present instant, could well cost us all a future.

Phenomenological analysis does not end with the “thick” description and thematization (or qualified reduction) of the phenomenon under investigation. It aims also for an interpretation of the phenomenon that discloses, however partially, the lived meaning, significance, and non-neutral value it has for those who engage it. In terms of contemporary moving-image culture, the material differences between cinematic and electronic representation emerge as significant differences in their meaning and value. Cinema is an objective phenomenon that comes–and becomes–before us in a structure that implicates both a sensible body and a sensual and sense-making subject. In its visual address and movement, it allows us to see what seems a visual impossibility: that we are at once intentional subjects and material objects in the world, the seer and the seen. It affirms both embodied being and the world. It also shows us that, sharing materiality and the world, we are intersubjective beings.

Now, however, it is the electronic and not the cinematic that dominates the form of our cultural representations. And, unlike cinematic representation, electronic representation by its very structure phenomenologically denies the human body its fleshly presence and the world its dimension. However signficant and positive its values in some regards, the electronic trivializes the human body. Indeed, at this historical moment in our particular society and culture, the lived-body is in crisis. Its struggle to assert its gravity, its differential existence and situation, its vulnerability and mortality, its vital and social investment in a concrete life-world inhabited by others is now marked in hysterical and hyperbolic responses to the disembodying effects of electronic representation. On the one hand, contemporary moving images show us the human body relentlessly and fatally interrogated, “riddled with holes” and “blown away,” unable to maintain its material integrity or gravity. If the Terminator doesn’t finish it off, then electronic smart bombs will. On the other hand, the current popular obsession with physical fitness manifests the wish to transform the human body into something else–a lean, mean, and immortal “machine,” a cyborg that can physically interface with the electronic network and maintain material presence in the current digitized life-world of the subject. (It is no accident that body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger played the cyborg Terminator.)

Within the context of this material and technological crisis of the flesh, one can only hope that the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding it is strategic–and that through it the lived-body has, in fact, managed to reclaim our attention to forcefully argue for its existence against its simulation. For there are other subjects of electronic culture out there who prefer the simulated body and a virtual world. Indeed, they actually believe the body (contemptuously called “meat” or “wetware”) is best lived only as an image or as information, and that the only hope for negotiating one’s presence in our electronic life-world is to exist on a screen or to digitize and “download” one’s consciousness into the neural nets of a solely electronic existence. Such an insubstantial electronic presence can ignore AIDS, homelessness, hunger, torture, and all the other ills the flesh is heir to outside the image and the datascape. Devaluing the physically lived body and the concrete materiality of the world, electronic presence suggests that we are all in danger of becoming merely ghosts in the machine.


1 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” trans. William Lovitt, in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 317.

2 Robocop (1987) was directed by Paul Verhoeven; Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991) by James Cameron.

3 Reference here is not only to the way in which automotive transportation has changed our lived sense of distance and space, the rhythms of our temporality, and the hard currency that creates and expresses our cultural values relative to such things as class and style, but also to the way in which it has changed the very sense we have of our bodies. The vernacular expression of regret at “being without wheels” is profound, and ontologically speaks to our very real incorporation of the automobile as well as its incorporation of us.

4 These terms are derived from Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990): 29. Ihde distinguishes two senses of perception: “What is usually taken as sensory perception (what is immediate and focused bodily in actual seeing, hearing, etc.), I shall call microperception. But there is also what might be called a cultural, or hermeneutic, perception, which I shall call macroperception. Both belong equally to the lifeworld. And both dimensions of perception are closely linked and intertwined.”

5 Two types of theory that are, to some degree, microperceptual analysis are, first, psychoanalytic accounts of the processes of cinematic identification in which cinematic technology is deconstructed to reveal its inherent “illusionism” and its retrogressive duplication of infantile and/or dream states and, second, neo-Marxist accounts of both photography’s and cinema’s optical dependence upon a system of “perspective” based on an ideology of the individual subject and its appropriation of the “natural” world. One could argue, however, as I do here, that these two types of theory are not microperceptual enough. Although they both focus on the “technological” construction of subjectivity, they do so abstractly. That is, neither deals with the technologically constructed temporality and spatiality that ground subjectivity in a sensible and sense-making body.

6 Ihde, p. 29. (Emphasis mine.)

7 Ihde, ibid.

8 Ihde, p. 21.

9 For the history, philosophy, and method of phenomenology, see Herbert Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1965), David Carr, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Incarnate Consciousness,” in Existential Philosophers: Kierkegaard to Merleau-Ponty, ed. George Alfred Schrader, Jr. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), pp. 369-429, and Don Ihde, Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction (New York: Paragon Books, 1979).

10 Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld, p. 26.

11 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July-August, 1984), p. 77.

12 Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983): 6-7.

13 Jean-Louis Comolli, “Machines of the Visible,” in The Cinematic Apparatus, ed. Teresa deLauretis and Stephen Heath (New York, 1980): 122-123.

14 The very recent erosion of “faith” in the photographic as “evidence” of the real in the popular consciousness has been a result of the development of the seamless electronic manipulation of even the tiniest “bits” of the photographic image. While airbrushing and other forms of image manipulation have been around for a long while, they have left a discernable “trace” on the image; such is not the case with digital computer alterations of the photographic image. For an overview, see “Ask It No Questions: The Camera Can Lie,” The New York Times, August 12, 1990, sec. 2, pp. 1, 29

15 Comolli, p. 123.

16 Most media theorists point out that photographic (and later cinematic) optics are structured according to a norm of perception based upon Renaissance perspective, which represented the visible as originating in and organized by an individual, centered subject. This form of representation is naturalized by photography and the cinema. Comolli says: “The mechanical eye, the photographic lens…functions…as a guarantor of the identity of the visible with the normality of vision…with the norm of visual perception” (pp. 123-124.)

17 Comolli, p. 142.

18 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” trans. Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964): 166.

19 It must be noted that the term “memory bank” is analogically derived in this context from electronic (not photographic) culture. It nonetheless serves us as a way of reading backward that recognizes a literal as well as metaphorical economy of representation and suggests that attempts to understand the photographic in its “originality” are pervasively informed by our contemporary electronic consciousness.

20 For readers unfamiliar with the film, La jet?e is a narrative about time, memory, and desire articulated in a recursive structure. A survivor of World War III has a recurrent memory of a woman’s face and a scene at Orly airport where, as a child, he has seen a man killed. Because of his vivid memory, his post-apocalyptic culture–underground, with minimal power and without hope–attempts experiments to send him back into his vivid past so that he can, perhaps, eventually time-travel to the future. This achieved, aware he has no future in his own present, the protagonist, with the assistance of those in the future, ultimately returns to his past and the woman he loves. But his return to the scene of his original childhood memory at Orly reveals, first, that he (as an adult) has been pursued by people from his own present and, second, that his original memory was, in fact, the vision of his own adult death.

21 Andr? Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967): 9-16.

22 James Joyce, in 1909, was “instrumental in introducing the first motion picture theater in Dublin” (See Kern, pp. 76-77.)

23 Arthur M. Danto, “Moving Pictures,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 4 (Winter 1979): 17.

24 In the traditional cinema, an image can be “frozen” only by replicating it many times so that it can continue moving through the projector to appear frozen on the screen.

25 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968): 143-44.

26 For a complete and lengthy argument supporting this assertion, see my The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.)

27 Jameson, p. 64.

28 Ibid., p. 78.

29 Brooks Landon, “Future So Bright They Gotta Wear Shades.” (Unpublished manuscript.)

30 It is important to point out that although all moving images follow each other serially, each cinematic image (or frame) is projected analogically rather than digitally. That is, the image is projected as a whole. Electronic images, however, are transmitted digitally, each bit of what appears as a single image sent and received as a discrete piece of information.

31 “Network” was a term that came into common parlance as it described the electronic transmission of television images. Now, we speak of our social relations as “networking.” In spatial terms, however, a “network” suggests the most flimsy, the least substantial, of grounds. A “network” is constituted more as a lattice between nodal points than as grounded and physical presence.

32 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Red and Black, 1983): n.p.

33 It is no accident that all of the films used illustratively here can be identified with the generic conventions and thematics of science fiction. Of all genres, science fiction has been most concerned with poetically mapping the new spatiality, temporality, and subjectivities informed and/or constituted by new technologies. As well, science fiction cinema, in its particular materiality, has made these new poetic maps concretely visible. For elaboration of this mapping, see chap. 4, “Postfuturism” of my Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (Ungar, 1987).

33 Jameson, p. 64.