Cleo Hanaway-Oakley: James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film

James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film Book Cover James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film
Oxford English Monographs
Cleo Hanaway-Oakley
Oxford University Press
Hardback £60.00

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

Whether in early phenomenology, film, or #metoo, we are still today reeling from the fantasy or reality of the gaze, that is, the relationship of self to other. How does one define the other by means of the gaze? Is it in terms of a subject/object distinction? A hundred years after the end of The Great War (what may be called ‘the suicide of Europe’), film, philosophy and modernist literature have attempted to overcome the war between man and man, or man and woman, as much as nation and nation. But it has failed. The gaze, as Cleo Hanaway-Oakley envisions it, wishes to colonize and totalize the other, committing an act of violence just through looking. There is no way out of this fixation, but by redefining the cemented schemes of looking.

To revision film studies and its philosophical inheritance is to reinvent a way of looking or feeling, to find by re-watching or re-learning what it means to view film as a renewed and renewing enterprise. And this act in turn may revise the way of perceiving the other. This revision begins at the origin of film as a production of an aesthetic artistic avant-garde act. To view film phenomenologically would mean to take it out (epoché) of its well-trodden narratives. In one predominant scheme, there is a sense in which to use the words of Walter Benjamin, “an unknown woman comes into the poet’s field of vision…the delight of the urban poet is love…[but it] is not the rapture of a man whose every fiber is suffused with eros; it is, rather, like the kind of sexual shock that can beset a lonely man” (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” quoted by Daniel Shea, “’Do they Snapshot Those Girls or Is It All a Fake?” mentioned by Hanaway-Oakley). The names known to film studies, Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey, represent a Freudian/Lacanian voyeuristic and scopophilic way of viewing film. If a spectator is passive, then the Cartesian subject/object distinction remains at the basis of this act of seeing. Behind Metz and Mulvey’s way of viewing film lies the following question: Does the ‘male gaze’ define patriarchy and inhuman, if not dehumanizing, male subject/female object totalizing? In other words, just by looking the male is already in a bind – there is no intersubjective or non-totalizing gaze. For this enterprise, watching a film is already non-reciprocal and disembodied, in a word, objectivizing. If voyeurism and the objectifying gaze are hegemonic (to use Gramsci’s term) in film theory, according to Cleo Hanaway-Oakley, then how might we escape or avoid this problem?

Each chapter in the book introduces a different aim. First, ‘Reciprocal Seeing and Embodied Subjectivity’ begins with the gaze of Bloom on Gerty McDowell (‘Nausicaa’) and provides a revisioning of this gaze from psychoanalysis to phenomenology and particularly Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of film. Her use of sources focus a great deal on the film studies and Joyce literature here rather than the psychoanalytical literature or phenomenology beyond Merleau-Ponty, but since her aim concerns reversibility and to move beyond the fixed understanding of this as “Gerty is a voyeur just as Bloom is” (9), part of her interesting revision takes this as “each character fails to see the other as a fellow subject, even though the reader is shown that both practice subjective looking—so the seer/seen binary remains intact” (10). How does Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility overcome the Freudian/ Lacanian fixation to “true intersubjectivity and reciprocity”? Following scholars such as Vivian Sobchack (The Address of the Eye and Carnal Thoughts), Spencer Shaw (Film Consciousness), and Jennifer Barker (The Tactile Eye), Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of film is no longer seen as impersonal but rather “the seer and the seen and the subject and the object remain as separate, distinct beings…intermingling occurs at a deeper level: the body-subject ‘simultaneously sees and is seen’.” (29)

Second, ‘Modern Thought and the Phenomenology of Film’ looks precisely at Bergson and his role in the development of film, but also the difference between him and phenomenology. To clarify, Hanaway-Oakley writes, “the main divergences in Bergsonian and Merleau-Pontian philosophy revolve around the role of the body in perception and the body’s relationship to its environment. For media philosopher Mark Hansen, the difference between Bergson and Merleau-Ponty too easily mask the similarities.” (43) Similarly, the overlap between ‘Gestalt Vision’ (such as in Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim) with Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Wertheimer point to a comparability of scientific and psychological theories with aesthetic or creative organizing processes such that film-making and film-watching can mirror each other. This means that theory produces a truly empathic relationship “rather than separation and detachment,” challenging the very basis of subject/object dualism. This is continued by Sergei Eisenstein and Siegfried Kracauer (who himself, according to Hanaway-Oakley, was influenced by Gabriel Marcel) in which the notion of being an “incarnate being immersed in and interacting with a world” has a way of “acting-out or bodying forth.” (51)

While making the claim that James Joyce was interested in film is not controversial, his being a proto-phenomenologist is. What Hanaway-Oakley does in chapter 3 (‘Machine-Humans and Body-Subjects’) most deftly is to bring together Charlie Chaplin films with Joyce and Merleau-Ponty. As a prime example, Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) includes a scene with a prosthetic leg in which “[the prosthetic leg] is not replacing a lost or damaged body part or signalling any utopian possibilities of extending human ability into superpowers. The leg plays only a minor role in the film—a ‘bit part’, if you will. Chaplin picks up the leg and looks at it quizzically then, in a rather quick, somewhat ambiguous gesture, he lifts his cane up towards the shop assistant.” (73) This gesture, rather like Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the blind man’s stick in Phenomenology of Perception (taking up an example from Descartes’s Optics), and Vivian Sobchack’s in ‘A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality’ (2004), incorporates the stick or Chaplin’s cane or a prosthesis in such a way that the body and the world are not entirely separate. What Joyce does in ‘Circe’ analyzed in several places in Hanaway-Oakley’s book is to further this connection with the body and the world. One example of this is when a nymph from a painting comes to life and Bloom’s desire is unhinged and that the nun and the slut are combined in this erotic life-giving painting. The tie of Phenomenology of Perception (‘The Body in its Sexual Being’) to Ulysses is complete.

The Final Chapter of the book (‘Tactile Vision and Enworlded Being’) begins by analyzing both Stephen’s thoughts in the ‘Proteus’ chapter of Ulysses alongside George Berkeley’s A New Theory of Vision (1709), Descartes’s Optics (1637), and Merleau-Ponty. How does the stereoscope or mutoscope, for example, enable tactile vision? One can touch something through the eyes even when neither sense have a ‘language’ in common. “Like Bloom, Descartes concludes that blind people must ‘see with their hands’.” (89) Whereas Descartes positions perception in an immaterial mind, Bloom and Berkeley materialize it, and “the blind man’s stick is not, for Merleau-Ponty, an intermediary between a physical object and a mental image.” (90) The tactile and the erotic are further interconnected, especially when stereoscopic images from 1904 (when Ulysses is set) are forms of early erotica or pornography, something Hanaway-Oakley connects to the Mutoscope-viewer as a haptic interposition of the crotch like the blind man’s stick. She further “dizzingly” describes parallactic proprioception and seeing ourselves as others see us.

Hanaway-Oakley constructs a term, ‘living pictures’, to try to overcome the voyeuristic gaze, working from both phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and writer James Joyce. Her book thus attempts to defend a reciprocal gaze or embodied form of viewing film, to see others as they see you (including on screen). In three distinct contexts, then, early cinema, Ulysses, and phenomenology, “the phrase [I see myself as others see me] offers a reciprocal way of seeing, self-reflection, and the chance to contemplate the relationship of self and other, subject and object.” (13) An absorptive approach regards cinema as objective, impersonal and neutral as opposed to the phenomenological living approach in which cinema is subjective, engaged and ‘authentic’. Hanaway-Oakley proposes three avenues for ‘intervention’: first, phenomenological reflection is unlike introspection or mimetic copying in which there is some ‘objective’ reality in the image unrelated to the perceiver – an experience of cinema is living in so far as the perceiver takes part and contributes to the image by means of her experience. Second, the film-maker interacts with the spectator insofar as an ‘imprint’ or ‘trace’ (rather than a mimetic copy) of time is really imprinted on the viewer – this intervention challenges some traditional readings of Bazinian realism. Third, film is embodied and this intervention requires us to expand and enlarge our notion of embodiedness – we do not necessarily see things ‘out there’ as on a screen but rather the image becomes part of our bodily existence.

As an exemplar of these three interventions, Merleau-Ponty explored film phenomenologically in one short essay from 1945, ‘The Film and the New Psychology’ (included in the collection, Sense and Non-sense), the same year that Phenomenology of Perception was published. How much one can do with this is the question that Hanaway-Oakley leaves open. Her book begins and ends with an analysis of an episode of Ulysses, ‘Nausicaa’, where Bloom is gazing at a young crippled girl on the beach. This scene exemplifies a twentieth-century formulation of the gaze since the Great War. As Hanaway-Oakley writes,

In ‘Nausicaa’, as Bloom touches himself, he simultaneously touches Gerty across the distance: ‘his hands and face were working and a tremor went over her’. Bloom and Gerty’s feelings are reciprocal; neither is reduced to an object—they are both simultaneously object–subjects for each other. They experience a reversible relationship. Gerty recognizes an ‘answering flash of admiration in [Bloom’s] eyes’, and Bloom notes that there is a ‘kind of language’ between them. He learns to ‘see [himself] as others see [him]’ and to ‘look at [things] other way round’. (110)

This book brings together worlds not typically brought together, and is a joy to read. The length of it left me wanting more, and the seventeen- page bibliography gives one plenty to go on for reading further. While James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film is not a work of film studies, as an intervention between philosophy, literature, and film, her analysis is extremely worthwhile and her deft use of film examples plus the widespread interdisciplinary world of literary criticism and modernism as well as film is exemplary. Where she is perhaps weakest is in the French side of Merleau-Ponty and wider phenomenology, but its breadth across the Merleau-Ponty oeuvre is illuminating and enjoyable. While by itself Hanaway-Oakley’s revision of the problem of the gaze and its violence is not entirely overcome, we are one step closer to seeing others as they see us.