MONTAGE, REALISM AND THE ACT OF VISION
Victor A. Grauer
©Victor A. Grauer, 1982
Epilogue and Appendix
The Politics of Vision
Now that the meaning of negative syntax has been thoroughly explored, we are at last in a position to fully deal with an issue which has haunted these pages from the very beginning, that most complex and elusive of all objects of current critical discourse: the question of ideology. The claim that the realms of both thought and perception are in their entirety dominated by ideologically determined, semiotically analyzable, codes has become a basic tenet of current "post-structuralist" theory. As this claim goes to the heart of the issues we have raised we must, at this point, seek to understand the relation between semiotics, ideology and negative syntax.
Ideology and the Transcendental Subject
In Metaphors on Vision, as we have seen, Brakhage's sardonic discussion of the "camera-eye" anticipates much in Baudry's "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus." Of course, as should by now be quite evident, Brakhage goes beyond Baudry. While the latter criticises camera optics as an affirmation of the idealism of Renaissance perspective, the former attacks camera optics in the process of making films. While the latter deplores the cinematic "denial of difference," the former develops an approach to montage which explodes it. At the heart of Baudry's argument, however, is a complex formulation which demands further clarification. For Baudry, the perspective space of camera optics is organised to "produce" a unified point of consciousness, literally the "point of view" to which perspective presents itself as a picture of reality. This point, the ideal eye of the ideal viewer, is identified with what he calls the "transcendental subject."
If you have ever become so absorbed in any activity that interruption seemed intolerable,
you will have felt the effects of the unified "subject" produced for you by the "ideology"
of the activity. While so absorbed, that subject is you; any interruption seems like an attack on your inmost nature.
As Baudry points out, film viewing is just this kind of activity. The unifications of perspective space and time by means of the cinematic apparatus are specifically designed to produce such a subject from the eye of the viewer. This is a key to the strange hold that even the most ordinary film can have on its audience.2
Ideology and Repression
Baudry's notion of the "transcendental subject" derives from the work of the French neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, whose radical rethinking of signification in psychoanalytic terms has had a profound impact on current semiotically oriented critical activity, particularly in the areas of literature and cinema.
For Lacan, the formation of the subject (Ego) is intimately associated with a phase of childhood which he calls the "mirror stage." Prior to this stage, apparently, the child has only a fragmented, heterogeneous awareness. Through recognition of its image in the mirror, however, it is able to integrate the fragments into a unified sense of self. Lacan explicitly identifies the mirror image in this context as a "Gestalt ...[which] symbolizes the mental permanence of the I ..." Only in and through such an integrated Ego is the development of language possible. Indeed, for Lacan, and Lacanian semiology, this process is a necessary precondition for any form of symbolization.3
While the workings of the mirror stage may seem innocent enough, in psychoanalytic
terms they are highly problematic. Associating the original sense of a fragmented body with the multiplicity of
materially (biologically) determined instinctive drives, Lacan identifies mirror-stage integration with what Freud
had called "repression," the subjugation of instinct by Ego. Indeed, once the subject (Ego) is fully
constituted, the fundamental drives can make themselves felt only through disruption, in the form of verbal slips,
unconscious mannerisms, neurotic symptoms, etc., what Freud called "the return of the repressed."
Identification with the Apparatus
Lacan's formulation has led to a radical rethinking of film theory. In the wake of Baudry's Lacanian analysis, Christian Metz produced a long meditation on the psychoanalytic foundations of cinematic semiology which has proven especially influential: "The Imaginary Signifier."4 Of central importance, for both Baudry and Metz, is the notion of a cinematic apparatus whose ideological function hinges on its reproduction of the workings of the mirror stage. Of course, viewer identification with the image of a principal character perceived on screen (in the "mirror") is already a commonplace of film psychology. In Lacanian terms, however, this mechanism must be understood as only of secondary importance, since, in the words of Metz, "identification with the human form appearing on the screen, even when it occurs, still tells us nothing about the place of the spectator's ego in the inaugeration of the signifier." Ultimately, for Metz (echoing Baudry), "the spectator identifies with himself ...as a pure act of perception ...[and] as he identifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera ..."5 It is this primary identification with the camera/projector apparatus itself which constitutes the transcendental subject as repressive Ego, implicated in the ideological process.
Thus, according to Baudry,
Just as the mirror assembles the [infant's original sense of a] fragmented body in a sort of imaginary integration of the self, the transcendental self [invoked by the cinema] unites the discontinuous fragments of phenomena, of lived experience, into unifying meaning. Through it each fragment assumes meaning by being integrated into an "organic" unity ...
The ideological mechanism at work in the cinema seems thus to be concentrated in the relationship between the camera and the subject.6
For Baudry and Metz, the ideology of cinema is inextricably bound to the Freudian notion of repression. Like the human subconscious, the cinematic "instrumentation [must] be hidden or repressed."7 This can of course simply refer to the camera which we must never see or even infer, the apparatus hidden within the projection booth, or the theater itself, darkened out of conscious awareness. Less literally, the notion of repression is the basis for that "denial of difference" which, as Baudry has argued, permits both the illusion of motion and the continuities of montage (both of which constitute the subject in time).
For the cinema as for the Ego, when all goes well, the repressed elements are "sublimated" that is channeled into a socially acceptable, transcendent experience of the ideal, the typical "movie." By the same token, when something goes wrong, the hidden, denied materialities manifest themselves, threatening the subject. A broken splice, a projector breakdown, etc., can indeed function as cinematic "return of the repressed." More interestingly, these hidden elements of the cinematic process would seem to produce a similar effect on the subject when presented on the screen:
Thus disturbing cinematic elements -- similar, precisely, to those elements indicating the return of the repressed -- signify without fail the arrival of the instrument "in flesh and blood," as in Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera. Both specular [mirror-stage] tranquillity and the assurance of one's own identity collapse simultaneously with the revealing [on-screen] of the mechanism, that is of the inscription of the film-work.8
Baudry's reference to Vertov in this context is of particular importance. After
years of almost total obscurity, Man With A Movie Camera, revived in the Sixties, was to become, for the Seventies, the key to a new sensibility.
Significantly, it is neither this film's dazzling play with space and time nor its radically elliptical rhetoric
but, above all else, its self-reflexive inquiry into the workings of its own "mechanism" or process,
which has elicited the strongest creative and critical response. Indeed, this work, in which the cinematic apparatus
itself takes center stage, where normally "repressed" elements, such as the camera, projector, editing
table, etc., are presented and in some sense "analyzed," became a rallying point for an approach to experimental
film making which was, in itself, an attack on cinematic ideology very much in the critical spirit of Baudry and
The new approach of which we speak can be traced, interestingly enough, to the paradoxes of Andy Warhol's earliest films. Not only did works such as Eat, Sleep and Empire subvert the notion of cinema as a "window on the world," they revealed in the medium a wholly unexpected mirror function. In these films, the cinematic apparatus, liberated by the complete detachment of the "auteur," seemed in some unfathomable way to be patiently documenting its own processes, and, to some extent, revealing their ideological basis. In the wake of Warhol's enormous impact, there was a movement away from Brakhage, who had up to then been the dominant avant-garde figure, toward a new kind of highly detached, radically simplified, process-oriented work, the so-called structural film.
This term has come under severe criticism from artists who have rightfully resented being grouped together within a narrowly defined program. Granted the existence of a good deal of diversity among film-makers labelled "structuralists," it must be said, nonetheless, that most of the films usually included within this category can accurately be described in terms of a single basic premise: the self-reflexive documentation of cinematic and/or cognitive process.
The development of a coherent theoretical approach to this new premise is, in large part, due to the efforts of Malcom LeGrice and Peter Gidal, leading spokesmen for the London based "structural/materialist" group. Unlike most of their better known American counterparts, the structural/materialists reveal a genuine awareness of, and sensitivity to, the problematics of ideologically determined viewer manipulation in the cinema generally. Fully in line with so much of the critical and theoretical analysis dominating European thought during the early Seventies, Marxist via Althusser, structuralist via Barthes, Freudian via Lacan, LeGrice and Gidal are absorbed in the problems of establishing a materialist practice which can effectively oppose ideological repression.
Unlike semioticians such as Baudry or Metz, concerned largely with the decoding of conventional (i.e., "dominant") cinematic language, the structural/materialists have focussed on the subversive strategies of the avant-garde. Thus LeGrice's major theoretical statement, Abstract Film and Beyond, is a history-analysis of what he calls "abstract and formal" cinema, relating the concerns of the early avant-garde (Richter, Léger, etc.) with those of the structuralist movement. Central to LeGrice's analysis are certain basic formal issues stemming from the discoveries of Cézanne and the Cubists. A major theme, in fact, as central for him as it has been for us, is the establishment of a cinematic time-of-the-surface by analogy with the spatial field of Cubism. His analysis (quite at variance with ours) opposes the "mystifications" of narrative temporality with the purely "concrete" time experience engendered by certain non-narrative films.
For him, characteristically, the early films of Warhol demonstrate "that experience
of duration as a concrete dimension could be achieved simply by the prolonged exposure to long periods of inactivity
...This new awareness of film's primary dimension, that of time, can be seen as equivalent to the abandonment of
deep, illusory perspective in painting, in favour of a shallow picture space, directly relatable to the material
nature of the actual canvas surface. This is Warhol's most significant innovation."9 A similar reasoning serves
to validate, for LeGrice, a great many structural films as well. Apparently, if a film involves the working through
of a straightforward process, then time will be experienced in terms of that process rather than in terms of the
artificial "perspective" time called forth by narrative.
Characteristically structuralist is LeGrice's stress on work which affirms the basic material and processes of its own medium," a key to his interest in Vertov, to whom he devotes an entire chapter. This phrase is applied to a work like Man With A Movie Camera in two senses: first, the film liberally exploits a host of essentially cinematic possibilities, such as rapid montage, superimposition, optical distortion, tracking shots, pans, etc.; second, as "the first film which clearly defines the camera as a participant in what it sees, ...it contains film of the camera itself, of projection machines, the cinema auditorium and public, the cinema screen, the film within the film, and the selection of shots at the editing table."10
The distinction between these two aspects of the same film is of great importance. While the first type of "affirmation" is essentially material, involving a maximal exploitation of the cinematic process at its formal limit, the second sets in motion a purely conceptual reflexive process through which the cinematic apparatus is understood to be signifying itself. For LeGrice, both aspects are essential. Formal film "firstly seeks to be `realist' in the material sense ...To this end, film-makers have paid increasing attention to the actuality of their materials and processes." Despite such essentially formal awareness, the artist is, nevereless, still constrained by his own subjectivity as well as "the conventions which currently exist in his medium."
So, secondly, the abstract and formal cinema seeks clarification within the films themselves of the relationship between the subjectivity of the film-maker, the constraints of his "language" and the subjectivity of the film-viewer. The search for this clarity of means, coupled with the attempt to give to the spectator an affirmation of his own reality has led to the emergence of deliberately reflexive forms.11
This aspect of LeGrice's position derives, in part, from the structuralism of Roland Barthes. According to Barthes, as quoted by LeGrice, "the goal of all structuralist activity ...is to reconstruct an 'object' in such a way as to manifest the rules of functioning ...of this object." In order to accomplish this, structuralism appears in the form of "intellect added to object."12 Thus for LeGrice"structuralism in art can be seen as a consequence of the awarness that concept can, and perhaps must, determine the nature of perception and experience if it is to avoid determination by existing convention and habit." He ends his book by concluding that only "the development of conscious, conceptual and reflexive modes of perception" can "counteract the emotional manipulation and reactionary catharsis of popular cinematic form."13
While LeGrice's colleague, Peter Gidal, casts his argument in a more complex, polemical and at times confusing, form, he attaches equal importance to reflexivity. As certain of his formulations capture the special nature of this strategy with great succinctness, we include them here:
Reflexiveness, self-reflexiveness or auto-reflexiveness, is a condition of self-consciousness which invigorates the procedure of filmic analysis during the film viewing event ...A film practice in which one watches oneself watching is reflexive; the act of self-perception, of consciousness per se, becomes one of the basic contexts of one's confrontation with work...Filmic reflexiveness is the presentation of consciousness to the self ...14
Critique of Structural/Materialism
The writings of LeGrice and Gidal articulate certain fundamental issues with great insight. While acknowledging the unquestionable significance of their contribution we must, nevertheless, take the opportunity to respond to those aspects of their position which promulgate some very basic misapprehensions.
Let us begin with LeGrice's analysis of cinematic time. Can one really assume that Warhol could achieve something analogous to the Cubist subversion of perspective by the simple expedient of keeping banal imagery on the screen for hours at a time? It is true that a radical increase in scale, in a painting, photograph or film, tends to work against depth and assert the surface, but this is primitive. Hugeness of any kind tends to neutralize all sense of space or time, in depth or on the surface, confronting us with a monumental, obtuse "presence," a pure, ungrounded icon. Far from achieving a "shallow" timefield, Warhol has simply succeeded in producing that "autistic stare" which is the exact equivalent, in time, to the rigid, fixed perspective of the wide-angle photograph.
LeGrice's general argument derives, of course, from Bergson, for whom "pure duration" could only attach itself to a process, such as the boiling of water, rather than a rationalistic artifact, such as the mechanism of a clock (or a movie projector). If we reflect, however, it becomes evident that both the boiling of water and the movements of clock-hands (not to speak of the operations of narrative itself) involve process. The real difficulty arises when two processes are coordinated in such a way that one dominates the other.
If we decide, for example, to take the roast out of the oven at the point when
the water begins to boil, we are substituting a "natural" process for the artificialities of clock time;
nevertheless, the process of cooking the roast is being subordinated to the boiling process. Similarly in a "process
film" of the kind that LeGrice promotes, every event is experienced in terms of an overall process rather
than its own duration. Ultimately therefore, it is process, not time, that is experienced. As we have already demonstrated,
the real key to the establishment of a time of the surface, in which each event can be experienced in terms of
its own duration, is not the foregrounding of process, but the active determination of the (negative) time field
itself. This cannot be achieved by the mechanistic tying of each duration to an overall process, but by a complex
balancing of each moment in relation to what precedes and follows it.
A Vicious Circle
LeGrice's simplistic view of temporality, essentially shared by Gidal, is symptomatic of a widespread theoretical tendency to treat the material aspect of modernist art as little more than a matter of assertion ("assertion" of the picture plane; "assertion" of the surface; "assertion" of color; "assertion" of process). As we have shown, the materialism of Cubism, Mondrian, Webern, Brakhage, goes far beyond the simple "assertion" of what LeGrice calls "the actuality of ... materials and processes." A weak materiality of this kind is indeed vulnerable to subjectivity, convention, ideology; must, indeed, be bolstered by the conceptual in the form of self-reflexive procedures. So widespread, in fact, is the notion of a modernism lacking an organizational base of its own, thus forced to operate either by blunt ("Romantic") assertion, or by turning conventional procedures against themselves, that reflexive strategies have come to be regarded as the sine qua non of any but the most idealized avant-garde activity.
The very serious contradictions of such strategies are revealed with great insight in an essay directed explicitly at the structural/materialist position: "The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary," by Constance Penley. Penley rejects the notion that a film like Man With A Movie Camera can, through the simple expedient of presenting expressly cinematic image-content, effectively disrupt cinematic ideology. She rejects all such forms of "near scientific" self-documentation, since "by asserting the objectivity of the images and the rationality of our relation to them," they unwittingly reconstitute the myth of scientific neutrality which Baudry exposed as the very basis of apparatus ideology. More broadly, she rejects any approach which pretends to disrupt ideology within the context of what Baudry and Metz have called "secondary identification." As such structuralist "researches" into cinematic process as Vertov's film still depend on that primary camera-identification which constitutes the transcendental subject, they can only reproduce the repressions of the mirror-stage.
Going to the heart of the issue, Penley relates the whole notion of self-reflexivity to an observation in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, concerning the moment "when the thought 'this is only a dream' occurs in a dream. This moment of critical judgement, this instant of 'reality' in the dream, Freud claims is only a strategy to insure that the anxiety arising in the dream is sufficiently suppressed to be able [sic] to continue sleeping and dreaming." The strategies of reflexivity would thus seem only to raise the ideological effect to a higher power. Finally , stating that "the axiom of self-reflexivity' involves film as "epistemological enterprise," Penley points out that the "desire to know and to investigate are not entirely unproblematic." In this regard, she invokes "epistemophilia," a "perversion" comprising "the attempted mastery of knowledge and the demonstration of the all-powerfulness of the subject."
Attempted mastery of knowledge (or of desire) traps the subject in an imaginary relation, an endless circle of trying to know, and since the object of all knowing is a knowledge of desire, there is no end and no way out...15
The endless circle to which Penley refers is, of course, inseparable from the vicious circle of endless mirrorings which lies at the heart of the reflexive "axiom." Indeed, a situation in which, to quote Gidal, "one watches oneself watching," in a "presentation of consciousness to the self," would seem, if anything, to aim at a reconstitution of the very mirror stage whose repressions found the transcendental self.
Unfortunately, the solution finally offered by Penley is as problematic as the strategies she has demystified. Rejecting any attempt at "full knowledge," asserting that it is only in accepting the limits, the loss of the possibility of total mastery, that some symbolizing advances through this imaginary web are possible," she looks toward the films of Godard, Straub-Huillet, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, who counter the "power of fascination" which attaches itself to imagery by the use of language, which can " 'unstick' us a little from the screen," and the development of a critical "work on the narrative."16
Penley's analysis reflects a general trend of the Seventies toward a serious consideration
of problems of narrativity. In the words of Stephen Heath, a prime mover in this area, "narrative remains
a necessary and directly avant-garde concern." He speaks of "[transforming] narrative and its narration
of film ...[by insisting on] the production in film of contradictions, including the contradictions of that production
..."17 Echoing Barthes' definition of structuralism as "intellect added to object," Heath and other
advocates of "the new narrative" have actively promoted what Penley has called a "work of language
Avant-Garde Cinema As Semiotic Enterprise
"Work of language on image." This phrase, taking us to the very heart of the semiotic enterprise itself, reflects the extent to which the cinematic practice invoked by Penley has been shaped by an essentially literary critical practice stemming from Barthesian structuralism and semiology. The films of Godard, Straub-Huillet, etc. can be fascinating examples of a truly critical "semiotic mentality" at work. Yet their use of language and self-critical narrative, designed to dialectically "deconstruct" the fascinations of imagery, has all too often the opposite effect. By opening contradictions without then resolving them on another level, such artists too easily leave the realm of dialectic for that of sheer mystification. Images and bits of language, sprung from their usual ideologically determined contexts, take on a compelling aura of mystery, suggesting all kinds of profundities that might be lurking behind the scene. Ultimately, the endless self-questionings of such films leave us with the completely reactionary feeling that everything is a contradiction, nothing can be truly seen or thought, no action can be meaningful.
The bad faith of such semiotically inspired work reflects the fundamental bad faith
of the semiotic enterprise itself. Penley has argued that the "endless circle" of "epistemophilia"
can only be broken through the acceptance of some limit. We therefore have the right to inquire as to the nature
of the limit accepted by that "work of language on image" she herself advocates. From the Barthesian
standpoint, the limits of knowledge are equivalent to the limits of signifying practice. Since the exhaustive study
of such practice is the goal of semiotics, it is really the limits of semiotics itself that are in question. But
semiotics is itself a knowledge-seeking signifying practice which refuses to accept the possibility that it may
have limits. (For semiotics, everything is constituted as encoded meaning and anything encoded may be decoded into
semiotic language.) Ultimately, however, semiotics is forced to consider itself and, accepting no standpoint outside
itself, must turn to the dubious strategies of self-reflexivity.
A Paradox At The Heart of Paradox
The paradoxes of signification seeking to completely know its own structure are at the heart of the researches of Jacques Derrida, a philosopher whose work can be regarded as both an extension and attempted "deconstruction" of structuralist/semiotic discourse. For Derrida, the notion of structure, its "roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language," has traditionally been "neutralized or reduced" by the existence of a fixed origin, or center, the function of which was "not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure ...but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we migh't call the Play of the structure...And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself."19
The notion of a structure with its roots in ordinary language, oriented, balanced
and organized by a center is, of course, equivalent to what we have called "positive syntax," controlled
pictorially by a central point of view or musically by a tonal center. The process through which such a structure
is "neutralized or reduced" by its center is equivalent to the reductive process by means of which the
Jungian archetype reveals itself only in and through the "central symbol."
Derrida's center, like Jung's, is unique, "that very thing within a structure which ...escapes structurality." As the center is thus, "paradoxically, within the structure and outside it," there is an inherent instability in the history of structure, which "must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center..."
For Derrida, the history of structure in this sense is the history of metaphysics, whose "matrix ...is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word." In the spirit of Jung, he equates all the terms that have been given to such presences or centers: "eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia, aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth." All these names, and of course, "archetype" must be included, "have always designated an invariable presence."
At a certain point, there is a "disruption" in this history, when "the law which somehow governed the desire for a center in the constitution of structure" had to be thought, and with it "the process of signification which orders the displacements and substitutions for this law of central presence..." From this point, it becomes increasingly clear that the center "was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play ...This was the moment when ...everything became discourse." In other words, at the moment when it becomes clear that there is no transcendent presence signified by discourse, everything can be understodd simply as discourse itself, a play of empty signification. We need hardly add that the process by which "everything becomes discourse" is the very foundation for the pretensions of current semiologically oriented critical practice, which seeks to "decode" or, more recently "deconstruct" everything as (nothing more than) discourse.
But there is something wrong with this foundation. To Derrida,
"all these destructive discourses and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle. This circle is unique ...We have no language-no syntax and no lexicon-which is foreign [to the history of the metaphysics which these discourses destroy;] we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest."
Derrida illustrates with an analysis of the concept of "sign," "which
can only be understood as a division into signifier (that which signifies) and signified (that "presence"
which the signifier represents). If discourse is an empty play of difference, there is no presence, thus no signified,
thus no sign.
But we cannot do without the concept of the sign, for we cannot give up this metaphysical complicity without also giving up the critique we are directing against this complicity ..."20 Such, for Derrida, is the dilemma faced not only by structuralism and semiotics, but any "poststructuralist" practice which might wish to go beyond them. This it is which forces language into the vicious circle of self-reflexivity, the endless covering, recovering, and rediscovering of the same ground.
Like Metz, who founded a semiotics of the cinema in the teeth of his own overwhelming doubts, Derrida does not appear to have been overly daunted by the "impossibility" of formulating a critique of metaphysical presence. What is needed is
a certain strategic arrangement which, within the field of metaphysical opposition, uses the strengths of the field to turn its own strategems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every direction and thoroughly delimiting it.21
This disruptive "work of language on thought" is undoubtedly rooted in
the same soil as that "work of language on image" which is the strategy of Godard et al. The notion of
a vaguely "revolutionary" subversion from within the cinematic institution itself is also the basis for
"work on the narrative," as advocated by Stephen Heath, who calls for "an action at the limits of
narrative within the narrative film." [my emphasis]22 Clearly both Derrida's project and its cinematic equivalent
find the limits of ideologically determined discourse not at some outer border, but deeply embedded within that
Derrida's attempt to "turn the tables" on metaphysics has been interpreted as the substitution of an essentially rhetorical strategy for the ideologically suspect operations of logic.23 Indeed, in the wake of the debate over ideology, there has been a strong general interest in rhetoric, both as object of analysis and operational mode of critical discourse. Derrida has himself expressed a preference for a term which carries many of the same connotations but is less charged with problematic associations: bricolage.
This word, a colloquialism first appropriated by Claude Levi-Strauss in connection
with his research into the structure of myth, denotes an informal process by which one makes use of whatever comes
to hand. As opposed to the logical systematics of the engineer, the bricoleur or "handy-man" pieces things
together as best he can. For Levi-Strauss, bricolage enables one to retain all the old concepts as "tools
which can still be used," but without any absolute "truth value attributed to them ..." Ultimately,
"they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces."
Derrida takes this strategy very seriously, equating it with critical language itself. Indeed, for him the most important aspect of bricolage is precisely what it shares with both critical discourse and rhetoric, the "abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archia." In the absence of a center, all hope of totalization must be abandoned. What remains is the movement of a field of "play, permitted by the lack or absence of a center or origin."24 In falling back on such a "play," one would seem to be abandoning any attempt at that "full knowledge" associated with "epistemophilia."
Critique of Bricolage
Clearly we have encountered rhetoric, bricolage, what have you, in various forms during the course of this work. Bricolage is no doubt the basis for Metz' retention of the notion of the analogue image even after it no longer has any "truth value" for him. Bricolage may indeed be the most appropriate term for Godard's essentially improvised attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of "dominant" cinema. While hardly improvised, the films of Eisenstein and Vertov are steeped in a "play" of rhetorical strategies, as are the Futurist and Constructivist paintings and constructions with which they have so much in common.
Ultimately, however, what sustains rhetoric, bricolage or any other ungrounded, asyntactic procedure is equivalent to what we have already identified as the fundamental basis for that very "centered" discourse (positive syntax) which Derrida hopes to disrupt: the context of implication. As has been stressed at several points in the development of our argument, because of the existence of this "proto-syntax" it is never sufficient simply to "make do" without syntax. In the absence of direct opposition in its very essence, either positive syntax will reassert itself or the workings of the context of implication will give rise to ambiguity.
If, as one might suppose, ambiguity could be regarded as equivalent to that free,
multi-referential "field of play" contemplated so sympathetically by Derrida, his project would be unproblematic,
even trivial. Indeed, because of its vague association with aesthetics, with the "human" side of discourse,
with a form of "freedom," but above all due to a deep seated confusion with true multi-referentiality,
ambiguity has come to be regarded with great indulgence by individuals who would actively oppose every other form
of mystification. And, since it always implies the imperceptible presence of a controlling center within which
its contradictions might, on some ideal plane, be resolved, mystification it most certainly is. As Levi-Strauss
has admitted, and Derrida quotes him, "bricolage is mythopoetic," the bricoleur is himself a maker of
myths!25 The charm, for Derrida, of Levi-Strauss' confession that the culmination of his lifelong study of myth
is the fact that he himself has produced a myth, is undoubtedly enhanced by the "delicious" ambiguities
implied, the endlessly refreshing play of reflexivities down mysterious Borgesian corriders that have no end.
Omnipotence of Thought
We have already had occasion (thanks to Constance Penley) to ponder Freud's analysis of that moment in a dream which tells us, "this is only a dream." This particular piece of reflexive self-deception is only one example of a more broadly defined stratagem which Freud calls secondary elaboration, a mental function which causes us to "make sense" of even the most fragmented and confused sensations or thoughts.
[A]n intellectual function in us demands the unification, coherence and comprehensibility of everything perceived and thought of, and does not hesitate to construct a false connection if, as a result of special circumstances, it cannot grasp the right one.
Freud then goes farther, relating secondary elaboration to the notion of primitive animism, "a contagious magic which depends upon contiguous association," and is motivated by "the wish and the will." Animism causes objects to be "overshadowed by the ideas representing them; what takes place in the latter must also happen to the former ..." The basis of animism is "similarity and contiguity," two forms of "contact" which are also the basis for the primitive notion of "taboo." Freud ultimately labels the fundamental principle behind both secondary elaboration and animism, "Omnipotence of Thought."
To Freud, the elaborate pretensions of thought, attributed by Derrida to the logical systemizations of metaphysics, are clearly pre-logical, pre-systematic. They operate, like bricolage, by "contiguous association." Like rhetoric, they overvalue similarity (metaphor) and contiguity (metonymy). Indeed, secondary elaboration, animism, omnipotence of thought, operate as a proto-syntax, essentially equivalent to the context of implication itself, whose origins Freud's analysis greatly clarifies.
To Freud, "the belief in the omnipotence of thought, the unshaken confidence
in the capacity to dominate the world ..." is accounted for by the fact that "among primitive people
thinking is still highly sexualized ..." This remark, which might be the beginnings of an account of epistemophilia,
gives us a clue as to the nature of the desire which first presses ambiguous implications of transcendent meaning
out of simple juxtapositions, then, ultimately, forces animism, bricolage, rhetoric to toe the line of syntax.
But the will to imaginary domination cannot, of course, be confined to the primitive. As Freud makes clear, the
basic principles of animism remain in the modern world "as the foundation of our language, our belief, our
The Limit Of Knowledge
From the standpoint of the "omnipotence of thought" there is no limit whatever to knowledge and thus total mastery of the world. As our identification of animism with the context of implication has revealed, the very nexus of such limitless knowledge, the source of the mystifications that "magically" produce omnipotence from not only logical discourse but rhetoric and bricolage as well, is, ultimately, that ambiguity which implies the existence of a transcendental realm (or "subject") within which all its contradictions can be resolved. To Derrida, ostensibly opposing this tradition, such metaphysically grounded knowledge is limited, but only by the existence of a unique paradox imbedded within its foundation, a paradox which itself sets in motion that very process of reflexive self-analysis which, in the hands of the bricoleur, can disrupt metaphysical thought. But, as we have seen, the paradoxes of self-reflexivity, intimately associated with secondary elaboration, are already deeply implicated with the animistic drive for unlimited knowledge. Derrida's "paradox" is in fact the central ambiguity required by the "omnipotence of thought" itself. Far from being a limit, it is the very basis for the notion of limitlessness! Far from providing a means by which the system might be deconstructed, it is that diabolical device which insures that the system may never be turned against itself without at the same time becoming reaffirmed and remystified.
The real limit of knowledge is the limit of thought itself, which can never completely account for its "other," the material world, the world of the senses. In its drive for omnipotence, thought must continually attempt to force this other underground, to exile it into the realm of the unconscious. This attempt is itself a major source of ideology as well as repression. As Derrida well knows, a critical practice which insists that thought is "only a dream," nothing more than "empty" signification, ends by serving the ideology it pretends to oppose. By virtue of such a "reduction" of thought, semiological discourse has given itself the authority to reduce perception as well, an "even trade" in which both sides resolve into pure, coded "difference." But, to the "embarrasment" of all concerned, thought, in the form of the very grammar and logic of critical practice itself, reappears "paradoxically," while its other remains repressed.
To accept the limit of knowledge is not to "settle for" an informally
reflexive semiology founded on bricolage or rhetoric, but literally to accept the fact that neither thought nor
signification can account for everything. This means that thought must first abandon the pretense of both denying
and establishing itself in a mystic vicious circle of reflexivities and second, accept the radical otherness of
Return of the Repressive
As should now be apparent, there is something inherently self defeating in those efforts, so popular among the avant-garde of the Seventies, to thwart the repressive ideological effect of cinematic language by means of a revolution from within. If a film like Man With A Movie Camera can be said to in some sense disrupt the transcendental subject and embody a return of the repressed, this can hardly be due, as Baudry assumes, to its reflexive strategies, which simply reinstitute the endless circle of mirror stage fascination on another level.
By the same token, we must look beyond Godard's patently intellectual, language-oriented strategies of narrative self-correction if we wish to encounter anything more than the idea of a return of the repressed. Ironically, due to a completely misguided, puritanical association of the world of the senses with the "seductions" of ideology, much structural film, "work on the narrative," etc., is self-consciously drab, slow-moving, monotonous, tiresomely didactic, reflecting an attitude best termed the "return of the repressive." The tortuous, guilt-ridden nature of such cinematic "discourse" and the theoretical-critical literature associated with it would seem to reflect the extent to which the "omnipotence of thought" has succeeded in mystifying the stated, anti-ideological, anti-repressive, aim; the extent, indeed, to which the whole issue of ideology and repression has been misconceived.
If we return at this point to Lacan and his "mirror stage" it is by no
means because we find there, as so many now apparently do, some central core of absolute truth; nor because it
necessarily provides the best possible context through which the social relevance of our own view may be argued.
Further analysis of Lacan is necessary only to the extent that we desire (and we do) a clarification of our position
vis a vis the critical context already invoked.
The Fragmented Body
Let us recall that, for Lacan, the mirror stage involves the bringing together of the child's heretofor "fragmented body" in a unified exteriorized image. This process of gestalt formation, which founds the "transcendental subject," or Ego, as the basis for all further symbolization, triggers, as necessary for such symbolization, what Lacan calls "primary repression." Such repression is the exile of the original fragmented body, defined entirely by its heterogeneous (i.e. radically disunified) drives, into the realm of the unconscious. Access to the repressed drives remains, however, via certain "cuts" or openings in the body, "the lips, ...the rim of the anus, the tip of the penis, the vagina, the slit formed by the eyelids, even the horn-shaped aperture of the ear," which Lacan identifies as "erogeneous zones. These cuts are a potential source of an orgasmic, Ego-threatening "pleasure," always associated with the "cut" of castration, a return of the repressed which Lacan calls jouissance.27
Though Lacan's writings are everywhere saturated with the vocabulary and logic
of structural linguistics, to the point that he apparently regards even the most basic bodily parts and functions
as deeply implicated in a signifying process, it would be difficult to come away from a formulation such as the
mirror stage without a sense that it involves, as that which is repressed, something which is and always has been
totally other to signification. Given the radical dualism at the heart of psychoanalysis, it could hardly be otherwise.
There is, indeed, much in poststructuralist, post-Lacanian discourse, from Barthes to Derrida, which hints at an "unnameable" something, capable of somehow escaping even the most ingeniously deployed deconstructive strategies. But such hints, profoundly threatening to a ruthlessly monistic superstructure, are all but invariably couched in the most tortuous paradox. Indeed, of all the Paris-based poststructuralists, only one, Julia Kristeva, seems willing to clearly and unequivocally acknowledge the existence of a radical otherness which escapes the signifying process. Fortunately, her analysis is both thoroughgoing and relevant.
Kristeva substitutes for the term signification a more broadly conceived neologism, signifiance, defined in terms of that very break marked by Lacan's mirror stage. With Lacan, she views the mirror stage as inaugerating the symbolic, which becomes one pole of signifiance. The other pole, associated with that sense of the fragmented body prior to the mirror stage gestalt, she names, curiously enough, le sémiotique, another neologism, formed by inverting the gender (and thus concretizing) the word for semiotics itself (la sémiotique). Not only does le sémiotique, which must be understood as an embodiment of that which semiotics covers, involve the "arrangement of the drives in the form of facilitations or pathways ...preceding the imposition of the symbolic via the mirror phase," but also "the return of these facilitations back into the symbolic system proper in the form of rhythms, intonations and lexical, syntactic and rhetorical transformations." Thus, "if the symbolic established the limits and the unity of a signifying practice, le sémiotique registers in that practice the effect of that which cannot be pinned down as sign, whether signifier or signified."28
As an expression of the drives emphasised by Lacan, le
sémiotique is, for Kristeva, characteristically "heterogeneous."
This refers, first, to its otherness with respect to thought and signification. More basic, however, is an internal
heterogeneity, a radical discontinuity within le sémiotique itself, whose rhythms express the ecstatic chaos of the original "fragmented body."29
While clearly the effects of le sémiotique are present in all but the most rarefied expressions of the symbolic, they have traditionally been tolerated exclusively as repressed, subliminal traces, always dominated by the subject-gestalt.30 Only in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, in fact, has the symbolic been challenged in any substantial sense by a practice which can be identified with the "return of the repressed" in anything more than a partial, hidden form. This challenge, especially as mounted by the literary avant-garde in the form of what she calls poetic language, is the principal focus of Kristeva's critical activity.31
Significantly, Kristeva refuses to identify the return of the repressed with any
project through which the repressive, ideologically determined "apparatus" becomes absorbed in a dubious,
essentially narcissistic process of "self-criticism." Correctly locating that which is repressed as (at
least originally) outside the machinations of that which represses, she identifies "poetic language"
as "a heterogeneousness to meaning and signification" originating in "the first echolalias of infants,
as rhythms and intonations." She stresses that
this heterogeneousness of signification
operates through, despite and in excess of it and produces in poetic language "musical" but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and significations, but, in radical experiments, syntax itself, that guarantee of thetic consciousness (of the signified object and ego) ...32
Thus, for Kristeva, "modern literature ...(since Mallarmé and with
Joyce and Artaud) associates with music..., working in a rhythmic and acoustic register directly based on the drives...This
musical rhythm bursts out in laughter at the meaningful, and de-mystifies not only all ideology but everything
that aspires to be [like the transcendental subject] identical with itself."33 This "burst of black laughter
...hurls [itself] at all attempts to master the human situation, to master language by language ..."34
Basic to Kristeva's notion of le sémiotique and the poetic language which expresses it, is the Greek chora, a term used by Plato to suggest the "unnameable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to meaning, to the One, to the father, and consequently, [that which is] maternally connoted ..." Chora, literally "receptacle," indicates what Kristeva calls "the semiotic body" as
an emptiness or mold within which its opposite, signification, shapes itself as a child within the mother. Reference to the maternal function is an important aspect of this formulation; indeed, the chora first manifests itself in that period of infancy, prior to the mirror phase, when there is no perceived distinction between child and mother.35
The difficult "pleasure" which Lacan names jouissance and Kristeva sees as the object of poetic language, is intimately associated with the (post mirror-stage) retrieval of this blissful state of non-differentiation. However, since not only language but society itself is constituted "at the cost of repressing instinctual drive and continuous relation to the mother," the achievement of jouissance through poetic language will be difficult indeed!
If it is true that the prohibition of incest constitutes, at the same time, language as communicative code and women as exchange objects in order for a society to be established, Poetic language would be for its questionable subject-in-process the equivalent of incest ...
Indeed, because "it utters incest," poetic language is both "winner
of the [Oedipal] battle" and violator-outcast,36 a conflict which, already for Lacan, has linked jouissance
with the classic Oedipal punishment: castration.
Negative Syntax As Jouissance
If Kristeva's analysis forcefully returns us to the multiply ambivalent "primal" act through which Brakhage's Way to Shadow Garden conflates castration-blinding with masturbation-incest, we can hardly fail to recognize in the profoundly subversive artistic project prefigured in that act the disruptive strategies of poetic language itself.37 Brakhage's struggle to overcome language-dominated perception through a radically disjunctive process modeled on closed-eye vision is greatly clarified when understood as an effort to overcome the repressions of the mirror stage and regain contact with the heterogeneous drives. Indeed, that "cut" which, for Lacan, makes of the eye an erogenous zone, becomes, for Brakhage, a medium through which the "sharing of a sight" can become shared jouissance.
If, for Baudry and Metz, cinematic ideology is centered in that transcendental subject produced by reinstitution of the mirror stage through camera-identification, then, as we have seen, this ideology is shattered in Brakhage's subversion of that figure-ground of motion which links the omniscient viewer to the camera. If, for Kristeva, repression originates with the founding (during the mirror stage) of the symbolic, i.e., signification, then Brakhage's radical dismantling of the signifying process through negative montage is anti-repressive. If, for Lacan, the mirror function itself is constituted as a gestalt, then the opening of form to space, event to time, so fundamental for negative syntax generally, must break the spell.
It is, in fact, the disjunctive, opening process itself which would seem to bring
negative syntax into closest proximity with the "semiotic body." Indeed, the double nature of the drives,
heterogeneous, fragmented, yet arranged "in the form of facilitations or pathways," can, perhaps, best
be understood in terms of the double opening action of facetting and passage, montage and plastic cutting. In this
context, the struggle with the "self" (transcendental subject) in the form of the ultimately dismembered
tree archetype, so crucial for both Mondrian and Brakhage, can be seen as a struggle with the symbolic for the
retrieval of that "fragmented body" which alone can open itself to the (m)other.
The deeper we delve into the mysteries of le sémiotique, the closer we come to the dialectic of Mondrian. Basic to Kristeva's formulation is the characteristic rhythm of the disruptive drives, subliminally active even when repressed within the symbolic; finally liberated by poetic language. Is not the following statement by Mondrian an expression of the same insight?
It is only after a long culture that within the plastic expression of the limiting form, one perceives another plastic expression closely allied with it, but, at the same time, opposed to it. Art today...has succeeded in establishing this plastic expression: it is the clear realization of liberated and universal rhythm distorted and hidden in the individual rhythm of the limiting form.38
How, indeed, can the heterogeneous drives resist the unifying pull of the mirror-gestalt, but through that same "dynamic rhythm of determinate mutual relations which excludes the formation of any particular form" that is Mondrian's "dynamic equilibrium"?39
Finally, if the "living rhythm" of which Mondrian writes can only, ultimately,
be determined by what we have called the "axiomatic operation of an autonomous perceptual intuition,"
where better to look for its source than the chora,
matrix of the semiotic body, pulse of the drives? What better metaphor, indeed, for the notion of negative syntax
itself, the bringing forward of that empty "ground" (negative space or time) which molds the gestalt
, than that "receptacle" which both contains, yet is other-to, the symbolic -- the chora?
Between the Symbolic and the Semiotic
Kristeva's remarkable analysis is, without question, of enormous value in orienting the artistic practice which has been the object of our study within the context of the current debate over ideology and repression. Yet her formulation, for all its rigor, cannot completely escape the fundamental dilemma inevitably shared by any "deconstructionist" strategy based in language.
Of all expressive means, language is most strongly tied to the field of positive
syntax, where it operates with great precision and scope. As Kristeva herself makes clear, even the most radical
forms of poetic language cannot afford to break completely with this positive field, as it is their only source
of organized precisions. Indeed, language cannot fully harness the "musical rhythms" so central to avant-garde
poetics without ceasing to be language -- becoming either music itself (song, incantation), psychotic babble or
Thus, for Kristeva, poetic language must posit "its own process as an undecidable process between sense and nonsense, between language and rhythm ..., between the symbolic and semiotic [le sémiotique]."40 Caught halfway between that which it disrupts and that which it can never attain, poetic language is in danger of becoming little more than a model for a process of perpetual mutation within the symbolic, a function hardly distinguishable from that of rhetoric. To the extent that the repressed semiotic body emerges at all, it can do so only as a chaotic, anarchic residue.
Because of her preoccupation with literature and linguistics-based, Barthesian
semiology, Kristeva risks ensnarement in the toils of the same vicious circle which has confounded all the postructuralists.
While positing that which is radically other to ideology, metaphysics, signification, she fails to articulate any
fundamental structural principle which can preserve it from reincorporation within that which it opposes. As the
processes which give language its identity and power lack a material base, no form of language, however "poetic,"
can actually embody the chora as
a true return of the repressed. As a result, it retires into the world of metaphor, a bloodless archetype.
The Analogue Of Reason
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the original meaning of the word aesthetic is "of or pertainable to things perceptible by the senses, things material as opposed to things thinkable or immaterial; also 'perceptive, sharp in the senses.' "It was on the basis of this now practically obsolete definition that one Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1712-1762), a follower of Descartes, Leibnitz and Wolff, formulated the first philosophical theory in which the term aesthetic is associated with the arts.
While Baumgarten's ultimate intention has been variously interpreted, his formulations
regarding what he called aesthetica
(we too shall use the Latin form, to distinguish Baumgarten's usage from the current one) represent a profound
break with the rationalist tradition of his mentors.41 Discarding the efforts of Leibnitz and others to subsume
sensory experience within the purview of reason (ratio),
Baumgarten insisted on the radical otherness of such experience. Aesthetica is thus regarded, not as one element
within the ars rationis (logic),
but as itself an ars analogi rationis
(analogy of logic). This sensory logic, both opposed to, yet structurally analogous with, conceptual logic, has
for its object, not the abstract categories of the conceptual, but, on the contrary, the concrete "individual
in its immediacy as it is grasped in sensate experience" by means of poetry or the visual arts.42
The Order of Sensuousness
Baumgarten's long forgotten, misunderstood project, so remote from what passes for aesthetics today, was forcefully revived in a prophetic book of the mid-Twentieth century: Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization. Marcuse's work, a profound study of the revolutionary implications of Freudian psychoanalysis, has itself been unduly and unaccountably neglected in the literature currently relating Freud to signifying practice and politics.43
Marcuse rejects Freud's rather puritanical suspicion of art and his tendency to regard it as a form of sublimation, i.e., a convenient means by which the instinctual drives might be "idealized" away through transformation onto a "higher plane." For Marcuse, this attitude reflects a traditional prejudice:
[U]nder the predominance of rationalism, the cognitive function of sensuousness has been constantly minimized. In line with the repressive concept of reason, cognition became the ultimate concern of the "higher," non-sensuous faculties of the mind ...Sensuousness, as the "lower" and even "lowest" faculty, furnished at best the mere stuff, the raw material, for cognition, to be organized by the higher faculties of the intellect.
Pointing to Baumgarten's role in establishing "aesthetics as the science of sensuousness to correspond to logic as the science of conceptual understanding," Marcuse points out that "the philosophical history of the term 'aesthetic' reflects the repressive treatment of the sensuous (and thereby 'corporeal') cognitive processes." Baumgarten's discipline "installs the order of sensuousness as against the order of reason. Introduced into the philosophy of culture, this notion aims at a liberation of the senses ..."44
The political impact of Baumgarten's ideas becomes evident as Marcuse goes on to discuss his influence on one of the key figures of the Romantic revolution: Friedrich Schiller. Schiller locates the "aesthetic function" within a "basic impulse, namely the play impulse," which to both Schiller and Marcuse, is associated with human freedom. Within this context, "art challenges the prevailing principle of reason: in representing the order of sensuousness, it invokes a tabooed logic -- the logic of gratification as against that of repression."
To Marcuse, Schiller's theory is an "attempt to undo the sublimation of the aesthetic function" as it has usually been understood. To this end, Schiller contrasts the "sensuous impulse" with the sublimating "form impulse" of the "imagination" (in Lacanian terms, "the imaginary" -- in Freudian terms, secondary elaboration).
The former is essentially passive, receptive, the latter active, mastering, domineering. Culture is built by the combination and interaction of these two impulses. But ...instead of reconciling both impulses by making sensuousness rational and reason sensuous, civilization has subjugated sensuousness to reason in such a manner that the former, if it reasserts itself, does so in destructive and "savage" forms, while the tyranny of reason impoverishes and barbarizes sensuousness.45
Nature and Culture, Again
As Romanticism developed, the delicate balance advocated by Schiller could not be sustained. Sensuousness did, indeed, reassert itself in the characteristically ambivalent Romantic concept of nature: both destructively "savage" and benignly "innocent." This notion of nature as radically other to culture links Romanticism with realism in the analogy which has sustained itself from Ruskin to early Metz: seeing:signification::nature:culture.
As modern semiological analysis has so effectively demonstrated, the above analogy cannot be maintained without perpetuating ideological repression. Yet the typical semiotic view, in which all perceptual experience must be totally subject to signification, ends, like orthodox psychoanalysis itself, by once again subjugating the "sensuous impulse" to the "form impulse." And, as our analysis of Derrida has shown, all efforts to liberate the former through a process by which the latter is expected to subvert itself must be regarded with suspicion to say the least.
With respect to the above situation, Kristeva's approach comes as a breath of fresh
air. Moving out of the realm of metaphysical -- anti-metaphysical opposition, she looks to a particular practice,
the poetic language of certain avant-garde writers, finding therein a return of the repressed "sensuous impulse"
rooted in a radical otherness to signification. However, as we have seen, the ties of even the most radical "poetic
language" to the signifying process prevent her from grounding le sémiotique within artistic practice
itself. Choosing, instead, the chora,
a given, body-centered function, she comes dangerously close to reifying the "natural" as archetypal
source of that which opposes signification.
Culture Vs. Culture
Clearly we must find our way back to the lucid project defined by Marcuse, grounded in that fundamental break with rationalism which is Baumgarten's "tabooed logic...of gratification." It is important to note that Baumgarten does not fall into the error of grounding sensory experience in "nature," or even the body. While such a formulation might be warranted in some empirical sense, justified by what has come to be called "perception psychology," or even psychoanalysis, it does not provide any structural means through which the senses can effectively resist mastery by the rational. This is why the formula, "seeing:signification::nature:culture," is so weak, leading to the repressive response of semiotics: all "seeing" is subject to the culturally determined codes of signification.
Baumgarten had already found something much stronger, which may be paraphrased
as follows: seeing is subject to the culture of signification and ideology only to the extent that they are not
opposed by the culture of aesthetica.
It is aesthetica, an artifice, a culturally determined act, which must ultimately found the order of sensuousness as liberation from the ideological
domination of the senses by the "form impulse."
Ars Analogi Rationis
There is no point, of course, in attempting to revive Baumgarten's theory in any general sense. As radical as was his basic insight, his overall view was inevitably limited by the artistic practice of his day. As should by now be apparent, it is within the artistic practice of our own time, the Cubism of Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger, the work of Mondrian, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Webern, Brakhage and Kubelka, etc., that we are likely to find an ars analogi rationis rigorous enough to resist the "form impulse" in all its many guises.
Indeed, it is negative syntax itself, for which the opening out of the signifying gestalt is equated with precise organisation of the material surface and the consequent foregrounding of the sensate world, which must ultimately be recognized as aesthetica in the truly radical sense which alone can give real meaning to the term. As such, not only does negative syntax stand opposed to conceptually determined logic, but, as an "analogy of reason," must also be understood to mirror its structure.
Such a notion should hardly come as a surprise. Negative space, negative time, negative montage -- all have been defined and indeed, named, in terms of that which they oppose. The relentless process of neutralization, fragmentation, opening and determination which lies at the heart of negative syntax is operationally equivalent, in some sense at least, to the process of logical analysis which grounds positive syntax.
Central to this analogy is the notion, only very tentatively developed in these pages, of a "perceptual axiom." While it is undoubtedly useful to ground such an axiom in the body (chora), this is hardly more fruitful than grounding a logical axiom in "the mind." If a true axiom must already be a conceptual determination, a "negative axiom" must be a perceptual determination, i.e., a structure existing outside of the body, in the objective world. We have already, of course, identified one type of objective structure, a Mondrian painting, as being in some sense "axiomatic." As a perceptually clear and distinct primary (non-derived) construct, the product of a relentless process of systematic reduction, such a work has much in common with a logical axiom. It is lacking, however, in one vital respect. Unlike a true axiom, it cannot serve as the basis for derivation.
A much better candidate in this respect and, indeed, worthy of serious investigation,
is that already much studied, much mystified and maligned entity: the twelve tone row. In itself, and almost by
definition, radically disjunctive, the row is capable of generating derivations which inherit this property, distributing
the basic principle of negative syntax throughout the structure. Ultimately, in the hands of a Webern, the serial
method becomes a highly sophisticated system-for-the-disruption-of-system, an ars
analogi rationis without parallel in the history of the arts.
Ars Analogi Semiologi
In our time, logical systems have consistently been attacked as "mere" constructs. Rarely have they been praised for their constructual force. The great philosophers transformed thought from an essentially vague and passive process to a creative and disciplined means of actively shaping the mental world. As an achievement, this goes far beyond the reach of the kind of scepticism that would question the "claims" of any particular rational scheme or all put together. If today's most advanced thinkers reflexively insist on "debunking" thought itself at its very foundations, they can hardly deny its beauty and power.
Negative syntax can also be regarded as an attack on thought, but only in a strictly limited sense. The development of a perceptual logic is an attack on idealism as the hegemony of thought and should by no means be considered an attempt to undermine the rational within its own realm. Negative syntax has simply given us a standpoint outside of thought; i.e., provided us with the means of deconstructing certain forms of ideology without recourse to the embarrasingly infinite regress of self-reflexivity. Indeed, with respect to ideology, negative syntax occupies a position coordinate with that of semiology (and related forms of critical discourse) itself.
In other words, both semiology and negative syntax may be understood as culturally determined modes of resistance to ideology, polarized at cognitive extremes. While semiotics can expose ideology-as-it-impinges-on-thought by means of organized thought (logic), negative syntax can oppose ideology-as-it-impinges-on-the-senses by means of organized perception (aesthetica). Thus, while semiotic deconstruction of perspective as a coded system of pictorial representation, helping us to understand pictorial positive syntax, does not help us to resist its effects, an analytic Cubist painting does. An intellectual grasp of the workings of the "transmission codes" of cinema, while conceptually liberating, can not weaken the hold of the analogue-image. A Brakhage film can.
Only when semiological, or indeed, any form of rational discourse oversteps its limit, seeking to encompass and dominate its "other," do repressive strategies of the sort which fuel the vicious circle of ideology, emerge. When content to keep its place, the rational is, of course, capable of a genuine self-criticism, reasonably free of mystification. When this is understood, it should be clear why there need be nothing amiss in modelling an aesthetic theory by analogy with the principles of axiomatic logic.
Traditional aesthetics, with its vague formulations concerning "beauty," "value," "feeling," "taste" and "transcendent experience" can have no meaning in the context we have outlined here. If certain artists have actively shaped and clarified perception as certain thinkers have shaped and clarified thought, then artistic activity on such a level ought to lend itself to the most precise critical scrutiny. Only by such means can we hope to get beyond the myth of the artist as inspired child or charismatic sage.
Selected shot sequences from Stan Brakhage's Anticipation
of the Night, Window Water Baby
Moving, Cat's Cradle and Dog Star Man.
All films are 16mm, color, silent.
Anticipation of the Night (1958)
Film opens with a stretch of black leader
1. (120 frames) A rhomboid patch of light, oriented on a left lower (L-Low) to right upper (R-Up) diagonal, on a black background. A shadow appears framed within the lighted area, entering from the right lower (R-Low) corner and moving to the left upper (L-Up) corner. As it moves, we see the shadow of two hands, one after the other, making it possible to identify the shape as a human shadow. It moves all the way across the frame of light, from R-Low to L-Up, then comes back the other way to a point where it all but completely blocks out the light patch.
2. (60 frs.) Fragmented, amorphous swirls of moving lights against a black background. The darkness in which this shot begins links it smoothly with the ending of shot 1. The lights enter from R-Up, move diagonally to L-Low, then swirl clockwise. At the end of the shot, the screen is almost completely dark but for some lights at R-Low.
3. (82 frs.) A return to the patch of light, oriented this time on the opposite diagonal (R-Low:L-Up). In the first few frames the only light we see is in the R-Low part of the screen, as in the end of the previous shot. The patch of light, initially obscured, then becomes visible as the shadow moves through it from L-Low to R-Up. Then, as before, it moves back the other way till almost all the light is blocked out.
4. (60 frs.) Another swirl of lights as in shou 2. Initial motion is in the same direction as the shadow in the previous shot. Ends in darkness.
5. (65 frs.) Begins in complete darkness. Then a horizontal band of light enters from the top and moves down till the screen is completely lit. There is no image, just a bright,uniform texture.
6. (22 frs.) Bright close-up of a window through which vertical forms of treetrunks can be discerned.
7. (23 frs.) Patch of light cast on a wall by the window of shot 6, containing the same vertical tree shapes as shadows. Patch is oriented on R-Low:L-Up diagonal.
8. (24 frs.) Moving yellowish textures-play of light and shadow.
9. The camera pans left across the interior of a room. Moving with the camera is the patch of window light seen in shot 7. There is strong conflict between the leftward drift of the light patch and the rightward movement of the room (caused by the leftward motion of the camera).
10. Swirling lights, as in shots 2 and 4. Shot begins with lights moving L to R and ends with a counterclockwise swirl.
11. Faces, out of focus, swirling clockwise.
12. More swirling lights.
13. Patch of light as in shot 1 (oriented L-Low:R-Up). As in shot 1, shadow appears and moves on the opposite diagonal, but in reverse direction from shot 1-L-Up to R-Lo and back to center.
14. Swirling lights.
15. Patch of light as in shot 3 (R-Lo:L-Up). Shadow move R-Up to L-Lo. This time, however, there is an extension: The shadow moves all the way back on the same diagonal and then back once again to the center.
16. A hard cut (first so far) to shot of upper torso of shadow in the patch of
light. Patch of light moves as door closes, revealing source of light as a window in the door.
Sequence 2 (shortly after sequence 1):
Just prior to this sequence we see shots of trees alwavs set in motion by camera movement (often camera is in a moving vehicle) Most of the cutting emphasises conflicting directions of motion: R to L followed by L to R, etc.
1. Trees seen through window of a house, Camera pans left, causing image to move L to R. Window moves off-screen to right. As camera is on dark wall, shot ends in darkness, except for a vertical sliver of remaining window light on screen right.
2. Interior of house with sliver of light on screen right. Camera appears to pan right, revealing window entering on right and moving across screen R to L. Implied rightward movement of camera seems to continue L to R movement of previous shot.
3. Vertical sliver of light on extreme right. Door (containing window) closes, moving from R to L. It is now evident that window movement of shot 2 was caused by R to L movement of door, not L to R movement of camera.
4. Trees outdoors, as in earlier shots, moving from left to right (resulting from
R to L camera movement).
1. A rainbow (produced by lawn sprinkler), aligned horizontally. It then spins clockwise until aligned vertically, then moves to screen left.
2. (41 frames) Grass, blurred by rapid camera movement to the left for 1st 20 frames of-shot (image moves to right). Then the camera stops suddenly, producing a strong accent. During the remainder of the shot (21 frames), which is stable, we notice a light horizontal discoloration in the grass, roughly in the same position as that originally occupied by the rainbow.
3. (19 frames) Hard cut to black. After 6 frames, a spark of light for 2 frames, 1 frame of black, another spark for 1 frame, followed by 9 frames of black.
4. (39 frs.) Grass, as in shot 2, Camera stable for 9 frames, then is moving to the left for 15 (image moves right), after which it suddenly stops (strong accent) and remains stable through rest of shot (15 frames).
5. (18 frames) Hard cut to black. After 2 frames, 4 frames of sparks, 2 black frames, 7 frames of sparks and 3 of black.
6. (20 frs.) Grass, Camera moving left for 15 frames (image moves right), then
stops and is stable for 5.
1. (61 frames) Moving blobs of light (reflections in water?) Each produces a "beat" as it enters the frame, dividing the shot into three sections, of 24, 23 and 14 frames respectively.
2. (82 frs.) A baby on the grass seen from above. After 10 frames there is a "beat" produced by the simultaneous disappearance of its torso (beyond the frame) and appearance of its hand. The hand extends into the frame and opens (15 frames). Then, after 8 more frames, it moves offscreen. After 20 frames the baby reappears and, for the remaining 29 frames, we see it from above, face uplifted to the camera, in the R-Lo corner of the screen.
3. (25 frs.) Dark blue shot with a blob of light in R-Lo corner, where baby's head
was, The camera zooms out, causing the light to pull back and become smaller. As it does, we notice that the light
is in or behind a dark tree.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
1. (11 frames) Shot of window, seen from inside, lit by sunlight. The window is slightly tilted at a L-Lo:R-Up diagonal. The upper window-frame forms a cross.
2. (31 frs) Black.
3. (10 frs.) Window, as in shot 1.
4. (31 frs.) Black.
5. (81 frs.) Window, as in 1. Nude, pregnant woman enters from screen left, almost covering window with lower part of her body. As she moves down, we see her belly and breasts in profile silhouetted against window. In last two frames she has completely covered window and screen is black.
6. (68 frs.) Hard cut to bright close-up of her bent right knee in profile (kneecap on R-Up), with part of the same window in the background. The leg comes down, revealing the window, then her belly moves to the right, final]y covering window. This much of the shot is 52 frames long. We see her from behind as she continues to move right (8 frames). Window light suddenly peeks from between her legs (8 frs.).
7. (10 frs.) Hard cut to shot of window, as in 1, with part of woman's torso visible on extreme right.
8. (18 frs.) Hard cut to overhead closeup of tub of water, on which the shadow of the window "cross" is projected. Position of shadow in the film frame closely matches position of cross in previous shot.
9. (11 frs.) Hard cut to shot of window as in 7, but with woman on extreme left. Again position of window cross matches that of previous shot.
10. (109 frs.) Hard cut to tub as in 8 (also with cross position matching). After 27 frs., her foot enters from above and, after another 6 frames, enters water.
11. (111 frs.) Hard cut to what seems to be the continuation of shot 6. We see
the woman from behind, with light peeking from between her legs as she moves to right, then turns and lifts her
left leg to a position such that the image we see (c.u. of bent left knee w/ kneecap on L-Up) mirrors what we see
at the beginning of shot 6. Then her leg comes down and she is at extreme right, as in shot 7.
Sequence 2 (shortly after sequence 1)
1. (10 frs.) Window, similar to sequence 1, shot 1.
2. (81 frs.) Soft cut to woman's chest (overexposed). As she moves down (or camera up) we see her chin, then full face.
3. (10 frs.) Window, as in 1.
4. (19 frs.) C.u. of woman's bellybutton.
5. (40 frs.) Full face, as in end of 2.
6. (20 frs.) Bellybutton, as in 4.
7. (20 frs.) Face, as end of 2.
8. (10 frs.) Bellybutton, as in 4.
9, (20 frs.) C.u. of woman's belly. She is in tub and the shadow of the window-cross is centered on the belly (see seq. 1, shot 8).
10. (10 frs.) Window, as in 1.
11. (10 frs.) Belly and cross, as in 9.
12. (10 frs.) Window, as in 1.
13. (120 frs.) Soft cut to woman's face, overexposed. Shadow moves downscreen to darken face and reveal expression. She is smiling and looking at the camera.
14. (30 frs.) C.u. of her leg in the tub.
Cat's Cradle (1959)
(The following is based on the shot list of the opening of Cat's Cradle appearing in Brakhage, by Dan Clark, Film Maker's Cinemateque Monograph Series no. 2: New York, 1966, pp. 44-46.)
1. (16 frames) Silhouette of hands clapping. Hands come together on frame 5 and frame 13, dividing shot into three parts (4, 8, 4).
2. (24 frs.) Cat. (This shot, like most shots of the cat throughout, is an extreme close-up of its fur.)
3. (8 frs.) Hands clapping, coming together on frame 5 dividing shot into 4, 4).
4. (24 frs.) Cat.
5. (25 frs.) Hands clapping on frames 5, 13 and 21 (dividing shot into 4, 8, 8, 5).
6. (48 frs.) Woman's face, in motion. Changes direction after 16 frames.
7. (16 frs.-erroneously listed as 46 in Clark) Hands clapping, on frames 4, 11 (dividing shot into 3, 7, 6).
8. (32 frs.) Cat.
9. (8 frs.) Hands.
10. (48 frs.) Cat.
11. (48 frs.) Flowers in a bowl.
12. (48 frs.) Cat.
13. (49 frs.) Flowers and flowered wallpaper with vertical stripes.
14. (24 frs.) Woman's face.
15. (12 frs.) Flowers and wallpaper.
16. (6 frs.) A flower on the wallpaper.
17. (6 frs.) A white bedspread with a patch of sunlight on it.
18. (12 frs.) Cat.
19. (16 frs.) Flowers and wallpaper.
20. (24 frs.) Woman's face,
Dog Star Man (1960-64)
Sequence from first part of Prelude
(As Prelude is saturated with superimpositions, a coherent shot list is impossible.)
Orange film stock, heavily scratched. At a point where the scratching is particularaly heavy, so that the shot is very bright, there is a (plastic) cut to a bright blue sky with white clouds rapidly moving across it. The texture of the clouds "becomes" the texture of a moving reddish brown image, possibly animal fur, superimposed with out of focus lights. As the camera moves to a darker area of the image, we see the lights more clearly and they come into focus. There follows a sudden hard cut to two frames of solid red, followed by 6 frames of orange which trails off into white. This leads to a plastic cut to a close-up of what at first seems to be a return to the shot of the sky. In fact it is an out of focus, bluish snow bank put into motion by the camera. We see crystalline highlights which seem to float above its surface. There is then a hard cut back to the orange scratched film followed by another cut to an orange-tinted solar corona and a series of shots of the sun and solar flares. Shots of the sun and moon juxtapose and are then superimposed on a shot of the lower part of a woman's nude torso, revealing her pubic hair. This is followed by a long stretch of completely clear (white) film.
Sequence2 (almost three minutes into Part One)
(from Dan Clark, Brakhage, Op. Cit., p. 64)
1. (242 frames) Whiteness; washes away with a shot of DSM (Dog Star Man) at the bottom of a steep snowy incline with his dog, shot from far above. Slightly overexposed and bluish. He climbs slowly. 24 frame fadeout, but not into blackness.
2.(20 frs.) Black.
3.(305 frs.) 30 frame fade-in to DSM and dog a few feet above position in #11 [earlier shot]. Bluish, shot from same place. 24 frame fade-out.
4. (40 frs.) Black.
5. (201 frs.) 30 frame fade-in to purplish shot of DSM and dog... Dog is ahead of man, man climbs up to it.
6. (238 frs.) Bluish shot of DSM at same place. The dog has disappeared from his position in the previous shot...The shot is washed away by whiteness approaching for 10 frames, taking over completely in last 9.
7. (78 frs.) Clear leader turns grey during last 20 frames.
8. (80 frs.) Black.
9. (87 frs.) 24 frame fade-in to purplish shot of DSM and dog about 15 ft. below [position in shot 6].
10. (322 frs.) A bluish shot that continues . It is left as shot in the camera, including the initial flash frame. They make it almost as far as [position in shot 6]. 30 frame fade-out.
11. (50 frs.) Black.
12. (271 frs.) 10 frame fade-in of an extreme underexposure of the same place. Snow is faintly visible in the upper right corner, the rest is black. 30 frame fade-out.
NOTES FOR THE EPILOGUE
Chapter 12--The Politics of Vision
1. I could not resist borrowing the apt phrase of Mark Schorer, whose William Blake:The Politics of Vision (New York: Holt, 1946) is, in fact, as a whole, of more than passing relevence to the issues examined in this chapter.
2. Baudry, op. cit. pp. 43-44.
3. See Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed In Psychoanalytic Experience" (1949) in Lacan, Ecrits, trans. A. Sheridan (New York:Norton, 1977)pp. 1-7.
4. Christian Metz, "The Imaginary Signifier" (1975), translated in Screen, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 1975) pp. 14-76.
5. Ibid. pp. 50-52.
6. Baudry, op. cit. pp. 45, 46.
7. Ibid. p. 46.
8. Ibid. p. 46.
9. LeGrice, op. cit. pp. 94, 95.
10. Ibid. pp. 58, 60.
11. Ibid. p. 152, 153.
12. Roland Barthes, "The Structuralist Activity" (1964), translated by R. Howard in Partisan Review vol. 34 no. 1 (Winter 1967); quoted in LeGrice op. cit. p. 100.
13. LeGrice,op. cit. pp. 101, 153.
14. Peter Gidal, "Theory and Definition of the Structural/Materialist Film," in Structural Film Anthology, ed. Gidal (London:British Film Institute, 1978) p. 10. Unfortunately we are not able, here, to do full justice to the complexity of the structural/materialist position, including the very real differences between Gidal and LeGrice.
15. Constance Penley, "The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary," in Camera Obscura 2 (Fall, 1977) pp. 7, 12-14, 16-18,
16. Ibid. pp. 18, 25.
17. Stephen Heath, "Screen Images, Film Memory," in Edinburgh Magazine 1 (1976) p. 42.
18. Penley, op. cit. p. 25.
19. - Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966) in Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1978) p. 278.
20. Ibid. pp. 279-281.
21. Jacques Derrida, "Force and Signification" (1963) in Writing and Difference, op. cit. p. 20.
22. Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space," op. cit. p. 64.
23. This argument is the principal theme of Newton Garver's preface to Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (Evanston:Northwestern University Press, 1973).
24. "Structure, Sign and Play ..." op. cit. pp. 285-289.
25. Ibid. p. 285.
26. Freud, Totem and Taboo, op. cit. pp. 880, 872-873, 876, 867.
27. See Jacques Lacan, "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious" (1960) in Ecrits, op. cit. pp. 314-319.
28. Julia Kristeva, "Signifying Practice and Mode of Production" (1975), trans. G. Nowell-Smith in Edinburgh Magazine (1976) p. 68.
29. Thus Kristeva speaks of the chora (see below) in terms of "the speed-continuity of movement and its checks--punctuations of the discontinuous ..." Julia Kristeva, "Place Names" in Kristeva, Desire in Language, ed. L. S. Roudiez (New York:Columbia University Press, 1980) p. 284.
30. In an important study which in many respects anticipates this aspect of Kristeva's theory, Anton Ehrenzweig associates the repression of "vague, incoherent, inarticulate forms...coming from lower layers of the mind" with the formations of gestalt perception. Like Kristeva, he employs psychoanalytic techniques to demonstrate the effects of such repressed material in art. While space does not permit further consideration of Ehrenzweig's ideas in this context, they are fully as relevent, from our point of view, as those of Kristeva. See Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953); second edition (New York:Braziller, 1965). Also, Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1967).
A fascinating if overly extravagent and misleading application of Ehrenzweig's ideas to the experimental cinema of the Sixties, including Brakhage, can be found in Gene Youngblood, op. cit. pp. 84-127.
Another relevent work which explores similar territory from a psycho-physiological viewpoint is Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos:Biology, Behavior and the Arts (New York:Schocken Books, 1967).
31. See especially, Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du language poétique (Paris:Seuil, 1974); not yet available in English. The term "poetic language" derives from Russian formalist linguistics and literary criticism.
32. Julia Kristeva, "From One Identity To An Other," in Desire in Language, op. cit. p. 133.
33. "Signifying Practice ..." op. cit. p. 65.
34. "From One Identity ..." op. cit. p. 145.
35. Ibid. pp. 133, 136. See also "Place Names," op. cit. p. 284.
36. "From One Identity ..." op. cit. pp. 136-139.
37. An important "missing link" between Kristeva and Brakhage must be mentioned, if not (for practical reasons) done justice to. Of all the many influences on Brakhage, none has been more direct than that of the American poet, Charles Olson. Olson's work and his theories regarding his own poetic language relate strongly both to negative syntax and le sémiotique. The parallels are particularly evident in his key essay, "Projective Verse," in which he speaks of the opening of "closed form" and "composition by field," and links poetry to the body via breath. See Olson, "Projective Verse" (1950) in Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Allen and Tallman (New York:Grove Press, 1973); see also the concluding pages ("Eastern Conference") of Metaphors On Vision, describing Brakhage's meeting with Olson. Olson's theories are related to central post-structuralist issues in Joseph Riddel, "Decentering the Image," in Textual Strategies:Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. J. V. Harari (Ithaca, New York:Cornell University Press, 1979) pp. 322-358.
38. See note 24, chapter 8, above.
39. See note 21, chapter 8, above.
40. "From One Identity ..." op. cit. pp. 134-139.
41. This, at least, is the very convincing contention of Leonard P. Wessell, who disputes Croce's charge that Baumgarten's project was distorted by rationalist bias. See Wessell, "Alexander Baumgarten's Contribution to the Development of Aesthetics," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 30 no. 3 (Spring,1972) pp. 333-342.
42. Ibid. p. 339. Wessell is here paraphrasing from Baumgarten's major work in this area, Aesthetica (1750-58).
43. Space does not permit discussion of an equally important, equally neglected (currently at least) and remarkably similar work: Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (Middletown, Connecticut:Wesleyan University Press, 1959). Brown's analysis of Freud's formulation of the death wish is especially meaningful with respect to the theories of Lacan and Kristeva.
44. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston:Beacon Press, 1955) pp. 180-181.
45. Ibid. pp. 181, 182, 185-187.