SCHEFER AND THE REALITY OF THE PERSON
Concepts such as the unconscious, the ungraspable, the undecidable, the unsayable, the enigmatic and the paradoxical are nowadays part of the contemporary intellectual’s stock-in-trade. They are commonly deployed to characterise and justify certain kinds of obscurity in thought, and they have been touchstones in accounts of the work of Jean Louis Schefer. Vincent Descombes has discriminated amongst the issues at stake in the use of concepts such as these:
Reason is only effective within the bounds of the reasonable; it cannot but fail to grasp the irrational.
A representation is always that of something representable, and so it cannot but fail to grasp the unrepresentable.
Consciousness is conscious only of that which is conscious; therefore it cannot but fail to grasp the unconscious. [Vincent Descombes, “An essay in philosophical observation”, in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Alan Montefiore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 78.
What these formulae, or, rather, tautologies, evoke is the idea of an ungraspable object, resistant to any form of ordered discourse. It is this object that the ‘obscure’ conception of philosophy takes to be the philosophical object par excellence. But how is such an object to be understood? Clearly, formal discourse has already been ruled out, since it is form which is held to be responsible for the object’s exclusion: as a result, ‘this form will have to be modified so as to bring to awareness that which by its exclusion has enabled discourse in due and proper form to exist as such’ [Descombes, art. cit., p. 78.] Understanding, then, will necessitate a change of style, and change of style is indeed what we find. As Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut remark, ‘since the real is the impossible, since the truth is not adequation but split difference, only broken discourse can be adequate to it’ [Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, trans. Mary Schnackenberg Cattani (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 190), p. 201.
The result is an idiom in which negativity is taken to operate only on its own behalf, without limit or circumscription. Deconstruction and linguistic Freudianism, for example, lay out a series of mediations whose indefinite transgression aims to reach the one thing—the real—which, simply by virtue of its being aimed at, is forever inaccessible. The doctrine of the primacy of the signifier is thus a reworking of the Hegelian teaching, ‘the word is the murderer of the thing’, and from the doctrine of the signifier to the theory of the subject the way is short, and almost inevitable. It is to this tradition that Schefer’s commentators typically assimilate him; and yet, whatever the pertinence may be of theory of this order for the characterisation of contemporary thought, I find it has little or nothing to say about a matter I believe crucial to his work, namely, the reality of the person, the living human being.
Schefer begins his discussion of Dreyer’s Vampyr with a citation of a well-known passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). On the face of it, this looks rather odd, given his alleged indebtedness to the very different set of ideas just referred to. Hobbes was, after all, a thoroughgoing empiricist, for whom all knowledge derives in some way or other from sense experience, and Leviathan opens with a programmatic (not to say, dogmatic) assertion of this view:
[T]here is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense. [Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 13.]
We experience the world because the objects in the world impinge on us; that is, energy is transferred from the external world into the nervous system of the individual for whom the object is external:
All which qualities called Sensible, are in the object which causeth them, but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversly. 
Each object that we perceive affects our sense organs in such a way as to produce images in the mind:
Which Object worketh on the Eyes, Eares, and other parts of mans body; and by diversity of working, produceth diversity of Apparences. 
These images remain stored (as traces?) in the memory when the object itself is no longer before us. Hobbes argues (in the passage cited by Schefer) that when the object is removed from us, or the eye is closed, we still retain an image of the thing seen, ‘though’, as he says, ‘more obscure than when we see it’.
And this it is, the Latines call Imagination, from the image made in seeing; and apply the same, though improperly, to all the other senses. But the Greeks call it Fancy; which signifies apparence, and is as proper to one sense, as to another. IMAGINATION therefore is nothing but decaying sense, and is found in men, and many other living Creatures, aswell sleeping, as waking. 
In spelling out what is in effect a causal theory of perception, Hobbes may be thought of as a progenitor of modern cognitive science. However, it is not this aspect of him that is relevant here, but rather his insistence on the decay which is the very condition of experience, a decay of which memory is both the consequence and embodiment. In touching on this, Schefer is showing himself responsive to features that Hobbes’s thought has in common with the contemporary theory of the subject, a fact which serves to indicate something of the difficulties by which that theory is beset. As with modern presentations of mental operation, such as the Lacanian ‘algorithm’ of fantasy, Hobbes’s acccount of memory is based on the idea that when we remember something we undergo a present experience or mental process from which the past is read off. When I remember having acted in such and such a way, or what it was that I did, something takes place in my mind—and it is this event or process which is the remembering. There is an inner event which constitutes the remembering, and it is an event that differs in specific ways from other inner events, such as the events that constitute thinking or expecting or intending or fearing. It is on this basis that the imagist theory of memory gets off the ground, despite the fact that the notion of the identification of private, ‘inner’ mental events or objects can be given no intelligible expression.
It should be recognised that the imagist account of memory screens out a great deal of what we would ordinarily call ‘remembering’. As P.M.S. Hacker has noted, memory is more than a matter of experiences enjoyed or undergone, and the objects of those experiences. He writes: ‘We remember a multitude of facts learnt or objects encountered in the past, without necessarily remembering when or how we learnt or encountered them’ [P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 487]. We remember that things took place in this way or that, we remember that things are or will be thus and so, without remembering the occasions when we came by this information. We remember how to perform such and such an action without remembering how or when we learnt to do it. It is, therefore, misguided to think that memory ‘must’ involve an image, accompanied by certain feelings of familiarity or ‘pastness’. Having an image is neither necessary nor sufficient for remembering. To recognise this is to undermine the idea (or prejudice) that remembering must be based on a faithful image picture of what happened. We do not, in remembering, read off from a memory image, as we would from a photograph or picture of the past event, what it was that happened. It is not the case that memory shows us the past by showing us a representation of it, a picture somehow stored in the mind or brain, ‘which is brought to consciousness in the act or process of remembering’ [p. 488]. Though an image may accompany my memory of what happened, what I remember is not the image of what happened, but what happened.
As Hacker indicates, the analogy between remembering and a picture or photograph is profoundly misleading. If a picture is to inform me about how it was in the past, I must remember that this is how it was, that this is the Eiffel Tower in the background, and so on. I do the remembering, and the picture serves to remind me that this is how things looked. The use of a picture, therefore, presupposes that I remember what it is a picture of. It does no good to argue that in the case of memory images there is a special feeling, of familiarity or pastness, or a belief-feeling, that connects it with the past. Again, I must recognise such a feeling and I can only do so if I remember it. Furthermore, the use of past tense verbs, a use which is bound up with the very concept of the past, is itself learnt in remembering.
The analogy misleads in another way also. It suggests that one does not remember the past event one is in fact recalling. If we remember what we remember by way of a memory-image, to be understood as a photograph is to be understood, then, like the photograph, the image operates by providing evidence for what took place. We do not remember, we learn what happened in the past by reading it off the memory-image. This is to think of memory as supplying a store of information about the past. But this is ‘precisely not to remember what occurred, but to learn, as from a long-forgotten diary, what occurred’. Finally, ‘if what one remembers is the memory-image, which is a likeness of, but not identical with, the past experience, then one can never remember the experience itself’ [Hacker, op. cit., p. 489. For an account of the Augustinian view of memory, see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory. For a critique of Augustine’s imagist theory of memory, see Norman Malcolm, Memory and Mind (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 19-22].
Given these arguments, my contention is that the theory of the subject, and ideas of memory derived from it, can cast no light on Schefer’s text. First, the theory itself is inadequate, based as it is on ideas of mental imagery and inner representation. Second, Schefer’s is a writing of the present, and its central concern is not reconstructive but creative. Despite his powerful evocations of memory and the passing of time (as in, for example, his discussion of La Jetée), his writing does not construct itself around a series of images, under whose suggestive or nostalgic potency a past may be subsumed. The effect of his style is not to return to or summon up what has been, but to intertwine itself, in the manner of a chiasmus, with what is—the reality to which it is turned, whether of art, cinema or writing as such, and in which it participates. Writing of The Deluge, Schefer has this to say:
[T]he period fascinates me because the status of figuration cannot be solved by analogically expressive functions (according to the reduction in view of a specifically figurative practice that, later, iconology attempts to perform); the figurative system being set in play is also that of a nonfiguring mass that remains blind, without name or destiny, and whose “ideal” structure, the sum of the figurative field, does not add up. [The Deluge, The Plague: Paolo Uccello, trans. Tom Conley (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998), p. 30.]
The site of this nonfiguring mass, whose ‘ideal’ structure does not add up, is the body. Schefer contends that ‘Uccello’s fresco presents, or, rather, rules over, a state of the body in disaggregation, (unclothed, blurred, sunken, set in a liquid magma, truncated; in one resepect, these states of the body can be attributed to a fiction of positions and conditions of Uccello’s vision), submitted to various degrees of erasure, of rubbing’ [p. 26]. Similarly, the sequence late in Vampyr, during which the doctor (the vampire’s assistant) is stifled in flour, may also be seen as nonfiguring, inasmuch as the suffocation enacted in the mill enacts at the same time the disappearance from the film of the film image itself.
And that assault, projected as a white coating, by such a wearing down of marble, causes the falling away of all the years to the moment when the world was hidden beneath a crust of snow. And the silhouette slowly stifling in the flour arouses in us (like the image of a cooked insect found in a loaf of bread) an inexplicable relief at seeing this body simply disappear without the shadow of an actual murder. [The Enigmatic Body, trans. Paul Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 137.]
One can hardly fail to compare and contrast this image with the final image of Diary of a Country Priest or the image of the crucifix with diagonal top-pieces which succeeds Anne’s confession at the end of Day of Wrath, or indeed the consuming light at the end of Gertrud. The first two films impose a shadow of a crucifix on a white ground as a notation of narrative closure, while in Gertrud Gertrud is herself gathered into a transfiguring whiteness, a whiteness which is also emanating from her. In Vampyr, the body of the doctor is dispersed—disaggregated—by the flour, subsumed into it like a cockroach into a loaf, or dispersed like the body of a vampire confronted by the consuming fire of the bread of the Sacred Host. What we have here, in these diverse presentations of light, is a complex passage through the theology of the transfiguration, the eucharist and the body. The word, I would like to say, is here made flesh, but a flesh that escapes representation—becoming without confusion one with the very logos which has become incarnate within it. In all four films, the theological significance of the image derives from the fact that it exists in order to deny itself, negating itself in act of apophatic self-opening or kenosis. As Vladimir Lossky has written, man created ‘in the image’ of God is capable of manifesting God only to the degree that his nature allows itself to be penetrated by and so transfigured by deifying grace.
Thus the image—which is inalienable—can become similar or dissimilar, to the extreme limits: that of union with God, when deified man shows in himself by grace what God is by nature, according to the expression of St. Maximus; or indeed that of the extremity of falling-away which Plotinus called ‘the place of dissimilarity’, placing it in the gloomy abyss of Hades. [Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (London and Oxford: Mowbray’s, 1975), p. 139.]
Such a self-opening is undergone by Gray in the threefold division of his person in the second of his dreams. In the dream, he passes through ‘the gloomy abyss of Hades’ in an experience of a double extremity—of ‘dissimilarity’ and ‘similarity’. Through the extremity of death he is enabled to make ready the way for the judgement of the father, a judgement which eventually culminates in the death of the vampire, Marguerite Chopin, through the offices of the major-domo, and the death of the doctor, by way of the uncaused action of the cogs inside the mill. What Schefer is concerned with, then, is not the narrative unfolding of Vampyr, but the mode of existence of a film whose images are to be seen as hypostatic processions of cinema itself.
The question of human being and presence in Schefer is inseparable from what he calls the ‘grammatical gyration’ of the body, which in turn is closely bound up with the ‘grammar’ of the person. The term ‘grammar’ in this context admits of a certain slippage—or declension—as between Schefer’s use of it and a rather different sense of the word, used as Wittgenstein uses it. For Wittgenstein, the concept of grammar (or logic) differs from the usual one: it relates, not to language as a system of signs, but to the use of words, to our practice of using words in the complex and various manifestations of our forms of life. A grammatical or philosophical investigation is one in which ‘we remind ourselves’ of the place particular words and concepts occupy in the distinctive patterns of use that constitute our being in language. It involves having hitherto unnoticed aspects of things brought to our attention, so that we may see them differently, in what is a change of mind due to something more akin to a conversion than a conclusion based on argument. It is grammar in this sense that Wittgenstein is thinking of when he distinguishes between the role played by the notion of ‘having a body’ as opposed to that of ‘being a body’. As Hacker has noted, it is a grammatical distinction inasmuch as it serves to mark a qualitative and fundamental distinction between the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate, the sensible and the insensate. [P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 247.]
One (grammatical) consequence of this distinction is that I may be proud of my body without being proud of myself, and ashamed of myself without being ashamed of my body. It makes sense to introduce myself by saying ‘I am N.N.’, but to say ‘I am a body’ is no introduction at all. Human beings, though they occupy space, are not human bodies. Indeed, what does it mean to say that I am my body? It can’t mean that I am identical with my body. First, it is not an identity statement to say ‘I am my body’, any more than it is an identity statement to say ‘I am N.N.’. The word ‘I’ in my mouth does not refer to me: in giving my name I am not picking myself out from others (though by so doing I am making it possible for others to do precisely that). Second, I will cease to exist before my body ceases to exist, for at death I will leave my remains behind. Third, though there are a few contexts in which ‘I’ and ‘my body’ can replace each other, the very expression ‘my body’ presupposes the difference between me and my body and commonly the two expressions cannot replace each other. The crucial point, for Hacker, as for Wittgenstein, is that only what is alive can be said to ‘have a body’. It is not said of machines, or of corpses. ‘Having a body, one might say, is a (formal) mark of sentient life’ [Hacker, op cit., p. 249]. Hanjo Glock and John Hyman have commented on Hacker’s (and Wittgenstein’s) arguments:
Suppose that Carter is ashamed of his body because it weighs 18 stone. Carter’s body weighs 18 stone if and only if Carter weighs 18 stone. Hence Carter is ashamed of the fact that he weights 18 stone; therefore Carter is ashamed of himself. However, suppose that Carter is ashamed of himself because he has offended Mary. It does not follow that he is ashamed of his body (of which he may well be proud, if it is beautiful and graceful). For those cases where the mutual implication holds are precisely those which concern bodily characteristics. For what is true of my body is true of me (for as long as I am alive); but what is true of me need not be true of my body (and indeed may make no sense when predicated of my body). [“Persons and their Bodies”, Philosophical Investigations 17:2 (April 1994): 378.]
Glock and Hyman go on to note that the substitution of ‘Carter’ for ‘Carter’s body’ does not preserve truth-value in some cases. From this they conclude that Carter is not identical with Carter’s body. In other cases, the substitution results in nonsense, which, they suggest, shows that Carter and his body belong to different categories of particular. Finally, the fact that substitution is permitted in some cases and preserves truth-value indicates that ‘Carter is not some other thing, over and above his body, which might survive its (final) destruction’[Glock and Hyman, art. cit.: 379]. The conclusion may seem paradoxical: how can Carter not be identical with his body, if Carter and his body are (and must be) in the same place at the same time? Does this not lead straight back to Cartesian dualism? The response is that, while no two material bodies can occupy exactly the same place at exactly the same time, a person is not a body, and therefore the objection gets no grip on the concepts of person and body.
As Schefer presents it, The Deluge would seem to amount to a profound repudiation of the grammar in question. He appears to see justification in the fresco for a ramifying violation of what meaning the concepts of body and person have for us in the weave of our lives. Thus, he dwells at length in many passages on bodily mutilation and destruction, concluding that the body in The Deluge is ‘The nontheatrical, nonscenic body: an obscene body, which floats in relation to a spatial organisation, for example, that would be one of its simple vision or of its rememoration. A forgotten—obscene—anatomy’ [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 99]. This is more than a passing notation. It is a vision of the first importance, concerning the significance of the fresco as a whole, and Schefer recalls the occasion on which the force of it was brought home to him. He had entered Santa Maria Novella to measure the size of Dante’s figure in the picture:
A dark lighting: a first film where a commotion appears, that hits me right in the face, with what had to be understood as the invention of the signifying body: something as barren as this meaningless, painful, embarrassing, stubborn comedy (Good Night Nurse). This double chin that in the movies unwinds Fatty’s face, dripping with rain, that reveals its cinematic absurdity; the crackle of wet matches that are supposed to light a soggy cigarette (a collusion of this pasty face of a fat ephebe with chubby fingers, cruller-like ladyfingers): the same thing: the invention of the signifier in cinema unwinds a violence: that of the absurd body, that of the exempted real. [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 100.]
What comes across from this moment of autobiographical recollection is that Schefer was forcibly struck by a resemblance, between the shapeless bodies surrounding the upright figure of Dante and the amorphous absurdity of Fatty Arbuckle. In theoretical terms, the real is ‘exempted’ by the irruption of a sense of absurdity that separates the body from the real—itself amorphous and undifferentiated. This, for Schefer, is nothing other than what the experience of ‘the invention of the signifier’ in cinema amounts to—the invention of the signifying body. However, I would contend that there is something opaque here, which the theoretically sanctioned dichotomy opposing discontinuity to the continuous (the symbolic to the semiotic, the symbolic to the real, and so on) is unable to grasp, namely, the sheer fact of Schefer’s having been struck in the way that he was—a living man in physical contact with the fresco. The event presupposes an unhesitating and spontaneous acceptance of a human reality that it would seem the fresco itself has uncompromisingly reduced—to ‘flotsam at low tide, shards of things, scattered objects’.
However, at this juncture, any conclusions on the matter would be premature. Schefer acknowledges as his own a relation to the fresco that is intermediary between fear and rapture:
Thus, a gaze exists that is enraptured with this painting. I am not entirely sure what I’m looking for: surely Vico’s colour, a kind of arc in the earth of Siena, or monsters? a syntax or other words. What kind of exchange in the writing? Nothing is to be given—other than the experience of my fear. The Deluge? That is what I am reading, but the order and the wording have been changed. Everything happens over a smell of elderberries. And still, the most brutal, naïve scene. Tailored to the denuding of things. A plate raised up by a pair of pliers! [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 102].
This is not a report on certain properties of the fresco. Schefer is not concerned to elucidate traditions of iconography, nor does he seek to offer an account of constructional techniques. Descriptions of this kind are given by John Pope-Hennessy, for example, in his book on Uccello, where, amongst other things, he demonstrates how The Deluge unites two dissociated episodes into a single visual scheme, and, by so doing, ‘objectifie[s] Alberti’s ideal of the copious composition’ [John Pope-Hennessy, Paolo Uccello (London and New York: Phaidon, 1969), p. 16. ]. The nature of Schefer’s passion is to be sought elsewhere, and the form of expression that embodies it is not easily to be characterised. What I believe can be said, however, is that there are certain features of his approach, whether in relation to art, writing or the cinema, that run parallel, for at least some of the way, with what Wittgenstein has discussed in Part II of Philosophical Investigations under the head of ‘seeing aspects’.
The most important thing about the aspect is that there is a sense in which it isn’t really there and a sense in which it is very much there; a sense in which to speak about ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with respect to it is to miss its point and yet another sense in which in seeing it and in giving it expression you are truer to the object than if you stick to objective terms – the terms, that is, of what Wittgenstein calls ‘the language-game of reporting’, or ‘the language-game of information’. [Avner Baz, “What’s the point of seeing aspects?”, Philosophical Investigations 23:2 (April 2000): 106.]
In this summary, Avner Baz points to the main directions of Wittgenstein’s thought. The seeing involved in aspect seeing is not seeing in general, but seeing (the emphasis is one Wittgenstein employs throughout his discussion). The ordinary sense of ‘seeing’ goes hand in hand with ‘knowing’ and is to be distinguished from aspect seeing. This is clear from the fact that aspects do not teach us anything about the external world, if ‘teaching about the external world’ is understood on the model of giving objective information. To see an aspect is not see a property of an object, and so the expression of a change of aspect (as in what is perhaps an over-worked example, from duck to rabbit), while it may have the form of a report of a new perception, is not quite such a report. As Baz indicates, Wittgenstein also says that the criterion for what you see, when ‘seeing’ in the sense of seeing aspects is involved, is your representation of what is seen. Thus, when Schefer tells us that he sees a resemblance between bodies in the fresco and the amorphous body of Arbuckle he could be lying, but he could not be mistaken. In this respect, then, the expression of the seeing of an aspect is not a report on objective fact: it is an Äusserung, an avowal.
As Baz notes, there are connections here with the Kantian account of aesthetic judgement, and, more specifically, with Cavell’s reworking of that account: ‘Aspects, like beauty, hang somewhere between the object and the subject, and that position is constituted by the expectation, the demand, from our partner to see what we see, in spite of the fact that we have no way of making him realize that he should’ [Baz, art. cit.: 107. The reference to Cavell is: Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1969), p. 89, footnote; cited by Baz: 107]. Though the expression we give to the seeing or dawning of aspects may look like giving a report, it is not used for that purpose. Rather, the aim of it is the seeking of intimacy. This is not the intimacy in which one reveals something about one’s heart or inner feelings; in giving expression to the seeing of aspects we seek intimacy with someone else by trying to reveal, to bring out, something about the object. [Baz, art. cit., p.108] As Wittgenstein insists, when we say ‘It’s running!’ in front of a painting of a running horse we are not doing so in order to inform other people: it is a reaction in which people are in touch with one another.
It is intimacy in this sense that characterises the tone of the last passage quoted from Schefer. It also characterises the account he gives of the end of Vampyr, where his attempt is to get the reader to see as he sees, and to feel as he feels, a transfiguring of the cinematic image as such. The idea of intimacy hangs together with two further points about seeing aspects, both of which have relevance to an understanding of Schefer’s writing. The first is that aspects are subject to the will. The second is that an aspect is something that strikes us. Dependency on the will means that it makes sense to say: ‘Now see the figure like this’. In real life situations, it makes sense for me to ask you to see, or at least try to see, the resemblance between two faces that has struck me, and it makes sense for Schefer to ask his readers to see the resemblance between Arbuckle and the bodies in Uccello’s fresco. (The implication is that, whether or not we see what the other person would have us see, there is nothing standing between us and what he sees apart from what we may have put there ourselves.) Thus, if there is an air of paradox attaching to the dawning of an aspect, it derives from the fact that the aspect ‘appears over there, in the object, and yet we know we must have had something to do with that appearance’ [Baz, art. City., p. 110]. We know that what has so radically changed, now that we have seen or been struck by the aspect, has in another sense not changed at all. It is as though we were bringing a concept to bear on the object, which is why, as Baz points out, ‘the aspect cannot be our (or the) usual, obvious way of seeing the object, but rather has to be new to us’ [Baz, art. cit., p.111]. The aspect is not obviously there, as a property might be, but neither have we placed it there by a pure act of the imagination.
It is this peculiarity of the aspect – its being something that fits the object, and at the same time something that we bring to the object; its being a way of seeing something anew while remaining faithful to it – that gives expressing it its point in ordinary contexts. [Baz, art. cit., p. 111]
The seeing of an aspect is, therefore, a temporal experience: when we see an aspect, we are thinking of the object, we are occupied by it, and the aspect lasts only for as long as we are occupied with the object in that particular way. We are paying attention, which is one reason for thinking we have something to do with it, and the fact that the aspect has dawned on us is a good enough reason for our so saying.
The pertinence of the dawning of aspects to aesthetic appreciation is manifest not only in Schefer’s writing but also in the later work of Roland Barthes, work that has features in common with Schefer’s. Thus, the distinction Barthes draws in Camera Lucida between the studium and the punctum may be construed in exactly these terms: the punctum ‘is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’ [Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 55. Barthes’s emphasis]. Following some remarks of Bazin’s on cinema, Barthes insists that what constitutes a photograph that lives for him is what he calls ‘a blind field’: that is, there is a specific person in the photograph who in some way seems to emerge from it and continue living beyond it. Robert Wilson, photographed sitting with Philip Glass by Mapplethorpe, is endowed with an unlocatable punctum: ‘[he] is someone I want to meet’ [Camera Lucida, p. 57]. On account of her necklace, a black woman in her Sunday best takes on a whole life external to the portrait of her and her family. In a picture by William Klein of children in Little Italy in 1954 a single feature stands out: one child’s bad teeth. There is, however, a punctum (a ‘stigmatum’) other than the unexpected detail. This other punctum, which is not of form but intensity, is Time—what Barthes calls the ‘lacerating emphasis’ of that-has-been, its pure presentation. In 1865, Alexander Gardner photographed a young man, Lewis Payne, who had tried to assassinate the U.S. Secretary of State, W.H. Seward. The photograph was taken in Payne’s cell, when he was waiting to be hanged.
The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. [Camera Lucida, p. 96.]
This is particularly a feature of historical photographs: that is dead and that is going to die. Barthes sees two little girls looking at a primitive flying machine above their village: they are alive, with their whole lives before them. And yet they are dead (today) and they are then already dead (yesterday). In front of a photograph of his mother as a child, he shudders: she is going to die. What Barthes sees is something that fits the object and yet it is something he has brought to it: he sees the photograph anew, while remaining faithful to it.
As the intimacy of Barthes’s tone—the quality in it of avowal—makes evident, the idea of the punctum, like that of aspect seeing, makes sense only for the embodied person, the living human being. The same point can be made with reference to Merleau-Ponty, whose account of genuine or authentic perception also has many features in common with what Wittgenstein has had to say about the dawning of aspects. In genuine vision, Merleau-Ponty insists, ‘a strange adhesion between the seer and the visible’ is experienced [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 139. (Baz draws attention to a connection between seeing things anew and Heidegger’s discussion of authenticity in Being and Time.)]. The seer is caught up in what he sees in such a way that what he sees is still himself. At the same time, the vision that he exercises is something he also undergoes from the things, so that, ‘as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things’ [The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139]. In this situation, which is that, fundamentally, of aesthetic experience, ‘the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen’ [The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139. On this, see Michel de Certeau, “The Madness of Vision”, trans. Michael B. Smith, Enclitic 7:1 (1983): 24-31]. Schefer sums up his own position in a not dissimilar vein:
The image can be seen by way of what it lacks.
Something is missing that constitutes the image (permits it to conceal the world we live in, not by means of a screen with figures on it, but by means of time).
If what’s missing were within the image (of which we are a part – the virtual pole, or the phantom), the image would be invisible.
So the spectacle of visible man does exist: it’s the awareness of the darkness of our interior lives by which any spectacle is made possible. [The Enigmatic Body, p. 120.]
The last remark reads as though it were an acknowledgement of Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of the person, while it would not be misconceived to take the first three remarks as summations of the foregoing account of aspect seeing, as well as of Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the chiasmus of seer and seen. When set against this background, certain of Schefer’s remarks achieve an especial intensity, exemplified particularly by those concerning an image from Dreyer’s The Master of the House (1925). A woman is standing centrally in the rear of the image, looking slightly up and off frame right, a basket of washing forward from her in the frame, to her right. In mid-ground is a slatted door or gate, open, while in the foreground is a rough, bare, wooden floor. The image as a whole is illuminated by a key-light behind the wall mid-ground in the image, into which the doorway has been cut. Hence the source of the light is not visible. Obscured by the wall, its light pours down from somewhere off and to the top right of the frame. It is to this source that the woman has raised her eyes. The edges of the frame in the foreground are in deep shadow. The woman is holding a sheet at chest height in front of her, which she appears to be about to hang up to dry. Other washing is visible on a line behind her, to her left. Schefer sees a contrast between the ancient poverty—the filth—of the woman’s house, and the sheet, the ‘shroud’, which she is offering up, ‘an imageless innocence and a light as if calming some savage beast’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 122]. The light—uncorrupted, since it is without visible source—is gathered by the sheet, even as it radiates it, a light that Schefer evokes as the ‘approach of a suffering from which I have to reconstruct, in the repetition of this arrested movement, a threshold within myself that’s still uncrossable’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 123]. There is here, as the woman holds the sheet as though she were holding a screen up to a projector, a falling of light in which may be seen re-enacted by analogy the imprinting on the shroud of the negative image of Christ. The image is created in what Schefer calls ‘an immaculate flash’, in the very moment of Resurrection, as the uncreated and divine energy—grace, the light of Mount Tabor—transforms the substance of the cloth, while leaving its accidents intact. The co-inherence in the Second Person of divine energy with the human nature is a co-inherence constitutive also of the human person, made in ‘the image and likeness of God’.
There is thus on the boundary between the uncreated and the created a threshold within each person and it is this threshold within himself that Schefer speaks of as ‘uncrossable’. Nonetheless, just as we may participate by grace in the suffering and resurrection of Christ, so analogously we may participate in the image in Dreyer’s film: the image ‘repays’ us for what we are, fallen into poverty of spirit, seated in the dark, with the ‘white shadow’ that makes of this place a place beyond the world. Typically, in the photographic image, the accidents, the colour, shape, and so on, of the real objects remain in existence, although the substance of those objects has long since departed. Here, in this instance of a cinematic, projected image, the substance, the light, is a real presence, subsuming the accidents of the image into itself. Clearly, however, Schefer is not concerned with this kind of explication. His writing suspends itself at the edge of the intelligible, and for the reader who would participate in it there is no alternative but to submit to that suspension, in which the image appears as nothing other than the approach of a suffering whose redemption is light, an experience the cinema offers only rarely, one such occasion being the end of Vampyr, another the end of The Diary of a Country Priest, or this image from The Master of the House. Schefer’s writing is the endeavour to effect an opening to that experience, and, in this regard, it is undoubtedly imbued with what Pater, citing Blake, called spiritual form.
The Virtues of Knowledge
7 months ago