Archives for posts with tag: Vivian Sobchack

by Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment and actuality sites of a traumatic past

I am standing in the Podgórze district of Kraków, Poland. In 1941, this region, which was designed to house 3,000 residents, was transformed into a Jewish Ghetto which imprisoned 15,000 Polish Jews. Two segments of the Ghetto wall remind today’s visitors of this district’s traumatic past. One of these segments overlooks a children’s playground. How do I relate to the tragic past of this site as I stand here?

Phenomenologists from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Vivian Sobchack to Jenny Chamarette, all consider subjectivity to arise from the space in-between the different bodies of experience. The space in-between suggests that meaning arises from the intertwining of the different bodies, rather than belonging to one particular subject. Usually phenomenology focuses on the embodied (sometimes human) subject and their relationship with objects or other people. However, at this particular site, I feel like an intruder -a tourist- observing an interaction between two inanimate objects which seem to be communicating with each other. Here, I begin to realise the significance of the space in-between. In front of me stands a grey wall, its three-foot panels designed to represent Jewish gravestones. These are fragments of the remaining Ghetto wall. I reach out to touch this wall, but I feel uncomfortable doing so. It’s darkness, size and shape seems to cast a shadow over the space where I stand. I am saddened by the past that once inhabited the other side of this wall.

However, in front of this wall I see children’s play equipment. It is brightly coloured and on springs – there is a vibrancy and vitality to its presence. The equipment reminds me of being young and the joy and freedom of the imagination of play. 

 

What is most striking for me, though, is the space in-between these two objects. Both the wall and the equipment conjure strong, but contrasting emotions. The space between them expresses an absence and a distance. It is here that I fix my gaze – are people that come here to enjoy the present use of this site aware of its tragic past? Could the inhabitants once trapped behind this wall ever have imagined a time when vitality and freedom might return to this site? This space in-between signifies the distance between then and now, and the absence of those who were once imprisoned here and yet who, in the majority, never returned.

My attention, or my intentionality, is drawn to the absence- the space in-between the two objects and I feel an uncanny relationship to the different temporal dimensions I encounter here – it is neither the past nor the present which becomes the subject of my attention. Rather, it is the space in-between these different eras – for a moment, I feel as if I am embodied in an ahistoric moment – one where my intentionality is drawn to the relationality between temporal dimensions, rather than directed towards any one time. Is it possible to consider experiences as moments outside history? I am now historicising my experience at the site by recording it for the future in this blog.  It is now part of my history. Perhaps, it is not that the experience is ahistoric, but rather that this site has drawn my attention to the fact meaning can arises from spatial and temporal relationships. It is here, that I realise turning to the embodied moment allows me to identify embodiment not only as an experience of the now, but as a relationship with different temporal dimensions.

 

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Film Studies, Affect and Ethics

Victoria Grace Walden

In-keeping with Mona’s recent ’10 things I know about…’ blogs, I have accepted the challenge of attempting to summarise my own research in such a way. Here are 10 thoughts about affect and film scribed without reference to notes or quotation:

  1. Film phenomenologists such as Vivian Sobchack consider ‘affect’ to be the corporeal relationship between spectator and film;
  2. Laura Marks focuses specifically on the notion of haptic visuality (and briefly haptic aurality) considering the ability of the camera to ‘graze’ rather than gaze over surfaces, textures and spaces –to bring us closer to things which provoke sensuous memories of touch or movement;
  3. Psychologist Tomkin considers ‘affect’ to refer to intensity changes rooted inside the body;
  4. While, phenomenologists consider affect in relation to bodily reactions, it has often been used as an umbrella term of emotions, feelings and mood;
  5. Cognitive film theory, in its thinking about emotions, might be considered to identify ‘affect’ as related to character- or narrative-identification. Such thinking reinforces Christian Metz’s notions that the cinema screen is an illusionary, post-Lacanian mirror where we identify with a fantastical Other;
  6. This approach would suggest we respond to the diegesis as ‘that world over there’ –a hermeneutically closed space;
  7. If we are positioned outside the space of meaning-making during the film experience, it could be suggested that it is the film, not us, that is the ethical subject because the audience is considered a passive consumer of the film’s message. In this sense, Catherine Wheatley suggests that Hollywood-style narrative films encourage the spectator to only consider ethical questions after the film has finished and such questions tend to relate to the final consequences of narrative actions;
  8. However, sometimes films are playful with style, montage and reflexive in such ways that they slip between emotionally and critically engaging the spectator, and in doing so, turn the spectator’s attention towards their own body as well as the film’s. Thus, according to Wheatley, such films encourage spectators to confront their position as a participant during the experience. These films might be considered to be ‘morally consequent’ (to use Wheatley’s term);
  9. Ergo we might consider affect and ethics as intertwining concepts: when we watch a film we are an ethically inscribed body; we are embodied in the film experience as an ethical being. Ethics is after all, always inscribed in the actions we perform in our life;
  10. By turning our attention to the film experience rather than the film text we are turning towards a study of the ethical relationship between film and spectator.

Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment, digital technology and site visits

New twentieth century technologies of representation and narration… have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly towards simultaneity.

(Sobchack, 1996:4-5)

Having had the pleasure of being involved in one of the Holocaust Education Trust’s recent Lessons from Auschwitz projects, this quote made me think about how the project’s young participants engage with memory and history during their visit to the Nazi concentration-death camp.

The project involves 16-18 year old students from the UK attending an orientation seminar in London, a day trip to Oświęcim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a second reflective seminar in London. The students then return to their school and translate their experience into some form of educational or commemorative outcome.

As part of the orientation seminar, students are encouraged to discuss a quote from Janina Struk’s Photographing the Holocaust (2003). Struck suggests that “a camera puts a distance between the person taking the photographs and an otherwise distressing experience.”

In On Photography, Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture” (quotes take from the Holocaust Education Trust handout).

Both of these stances are critical of taking photographs and suggest they diminish our experience of place, offering instead a safe barrier between us and the traumatic aura of the site we encounter. Previously I have agreed with this position. When I first started taking photographs of atrocity sites for my research, I felt awkward -as if I was intruding on someone else’s history; as if I was being disrespectful.

However, the students I spoke to were rather vehement about the importance of taking photographs. One said “it proves you were there”, another “they are memories”. Does taking photographs or video footage augment or diminish our embodied experience?

Auschwitz gates

To return to the Sobchack quote, modern technology has the capability to collapse the temporal dimensions of history. It can diminish the sense of a narrative where the past is behind us, the present is what is being experienced and the future something yet to come. The individual frames of photograph or film can bring to our attention the significance of the experienced event and raise questions about the notion of history as ‘story’. Each click of the camera or press of the record button signifies an embodied moment or event detached from a wider narrative – a moment of action dictated by the body and one where choices are made by the photographer. What is it from this moment that they wish to capture? What, in the perceptual horizon in front of them, is their intentionality drawn to? What are they specifically conscious of at this moment? How does their choice of framing and positioning emphasise their corporeal experience of the site? Sobchack reminds us that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the camera can often be a tool that augments our experience of a place by allowing us to capture the specific objects of our intentionality at any given moment and return to it repeatedly. Sometimes, upon re-viewing the image we can see shapes or objects we didn’t notice with the naked eye.

The action of the click collapses the temporal dimensions of time because it highlights its subjective nature. Time is not necessarily experienced as a mythical, objective narrative that joins individual moments together. Instead, here the photographer has a relationship with the past, present and future simultaneously. This is not to say they live the time we refer to as the past, the now and a futuristic moment at once, but rather that in the moment when they click the button on their camera they instantly collapse their embodied relationship with these three temporal dimensions. That is to say, their pressing of the button identifies that they are making a conscious choice not only to look at the traces of the past in front of them, but to reflect on this past in the present moment, by taking an image that will continue to commemorate both this present and the past being reflected on, in the future.

The representation and remembering of history thus becomes an event which will eventually be sutured into the participant’s story of the Holocaust (for it is in our nature as human beings to make stories of everything even if we do not experience life as such). In the embodied action of the click of the camera they say: “Here I was, looking at the traces of what happened here. I ask you to also see. Look and remember.”

But there is always the problem of iconoclasm. At an site such as Auschwitz, which has come to stand as a symbol of the Holocaust and a symbol of evil in the public consciousness, do we take photographs of things which affect us personally or take photographs of those objects which we recognise as iconic?  Are we in danger of repeating the same images and reducing the Holocaust to a set of trope photographs which could be misinterpreted as the sum of the entire event?

References

Sobchack, Vivian (1996) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, London, UK: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography, London, UK & New York, USA: Penguin.

Struck, Janina (2004) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, London, UK & New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.

Highlights and thoughts regarding embodiment, affect, film and media from this year’s conference

by Victoria Grace Walden

Conference director Phillip Drummond hospitably accommodated more than 150 speakers, including key note presenters professors Laura Mulvey and Toby Miller alongside Dr. Cathy Ross, Jeremy Black and film and television writer Joe Ahearne at this year’s Film and Media conference. Below I share just some of the highlights which refer to issues of affect and embodiment.

Dr. Cathy Ross’s (Museum of London) opening keynote on Thursday explored how the city museum incorporates new technology into its museum spaces. She discussed the museum’s augmented reality phone app which allows users to see “this spot in history” at certain places in the capital. Then explained how digital imagery and film were used in a variety of exhibitions, discussing the mixed reactions of visitors in some areas such as the slavery gallery and the Blitz.

Dr. Ross touched on how our perception and desires of museum spaces are changing. Visitors expect interaction and emotional experiences in museums and the more traditional “knowledge” online. This made me reflect: what is knowledge? Do we always have to consider it as a cognitive asset? Can becoming submerged in interactive experiences that provoke emotions and sensations not offer a corporeal form of “knowledge”? Are we moving into an age which we might define by this “new knowledge”?

Also, how do/ can we engage with affect and the historical in museum spaces though media? What are the limitations? What are the ethical implications? Are there any topics where the digital and moving image could be deemed inappropriate?

I’ll be focusing on some of these issues in a future blog after visiting some of London’s museum sites this summer.

Mason Kamana Allred (University of California Berkeley, USA)  spoke at the “Spectacles of History 1” panel about Ernst Lubitsch’s Madam Dubarry (1919) questioning whether cinema could offer a new form of history to traditional, epistemological and scientific representations of the past. He linked the work of Frank Ankersmit on sublime historical experience to the phenomenological ideas of Vivian Sobchack in order to explore a prelinguistic, subjective history that perhaps can be felt at the cinema.

Three other papers which particularly grabbed my attention and jointly encouraged me to think about my relationship with the screen were Dr Douglas Keesey’s (California Polytechnic State University, USA)  discussion of the illusion of choice and morality regarding death in the Final Destination franchise; Elena Wooley’s (King’s College, London)  paper on disaster movies and the use of surrogates) for suffering in films of the genre in order to translate terror into entertainment (such as spectacularly collapsing buildings rather than close-ups of human victims); and Dr Sian Mitchell’s (SAE, Australia) exploration of her experience of a delayed (or continuous) affect after watching Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2010).

These three papers raised questions about how I relate to bodies on screen. In the Final Destination films I discover, like the characters, I cannot cheat death. As such, the diegeses of the films extend beyond the frame as my understanding of real life is affected by the actions on screen. In films such as 2012 (Emmerich, 2009), I see only the protagonists up-close therefore connecting with the survivors. I never see the human extent of the catastrophe, yet the entire world seems to collapse around me. I leave the auditorium with an ecstatic sense of immortality – I have cheated death, I have survived the end of the world. In contrast, as the credits close on Melancholia I feel I have been cheated of death. As the beautiful closing light sucks the colour from the film and Wagner’s music crescendos neither reach their conclusion before the fade to black. The audio-visual image seems transcendental, but never allows me to fully submerge in its glory. As Dr Alex Ling (University of West Sydney, Australia) noted that’s because Von Trier is continuously reminding us that his films are only movies. This is Otherness, this is fantasy, this is not my experience to claim.

film and media conference film studies phillip drummond toby miller

 Phillip Drummond and Toby Miller at the closing key note

Image: Victoria Grace Walden