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The impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation

The essence of technology is nothing technological. Changing not only our expression of the world and ourselves, these perceptive technologies also changed our sense of ourselves in radical ways that have now become naturalized and transparent.

They belong not merely to scientists or doctors or an educated elite but to all of us—and all of the time. Indeed, it almost goes without saying that during the past century photographic, cinematic, and electronic technologies of representation have had enormous impact on our means and modalities of expression and signification.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to claim that none of us can escape daily encounters—both direct and indirect—with the objective phenomena of photographic, cinematic, televisual, and computer technologies and the networks of communication and texts they produce. It is also not an extravagance to suggest that, in the most profound, socially pervasive, and yet personal way, these objective encounters transform us as embodied subjects. This different sense of subjectively perceived and embodied presence, both signified and supported by first photographic and then cinematic and electronic media, emerges within and co-constitutes objective and material practices of representation and social existence.

Thus, while certainly cooperative in creating the moving-image culture or lifeworld we now inhabit, cinematic and electronic technologies are quite different not only from photographic technologies but also from each other in their concrete materiality and particular existential significance.

  1. That is, articulated as separate shots and scenes, discontiguous spaces and discontinuous times are synthetically gathered together in a coherence that is the cinematic lived body.
  2. That is, as a whole the film organizes, synthesizes, and enunciates the discrete photographic images into animated and intentional coherence and, indeed, makes this temporal synthesis and animation its explicit narrative theme. Insofar as the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic have each been objectively constituted as a new and discrete techno-logic, each also has been subjectively incorporated, enabling a new and discrete perceptual mode of existential and embodied presence.
  3. In sum, the cinematic exists as an objective and visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of subjective lived-body experience.
  4. Correlatively, Jameson famously identifies postmodernism as a new cultural logic that begins to dominate modernism and to alter our sense of existential and, I would add, cinematic presence. At a much deeper level its lack of specific and explicit interest and grounded investment in the human body and enworlded action, its free-floating leveling of value, and its saturation with the present instant could well cost us all a future.

Each technology not only differently mediates our figurations of bodily existence but also constitutes them. In sum, just as the photograph did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so in the late twentieth and early twenty-first, cinematic and electronic screens differently solicit and shape our presence to the world, our representation in it, and our sensibilities and responsibilities about it.

Each differently and objectively alters our subjectivity while each invites our complicity in formulating space, time, and bodily investment as significant personal and social experience. These preliminary remarks are grounded in the belief that historical changes in our sense of time, space, and existential, embodied presence cannot be considered less than a consequence of correspondent changes in our technologies. That is, technology never comes to its particular material specificity and function in a neutral context to neutral effect.

Rather, it is historically informed not only by its materiality but also by its political, economic, and social context, and thus it both co-constitutes and expresses not merely technological value but always also cultural values.

Correlatively, technology is never merely used, never simply instrumental. It is always also incorporated and lived by the human beings who create and engage it within a structure of meanings and metaphors in which subject-object relations are not only cooperative and co-constitutive but are also dynamic and reversible.

It is no accident, for example, that in our now dominantly electronic and only secondarily cinematic culture, many people describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs even as they still describe and understand their lives in terms of movies. Judgment Day, James Cameron, 1991.

Thus, even in the few examples above we can see how a qualitatively new techno-logic begins to alter our perceptual orientation in and toward the world, ourselves, and others. Furthermore, as this new techno-logic becomes culturally pervasive and normative, it can come to inform and affect profoundly the socio-logic, psycho-logic, axio-logic, and even the bio-logic by which we daily live our lives. Most powerful of all, in this regard, are those perceptual technologies that serve also as technologies of representation—namely, photography, cinema, television, and, most recently, computers.

These technologies extend not only our senses but also our capacity to see and make sense of ourselves. Certainly, a technological artifact that extends our physical capacities like the automobile whose technological function is neither perception nor representation but transportation has profoundly changed the temporal and spatial shape and meaning of our lifeworld and our own bodily and symbolic sense of ourselves. Nonetheless, we would not be able to reflect on and analyze either technologies or texts without, at some point, having engaged them immediately—that is, through our perceptive sensorium, through the immanent mediation and materiality of our own bodies.

It is important to emphasize, however, that because perception is constituted and organized as a bodily and sensory gestalt that is always already meaningful, a microperceptual focus is not reducible to a focus on physiology.

In what follows, then, I want to emphasize certain microperceptual aspects of our engagement with the perceptual technologies of photographic, cinematic, and electronic representation that have been often overlooked. I also want to suggest some of the ways the respective material conditions of these media and their reception and use inform and transform our microperceptual experience—particularly our temporal and spatial sense of ourselves and our cultural contexts of meaning.

We look at and carry around photographs or sit in a movie theater, before a television set, or in front of a computer not only as conscious beings engaged in the activity of perception and expression but also as carnal beings. Our vision is neither abstracted from our bodies nor from our other modes of perceptual access to the world.

Nor does what we see merely touch the surface of our eyes. Seeing images mediated and made visible by technological vision thus enables us not only to see technological images but also to see technologically. Insofar as the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic have each been objectively constituted as a new and discrete techno-logic, each also has been subjectively incorporated, enabling a new and discrete perceptual mode of existential and embodied presence.

In sum, as they have mediated and represented our engagement with the world, with others, and with ourselves, photographic, cinematic, and electronic technologies have transformed us so that we presently see, sense, and make sense of ourselves as quite other than we were before each of them existed.

The correlation and materiality of both human subjects and their objective artifacts not only suggests some commensurability and possibilities the impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation confusion, exchange, and reversibility between them but also suggests that any phenomenological analysis of the existential relation between human lived-body subjects and their technologies of perception and representation must be semiological and historical even at the microperceptual level.

Description must attend both to the particular objective materiality and modalities through which subjective meanings are signified and to the subjective cultural and historical situations in which both objective materiality and meaning come to cohere in the praxis of everyday life. Like human vision, the materiality and modalities of photographic, cinematic, and electronic perception and representation are not abstractions. They are concretely situated and finite, particularly conventional and institutionalized.

They also inform and share in the spatiotemporal structures and history of a wide range of interrelated cultural phenomena. Extrapolating from Jameson, we can also locate within this historical and logical framework three correspondent technological modes and institutions of visual and aural representation: Each, I would argue, has been critically complicit not only in a specific technological revolution within capital but also in a specific perceptual revolution within the culture and the subject.

That is, each has been significantly co-constitutive of the particular temporal and spatial structures and phenomeno-logic that inform each of the dominant cultural logics Jameson identifies as realism, modernism, and postmodernism.

Not only did industrial expansion give rise to other modes and forms of expansion, but this expansion was itself historically unique because of its unprecedented visibility. As Jean-Louis Comolli points out: This replacement of human with mechanical vision had its compensations, however—among them, the material control, containment, and objective possession of time and experience. It concretely reproduces the visible in a material process that—like the most convincing of scientific experiments—produces the seemingly same results with each iteration, empirically giving weight to and proving in its iterability the relationship between the visible and the real.

Furthermore, this material process results in a material form that can be objectively possessed, circulated, and saved, that can accrue an increasing rate of interest over time and become more valuable in a variety of ways. Photography is thus the impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation only a radically new form of representation that breaks significantly with earlier forms, but it also radically changes our epistemological, social, and economic relationships to both representation and each other.

As Jonathan Crary tells us: This subjective activity of visual possession—of having but at a distance—is objectified by the materiality of photography that makes possible both a visible—and closer—possession. That is, the having at a distance that is subjective vision is literalized in an object that not only replicates and fixes the visual structure of having at a distance but also allows it to be brought nearer.

With a photograph, what you see is what you get. The photograph freezes and preserves the homogeneous and irreversible momentum of this temporal stream into the abstracted, atomized, and essentialized time of a moment. But at a cost. A moment cannot be inhabited. It keeps the lived body out even as it may imaginatively catalyze—in the parallel but dynamically temporalized space of memory or desire—an animated drama.

The cinema presents us with quite a different perceptual technology the impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation mode of representation. Through its objectively visible spatialization of a frozen point of view into dynamic and intentional trajectories of self-displacing vision and through its subjectively experienced temporalization of an essential moment into lived momentum, the cinematic radically reconstitutes the photographic.

  1. That is, technology never comes to its particular material specificity and function in a neutral context to neutral effect. While still objectifying the subjectivity of the visual into the visible, the cinematic qualitatively transforms the photographic through a materiality that not only claims the world and others as objects for vision whether moving or static but also signifies its own materialized agency, intentionality, and subjectivity.
  2. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century.
  3. With a photograph, what you see is what you get.

Indeed, just prior to the brief momentum and intentional revelation of the woman actively blinking, we have watched an increasingly rapid cinematic succession of stilled and dissolving photographic images of her supine in bed that increasingly approach motion but never achieve it. The editorial succession thus may prepare us narratologically or formally for motion, but, however rapid, this succession alone does not animate the woman or give her substantial presence as more than her image.

  • Both belong equally to the lifeworld;
  • The film is a picaresque, loose, strung-out, episodic, and irresolute tale about an affectless and dissolute young man involved with car repossessions, aliens from outer space, Los Angeles punks, government agents, and others, but it is also constructed as a complexly bound and chaotic system of coincidences;
  • Society of the Spectacle.

In sum, what in the film has been previously a mounting accumulation of nostalgic moments achieves substantial and present presence in its sudden and brief accession to momentum and the consequent potential for effective action. Thus, and paradoxically, as it materializes, objectifies, and preserves in its acts of possession, the photographic has something to do with loss, with pastness, and with death, its meanings and value intimately bound within the structure and aesthetic and ethical investments of nostalgia.

Although dependent on the photographic, the cinematic has something more to do with life and with the accumulation of experience—not its loss. Cinematic technology animates the photographic and reconstitutes its materiality, visibility, and perceptual verisimilitude in a difference not of degree but of kind.

The moving picture is a visible representation not of activity finished or past but of activity coming into being and being.

Furthermore, and even more significant, the moving picture not only visibly the impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation moving objects but also—and simultaneously—presents the very movement of vision itself. Correlatively, Jameson sees the emergence of the new cultural logic of modernism—a logic that restructures and eventually comes to dominate the logic of realism insofar as it represents more adequately the new perceptual experience of an age marked by the strange autonomy and energetic fluidity of, among other mechanical phenomena, the motion picture.

While still objectifying the subjectivity of the visual into the visible, the cinematic qualitatively transforms the photographic through a materiality that not only claims the world and others as objects for vision whether moving or static but also signifies its own materialized agency, intentionality, and subjectivity. Neither abstract nor static, the cinematic brings the existential activity of vision into visibility in what is phenomenologically experienced as an intentional stream of moving images—its continuous and autonomous visual production and meaningful organization of these images testifying not only to the objective world but also, and more radically, to an anonymous, mobile, embodied, and ethically invested subject of worldly space.

In this regard it is important to note that the automatic movement of the film through the camera and projector is overwritten and transformed by the autonomous movement of what is phenomenologically perceived as a visual intentionality that visibly chooses the subjects and objects of its attention, takes an attitude toward them, and accumulates them into a meaningful aesthetically and ethically articulated experience.

That is, as a whole the film organizes, synthesizes, and enunciates the discrete photographic images into animated and intentional coherence and, indeed, makes this temporal synthesis and animation its explicit narrative theme.

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Unlike the photograph, a film is semiotically engaged in experience not merely as its mechanical objectification—or material reproduction—that is, as merely an object for vision. Rather, the moving picture, however mechanical and photographic its origin, is semiotically experienced as also subjective and intentional, as presenting representation of the objective world. Thus, perceived as the subject of its own vision, as well as an object for our vision, a moving picture is not precisely a thing that like a photograph can be easily controlled, contained, or materially possessed—at least, not until the relatively recent advent of electronic culture.

Writing of human vision and our understanding that others also see as we do, Merleau-Ponty tells us: Prior to the cinema this visual reflexivity in which we see ourselves seeing through other eyes was accomplished only indirectly: The cinema, however, uniquely materialized this visual reflexivity and philosophical turning directly—that is, in an objectively visible but subjectively structured vision we not only looked at but also looked through.

In sum, the cinema provided—quite literally—objective insight into the subjective structure of vision and thus into oneself and others as always both viewing subjects and visible objects.

Again, the paradoxical status of the more-human-than-human replicants in Blade Runner is instructive.

2.1 The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic “Presence”

Thus, the cinematic does not evoke the same sense of self-possession generated by the photographic. Indeed, the cinematic subject is sensed as never completely self-possessed, for it is always partially and visibly given over to the vision of others at the same time that it visually appropriates only part of what it sees and also cannot entirely see itself. In this way the cinematic makes time visibly heterogeneous.

That is, we visibly perceive time as structured differently in its subjective and objective modes, and we understand that these two structures exist simultaneously in a demonstrable state of discontinuity as they are, nonetheless, actively and constantly synthesized as coherent in a specific lived-body experience that the impact of the cinematic and electronic technologies of representation, a particular, concrete, and spatialized history and a particularly temporalized narrative.

Thus the significant value of the streaming forward that informs the cinematic with its specific form of temporality and differentiates it from the atemporality of the photographic is intimately bound to a structure not of possession, loss, pastness, and nostalgia but of accumulation, ephemerality, presentness, and anticipation—to a presence in the present informed by its connection to a collective past and an expansive future.

The cinematic also radically transforms the spatial phenomeno-logic of the photographic. Simultaneously presentational and representational, viewing subject and visible object, present presence informed by past and future, continuous becoming that synthesizes temporal heterogeneity as the coherence of embodied experience, the cinematic thickens the thin abstracted space of the photograph into a concrete and habitable world.

Thus, although it is a favored term in film theory, there is no such abstraction as point of view in the cinema. Furthermore, informed by cinematic temporality, the space of the cinematic is also experienced as heterogeneous—both discontiguous and contiguous, lived and re-membered from within and without.

Cinematic presence is thus multiply located—simultaneously displacing itself in the there of past and future situations yet orienting these displacements from the here where the body is at present.

That is, articulated as separate shots and scenes, discontiguous spaces and discontinuous times are synthetically gathered together in a coherence that is the cinematic lived body: In sum, the cinematic exists as an objective and visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of subjective lived-body experience.

Beginning in the 1940s, this expansive and totalizing incorporation of what was perceived to be natural by what seemed a totally mediated culture, and the electronically specular production, proliferation, and commodification of the unconscious globally transmitted as visible and marketable desire restructures monopoly capitalism as multinational capitalism.

Correlatively, Jameson famously identifies postmodernism as a new cultural logic that begins to dominate modernism and to alter our sense of existential and, I would add, cinematic presence. Once again we can turn to Blade Runner to provide illustration of how the electronic is neither photographic nor cinematic. On the one hand, it might seem that Deckard functions here like a photographer, working in his darkroom to make, through optical discovery, past experience significantly visible.

The moving images that we see do not move themselves, and they reveal no animated and intentional vision to us or to Deckard.

  • In sum, as they have mediated and represented our engagement with the world, with others, and with ourselves, photographic, cinematic, and electronic technologies have transformed us so that we presently see, sense, and make sense of ourselves as quite other than we were before each of them existed;
  • In sum, the cinema provided—quite literally—objective insight into the subjective structure of vision and thus into oneself and others as always both viewing subjects and visible objects;
  • The cinema presents us with quite a different perceptual technology and mode of representation.

Digital and schematic, abstracted from materially reproducing the empirical objectivity of nature that informs the photographic and from presenting a representation of embodied subjectivity and the unconscious that informs the cinematic, the electronic constructs a metaworld where aesthetic value and ethical investment tend to be located in representation-in-itself. That is, the electronic semiotically—and significantly—constitutes a system of simulation, a system that constitutes copies that seem lacking an original ground.

It is thus not surprising that today what seems, for many, to hold identity together is coherence of another kind: That is, it re-cognized and representationally realized that objective and subjective time were lived simultaneously but structured quite differently.