This is a chapter from a forthcoming book of collected essays by Vivian Sobchack. It shares ideas with a paper given at the Special Effects/Special Affects: Technologies of the Screen symposium held at the University of Melbourne, 25/3/2000.

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[M]y body is not only an object among all objects, . . .but an object which is sensitive to all the rest, which reverberates to all sounds, vibrates to all colours, and provides words with their primordial significance through the way in which it receives them.

– Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception

What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced.

– Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text

Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine, I am struck once again by the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars write to explain it–or, perhaps more aptly, to explain it away. Take, for example, several descriptions in the popular press of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993): “What impresses most is the tactile force of the images. The salt air can almost be tasted, the wind’s furious bite felt” (1); “An unremittingly sensuous experience of music and fabric, of mud and flesh”(2); “Poems will be written about the curves of the performers’ buttocks as they’re outlined by candlelight; about the atmosphere that surrounds the dropping away of each item of clothing; about the immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in close-up.”(3) A completely different kind of film, Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), elicits the following: “Viscerally, it’s a breath-taking trip”(4); “A classic summertime adrenaline rush”(5); “This white knuckle, edge-of-your-seat action opus is the real thing”(6); “A preposterously exciting thrill ride that takes itself seriously enough to produce gasps of tension and lightly enough so you giggle while grabbing the armrest”(7); “We feel wiped out with delirium and relief. The movie comes home in triumph and we go home in shreds.”(8) Reviewers of Paul Anderson’s film-adaptation of the kung-fu video game, Mortal Kombat (1995) emphasize “a soundtrack of. . .primitive, head-bonking urgency,”(9) and endless scenes of “kick, sock, pow. . .to-the-death battles,”(10) in which “backs, wrists and necks are shattered with sickening cracking sounds.”(11) And, of John Lasseter’s full-length computergraphically- animated feature Toy Story (1995), another says:

A Tyrannosaurus rex doll is so glossy and tactile you feel as if you could reach out and stroke its hard, shiny head. . . .When some toy soldiers spring to life, the waxy sheen of their green fatigues will strike Proustian chords of recognition in anyone who ever presided over a basement game of army. . . .[T]his movie. . .invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic.(12)

What have we, as contemporary theorists, to do with such tactile, kinetic, redolent, resonant, and sometimes even taste-full descriptions of the film experience?


During earlier periods in the history of film theory, there had been various attempts to understand the meaningful relation between cinema and our sensate bodies. Peter Wollen notes that the great Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, fascinated by the Symbolist movement, spent the latter part of his career investigating the “synchronization of the senses” and that his “writings on synaesthesia are of great erudition and considerable interest, despite their fundamentally unscientific nature.”(13) Gilles Deleuze writes that Eisenstein “continually reminds us that ‘intellectual cinema’ has as correlate ‘sensory thought’ or ’emotional intelligence’, and is worthless without it.”(14) And, in a wonderful essay using the trope of the “somersault” to address the relation between cinema and the body, Lesley Stern reminds us how, for Eisenstein, the moving body was “conceived and configured cinematically. . .not just [as] a matter of representation, but [as] a question of the circuit of sensory vibrations that links viewer and screen.(15) This early interest in the somatic effects of the cinema culminated, perhaps, on the one side, in the 1930s with the empirical work done by the Payne Studies–several of which quantitatively measured the “galvanic responses” and blood pressure of film viewers.(16) On the other, more qualitative side, there was the phenomenological work done in the 1940s by Siegfried Kracauer, who saw the uniqueness of cinema in the medium’s essential ability to stimulate us physiologically and sensually, to address the spectator as a “corporeal-material being,” a “human being with skin and hair.” Kracauer writes: “The material elements that present themselves in films directly stimulate the material layers of the human being: his nerves, his senses, his entire physiological substance.”(17)

Contemporary film theory, however, has generally elided both cinema’s sensual address and our own “corporeal-material being” as film viewers until quite recently.(18) Indeed, despite contemporary theory’s major emphases on spectatorship and film “reception,” the spectator’s identification with the cinema has been constituted almost exclusively as a specular and psychical process abstracted from the body and mediated through language. Thus, if we read across the field there is very little sustained work to be found on the carnality and sensuality of the film experience–and most of it is relatively recent. The few exceptions are Linda Williams’s on-going investigation of what she calls “body genres”;(19) Jonathan Crary’s recognition, in Techniques of the Observer, of the “carnal density” of spectatorship that emerges with the new visual technologies of the nineteenth century;(20) Steven Shaviro’s Deleuzean emphasis, in The Cinematic Body, on the visceral event of film viewing;(21) Laura Marks’s The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses which focuses on what she describes as “haptic visuality”;(22) and several recent essays by Elena del Río that, from a phenomenological perspective and in relation to bodies and images, attempt to undo “the rigid binary demarcations of externality and internality.”(23) In general, however, most film theorists still seem either embarrassed or bemused by bodies that often act wantonly and crudely at the movies, involuntarily countering the fine-grained sensibilities and intellectual discriminations of critical reflection. Indeed, as Williams suggests in relation to the “low” body genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama she privileges, a certain discomfort emerges when we experience an “apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation and emotion.” She tells us: “We feel manipulated by these texts–an impression that the very colloquialisms of ‘tear jerker’ and ‘fear jerker’ express–and to which we could add pornography’s even cruder sense as texts to which some people might be inclined to ‘jerk off.'”(24) Bodily responses to such films seem to constitute a kind of involuntary and self-evident reflexology, marking, as Williams notes, sexual arousal on “peter meters,” horror in screams, fainting, and even heart attacks, and sentiment in “one-, two-, or three handkerchiefs.”(25)

For the most part, then, such carnal responses to the cinema have been regarded as too crude to invite further elaboration. Furthermore, those kinds of films that provoke them and thus collapse the “proper esthetic distance” between the spectator and the screen are often quarantined (as is pornography); or conveniently subsumed as “primitive” under Tom Gunning’s once historically-grounded, but now catch-all designation: “cinema of attractions”; or conflated, for their easy thrills as well as their commercial impacts and cultural associations, with other “more kinetic” forms of amusement such as “theme park” rides.(26) Furthermore, scholarly interest in such a “cinema of sensation” arises less from the ability of these films to physically arouse us than from what they reveal about the rise and fall of classical narrative, or the increasingly trans-media structure of the contemporary entertainment industry, or the desires of our culture at a millennial moment of extreme Benjaminian distraction.

Crude bodily responses to films and the crude films that provoke them are thus often seen as a sub-set–if not, indeed, a sub-class–of cinema. Paradoxically, however, critical discussions of these same films and their powerful physical effects also often suggest that they are the quintessence of cinema. For example, writing about Speed, Richard Dyer begins by invoking the Lumière audience recoiling in terror at an approaching train and ends up invoking Imax and Showscan to speak of all cinema as, at base, a “cinema of sensation.”(27) In a compelling focus on the engenderment and racialization of action movies, he suggests the cinema’s essential ability to represent and fulfill our desire “for an underlying pattern of feeling, to do with freedom of movement, confidence in the body, engagement with the material world, that is coded as male (and straight and white, too) but to which all humans need access.”(28) Nonetheless, while Dyer acknowledges the spectator’s direct bodily experience of cinema and persuasively explores that experience’s cultural dimensions, he is at a loss to explain its very existence. He tells us: “The celebration of sensational movement, that we respond to in some still unclear sense ‘as if real’, for many people is the movies.”(29) What Dyer gives with one hand, then, he takes back with the other. The question of what grounds our bodily response to cinema’s visual (and aural) representations is not only articulated as a continuing mystery, but its eidetic “givenness” to experience is also destabilized by the phrase “as if real”–the phrase itself surrounded by a set of “scare quotes” that, questioning this questioning of givenness, further plunges us into a mise en abîme of experiential undecidability.

This “still unclear sense” of the something that provokes a response “as if real” reveals the confusion and discomfort we have confronting our sensual experience of the cinema and our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than “mere” physiological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description.(30) The language of the body’s sensibility used in the press to describe the sensuous and affective dimensions of the film experience has been “written off” as a popular version of that “soft core” and imprecise humanist criticism drummed out of film studies in the 1970s with the advent of more “rigorous” and “objective” modes of description. Thus, sensual reference in descriptions of cinema (not only those of popular reviewers, but our own as well) has generally been regarded as rhetorical or poetic “excess”–sensuality located, then, always less on the side of the body than on the side of language. This view is tautological, however. As Shaviro points out, it subsumes sensation “within universal (linguistic or conceptual) forms only because it has deployed those forms in order to describe sensation in the first place.” This elision of the body “making sense” in its own right is grounded in “the idealist assumption that human experience is originally and fundamentally cognitive.” To hold such an idealist assumption, Shaviro goes on,

is to reduce the question of perception to a question of knowledge, and to equate sensation with the reflective consciousness of sensation. The Hegelian and structuralist equation suppresses the body. It ignores or abstracts away from the primordial forms of raw sensation: affect, excitation, stimulation and repression, pleasure and pain, shock and habit. It posits instead a disincarnate eye and ear whose data are immediately objectified in the form of self-conscious awareness or positive knowledge.(31)

In sum, even though it has shown increasing interest in doing so in the last few years, contemporary film theory has not yet come to grips with the carnal foundations of cinematic intelligibility, with the fact that to understand movies, to comprehend them, we must make sense of them first. This is not a tautology–particularly in a discipline that has worked long and hard to separate the sense and meaning of vision and specularity from a body that, in experience, lives vision always in cooperation and significant exchange with other sensorial means of access to the world, a body that makes meaning before it makes conscious, reflective thought. Thus, despite the relatively recent academic fetishization of “the body,” theorists still don’t quite know what to do with their unruly responsive flesh and sensorium–particularly insofar as these pose an intolerable question to prevalent linguistic and psychoanalytic understandings of the cinema as grounded in conventional codes and cognitive coding and grounded on absence, lack, and illusion as well as to the prevalent cultural assumption that the film image is constituted through a merely two-dimensional geometry.(32) Positing cinematic vision as merely a mode of objective symbolic representation, and reductively abstracting–“disincarnating”–the spectator’s subjective and full-bodied vision to posit it only as a “distance sense,” contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really “touched” and “moved” by the movies. Both the signifier and the psyche are offered as the “mediating” solution to what is perceived as merely a “language” problem. However, rather than providing the mediating bridge between the image and its comprehension by the viewer’s lived body, signifier and psyche just reproduce the binary split between image and body and thus they still cannot account for the somatic intelligibility of the film image or a somatic intelligence of the spectator’s body that is more than primitive reflex.

At worst, then, contemporary film theory has not taken bodily being at the movies very seriously–and, at best, it has generally not known how to respond to and describe how it is that movies “move” and “touch” us bodily, how they provoke in us “carnal thoughts” before they provoke us to conscious analysis. Instead, with some noted exceptions, film theory has attempted (somewhat defensively, I think) to put the ambiguous and unruly, subjectively sensuous, embodiedexperience of going to the movies back where it “properly”–that is, objectively–belongs: that is, it has located the sensuous on the screen as the semantic property of cinematic objects and the semiotic effects of cinematic representation, or off the screen in the spectator’s fantasmatic psychic formations, cognitive processes, and basic sensory reflexes (the latter “written off” as “crude” phenomena that don’t pose major questions of meaning.) And yet, as film theorists, we are not exempt from sensual being at the movies–nor, let’s admit it, would we wish to be. As “lived bodies” (to use a phenomenological term that insists on “the” objective body as always also lived subjectively as “my” body, diacritically invested and active in making sense and meaning in and of the world), our vision is always already “fleshed out”–and even at the movies it is “in-formed” and given meaning by our other sensory means of access to the world: our capacity not only to hear, but also to touch, to smell, to taste, and always to proprioceptively feel our dimension and movement in the world. In sum, the film experience is meaningful not to the side of my body, but because of my body.

Here, in an attempt not only to acknowledge but also to explicate the way in which the cinema is somatically intelligible and, moreover, richly meaningful in this register, I want to alter the binary structure suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s lived body as a carnal “third term” that chiasmatically mediates vision and language, experience and image.(33) In existence, it is the lived body that provides both the site and the semiosis of the “third” or “obtuse” meaning that Roland Barthes suggests escapes language and is yet within it.(34) Thrown into a meaningful life-world, the lived body is always already engaged in a commutation and transubstantiation of the co-operative meaning-making capacity of its senses (which are never lived as completely “discrete” or “raw”) to the more particular and reflective discriminations of a “higher order” semiotics. Put another way, we could say that the lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense. Although more influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari than by Barthes or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whose semiotic phenomenology of perception is central to what follows), Shaviro is again helpful–and eloquent–here. He tells us:

There is no structuring lack, no primordial division, but a continuity between the physiological and affective responses of my own body and the appearances and disappearances, the mutations and perdurances, of the bodies and images on screen. The important distinction is not the hierarchical, binary one between bodies and images, or between the real and its representations. It is rather a question of discerning multiple and continually varying interactions among what can be defined indifferently as bodies and as images: degrees of stillness and motion, of action and passion, of clutter and emptiness, of light and lack. . . .The image cannot be opposed to the body, as representation is opposed to its unattainable referent. For a fugitive, supplemental materiality haunts the (allegedly) idealizing processes of mechanical reproduction. . . .The flesh is intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus, at once its subject, its substance, and its limit.(35)


At this point, and given my rather lengthy critique of theoretical abstraction and its oversight of our bodily experience at the movies, I want to ground my previous commentary “in the flesh.” In my flesh, in fact–and its meaningful responsiveness to The Piano. However intellectually problematic in terms of its sexual and colonial politics,(36) Campion’s film moved me deeply and touched me throughout, stirring my bodily senses and my sense of my body. The film not only “filled me up” and often “suffocated” me with feelings that resonated in and constricted my chest and stomach, but it also “sensitized” the very surfaces of my skin–as well as its own–to touch. Throughout The Piano, my whole being was intensely concentrated and, rapt as I was in what was there on the screen, I was also wrapped in a body that, here, was achingly aware of itself as a sensuous, sensitized, sensible material capacity.(37) (In this context, we might remember the reviewers quoted earlier who speak of the “unremittingly sensuous experience of music and fabric, of mud and flesh,” “the tactile force of the images,” and “immediate tactile shock.”)

In particular, I want to examine my sensual and sense-making experience of The Piano‘s inaugural two shots. Although my body’s attention was mobilized and concentrated throughout a film that never ceased to move or touch me in the most complex and various ways, these first two shots, at least to me, foreground the issue “at hand” (so to speak) in our engagement not only with this film, but, to varying degree, with all others.(38) These inaugural shots also foreground the ambiguity and ambivalence of touch as it has been evoked here as being and making meaning in both its literal and figurative sense. Elaborated slowly and on a primarily dark screen, the very first shot we see in The Piano seems–in visual and figural terms–an “unidentifiable” image. Carol Jacobs describes and glosses both this shot and the significant one that follows it with some precision:

Long, uneven shafts of reddish-pink light fan out across the screen, unfocused like a failed and developed color negative of translucent vessels of blood. . . .Yet it is nearly no view at all–an almost blindness, with distance so minimal between eye and object that what we see is an unrecognizable blur. . . .The image we first see is from the other side, from Ada’s perspective, her fingers, liquid fingers. . . .We see Ada’s fingers pierced through with sunlight, apparently from her perspective, as we hear the voice of her mind, but then, immediately thereafter, we see them from the clear perspective of the onlookers that we are, as they become matter-of-fact-objects to the lens of the camera.(39)

Now, as I watched The Piano‘s opening moments–in that first shot, before I knew there was an Ada and before I saw her from my side of her vision (that is, before I watched her rather than her vision)–something quite extraordinary (and yet also, I would argue, quite common) happened. Despite my “almost blindness,” the “unrecognizable blur,” the resistance of the image to my eyes, my fingers knew what I was looking at–and this in advance of the objective “reverse” shot that followed and put those fingers in their “proper” place (that is, where they could be objectively seen rather than subjectively looked through). What I was seeing was, in fact, from the beginning, not an unrecognizable image, however blurred and indeterminate in my vision, however much my eyes could not “make it out.” From the first (although I didn’t “know” it until the second), my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, off-screen, “felt themselves” as a potentiality in the subjective situation figured on-screen. And this before I re-cognized my carnal comprehension into the conscious thought: “Ah, those are fingers I am looking at.” Indeed, initially, prior to this conscious recognition, those fingers were not understood as “those” fingers–that is, at a distance from my own and objective in their “thereness.” Rather, they were first known sensually and sensibly as “these” fingers and were located ambiguously both off-screen and on–subjectively “here” as well as objectively “there,” “mine” as well as the image’s. Thus, it is not surprising–although it should have been given my “almost blindness” to the first shot–that the second and objective “reverse” shot of a woman peering at the world through her outspread fingers really came as no surprise. Instead, it provided a pleasurable culmination and confirmation of what my fingers–and I, reflexively if not yet reflectively informed by them–already knew.

As I’ve suggested, while this experience of my body’s prereflective but reflexive comprehension of the seen (and, hence, the “scene”) is in some respects extraordinary, it is also in most respects hardly exceptional. Indeed, I would argue that this prereflective–and much more than “knee-jerk”–bodily responsiveness to films is a commonplace. The point to be stressed here is that we do not experience any movie only with our eyes. We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and knowledge of our sensorium. Normatively, however, the “givenness” of things for us to see at the movies, the overarching mastery and comprehension by our vision of its object, and vision’s hierarchical sway over our other senses all tend to occlude our awareness of our body’s other ways of taking up and making meaning of the world–and its representation. Thus, what is extraordinary about the opening shot of The Piano is that it offers (at least on first viewing) a relatively rare instance at the movies in which the cultural hegemony of vision is overthrown, an instance in which my eyes did not “see” anything meaningful and experienced “an almost blindness” at the same time that my tactile sense of being in the world through my fingers grasped the image’s sense in a way that my forestalled or “baffled” vision could not.(40)

In her precise description and through overt simile, Jacobs tells us that the initial image is “like a failed and developed color negative of translucent vessels of blood.” Yet, one senses that her bodily reference is derived less from a reflection on tactile foresight than it is from visual hindsight. For, in an otherwise admirable essay that interrogates the hegemony of vision in relation to the film’s narrative and visual emphasis on touch, Jacobs objectifies and locates the site of touch far too quickly–rushing to see the film as about “point of view,” hurrying to consider tactility and fingers and hands in terms of their narrative symbolism.(41) Thus, she tells us at the end of her description that Ada’s fingers in that first shot (as well as throughout) are used symbolically to “render us illiterate,” “unable to read them.”(42) Now, if vision were an isolate sense as well as a discrete sense (that is, possessing its own structure, capacities, and limits), I suppose this would be true. But vision is not isolated from our other senses. Whatever its particular capacities and discriminations, vision is only one modality of my lived body’s access to the world and only one means of making the world of objects and others sensible–that is, meaningful–to me. Vision may be the sense most privileged in the cinema, with hearing a close second; nonetheless, I do not leave my capacity to touch or to smell or to taste at the door, nor, once in the theater, do I devote these senses only to my popcorn.

My experience of The Piano was thus a heightened instance of our common sensuous experience of the movies: the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance of images, to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us, to experience weight and suffocation and the need for air, to take flight in kinetic exhilaration and freedom even as we are relatively bound to our seats, to be knocked backwards by a sound, to sometimes even smell and taste the world we see upon the screen. Although, perhaps, these latter senses are less called upon than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see, I still remember the perfumed redolence (or better, the “visual aroma”) of my experience of Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, 1946),(43) or the pork-noodle taste of portions of Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1986). (Indeed, the power of advertising rests heavily on the presumption of such transmodal cooperation and translation within and across the sensorium.) As I engaged these films, I did not “think” a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought. Indeed, as Elena del Río describes this experience: “As the image becomes translated into a bodily response, body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact, engaged in a constant activity of reciprocal re-alignment and inflection.”(44)

In this somatic regard, if we are to think yet again about processes of “identification” in the film experience, we might more deeply think them in relation to our engagement with and recognition of neither characters nor “subject positions,” but rather of the sense and sensibility of materiality itself. Subjective matter as we ourselves are, our lived bodies sensually relate to “things” on the screen and find them sensible in a prepersonal and global way that grounds later identifications that are more discrete and localized. Certainly, my experience of the opening “subjective” shot of The Piano provides evidence of this prepersonal and globally-located bodily comprehension, but this “ambient” and carnal identification with material subjectivity also occurs when, for example, I “objectively” watch Baines–under the piano and Ada’s skirts–reach out and touch Ada’s flesh through a hole in her black woolen stocking.(45) Looking at this “objective” image, like the reviewer cited earlier, I also felt an “immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in close-up.” Yet precisely whose flesh I felt is ambiguous–and that ambiguity or vagueness emerges from a phenomenological experience structured on ambivalence and diffusion, on an interest and investment in being both “here” and “there,” in being able both to sense and to be sensible, both the subject and the object of tactile desire. At that moment when Baines touches Ada’s skin through her stocking, suddenly my skin is both mine and not my own: the “immediate tactile shock” opens me to the general erotic mattering of flesh and I am diffusely–ambivalently–Baines’s body, Ada’s body, what I have elsewhere called the “film’s body,” and my “own” body.(46) Thus, even confronted with an “objective” shot, my fingers know and understand the meanings of this “seen” and this viewing situation and they are everywhere–not only in the touching, but also in the touched. Objectivity and subjectivity thus lose their presumed clarity. Here (and to varying degree in every viewing situation), “to situate subjectivity in the lived body jeopardizes dualistic metaphysics altogether. There remains no basis for preserving the mutual exclusivity of the categories subject and object, inner and outer, I and world.”(47)

Again, I want to insist that I am not speaking metaphorically of touching and being touched, but “in some sense” quite literally of our capacity to “feel” the world we see and hear on-screen and of the cinema’s capacity to “touch” and “move” us off-screen. As philosopher Elizabeth Grosz puts it: “Things solicit the flesh just as the flesh beckons to and as an object for things. Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace.”(48) Experiencing a movie, not ever merely “seeing” it, my lived body enacts this reversibility in perception and subverts the very notion of on-screen and off-screen as mutually exclusive sites or “subject positions.” Indeed, as Barthes has shown us, much of the “pleasure of the text” emerges from this carnal subversion of fixed subject positions, from the body as a “third” term that both exceeds and yet is within representation; thus “it would be wrong. . .to imagine a rigid distinction between the body inside and the body outside the text, because the subversive force of the body is partly in its capacity to function both figuratively and literally.”(49) All the bodies in the film experience–those on-screen and off-screen (and possibly that of the screen itself)–are potentially subversive bodies. They have the capacity to function both figuratively and literally. They are pervasive and extensional, diffusely situated in the film experience. Yet these bodies are also materially circumscribed and can be specifically located, each arguably becoming the “grounding body” of sense and meaning since each exists in a figure-ground reversibility with the others. Furthermore, these bodies also subvert themselves from within and are intensional: commingling flesh and consciousness, the human and technological sensorium, so that meaning and where it is made does not have a discrete origin in either bodies or representation but emerges from both.

We might name this subversive body in the film experience the cinesthetic subject–a neologism which derives not only from cinema, but also from two scientific terms, synaesthesia and coenaesthesia, that designate particular structures and conditions of the human sensorium. Both of these structures and conditions foreground the complexity and richness of the more general bodily experience that grounds our particular experience of cinema and both, as well, point to ways in which the cinema uses our dominant senses of vision and hearing to speak comprehensibly to our other senses. Let us first consider synaesthesia. In strict medical discourse, it is defined as an “involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another.”(50) Synaesthetes regularly, vividly, automatically, and consciously perceive sound as color, or shapes as having a taste. One woman explains, “I most often see sound as colors, with a certain sense of pressure on my skin. . . .I am seeing, but not with my eyes, if that makes sense,” and she mentions that she experiences her husband’s voice and laugh not metaphorically but literally as “a wonderful golden brown, with a flavor of crisp, buttery toast.”(51) Psychoneurologist Richard Cytowic tells us: “Synaesthesia, is the most immediate and direct kind of experience. . . .It is sensual and concrete, not some intellectualized concept pregnant with meaning. It emphasizes limbic processes [over higher cortical functions of the brain] which break through to consciousness. It’s about feeling and being, something more immediate than analyzing what is happening and talking about it.”(52) Which, I might emphasize, does not mean that synaesthetic experience as “more immediate than analysis” escapes culture–as evidenced in laughter perceived as the taste of “crisp, buttery toast.”

An extreme psychoneurological condition, clinical synaesthesia is relatively uncommon in the general population yet, to some degree, a less extreme experience of “cross-modal transfer” among our senses is common enough to have warranted the term’s use and the condition’s description in ordinary language. Artists not only have long been interested in synaesthesia (as were the Symbolists and Eisenstein) but several also have been synaesthetes (the great Vladimir Nabokov is but one example). Furthermore, in common usage, synaesthesia refers not only to one bodily sense being involuntarily, if consciously, experienced in terms of another, but also to the use of metaphors in which terms relating to one kind of sense-impression are used to describe a sense-impression of other kinds. This move from an involuntary, immediate, eidetic exchange within the sensorium to a conscious, mediated, constructed exchange between the sensorium and language not only reminds us of the aforementioned “synaesthesia-loving Symbolist movement,”(53) but also points to the ambiguity and ambivalence of a sensual economy of language in which the lived body is variously and simultaneously the fundamental source of language, its sign-producer, and its sign. Thus, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson argue in their Metaphors We Live By that figural language emerges and takes its meaning from our physical experience (however disciplined by culture),(54) and Cytowic, working with synaesthetes, concludes that “the coherence of metaphors. . .[is] rooted in concrete experience, which is what gives metaphors their meaning. . . .I mean that metaphor is experiential and visceral.”(55) This recurrent issue of the relation between the literally sensible body and metaphor as sensible figure is obviously central to both our understanding of cinematic intelligibility and of the cinesthetic subject who is moved and touched by going to the movies–and it is an issue to which I shall return.

The neologism of the film viewer as a “cinesthetic subject” also plays upon a second and less well-known scientific term used to designate a bodily condition more common than clinical synaesthesia: coenaesthesia. Neither pathological nor rare, coenaesthesia names the perception of one’s whole bodily state as the sum of its somatic perceptions and refers to a certain pre-logical unity of the sensorium that exists as the carnal foundation of that hierarchical arrangement of the senses achieved through cultural immersion and practice. Thus, the term is used to describe the general sensual condition of the child at birth. In this regard, not yet fully acculturated to a particularly disciplined organization of the sensorium, young children have demonstrated a greater “horizontalization” of the senses and consequently a greater capacity for cross-modal sensorial exchange than have adults.(56) In sum, while synaesthesia refers to exchange and translation between and among the senses, coenaesthesia refers to the way in which our equally available senses have the capacity to become variously heightened and diminished, the power of culture regulating their boundaries as it arranges them into a normative hierarchy.

There are those instances, however, when we do not have to be clinically-diagnosed synaesthetes or very young children to challenge those boundaries and transform those hierarchies. The undoing of abstract if regulatory borders and orders among the senses can occur in a variety of situations. Elaine Scarry points to our experience of our encounters with something extraordinarily beautiful and writes:

A visual event may reproduce itself in the realm of touch (as when the seen face incites an ache of longing in the hand). . . .This crisscrossing of the senses may happen in any direction. Wittgenstein speaks not only about beautiful visual events prompting motions in the hand but. . .about heard music that later prompts a ghostly sub-anatomical event in his teeth and gums. So, too, an act of touch may reproduce itself as an acoustical event or even an abstract idea, the way whenever Augustine touches something smooth, he begins to think of music and God.(57)

In other instances, as nearly anyone who has survived the 1960s knows, involuntary cross-modal sensory exchange often becomes foregrounded in conscious experience through drug use. Merleau-Ponty notes in Phenomenology of Perception: “A subject under mescalin finds a piece of iron, strikes the window-sill with it and exclaims: ‘This is magic’: the trees are growing greener. The barking of a dog is found to attract light in an indescribable way, and is re-echoed in the right foot.”(58) And, in a critique of objectivist science that might be applied as well to contemporary theoretical (mis)understanding of the film experience, he goes on to say: “Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what are to see, hear and feel.”(59)

We could add that we are also unaware of synaesthetic perception because it is the rule and thus we are so habituated to the constant cross-modal translations of our sensory experience that such perceptions are transparent except in their most extreme instances. Exemplary here for its everyday quality is a common experience of those of us who like to cook–and eat–of tasting a recipe as we read it. This commutative act between visual comprehension of abstract words and their carnal meaning not only attests to a grounding synaesthesia that enables such translation but also again demonstrates “the subversive force of the body. . .in its capacity to function both figuratively and literally.” My eyes read and comprehend the recipe cognitively, but they are not abstracted from my body which can–albeit in a transformed and somewhat diffused act of gustatorial sense-making–taste the meal. Why, then, is it not entirely possible that we might partake even more intensely of Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)? And to what extent are we being quite literal as well as figurative when we describe the meals in Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1994) as “a feast for the eyes”? Here, Lisa Schwarzbaum, in a popular review of Big Night (Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, 1996) makes some apposite discriminations about eating in the film experience. She writes: “The difference between a movie that makes you admire food and one that makes you love food is the difference between a dinner table posed like a still life in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence [1993] and a clove of garlic sliced so intently you can practically inhale its ornery perfume in Scorsese’s GoodFellas [1990]. One engages the eye and the other arouses all five senses.”(60)

In sum, the cinesthetic subject names the film viewer (and, for that matter, also the filmmaker) who not only has a body but is a body and, through an embodied vision in-formed by the knowledge of the other senses, “makes sense” of what it is to “see” a movie–both “in the flesh” and as it “matters.” Furthermore, Merleau-Ponty tells us, the sensible-sentient lived body “is a ready-made system of equivalents and transpositions from one sense to another. The senses translate each other without any need of an interpreter, and they are mutually comprehensible without the intervention of any idea.”(61) Thus, the cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen, able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and through sensual and cross-modal activity able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of that cinematic experience as “on-screen” or “off-screen.” In sum, as a lived body, the cinesthetic subject subverts the prevalent objectification of vision that would reduce our sensorial experience at the movies to an impoverished “cinematic sight” or posit anorexic theories of identification that have no flesh on them, that cannot stomach “a feast for the eyes.”

In a particularly resonant passage, Merleau-Ponty elaborates on the intercommunication of the senses as they not only open us synoptically onto the structure of the perceived thing but also as they reveal the simultaneity of sensory cooperation and the carnal knowledge it provides:

One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass, and when, with a tinkling sound, it breaks, this sound is conveyed by the visible glass. One sees the springiness of the steel, the ductility of red-hot steel, the hardness of a plane blade, the softness of shavings. The form of objects is not their geometrical shape: it stands in a certain relation to their specific nature, and appeals to our other senses as well as sight. The form of a fold in linen or cotton shows us the resilience or dryness of the fibre, the coldness or warmth of the material. . . .In the jerk of the twig from which a bird has just flown, we read its flexibility or elasticity. . . .One sees the weight of a block of cast iron which sinks in the sand, the fluidity of water and the viscosity of syrup.(62)

(Here, reading this passage, I recall in my own body the heavy feel of The Piano when the crated and heavy piano is dragged across the beach, as Ada is struggling to free herself underwater, or when her boots and skirt hem are sucked into the viscous mud as she walks through the forest, the weight and volume of her layers of wet skirts and petticoats a drag on my proprioception as well as my imagination.(63)) Continuing this description of sensual cross-modality, Merleau-Pontry writes: “In the same way, I hear the hardness and unevenness of cobbles in the rattle of a carriage, and we speak appropriately of a ‘soft,’ ‘dull’ or ‘sharp’ sound. . . .If, then, taken as incomparable qualities, the ‘data of the different senses’ belong to so many separate worlds, each one in its particular essence being a manner of modulating the thing, they all communicate through their significant core”(64) That significant core is, of course, the lived body: that synoptic field upon which experience is gathered and dispersed in a form of pre-logical meaning that nonetheless is usually synthesized and thus “co-heres.” “My body,” the philosopher says, “is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my ‘comprehension.'”(65) Thus, while the senses each provide discretely structured modes of access to the world, they are always already interactive and “transposable, at least within certain limits, onto each other’s domains”–and this because “they are the senses of one and the same subject, operating simultaneously in a single world.”(66) We could say, then, that it is the lived body (both a subject and object) that provides the (pre)logical premises, the grounds, for the cinesthetic subject constituted at the movies as ambiguously located both “here” off-screen and “there” on-screen as well as the premises or grounds for various objective logics of cinematic vision and identification. Indeed, it is to its grounding in the spectator that any theory of cinematic intelligibility must return.


Thus we are led back again to the question of the specific nature of the relation between the body and cinematic representation, between the literal and the figural, between the “matter that means” and the “meaning that matters.” For all my argument about the cross-modal communication of our senses and the synthetic quality of the lived body which comprehends both our sensorium and language, it is phenomenologically and logically evident that I do not “touch” the cinema nor does it “touch” me in precisely the same way in which I touch or am touched by others unmediated by cinema (or other perceptual technologies). However hard I may hold my breath or grasp my theater seat, I don’t have precisely the same rollercoaster ride watching Speed that I would have if I were on that runaway bus or at the amusement park. I also don’t taste or smell or digest those luscious dishes in Like Water for Chocolate (or, for that matter, in my cookbook) in the same way I would if, unmediated by cinema, they were set on the table before me. Where, then, does this leave us at the movies? Or as theorists of the cinema? Are we condemned to speak of our sensual engagement of the cinema as confounding–our material responsiveness to films that matter understood only, as Dyer puts it, “in some still unclear sense ‘as if real'”? Dyer’s “as if real” (particularly as he brackets the phrase in quotation marks) not only begs the question, but keeps it undecidable. And Dyer is not alone. If we return to those popular reviews that speak to our sensual experience at the movies, his uncertainty and ambivalence are duplicated, albeit less reflectively. The Piano‘s “salt air can almost be tasted” one reviewer tells us–at the same time he speaks of “immediate tactile shock.” The reviewer of Toy Story says the plastic Tyrannosaurus rex “is so glossy and tactile you feel as if you could reach out and stroke its hard, shiny head”– at the same time he says that “the waxy sheen” of toy soldiers “strike Proustian chords of recognition,” suggesting a sense memory less reflectively thought than reexperienced. This ambivalence and confusion about the literal and figural nature of our sensuous engagement with the cinema is wonderfully condensed and exemplified in a review of Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994): “The presentation of food on-screen is, in all senses of the word, delectable.”(67) Here, not only is on-screen food “presented” rather than “represented” but also it is experienced as delectable both literally in “all senses” and figurally in all senses of “the word.”

In The Rule of Metaphor, philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes: “If there is a point in our experience where living expression states living existence, it is where our movement up the entropic slope of language encounters the movement by which we come back this side of the distinctions between actuality, action, production, motion.”(68) Clearly, these ambivalent articulations of the sensual experience of the lived body in relation to cinematic representation mark just such a point. Thus, at this point, I want to consider this ambivalence and confusion in the film experience between our sense of having a “real” sensual experience (the literal) and an “as if real” sensual experience (the figural), and to argue that this ambivalence has a precise phenomenological structure grounded in the non-hierarchical reciprocity and chiasmatic reversibility of sense as, at once, a carnal matter and a conscious meaning–both emerging simultaneously (if in various ratios) from that single system of flesh and consciousness synthesized as the lived body. This is another way of saying that the body and representation (cinematic representation, linguistic representation, et. al.) do not simply–or only–oppose or reflect each other. Rather, they more radically in-form each other in a fundamentally non-hierarchical and reversible relationship of commensurability and incommensurability that, in certain circumstances, manifests itself as an oscillating, ambivalent, and often ambiguous or “undecidable” experience.

What, then, might it mean to understand what is meant by “all senses of the word”? Or to describe our sensual engagement in the cinema as “real” and “as if real” in the same breath–and, more often than not, in the same sentence? Or for me to use such “word play” in describing our literal bodies as “matter that means” and our figural representations as “meaning that matters”? Highlighted in these articulations–accomplished in and through language–is the very chiasmatic structure of reversibility that exists between but also subtends the body and consciousness and the body and representation. Whether perceived as an ambivalent oscillation between or an ambiguous conflation of the “real” and the “as if real” or the lived body (matter that means) and representation (meaning as matter), this experience of the fundamental reversibility of body and language is deeply felt–and often articulated in these “undecidable” descriptions that nonetheless express quite clearly the ambiguous and ambivalent point at which “our movement up the entropic slope of language encounters the movement by which we come back this side of the distinctions between actuality, action, production, motion.” Thus, the “word play” at work here in popular reviews, in Dyer’s comments, and in my own phenomenological descriptions is quite precise and empirically-based in the structure and sense of embodied experience. Indeed, a phenomenological focus on the semantics and syntactics of language parallel to our focus on the structures of embodied experience, allow us to bring both together and, through foregrounding such “word play,” to understand the enormous capacity of language to not only say what we mean, but also to reveal the very structure of our experience.

The chiasmatic relation in which the subjective “sense” of embodied experience and the objective “sense” of representation are perceived as reversibly figure and ground and thus both commensurable and incommensurable may, in fact, be especially heightened by the medium of cinema. This is because the cinema uses “lived modes” of perceptual and sensory experience (seeing, movement, and hearing the most dominant) as “sign-vehicles” of representation.(69) Using such “lived modes,” the cinema exists through ambivalence: it both represents experience through dynamic presentation (the always verb-driven on-going present tense of sensory perception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film) and presents experience as representation (the post-hoc fixity of already-perceived images that stand as equivalent to noun forms). Thus, although I have in this essay emphasized the commensurability of body and representation because dominant theory has so long insisted on their incommensurability, I do not deny either the possibility or the experience of the latter–particularly in the film experience. Indeed, Lesley Stern, in her wonderful “I Think, Sebastian, Therefore. . .I Somersault: Film and the Uncanny,” deals with this ambivalence from a perspective that privileges incommensurability, and thus she describes “the uncanny” in–and of–cinema as an experience of disjuncture that both the medium and certain of its figurations generate between the lived body and consciousness and representation:

The cinema, while encouraging a certain bodily knowing, also, and in that very process, opens up the recognition of a peculiar kind of non-knowing, a sort of bodily aphasia, a gap which sometimes may register as a sense of dread in the pit of the stomach, or in a soaring, euphoric sensation. . . .Out of these tensions are generated a series of differences, gaps or discontinuities between knowing and feeling that sometimes sharpen into a sense of the uncanny.(70)

Nonetheless, this sense of the uncanny is sufficiently occasional so as to be marked as a figure against the more necessary and continuous ground of our existence in which feeling and knowing are generally undifferentiated and generally lived as commensurable–this because we are incorporated systemically as embodied and conscious subjects who both have and make sense simultaneously. Thus it is an undifferentiated experience of “sense” that grounds and conjoins body and language, feeling and knowledge–their coincidence so ordinary in our experience that their sudden divergence is marked as “uncanny” or, in the extreme, pathological. Emphasizing this conjunction of the lived body and representation, Alphonso Lingis tells us: “My body as the inner sphere where representations are perceptible. . .and my body as an image seen by rebound from the world, are inscribed the one in other. . . .The density of the body is that of ‘pre-things’, not yet differentiated into reality and illusion. . . . [The body] is a precinct of signifiers.”(71) And, from the other side of this reversibility and emphasizing language and representation as conjoint with embodied being, Ricoeur argues that language not only designates “its other” but also “itself”–and in so doing it is not only referential but also reflective, radically bearing within itself “the knowledge of its being related to being.” He tells us: “This reflective language allows language to know that it is installed in being. The usual relationship between language and its referent is reversed: language becomes aware of itself in the self-articulation of the being which it is about. Far from locking language up inside itself, this reflective consciousness is the very consciousness of its openness.”(72) In that we are both embodied and conscious, in that we both have and make sense, the literal and the figural in-form each other–as they in-form us. The “matter that means” and the “meaning that matters” emerge in a reciprocal and reversible structure that is the lived body having sense in the world and making sense of the word. Thus the (figural) phrase “in all senses of the word” resonates with ambiguity and suggests its own reversal to the (literal) phrase “in all words of the senses”–and this without a loss of either reference or reflection, even as the direction and focus of the emphasis changes.

Our embodied experience of the movies, then, is an experience of seeing, hearing, touching, moving, tasting, smelling in which our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes oscillate, may sometimes be perceived in uncanny discontinuity, but most usually configure to make sense together–albeit in a quite specific way. Although I cannot fully touch Ada’s leg through her stocking or Stewart’s sensitized nude body on the screen of The Piano, although the precise smells of fresh laundry and the warmth of the linens that I see in Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978) remain in some way vague to me, although I cannot taste the exact flavors of the pork noodles I see in loving close-up in Tampopo, I still have a partially fulfilled sensory experience of these things that make them both intelligible to and meaningful for me. Thus, even if the intentional objects of my experience at the movies are not fully, wholly realized and are grasped in a sensual distribution that would be differently structured were I outside the theater, I nonetheless have a sensual experience that is not reducible either to the satisfaction of merely two of my senses or to sensual analogies and metaphors constructed only “after the fact” through the cognitive operations of conscious thought.

The pressing question is, of course, what kind of “different” sensual fulfillment do we experience at the movies? That is, what is the structure of such fulfillment and how does it occur that, in fact, we experience films not merely as a reduction of our sensual being but also an enhancement? First of all, in the theater (as elsewhere), my lived body sits in readiness as both a sensual and sense-making potentiality. Focused on the screen, my “postural schema” or intentional comportment takes its shape in mimetic sympathy with (or shrinking recoil from) what I see and hear.(73) If I am engaged by what I see, my intentionality streams toward the world on-screen, marking itself not merely in my conscious attention, but always also in my bodily tension and comportment–that is, the sometimes flagrant, sometimes subtle, but always dynamic arrangement of my material being. However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional arc, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its sensual grasp on something more literally accessible. That more literally accessible sensual object is my own subjective lived body. Thus, “on the rebound” from the screen –and without a reflective thought–I will reflexively and carnally turn toward my own carnal being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and, in sum, sense my own sensuality.(74)Certainly, this feeling and the sense I have of sensing is in some ways reduced in comparison with direct sensual experience–this because of my only partial sensual grasp of my original object of desire. But just as certainly, in other ways, the sense I have of sensing is also enhanced in comparison with much direct sensual experience–this because my partial sensual grasp of the original object is completed in and through my own body where it is reflexively “doubled” since I have become not only the toucher but also the touched. (This sensual enhancement in which the body reflexively reflects upon its own sensual experience without a thought emerges in the most intense of direct sensual engagements in which we “feel ourselves feeling”: a fantastic meal or incredible glass of wine in which we reflectively taste ourselves tasting, great sex in which we lose ourselves in feeling ourselves feel.)

Caught up without a thought (because our thoughts are “elsewhere”) in this oscillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body and the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen, my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that experience is perceived as diffuse. That is, insofar as, even without a thought, my body senses itself in the film experience, the particular sensible properties of the figural objects that sensually provoke me on the screen (the weight and slightly scratchy feel of a wool dress, the smoothness of a stone, the texture and resilience of another’s skin) will be perceived in a somewhat vague and diffuse way. This diffusion of their particular sensual properties, however, does not diminish the sensual intensity of my engagement with them since they are what solicit me and are where my intentionality invests itself. Thus, insofar as I am sensually solicited, provoked by, and consciously located in figural objects that are elsewhere (on the screen where my senses partially grasp them), I am not focused on my own body’s particularity either. “On the rebound” from my unfulfilled bodily intentions to feel fully the figures on screen but still consciously intending toward them and sensing them partially, my sense of my own literal and particular incorporation also will be diffuse and vague–even as it also may be quite intense. (The form of “self-touching” I’m discussing here–a form that is consciously “other” directed–is thus different in structure from forms of conscious self-touching in which both one’s body and one’s consciousness are self-directed toward the same object; in this latter kind of reflexivity, this doubled intention and attention toward oneself often become so highly reflective that despite one’s autoerotic goals, it can undo carnal pleasure.(75))

Watching The Piano, for example, my skin’s potentiality streams toward the screen to rebound back on itself. It becomes literally and intensely sensitized to texture and tactility, but it is neither the particularity of Ada’s taffetas and woolens nor the particularity of the silk blouse I’m actually wearing that I feel on its surface. On the one hand (so much for figures of speech!), I cannot fully touch taffeta and wool in this scenario although I can cross-modally grasp their texture and weight diffusely. On the other hand, while I have the capacity to fully –and literally–feel the texture and weight of the silk of my blouse, my tactile intentions are located elsewhere in the taffeta and wool and so, intending elsewhere, I feel the specificity of the silk on my skin only partially and diffusely. What is more, in this unthought carnal movement of an on-going streaming toward and turning back, my sense of touch–“rebounding” from its partiality in relation to the screen to its completion in and by my own body–is intensified. My skin becomes extremely sensitized. Indeed, this reflexive and reflective exchange between and dispersion of my “sense” of touch in both the literal and the figural has opened me to all these fabrics and their textures–indeed, has made the literal touch of even a specific fabric on my skin an overwhelmingly general and intensely extensive mode of being.

It bears emphasizing again that the bodily reflexivity I am foregrounding here is not necessarily reflective. Indeed, in most sensual experiences at the movies, the cinesthetic subject does not think his or her own literal body (or clothing) and is not, as a result, rudely thrust off-screen back into his or her seat in response to a perceived discontinuity with the figural bodies and textures on-screen. Rather, the cinesthetic subject feels his or her literal body as only one side of an irreducible and dynamic relational structure of reversibility and reciprocity that has as its other side the figural objects of bodily provocation on the screen. This relational structure can, of course, be refused and broken–and, indeed, often is when the reflexive turn becomes too intense or unpleasurable. However, leaving the theater because one has become literally sickened or covering one’s eyes is hardly ever the outcome of a thought. It is a reflexive, protective action that attests to the literal body’s reciprocal and reversible relation to the figures on the screen, to its sense of actual investment in a “dense,” albeit also diffuse, bodily experience that is carnally as well as consciously meaningful–an experience, as Lingis notes, that is “not yet differentiated into reality and illusion.” I, for example, watching a climactic scene in The Piano, could not bear to see–because I might too intensely feel it on both my body and hers–Stewart chop off Ada’s finger with an ax. And so, without a thought to do so, I not only cringed but also covered my eyes with (again) fingers that foresaw–in urgency rather than thought–the impending violation.


If, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, the literal and the figural–the “matter that means” and the “meaning that matters”–emerge in a reciprocal and reversible structure of sense and representation grounded in the lived body, we must also consider the figural side of the film experience whether we are speaking of film images or the language of film reviewers. (Here we might recall Lingis’s formulation: “My body as the inner sphere where representations are perceptible. . .and my body as an image seen by rebound from the world, are inscribed the one in other.”) That is, we need to return to the representational side of the irreducible correlation of body and representation that constitutes “sense” to further understand how it is that language and body pervade and in-form each other and how language and representation in the film experience share with the body a reversible and reflexive intentional structure. Thus, having considered the “literal” and carnal aspects of the “figural” phrase “in all senses of the word,” we need also to consider the phrase’s reversal into the “figurality” of “literal” representation: that is, its transposition to “in all words of the senses.”

Throughout, I have insisted that the sensual language most people (and even a few film theorists) use to describe their cinematic experience is neither necessarily nor merely metaphoric. Furthermore, insofar as this sensual language bears some relation to metaphor, I’ve also pointed to the experiential and visceral bases of metaphor noted by Lakoff and Johnson and Cytowic. Here, however, I want to go further and argue that “all words of the senses” used so often to describe the film experience are, to some degree, non-metaphoric in terms of what they claim–and name. Traditional rhetoric describes metaphors as emerging from a hierarchical relation between a primary and secondary context of language use. That is, a word is understood as literal insofar as it is used in a normative (hence “naturalizing”) context and becomes understood as figural or metaphoric only when it is used in an unusually extended sense and transferred beyond its normal context (indeed, the word “metaphor” means “carried beyond”).(76) If, however, we acknowledge that is the lived body that provides a normative ground and context for experience and that it operates, from the first, as a synaesthetic system in which the senses cooperate and one sense is commutable to and understood as reciprocal and reversible with the others, then we cannot argue that there is in the sensuality of the film experience the clear contextual hierarchy necessary to the structure and function of metaphor. That is, once we understand that vision is in-formed by and informs our other senses in a dynamic structure that is not necessarily or always sensually hierarchical, it is no longer metaphorical to say that we “touch” a film or that we are “touched” by it. “Touch” is no longer a metaphorical stretch in the film experience, no longer “carried beyond” its normal context and its literal meaning. Indeed, we could say that it is only in what phenomenologists call the “natural attitude” (habituated and thus naturalized) that our sensual descriptions of the movies “seem” metaphorical. Our received knowledge is that film is primarily a “visual” medium; ergo, its represented references and appeal to most of our other senses are understood as figural rather than literal. By now, however, I hope that I have demonstrated that such received knowledge is reductive and does not accurately describe our actual sensory experience at the movies. Watching a film, all our senses are mobilized, and often, depending upon the particular solicitations of the film, our naturalized sensory hierarchy and habitual sensual economy are altered and rearranged. In that experience, the literal and figural reciprocate and reverse themselves as “sense”–primary and secondary contexts confused, hierarchy and thus metaphor undermined, if not completely undone.

In an important and highly relevant essay about the relationship between vision and touch in Paul Cézanne’s painting (about which Merleau-Ponty also wrote), art historian Richard Shiff tells us: “To speak of reciprocity is to eliminate the possibility of setting subjective (or deviant) metaphorical elements against objective (or normative) literal ones. Within the flux of reciprocity either everything becomes metaphorically figured or everything has the reality effect of the literal.(77) Evoking previous discussion here of the nature of the “as if real” particularly as it seems to be interrogated by the scare quotes that always accompany it, Shiff suggests that within this flux of reciprocity “[o]ne could refer. . .to a figurative literalness”–a usage that “would eliminate the need for quotation marks, which do no more or less than counter the normalizing of literality by adding a level of distance or figuration.” Shiff then asks: “What kind of representation or linguistic construction conflates the literal and figural in such a manner?”(78) The answer is not metaphor, but catachresis, “sometimes called false and improper metaphor.” Catachresis “mediates and conflates the metaphoric and the literal” and is used “when no proper, or literal, term is available.”(79) Thus, borrowing a term from one context to name something in another, we speak of the “arm” of a chair or the “head” of a pin for want of anything else we might appropriately call it.(80) What is also interesting in the context of the present discussion is that catachresis is differentiated from “proper” metaphor insofar as it forces us to confront and name a “gap” in our language, the “failure of proper words, and the need, the necessity to supplement their deficiency and failure.”(81) Thus, when we avail ourselves of catachresis, are we not on Ricoeur’s “entropic slope of language” and, insofar as the catachretic term substitutes a body part (the “head” of a pin, the “arm” of a chair), are we not at precisely the point where that “entropic slope of language encounters the movement by which we come back this side of the distinction between actuality, action, production, motion,” that point “where living expression states living existence”? This kind of “throwing up one’s hands” and naming something insufficiently for want of a sufficient word involves “the forced extension of the meaning of words” rather than linguistic play. In linguistic play, we voluntarily use one term to substitute for another term that is literally sufficient so as to create a variety of figural meanings. Thus, catachresis is not only differentiated from metaphor, but, according to Ricoeur, it should also be excluded “from the field of figures.”(82) In this regard, he argues: “[C]atachresis is ultimately an extension of denomination and, by virtue of that, a phenomenon of language. Metaphor, and above all, newly invented metaphor, is a phenomenon of discourse.”(83) Catachresis, then, is neither metaphor nor figure. Rather, as Richard Shiff writes: “Catachresis accomplishes precisely this: it applies a figurative sense as a literal one, while yet retaining the look or feel of figurality.”(84)

Just as the lived body in the film experience turns back reflexively on itself to sense and make sense of the flesh on the screen (transforming what it senses figurally into literal physicalized sense), so, too, do our linguistic descriptions of that experience turn back on themselves reflexively to convey the sense of that experience as literally physicalized. For want of any more appropriate or sufficient way to convey the meaning of and name the sensual experience of watching a film, reviewers use the figural language of the senses literally–both as a way to “flesh out” the image and to adequate reflective description with actual experience. And yet, as Shiff points out, some sense of metaphor and figurality remains–and we are caught up in a structure of sense-making that is experienced as both real and “as if” real. Extremely relevant here, and echoing Dyer’s “real” and “as if real” film experience, Ricoeur discusses the tension between metaphorical and literal meaning in the context of Wittgenstein’s distinction between “seeing” and “seeing as”:

The “seeing as” is. . .half thought and half experience. . . .”seeing as” proffers the missing link in the chain of explanation. “Seeing as” is the sensible aspect of poetic language. . . .Now, a theory of fusion of sense and the sensible. . .appears to be incompatible with the. . .tension between metaphorical and literal meaning. On the other hand, once it is re-interpreted on the basis of “seeing as,” the theory of fusion is perfectly compatible with interaction and tension theory. “Seeing X as Y” encompasses “X is not Y”. . . . The borders of meaning are transgressed but not abolished. . . .”seeing as” designates the non-verbal mediation of the metaphorical statement. With this acknowledgment, semantics finds its frontier; and, in so doing, it accomplishes its task. . . .If semantics meets its limit here, a phenomenology of imagination. . .could perhaps take over .(85)

A phenomenology of the cinesthetic subject having and making sense of the movies reveals to us the chiasmatic function of the lived body–as both carnal and conscious, sensible and sentient–and how it is we can apprehend the sense of the screen both figurally and literally. Correlatively, a a phenomenology of the expression of this lived “fusion” and differentiation in the film experience reveals to us–in the catachretic articulations of language–the reversible and oscillating structure of the lived body’s chiasmatic experience of cinematic sense. To put it simply (if densely): in the act of “making sense” of the movies, catachresis is to language as the chiasmus is to the lived body. Ambivalently subtending fusion and difference, ambivalent in its structure and seemingly ambiguous in meaning, catachresis not only points to the “gap” between the figures of language and literal lived-body experience but also reversibly, chiasmatically, “bridges” and “fills” it. As Ricoeur suggests above, catachresis “designates the non-verbal mediation of the metaphorical statement.” Thus, Shiff writes of the relationship between vision and touch: “The reciprocity or shifting produced by catachresis undermines any polarization of subject and object, self and other, deviation and norm, touch and vision.”(86) Indeed, “touch and vision are caught in reciprocal figuration: it is touch that is figuring vision, and vision that is figuring touch.”(87)

In the film experience, on the side of reflective sensual description, this reciprocity and catachretic (con)fusion of the literal and figural occurs in language–whether cinematic or linguistic. On the side of the cinesthetic subject experiencing a given film sensually, this reciprocity and chiasmatic (con)fusion of the literal and figural occurs in the lived body both having sense and making sense. Thus, the film experience–on both sides of the screen–mobilizes, differentiates, and yet unites lived bodies and language, and foregrounds the reciprocity and reversibility of sensible matter and sensual meaning. Our fingers, our skin and nose and lips and tongue and stomach and all the other parts of us know what we see in the film experience. As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that both opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its specific carnal origins and limits. This is what my fingers know at the movies.


  1. Godfrey Cheshire, “Film: Auteurist Elan,” review of The Piano, Raleigh (North Carolina) Spectator Magazine, 18 November 1993.
  2. Bob Straus, “The Piano strikes emotional chords,” review of The Piano, Los Angeles Daily News, 19 November 1993.
  3. Stuart Klawans, “Films,” review of The Piano,” The Nation, 257, no. 19 (6 December 1993), 704.
  4. Daniel Heman, “It’s a bumpy ride, but this film’s built for Speed,” review of Speed, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 June 1994.
  5. Henry Sheehan, “Speed Thrills,” review of Speed, Orange Country Register, 10 June 1994.
  6. Joe Leydon, “Breakneck Speed,” review of Speed, Houston Post, 10 June 1994.
  7. David Ansen, “Popcorn Deluxe,” review of Speed, Newsweek, 13 June 1994, 53.
  8. Anthony Lane, “Faster, Faster,” review of Speed, The New Yorker, 13 June 1994, 103.
  9. Stephen Hunter, “As cosmic battles go, Kombat is merely mortal,” review of Mortal Kombat, Baltimore Sun, 19 August 1995.
  10. Janet Weeks, “Is faux violence less violent?,” review of Mortal Kombat, Los Angeles Daily News, 19 August 1995.
  11. Stephanie Griest, “Mortal Kombat’s Bloodless Coup,” review of Mortal Kombat, Washington Post, 28 August 1995.
  12. Owen Gleiberman, “Plastic Fantastic,” review of Toy Story, Entertainment Weekly, 14 November 1995, 74.
  13. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969, 57, 59.
  14. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 159.
  15. Lesley Stern, “I Think, Sebastian, Therefore. . .I Somersault: Film and the Uncanny,” Para*doxa 3, no. 3-4 (1997): 361.
  16. For relevant research by the Payne Studies, see W. W. Charters, Motion Pictures and Youth: A Summary (New York: Macmillan, 1933). In a related context, Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner,” in Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (London: Sage Press, 1995), writes that the Payne Studies “presumed that the body might give evidence of physiological symptoms caused by a kind of technological intervention into subjectivity–an intervention which is part and parcel of the cinematic experience” (180).
  17. Miriam Hansen, “‘With Skin and Hair’: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseilles 1940,” Crtiical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (1993), 458 (the translation is Hansen’s). Hansen also goes on to note: “Pointing to the example of ‘archaic pornographic flicks,’ Kracauer comes close to describing the physical, tactile dimension of film spectatorship in sexual terms (though not in terms of gender); in striving for sensual, physiological stimulation, he notes, such ‘flicks’ realize film’s potential in general” (458).
  18. Contemporary film theory as an academic designation usually refers to the period beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s when semiotics, structuralism, and psychoanalysis were regarded as methodological “antidotes” to a “soft” and “unscientific” humanist film criticism and Marxist cultural critique and feminist theory as ideological “antidotes” to “bourgeois” and “patriarchal” aestheticism. An extended critique of the contemporary theoretical oversight (if not repression) of the spectator’s lived body as well as a discussion of the historical and theoretical reasons for it can be found in my own The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
  19. See Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (Summer 1991), 2-13; “Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the ‘Carnal Density of Vision,” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 3-41; and “The Visual and Carnal Pleasures of Moving-Image Pornography: A Brief History” (unpublished manuscript).
  20. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
  21. Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
  22. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
  23. Elena del Río, “The Body as Foundation of the Screen: Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts,” camera obscura #37-38 (Summer 1996): 94-115.
  24. Williams, “Film Bodies,” 5.
  25. Williams, “Film Bodies,” 5.
  26. Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (London: BFI, 1990), 56-62. Gunning comments: “Clearly in some sense recent spectacle cinema has reaffirmed its roots in stimulus and carnival rides, in what might be called the Spielberg-Lucas-Coppola cinema and effects” (61). It is worth noting that this move from use of the term “cinema of attractions” to designate a historically-specific mode–and moment–of film production to its use as a more generic and trans-historical designation is seen as problematic. A thoughtful critique was offered by Ben Brewster in “Periodization of the Early Cinema: Some Problems,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies, Dallas, TX, March 1996).
  27. Richard Dyer, “Action!,” Sight and Sound, 4, no. 10 (October 1994), 7-10.
  28. Dyer, “Action!,” 9.
  29. Dyer, “Action!,” 8. (Emphasis mine.)
  30. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, trans. Robert Czerny, et. al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), discusses the status of the “as if” in relation to metaphor and reference; see particularly 248-56. He finds inadequate both “an interpretation that gives in to ontological naïveté in the evaluation of metaphorical truth because it ignores the implicit ‘is not'” and its “inverse interpretation that, under the critical pressure of the ‘is not,’ loses the ‘is’ by reducing it to the ‘as if’ of a reflective judgment.” As he says, the “legitimation of the concept of metaphorical truth, which preserves the ‘is not’ with the ‘is,’ will proceed from the convergence of these two critiques” (249; emphasis mine).
  31. Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 26-27.
  32. As Linda Williams, “The Visual and Carnal Pleasures of Moving-Image Pornography,” summarizes: “In psychoanalytic film theory this opposition between an excessive and inarticulate body and sensation on the one hand and a mastering spirit or thought on the other has been fundamental, giving rise to the concept of an abstract ‘visual pleasure’ grounded in a voyeuristic gaze whose pleasure presumes a distanced, decorporealized, monocular eye mastering all it surveils but not physically implicated in the objects of its vision” (n.p.). This “mastering” gaze has meant the privileging of Renaissance perspective and its Cartesian “carpentering” of the world as the explanatory model for describing cinematic space. For more discussion of this issue and alternative descriptive models, see my own “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space” in this volume.
  33. Chiasm (sometimes chiasmus) is the term used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” trans. Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), to indicate a “unique space which separates and reunites, which sustains every cohesion” (187). In general, it is used to name the ground of all presence against which discrete figures of being emerge; as such, it is the ground from which oppositions both emerge and fall away, in which they become reversible. I am suggesting here that the enworlded lived body functions as our own chiasmatic site in the matter of meaning and the meaning of matter: that is, it sustains discrete and oppositional figures (such as “language” and “being”) but also provides the synoptic ground for the suspension of both their discretion and their opposition. See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining–The Chiasm,” in The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alfonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 130-55
  34. Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 52-68. Miriam Hansen, “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,” New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987), writes of this connection of “third meaning” and the lived body in relation to Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the “mimetic faculty.” She writes: “For Benjamin, the semiotic aspect of language encompasses both Barthes’s ‘informational’ and ‘symbolic’ levels of meaning. . .while the mimetic aspect would correspond to the level of physiognomic excess” (198).
  35. Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 255-56.
  36. For discussion of these politics, see, for example, Cynthia Kaufman, “Colonialism, Purity, and Resistance in The Piano,” Socialist Review 24, nos. 1-2 (1994), 251-55; Leonie Pihama, “Are Films Dangerous? A Maori Woman’s Perspective on The Piano,” Hecate 20, no. 2 (October 1994), 239-42; and Lynda Dyson, “The return of the repressed? Whiteness, femininity and colonialism in The Piano,” Screen 36, no. 3 (Autumn 1995), 267-76.
  37. I am certainly not alone in responding this way. See, for example, Sue Gillett’s “Lips and fingers: Jane Campion’s The Piano,” Screen 36, no. 3 (Autumn 1995), 277-87. Not only does Gillett open and conclude her unusual essay using first person voice to “inhabit” Ada’s consciousness, but, as the critic, she also tells us outright in a description I find resonant with my own experience: “The Piano affected me very deeply. I was entranced, moved, dazed. I held my breath. I was reluctant to re-enter the everyday world after the film had finished. The Piano shook, disturbed and inhabited me. I felt that my own dreams had taken form, been revealed. . . .These were thick, heavy and exhilarating feelings” (286).
  38. Certainly, some individual films like The Piano and those films grouped by Williams as “body genres” foreground sensual engagement in explicit image and sound content and narrative focus as well as in a more backgrounded manner–that is, not just in the content of their imagery or sound or narrative focus, but through the kinetic activity and sensory experience of what I have, in The Address of the Eye, called the “film’s body” (see note 44). Other films may show us bodies in sensual engagement, but do so in a non-sensual manner, thus distancing us rather than soliciting a similar experience through the “attitude” of their mediating vision. Nonetheless, I would maintain that all films engage the sensemaking capacity of our bodies as well as of our minds–albeit according to different ratios (or “rationalities”).
  39. Carol Jacobs, “Playing Jane Campion’s Piano: Politically,” Modern Language Notes 109, no. 5 (December 1994), 769-70.
  40. The phrase “baffled vision” comes from Laura Marks, “Haptic Visuality” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies, Dallas, TX, March 1996).
  41. In this regard, I cannot resist citing a rather derisive comment about Campion’s next (and less critically successful) film, The Portrait of a Lady (1996), that is explicit about the filmmaker’s own symbolic “fixation” of what was once a dynamic representation of touch. Entertainment Weekly, 7 February 1997, has a sidebar called “Fixation of the Week” with a subtitle, “Jane Campion’s Hands-On Approach.” The text reads: “Starting with the title sequence, in which The Portrait of a Lady” is emblazoned on a middle finger, the director gives us 60-odd shots of fingers. There’s fly flicking, ivory tickling, skin stroking, nose scratching, cigarette holding, and that all-too-Piano moment when Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer says, ‘I would have given my little finger.’ Oh, Jane, please, not again!” (53).
  42. Jacobs, “Playing Jane Campion’s Piano: Politically,” 770.
  43. I owe the phrase “visual aroma” to Laura Marks’s previously cited paper, “Haptic Visuality.” It is telling, as well, that the Black Narcissus of the film’s title is the name of a perfume.
  44. del Río, “The Body as Foundation of the Screen,” 101.
  45. Although only discussed generally rather than elaborated as a specific phenomenological structure of cinematic engagement, Marks uses the term “ambient identification” in her “Haptic Visuality” to suggest an identification with the image that is not located in a single subject position or self-displacements in narrative characters.
  46. The “film’s body” is a term used very precisely in my The Address of the Eye to designate the material existence of the film as functionally embodied (and thus differentiated in existence from the filmmaker and spectator). The “film’s body” is not visible in the film except for its intentional agency and diacritical motion. It is not anthropomorphic, but it is also not reducible to the cinematic apparatus (in the same way that we are not reducible to our material physiognomy); it is discovered and located only reflexively as a quasi-subjective and embodied “eye” that has a discrete if ordinarily prepersonal and anonymous existence.
  47. Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 161.
  48. Elizabeth Grosz, “Merleau-Pontry and Irigaray in the Flesh,” Thesis Eleven (Special Issue: “Sense and Sensuousness: Merleau-Ponty) No. 36 (1993), 46.
  49. Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 190 (emphasis mine). In a discussion of Barthes’s multiple uses of the multiple bodies of texts, characters, and readers, Moriarty draws this “gloss” from readings of both S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text.
  50. Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Revolutionary Insights into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness (New York: Warner Books, 1993), 52. For more recent works on synaesthesia, see John E. Harrison and Simon Baron, eds., Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), and Kevin T. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
  51. Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 118.
  52. Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 176. (Emphasis mine.)
  53. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 291.
  54. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  55. Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 206.
  56. See Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 95-96. See also Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, 289.
  57. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 4.
  58. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 229.
  59. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 229.
  60. Lisa Schwarzbaum, “Four-Star Feast,” review of Big Night, Entertainment Weekly, 20 September 1996, 49-50.
  61. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 235.
  62. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 229-30.
  63. For discussion of the way in which clothing (and touch) functions textually and symbolically in The Piano, see Stella Bruzzi’, “Tempestuous petticoats: costume and desire in The Piano,” Screen 36, no. 3 (Autumn 1995), 257-66.
  64. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 230.
  65. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 235.
  66. Grosz, “Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray in the Flesh,” 56, n. 14. (Emphasis mine.)
  67. Leonard Maltin, review of Eat Drink Man Woman, Cinemania 96 (Microsoft Corporation, 1992-95).
  68. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 309.
  69. Umberto Eco uses the term sign-vehicle as distinguished from sign-content or meaning. This term seems to me more useful than the term signifier in reminding us of the active and various material nature of the “stuff” through which content and meaning are actively conveyed See Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976): 52-54.
  70. Stern, “I Think, Sebastian, Therefore. . .I Somersault: Film and the Uncanny,” 356-57.
  71. Alphonso Lingis, “Bodies that Touch Us,” Thesis Eleven (Special Issue: “Sense and Sensuousness: Merleau-Ponty) 36 (1993), 162.
  72. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 304. (Second instance of emphasis mine.)
  73. On relevant issues of mimesis, see Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 52-53; and Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1992). Taussig, in particular, understands mimesis as a corporeal activity that does not require the translation of conscious thought to be enacted or understood. On this carnal empathy in relation to bodies and objects on screen, see also Williams, “Film Bodies.”
  74. See Maurice-Merleau Ponty, “The Philosopher and His Shadow,” in Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 166. Although he is discussing a more consciously reflexive experience of our lived body’s capacity to sensually sense itself than our experience at the movies, the philosopher is still helpful to our understanding of the way in which our sensual engagement can be “turned back” on itself to both intensify sensual awareness–and, also, to diffuse its specific content (I point related to our sense of the film experience to which I will shortly return):

    There is a relation of my body to itself which makes it the vinculum of the self and things. When my right hand touches my left, I am aware of it as a “physical thing.” But at the same moment, if I wish, an extraordinary event takes place: here is my left hand as well starting to perceive my right. . . .Thus I touch myself touching; my body accomplishes “a sort of reflection.” In it, through it, there is not just the unidirectional relationship of the one who perceives to what he perceives. The relationship is reversed, the touched hand becomes the touching hand, and I am obliged to say that the sense of touch is here diffused into the body–that body is a “perceiving thing,” a “subject-object.”

  75. Here we might think of states in which reflexively sensing ourselves cry, we stop; how it is nearly impossible to tickle oneself; how self-consciousness about our laughing results in it becoming forced. It also helps us understand how sexual desire is other-directed during masturbation and needs an object that is not only oneself so as to avoid a reflexivity that is so doubled as to cause conscious reflection on sexual desire itself.
  76. Hubert G. Alexander, The Language and Logic of Philosophy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967), 92.
  77. Richard Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality: the politics of touch,” in The Language of Art History, ed. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 150. (Emphasis mine.)
  78. Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality,” 158.
  79. Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality,” 150.
  80. J. David Sapir, “The Anatomy of Metaphor,” in The Social Use of Metaphor: Essays on the Anthropology of Rhetoric, ed. J. David Sapir and J. Christopher Crocker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), elaborates:

    There is a great variety of expressions often used as examples of metaphor that are nevertheless hardly ever felt as tropes. One common set uses body parts to represent the parts of material objects: “leg of a table,'” “head of a pin,” “eye of a needle,”‘”foot of a mountain,” etc. Their representation is that of a replacement metaphor; thus for the “head of a pin” we have pin as the topic and head as the discontinuous term. Unlike a true metaphor, however, it lacks the continuous term, although one might be provided by circumlocution: “spherical or blunt circular and protruding end of a pin,” where the supplied phrase is simply an enumeration of the common features linking X with head. In most discourses the lack of a continuous term impedes us from sensing the juxtaposition of separate domains essential to a metaphor. We cannot easily answer the question “if it is not the head (of a pin), then what is it?” With a true metaphor we can. . ..William Empson prefers to call these expressions “transfers” and Max Black, along with most rhetoricians, considers them as types of catachresis which Black defines as “the use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary” (8).

  81. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 63.
  82. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 53.
  83. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 180.
  84. Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality,” 158.
  85. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 212-14.
  86. Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality,” 150.
  87. Shiff, “Cézanne’s physicality,” 158.

About The Author

Professor Vivian Sobchack lectures in film studies in the School of Theatre, Film and Television at UCLA. She has published widely in the area of cinema studies, philosophy, critical theory and cultural studies. Her books include The Address Of The Eye: A Phenomenology Of Film Experience (Princeton University Press, 1992) and Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (Rutgers University Press, 1997).