Sunday, May 11, 2008

Technical Arts & Reality by Helen Petrovsky

Original Publication: Tympanum. 4. 15 July 2000.

Technical Arts and Reality : Status of the Referent in Photography and Cinema

Helen Petrovsky

It is quite obvious that both photography and cinema produce the strongest documentary effect: hence their most intimate, as is presumed, contact with reality. Of course, the greater part of films is deliberately and overtly fictitious, but their verisimilitude is of the highest degree – having to do with the nature of filmic representation. What is less obvious, however, is that the two media are linked to time, affecting the mode of human perception. It is in connection with time that we will be treating the so-called referent of photography and cinema, trying to delineate distinctions and bring out similarities. Hopefully this will result in a better understanding of the essence of both arts which have become a part of our daily existence.

Let us begin again: we have mentioned the documentary effect produced by photography and cinema. Indeed, both arts are also means of communication, but their communicative power derives from an "additional" quality inherent in both – something we may call the maximum of realism. To be sure, no other art can imitate reality with such perfection. Yet, one should keep in mind that this maximum of realism is by the same token a crux of illusion, since however closely people or objects in a technical representation may resemble their actual prototypes, they are never the same people or objects. (To facilitate things we shall focus on documentary photography and film for the moment.) This implies that there is an irreducible dissimilarity, or unlikeness, between a technical representation and what is reproduced, i.e. its referent, no matter how tightly the referent fits into the representational frame (and even is incorporated in it, as we shall see a bit later, discussing the specific status of reference in photography). Of course, this can be easily explained by the fact that there is no identity between an object and its representation. There never was. But does this hold true of an art that has developed out of an institutional need to establish or affirm one's identity, as was the case of photography? And, on a more general level, is it not somewhat disturbing to postulate dissimilarity there where the very means of reproduction guarantee a striking and unquestionable resemblance? And, finally, where exactly does the dissimilarity occur, given that we are ready to accept it?

But let us not be too hasty. Twice have we alluded to the documentary – it is high time to clarify this point. Even being removed from theoretical concerns we may notice that the photographic referent, unlike all other forms of representation, is virtually inseparable from the image: without being too specific about the chemical and physical processes involved in the technique we understand that what is reproduced are rays of light of various intensity emitted by the object. Which leads the famous French semiologist Roland Barthes to two related observations in "Camera Lucida" (1980): the photograph belongs to the "class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both" and it is quite literally "an emanation of the referent".1 In an earlier work, "The Photographic Message" (1961), the same idea is expressed in different words: a perfect analogon of reality – something that in fact defines the photograph to common sense, – it is essentially a non-coded message, or the (analogical) plenitude of the visual as an autonomous structure (what is implied is precisely the sense of "objectivity" inspired by a photograph that never transforms but only reduces – proportions, color, perspective, etc.).2 Summing it up we may say that the referent is caught up in the photograph. Which also affects the workings of perception: to argue, as does Barthes, that a specific photograph is not immediately distinguished from its referent is in a way to switch analytical perspectives – the description of the photograph as object is replaced (or rather augmented) by an interest in the way photographs are generally "read", that is, perceived. What Barthes calls the "stubbornness of the Referent" may be seen as integrated in the very intention of reading.

What has been said so far does not exactly reveal any methodological preferences with respect to photography (despite the semiotic tint of Barthes' vocabulary): we have been dealing with the apparent (so it seems). In what sense then are we entitled to speak of a rupture, if what is manifest is unequivocal unity instead? How can it be that the clearest document ever, certifying a concrete presence, should lie by way of an implied dissimilarity? Or is it the referent that suddenly fails us? Let us somewhat complicate matters. In speaking of the referent as the photographed (the reproduced) we have perhaps already noticed that it is posed in relation to the image – the photograph (or reproduction). This sense of relationship will help us situate our problem. In relation to a living person a photograph seems simultaneously insufficient and redundant. It is insufficient compared to the field of possibilities a living "self" carries with it. This "self", as Barthes remarks, never coincides with its image, since a photograph immobilizes that which is by essence "light, divided, dispersed".3 On the other hand, the photograph is redundant in that it creates a total image and in so doing equates its living referent and death. For only the corpse, according to Maurice Blanchot, is finally its proper image. The German thinker Siegfried Kracauer makes a similar point in his important essay on photography written way back in the 30s. Photography's "inhuman" powers are revealed in opposition to memory. If memory images focus on the personally significant and in the long run tend to be reduced to the so-called "last image" which preserves the unforgettable, or a person's actual history (a monogram of remembered life), photographic representation, devoid of meaning, is simply the "spatial continuum" as it is grasped by the camera. What abolishes the "truth content" of the original is in fact the very likeness between the image and the object.4 Which means, among other things, that the exactness of photography is a lie in terms of the singular (in this case placed in a historical, or biographical, perspective). Be it insufficient or redundant, the photograph, as we can see, paradoxically opens the site of the non-identical, pointing to difference there where unity was first assumed. Perhaps, it is because the referent enters the very texture of a photograph that its non-presence to the photograph (and the spectator) is so dramatic. Hence, the "objective" may have a literal interpretation: without quite knowing it, we deem documentary that which is turned into an object, i.e. reduced from the transitoriness and plenitude of being to the tranquil stillness of the dead. Such are the ways of identification in general: society deals with what it can master (including photography itself).

Besides this petrifying aspect of the photographic image linked to the nature of image as such we would like to single out what may be called its affective aspect – a different way of probing into the tension between the photograph and the photographed. Again we will be alluding to Barthes' "Camera Lucida" which elaborates a special affective phenomenology as a means of uncovering the essence of photography. Barthes holds that besides the overwhelming majority of photographs that provoke a kind of "polite interest" (they belong to the culturally approved order of what one likes or doesn't like) there are those that virtually attack the spectator, producing in him or her a profound emotional disturbance. The first type of images demonstrates what Barthes calls the studium ("application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment but without special acuity"), whereas the second exemplifies the punctum (an element "which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me", the punctum also being "sting, speck, cut, little hole – and a cast of the dice"5). Despite the fact the Barthes begins by associating the punctum with the "detail", one should be careful not to endow it with a separate existence: both the studium and punctum are complementary ways of "reading" photographs, pertaining to a "structural rule" rather than an independent essence. This becomes all the more evident when Barthes introduces time as the photographic punctum having to do with a reality that is always-already-in-the-past. It is at this point that the problem of the photographic referent is restated. We may say that photography's essence is eventually defined at the intersection of referentiality and time: there is no denying that what I see has of necessity been there, momentarily transformed into the past by virtue of a surviving photographic image. Barthes' laconic formula "That-has-been" expressing the noeme of photography contains in it the idea of an absolute and ever deferred presence.6

However, this discovery is not a purely speculative one. There is one important condition which makes it possible. Photography's essence hidden in most of the snapshots becomes evident only when an image lends itself to "recognition". What is implied is something beyond the photograph, in fact another essence: for Barthes it is the truth of a vanished person – his mother whom he desperately seeks to rediscover. Only one photograph from a host of representations offers him his mother's being, only one photograph, in other words, is the "site" of his punctum. But this is enough for him to proceed with his affective phenomenology or, to be more exact, to give it a start, since the Winter Garden Photograph (the only one which is deliberately omitted from the illustrations) is undoubtedly constitutive for the whole undertaking – it underlies and validates Barthes' entire photographic investigation. It should be understood, though, that an impalpable essence (the mother's being) is from now on inscribed in a palpable image. Hence the greatest paradox: never do we "see" the punctum (if only because an essence remains by definition unseen), yet there is no punctum outside the photograph. This is accounted for by the very mechanism of "recognition", the latter referring clearly to a state of affect. When one "recognizes", propelled by emotion, one seems to be experiencing two things at once: a sudden blindness and a sudden insight. Blindness occurs with respect to the image, while the insight (an internally directed vision, i.e. literally "inner sight") concerns the "essence" of affect (in Barthes' case it is love forever deprived of its object). Or, putting it differently: affective recognition provoked by the photograph is a kind of combination of two types of vision – one that contents itself with the sensuous (the surface of the photograph) and the other that is the "mind's eye" preoccupied with the intelligible (the photographic punctum). The photograph is that very bindless bind that unites the two, pointing to where they intersect by way of a rupture.

The two visions, however, are actually one, retaining in itself the mentioned tension. Such is indeed the photographic punctum. As "detail" it is "in" the photograph – but where exactly? Not even Barthes seems to know, hence his reflections on the latency of the punctum, its power of expansion, its supplementary nature and the like (at the limit stands an astounding, though logical, avowal: "in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes"7). Perhaps, it is most adequately understood in terms of a "co-presence" (the studium and punctum) and even in musical terms (two "themes" in photography not unlike a classical sonata – to speak again of the studium and punctum). The punctum thus is clearly relational including its very singularity: it tends to turn into the studium under another spectator's gaze (no use displaying the Winter Garden Photograph: the reader will never see what Barthes himself sees in the image). We may suggest that the punctum is an affective transformation of the photographic referent to the extent that one can no longer distinguish between the referent as "outer" reality and the referent as it becomes part of the material substance of the photograph. As if influenced by its own power, the punctum, we remember, gradually spreads to encompass the whole of the photograph along with its hidden essence: from now on a function of intensity (unlike that of form), it becomes a "pure representation" of the noeme "That-has-been".8 Once again a paradox is stated: that which cannot be seen (in this case time) is given only in its visually ratified exactness. The "pure representation" of Time appears as an "unexpected flash" that crosses the field of cultural interest known as the studium. In order to "see" the punctum one surely has to practice a cognitive effort different from the habitual procedures of naming: "What I can name", says Barthes, "cannot really prick me".9 Resolutely situated outside language and interpretation, the punctum becomes a distinct trace of time's latent materiality. Or, it is that litmus paper that makes time visible in an instant flash of recognition. What is recognized is not only a lost being (a being, so to say, lost in time), but one's own temporality as finite and therefore the undeniable fact that "I am the reference of every photograph".10 I am the reference of every photograph because it makes me ask myself the fundamental questions concerning life and death (like "why is it that I am alive here and now?"11). Which is to say that photography is an all too human practice.

But what kind of time is thus rendered visible? Definitely it is not "objective" time, belonging, properly speaking, to physics. The photograph is an essentially temporal structure that opens onto affective time, or, if you will, the time of biography (if, in Kracauer's words, the latter implies the truly "significant"). It does so where it is disruptive. To be more exact: photography holds in it the possibility of recapturing personal time, even if most of the snapshots today are simply so many coded messages. There where photography dissociates, where it creates nothing other than breaks and ruptures – tearing apart image and reference, splitting and interlacing types of affective vision, complicating the discontinuous exchange between reality and representation, – there a discourse of the singular (of the unique, according to Barthes) may actually take place. For structurally photography problematizes what is traditionally known as subjectivity. It is this "hiatus" at the heart of photography that allows to read it in terms of a "withdrawal"12, which ultimately points to recent theories focusing on the "failure" of the subject, i.e. on a constitutive differentiating mechanism underlying (and undermining) its surface identity (the best example being Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's philosophy of the "desisting" subject13). But an inquiry into this intricate problematic lies beyond the tasks set in the present paper.

There is, perhaps, a more radical way of bringing together the photograph's petrifying and disjunctive powers. Once again this touches on the question of the photographic referent. According to a recent reading of Walter Benjamin, a reading, it should be noted, that accredits photography with the role of scheme, or model, for the understanding of a unique conception of history, the "truth" of the photo is from the outset seen as a basic absence of relation between the photograph and what is photographed. It is not quite clear, though, to what extent the German theorist himself was explicit on the matter, save for the telling remark: "Man withdraws from the photographic image".14 (Benjamin did write on photography and showed a constant interest in it; however, photography in him is rather inferred from the major problem of mechanical reproducibility than makes a theoretical appearance of its own, and is of course connected to his entire thinking. On the other hand, the interpreter Eduardo Cadava displays a heavy conceptual "bias": his reading of photography is thoroughly deconstructive, which means that the "model" he proposes is already "modeled" after the influential philosophical orientation. We do not mean to say that such a reading is untrue to Walter Benjamin – simply one should keep in mind the scholar's source of inspiration.) There are certain presuppositions that attest to the quoted statement and prove it. They are (to put it in a nutshell): Benjamin's theory of mimesis (or, rather, of "nonsensuous similarity"), his understanding of allegory along with (historical) time and, last but not least, his groundbreaking formulation of mechanical reproducibility and its consequences for the modern work of art. Let us try to single out some of the basic theses.

Similarity in Benjamin concerns the relation between the like and the unlike and is exemplified in the perception/birth of a star constellation. The "perception of similarity" comes about as a flash of lightning. Offering itself to the eye "as fleetingly, transitorily as a star constellation" it requires a third instance added to the "conjunction of two stars" so that similarity could be held fast. This third instance is the "astrologer" who, coinciding with the flash, both completes the constellation and is assimilated in it. Such exactly is the position of the "historical materialist" who comes to know history – a flash-like constellation of the past and present – in a moment of arrest (corresponding to the "caesura in the movement of thought"). This constellation is for Benjamin an image which calls for an allegorical interpretation, i.e. a reading of transience based on the examination of ruins: "Whatever is struck by the allegorical intention is severed from the contexts of life: it is at once destroyed and conserved. <...> It [allegory] offers the image of petrified unrest". Allegory, in other words, "signifies precisely the nonbeing of what it presents".15 Finally (if only too briefly), the "content" of modern reproducibility seems to be shifting towards reproduction as such (instead of its possible object), engendering in the process new forms of reality. Within this context it will be easier to conceive of a photograph in terms of "bereaved allegory" as is suggested by Cadava, the photographic event reproducing no less than "the posthumous character of our lived experience". The absence of relation between the photograph and its referent is therefore an announcement of our own absence – already in our lifetime, – assuming the peculiar form of the "survival of the dead" in the photographic image. According to Cadava, the conjunction of death and the photographed (something we spoke of earlier) is central to Benjamin's understanding of the referent's withdrawal, it is in fact "the very principle of photographic certitude". Inflamed by "the instantaneous flash of death", immobilizing and banishing the passage between the image and its referent, the photograph which is the medium of likeness "speaks only of what is unlike" – a gaping crevasse easily forgotten. It is out of this very forgetting that history (as history of a "posthumous shock") emerges in the outcome.16

What lies behind this treatment of the photographic referent – both Benjaminian and exceeding Benjamin (at least regarding the interpretive vocabulary involved) – is the idea about the end of representation along with the corresponding notion that the photograph is a temporal structure, i.e. time made visible by becoming space (which is exactly the formulation of the famous "spacing" elaborated by Jacques Derrida17). By stating the photograph's inability to represent one actually dematerializes the image, turns it into something other than itself. This "other" of the image is its condition of possibility (in the Kantian language) or, otherwise, eventuality (to use a more recent notion). The focus is switched onto the way the image "happens" – including our very thought about it as "image" (to be more precise: how and when is photography translated into an independent problematic, which presupposes a metaphorical use of its language, the transformation of image into the central category of modernity and so on?). Another important theoretical implication is the latency of experience in general – a point Cadava openly makes by uniting Benjamin, Freud and Bloch: what we experience is never experienced directly, the absence from experience being inscribed in the experience itself. Applied to and even derived from photography all this places the photograph "before" the photograph, so that the problem of the photographic referent, if only potentially, acquires a metaphysical dimension. And now, to summarize the various perspectives that we have been exploring so far: when tackled from the viewpoint of the referent photography contains the germ of a revised theory of knowledge enveloped in the notion of the "flash" (of recognition). It is precisely here that Barthes and Benjamin meet, both of them offering a structural framework for the "reading" of the ineffable. For what else is a wound opened by a photograph or an (historical) image-constellation if not that which is at odds with language and yet incessantly calls for expression? This "reading" is of necessity relativistic, which means that the examiner is integrated in the conditions of examination. However, "objectivity" is not diminished – simply it depends henceforth on the reconsideration of the question "How do we come to know?".

Before proceeding with an analysis of the cinematic referent let us insert some general remarks. The problem of the referent, as we have seen, is crucial for the very definition of photography despite the difference in approaches (they are indeed only separate avenues leading to one and the same point – their final crossing is inevitable). Though implicitly we have been dealing with "ordinary" photographs and not those considered artistic, this distinction is not of primary importance as far as the essence of photography is concerned (one may rather say that artistic photography in the strict sense simply digresses from this essence by way of numerous tricks and devices, all of them belonging to the studium, or the field of cultural meanings). In examining cinema we will likewise not be concentrating on a similar distinction (though when we talk of cinema what is implied is cinema as fiction and not documentary films – perhaps because in both cases we are unconsciously referring to the commonest of our experience – amateur, i.e. anonymous, snapshots and motion pictures signed by authors' names). There is something that immediately sets apart cinema productions, an object of extensive theorizing: cinema is marked by movement. But there is also something else that places film in the same horizon as photography – based on technological reproducibility both photography and cinema create the strongest "illusion of reality".18 Despite the fact that the notion of authenticity is attributed to different objects in the course of historical time (before the advent of photography the "truest" were newspaper chronicles regarded as impassive descriptions of actual events), photography's unprecedented certifying power can hardly be denied. It is this evidence (in the double sense of factuality and what is further indivisible) that is the starting point of any possible analysis. If we remain within the semiotic framework (proposed by Barthes), photography's evidence can be designated in terms of the iconic sign, the latter presupposing that a meaning has only one "naturally inherent" way of being expressed (whereas its opposite, the conventional sign, demonstrates a lack of necessary – i.e. "internally motivated" – connection between its expression and content.19 Icons are essentially pictures (pictograms), their pictorial aspect being welded into their content. Of all iconic signs photography is so highly imitative that it is easily identified with the very object it represents. Hence it is no longer perceived in its signifying function, but is seen as reality itself. The cinema, as we have indicated, shares the same characteristic and amounts to a dynamic combination of what Yuri Lotman – if only once – defines as "photosigns".20 Therefore, both photography and cinema "produce such a feeling of authenticity in the spectator which is absolutely inaccessible to other arts and can be equaled only by emotions produced by the immediate impressions of life".21

This part of the argument, however semiotically "loaded", retains something that touches the "obvious" essence of both technical arts. What is implied is the primary evidence of evidence that makes the spectator believe and thus emotionally partake of the iconic (in motion). Perhaps, it is precisely this "illusion of reality", this bloating of the photographic referent (paradoxically coinciding with its retreat) that accounts for the special pleasure derived from cinema productions. Such pleasure, in our opinion, has much to do with the very essence of the filmic, since cinema contributes to new perceptual experiences and flows. Of course, pleasure does not necessarily mean a state of bliss: rather it is a verbal sign of the affective in general, of its independent lines of movement in and across the film. The allegedly trivial acknowledgement of pleasure attested to by crowds of movie-goers may be the site of the greatest theoretical concern: besides being simply narcotic or numbing, in short "distracting"22, cinema may reflect, in the words of G.Deleuze, the "invention of new cerebral circuits".23 However, traditional semiotics remains indifferent to affect. The latter is translated into an element of the complex information structure that is formed by every film. Films here in fact are stories told by means of pictures, they are narratives consisting of discrete photosigns. This seemingly simple formula contains the deepest contradiction that, according to semiotics, lies at the heart of the filmic itself: iconic signs whose function is that of naming are employed as units of storytelling, i.e. conventional signs. For a film to be a story (to emit a message, as the theory of information goes), icons, or images, should against their very nature be transformed into abstract "signs of grammatical categories".24 Illusion of reality versus language – such is the constitutive tension known as film. According to Lotman, it is resolved in the creation of "something third typical of cinematic narration". We would define this third instance in terms of a special distance characterizing film perception as a whole: it is that point at which the "naively realistic" (= "naively illusory") vision of the cinema is left behind, whereas formal and grammatical categories remain submerged into the "visually material" element of cinematic language.25 Such perceptive distance is produced by montage – a universal technique of juxtaposing heterogeneous units.26

The expose suggests that cinema is a grammatical reorganization of separate photos achieved through montage. In this process the essence of photography is replaced with the "illusion of reality", a pure photographic effect. Likewise cinema incorporates the effect of narration. We may, therefore, say that it is illusory by its very nature, offering, in Lotman's definition, a "purely cinematographic [layer] that one can visually reconstruct but not retell in words".27 The independent structure of this layer (something that Lotman readily acknowledges, though in the final outcome associating it with narrative unfolding) is not exactly that of the iconic sign. It may be treated as the material "jacket" of the message emitted by a concrete film. It may be said to carry such "information" whose content is "emotional". But one should keep in mind that the very model of sender and receiver, in other words, the model of a subjectivity in total control of the informational and communicative field of culture – and such is the underlying theoretical basis of "ordinary" semiotics – refuses to give the "filmic" a second thought. Yet it is the discontinuous movement of this "purely cinematographic layer" that allows to approach the essence of film. The problem may further be elucidated if we return to the concept of sign. Traditional semiotics conceives of the sign (= structure) in static terms. It gives priority to communication understood as a universal exchange of such signs. But signs themselves are closed indivisible entities, and, generally speaking, semiotics prefers to stop short at phonemes, the latter being simple building blocks for distinct words. However, there is a different conception of the sign and its functioning. If the sign, and hence structure, is treated dynamically, i.e. in terms of its (self)generation (an idea put forward by the French theorist Julia Kristeva), then the mentioned linguistic unit, becoming "a new space of reversible and combinative sites"28, loses its artificial integrity by dissociating the signifier from the signified. This allows to concentrate: 1) on signification as an open process (in opposition to the always already existing signs), 2) on the independent movement of the signifier freed from its connection with the signified. Which has tremendously important consequences for the understanding of film.

In a rare text on the cinema ("The Third Meaning. Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills", 1970) Roland Barthes concentrates on that which in Eisenstein's films appears as being completely "outside (articulated) language".29 This something belongs to neither the informational nor the symbolic level of representation both of which are richly displayed in Eisenstein's films. A signifier whose signified remains unnamed, it belongs to the very "imagistic" of the image, to the filmic of the film: an asymmetry in the courtiers' make-up? The join and simultaneously disjoin of the czar's perpendicularly raised beard? A single bun of hair expressing grief with its excessive mass? Grief in another derisory disguise, derision being supplemental to the idea of grief and its expression? Or that "heavy, ugly flatness" of Euphrosyne's face unrelated to any meaning the character may carry? All this is what we merely agree upon while carefully examining Eisenstein's stills. However, no language, indeed no metalanguage, no critical discourse is capable of reproducing, that is, objectifying this independent flow of signifiers deprived of any given meaning. What is implied is rather meaning in the making, or the becoming of meaning as such – that space (of time) when the signifier is left adrift, seemingly clinging to a detail, just like the photographic punctum, and yet being constantly displaced within the deigetic horizon of the movie. Barthes chooses to designate this "permutational play" of the cinematic signifier as obtuse (or third) meaning.

What is important about the latter concerning our own problematic is that, being discontinuous, it "has a de-naturing or at least a distancing effect with regard to the referent (to "reality" as nature, the realist instance)".30 Secondly, the obtuse meaning inaugurates a different time. As opposed to the "logical" time of narrative communication (coinciding with the irreplaceable "movement" of film) its temporality is "counter-logical": allowing for a syntagmatic disjunction of images, the third meaning "calls for a vertical reading of the articulation".31 What we then have is a film within a film, the obtuse meaning "collecting" separate facial traits or bodily positions in the rhythm of their appearance–disappearance outside any possible (horizontal) continuity, be it deigetic or symbolic (the character disintegrating into "a simple nub of facets"32). Or, turning it otherwise: it is from now on that the story becomes the signifier's "field of displacement"33, a sort of background alternating with the peculiar pulsating figure itself. This results in a radical reconsideration of movement normally seen as the essence of film. Movement is no longer mobility or "life" (the notorious "illusion of reality"), but instead "the framework of a permutational unfolding"34, in other words, the story dismantled and recast as a space of traces, or, rather, as the setting for this space. Movement then is primarily a theoretical concern, nothing other than a different type of reading, involving an intercitatory (palimpsest) relationship between film and still. In short, as soon as we start talking of the cinema in terms of the obtuse meaning related to the still, we are in fact discussing the conditions of possibility of the filmic as well as its perception. We are simultaneously without and within the film, touching upon its "purely cinematographic layer" (Lotman). And last but not least: the obtuse meaning, claims Barthes, carries a certain emotion: "such emotion is never sticky", he goes on to say, "it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion value, an evaluation".35 Therefore, there is an affective structure at the very heart of film perception, and precisely this structure, in our opinion, defines the pleasure (or displeasure) that initially marks our experience as spectators of films. Inscribed in the evasive signifier, this emotion is mostly unconscious, and it takes a great deal of scrutiny and deliberation to account for its presence.

We shall not discuss to what extent Eisenstein's cinema fits into any of its definitions. Rather, by way of conclusion, we would like to emphasize its problematic nature. It is true that Eisenstein's work easily lends itself to a semiotic interpretation, the more so as the filmmaker himself treated art in terms of language.36 But it is no less true that regarding shots as signs rather than pictorial representations, trying to "sublate" the purely photographic basis of the cinema by transforming flat illusion into a "symbol in the making", that is, a true hieroglyph, he was equally obsessed by the sensuous and the "regressive", aiming at a special technique of "effectiveness" or "ecstasy" to be induced in the spectator. Everything is done to denaturalize the cinema, to render it abstract: sound and image are dissociated so as to create a real counterpoint in opposition to a mere illustrative doubling of the one by the other (like the visual equivalent of an echo resounding in a suite of palace halls already in the silent film "October"). Color is freed from its connection with real objects. Conventional perspective gives way to disproportion and a multifaceted version of space reminiscent of cubism (the techniques are double exposure and depth). The actors' movements are split into layers and fragments in order to produce a truly dynamic image of movement according to biomechanical rules. Sequences are supposed to be read as ideas (suffice it to mention the series of idols and gods in "October"), and, generally speaking, montage cinema should model itself after the hieroglyph in which "the combination of two "representable" objects achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented".37 It may be said that this program and practice are those of ousting the photographic referent, another by-product of the pejoratively "positivist" realism.38

There is something, however, that interferes in the spontaneity of this semiotic drive. The hieroglyph in fact turns out to be a montage of (circus) attractions in disguise. Its "content", therefore, is not so much a result of abstraction but a "definite series of shocks", emotional effect and pressure "exerted on the audience's psyche".39 Retaining nothing but the "sensuous component", the circus has its meaning in itself. For Eisenstein it is the prototype of art in general and at the same time its ultimate form. Liberated from any externally defined commitment, the circus is both the model and the actual form of sense perception. From which it follows that the montage of (film) attractions (of the spectators' "unconditioned reflexes", in Eisenstein's own words) in nothing other than a technique of ecstasy so carefully elaborated by the artist.40 It appears that the story told by film dissolves in the reaction to it, or, rather, that the film itself (an "effective construction", according to the film director) is the dotted trace of affect. Expelled from the shot, reality comes back with a vengeance, only now it holds fast to that "plot-less actor-less form of exposition"41 which is the spectator's body transformed into a screen. Again we are on the threshold of a distinct theory of perception which, it should be added, is perhaps the lasting seal of each outstanding film.


1 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Trans. by Richard Howard. London: Flamingo (Fontana Paperbacks), 1981 (1984), pp. 6, 80.
2 See: Roland Barthes. The Photographic Message. In: Barthes: Selected Writings. Ed. and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London – New York: Fontana / Collins, 1982.
3 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida, p. 12.
4 See: Siegfried Kracauer. "Photography," The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans., ed. and with an Introduction by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge – London: Harvard University Press, 1995.
5 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida, pp. 26 – 27.
6 Ibid., p. 77.
7 Ibid., p. 53.
8 Ibid., p. 96.
9 Ibid., p. 51.
10 Ibid., p. 84.
11 Ibid.
12 A reading suggested first of all by Eduardo Cadava in his study of Walter Benjamin's conception of history. See: Eduardo Cadava. Words of Light. Theses on the Photography of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
13 See: Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. With an Introduction by Jacques Derrida. Ed. by Christopher Fynsk. Cambridge – London: Harvard University Press, 1989.
14 Cited in: Eduardo Cadava. Words of Light, p. 8.
15 Ibid., p. 23.
16 Ibid., pp. 8, 10, 13, 15.
17 See: Jacques Derrida. "Differance," Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans., with an Introduction by David B. Allison, Preface by Newton Garver. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
18 This expression is the title of Chapter One in Yuri Lotman's one large piece written on the cinema ("Semiotics of the Cinema and Problems of Cinema Aesthetics"). See: Yu.M.Lotman. "Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki," in Yu.M.Lotman. Ob iskusstve. St.-Petersburg ("Iskusstvo – St.-Petersburg"), 1998.
19 Ibid., p. 291.
20 Ibid., p. 323.
21 Ibid., p. 347.
22 On film distraction and the radicalizing potential it carries see: Siegfried Kracauer. Cult of Distraction. In: Op. cit.
23 Gilles Deleuze. Negotiations, 1972 – 1990. Trans. by Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 60.
24 Yu.M.Lotman. "Priroda kinopovestvovanija," in: Op. cit., p. 668.
25 Ibid., p. 669.
26 See: Yu.M.Lotman. Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki, chapter seven.
27 Yu.M.Lotman. "Priroda kinopovestvovanija," p. 671.
28 Julia Kristeva. Semeiotike. Recherches pour une semanalyse. P.: Editions du Seuil, 1969, p. 218.
29 Roland Barthes. "The Third Meaning," in: Op. cit., p. 326.
30 Ibid., p. 327.
31 Ibid., p. 332.
32 Ibid., p. 328.
33 Ibid., p. 329.
34 Ibid., p. 332.
35 Ibid., p. 324.
36 Vjach.Vs.Ivanov. "Estetika Eizenshteina," in Vjach.Vs.Ivanov. Izbrannyje trudy po semiotike i istorii kul'tury. Tom I. Moscow: Shkola, "Jazyki russkoi kul'tury", 1998.
37 S.M.Eisenstein. "Beyond the Shot," in Selected Works. Volume I. Writings, 1922-34. Ed. and trans. by Richard Taylor. London – Bloomington and Indianapolis: BFI Publishing, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 139.
38 Ibid., p. 142.
39 S.M.Eisenstein. "The Montage of Film Attractions," in Op. cit., p. 46.
40 See especially his work "The Not Indifferent Nature".
41 S.M.Eisenstein. "The Montage of Film Attractions," p. 48.

No comments: