The shift towards more sensuous modes of scholarship has been producing exciting interdisciplinary work across the fields of cultural anthropology, film, art history, architecture, design and new media. At the same time, research in the contemporary brain sciences is detailing the innate neurobiology of feeling itself, lending further credence to emerging philosophies of the “embodied” mind (1). As longstanding divisions between the thinking and feeling body begin to erode, we are having to come to grips with the fact that, as anthropologist David Howes points out, “the mind is necessarily embodied and the senses themselves mindful”, offering us complicated sources of meaning in their own right. According to Howes, a focus on the diversity of our perceptual life is not so much “a matter of losing our minds”, it is, more appropriately, a question of “coming to our senses” in which “matter” matters and there is a need to historicise sensual significance (2).
In film studies, more particularly, the role that proximate sensation might play in the cinema has opened up alternate modes of interpretation, beyond the domain of the audiovisual; from cutaneous appeals to the skin, to the inherent tactility of vision, or how the direct senses (smell, touch, taste) can be called into play through our mnemonic or phenomenological contact with the image (3). With a greater sense of urgency for the sensual, we are returning to earlier periods of film history and their writings, especially in terms of the physiological vigour that marks the work of figures like Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Sergei Eisenstein in the early twentieth century. Indeed, as early as 1929, Eisenstein discussed his idea of the “filmic fourth dimension” as intimately connected to sensual nuance and the extraordinary capacity of the cinema to elicit different physical states: “For the musical overtone (a throb) it is not strictly fitting to say: ‘I hear’. Nor for the visual overtone: ‘I see’. For both, a new uniform must enter our vocabulary: ‘I feel’” (4).
Nevertheless, in the rush to re-conceptualise spectatorship as sensuous, mimetic and embodied, a number of pitfalls threaten to emerge. Firstly, there is a danger that the sensual density of the cinema might only be associated with certain modes of film (i.e. with experimental, inter-cultural or post-classical film, say), as these are deemed somehow “more” receptive to the senses. Not only does such an alignment neglect earlier periods of the cinema in which sensation is crucial, it fails to harness the possibilities of re-visiting film history from the standpoint of sensuous scholarship or incorporating aesthetic traditions outside of film that also lend very different contexts to the sensate and sense-making tendencies of our own bodies. Secondly, there is the danger that a newly invigorated conception of spectatorship through the direct senses might continue to isolate, devalue and neglect vision, perpetuating the kind of anti-ocular critique that has been well documented within Western philosophy (5). In the valorising of skin as an organ of perception in the cinema, it should be remembered that there is also a highly pressing need to restore what Barbara Maria Stafford calls “good looking”; a focus on vision that speaks to the embodied intelligence of sight and our faith in the significance of vision and visuality as it might contribute to such thought-provoking attention (6). This is not to mention the fact that vision itself is always embodied and embedded in synoptic sensibility that is the lived-body, a body that necessarily integrates and understands the world in which it lives through all its sensory portals.
Fortunately, in The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film, Brigitte Peucker falls prey to none of these potentially limiting tendencies. In an excellent study of what she labels the “material” image, Peucker is to be commended for drawing out the materiality of the film experience from the historic to the contemporary. From European art cinema to contemporary Hollywood, her discussion spans a range of filmmakers such as Leni Riefenstahl, Michael Haneke, Alfred Hitchcock, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Peter Greenaway and noted “cannibalistic” horror directors such as Tobe Hooper. Refreshingly, Peucker concentrates on the importance of looking and vision in questions of materiality but it is always embodied vision that remains her concern; the imbrication of the eye in the rest of the sensorium in aesthetic experience returns us to the pre-modern notion of aesthesis, where aesthetics once entailed sensory modes of knowing and perceiving. Likewise, it is the historic writings of Kracauer that take on a renewed potency for Peucker when considering the lure of the “real” in film. According to her, the materialist project of Kracauer in his Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) promotes a strong “continuity between the moving image and the embodied observer” (p. 50). Unlike Benjamin, who often tended to discuss cinema in terms of a unidirectional, tactile assault or “shock”, Peucker suggests that the value of Kracauer lies in an alternate conception – that of a “mutual permeability” between film and spectator (p. 6). In itself, the notion of a porous relationship between film and viewer is nothing new; the correlative nature of this relationship has long been promoted by phenomenological strains of film theory (7). What fascinates about The Material Image is how Peucker interweaves the embodied relations between film and viewer with earlier aesthetic traditions (Denis Diderot’s Salons, the tableau vivant and trompe l’oeil) and the work of art historians and visual theorists (Michael Fried, Mieke Bal and Svetlana Alpers, in particular) – work that has, likewise, stressed the materiality of art and a shared corporeality in the movement between painting and its beholder. One need only think of Laura Marks’ productive re-working of Aloïs Riegl’s distinction between the optic and haptic in art for developing the notion of “haptic cinema” to realise the benefits that might come from our drawing upon and utilising art historical discussion in dynamic, trans-historic and interdisciplinary ways, even outside the original context (8).
Central to The Material Image is the heterogeneity of the cinema itself – its longstanding relationship with other art forms such as painting, sculpture, photography, dance and literature that are foregrounded in what Peucker calls “intermediality”, instances where film and different representational systems collide (p. 14, p. 31). According to Peucker, the tableaux in film reveal a particularly charged instance of intermediality. Historically, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century craze for the tableau (theatrical scenes of static action, resembling a painting) and, later, the tableau vivant (the staging of well-known paintings by human actors, frozen in gestural pose) had already conflated the traditions of painting, drama and sculpture. The filmic tableaux further compound media hybridity and the layering of the real and the representational, while also invoking photography, for these are, essentially, moments of arrested motion that work to interrupt the temporal flow of the cinema. Intriguingly, Peucker argues that the tableau is not only a charged instance of intermediality, but one of a charged physicality in the corporeal exchange that takes place between the spectator and screen. Tableau and tableau vivant moments in film demand our affective response: they address their audience emblematically, often provoking somatic empathy with the static scene at hand (“Held at a moment of emotional intensity, the content of the tableau is that emotion”, Peucker tells us [p. 130]). In addition, given their complex interplay of the two- and the three-dimensional and the sway of space over time, the representational layering of tableaux effects “can be said to produce a ‘spatialization of the moving image’, and an ‘image cluster’ that lends the image a kind of material density” (p. 47). As Peucker writes, these moments are inherently physical reminders that
the “motion picture” is the first medium to be able to animate visual representation, to make painting “come to life”. From the point of view of the human perceptual apparatus, it is motion that confers the impression of three-dimensionality upon the image (p. 26),
thereby animating the image into the semblance of embodied being.
Intermediality is a concept that productively builds upon body-oriented film theorists such as Steven Shaviro and Elena del Río, both of whom have argued for the tangible phenomenological presence of the cinema as it happens to be realised in the spectatorial body (9). What makes The Material Image such an excellent continuation of that work is Peucker’s attention to historic aesthetic traditions that deliberately confuse the real with the representational, an aesthetic game that the cinema continues through tableaux. As Peucker reminds us, both
cognitive and phenomenological approaches to perception alike tell us that spectatorial affect is “real” even when it is film and not reality that produces it…the emotional and bodily response of the spectator can be said to extend textuality into the real world. (p. 1)
In one of her chapters on Hitchcock, for instance – which, I admit, elicited an involuntary groan from me at first: did the world really need another essay on Hitchcock or the psychic complexities of a film like Vertigo (1958)? – Peucker provides an enlightening discussion of the embodied impression of movement into and out of the frame, games with perception that are highly suggestive of a phenomenological continuity between spectator and screen, the real and the represented (10). Through a wonderful utilisation of the work of art historian, Michael Fried, and his concepts of absorption, theatricality and “beholding” in relation to Hitchcock’s own brand of theatricality, Peucker not only offers us new interpretations of many of his films but different aesthetic histories of “realism” by which to gauge the cinema, traditions that alert us to more corporeally entrenched notions of realism. Throughout The Material Image, debates surrounding the “real” and “realism” are deftly re-defined by Peucker as an embodied continuum that flows between art and its beholder, film and our own bodies, rather than being predicated upon naïve notions of indexicality (or, worse, the assumed duplicity of the cinema, striving to convince us that its images are real and, apparently, prompting all kinds of psychic and ideological anxiety in the process). Instead, Peucker’s concept of the “material image” helps us move beyond debates about indexicality to factor in the cinema’s own games with illusion, games that can be traced through to much earlier aesthetic traditions which demand our conscious, embodied and even pleasurable delight in representational layering. Indeed, as Peucker herself suggests, there is real “aesthetic pleasure to be derived from illusion…Attempts to categorize the varieties and degrees of illusion…sometimes overlook the pleasure lurking in the both/and of ambiguity” in the collision of the real and the represented (p. 8).
That said, the body that is very much the focus of The Material Image (whether it be on-screen or off) is rarely involved in states of pleasure or delight. Instead, this is a body that is rubbed raw, bruised, broken, mutilated, swollen, sore, flayed, masochistic, dead or dying, threatened, uncanny, horrified, disgusted and disgusting, abject. Despite her references to the philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the embodied effects of vision (through the masochistic erotic tableaux) that Peucker examines have far more in common with the alienating nature of inter-subjective vision that was the mark of Merleau-Ponty’s contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre (11). Merleau-Ponty had a greater sense of an embodied reciprocity, rather than tension, in his accounts of embodied perception. It might have lent more weight to this study if Peucker had examined a greater breadth of embodied effects to the tableaux in film; however, as any real horror fan knows, there is pleasure to be found in this kind of painful vision, so for those interested in horror and interrelated genres this is sure to be of interest. At times, Peucker exhibits a tendency to concentrate a little too heavily on representations of embodiment (sometimes veering off into psychoanalytic interpretation of the various films under discussion); this detracts from the mutual permeability of film and spectator that, I believe, is this book’s most significant contribution to discussions of the real. In those chapters where an equally weighted focus on the cinema’s material effects is distributed between on-screen and off (the chapters on Hitchcock, Haneke and cannibalistic horror, especially), Peucker shines with sophisticated and cogently argued analyses of what intermediality and the tableaux might bring to their incursion into film. These are relatively minor concerns in relation to the overall contribution that The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film makes: an otherwise fine example of what interdisciplinary, trans-historic and sensuous approaches to the cinema can yield for film studies, visual culture and art history, as well as sensuous scholars, alike.
While embodiment is re-emerging as a potentially rich and varied site of analysis, it is, arguably, somewhat different to its post-structuralist focus in the eighties and nineties; these writings often tended to abstract embodiment into its favoured theoretical conceptions, thereby positioning it as a kind of text to be read, written, constructed, deciphered or inscribed upon. Despite the intense critical focus on “the body” that occurred in much of this work, it is remarkable how often the “reality” of embodiment ended up being elided in its concrete materiality and discussed in an almost disincarnate, bloodless fashion (12). For me, it is unfortunate that there is less of what Paul Stoller likes to call the “scholar’s body’” in The Material Image, less of the material impact of the films that are under discussion in terms of Peucker herself and sensuous description (13). It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable in using the subjective/sensuous voice in my work (a subjectivity or personal autobiography that seems more openly encouraged and welcomed in the realm of fan studies, say). Yet, how do we expect to make sensuous scholarship meaningful to others if we cannot make it meaningful to ourselves? In building up the sensual turn of scholarship within film, ought not there be more of us willing to place ourselves “in the picture”, so to speak, a move that would surely be apposite to many of Peucker’s claims about the real/represented? Having shunned the body’s sensual significance and its sense-making of the world for so long, it seems well and truly overdue to try and better incorporate the subjectivity of the sensual, both in film studies and across the related disciplines. Fail spectacularly, if needs be; at least the sensually subjective voice speaks to the complexity of even inhabiting different visual and embodied cultures. Eisenstein knew, early on, the value that such a subjectively sensuous voice possesses, when it comes to the most accurate description of the cinema’s bodily appeals – the cinema is neither a case of “I see” nor “I hear” but “I feel”.
The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film, by Brigitte Peucker, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2007.
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- For a fine example of how neurophilosophy and contemporary research in the brain sciences might be of considerable import to the past and present of visual culture, refer to Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.
- David Howes (ed.), Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Cultures Reader, Berg, Oxford, 2005, p. 7.
- Refer to Laura Marks’ work, especially The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999, and her more recent work, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multi-sensory Media, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002.
- Sergei Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” in Jay Leda (trans. and ed.), Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Harvest/Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1949, p. 71; also quoted in Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, Routledge, New York, 1993, pp. 28-29.
- See Martin Jay for an extensive documentation of the anti-visualism that pervades much of continental philosophy in his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.
- Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 11.
- Phenomenological film theorists like Vivian Sobchack, for instance, argue for the correlation between film and viewer as a reciprocal and reversible production of meaning; the film experience commingles “flesh and consciousness, reversing the human and the technological sensorium, so that meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction” (Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004, p. 67). See also Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, for an earlier and more polemic take on the correlative relationship between film and viewer.
- See Aloïs Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry, trans. Rolf Winkes, G. Bretschneider, Rome, 1985; Marks, The Skin of the Film and Touch.
- See Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, and Elena del Río, “Antonioni’s Blowup: Freeing the Imaginary from Metaphysical Ground”, Film-Philosophy, vol. 9, no. 32, June, 2005.
- I would argue that a phenomenological continuity between the real and the represented is likewise crucial to the aesthetics of the baroque and its incarnation in the cinema; the historic baroque crafted a co-extensive space between the perceived and perceiver. The impression of co-extensive space is central to baroque experiences of the cinema, in terms of both their embodied impact and spatial organisation. Refer to Saige Walton, “Cinema’s Baroque Flesh”, PhD Dissertation, The University of Melbourne, forthcoming 2007/2008.
- On the differences between these two philosophers, refer to M.C. Dillon, Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1988, pp. 125-129.
- For a gloss on these tensions, refer to Paul Stoller, Sensuous Scholarship, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997; in terms of the evacuation of a more sensuous language from film theory, see Sobchack, 2004, esp. pp. 53-84.
- Stoller, pp. xv-xvi.