Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Excerpt from Decapitating Cinema

The path to Dante’s cephalophore, the crowning figure of Inferno 28 who uniquely incarnates the spectacular signifying essence of life in hell – “Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso” (Inf 28.142) [Thus is observed in me the retribution] – is prepared by a meta-bellic spectacle of human carnage situated quantitatively beyond the threshold of discourse.
Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte
  dicer del sangue e de le piaghe a pieno
  ch’i’ ora vidi, per narrar più volte?
Ogne lingua per certo verria meno
  per lo nostro sermone e per la mente
  c’hanno a tanto comprender poco seno.

Who could ever fully tell, even in unfettered words, though many times narrating, the blood and the wounds that I now saw? Surely every tongue would fail, because of our speech and our memory which have little capacity to comprehend so much.

Psychically previewing Bertran de Born’s own detached brain, the pilgrim’s ocular head here occupies the visually severed, essentially cameral and independent position of that which takes in the immanent plenitude of an all that does not and never will enter into any perspectival assimilation.[2] Here language can only attest, via a negative deixis, to a witnessed something that remains ungraspable and unrepresentable as object, what Dante nominates only in the mode of a manner or way — “il modo de la nona bolgia sozzo” (28.21) [the foul fashion of the ninth pouch] — that no reassembly of the war-slain would ever equal (“d’aequar sarebbe nulla” 28.20). The overt emphasis on the power of vision in this canto,[3] in addition to being a poetic recognition of gore’s incommensurable sensory excess, the aesthetic crisis of seeing the unspeakable, thus enters more deeply into the violence of vision itself and its special correlation to the unitive-partitive structures of scandal and schism. This violence may be conceived as the cinema of seeing per se, its self/world-severing movement, according to which the overwhelming spectacle of disjoined bodies is properly understood to be not only a certain kind of seen thing but a transparency of vision, a seeing-though into what vision itself is, namely, a force of dis-cernment, a specular mirror-knife that seizes world by cutting-splicing into its indivisible unity. It is precisely this force that is displayed through the pilgrim’s gazing into the first “seminator di scandalo e di scisma” (28.35) [sower of scandal and schism] he meets, the prophet Mohammed.

Figure 13. Gustave Doré, “The Mutilated Shade of Mahomet” (detail)

Mentre che tutto in lui veder m’attacco,
  guardommi e con le man s’aperse il petto,
  dicendo: “Or vedi com’ io mi dilacco!                   
vedi come storpiato è Mäometto!

While I was all absorbed in gazing on him, he looked at me and with his hands pulled open his breast, saying, “Now see how I rend myself, see how mangled is Mohammed!”[4]

Mohammed effectively separates himself under Dante’s attaching/attacking gaze (m’attacco), returning a look that invites and effects further opening, a dilation whose freshness and non-finality is marked by the verbal aperture of a neologism (mi dilacco, I open, separate myself).[5] Between the poet and the prophet’s canonically unportrayed face there is an affectively cinematic loop, the impressional interplay (‘press play’) of a moving unity-in-separation and separation-in-unity that subtly re-experiences without regress the traumatic circle that all the discord-sowers tread.[6] Rather than merely reenacting or recording the torment, the filmic encounter (in the sense of an event that that passes within and is traced upon a subtle medium of shared vision between the living and the dead) reproposes it in a space that is itself dynamically open and capable of new forms of knowledge and experience, of scientific event, the space marked out by the multiplicative dilation of the present beyond past and future that the pilgrim’s interventive musing over Mohammed initiates:[7]

“Ma tu chi se’ che ’n su lo scoglio muse,
  forse per indugiar d’ire a la pena
  ch’è giudicata in su le tue accuse?”
“Né morte ‘l giunse ancor, né colpa ’l mena,”
  Rispuose ’l mio maestro, “a tormentarlo;
  ma per dar lui esperïenza piena,
a me, che morto son, convien menarlo
  per lo ’nferno qua giù di giro in giro;
  e quest’ è ver così com’ io ti parlo.”
Più fuor di cento che, quando l’udiro,
  s’arrestaron nel fosso a riguardarmi
  per maraviglia, oblïando il martiro.
                                                                              (28. 46-54)        
“But who are you that are musing on the ridge, perhaps to delay going to the punishment pronounced on your own accusations?”
“Neither has death yet reached him, nor does guilt bring him for torment,” replied my master, “but in order to give him full experience, it behooves me, whom am dead, to lead him down here through Hell from circle to circle; and this is as true as that I speak to you.”
More than a hundred there were who, when they heard him, stopped in the ditch to look at me, forgetting their torment in their wonder.

Mutually saturated and suspended in an indeterminate medium, the neither-subjective-nor-objective mood wherein consciousness is cinematically captured, these moments collectively mark, without collapse of their distinctions, a plenitude of experience that is paradoxically available in the positive forgetfulness of wonderful detachment.[8] Note the formal continuity across several instances of abeyance: the poet’s musing, the perceived possibility of his being one of the damned, Virgil’s definition of the reality of Dante’s otherworldly journey in terms of verbal facticity — a wry reflection of the fictive actuality of poetic vision, the again-looking of marveling that momentarily forestalls pain. Fusing these in a dilated moment of inoperative suspense, the scene produces a spectacle homologous to the oxymoronically headless perspective of cinematic experience, its production of post-capital points of view for the head. Just as filming first-person experience ironically requires cameral displacement of the actor’s/character’s head, so the narrator’s first-person view — “s’arrestaron . . . a riguardami” [they stopped to regard me] — is not a stable position but a mobile yet nevertheless substantial relation between his being looked at and the dead poet’s ‘impossible’ witnessing that he is/was indeed there, a relation that obliviates without negating Dante’s own cephalic, essentially self-located identity.[9] In other words, Dante here produces a scene — and this exposes why the Commedia exceeds and eludes cinematography, because its author is at once director, protagonist, and camera — that dramatizes full experience [esperïenza piena] as a certain kind of headless seeing comparable to cinema in which vision is presently drawn beyond, yet strangely without being severed from, capital ego-perspective or the inherent individualization of consciousness. Of course this seeing is something the poem does not and cannot say, something instead to be drawn from and illuminated within the text – a procedure comparable to photography as a hyper selective and erotically tendentious letting-something-be-drawn-by-its-own-light. So Dante and the sowers of discord, with Mohammed as focal point, may be here construed as pausing to motionally photograph or film each other avant la lettre, that is, prior to any captioning of photography, of what it is for or what it represents. Photography in a non-photographical sense: “One does not photography the World, the City, History, but the identity (of) the real-in-the-last-instance which has nothing to do with all of that.”[10] The positive cinematic potentiality of the scenario is thus co-substantial with a kind of bleeding of experience into the Real beyond history, a creative present-minded forgetfulness operative through cameral anarchy: “Photography is a positive and irrevocable chaotizing of the Cosmos. All is lived in an ultimate manner in the affect and in the mode of . . . non-thetic identity.”[11] The affect of non-thetic identity is the feeling of a being that is post-capitally positioned, that no longer places itself (tithenai, to set, to establish) within, nor alienates itself from, the head, but which rather sees Identity or experiences the real as vision-in-One – a seeing that allows the locus of vision, via vision’s inherently screenic or ‘panpsychist’ theoretical mobility, to bleed beyond its fictive anchoring in the head, that no longer hesitates to let vision itself be seen by no-one in the midst of being someone.[12] The decapitating lesson to be witnessed in this cinematic scene, that which prepares the way for the arrival of an actual cephalophore, is that real heedlessness is a losing of one’s head without severing, a cutting off of head in the spontaneous wakeful forgetfulness of ever having one. This is why Dante writes “oblïando il martiro” [forgetting martyrdom], using a word that is inextricably bound, and can even alone signify, beheading as consummate witnessing of the invisible.[13] For the radically immanent, almost senseless yet totally profound meaning of this phrase is its expression of a forgetting of beheading, the oblivion of decapitation’s very possibility, or, the dawn of beheading’s unforgettable impossibility.[14]

Figure 15. Bertran de Born in L’Inferno (Bertolini/Padovan, 1911)

Dante’s experience of the cephalophore Bertran de Born accordingly takes the form of an unforgettable special visual effect whose indelible impressionality is at once the cinematic negative of its first filming (Fig. 15), which uses a theatrical black-on-black effect to enforce optical forgetting of the body and head of the conjoined actors, and an intensity of the cephalophoric relation between poet and pilgrim, the two-in-one-and-one-in-two ‘Dante’ who makes a lamp of itself in order to walk pre-mortem in the afterlife:

Io vidi certo, e ancor par ch’io ’l veggia,
  un busto sanza capo andar sì come
  andavan li altri de la trista greggia;
e ’l capo tronco tenea per le chiome,
  pesol con mano a guisa di lanterna:
  e quel mirava noi e dicea: “Oh me!”
Di sé facea a sé stesso lucerna,
  ed eran due in uno e uno in due;
  com’ esser può, quei sa che sì governa.

Truly I saw, and seem to see it still, a trunk without the head going along as were the others of that dismal herd, and it was holding the severed head by the hair, swinging it in hand like a lantern, and it was gazing at us and saying: “Oh me!” Of itself it was making a lamp for itself, and they were two in one and one in two—how this can be, He knows who so ordains.

Literally reflecting the bi-locative and mnemonically dilated dynamic of consciousness itself (truly I saw and seem to see it still), the figure allegorizes the corporeal dilemma of being someone (O me!) as an essentially projective situation of self-severing. Here, the entity or thing that one is is revealed to be, neither a subject nor an object, but a pro-ject, a throwing forth of itself in and out of itself. The weird equivalence of it and theyDi sé facea a sé stesso lucerna, / ed eran [Of itself it was making a lamp for itself / and they . . .] – here corresponds to a pre-/post-numerical identity that is both outside and inside duality, namely, the identity of one who is two-in-one and one-in-two.[15] Formulated infernally, such an identity is the profanely literalized version of the transcendence-immanence dyad according to which the existence of God and cosmos is alone intelligible, as (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite, the mystical ur-cephalophore of medieval tradition, explains: “He . . . is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself” (Divine Names, 4.13).[16] Namely, there is a palpable sense in this scene that Bertran de Born, who made “il padre e ’l figlio in sé rebelli” (28.136) [the father and the son rebel against each other], figures an anti-trinitarian tertium quid, an un( )holy spirit whose violent dis-integrity mark it as heretically anomalous vis-à-vis the divine cosmic system, an impossible to understand thing-that-should-not-be whose pure and supreme unintelligibility expresses something intimately and perfectly exterior to God, an excessively literal and willfully incommensurable object of divine knowledge. This cephalophore is a real special effect or individuated appearance that God knows, not in the mode of being its creator or designer, but solely in the capacity of being its director: the ultimate default position of God as one-without-a-second and ruler of all (che sì governa). In other words, a final identity or man-in-person that is fully and actually human in the sense proper to the non-philosophical critique of the Trinity:

The man of whom we speak is his own real identity, the irreducible core which makes him human and does not just differentiate him from the rest of Creation, to which he otherwise belongs, but from this as well. Understand then that this real and not transcendent identity (in-Man) is the phenomenal content of that which theologians sought as ‘person’ when composing the Trinity.[17]  

The cinematic lesson of Dante’s Bertran is that cephalophory is the express condition of the real-in-the-last-instance, a schismatic self-belonging far better than being-no-one that endlessly places one in direct acosmic blind relation to divine knowledge or gnosis. Cephalophory is the radically transcendent participation-in-nothing that immanence itself, far beyond its own infinite resources of remaining, always already secretly is. The most intimate opposite of saintly head-bearing, which instead signifies the temporal-becoming-eternal moment of martyrically seeing or finally facing one’s own divine essence (Fig. 16),[18] infernal cephalophory is the real present and essentially self-severed or auto-spectral state of all who are finding themselves in this fundamentally cinematic life-in-illusion, who are enjoying suffering and suffering enjoying the vision-in-Many of being-in-universe.[19] What is special about the self-projective spectacle of Bertran de Born is that he, terribly blind to his true specialness or literal imaging forth of the situation of all, thinks the horror of being himself to be so uniquely special:

                  “Or vedi la pena molesta,
  tu che, spirando, vai veggendo i morti:
  vedi s'alcuna è grande come questa.”

“See now my grievous penalty, you who, breathing, go to view the dead: see if any other is so great as this!”

This is the ironically common error that constitutes his unique instantiation of hell, the mistaken identification of himself as privileged subject of hell – a mistake that necessarily results in his being the visible essence of the very principle of hell itself: “Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso” (28.142). That life or being-in-universe in a cinematic illusion is not at all horrible. Quite the opposite. What is horrible is that the cosmic illusion goes unrecognized as such, that it is mistaken in specific, arbitrary, and selfish ways for being real and thus becomes an object of diurnal unending general horror (worry).[20] Dante’s most celebrated and intensely decapitated subject is a cinematic post-cephalic ‘lesson in heresy’ whose contradictory learning (doing as it does and not as it says) consists in seeing it as oneself whoever you are, seeing that every other is “grande come questa,” as great as this. A lesson very similar to that presented, like a new and terrifying Platonic cave parable, in Lovecraft’s Through the Gates of the Silver Key, easily interpretable as projective allegory of the silver screen or true picture of the reality that cinema per se represents:[21]

For the rite of the Silver Key, as practiced by Randolph Carter in that black, haunted cave within a cave, did not prove unavailing. From the first gesture and syllable an aura of strange, awesome mutation was apparent – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space . . . Now there was neither cave nor absence of cave; neither wall nor absence of wall. There was only a flux of impressions no so much visual and cerebral, amidst which the entity that was Randolph Carter experienced perceptions or registrations of all that his mind revolved on, yet without any clear consciousness of the way in which he received them.[22]

Bertran’s carrying of his lantern-like projective head is a corresponding suspension of the how of consciousness that unveils the capital illusion of head itself as locus and agent of vision. It is a real fiction whose horror is to exacerbate a ‘martyrically’ revealed fact: the reality of something else that sees seeing, an unbeheadable or acephalic witness of one’s own vision that cannot possibly be a self in any ordinary sense. To see this requires no illumination other than the simple blind rediscovery of one’s own head as obscure cameral twin of the dark cosmos, the cave within the cave of which Lovecraft speaks.

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).
[2] “One does not photograph the World, the City, History, but the identity (of) the real-in-the-last-instance which has nothing to do with all of that” (François Laruelle, Concept of Non-Photography, 48).
[3] See Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 151-3. Akbari traces a transition from extromissive to intromissive metaphors across the Commedia and their transcendent synthesis in the vision of God (in both senses).
[4] The auto-imperative (a command that also works upon itself, see how I . . .) captures the self-maiming logic of schism – doing violence to the body of which one is part: “the schismatic intends to sever himself from that unity [intendit se ab uniate separare] which charity creates” (Aquinas, Summa theologica, II-II.39.1) – and eerily prophesies the terroristic mangling of Islam (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Iraqi soldier holds aloft the head of a dead suicide bomber

Note how Mohammed’s repetition of come [how] continues the bloody modal rubric of the ninth bolgia cited above (“il modo . . .” 28.21), as if gore is essentially a negative intensity of style. Cf. “I have said that the bodies were frightfully mangled. Now I must add that some were incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion” (H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness [New York: Modern Library, 2005], Chapter 4, my italics).   
[5] The auto-opening evokes the al-sharh or dilation of Sura 94 in the Koran, “Did we not dilate your breast . . .” interpreted as God’s opening of Mohammed’s chest and purification of his heart. Karla Mallette calls the scene “a grotesquerie, a carnivalesque inversion of an episode recounted with awe in the Islamic popular tradition” (“Muhammad in Hell,” Dante Studies 125(2007): 213 – an awe in which the pilgrim’s gaze also participates. Crescini comments, as cited in Singleton, “Lacca is the ‘haunch,’ the ‘thigh’ . . . . di-laccare means ‘to separate, divide, spread, open the thighs’; and therefore it generally means ‘to spread,’ ‘to open’.” The sexual connotation reinforces the cooperational structure of the encounter, the sense in which staring is an aesthetic copulation with its object, as well as exacerbates the infernal un-manning of Islamic militancy.    
[6] Mohammed explains to the pilgrim: “Un diavolo è qua dietro che n'accisma / sì crudelmente, al taglio de la spade / rimettendo ciascun di questa risma, / quand' avem volta la dolente strada; / però che le ferite son richiuse / prima ch'altri dinanzi li rivada” (28-37-42) [A devil is here behind that fashions us thus cruelly, putting again to the edge of the sword each of this throng when we have circled the doleful road; for the wounds are closed up before any of us pass again before him].
[7] A present all the more poignant in light of the fact that the present is precisely what hell-denizens do not see, as Farinata explains in Inferno 10.100-8. Infernal knowledge advances only towards an absolutely final decapitation: “tutta morta / fia nostra conoscienza da quell punto / che del future fia chiusa la porta” (Inf 10.106-8) [all our knowledge will be dead from that moment when the door of the future shall be closed].  
[8] I borrow the term ‘positive forgetfulness’ from the Supplement to Meher Baba’s God Speaks: “The whole philosophy of approaching and realizing the Truth hinges on the question of what we may call forgetfulness. The word ‘forgetfulness’ used here must not be associated with its commonly accepted meaning of forgetting to post a letter, or of a state of mind that is simply dull and blank. Forgetfulness in this special sense is an attitude of mind that develops gradually into spiritual experience. External renunciation is not forgetfulness, because it is mostly physical and partly mental; but internal renunciation, when it becomes purely mental, does assume the quality and dignity of forgetfulness. Thus one may renounce the world, but it is not so easy to forget it. Forgetfulness in this special sense thus explains the secret that lies behind all happiness, spiritual or otherwise, that human beings experience. The Sufi term for this forgetfulness is bikhudi, and it should not be mixed up—though it often is—with bihoshi (unconsciousness). . . . The whole philosophy of happiness and unhappiness therefore hinges on the question of forgetfulness of some kind or another, and of remembrance of some kind or another. Remembrance is an attachment of the mind to a particular idea, person, thing or place, and forgetfulness is its opposite. Once it is understood that remembrance causes pain, it follows that the only cure is some kind of forgetfulness, and this forgetfulness may be either positive or negative. The positive forgetfulness is one in which the mind remains aware of external stimuli, but refuses to react to them. The negative forgetfulness is either mere unconsciousness—a stopping of the mind as in sound sleep—or an acceleration of it as in madness, which has been defined as a way of avoiding the memory of suffering. Either sleep or madness may be artificially induced in various degrees by the use of intoxicants or drugs; but this also is a negative way of overcoming remembrance. Positive forgetfulness, then, is the cure, and its steady cultivation develops in man that balance of mind which enables him to express such noble traits as charity, forgiveness, tolerance, selflessness and service to others. One who is not equipped with this positive forgetfulness becomes a barometer of his surroundings. His poise is disturbed by the slightest whisper of praise or flattery, and by the faintest suggestion of slander or criticism; his mind is like a slender reed swayed by the lightest breeze of emotion. Such a man is perpetually at war with himself and knows no peace” (211-13). Cf. Purgatorio 2.67-75. 
[9] Cf. “How are they filmed, these first person experiences? Two ways are possible: either a headless dummy is photographed, with the camera in place of the head, or else a real man is photographed, with his head held far back, or to one side to make room for the camera. In other words, to ensure that I shall identify myself with the actor, his head is got out of the way; he must be my kind of man. For a picture of me-with-a-head is no likeness at all, it is the portrait of a complete stranger, a case of mistaken identity. [Corollary: “one does not photograph the object or the ‘subject’ that one sees—but rather, on condition of suspending . . .  the intentionality of photography, one photographs Identity—which one does not see” (François Laruelle, Concept of Non-Photography, 47)] It is curious that anyone should go to the advertising man for a glimpse into the deepest– and simplest–truths about himself; odd also that an elaborate modern invention like the cinema should help rid anyone of an illusion which very young children and animals are free of. But human capacity for self-deception has surely never been complete. A profound though dim awareness of the human condition may well explain the popularity of many old cults and legends of loose and flying heads, of one eyed or headless monsters and apparitions, of human bodies with non-human heads and martyrs who (like King Charles in the ill-punctuated sentence) walked and talked after their heads were cut off — Fantastic pictures, no doubt, but nearer than common sense ever gets to a true portrait of this man” (Douglas Harding, On Having No Head).
[10] Laruelle, Concept of Non-Photography, 47-8. Dantean photography, the ‘non-philosophy’ of the Commedia, is thus more generally the radical immanence of the ‘poem,’ the identity-movie of the poem itself that is fundamentally independent of and indifferent to its apparently self-defining purposes.   
[11] Laruelle, Concept of Non-Photography, 47-8.
[12] Cf. Harding’s account of his revelation of heedlessness: “Somehow or other I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking out through its two round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t really like that at all. As I gaze into the distance, what is there at this moment to tell me how many eyes I have here – two, or three, or hundreds, or none? In fact, only one window appears on this side of my façade and that is wide open and frameless, with nobody looking out of it.” (On Having No Head).
[13] As in John’s representation of “the souls of them that were beheaded [animas decollatorum] for testimony [testimonium, marturion] of Jesus” (Rev 20:4). That Dante uses the word in relation to Holofernes (Purg 12.60), whose beheading by Judith is not a martyrdom in the religious sense, demonstrates its specific reference to decapitation. At the same time, the association with religious martyrdom is indelible, as in the sweetly bitter account of Dante’s crusading ancestor Cacciaguida: “Quivi fu’ io da quella gente turpa / disviluppato dal mondo fallace, / lo cui amor molt’anime deturpa; / e venni dal martiro a questa pace” (Par 15.145-48) [There by that foul folk was I released from the deceitful world, the love of which debases many souls, and I came from martyrdom to this peace]. Dante’s use of the term in relation to the sowers of discord carries secondary semantic complications (which is presumably why Singleton chooses to translate with the more literal ‘torment’). In addition to signifying the souls’ literal pain or sensation of suffering, as well as their noetic consciousness of it (the fact that they are suffering), the term generates other senses, for example: 1) that their present torment is a martyrdom, a violent witnessing of/giving-witness to spiritual truth, such that the schismatic is paradoxically sanctified in hell in a kind of sublime hagiographic profanation (Cf. “We are saints / In hell . . . Abattoir, abbatoir, mon Dieu quelle horreur” [Judas Priest, “Saints in Hell,” Stained Glass]); 2) that scandal and schism (laying traps/stumbling blocks for others and splitting off from unity) are obviated by the oblivion of martyrdom, in the sense of a forgetting of the imperative to become a martyr and/or in the sense of a retribution-defusing forgetting of martyrdom-events; 3) that by giving witness to the wonderful presence of a living being in hell the sowers of discord temporarily experience the real life within their living death, not substantially, but by a pure forgetting of the principle of witnessing-by-death, that, by a spontaneous overcoming of the idea that there is an other side of life that dying attests to. More generally, Dante use of martiro underscores concern with the question of the righteousness of those who give their lives within non-Christian faiths. Hence the importance of Mohammed as marker of schism. “Dante condemns Muhammed and Ali as individuals, not as emblematic representatives of a certain collectivity. . . . Schismatics lack ‘charity’ (the love that binds together the peaceful community) but they do not lack faith . . . Dante surely knew that in presenting Muhammad as a schismatic he was not calling into question the truth of Muhammad’s faith. What Dante did not know is that the essence of his political vision—which involves overcoming the boundaries that divide communities against each other, yet without assimilating diversity into a single hegemonic entity—is truly consonant with the essence of Muhammad’s” (Gregory B. Stone, Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006], 56).                    
[14] See Nicola Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible,” in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in Medieval Literature and Culture, eds. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2011), Chapter 1.
[15] This is a strong reading in the sense that I am not accepting the common gloss that would parse the singular-plural person dilemma along the body/spirit distinction, for instance, as Maramauro’s commentary (1369-73) does: “ED ERANO DOI, idest lo capo e lo busto, E UNO, idest una anima sensitiva in doi parte.” I prefer the reading that Dante here presents an essential contradiction or impossible reality, as Castelvetro (1570) explains with regard to divine omnipotence: “Ed eran due in uno, ed uno in due. Pare contradizione; perciochè due non possono essere uno, nè uno può esser due; e nondimeno erano uno, considerando l'unità dello spirito, che reggeva concordevolmente l'una e l'altra parte, come se fosse uno congiunto e non seperato in due; e questo medesimo spirito, perchè si divideva reggendo le due predette parti seperate, si poteva domandare essere due. E perchè questo non avviene ne' capi e ne' busti separati in questo mondo, soggiugne: Come esser può que’ sa, che sì governa; cioè dio sa come questo sia possibile nello ’nferno, trattando così i dannati quando gli piace; quasi dica: dio fa queste cose, che paiono impossibili a noi, per tormentare i dannati con pene non usate.” That is, the essential contradiction of a divided person.
[16] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 82.
[17] François Laruelle, Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy, trans. Anthony Paul Smith (New York: Continuum, 2010), 23, my emphasis.

Figure 16. St. Denis: “Tunc erigens se sancti viri corpus exanime, apprehendit propriis manibus sanctum caput abscissum” (Legenda Aurea) [Raising itself, the lifeless body of the holy man then grasped with his own hands the sacred severed head]

[19] Cinema is an excellent instrument for holding in mind the structure of auto-spectral or self-projective being. A mixture of common sense and rumor, going back at least to the Middle Ages, lets us know that life near/after death is intensely self-filmic: “The fret and fury of immediate responses to the changing situations of earthly life is replaced in life after death by a more leisurely mood freed from the urgency of immediately needed actions. All the experience of the earthly career is now available for reflection in a form more vivid than is possible through memory in earthly life. The snapshots of earthly life have all been taken on the cinematic film of the mind and it is now time to study the original earthly life through the magnified projections of the filmed record on the screen of subjectivised consciousness" (Discourses 3.64). Auto-spectrality is cinematic in the sense that watching the film of one's life means being both alive and dead in a wonderful way. My life is over, but I am still experiencing it. I still live, but I am already dead. Something like this seems to be the natural state of all things to themselves, the reality of their being whoever they are. So the universal chaos or the cosmic abyss, instead of being an absolute place or principle from which everything contingently hangs, is more like the spontaneous cosmic machine or ultimate undesignable instrument through which the auto-spectral existence of each being is maintained simultaneously as itself and as a relation to innumerable other unpredictable beings. The evolution of consciousness as projection is a major theme of Meher Baba’s writings, in which God or the Real is portrayed as a kind of absolute spontaneous projector of itself: “When it manifests, the Nothing, which is most finite and latent in the Everything, projects out from a most finite point in the Everything where the Nothing as most finite is embodied. . . . when the most finite Nothing gets projected as Nothingness through the most finite creation point, which is also in the infinity pervaded by the infinite trio-nature of God, the projection of the most finite Nothingness—closely linked with and upheld by the all-pervading infinite trio-nature of God—gradually expands ad infinitum and manifests apparently as infinite Nothingness or as infinite Creation” (God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose).

Figure 17. Meher Baba at Paramount Studios.

[20] Presumably a truly universal or absolutely wholesale mistaking of being-in-universe for the real would hold other, anarcho-paradisical possibilities. Whence the mystical telos of horror, to realize life as illusion via the anamnesis of negative wonder: “Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings. . . . What he failed to recall was that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness” (H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key,” in The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi [New York: Penguin, 2004], 252).      
[21] “The allegory of the cave is the text of a signifier of desire which haunts the invention of cinema and the history of its invention” (Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986], 307).
[22] H. P. Lovecraft, “Through the Gate of the Silver Key,” Dreams in the Witch House, 272. The cinematic structure of Lovecraftian atheological gnosis – the reason it demands to but cannot be represented in cinema, that cinematic production is necessarily yet obsessively blind to it – is literalized in From Beyond: “Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre” (28). Cinematic unrepresentability is formally identical to the non-locatability of self as head in the sense that cinema does not portray, but is headless seeing. Cf. “The self as imperceptible, Carter’s great horror revelation, affects the reader of Lovecraft but only through the project of baroque spectatorship can this be felt cinematically. To represent it is an anathema” (Patricia MacCormack, Cinesexuality [Burlington: Ashgate, 2008], 94).   

Friday, April 22, 2011

Excerpt from Decapitating Cinema

The close relation between cinema and beheading is traceable into its technic anteriority, among topoi where decapitation and visuality move together in a dynamic manner that is ‘proto’-cinematic. Take three examples, each of which allegorizes the invention of cinema in a different way: Caravaggio’s Medusa, Dante’s Bertran de Born, and al-Hallāj’s martyrdom. The first mobilizes representational severing (the sword of the brush) as an engine of extra-cephalic gaze, the power of vision to cinematically extend beyond the head without ever losing it, to process in an unending ocular loop that intensively multiplies the head as site of vision by cutting it off. The second seizes the projective structure of cinematic consciousness, its realization of vision as the substantial extramission of self or soul into fields of experience whose unitary immanence, precisely by virtue of this projective constitution, is essentially unrepresentable — the vision-in-Many of total overwhelming illusion. The third produces script as the confiscated sine qua non of the cinema-event, the essential supplement or exterior medium whose disappearance ensures a secret identity between the entire cinematographic apparatus and the transcendental captivity of the viewer as the martyred subject of film.
Medusa’s head, seeable only as reflection, as image, is severed by a hero who enters her place by grasping an eye in the duration of its passing between two persons (Graeae), that is, by someone who seizes the substance between frames or masters the movement-image, the eye itself as intra-visual motion.[1] Perseus is a cinematographer. The identity of beheading and specular representation embodied in Medusa’s head is captured in Caravaggio’s shield painting (Fig. 11) which, through a double trompe-l’oeil (a representation of a reflection), decapitates painting itself and bleeds into cinema.[2]

Figure 11. Caravaggio, Medusa

Allegorically, the painting captures the reel, the principle of curvilinear synthesis whereby image becomes aesthetic movement, the interstitial swarm within image itself that makes all image-to-image transitions possible. What is impossible to see directly, what cannot be presently gazed at, is the identity of this swarm with head itself as synthesizing agency par excellence, the consciousness-point which is never perspectivally in place at all, is never a fixed viewing platform, but is always extra-locatively on the move. That is, cinema moves only through the essential snakiness of the head, the wholesale flexibility of capital consciousness and its specific articulation as visual flux capacitator, the unseen thing that flows image into itself. From this perspective we may say that the severed head is the serpentine and spirally ouroboric reel of cinema, a literal figuration or projection of the head’s removal of itself from itself that is necessary for synthetically seeing the world in the first place, for grasping, like a snake its own tail, the flow of time in the auto-affective touch of imaginal and phantasmatic curvature. It is exactly this synthetic self-severing that is seen each time one perceives the essential unseeability of the cinematic image, the skewed or twisting difference between my gaze and its kinetic look (concretized by Caravaggio in Medusa’s downward stare), so that, unlike Narcissus, I can continue to witness without subjective collapse the unreality of the real.[3]
. . .
[1] “Through subtle wiles and guile, the son of Danae [Perseus]—while one was passing that eye to the other—stretched out his hand and intercepted it” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Harcourt, 1993], 4.776-7).
[2] “I see the mirror’s decapitation of self-referential representation, or in other words, the separation of the painting’s head from its body. I see decapitation of the gaze that defines the ‘subject’ to be painted and the ‘subject’ of the painter’s design. I also see the gesture of the hand and body that pose there, in the painting that is both mirror and support, in the painting and on its surface, as a represented object, the slashing of the subject: the painter’s brushstroke, the stroke of Perseus’s sword” (Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting, trans. Mette Hjort [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995], 132). In perfect counterpoint to al-Hallaj’s tetragrammatic blood  Caravaggio signs his own name with the blood of John the Baptist:

 Figure 12. Caravaggio, The Beheading of John the Baptist (detail)

[3] Alan Singer analyzes the cinematic structure of the painting in The Self-Deceiving Muse: Notice and Knowledge in the Work of Art (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2010), 86-96. His description of seeing-as-decapitation articulates the drama of the gaze, the snaky visual movement between opposite poles of beheading and petrification (beheading being also a ‘freezing’ of the head and petrification also a severing of body from its own substance), through which this cinematic continuing to witness takes place: “there is also a sense that the act of viewing entails our own decapitation. . . . the effect is complicated by our realization that we are inoculated against the gorgon’s spell by the downward cast of her eyes. For her angle of vision courts the illusion of our reciprocal ascent, on a line of sight that leads speculatively to the place where Perseus keeps his victorious grip on the monstrous trophy. But it also invites us to make eye contact from below where we might, everything else notwithstanding, risk sharing the fate of Medusa’s victims” (95). On painting as decapitation of the painter, a motif of Caravaggio’s work, see Marin, To Destroy Painting, 142. Brigitte Peucker deploys Marin’s reading of Medusa to read Hitchcock’s films in The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), chapter 4. Note that the technical converse of unseeable gaze, the invisible eye that see you, now takes the form of the snake cam. The Israeli military has developed a robotic one that crawls.