Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Nautilus as Model: Jules Verne, Film, Imperialism, and the Spectator’s Gaze

nautilus Engraving of Captain Nemo 1870

[A]ll the ships in Jules Verne are perfect cubby-holes, and the vastness of their circumnavigation further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their inner humanity. The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable of all caves: the enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite- Roland Barthes, Mythologies


Original Map Illustration French Edition Around the World in Eighty Days

The hero of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days embodied all the self-assuredness and extravagance of the British Empire.- Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space


Early English Locomotive 1829

The modern period had a new sense of distance, created by technology and mediated by urbanism and imperialism.- Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space

forbiddencity1a Forbidden City Snapshot circa 1920

duane-hanson-the-touristsDuane Hanson Tourists 1970

The subjective effects of the tourist are not unlike those of the cinema spectator. Tourism produces an escape from boundaries, it legitimates the transgression of one’s static, stable or fixed location. The tourist simultaneously embodies both the position of presence and absence, of here and elsewhere, of avowing one’s curiousity and disavowing one’s daily life.- Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping

gerome Jean-Leon Gerome The Slave Market 1866

[F]rom 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35% of the earth’s surface to about 85% of it- Edward Said, Orientalism

I have juxtaposed these five quotes in order to discuss in a fragmentary way the relationship between film and spectator that is delimited by Roland Barthes’ understanding of the famous Verne submarine, the Nautilus. The posted images are a complementary visual text that parallels, intersects, enhances, imagines and provokes this written text. The fictive Nautilus [in this post], like cinema, is a technological device which functions to “define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite” in terms of sex, gender, sexuality and race, particularly in relation to European [and American] imperialistic practice beginning in the late nineteenth century and the rise of the modern city.

The European conceptualization of the Other both physically and psychologically served to define and secure the fictive and real borders of Europe itself [and later the United States]. This conceptualization occurred on many levels: academic disciplines such as Orientalism, tourism, World Fairs, art and of course cinema. It is important to note how a technology such as film (as well as the rise of other technologies that collapsed and changed the notion of space, time and distance) is deployed not only to reterritorialize the world such that Europe was able to control 85% of the globe by 1914, but also to reconstruct the psyche, enacting such binarisms as European/Other, white/black, man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, etc.

bar Postcard circa 1914

In conjunction with imperialism, the rise of the modern city served to deploy and enforce this binary system in which the first term was/is always privileged over the second. The new urban space allowed, for example, a burgeoning culture of same-sex desire that in turn became a studied object for eradication by by the medical and legal systems as well as by mass culture. But, this attempt ultimately failed despite its real life consequences and dire punishments and enabled the formation of a “reverse discourse” in the words of Foucault. In this way, the homosexual who became a species in the late nineteenth century used this negative discourse to foster and produce an identity and a community of same-sex desire. This reverse discourse finally exploded into a movement of visible liberation with the Stonewall Riot of 1969.

Stonewall_Inn_September_1969_%28Photo_from_New_York_Public_Library%29 Diana Davies Stonewall Inn September 1969

eskimo “Esquimaux” at the Chicago World’s Fair 1893

opium Opium Den Concession Chicago World’s Fair 1893

To further the proposition of the Nautilus model, I want to critically examine Anne Friedberg’s notions of the mobilized gaze. Her idea seems to counter the hegemony of the cinematic device in favor of a kind of freedom and mobility for the spectator. While I believe it is important to dismantle notions of a universal [male] spectator for forms of spectatorship defined by historical context, subject position and agency, Friedberg’s analogy between the tourist and the film spectator as both possessing a mobilized gaze ignores or elides the context of imperialism. One must ask who possessed the ability to “escape from boundaries” and participate in a “transgression” of “fixed location?” Friedberg does not consider tourism as a decidedly modern Western practice whether through actual travel or visits to World’s Fairs where native peoples were put on display. The practice of tourism is aligned with imperialism. Both conceptualized the Other as a means “to define, in a single act [or gaze], the inside by means of its opposite.” The mobility of the tourist is constituted by the fixity of the Other.

Judy_Garland_at_Greek_Theater Judy Garland 1957

Within cinema, the spectator is physically immobile in a darkened space before the screen; however, the film itself through its imagery, narrative and sound enables this corporeal fixity to be displaced by a psychic movement. The viewer is able to inhabit other bodies, practice other pleasures, experience other places, cultures and events. Yet, what are the limits and consequences of this psychic freedom? Does film truly enable the transgression of identity and allow a fluid psychic play? From my own perspective, [mainstream] film is what Teresa di Lauretis terms a social technology which functions to define, maintain and reassert binary oppositions such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, white/non-white and so on. Film serves to secure the first term of these oppositions in a position of power and often presents such categories as natural and eternal rather than constructed within culture.

However, while acknowledging the role of film in the production and maintenance of this hierarchical binary regime. one must be attuned to the gaps and fissures which are present within many cinematic texts. These sites are spaces where viewers who are conceptualized as Other within the filmic world such as lesbians, straight women, gay men etc. can reconfigure the text and derive pleasure from it even while it seeks to foster their submission within a binary system.

computer One of the first personal computers

The rise of the internet in the late 20th century has caused a greater collapse of space, time and distance. Information and images are instantaneous, prolific, infinite and unmediated. The [real] body is effaced while the web provides an inexhaustible supply of ever new bodies engaged in an infinite variety of practices. The internet has also precipitated a change in viewership as well. Pictures and text can be viewed anywhere at any time in almost any place. The spectator is no longer fixed within a darkened space. The world has become flat [again]. How does this technological innovation affect the Nautilus model? Is a hierarchical binary system of sex, gender, sexuality, class, race etc. still at work? Or does this new technology allow one to transgress this regime? Is the internet a new Nautilus? I don’t know.

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