Monday, May 12, 2008

The Cinematic Body by Steven Shaviro

Josh raised the specter of "pleasure" so here are some quotes from one of my favorite books on the movie-going experience, Steven Shaviro's The Cinematic Body, which offers a Deleuzian rejection of the old iconophobic Mulvey anti-pleasure schtick about the male gaze. This book has influenced my own thinking about the image and pleasure and cinema a great deal.

It's a book about "The delirious excesses of postmodern visionvision, the excitement and passivity of spectatorship, the frenzy and fragility of images, the desires that inform social construction of subjectivity, the pornographic allure of violence and sexuality, and the politics of the subjugated body."

(8) "Visual fascination is a passive, irresistable compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze."

(9) "Blue Steel exposes visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility - rather than as the stabilizing fixation assumed by so much film theory..."

(11) "Mertz remains attached to the great modernist belief (shared by structuralist formalism, psychoanalysis and Brechtian aesthetics) that self-reflexive distanciation (or sublimation) is both salutary and efficacious. One of the recurring, if implicity, arguments of the present book is that it can be neither. It is high time that we rid ourselves of the notion that we can somehow free ourselves from illusion (or from ideology) by recognizing and theorizing our entrapment within it. Such dialectical maneuvers tend, ironically, to reinforce the very objects of their critique. They achieve their explanatory power at the price of transforming the local, contingent phenomena into transcendental conditions or developmental necessities."

(12) "The unintended effect of Mulvey's argument is to foreclose whatever potentials for resistance and subversion, or Deleuzian "lines of flight" are latent within mainstream, narrative film... she calls for the destruction of cinematic pleasure."

(13)"Beneath its claims to methodological rigor and political correctness, it manifests a barely contained panic at the prospect (or it is the memory?) of being affected and moved by visual forms. It is as if there were something degrading and dangerous about giving way to images, and so easily falling under their power. Theory thus seeks to ward off the cinema's dangerous allure, to refuse the suspect pleasures that it offers, to dissipate its effects by articulating its hidden but intelligible structure. Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus, should we not rather see the opposite, an idealist's fear of the ontological stability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation."

(24) "My own masochistic theoretical inclination is to revel in my bondage to images, to celebrate the spectatorial condition of metaphysical alienation..."

I heartily recommend this book (clearly I am not doing it justice with a few quotes). Two thumbs up.


Blogger Max said...

So he's basically saying that there's something intrinsic about imagery that compels us toward fascination or interest? I'm not sure about that. I think there is such a thing as sensibility. My 10 year old self would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely impressive about many of the cinematic images I find beautiful and captivating now. In fact, I would say that how you contextualize an image has as much to do with your level of interest as does the image itself. And if the brain is being called on to produce and attach context to images, then "visual fascination" is not merely "a passive, irresistible compulsion."

And while I would agree that we're all trapped in illusion, I don't think that justifies a staunch anti-intellectual approach. Not all qual-/quantifications of "what goes on" during the experience of viewing images is geared toward breaking free from illusion. In fact, I think many theorists understand that the illusion plays on everybody. But I think it would be foolish to argue that, just because we're all subject to illusion, the illusion itself must be completely imperceptible, or that the goal of investigating illusion must be wholly without point.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

He isn't saying that we should be pleased with the status quo. He finds the subversion in "lines of flight" rather than didactic distancing.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I guess I'm not understanding the "line of flight" concept. Could these be described as chaotic, imperceptible elements in an aesthetic experience that subvert attempts at intellectual "understanding"?

It still seems like the argument he makes about visual fascination being passive and irresistible is kind of flawed. Visual fascination with what? Specific images? Are some directors simply more gifted than others at creating images of objective value, or is what we appreciate dependent on context (what we know of the director vs. other directors, what we know of film history, what we know of film "craft" etc.)?

I think there is something to the idea of giving yourself to the experience. There is nothing harmful about that. But I disagree that visual fascination is a completely passive enterprise that one is just lulled into. It seems to me that the images in question must be agreeable to a sensibility, and if the process is reaching the level of sensibility, unless this sensibility is somehow an innate, biological fact, there is a level of engagement, at least on some level, that breaks down any possibility of it being a passive experience.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You are absolutely right about this, and in fact he talks quite extensively about this in the book. He breaks down the tired old binary of the active participant and passive viewer. I think you would find the book interesting. Check it out. It includes some very good readings of Croenenberg and Lynch.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Ah, cool. I'll have to do that. I've been meaning to do some reading about cinema, and only now do I really have the time to get into it.

Question: is it going to be mindnumbingly difficult to read the book without having a grounding in Deleuze or other particular theorists?

10:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, it's not that kind of book at all (that would run counter to his ideas). At times it feels like "creative writing" - he's really trying to come up with new vocabularies. It is based on Deleuze's ideas of cinema, but you don't have to have read those. In fact it provides a kind of intro/history to film studies in the intro.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

Ignore the critics and go see Speed Racer, please.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Is this in the movies or on Netflicks?

12:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Like right now. At the movie theater. The critics are panning it (it's got a 31% from the "top critics" on, but it is the best movie-going experience I've had in ages. A lot of well-respected critics have revealed themselves, with this one, as puritanical, joyless snobs. I'm now certain that at least half the serious film critics in this country wear hairshirts while on assignment in order to punish prevent any haphazard chills from running up their spines.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Visually, it's brilliant and completely overwhelming. A formalist analysis of the movie might take years. I would say that it has a kind of manufactured camp value, but it's beyond that, something else entirely.

11:58 AM  

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