"Nature centres into balls," and "the eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end."/1/ This utterly visual genesis lies at the basis of the universe in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Circles." The circumference proceeds onwards without an end (i.e., without a visible end), its origin being everywhere and nowhere at the very same time. The act of looking is described here as a creative act instead of being a (rather passive) act of sheer perception. The horizon (the second circle) is always already a "formation" or "figuration": a projection of the eye (the first circle). As the circle has no circumference and identifiable point of origin, it disappears into what it forms. That is, the desire of looking (scopophilia) that drives the eye to form its object evacuates itself into the figuration. "[A]round every circle another can be drawn ..."/2/: every circle is capable of drawing ("forming") another around it, and, also, every circle is drawn ("dragged") into the next one. This continuous, never-ending disappearing act is what implies a theory of looking in Emerson.
The present analysis attempts to provide a comparative investigation of Emerson's ideas on a visual world (within it a proper visual language) and some contemporary theories of visual culture, especially semiotically, psychoanalytically and phenomenologically informed theories of the cinema. The formation of a visual world in Emerson will be contrasted with Christian Metz's theory of cinematic figuration to proceed towards a sketching of a poetics of witnessing. Although the theoretical dialogue of the theorists discussed on these pages takes cinema as their primary object of study, the conclusions drawn from it may be extended in a critique of the hegemony of the "modern spectator."
Emerson and the World as Visual Figuration
In "Circles," Emerson proposes a vision of the universe as ultimately "fluid and volatile,"/3/ where everything that is derives from the primary "centre: the organ of the eye. This may pose a somewhat solipsistic idea of the world, however, Emerson does not let his reader hinge on this singularity: both his ideas and his prose drive/draw the reader onwards – similarly to the flow or continuity of the formation of yet another circles. In this respect, the words, and then the sentences themselves, can be seen as "embodiments" of the process of the fluidity of the circles described at the beginning of this essay. Small wonder, both language and the world are described in visual terms.
For Emerson, "language is made up of images,"/4/ just as the horizon and, ultimately, Nature are. Whereas the origin of the horizon is the organ of the eye, the origin of the word and language is poetic: "The poet made all the words," "the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker, naming things ... after their appearance," so "the poet names the thing because he sees it."/5/ Language is, therefore, a metonymy of vision, and also, has its origin in images. Indeed, language can be seen as the circle after the horizon (horizon being a sum of things that language depicts). Although this may imply a certain genealogy, there is a hint to simultaneity at work in Emerson's prose. Reading Circles and "The Poet" in tandem may urge the reader to conflate the two organisms at work in formation: in "Circles," it is the eye, and in "The Poet," it is the poet. Images are born in "Circles" as an act of the eye, images in language in "The Poet" are born as the result of the utterance of the poet. Projecting – similarly, in a visual fashion – the structure of these essays onto one another reveals the point of origin in the eye/"I" of the poet.
The eye is, therefore, not merely an organ of perception, but it is depicted as being active (like the utterance of the poet): it not only lets Nature flow through it (as indicated in the phrase and description of the "transparent eyeball"), but it also scans "her". This act of scanning as connected to visual activity can be seen as a manifestation of synaesthesia, which is defined in medical terms as an "involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense causes a perception in another."/6/ In Emerson's case, looking and touching (and, considering "The Poet," speaking) are sensually connected, having their chiasmic connection in the body of the eye/I. This interconnection of these senses (looking, touching, and speaking) is described by Laura Marks as "haptic visuality," where what we see, and also the way we see is similar (or synaesthetically equal) to the way we touch a surface./7/
The use of synaesthesia opens the way towards language, too. Synaesthesia is a kind of metaphor, in which "the terms relating to one kind of sense-impression are used to describe a sense-impression of other kinds."/8/ As this definition reveals, synaesthesia – a trope of language frequently employed in poetry – attests to a sensual economy of language, which implies that the language we use is necessarily grounded in the physical body. The power in the figural (i.e., visual) language the Poet makes use of, therefore, "emerges and takes its meaning from our physical experience."/9/ Emerson's enthusiastic lines describing the way "I" become a transparent eyeball in my solitude with Nature reaches its climax in visuality precisely by non-visual synaesthetic metaphors:
Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me .../10/
Clearly, it is the tactile experience of the bare ground – through the mediation of the skin of the leg – and the experience of the air filling the lungs, and the proprioceptive experience of a sense of circulation going on within the body (the Universal Being and/or the blood) that result in the image of the transparent eyeball, not the act of looking itself. That this experience moulds together in the trope of the transparent eyeball (which "touches" the horizon when forming it) is finally the very act of drawing a new circle. Moreover, the drawing of the new circle completes when "naming" occurs: the act of naming unites, once again, the senses, as the Namer or Sayer of things (i.e., the Poet) looks at what it names (i.e., utters its name). Looking and language are grounded in the physical body of the Poet.
The literary trope of synaesthesia, furthermore, has other implications in connection with Emerson's prose. Emerson claims that it is the Poet who made all the words/11/, just as Adam did, who had to give names to the animals lined up before him, while God was watching (Gen. 2.19.). Once again, looking and speaking is connected, and – in the scenario of God watching Adam naming the animals – language, as Kaja Silverman argues, transmits or lets a glimpse into the human thought precipitated by vision./12/ The words made by the Poet were born out of the Poet's act of looking at the things before him, and his coming "one step nearer to [them] than any other."/13/ As the things were named after their appearance (and also on account of their tactile "sense" or "smell" – implied in going "one step nearer"), the language that is formed thus is necessarily a collage of "images and tropes."/14/ Therefore, Emerson is right to conclude that the language that we use today is of a "poetic origin."
A somewhat similar conviction is evident in Nicolas Abraham's work, especially in his concept of the "symbol." He argues that the symbol (sign, word, etc.) is always something that misses "an as yet undetermined part" which "'symbolizes with' – or, we might say, that cosymbolizes'."/15/ Abraham, thus, also implies a kind of poetic origin that our language "forgets" or makes us forget. The implication of the use and persistence of synaesthesia is, then, that this poetic origin is necessarily "involuntarily sensuous," i.e., its origo is the physical body. Vision (and touching and smelling, etc.) is embodied, and it can only function in – close – relation to other bodily senses. As Vivian Sobchack says, vision is "in-formed" by other sensuous experiences of the body.
Metz and the Disembodiment of Vision
At first glance, leaving aside the foregoing discussion of the indisputable role of the body in the formation ("in-formation") of vision, Christian Metz's description of the position of the spectator in the cinematic audience may strike common chords with Emerson's idea of the transparent eyeball:
At the cinema it is always the other who is on the screen; as for me, I am there to look at him. I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving. All-perceiving as one says all-powerful ... all-perceiving, too, because I am entirely on the side of the perceiving instance: absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great eye and ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive it, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier (it is I who make the film)./16/
Metz implicitly evokes Emerson's concept of the transparent eyeball as occupying a position similar to that of God, which underscores the position of the spectator as a big eye and ear in the audience as all-perceiver. The only – crucial – point of divergence between these descriptions of the formation of vision is involvement. In Emerson, the subject (i.e., the "I" of the text – I consciously avoid using the phrases "narrator" or "focaliser", as Emerson's texts, though written in prose, feature a kind of lyrical I) is involved in the seen, in the vision, and it is precisely on account of his or her physical and mental involvement that what is seen (the landscape, the horizon, or Nature) is formed or figured. In Metz, however, the subject detaches itself from the seen/screen entirely, and this detachment constitutes the cinema-signifier, i.e., the film is perceptible because of this detachment.
Indeed, wherever one turns on the scene of screen theory/17/ and of much of contemporary studies of cinematic spectatorship, the spectating subject is envisioned as a disembodied instance. One of the reasons for this might be that the cinematic experience is usually (in psychoanalytically informed – or "in-formed" – film theories) discussed on the basis of the mechanism of unconscious fantasy. This view builds upon Sigmund Freud's description of fantasy as the wish-fulfilment of an unconscious wish or drive – often originating with a childhood repression./18/ Discussing this kind of unconscious fantasy constrains the scope of analysis to a mental topography (actually, a usual criticism drawn up against psychoanalysis – whether "against" in a discussion of theories makes any sense) almost completely disregarding the fleshy reality of the subject.
In Jean-Louis Baudry's discussion of the working of the cinematic apparatus, the trajectory of dealing with spectatorship moved radically from a sociologically based film theory (severely criticised by semioticians) towards a semiotics where both the macro-dynamics (ideology, e.g.) and the micro-dynamics (psychical structure and dynamism) of the subject were considered./19/ The subject was constituted by and within the apparatus: it was essentially passive and ideal, sexless and genderless – in other words, it was disembodies (just as the previously reigning concept of the subject from sociological studies). Both Metz and Baudry used psychoanalysis as the basis for setting up a description of how vision is formed and then perceived in the cinema. Baudry introduced the mechanism of ideology at work, while Metz's study was more conducted pertaining to the psychical mechanisms in the film viewing situation. They believed that at the core of the production and the perception of the moving images on the screen was unconscious fantasy. Although without providing any real alternatives, many of the anti-semiotic criticisms attempted to attack this foundation. The target was hit, the lack of alternatives made it futile, though.
The roots of the problem foregrounded by the insisting reference to unconscious fantasy may be found in the dominance of Jacques Lacan's so-called re-reading of Freud's works, and its almost exclusive import into screen studies. However "repressed," psychoanalysis has a very simple solution for the problem outlined above, and this solution is based on clinical observations. Maria Torok, in her attempt to provide a coherent definition of the term "fantasy" realised that the fantasy most theorists and analysts are talking about is far from being unconscious. Most patients – and everyday people, too – have, as she argues, sometimes the experience of "I am having a fantasy," which is actually a conscious experience of fantasy. It means that they know they are having a fantasy, and they experience it in a form of representation, whereas in the case of the unconscious fantasy the subject is unaware of the scenario being hallucinatory, and of the mechanism behind it. In the conscious experience of fantasy "[s]omething happened outside the purview of the ego's concerns and suddenly intruded upon them in the form of a representation."/20/
I propose to use this definition in describing the spectator's position in the audience, as s/he is conscious of his/her bodily presence, and also of the fact that what s/he sees projected on the screen is but an illusion or fantasy (of movement, of reality, of bodies, and of events). Torok's insightful definition renders the gap between the body and the psyche of the spectator in the cinema surmountable: this conscious experience of fantasy has at its core implied a body with all its senses (of vision, of hearing, and of touching) participating in the constitution of not a mere cinematic signifier (as Metz argues), but of an entirely sensuous (psychical and physical at the very same time) cinematic experience.
Witnessing: an Alternative to Spectatorship
This is precisely where Emerson can be highly illuminating. His description of the involvement of the subject in the formation of vision can be fruitfully imported into a discussion of spectatorship in the cinema. As I argued above, Emerson's depiction builds on the trope of synaesthesia, i.e., a commingling of the senses. This synaesthetic view on spectatorship renders the phrase "vision in the flesh" (Sobchack) entirely appropriate, as when one is sitting in the audience, the cinema-experience that comes to being is based not merely on our capacity to see and hear the film but also on our body's collecting the vibrations that enwrap us (lines of light and waves of sound, for instance). According to Lesley Stern, it is precisely these sensory vibrations that link the seen/screen and the spectator./21/
Having said that, the spectator is not outside the film (as Metz and the screen theorists argue) but rather within it, as Emerson and – most recently – Sobchack argue. The "cinesthetic subject," a term invented by Sobchack to denote the spectator (playing on the three terms condensed into it: cinema, synaesthesia, and coenaesthesia), is always bodily involved in the cinematic experience, which makes him or her a witness in the framework of studies of visual culture:
Witnessing involves physical participation in an event or moment and the later testimony of what occurred. ... Witnessing puts the body back into art. ... the contingency and indeterminacy of the witness's body is an integral part of the way that the artwork itself signifies./22/
The body – of the cinesthetic subject or the witness – is, thus, the very premise (and promise) of semiosis: one is to read Emerson's "Circles," "Nature," and "The Poet" in this light as well. Although Emerson is far from implying any theory of vision in his texts explicitly, his prose and the thread of his argumentation resonate in a theory of witnessing, in the definition of the cinesthetic subject as a cinema-witness. Metz and the screen theorists (in a poststructuralist vein) discarded the body in semiosis, completely ignoring the carnal dimensions of the cinematic experience. Contemporary studies of spectatorship – pursued especially by Sobchack – however, in a rather Emersonian tradition as I have attempted to argue, build their investigations of spectatorship on this point of sheer indeterminacy: the sensing and sensed body in the audience. The birth of the cinema-event (similarly to the birth of language in Emerson) brings us back to the poetic power of the human flesh: vibrations and synaesthesia lie at the root of the cinema-witnessing.
Abraham, Nicolas and Torok, Maria. The Shell and the Kernel (ed. and trans. Nicholas T. Rand) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994
Abraham, Nicolas and Torok, Maria. The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. (Trans. Nicholas T. Rand). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Baudry, Jean-Louis. "The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema," in Mast, Gerald, et alii. (eds.) Films Theory and Criticism. New York: Oxford, 1994., 690-707.
Baudry, Jean-Louis. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," in Mast, Gerald, et alii. (eds.) Films Theory and Criticism. New York: Oxford, 1994.,302-312.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Circles," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994.,
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," in Lodge, David (ed.). 20th Century Literary Criticism. London: Longman, 1989., 36-42.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
Metz, Christian. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. The Imaginary Signifier. (Trans. Celia Britton, et alii) London: Macmillan, 1982
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure. London: Routledge, 1995
Silverman, Kaja. World Spectators. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Sobchack, Vivian. "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, in Senses of Cinema, accessible: www.sensesofcinema.com accessed: 10 January 2003.
1 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Circles," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994., 1558.
2 Ibid., 1559., my emphasis.
4 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994., 1573.
6 Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. quoted in Sobchack, Vivian. "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, in Senses of Cinema, accessible: www.sensesofcinema.com accessed: 10 January 2003.
7 Marks's discussion is based on a discussion of Deleuzian concepts in Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
8 Sobchack, Vivian. "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, in Senses of Cinema, accessible: www.sensesofcinema.com accessed: 10 January 2003.
10 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994., 1504.
11 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994., 1573.
12 Silverman, Kaja. World Spectators. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000., 21.
13 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet," in Lauter, Paul et alii. (eds.) The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994., 1573.
15 Abraham, Nicolas and Torok, Maria. The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. (Trans. Nicholas T. Rand). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986., 79.
16 Metz, Christian. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. The Imaginary Signifier. (Trans. Celia Britton, et alii) London: Macmillan, 1982., 48.
17 The denomination of screen theory is used to include the theoretical trend born out of the essays published in the mid-1970s in the British cinema journal Screen. Among theorists belonging to this trend are Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Stephen Heath, Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, and Jean-Pierre Oudart.
18 See: Freud's works on the issue of fantasy, especially "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," in Lodge, David (ed.). 20th Century Literary Criticism. London: Longman, 1989., 36-42.
19 Baudry, Jean-Louis. "The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema," and "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," in Mast, Gerald, et alii. (eds.) Films Theory and Criticism. New York: Oxford, 1994., 690-707, and 302-312.
20 Torok, Maria. "Fantasy: An Attempt to Define Its Structure and Operation," in Abraham, Nicolas and Torok, Maria. The Shell and the Kernel (ed. and trans. Nicholas T. Rand) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994., 30. In her discussion of this conscious experience of fantasy Torok does not discard or disavow the importance and possibility of an unconscious fantasy, she merely delineates a phenomenon not addressed until then. Moreover, the unconscious dimension of fantasy (even when the experience of having a fantasy is a conscious one) is not dismissed by her.
21 Quoted in Sobchack, Vivian. "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, in Senses of Cinema, accessible: www.sensesofcinema.com accessed: 10 January 2003.
22 Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure. London: Routledge, 1995., 197.