At the end of the 19th century, the emerging field of psychology adopted the concept of dissociation to describe mental processes that run counter to the assumed endeavour of the subject and its ego to combine its thoughts, feelings and actions into a homogeneous unit. In the mid-1990s, dissociative personality disorder or identity disorder was included in the relevant diagnostic manuals. The question of which dissociative processes go hand in hand with this assumed homogenisation, and perhaps make it possible in the first place, remains unanswered, as does the question of the everyday dissociations that accompany and enable this idea of the human. The films made in the context of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab (SEL) can be understood as attempts to create cinematic ethnographies that pursue this intertwining of dissociation and homogenisation with regard to the sensitivity of perception in very specific social spaces. At the centre of the analysis are the films by Verena Paravel and Lucien-Castaing Taylor, in particular their two feature-length films Leviathan and De Corporis Humanis Fabrica.


The first images of De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2022) show the paws and legs of a dog running across a concrete floor in a dark room. We hear its footsteps, then realise that it is on a man’s lead. It is only when we hear the sound of a metal door being opened that the hand-held camera, which itself reproduces the movements of footsteps, shows the dog’s back and the man’s legs. The sound which we identify as that of an electronic device accepting a chip card as access authorisation re-localises our perception, but for a few seconds we see an almost black image; the camera may have been too close to the dark fur on the dog’s back. The room widens slightly, the light also becomes brighter and takes on a different colour tone, parked cars briefly come into view, we are in an underground car park. From this car park, the path leads into another corridor, again the camera remains focussed on the dog’s body following the man’s steps. Another door opens, this time we see the man’s hand on the door handle. The floor is now tiled. The camera pauses in its movement at a wall marked with obscene and misogynistic graffiti long enough for the viewer to catch a glimpse of it, another electronic sound, the camera raises its angle of view and a woman comes into the picture, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying a pink bag on her arm and walking in the opposite direction. At this point at the latest, it becomes clear that the hand-held camera’s gaze clings to that of the dog, that we are looking from its perspective, as it were. A rift opens up, we lose the dog as the object of our observation, but do not gain a new one because we cannot assume the dog’s position. We do not know how it perceives, whether and, if so, what it feels and thinks. With these or similar questions, we make the dog the object of reflection again, try to bridge the gap, but the crack remains. 

After a few more stages, the acoustic atmosphere changes, a beeping is answered by the voice of a French speaking man who identifies himself as an assistant in the intensive care unit and promises to bring an orthopaedic patient in five minutes. While the image is almost black, a woman’s voice begins to talk about a patient with kidney cancer who is now being treated for a haematoma in a narrow part of the brain stem that connects the brain to the body. The camera slowly pans from black to an opening, through whose glass panes a room becomes visible in very subdued light, in which two nurses can be seen out of focus, apparently caring for a patient in an intensive care unit. However, this is more of an assumption that arises during my description, as the intention of the actions remains hidden in the blur. The pane of glass also reflects a window that reveals the leaves of a tree moving in the wind. Two different exteriors become visible by the threshold of the glass. This separation of image and sound remains throughout the seven-minute scene. The woman’s voice, probably a nurse judging by the gesture of her speech, reports on illnesses and medical interventions: Surgery on the woman’s haematoma is practically impossible, but further swelling will interrupt the connection between body and brain and cause a locked-in syndrome that largely separates the brain and the body. “Like paralysis, your eyes are open, you can see and hear, but there’s no connection anymore.” In the case of this woman, however, the swelling could become so severe that brain death could occur within 48 hours. “If that is the case, they will extubate her on Monday.” – “They will…?” asks another woman’s voice, identifying the situation as a dialogue. “They’ll switch off the ventilation.” The family knows about it, the daughter is a doctor, which helps, they are also thinking about organ donation. “Once I’m locked in, please pull the plug.”. The other woman’s voice responds with “Oui”.

The woman goes on to talk about a young man who is completely paralysed after a car accident and has been with them for 117 days. As the average length of stay for patients in the intensive care unit is 11 days, “on ne fait pas trop d’attache”, not so many bonds are formed. “Un patient qui reste 117 jours, c’est l’exception.” The voice breaks a little, and it is clear that the woman is also explaining her own concern. A phone call interrupts the dialogue, the woman’s voice seems factual and optimistic, responding to the information three times with a clearly articulated “Oui”, followed by another “C’est parfait”. When the call has ended, the woman shares the content of the conversation: A patient is coming out of the operating theatre, a very sad case, he is 21 and has such a large tumour in his stomach that it is no longer possible to remove it. “Un soin palliativ”. But we can make his last days easier. “I’m not religious and I’m not very superstitious, but there are cases of fate. Some people drink, smoke, live excessively and live to be 100, and now this twenty-one-year-old.” Another female and a male voice join the dialogue after the doctor has spoken about the fatefulness of lives cut short by illness. “Un peu maudite,” a bit cursed. This is why, for example, there is no room with the number 13. This is followed by comments about the problems caused by the lack of staff, in particular the fact that it is almost impossible to look after relatives who spend hours waiting in the corridor. There is also a lack of recognition for the work, which is physically and morally very strenuous. Finally, the woman is called away. 

This is followed by a black screen, from which electronic images of various cross-sections of a body part, perhaps of the spinal column, perhaps of the transition between the brain and the spinal column, are generated, combined with the sounds of a magnetic resonance imaging machine, somewhat reminiscent of a machine gun. This is followed by the first passage in which image and sound are combined: The bearded face of a man whose hair is covered with a green scarf and who is talking to someone who seems to be standing above him. Following the inner rhythm of the film, these images of the MRI are located where we expect the title to be.

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

This radical cinematic decision to disjoin the visible and the sayable no longer assigns a place to the words; at the same time, it deprives the visible of chronological time, which is repeatedly introduced by the narration of the female voice. The long shot of an event that can only be recognised in outline, moved only by the physical restlessness of the person holding the camera, also opens up the difference between the “visible” and the “visual”,1 between the visible, which can be defined as an object, and the image, which does not speak in this way, which shows something rather than allowing us to see it, an image on the threshold between emergence and disappearance. One could call it a poetic image here, which in its form takes up what it shows, the uncertain threshold between staying alive and dying. But this hermeneutic definition of the poetic image would have something obscene about it. The filmic image does not comment on the speaking of the woman’s voice, it remains independent and as such will also enter the viewer’s visual memory, yet it correlates with a rift inherent in the woman’s speech and intensifies it. One could call it the rift between the sayable and the saying, between the structured statement that has a speaker, an addressee and a reference, the said, as Lévinas calls it,2 and the saying of communication, in which an unsayable can be heard: the dissociation between the medical description and the narrative about physical suffering and dying on the one hand and the social feelings and thoughts that accompany nursing and medical activity on the other. What the communication makes audible is neither the one nor the other, between which what is said jumps back and forth, but the gap between these two irreconcilable discourses, that which is the differend between description and judgement,3 which in the film passage itself is divided a second time: into the moral judgement of the woman’s discourse and the aesthetic judgement of the image. 

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, the title of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s film, is also the title of a seven-volume, 700-page work on anatomy by the Dutchman Andries van Wezel, Latinised Andreas Vesalius, born in Brussels in 1514.4 The work, published in Basel in 1543, is considered the most influential book on the anatomy of the human body of its time and made Vesalius an important founder of modern medicine. While the anatomists of antiquity had to rely on the dissection of animals, because such handling of the human body was taboo, Vesalius gained his knowledge of the structure of the human body from cutting up corpses. The seven books follow a division of the body into bone structure, muscles and tendons, the veins and arteries, the nerves, the digestive and sexual organs, the heart and finally the brain and are illustrated with many wood cuts. The engravings found in the seventh book, which depict cross-sections of a human brain, are very similar to those we see in the aforementioned images produced by the MRI in the film, except that the latter has replaced the knife with a complex system for measuring magnetic waves, although the programme for visualising the data remains faithful to the images created by Vesalius. The Latin word fabrica is derived from the verb fabricor, which means to make or fabricate. In ancient Rome, fabrica was also a term for a workshop or smithy. The body and its parts are dismantled and figuratively reassembled. The interest in man, the humanism of the Renaissance, which was aimed at the human form, is realised here in an analysis of its being made, i.e. as a process of its disassembly, the dissociation of its parts and their imagined assemblage. The mechanics of this second process are still a matter of the imagination for Vesalius, but the film later shows us an operation during a long passage that is immediately reminiscent of a mechanic’s workshop: two long metal rods and large screws are used to straighten and stabilise a curved spine on an open body.

One of the scenes in Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s film that most strongly affect the physical sensation of many viewers is probably the footage of a caesarean section. As later in the case of the young man whose spine is supported by this mechanism, we also see the mother beforehand and listen in on the conversations with the doctor and midwife. She is also spoken to during the operation, which is performed with a local anesthetic. Few cinema-goers watching the scene will be free of a physical feeling of fear when the scalpel opens the abdominal skin. Those who have not yet averted their eyes can see the force that the doctor and midwife have to use to widen the opening in the womb and pull the baby out with their hands. This primal scene of a dissociation of mother and child by means of a cutting intervention is engraved in the viewer’s memory and is associated with the question of what the doctor and midwife, whose actions appear calm and routine, even if somewhat driven by the passing of time, do with these images, which must be perceived by them in order to carry out the actions on the mother’s body. But are they the same images, does their gaze focus on the same visibility? They remain related to the mother during the operation, responding reassuringly to her fears that something might be wrong with the child. After we see in great detail how a knife cuts the umbilical cord, the newborn is handed over to a pediatrician who speaks to the child in a soothing voice, who certainly does not understand the lexical meaning of the words but understands their gentle sound and calms down. In the aforementioned passage that follows the MRI scans, we hear a dialogue between the man with the beard and the doctor, who is in the process of attaching something to his scull with screws, presumably in preparation for a surgical procedure. The doctor explains what he is doing but continues with the association that he had a Meccano, a mechanical toy construction set, as a child. The patient, too, has often played with it with the same passion, as he vividly reports. When patients are under general anesthesia, it can happen that the staff have a conversation during the operation about the amount of a rental fee or about the feeling of their own stress. “I feel pressure in my stomach all day.” – “I haven’t even had an erection today.” – “How lonely you often feel.”

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

In contrast to knives that cut from the outside, there are interventions into the body that minimise the invasive procedure using digital technology. The knives and forceps used to remove organs and perform scrapings inside the body, as well as the needles used to stitch up wounds, are small and are captured by miniature cameras that are inserted into the body and get their images enlarged into a size that is appropriate for the human sensory organs. While their images are projected onto the wall of the operating theatre, the doctor moves hand-sized control devices, which in turn are translated into tiny processes with the tools in the body. Long passages of the film show us the images captured directly by these miniature cameras, as well as sound that is recorded via contact microphones. A world is created that is normally imperceptible to the human eye, which almost automatically transforms our visual system into the size of our bodies, so that we seem to move through the inner vessels as if through caves. Something similar happens when we look at slices of organic material, which is adapted to the perceptive capacity of the human eye in the electron microscope: Landscapes of organic structures of strange beauty emerge. In an installation in which the most parts of the film is shown on eight screens for an exhibition at EYE, Amsterdam’s film museum, in the first months of 2024, these images are entitled “Optical Unconscious” – in an unmistakable allusion to Walter Benjamin’s term.5

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor created over 300 hours of footage in the more than two years they worked on this film in five hospitals in the north of Paris.6 Long passages show patients in a gerontological ward. Two women walk through the corridors holding hands. One repeatedly asks the other in an urgent voice to hurry up, as if they were going to an appointment and were in danger of being late. Again and again, a sound penetrates the corridors that, when you hear it for the first time, sounds more like a cat meowing than a human complaining. Later, we see an old woman in an office chair, absorbed in herself, as if she is absently waiting for the arrival of an inner voice, which then makes her feel a strong pain very immediately, which distorts her face and makes her utter these complaints. Then she falls back into absence, pain and scream are pure presence. A man wants to take the lift down to the street and negotiates with the nursing staff about the number of minutes he has to stay in his locked room. A pain, a wish, a fear has dissociated and taken over the entire intention. We see another type of dissociation in the ward where the deceased are dressed and temporarily kept. A radio is playing entertainment music and a comic situation arises when the corpse’s pants are put on the wrong way round: The joke is a way in which what has been dissociated in the form of repression returns, as psychoanalysis has shown us. 

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

De Humanis Corporis Fabrica

The end of the film takes us to a farewell party held on the roof terrace of the Hôpital Beaujou in the Clichy district for a colleague who has accepted a position in Canada. They dance to Blue Monday and I will survive. The camera shows the dancers like shadows appearing in the light from the windows. This is followed by a long passage in which the camera slowly moves along a mural: naked bodies in sexual and obscene positions have portraits of the staff placed on top of them, with skeletons and skulls in between. Both passages seem like a reference to images of medieval dances of death, as if both the filmmakers who made these shadow images and decided to include them in the film and the artists who created the mural still find the actual, still valid expression in this pre-modern pictorial tradition of confrontation with death. The last picture before the credits shows a variation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The community of diners has gathered around the one who sits in their midst and will soon be no more. 

If every perception takes place in a now, it is characterised by something singular. The way in which the context is conceived, in which man gives meaning and coherence to his singular perceptions and that of the world, is understood by Michel Foucault as a specific form of folding in the relationship to the outside. For the age of Renaissance humanism, Foucault calls this form representation. Vesalius can cut up the body because it is the product of God’s workshop. The representation of its parts refers to a creator who can never come into the picture himself and yet everything is related to him. The visible has its anchor in an invisibility, a void, as Foucault shows in his reading of Diego Velázques’ painting Las Meninas: The royal couple, to whom everyone is referring, is certainly visible in a mirror, but illuminated by a light that cannot be that which shines in through the high windows. “In its bright depth, it does not reflect what is visible.”7 It is precisely in this that the royal couple refers to the perfect sovereignty of God. The factory of the human body in the film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, although it still takes up the old images, is a workshop in the modern sense, a place of human production of the human being. It is no longer part of an infinite chain of references to an outside, the outside, the Other is in the human being itself, as its vulnerability, its illness, its death. A completely different void opens up, as the woman’s long speech shows, as do the staff’s conversations with the patients and with each other: between a knowledge of the function of individual parts of the body, which is acted upon with highly differentiated technology, and the discursive search for meaning, that of the fate of the patients, but also that of the amount of rent for a condominium or one’s own stress at work. This hustle and bustle of discourse indicates the void, a non-human in the sense of the non-subjectified, in the practices of man himself: a void that can also be described as a dissociation between the knowledge institutionalised in specialised actions and highly differentiated technical apparatuses and moral judgement.


The title of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s first major joint film project “Leviathan” (2012) also calls for an archaeological reading, a determination of the layers of meaning. Leviathan is initially a biblical reference, which the film quotes in a passage from the Book of Job at the beginning, printed in a font that itself refers to a historicising typeface: “31 he maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. 32 he maketh a path to shine after him: one would think the deep to be hoary. 33 upon earth there is no his like. who is made without fear. – hiob 41” The passage is set to the increasingly loud sounds of the wind and the waves crashing against something solid. A flickering red spot appears and disappears from the frame several times. Mechanical noises are added. This is followed by a night-time shot of the dark sea. The camera’s gaze seems directly linked to the abrupt movements of an active creature orientating itself. A container is pulled out of the sea by chains. When a person in yellow oilskins comes into the camera’s field of vision, it becomes clear that the camera is probably fixed on the head of another person and is following his movements, which differ from those of his eyes. The movements of the body and the dynamics of vision diverge. 28 minutes have passed before a shot of the camera allows us to clearly situate it on a deep-sea fishing boat, and 66 minutes have passed before a shot of the deck from a mast allows us to spatially categorise the images. There is no total shot of the ship at all.

This cinematic principle of decoupling what is recorded by the camera from the dynamics of the gaze seeking orientation, forming figurations and identifying objects is maintained throughout almost the entire film. It is realised in various forms: In addition to the images of the cameras attached to the heads or bodies of the persons, there are recordings from cameras that are permanently attached to places on the ship that could hardly be those of the human eye. These include, in particular, images taken by cameras mounted just above the bottom of vats into which the fish caught in the nets are poured. The camera held by the filmmakers often encounters people from extremely close up, showing a porous organic landscape before it is recognisable as human skin, the tattoo of a mermaid on a man’s arm, parts of the face such as the eyes. When the bodies can be seen more fully, they are often engaged in activities whose meaning or purpose is only vaguely recognisable because, for example, the hands that open mussels with a screwdriver and separate the flesh from the shell cannot be seen at the moment the mussel is forcibly opened. A long passage shows a static image of the fishermen’s common room. A television is on and reports on sport. We see a man’s exhaustion, his tiredness, his barely discernible state on the threshold between sleep and the effort to keep his body upright and his facial features under control. These are images as if from a surveillance camera that is insensitive to the meaning of what it sees. In 2013, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor selected another 29-minute excerpt from this camera and showed it in exhibitions under the title Still Life / Nature Morte (Lucien Castaing-Tayor and Véréna Paravel, 2013). We see three men sitting at a table, alone or in pairs, in a similar state of exhaustion, their gaze, always close to sleep, mostly directed at the television (never visible to the viewer of the film), the sound of which is completely overlaid here by the loud noise of the ship’s engines. In addition to the threshold between sleep and exhaustion, there is also the threshold between loneliness and moments of communicative connection to the colleagues sitting at the table. In Leviathan, the disjunction between the optics of the camera and the dynamics of the human gaze is joined by the acoustic presence of the sea, the machines and, rarely, the shouts of the men, whose contexts are often not linked to individual actions.



There are three central series of images in Leviathan. The first could be called the series of cosmic images, which suddenly emerge from the moving images not motivated by a consciousness for short and sometimes longer takes that never follow a horizontal orientation: Images of the sky, the sea, the light and the birds that accompany the trawler in a flock or even the water coloured red by blood flowing into the sea. The second is a series of images of colours that detach themselves from the surface of things that reflect the light; images of abstract beauty, a visual that has freed itself from reference to the object. The third series are images of injury: sea creatures lying in vats without water and dying in resistance to their plight; or birds with broken wings trying to escape through hatches in the ship’s side. There are also images of active injury, such as the cutting off of fish heads with a knife or the fins of large rays with a machete. The latter has a provocative urgency because tools and actions are used on the animal that come from wood processing and agriculture: Hooks are hammered into the fins by two men, as if into a felled tree trunk, so that the fins can then be chopped off with a vertical stroke of the machete. One shot shows how a foot pushes the cut fins, which seen to have gills that still open and close, through a hatch in the ship’s side. Finally, the images of the exhaustion of the men themselves also belong in this series of images of injury. 



The biblical Leviathan is the monster that seems to challenge God with its ability to destroy, but the Book of Job teaches that God also guarantees the meaning and wholeness or perfection of the world in the face of this threat. God subjects Job to severe and painful trials, but Job does not give up his faith and is ultimately rewarded by God with the gift of a long life and many descendants. For Renaissance humanism, God still represents the guarantee of perfection, but with a dissecting look into one’s own body, the divine creation and its principles are folded into man himself and reassembled in figurative fiction. So it is not a big step to do something of the same structure of folding in the exterior divine into the human social co-existence. In 1651, a century after Vesalius’ atlas of anatomy, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. The book is regarded as the founding act of the theory of the state as a social contract. The frontispiece shows a pyramid-shaped mass of people with the sovereign head of state at the top. Above him is a quote from the Book of Job: “Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei. Iob. 41. 24” (“There is no power on earth to be compared to him.”) Hobbes’ introduction begins with the sentence: “NATURE (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal.”8 This is followed by a comparison of the areas of public life with the parts of the human body, which thus become organs of the state. Hobbes calls it the great Leviathan. “Lastly, the Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Creation, life as a never symmetrical and reversible gift of God becomes a legal relationship of contract among equals, a matter of the human being.

Just as in De Humanis Corporis Fabrica the divine factory of the body has become the place of production of human labour, which dissolves the unity of man guaranteed by the Other, in Hobbes’ Leviathan creation and meaning of the social organisation become the property of man. If we follow Foucault’s definition, the sovereign has “the right to take life or to let live”. Something of this still pervades the hospital, for example in the judgement of when the moment has come to “pull the plug”. But it has taken on a different form. In modern society, whose dispositive Foucault calls biopolitics, the right has turned round and become the right “to make life or to push into death”.9 At this very core, the fishing boat resembles a modern state: the massacre of the animals of the sea is justified by the production of the means of life for humans. But the exhaustion of the men who do this work shows the folding in of ‘pushing into death’ as a dissociation in man himself, a nature morte, a sinking into oneself. The images of exhaustion are reminiscent of the woman in the gerontology, who seems to be listening to something within herself that makes her cry out.


The form in which Paravel and Castaing-Taylor record and edit their films stems from an extraordinary sensitivity to dissociation. This is already evident in the two long films that precede their collaboration. The footage for Sweet Grass (Ilisa Barbasch and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009) was shot in the mountains of Montana between 2001 and 2003. Castaing-Taylor accompanies shepherds and their flocks on their tour to the summer pasture, the last of these trails, as we learn in the end credits. As shepherds, the men have a caring relationship with the animals, which occasionally turns into verbal aggression, especially when they do not want to follow the wishes of the shepherds, but the words they use humanise them and occasionally take up vocabulary known from male anger against the willfulness of women. There is also a series of cosmic images of the landscape, the sky and the night. But the most powerful passage shows a dissociation that is affectively bound: The shearing of the sheep happens both routinely and lovingly, there is something of an erotic encounter of bodies that gives form to this act. While this film is characterised by an awareness of the disappearance of this culture, Foreign Parts (Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, 2010) already indicates dissociation in its title. The film was made in Willets Pont in the shadow of Citi Field Stadium in the New York borough of Queens. Several thousand people live and work in this industrial zone characterised by car mechanics’ workshops, some of them for decades, without paved roads and threatened by the city’s modernisation projects. The film title is underscored by the sound of a forklift truck, the first shots show it being used to dismantle cars in a wrecking yard. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see the spare parts stores of the workshops. The dissociation of the neighbourhood from the rest of society has also been folded into the people and becomes visible in the ruptures in life plans, the inconsistencies between speech and action or the everyday improvisation of survival. At the same time, the film shows a network of social relationships and mutual open tolerance and help that counteracts the further disintegration of the foreign parts. At the centre of the film Caniba (Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Tayor, 2017), also shown as an installation under the title Commensal (2017),10 is Issei Sagawa, who went to the Sorbonne as a doctoral student after completing his degree in English literature and murdered a fellow student in his flat in 1981, sexually assaulted her corpse and then cut it and devoured a large part of her flesh. He was caught and deported to his native Japan after two years as legally insane. His crime was the subject of many media reports; one of which we can hear at the beginning. In a manga he made about his deed, which he also presents in the film, the knife cutting into the body takes centre stage; this seems like an externalisation of a deep inner dissociation that still shapes his sexuality. Somniloquies (Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2017) reproduces the sound recordings of singer-songwriter Dion McGregor, who spoke long passages in his sleep. His flatmate in New York in the ’60s recorded this dissociated speech. Sometimes scenes in his speech become clear, other times the words seem disarticulated. Sexualised attacks on the body are a recurring theme, right up to vivsection, with the positions in the scenes constantly shifting between acting, watching and lustfully suffering. The images in the film are mostly blurred shots of a camera moving close across naked sleeping bodies. These lose their form, are defigured as objects, although they remain an impalpable entity from which the disarticulated speech seems to emerge.


Foreign Parts

With De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, something becomes more evident that remains rather latent in the earlier films, something that goes beyond the biopolitical dispositive and outlines a new constellation. The organising principle of medical technology is no longer the essentially mechanical apparatus of the ship of state in Leviathan, which can thrust into death and make life. Even if the interface shown to the human being still follows the old images of anatomy, the way they are produced also allows for completely different manipulations and realisations, as they themselves no longer follow the rules of mechanics, but those of digitalisation. At the end of his book on Foucault, Gilles Deleuze speaks of the “unlimited finity”, of the practically unlimited variety of combinations of individual data that the machine models according to its algorithms.11 If they still make life, or, as has happened due to the Covid 19 pandemic virus probably created in the laboratory, push us into death, then they do so in a way that directly intervenes from the inside of the body. Life thus tends to lose the power of autonomy of a self-regulating process that deals with its inner other, its death. As early as the ‘80s, Jean-François Lyotard began to reflect on the concatenation rules of these machines and the institutions shaped by them, because they are unlimited, unlike human language, and thus transcend the discursive logics of human language and slip away from them. He calls this the Inhumane of technology.12 He contrasts this with another Inhumane that must be sharply distinguished from it. He calls it childhood. By this, “I do not simply understand, as do rationalists, an age without reason”, but “the condition of being affected, although we don’t have the means – language and representation – of naming, identifying, reproducing, and recognizing what affects us. By infancy, I mean that we are born before being born to ourselves.”13 The series of cosmic images, of colours, of flying birds, of small social gestures, but also the images of being hurt, of being lost in oneself, belong to this other Inhuman. In the film, images are also montage and sound. When they disarticulate and still say, address, when they make us see and hear without identifying and naming, when they maintain the absence of localisation in the structure, the films open themselves up to the sensitivity of this Inhuman. Even if they form series, they go from the singular to the singular, while the series of images that the algorithm of artificial intelligence produces on the basis of its concatenation rules, even taking into account random generators, do not go beyond an average image. Perhaps, following Lyotard’s distinction, we can also differentiate between two dissociations: a dissociation that violates this non-subjectivised sensibility itself and separates it from the subject, and a dissociation in which sensibility holds itself against the concatenation rules twofold, against the “mainmise over the infant’s soul”,14 as Lyotard calls it, the wound that man inflicts on it, and against the seduction of escaping this negativity through the identification of things that the discourses seem to promise. If so, this second dissociation could be called an ethical one and would be something like the sentiance of dissociation itself. 


If we follow Lyotard’s question “what if what is ‘proper’ to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman”,15 what does this mean for film, which is both a technical process and an event of sensibility and aisthesis? What would be the relationship between the technology of film and its “childhood” today? 

In his 1973 text “Acinema”, Lyotard starts from an understanding of film as a recording of movement, of all kinds of movement, not only of bodies in space, but also of the visual itself, of editing, of patterns, of the sequence of abstract stimuli and intensities of colours and forms. This barely limited multiplicity of movements, which form a continuum of transformation, is eliminated in conventional film in order to create the impression of film as representation. Here Lyotard draws an analogy with the movements of the child, its desire to move its body without reference to space, its play with voice and rhythm, the rapid dance of its eyes, which follow the visual and not the visible. They will be “eliminated” just as the potentiality of recordings of movement in film is reduced, “following the rules of representation for spatial localisation, those of narration for the instantiation of language, and those of the form ‘film music’ for the soundtrack.”16 These rules are established via a third, a value that they represent and that arises in exchange with the other elements of the film. Lighting a match to smoke a cigarette is part of such a concatenation. “But when a child strikes the match-head to see what happens – just for the fun of it – he enjoys the movement itself, the changing colours, the light flashing at the height of the blaze, the death of the tiny piece of wood, the hissing of the tiny flame.”17

Film is a dissociative process, not so much because its original technique works with the temporal sequence of individual frames, but above all because the filmic image itself is initially a framed outtake. In the 1976 text “The Unconscious as Mise-en-scène”, Lytoard questions framing from a double perspective, a spatial and a temporal one. Lyotard analyses in some detail how Michael Snow’s La Région centrale (1971) “eliminates framing” in its spatial dimension.18 The temporal perspective understands the mise-en-scène as a layering of constellations which, as in the psychoanalytical understanding of fantasy, shows the object as an originless image of transformation, whereby, in an analogy to the timelessness of the unconscious assumed by Sigmund Freud, the individual figurations exist on top of one another as if in a multiple exposure – right up to the dissolution of the figurative into abstraction. 

To my knowledge, there is no indication that Lyotard was familiar with the work of Stan Brakhage, but Brakhage’s work can be read very largely in parallel with Lyotard’s reflections. Brakhage also repeatedly refers to childlike vision in his films and writings.19 His works are experiments on the act of seeing proper; they do not focus on the recognition and identification of objects, but on the dissociative movement arising from the act of seeing itself. It eludes discipline by referring to representation as a third party that enables exchange as meaning or value by following transformation and the dynamics of intensities that result from the alternation of focussing and defocussing, the speed of eye movement in space, the flickering superimposition of optical stimuli, the superimposition of images and montage. They form a series of analogies without finding an anchor in the symbolic. The series of images in the films of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, which I have called a cosmic one, and that of the colours find a parallel here. 

In fact, Brakhage’s films can be seen as an important reference in the development of the aesthetic techniques of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s cinematography.20 Brakhage’s film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes belongs to the narrow canon of films that are shown and discussed in the SEL training programme.21 The film was made in the autopsy section of the Pittsburgh morgue and not only anticipates much of the film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, but leads back to Vesalius’ De Humanis Corporis Fabrica. However, the dissection in the autopsy is no longer about tracing the structural principles of the living body on the corpse, but about an anatomy of death, about describing the injuries or disorders that have led to death. No longer a decision about life and death, as in the case of the sovereign, but an understanding of what has led to death: Appropriation not only of life, but also of death with the aim of being able to enter it into the administration of order. The almost 32-minute film ends with a shot of a doctor speaking the results of the autopsy into a dictation machine. With a duration of 20 seconds, which is only cut once by a change in the shooting distance, it is by far the longest of the entire film. 

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is part of a trilogy of films made in Pittsburgh in 1971/72. Eyes consists of shots taken while accompanying police officers in their patrol cars. (Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to view the film.) Deus ex was shot in a Pittsburgh hospital and can therefore be seen even more directly than the first mentioned film as a precursor to the film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor. In its abbreviation of ‘Deus ex machina’, the title maintains the ambivalence between the phrase originating in Greek theatre, which was used to describe the intervention of God in the fictional events on stage, and the absence of God: it thus expresses in an extremely concentrated and poetic form precisely the ambivalence that I described as the folding in of God’s sovereignty in Vesalius’ book on anatomy. A passage lasting just under 9 minutes of the 32-minute film consists of shots from the operating theatre and, in addition to short shots of the open body, mainly shows the hands of the doctors during an open-heart operation. They are narratively framed and visually de-framed by short shots of trees and plants. In both films, we have analogies to De Humanis Corporis Fabrica right down to the shots: the opened body, the removal and examination of individual organs, including the brain, the close-ups of the living organs in their pulsating movement, the hands of the dead and those of the dissecting doctors. But there are crucial differences. In his shots and montage, Brakhage follows the dissociative dynamics of his own subjective vision. Only in a few shots does Brakhage’s camera eye follow the idea of a gaze that encompasses the entire body. When they do, they seem to draw on the pathos formula, to use Aby Warburg’s term, which Hans Holbein the Yonger found for the depiction of death in his “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. The painting was created between 1520 and 1522, just over two decades before Vesalius published his anatomy book. The setting of the images and their montage is itself dissociative, moving from individual to individual, from hands to hands, but often also from the visible to the veiled. Again and again we see images of cloths and their texture superimposed on the texture of the opened and fragmented organic. The cloth, which is already an important part of Holbein’s painting, protects the injured body from the gaze, but it also protects the gaze itself, it stands between concern and disposal. In one of the longer shots in Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, we see how the blood mixed with water is pumped from a table tub into a drainage basin after an autopsy: an image that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor must have had in their visual memory, because it anticipates the often described and previously mentioned passage from Leviathan in which the blood of the fish mixed with water is washed out of the ship. 

The crucial difference, however, lies in something else: In the works of the two SEL authors, as mentioned, an actor is added in each case; in Leviathan it is the machine of the trawler, to which the sailors are subject, albeit in a different way just like the catch of the nets; in the hospital it is the machine of digital technology. This also corresponds to a change in the technology of filming. For Brakhage, there was an analogy between the sensitivity of the film material and the sensitivity of human vision, which is directly expressed in films such as The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), in which the film material was partly exposed via direct contact with plants. This analogy no longer applies to the digital technology of seeing in De Humanis Corporis Fabrica or to the GoPros used in Leviathan. The cloth, one could say, has been replaced by the image taken directly from the apparatus, which is insensitive to the analogue morphology of seeing. This has created a different dissociation; the affectivity of seeing, in which Brakhage’s films find their movement, has been largely eliminated by the digital aisthesis of the apparatus. The dissociation is no longer so much that of the “childlike” eye, the dissociation consists of the separation between the sensibility for the visible in man and the sensibility of the digital political machines, which know no affects. The aesthetics of the digital machines are sovereign in a new sense; they are actors of a made, but no longer human sensibility that parcells and discretises what is perceived in order to fictitiously reassemble it as a now made organ. While Brakhage’s films are still graphics of the movement of seeing and follow its rhythm, which is autonomous and not subject to the rhythm of language and concatenation, these films are ethnographies of the confrontation and intertwining of the dissociating perception of the subject and the dissociating perception in the technical or digital-technical age, which prescribe a different logic of concatenation. They raise the question of the relationship between the dissociation that the sovereign aisthesis of childhood, which is not subject to concatenations, suffers, which makes it an Inhuman in man himself, and the dissociation of the aisthesis of machines, which is radically detached from human sensibility in its aisthesis and sovereign in its own way. By meeting the images of the digital machines as visual events and not as representations of biological and medical knowledge and action, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor show a possible path to an ethnography of this relationship. The “optically unconscious” of childhood and the “unconscious optical” of the machines form a chiasmus in central parts of their film, a continuum of interweaving that is no longer anchored in representation.


  1. J.-F. Lyotard, Anamnesis of the Visible 2, Qui Parle, Issue 11/2 (Fall/Winter 1999): p. 21-36, 30.
  2. E. Lévinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 1988): p. 37.
  3. J.-F. Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1988).
  4. A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Basel: Johann Oporinus 1543).
  5. Paravel & Castaing-Taylor – Cosmic Realism. Exhibition (Amsterdam: EYE Film Instituut Nederland, 20.01.-20.05.2024).
  6. A. Schwartz, The Filmmakers Who Voyaged inside the Body”, The New Yorker, 15 May 2023.
  7. M. Foucault, The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London and New York: Routledge 1989): p. 4.
  8. Th. Hobbes, Leviathan, Volume 2 (London: Continuum International Publishing Group 2005): p. 9.
  9. M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books 1978): p. 138 (Translation changed).
  10. V. Paravel, L. Castaing-Taylor, Commensal, Installation (Kassel: Documenta 14, Tofufabrik)
  11. G. Deleuze, Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1988): p. 131.
  12. J.-F. Lyotard, The Inhuman. Reflections of Time (Cambridge: Polity Press 1991): p. 1.
  13. J.-F. Lyotard, “Mainmise”, Philosophy Today, Issue 36/4 (Winter 1992): p. 419-427, 420.
  14. Lyotard, “Mainmise”: p. 420.
  15. Lyotard, The Inhuman: p.2.
  16. J.-F. Lyotard, „Acinema“ in Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film, Graham Jones and Ashley Woodward, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017): p. 34.
  17. Lyotard, „Acinema“: p. 34.
  18. J-F- Lyotard, „The Unconscious as Mise-en-scène“ in Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film: p.52.
  19. S. Brakhage, Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking (Kingston: Documenttext): p. 18.
  20. I thank the anonymous reader of the peer review for this reference.
  21. S. MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press 2013): p.335.