October 14, 2012...7:52 pm

Notes on Jean-Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus”

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Combined influence of Althusser’s concept of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) and Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage and the role it plays in identity formation.

Birth of Western science results in the development of the telescope, which has a consequence “the decentering of the human universe” (286) through the end of the belief in geocentrism. A new mode of representation, made possible by the technology of the camera obscura, paradoxically sets up the subject as “the active center and origin of meaning.”

Baudry states that critics of the ideological effects of film have focused on the effects that such film have as finished products (as we see with Adorno and Horkeimer), but the “technical bases on which these effects depend” has been ignored. “Between ‘objective reality’ and the camera, site of inscription, and between inscription and the projection are situated certain operations, a work which has as a result a finished product.” The problem is that this product, the film, hides the work that creates this transformation.

The film goes through transformations, from decoupage, the shot breakdown before shooting, to montage. Between these phases of production a “mutation of signifying material takes place…precisely in the place occupied by the camera” (287). That is, the decoupage, which operates as language, is transformed (but not translated or transcripted, because that is not possible) through the apparatus of the camera into image, or exposed film, which is then transformed again, through the apparatuses that make editing possible, into a finished product.

Another operation effected through instruments takes place when the finished product of the film, which is a commodity that possesses exchange value, is transformed through the apparatuses of the projector and the screen to become the filmic event which can then be consumed, which is a product with use value.

The finished film restores the movement of the “objective reality” that the camera has filmed, but it does so by creating the illusion of movement through a succession of separate, static images. The fact that this transformation, and the instruments that enact it, is concealed from the viewer, is inherently ideological.

HOW do filmic instruments produce specific ideological effects, and are these effects themselves determined by the dominant ideology?

THE CAMERA reproduces the effect of Renaissance perspective, which is described as “a conception of space formed by the relation between all elements which are equally near and distant from ‘the source of all life’” (289). The center of this space corresponds with the eye, which corresponds with the subject. Unlike Chinese and Japanese painting, Western easel painting presents “a motionless an continuous whole, elaborates a total vision which corresponds to the idealist conception of the fullness and homogenity of ‘being”’ (289). Idealism, transcendence.

PROJECTION creates the illusion of movement from a succession of static images, each of which is almost identical to the one before it, but with small differences that create the illusion of continuous change. However, projection works by effacing these differences. Baudry says that projection is “difference denied,” stating that “the mechanical apparatus both selects the minimal difference and represses it in projection, so that meaning can be constituted, it is at once direction, continuity, movement” (291).

The camera, aligned with the eye (and hence, the subject in the tradition of Western art), produces a “transcendental subject” (292) who is granted movement and meaning. The eye is given a false sense of complete freedom of movement. “The image seems to reflect the world but solely in the naïve inversion of a founding hierarchy: ‘The domain of natural existence thus has only an authority of the second order, and always presupposes the domain of the transcendental’” (292). Continuity is an attribute of the subject. The ideological operations at stake here: “it is a question of preserving at any cost the synthetic unity of the locus where meaning originates [the subject]– the constituting transcendental function to which narrative continuity points back as its natural secretion” (293).

The THEATER: the setting in which the film is exibited, with its dark room and straight-forward gaze, (Baudry describes the viewer in the theater as “chained, captured, or captivated” (294), reproduces the mirror stage in which secondary identification occurs, allowing for the illusory constitution of the subject. Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego being the result of identifying with one’s own specular image. The mirror stage is also where the subject becomes alienated from itself, and thus is introduced into the Imaginary order. Baudry explains how the spectator identifies with the film at two levels: with the character onscreen, but moreso with “the transcendental subject whose place is taken by the camera” (similar to what is elsewhere, in theories of filmic suture, called The Absent One). The spectator identifies less with what is represented than with “what stages the spectacle…obliging him to see what it sees” (295). Disturbing elements distance the spectator from the film, allowing her to apprehend its ideological processes (?): “Both specular tranquility and the assurance of one’s own identity collapse simultaneously with the revealing of the mechanism, that is of the inscription of the film work” (296).

To summaraize: the role of film is to reproduce, through its technological bases, an ideology of idealism, an illusory sensation that what we see is indeed “objective reality” and is so because we believe we are the eye that calls it into being. The entire function of the filmic apparatus is to make us forget the filmic apparatus–we are only made aware of the apparatus when it breaks.

Some of the same problems as many theories of film and culture of the postwar era (including Adorno and Horkeimer and many of the psychoanalytic theories of the 70s that were concerned with the way that cinematic isntitutions influence spectators to seek out viewing pleasures in ways that reflect dominant ideology), namely in that it poses a one-way relationship between the viewer and the filmic text. the supposition that film viewers are inactive victims who are subjected to the ideology of the ruling class and cannot differentiate between illusion and reality. I’d ask the question, then, of what happens when the viewer fails to identify, or the question of reading against the text. There’s also the question of the change in reception of films: the conditions of viewing in the era of video, and then of digital media technologies. Is the experience of watching a film in your living room while making fun of it with your friends, or watching it on your iPhone on the bus, conducive to the same ideological operations?

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