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Embodiment and Moving Image Culture
By Vivian Sobchack
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Breadcrumbs in the Forest
Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space
It was dark night when they woke up, and Hansel comforted his little sister. "Gretel," he said, "just wait till the moon rises; then we'll see the breadcrumbs I strewed and they'll show us the way home." When the moon rose, they started out, but they didn't find any breadcrumbs, because the thousands of birds that fly around in the forests and fields had eaten them all up. Hansel said to GretelI: "Don't worry, we'll find the way," but they didn't find it. —"HANSEL AND GRETEL," Grimms' Tales
What does it mean to be embodied in the multiple and shifting spaces of the world—not only the familiar spaces that seem of our own making and whose meanings we take up and live as "given" but also those spaces that seem to us strange or "foreign" in their shape and value?
When I was a child, I always thought north was the way I was facing. Sure then in my purposeful direction, there was a compelling logic to this phenomenological assumption. Bringing into convergence flesh and sign, north conflated in my child's consciousness the design of my body and the design of an atlas page. Except when I was dancing or, as a child will, walking backwards, I moved in the direction my eyes were looking—in front and ahead of me. Although I was aware of the space behind and to the sides of me, it was the space in front of me—the space I could see—that was clearly privileged, my whole body directed toward it in the accomplishment of my childish projects. I realize now, of course, that printed maps were also responsible for confusing me. The little compass on every atlas page was composed so that north enjoyed a larger or bolder arrow than did the other directional markers, and this was always pointed in a similar direction as the forward-looking trajectory of my eyes as I read. Maps were positioned on the page so that the important spaces of the world were read "in front" and "ahead" of my body just as they were in my child's world. As a directional concept, an orientational point, north thus resonated with the naive faith I had in my own sure direction, in the confidence I had that I would eventually encompass and conquer the world that lay before me. Indeed, this arbitrary and culturally determined semiologic echoed and confirmed my carnal phenomenologic and gave it an (im)proper name: north. As I got a little older and less confident, however, north became increasingly unstable. As I began to recognize it as all-encompassing, it became disorienting and useless. Everywhere I turned and looked was north, and I started to feel that something was dreadfully wrong.
When I was a child, before north became strange to me—or, more precisely, estranged from me—because of the carnal logic that grounded and guided me, I almost never felt lost in the world, even if I often felt lost among directional signs. Occupying the sure and selfish ground of my own interests in the world, existing as the center of my own universe, I nearly always knew where I was and where I was going. With north as the way I was facing, the world radiated out not merely around me but from me. Others might think I was lost, but—as I, at the age of four, hotly told my mother, who once called the police because she couldn't find me—"I knew where I was all the time!" Such absolute confidence seems a far cry from my confusion now as an adult when I stand before the floor map in the University Research Library and try to figure out where I am relative to its signal pronouncement: "You are here." Distrustful after north betrayed me, I never developed a sure sense of direction or geography, far too aware that both are arbitrary systems of locating oneself in the world. Negotiating unfamiliar worldly space is, for me, frequently an anxious state, always mutable and potentially threatening. Thus, the "being lost" I want to explore here is not equivalent to the pleasurable and aimless meandering of the flâneur, whose very lack of a specific destination enables him always to get there.
What follows, then, is a palimpsest of three phenomenological meditations on "being lost" that draws data from personal experience and a variety of secondary sources to thematize the "lived geography" of being disoriented in worldly space. Less exhaustive than suggestive, these meditations are meant to foreground (each differently) the spatiotemporal and affective shape of experience and to demonstrate that both our normative systems of spatial orientation and their descriptive vocabularies tend to be extremely limited, however practically useful. There is much more to be said about losing oneself in worldly space than can be referenced—or remedied—by recourse to the abstract objectivity of a map.
"Omar!" the old man croaked. "Do you know the way? Are you a guide? ... There are jinns in Ténéré, Omar, bad spirits. If a jinn gets into your head, you don't know east from west. The jinn spins your head around. They make you think you know the way when you don't." —MICHAEL ASHER, Impossible Journey
In Space-Perception and the Philosophy of Science Patrick Heelan describes what he calls the "hyperbolic" curved space of our lived and embodied experience and shows how it is incommensurable with the spaces "engineered" by the Euclidean geometry and Cartesian perceptions of perspectival space that have dominated Western culture since the Renaissance. According to Heelan we perceive and navigate both kinds of space, although never at once—even if, in the near mid-distance, the "shape" of both spaces is isomorphic. (Hence, perhaps, my childish mistake about north as simultaneously grounded in my body and motivating a Cartesian sign system.) Exploring the hermeneutic and context-dependent character of embodied visual perception, Heelan's project is to "show that, despite the fact that we perceive a visual Cartesian world, our natural mode of unaided visual perception is hyperbolic: mediating our everyday perception of a Cartesian world is the carpentered environment that we have learned to 'read' like a 'text'" (xiii). In this regard, as James Barry Jr. points out, it is important to realize that "as the latest of post-Renaissance perceivers," our quotidian perception is "not so much in what we take it to be as in what we overlook or deny in it" and that the "geometrical approach of Renaissance perspective" was once a "new form of revelation, a new world possibility." Thus, he reminds us (quoting Maurice Merleau-Ponty) that Renaissance perspective
is "not an 'infallible' device; it is only a particular case, a date, a moment in a poetic investigation of the world which continues after it." ... The fact that we continue to follow the historical lines drawn by this perceptual form, continue to take it as at least potentially infallible and currently applicable, is not a recognition of its historical truth and power, but rather a diminution of the same.... The transformation of perception by technology holds as its most negative, historical possibility, the danger of entirely forgetting itself as perception and appearance.
Against this normative "forgetting," against this culturally dominant experience of "the" (rather than "our") physical environment as Cartesian and Euclidean in visual arrangement, Heelan notes that "from time to time we actually experience it as laid out before us in a non-Euclidean visual space, in one belonging to the family known as 'finite hyperbolic spaces.'" Unlike Euclidean visual space, the geometrical structure of visual hyperbolic space is essentially curved; thus, "scenes—real scenes—construed in such visual spaces will appear to be distorted in specific ways" (28). Heelan broadly characterizes this sense of distortion in relation to the appearance of objects in various divisions of space as they are proximate to the embodied subject viewing them. In the "near zone" directly in front of the viewer "visual shapes are clearly defined and differ little from their familiar physical shapes," but on the periphery of this "Newtonian oasis, depth appears to be dilated," and "frontal surfaces appear to bulge convexly." Furthermore, "parallel lines appear to diverge, as if seen in reverse perspective" (29). Other distortions appear in the "distant zone." Rather than appearing to extend infinitely, space seems "finite, shallow in depth, and slightly concave," and "distant phenomena are experienced visually as if seen through a telephoto lens"; that is, they appear to be "closer, flatter, and with their surface planes turned to face the viewer." In addition, parallel lines "bend upward and come together to meet at a point in front of the viewer on the horizon and at a finite distance" (29). Looking at an extended horizon below eye level "such as the sea seen from the top of a cliff," the viewer "seems to be at the center of a great bowl with its rim on the horizon." An extended horizon above eye level, such as the sky, is experienced as "a vaulted structure." Finally, the "apparent size of very distant objects" in hyperbolic space is mutable and "depends on whether there are local cues and how these are construed" (31).
Because Euclidean visual space is culturally normative, the terms used to describe hyperbolic space ("distortion," "optical illusion") connote aberrance from the norm—yet it is hyperbolic visual space that is grounded in the human body, its phenomeno-logic informed not only by external material forces but also by the intentional directedness of consciousness toward its objects. As Heelan puts it: "A Body defines the human subject functionally in relation to a World as the ground for an interlocking set of environing horizons. Being-in-the-World implies being now related to one horizon, now to another" (13). Which horizon, which system of orientation and coordination one lives, depends ultimately on what "makes sense" in a specific context. For a situation to provide "a Euclidean perceptual opportunity, ... it must ... be virtually populated with familiar (stationary) standards of length and distance, and be equipped with instantaneous means for communicating information about coincidences from all parts of space to the localized visual observer, wherever he/she happens to be" (51). A situation that provides "a hyperbolic perceptual opportunity" is incommensurable with the Euclidean situation in that its sense emerges precisely from the localized visual observer, wherever he/she happens to be. The visual observer making sense in hyperbolic space, rather than relying on abstract, standardized, and stationary measures, "must ... use the rule of congruence which ... is embodied in the capacity of the unaided visual system to order the sizes, depths and distances of all objects in the unified spatial field of vision." What is involved on these perceptual occasions is a "purely visual estimation" of size and distance and a reliance on "a significant local standard of length relative to which the surrounding environment could be spatially structured" (51).
Without either an abstract or local standard of measure, worldly space and the objects within it lose their meaning and become hermeneutically ambiguous, indeterminate, and disorienting. Furthermore, one begins to doubt one's own body. Phenomenological geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes the spatial and bodily effects of one such situation of "being lost" when neither Euclidean nor hyperbolic standards of measure are at first available:
What does it mean to be lost? I follow a path into the forest, stray from the path, and all of a sudden feel completely disoriented. Space is still organized in conformity with the sides of my body. There are regions to my front and back, to my right and left, but they are not geared to any external reference points and hence are quite useless. Front and back regions suddenly feel arbitrary, since I have no better reason to go forward than to go back. Let a flickering light appear behind a distant clump of trees. I remain lost in the sense that I still do not know where I am in the forest, but space has dramatically regained its structure. The flickering light has established a goal. As I move toward that goal, front and back, right and left, have resumed their meaning: I stride forward, am glad to have left dark space, and make sure that I do not veer to the right or left.
Reading this passage, making sense of it with our bodies and recalling some similarly anxious disorientation, we can understand quite carnally how Hansel and Gretel, lost in the forest and darkness, must have hurried ahead—eagerly, indeed gratefully—toward the light shining from the window of the house of the wicked witch.
Similar spatial ambiguity and its permutations and resolutions are dramatically recounted by Michael Asher, a Westerner and travel writer, who became briefly lost with companions in the Sahara desert. In response to the problem of people becoming spatially disoriented and dying in the desert, he tells us that "the government had put up a series of markers" without which "it was almost impossible to travel in a straight line." And he continues:
I soon understood the need for markers. The desert we walked out into the next day was utterly featureless.... There was nothing at all to attract the eye but the metal flags spaced out every kilometre. It was like walking on a cloud, an unreal nebula that might cave in at any moment. Sometimes its dappling ripples looked like water, a still, untided ocean undulating to every horizon. In all that vastness there was not a tree, not a rock, not a single blade of grass.
For a solitary human being (like Tuan in the forest before he saw the flickering light), the space of this featureless desert without objects would be neither hyperbolic (with some known thing or someone else to provide local measure in terms of one's own body) nor Euclidean (with given objects known to be spaced, as were the markers, at an abstract measure of one kilometer apart). In such a contextless context "one" (the pronoun chosen precisely here) would be truly "lost in space."
Asher is not solitary, however; his companions provide him "local measure" relative to his own body, and, suddenly lost and without markers in the desert, he and they live the Sahara hyperbolically. That is, close to him, others have "intelligible" shapes and sizes, but objects, shapes, distances, and motion that are not in the "near zone" are grossly distorted:
In the afternoon we passed [a] caravan.... From afar the columns of [camels] seemed to stand still. They appeared to remain motionless until we came abreast of them, then they sprang out suddenly into three dimensions. It was a strange phenomenon caused by the lack of anything to mark the distance between us.... Then we heard the boom of engines and pinpointed two trucks in the sand. Like the ... caravan earlier, they appeared not to be moving. Not until we passed them did they seem to accelerate into action, roaring by a mile away. Or was it 2 miles? Or even 10? There was no way to judge distance or scale in Ténéré.
Asher also remarks on the difficulties of orienting oneself and moving against the featureless landscape:
I watched Marinetta once as she ran away from our caravan.... She zig-zagged crazily over the sand.... When I tried it myself I realized that without anything to fix on, it was impossible to run in a direct line. Any ripples or shadows on the surface gave the impression of relief. We found ourselves moving towards what appeared to be a mass of dunes only to find them dissolving into sandy waves a few inches high. A piece of discarded firewood could be mistaken for a camel or a tent, a blackened sardine can for an abandoned car.
Everything in Asher's vision is measurable only locally, in terms of the human body and the meaningful size and order it confers on known things. Hyperbolic space, then, is primordial and subjectively lived—and, in terms of human sense-making, it precedes Euclidean abstraction and Cartesian objectivity. As Dorothea Olkowski puts it: "Lived space is not linear, it is a field and an environment.... [T]he primordial space of our existence is 'topological'; it corresponds to the diacritical oppositions of our perception. ... [I]t is a 'milieu in which are circumscribed relations of proximity, of envelopment,' ... [relations] which are not merely geometrical or cultural but are lived."
Excerpted from Carnal Thoughts by Vivian Sobchack. Copyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
PART I. SENSIBLE SCENES,
1. Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space, 13,
2. Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery, and Special Effects, 36,
3. What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, 53,
4. The Expanded Gaze in Contracted Space: Happenstance, Hazard, and the Flesh of the World, 85,
5. "Susie Scribbles": On Technology, Technë, and Writing Incarnate, 109,
6. The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic "Presence", 135,
PART II. RESPONSIBLE VISIONS,
7. Beating the Meat/Surviving the Text, or How to Get Out of the Century Alive, 165,
8. Is Any Body Home? Embodied Imagination and Visible Evictions, 179,
9. A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality, 205,
10. Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary, 226,
11. The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness, 258,
12. The Passion of the Material: Toward a Phenomenology of Interobjectivity, 286,