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Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture

Vivian Sobchack
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Carnal Thoughts
    Book Description:

    In these innovative essays, Vivian Sobchack considers the key role our bodies play in making sense of today's image-saturated culture. Emphasizing our corporeal rather than our intellectual engagements with film and other media,Carnal Thoughtsshows how our experience always emerges through our senses and how our bodies are not just visible objects but also sense-making, visual subjects. Sobchack draws on both phenomenological philosophy and a broad range of popular sources to explore bodily experience in contemporary, moving-image culture. She examines how, through the conflation of cinema and surgery, we've all "had our eyes done"; why we are "moved" by the movies; and the different ways in which we inhabit photographic, cinematic, and electronic space.Carnal Thoughtsprovides a lively and engaging challenge to the mind/body split by demonstrating that the process of "making sense" requires an irreducible collaboration between our thoughts and our senses.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93782-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    This is, perhaps, an “undisciplined” book, informed as it is by my multidisciplinary grounding and interests in film and media studies, cultural studies, and—an oddity in the United States—existential philosophy. Nonetheless, however undisciplined, the essays brought together inCarnal Thoughtsare not unruly. Indeed, whatever their specific subject matter and inflection, they share a single overarching theme and emerge from a single—albeit quite open—method.

    The major theme ofCarnal Thoughtsis the embodied and radically material nature of human existence and thus the lived body’s essential implication in making “meaning” out of bodily “sense.” Making conscious...


    • 1 Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space
      (pp. 13-35)

      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...

    • 2 Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery, and Special Effects
      (pp. 36-52)

      What is it to be embodied quite literally “in the flesh,” to live not only the remarkable elasticity of our skin, its colors and textures, but also its fragility, its responsive and visible marking of our accumulated experiences and our years in scars and sags and wrinkles? How does it feel and what does it look like to age and grow old in our youth-oriented and image-conscious culture—particularly if one is a woman? In an article on the cultural implications of changing age demographics as a consequence of what has been called “the graying of America,” James Atlas writes:...

    • 3 What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh
      (pp. 53-84)

      Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine, I am struck by the gap that exists between our actualexperienceof the cinema and thetheorythat we academic film scholars construct to explain it—or perhaps, more aptly, to explain it away. Take, for example, several descriptions in the popular press of Jane Campion’sThe 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 The film is “[a]n unremittingly sensuous experience of music and fabric, of mud and...

    • 4 The Expanded Gaze in Contracted Space: Happenstance, Hazard, and the Flesh of the World
      (pp. 85-108)

      This chapter is about the existential possibilities and contradictions that mark our “gaze” at the world and others—and, more particularly, about these possibilities and contradictions as they have been materially embodied and dramatized in the cinematic vision of the great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. But this chapter is also about something more—namely, the ambiguous nature of the empirically concrete happenstance to which we, as objective and sensible beings, are always subject. As we—and our gazes—are materially embodied in the space-time of the world with other objective beings and things, we are engaged in incalculable encounters whose...

    • 5 “Susie Scribbles”: On Technology, Technë, and Writing Incarnate
      (pp. 109-134)

      The following phenomenological meditations on the carnal activity of writing were provoked by an electronic doll. A contemporary version of eighteenth-century anthropomorphic writing automata, “Susie Scribbles” appeared on the shelves of Toys R Us quite a number of Christmases ago and sold for $119. Unable to resist, I bought her. Susie and the peculiarities of her existence raised significant questions about writing bodies and writing technologies—not only because her automaton’s instrumentalism interrogated what writing is and how it is accomplished but also because the form in which this instrumentalism was embodied interrogated what is—or is not—“human” about...

    • 6 The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic “Presence”
      (pp. 135-162)

      What happens when ourexpressivetechnologies also becomeperceptivetechnologies—expressing and extending us in ways we never thought possible, radically transforming not merely our comprehension of the world but also our apprehension of ourselves? Elaine Scarry writes that “we make things so that they will in turn remake us, revising the interior of embodied consciousness.”¹ Certainly, those particularly expressive technologies that are entailed in the practices of writing and the fine arts do, indeed, “remake” us as we use them—but how much more powerful a revision of our embodied consciousness occurs with the inauguration of perceptive technologies such...


    • 7 Beating the Meat/Surviving the Text, or How to Get Out of the Century Alive
      (pp. 165-178)

      Some time ago, in an issue ofScience-Fiction Studies, I had occasion to rip into Jean Baudrillard’s body—both his lived body and his techno-body and the insurmountable, unthought, and thoughtless gap between them.¹ The journal had published an English translation of two of the French theorist-critic’s short essays on science fiction and technoculture,² one of them celebratingCrash, an extraordinary novel written by J. G. Ballard, first published in 1973, with a significant author’s introduction added in 1974 that was carried forward in subsequent editions.³ My anger at Baudrillard arose from what seemed his willful misreading of a work...

    • 8 Is Any Body Home? Embodied Imagination and Visible Evictions
      (pp. 179-204)

      To say we’ve lost touch with our bodies these days is not to say we’ve lost sight of them. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse ratio betweenseeingour bodies andfeelingthem: the more aware we are of ourselves as the cultural artifacts, symbolic fragments, and made things that we see in—and as—images, the less we seem to sense the intentional complexity and richness of the corporeal existence that substantiates them. In a culture like ours, so preoccupied with images of bodies and bodies of images, we tend to forget that both our bodies and our...

    • 9 A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality
      (pp. 205-225)

      Let me begin again with the fact that I have a prosthetic left leg—and thus a certain investment in and curiosity about the ways in which “the prosthetic” has been embraced and recreated by contemporary scholars trying to make sense (and theory) out of our increasingly technologized lives. When I put my leg on in the morning, knowing that I am the one who will give it literal—if exhaustible—vitality even as it gives me literal support, I don’t find it nearly as seductive a matter—or generalized an idea—as do some of my academic colleagues. And...

    • 10 Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary
      (pp. 226-257)

      Always concerned with the subversive capacity of cinema to show us what we may not wish to see, critic Amos Vogel has frequently commented on the medium’s tendency to avert its eyes before the sight of actual death. He writes: “Now that sex is available to us in hard-core porno films, death remains the one last taboo in cinema. However ubiquitous death is—we all ultimately suffer from it—it calls into question the social order and its value systems; it attacks our mad scramble for power, our simplistic rationalism and our unacknowledged, child-like belief in immortality.”¹ Death, Vogel suggests,...

    • 11 The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness
      (pp. 258-285)

      The integration of documentary footage into fiction films often causes something of a stir in the popular press. Although the practice dates back to the very beginnings of cinema, what has attracted current attention to it and raised the issue of media ethics is the particular manner in which new digital technologies have transformed this practice by supposedly making such integration so seamless as to undermine the public’s ability to differentiate fact from fiction, the real from the imaginary or “irreal.”¹ Thus, the media hype: first around the digital wonders ofForrest Gump(Robert Zemeckis, 1994), which inserted its eponymous...

    • 12 The Passion of the Material: Toward a Phenomenology of Interobjectivity
      (pp. 286-318)

      Central to any understanding of the connection between ethics and aesthetics, the question of “the limit between the body and the world” is a question posed not only by Maurice Merleau-Ponty inThe Visible and the Invisible¹ but also—and most vividly—by his less sanguine colleague, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his novelNausea.² Whether put in terms that suggest existential ease or horror, awesome or awful encounters with inanimate “things,” inherence in the world or alienation from it, this question interrogates theobjectivityof subjectively embodied and sensate being and how it is both like and unlike the sensible being...

  7. INDEX
    (pp. 319-328)