Saturday, 7 November 2009

Winnicott and Benjamin on Recognizing the Other

Referring to Winnicott's essay, "The Use of an Object and Relating through Identification," in which he theorizes the child's need to destroy the object as a necessary passage for recognizing the other, Jessica Benjamin writes:

Winnicott explains that the recognition of the other involves a paradoxical process in which the object is always destroyed in fantasy. The theory that placing the other outside us means destruction in any case has often raised doubts. And yet, intuitively, one feels that it is very simple. Winnicott means that the object has to be destroyed inside in order for us to understand that it has survived outside; in this way we can recognize it as not subjected to our mental control. This relation between destruction and survival is a reformulation and a solution of Hegel's paradox: in the fight for recognition, each subject has to risk his own life, and has to fight to deny the other--and woe betide him if he manages to do it. In fact, if I completely deny the other, he does not exist; and if he does not survive he will not be there to recognize me. But, in order to realize this, I must try to exert such control, and try to deny his independence. To verify whether he exists, I must desire to be absolute and completely alone, then, opening my eyes, as it were, I can realize that the other is still there. In other words, destruction is an effort to be seen as different(7).

Beyond Hegel and the psychoanalytic interpretation that Jessica Benjamin gives of him, we add that recognition of oneself and others is a decisive passage toward egalitarian relations, starting from the affirmation of diversity.

Therefore, the child begins to gain his autonomy first by deceiving himself that he is alone, through the imaginary destruction of the object, and then by verifying that the other exists. In this passage, the process of becoming autonomous develops within the relation with the other, that is, not by severing the ties with the other, but by transforming them. The two opposing poles of this process are:

a) Autonomy as cancellation of relation and isolation (Robinson);
b) Dependence on the domination and the authority of the other (Robinson over Friday).

In Jessica Benjamin's words:

If the mother does not give any limits to the child, if she forgets herself and her interests and agrees to be completely controlled, she ceases to be a vital other for the child. She is destroyed, and not just in fantasy. If she reacts by trying to break the child's will, convinced that any compromise will "spoil him"; she will instead end up inculcating in him the idea that in a relation there is space only for one I--and the child will have no other choice than to cancel his own, at least for the moment, with the hope of being able to recuperate it later, perhaps by excessively emphasizing it. It is only by means of the survival of the other that the subject can pass from the terrain of subjection and revenge to the terrain of reciprocal respect (8).

Alfonso M. Iacono, 'Francisco Varela and the Concept of Autonomy', J E P -  Number 15 - Fall-Winter 2002
Also see In-between-isms: Winnicottian film, media, and cultural studies at Film Studies For Free

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Still moving images: On the affectivity of photographs in film

I have published online a pre-print of the following book chapter which touches a lot on issues of affective recognition in film and media:

Catherine Grant, 'Still Moving Images: Photographs of the Disappeared in Film about the "Dirty War" in Argentina', in: Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative, eds. Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), pp. 63-86

Here's the first of the essay's six sections:

... in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter.[i]

Roland Barthes

While motion pictures are usually composed of a series of photographically-recorded, still images,[ii] very few narrative films choose to foreground their photographic origins. Indeed, critics have maintained in accounts of the “basic”[iii] differences between photography and film that the illusion of movement, created in large part by film’s rapid, successive projection of its still frames, appears to “destroy,” to almost all intents and purposes, the potential power and action as photographs of these frames.[iv] Although theorists such as Barthes, Peter Wollen, Raymond Bellour, and Christian Metz have produced highly suggestive meditations on the ontological differences and similarities between film and photography,[v] I would argue that the spheres these writers circumscribe as “the photograph” and “film” are rendered so abstract in most of their accounts as to be of only limited practical use to examinations of actual films and their relations with photography in particular contexts. To give one example of what I mean by this, the “power” of photographs is not always treated “destructively,” or even irreverently, by films. In fact, the opposite is often the case. In ways that generally go unacknowledged by commentators, photos make regular and salient on-screen appearances: they are important devices in film narration; they are frequently deferred to as the central objects in the frame; and are even “imitated” by films through the use of freeze-frames, and other aesthetic contrivances.[vi]

In this essay, I shall explore some of the practices surrounding the diegetic interpolation of still photographs in narrative films, by examining a case in which both the photographs and the films in question are especially loaded with political and emotional significance. The case is that of the appearance of photographic portraits of Disappeared people (los desaparecidos), primarily in documentaries about acts of political resistance, “melancholic” memorializing, and mourning occurring in the aftermath of Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War,” which took place between 1976-1983. I shall briefly examine aesthetic aspects of this narrative interpolation, such as the ways these portraits are framed by the films; and their connection with forms of linguistic discourse including captioning, dialogue, and voice-over; as well as the relationship between their (apparent) stillness or (emphasized) motion. But, more prominently, I shall consider how the films play, or opt not to play, on the capacity of the photo-images to move us still, after nearly two decades of changing film practice and reception, and of changing narratives of national and international politics. Despite my determinedly situated interest in these particular films at this particular time,[vii] then, this last thread of my discussion will engage with aspects of ontological accounts of the “power and action” of photographs in the narrative medium of film.

[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), 89.

[ii] This is obviously not the case with audio-visual material recorded analogically or digitally on video. Only one of the films I shall go on to consider in my essay was recorded on video rather than on film.

[iii] See for example Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” in The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1990, 1991), 155.

[iv] “[F]ilm is less a succession of photographs than, to a large extent, a destruction of the photograph, or more exactly of the photograph’s power and action.” Ibid., 159.

[v] See Barthes, Camera Lucida; Peter Wollen, “Fire and Ice,” Photographies 4 (1984); Metz, “Photography and Fetish”; Raymond Bellour, “The Film Stilled,” Camera Obscura 24 (1990).

[vi] Bellour’s article does consider aspects of the freeze-frame at length. In particular, he asks: “what happens to film when the snapshot becomes both the pose and the pause of film?” Ibid., 105.

[vii] This essay is one of a continuing series of mine on Argentine cinema of this period. See also Camera Solidaria,” Screen 38: 4 (1997): 311-28; “Giving up Ghosts: Eliseo Subiela’s Hombre mirando al sudeste and No te mueras sin decirme a dónde vas,” in Changing Reels: Latin American Cinema against the Odds, ed. Rob Rix and Roberto Rodríguez-Saona (Leeds: Leeds Iberian Papers, 1997), 89-120; “Gender, Genre and the Social Imaginary in some Films from Argentina’s ‘Cinema of Redemocratization’ (1983-1993),” in Cinema and Ideology, ed. Eamonn Rodgers (Glasgow: Strathclyde Modern Language Studies, 1996), 17-33.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Anonymity and Recognition

I just came across a really good article on recognition in film. So I am 'book
marking it publicly here.

The title is: '"The Men Who Came Back": Anonymity and Recognition in Local British Roll of Honour Films (1914-1918)', Scope, December 2000, and it's by Michael Hammond, University of Southampton, UK.

Here's how it begins:

There are six examples of Roll of Honour films held at the Imperial War Museum and the National Film and Television Archive in London (See Appendix One). These are locally produced films of photographs of men who had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or were still serving at the front. They were produced in varying quality. Some were quickly made on a rostrum with a rough black background with hand-written nameplates the only form of identification. Others were produced with more care, the borders flat against a deep black background and the names printed with information about their deaths, wounds or predicaments. Some cut the figure out of the photograph and placed them on a black background, the edges softened to give the image an eternal spiritual quality. In each case these films stressed the relationship between the cinema exhibitor and the local community that practical patriotism worked to achieve (See Appendix Two). They publicly acknowledged the role of the community in the war effort and the cinema theatre provided the public space for the recognition of the individual sacrifice of its members.

Recently, an example of these films from the town of Milnrow in Lancashire appeared in a Channel Four documentary series about British culture between the two world wars made in 1996 called The Long Summer. This Milnrow film opens the first in a series of six documentaries and is meant to be a powerful evocation of a nation in mourning. It stands as an indicator of the prevalence of bereavement at this time. The narrator, Alan Bennet, explains that it was produced and exhibited by the manager of the Empire Cinema. Here the photographs, paradoxically still images projected by an animating machine, arrest for a brief moment the momentum of modernity. They are a visual pause prior to the frenetic pace of the jazz age. Their poses suggest a wide-eyed innocence and vitality lost, frozen in the pre-moment of their entry into eternity. The backgrounds look back to a nineteenth century mode of pictorial representation, of landscapes and props which suggest, in these faded images, the worn cloth on the furniture in stately houses, the musty smell of flat scenery in an abandoned theatre. At the end of the twentieth century they represent a memory of the war as tragedy and these young faces are its victims. The pictures, or portraits, are shown with a reverent commentary - "The years of the long summer would be dominated by the memory of men like these" - and are accompanied by the funereal chords of a brass choir. In the representational harness of the documentary these men have already never existed. Their moment, and the films' originally intended purpose, are erased. They exist only to represent the bereavement of a nation. Apart from this brief reference these films have received scant scholarly attention.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The 'charge of the real' and the thrill of recognition in the home movie mode

A Canterbury Tale

I loved this student film way back when it was made in 2003 in the film department in which I worked. So I was delighted to see it's been posted online for all to view.

Here's the blurb from the filmmakers:
This was my [Craig Ennis] first film made in collaboration with Adam Farmer and Ken Colbourne at the University of Kent. This is not a spoof, This is a genuine documentary.. A Canterbury Tail by Hatch Productions.

One of the main pleasures of it for me, and, I'm sure, for many of those who saw it in the on-campus screening of student work (the same campus you see in the film) was that it provoked the thrill of cinematic recognition. Recorded in this film was a place I knew well, populated by people I knew or saw around a lot. And yes, like many of them, I believed that I had sighted the subject of the film also...

For me, and for the people in the film, and many at the screening, then, A Canterbury Tail is less a (highly 'performed' or performative) 'documentary' and more a kind of 'home movie' or film souvenir. Or, perhaps, such distinctions ought not be attached to the cinematic object but, instead, to the identificatory attitudes of those of us experiencing it.

Film souvenir is a term articulated in the work of Belgian film theorist Jean-Pierre Meunier. In his study Les structures de l'expérience filmique (Leuven: Librairie Universitaire, 1969), Meunier set out a phenomenology of cinematic identification which identified three different types of film consciousness attached respectively to the fiction film, the documentary film, and the film-souvenir. As Vivien Sobchack writes, following his work,
For Meunier, the structure of identification in the home-movie attitude is essentially one of evocation. That is, the function of the film-souvenir for its viewer is incantatory and procurative, and its images are taken up as an intermediary, mnemonic, and channeling device through which the viewer evokes and identifies not with the mimetic image, but with an absent person or past event . . . Thus, even as they retain the specificity from which their motivational power emerges, the images of the film-souvenir are not apprehended for themselves, but rather as the catalyst to a primarily constitutive and generalizing activity that transcends their specificity in an attempt to call up and reactivate the ‘real’ and ‘whole’ person or event that is (or was) elsewhere and at some other time.

(Sobchack, “Towards a Phenomenology of Nonfiction Film Experience,” in Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, eds., Collecting Visible Evidence (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 246-247)

Sobchack argues that, with documentary generally, we have a "subjective relation to an objective cinematic...text" (Sobchack 1999: 241), but that it is important to understand that there are a wide variety of such subjective relations, or structured filmic experiences (to use Meunier's phenomenological understanding of them), available. This variety turns in part, of course, on degrees of recognition.

For me, the above is a kind of documentary, a kind of fiction, but also a kind of home-movie; I experience each of these 'attitudes' when I watch it. Indeed, perhaps I experience the latter attitude even more now, as my viewing is informed by the nostalgia of one who has moved on from the place and the people it records.

Like Sobchack, then, I find that Meunier's phenomenological model is an especially useful one in accounting for different levels, in cinematic spectatorship, of what she calls "the charge of the real" -- for me, in this case, the highly pleasurable, if poignant, charges of home-movie recognition.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Charney on Benjamin's 'Now of Recognizability'

Leo Charney, 'In a moment: film and the philosophy of modernity', in Leo Charney and Vanessa R Schwartz (eds), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 279-295 , p. 284

Monday, 8 June 2009


'I submit that we all are within a camera obscura. We all project upon the inner screen (the wake/dream screen) the images. story lines, sound tracks of our own "home movies". These are mingled with the perceptions of our outer world that come through a pin hole (touch, vision, kinesthetic, auditory stimuli, etc.) in the wall of the camera obscura.
In this "in between", this space of intersubjectivity, one can see within the co-mingling how the past lived experience of one's home movies might be restructured, redirected and reinterpreted. One can also see how one's interaction with one's environment can be influenced by one's home movies. Without one's home movies in the camera obscura there could conceivably be an immaculate conception/perception.

Therapeutic action is done by means of recognition scenes. One recognizes one's "me-ness" in the projections of both the external environment and one's home movies. […]

Nachträglichkeit [deferred action] is the theory of transference’

Donald J. Coleman "Nachträglichkeit" and "Mimesis“ (1997)