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Brooke Belisle

Graduate Student, Rhetoric Dept., UC Berkeley

Brooke Belisle

Brooke Belisle is a graduate student in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley working on photography, film, video, and digital media. She received an A.B. from Princeton University and a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. She is particularly interested in theoretical and philosophical approaches to technologically mediated artworks. Her current research explores the multiple phenomenologies that have emerged historically around “new” media, especially considering concepts of time, perception and sensation as brought to bear on digital aesthetics.

Research Sample: Excerpt from “Innervation After Benjamin”

Benjamin expurgated all instances of the word innervation from the third version of the Artwork essay, along with many passages developing a theory of technological play. Hansen surmises that he may have given up on this more hopeful dimension of his thinking as he realized another world war was inevitable and that film had not been able to induce a productive reconfiguration of our relationship to technology, the world, or ourselves. In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first, the technological regime associated with modernity and the cinematic seems to have shifted. While digital technologies do not mark a radical break from the conditions constitutive of twentieth century modernity they do correlate with different modes of production, means of representation, and habits of reception. Hansen speculates that Benjamin would not have “gone Luddite in the face of digital technology, inasmuch as it opens up for human beings another, dramatically enlarged Spielraum, a virtual space that significantly modifies the interrelations of body- and image-space and offers hitherto unimaginable modes of playful interaction” (2004, 41). Her “inasmuch” seems to hedge the question, however, as to whether this is actually the case. In an earlier essay she acknowledges, with the mixed sense of hope and resignation Benjamin himself might have expressed, that the answer remains to be seen “whether the electronic and digital media that have displaced and transformed [cinema] will allow for new modes of innervation, different possibilities of mimetic experience, temporal disjunction, and reflexivity” (Winter 1999, 343).

Though this essay’s exploration of innervation has been motivated by precisely this hope, it would need to begin again now, at the end of this first step, in order to explore the modes of mimetic innervation digital film might offer. It seems fair, however, to invoke a film that could mark that beginning, an example that might echo with the images of shock in Modern Times to imagine how the films of our own time might provide new images of innervation. Like Chaplin, Agnes Varda wrote, directed, and appears centrally in her 2000 film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners and I–a documentary she shot with a handheld digital camera. In the English DVD release, the image selected from the film for the menu is of an “empty clock” Varda took from a garbage heap and placed on her mantle. This clock without hands or gears or forward movement echoes with the emblematic first image of Modern Times but signals a different relationship to the rhythm of modernity.

Modern Times explores the impact of industrial capitalism through the experience of a tramp who seems to have been left behind by modernization; Varda’s film connects the agrarian practice of collecting unharvested crops to the contemporary “gleaning” of what is left behind as useless in late capitalism. She follows dumpster-divers, artists, and other opportunists who sift through the refuse of farms, markets, city streets or culture at large and select objects they could use, investing them with a new value through this choice. Gleaning evokes the productive temporal confusion of Benjamin’s theory of Erfahrung in that it gives a future to what has been otherwise forgotten by entering it into an associative network of lived meaning and practice. The Gleaners and I considers how technological and machinic mediations might open possibilities for mutually productive integrations of people and things, how objects and images might participate in subjective constructions of identity, temporality, and value.

Varda calls herself, as a filmmaker, a gleaner of images and ideas, and in this film she emphasizes the digital camera as the vehicle of her gleaning. As she walks through a field of dumped, unsellable potatoes, she collects potatoes as images, choosing the double-tubers that look like hearts to her. She describes how metaphorical and actual gleaning come together in the circuit her body forms with the camera: “I immediately begin to film them up close and set about filming precariously with one hand, my other hand gleaning heart-shaped potatoes.” Holding the camera in one hand and looking through its viewfinder causes her to feel unsteady as she walks through the potatoes and picks them up with her other hand because she is dynamically coordinating the image-space she sees in the viewfinder with the space of her body. When she picks up a potato in her free hand and ‘looks’ at it through the camera she holds in her other hand, she zooms with the camera so that she experiences an image in the viewfinder which represents a different spatial orientation than she experiences bodily: the image of the potato in her hand suggests that the actual potato and hand are closer than they are relative to the camera and her eye. Integrating the camera into the sensori-motor circuit of her body in the world disrupts that circuit in a way Varda suggests feels slightly dangerous, but which seems to enable different perceptual and actual interactions with the world. If she were not gleaning through the camera, she might not have recognized the heart-shaped potatoes as images, deemed them valuable, and actually picked them up.

As the film goes on, and in the short film Varda makes as a postscript, the potatoes are seen to age, and their skin seems to correspond to images Varda considers of her own age, the wrinkled and spotted skin of her hands. For Varda, the way the camera looks at things and brings things closer seems to make visible the intimacy of their alterity or the alterity of their intimacy–it allows her to see, through an uncanny resonance, relationships of difference that open affective affinities. The camera seems to allow an experience of aura.

In a remarkable moment in The Gleaners and I Varda narrates the following, as the image shifts in a long close up from a snapshot that is a close-up of the portrait of Saskia, to Varda’s hand holding the photograph, to another photograph of a self-portrait:

Amazing…In a department store in Japan, on a top floor, there were Rembrandt paintings, original Rembrandts. Saskia up close. And then my hand up close. I mean, this is my project: to film with one hand my other hand. To enter into the horror of it. I find it extraordinary. I feel as if I am an animal, what’s worse, I am an animal I don’t know. And here’s Rembrandt’s self-portrait, but it’s just the same in fact, always a self-portrait.

While this moment explicitly takes up the theme of Benjamin’s Artwork essay, it depicts a technologically mediated vision that reproduces in a manner that does not strip aura and extract sameness, but, rather, opens the reflexivity of aura as an experience of looking and being seen. The photographic reproduction of the painting is folded into the filmic reproduction that includes Varda; the face of Rembrandt looks back at her and allows her to see her own hand as it seems also to return her gaze from a distance. The extraordinary horror of seeing her hand through the camera is the experience of her own body as an object which, from an interval of difference opened by the technological mediation, looks back. The ambiguity of “always a self-portrait” suggests not only that the aesthetic mediation of art always renders self-portraits but that these portraits invoke a correspondence such that they are always ‘me’ and ‘not me’–and that this mimetic play may be the work of art.

Varda’s film refigures technological reproduction as a play of body and image that has the potential to create new embodied, affective, and actual relationships with the world. Filming with her digital camera as she rides in the passenger seat of a car, she plays a game that recasts Benjamin’s description of the violence of bringing things closer, and refigures the experience of traffic that exemplified shock in Modern Times. As trucks pass her car on the highway, she films them with the camera in one hand and watches through the viewfinder as her other hand moves in front of the camera to close around the images of the trucks. This scene revisits the gleaning of the heart-shaped potatoes but here the action takes place in the image space rather than the space of the body; her hand closes around images rather than things. This may mean, following Benjamin’s distinction between throwing a discus in murder or in sport, that the capture of the trucks on film, and in her hand on film, is not a violent consumption of a threat, but the play of mimetic incorporation at the level of the image. Varda argues as much herself: “Again one hand filming the other hand, and more trucks. I’d like to capture them. To retain things passing? No just to play.” This filmic play would not close upon self or world, but open enabling correspondences that actualize alternate subjective temporalities and capacities. It seems to enable or even invest auratic experience rather than to strip it, recalling Benjamin’s description from the Arwork essay: “To follow with the eye–while resting on a summer afternoon–a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (104-5). To close her hand around the image of the trucks may be like tracing the mountains on the horizon; the image may allow the kind of incorporation that the shadow allows of the branch–a touching at a distance.

Contributions to Transliteracies Project:

  eswanstrom2, 01.09.07

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