Science Fiction Studies

#100 =  Volume 33, Part 3 = November, 2006

Mark Bould

Best Foot Forward

Vivian Sobchack. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. xi + 328pp. $24.95 pbk.

Vivian Sobchack is probably best known in sf studies for Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (1980; expanded edition 1987), which is still the pre-eminent monograph on its subject, although her major accomplishment in film studies is The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992). This polemical and rigorously theoretical work, based in existential phenomenology and particularly the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, issued a major corrective to film theory’s conceptualization of film-viewing. It argued for the reinstatement of the material-cultural-historical being of both the viewer and the film, without falling into the (frequently pseudo-)ethnography that came to the fore in the 1990s or subordinating the experience of watching a film to discursive-ideological-critical interpretation. Carnal Thoughts collects a dozen essays that elaborate upon this project with grace, wit, and insight. Although it discusses a number of sf films in passing, sf is not its object—but that does not keep it from being essential reading for the serious student of sf.

The last decades have seen a proliferation of attempts to analyze and theorize "the body," most often casting it, intentionally or not, as just another text. Sobchack instead repeatedly inquires "what it is to live one’s body" and "foreground[s] embodiment—that is, the lived body as, at once, both an objective subject and a subjective object: a sentient, sensual, and sensible ensemble of materialized capacities and agency that literally and figurally makes sense of, and to, both ourselves and others" (2). She considers films, documentaries, and advertisements; news stories and medical case studies; a friend’s cosmetic surgery and the implications of amputee athlete-model Aimee Mullins; the Susie Scribbles doll and other automata; the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski and the fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bruno Schulz; postmodern, cyborg, and prosthetic theory; film reviews, personal correspondence, figurative language, jokes, and cartoons; and her own experience of embodiment—of watching films, of being female, of aging, of surgery, of her above-the-knee amputation and her prosthetic leg. Carnal Thoughts is chock-full of riches that just spin off ideas.

"Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space" begins with the confession that "when I was a child, I always thought north was the way I was facing" (13). The chapter discusses the radical difference between Cartesian and perceptual space; notes how few American films actually depict the quite common experience of being lost; outlines three different ways of being lost—going around in circles (a past-oriented sense of the futility of purpose because one always returns to where one has been), not knowing where you are (an unstable present moment into which past and future have collapsed), and not knowing how to get to where you want to go (a frustrated future-orientation always on the cusp of resolution). She then uses the common enough image of men being constitutionally incapable of asking directions to explore the gendered socialization of attitudes towards and experience of social space. In all this, the only mention of an sf text is a footnote that mentions The Brother from Another Planet (Sayles 1984). Indeed, in researching films that represented "being lost," Sobchack specifically excluded films "about being lost in ‘outer’ or ‘inner’ space" (21) or that "veered off into science fiction allegory" (22). Why might this essay be of interest to the sf scholar? Two reasons spring to mind.

First, a footnote explains that perhaps the reason that so many cinematic scenes of being lost "tend to be displaced into the fantastic space of SF" is because cinema itself "is made up of bits and pieces of discontinuous and discontiguous time and space; the goal of both the cinematic apparatus and the traditional narrative is to make these fragments cohere into a co-ordinated geography the viewer can navigate." Therefore, by evoking "disorientation," the cinema might remind the viewer of cinema’s foundational "incoheren[ce]" and the allegorical or metaphorical capacities of sf offer a safe locus of displacement (22). This hypothesis requires testing. It seems to confirm my reason for so disliking Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), with its infantilized abyss in which North, or Earth, is always the way that they are facing, and to chime with Screening Space’s readings of such postfuturist sf movies as Repo Man (Cox, 1984), Liquid Sky (Tsukerman, 1982), and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (Richter, 1984). But is this how such hermeneutic-spatial sf films as Death and the Compass (Cox 1992), Cube (Natali 1997), Pi (Aronofsky 1998), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Waxweb (Blair 1999), Possible Worlds (LePage 2000), and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001) work? And what about Primer (Carruth 2004), which, despite being about time-travel, contains all three kinds of being lost?

Second, not only did Fredric Jameson argue that sf is a "spatial" genre but he also pinned his influential account of the postmodern on a shift from the temporal to the spatial. While one might have often wondered why Jameson found it so difficult to navigate the Westin Bonaventure Hotel—after all, Gil Gerard and Erin Gray had no such problems in Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century (1979-1981)—Sobchack prompts one to wonder just how much of our understanding of postmodernity is predicated on gendered socialization robbing Jameson of the ability to ask for directions. Sobchack, of course, is not so flippant, but her work does point to the way in which Jameson’s disorientation—a key metaphor for subjectivity under late capitalism—became disembodied. To the extent that sf over the last twenty years has been understood through Jameson’s work on postmodernity, it has tended to rework his materialist critique on the terrain of (post-)Saussurean idealist linguistics, which itself operates homologously to capital, separating itself out as a distinct and immaterial realm. Although Sobchack does not address this directly, the challenge she poses (in "A Leg To Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality") is to the academic adoption of "the prosthetic" as "a sexy new metaphor that ... has become tropological currency for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities" (207). Her challenge cannot help but raise similar questions about Jameson’s co-optation of schizophrenia as a metaphor for late-capitalist subjectivity. (This is not to claim an irrefutable authenticity to the actual rather than metaphorical experience, but to acknowledge that embodiment is at once both literal and figural.)

Sobchack’s own continued engagement with Jameson is most evident in "The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence,’" which maps three perceptual-expressive technologies (the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic) onto his correlation of the emerging cultural logics of realism, modernism, and postmodernism with the shifts, in the 1840s, 1890s, and 1940s, from market capitalism to monopoly capitalism to multinational capitalism. The "photographic" enabled "the material control, containment, and objective possession of time and experience ... self-possession and then, at a later date when the technology is portable and cheap, ... self-proliferation" (142-43; emphases in original). The "cinematic radically reconstitute[d] the photographic," spatializing "a frozen point of view into dynamic and intentional trajectories of self-displacing vision" and temporalizing "an essential moment into lived momentum" (145; emphases in original). More importantly:

the cinema mechanically projected and made visible for the very first time not just the objective world but the very structure and process of subjective, embodied vision—hitherto only directly available to human beings as an invisible and private structure that each of us experiences as "our own." ... [T]he intentional temporal and spatial fluidity of the cinema expresses and makes visible as well—and for the first time—the nonlinear and multidirectional movements of subjectivity as it imagines, remembers, projects forward. In this way the cinematic makes time visibly heterogeneous. That is, we visibly perceive time as structured differently in its subjective and objective modes, and we understand that these two structures exist simultaneously in a demonstrable state of discontinuity as they are, nonetheless, actively and constantly synthesized as coherent in a specific lived-body experience (that is, a particular, concrete, and spatialized history and a particularly temporalized narrative). (149, 150-51; emphases in original)

Although Sobchack’s examples of this radical reconstitution are drawn from moments in La Jetée (Marker 1962) and Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) when still images are suddenly animated, her argument again points to a fruitful area of study that she does not herself pursue: the "invention" of cinema in the year Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention was published (1895), and the subsequent intertwining of the medium’s and the genre’s engagement with temporality. The electronic "is intimately bound up in a centerless, networklike structure of the present, of instant stimulation and impatient desire, rather than in the photographic nostalgia for the past or cinematic anticipation of the future" (153, emphasis in orginal). It is

phenomenologically experienced not as a discrete, intentional, body-centered mediation and projection in space but rather as a simultaneous, dispersed, and insubstantial transmission across a network or web that is constituted spatially more as a materially flimsy latticework of nodal points than as the stable ground of embodied experience. (154)

Sobchack ends this trajectory on a cautionary note, reminding those who embrace the electronic’s fantasy of disembodiment that "technology springs from the very human condition of embodiment" (161). Two essays in particular build on this understanding of cinema in relation to the photographic and the electronic.

"Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery, and Special Effects" considers Barbra Streisand, Isabella Rossellini, the abjection of the older woman, cosmetic surgery, Death Becomes Her (Zemeckis, 1992), J.G. Ballard’s "Princess Margaret’s Face Lift" (1970), and revisits an earlier essay (not reprinted here) on Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman (Juran, 1958), The Wasp Woman (Corman, 1959), and The Leech Woman (Dein, 1960), to argue that

Cinema is cosmetic surgery—its fantasies, its makeup, and its digital effects able to ‘fix’ (in the doubled sense of repair and stasis) and to fetishize and to reproduce faces and time as both ‘unreel’ before us. And, reversibly, cosmetic surgery is cinema, creating us as an image we not only learn to enact in a repetition compulsion, but also must—and never can—live up to. (50, emphasis in original)

So in one direction, Sobchack connects very clearly to the work of people such as Elaine Scarry, Donna Haraway, and Anne Balsamo, insisting on the gendered political nature of the technologized world and our embodied habitation of it. In another direction, she poses the problem of the digital.

"The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness" is concerned with the filmic intermingling of actuality and fictionality. After mapping out the various ways in which this happens—in Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994), Contact (Zemeckis, 1997), Forgotten Silver (Botes and Jackson, 1995), and other films, acknowledging in passing the way 1950s sf movies cast "actual radio and television news celebrities to report on the global progress of the encroaching menace to the planet" but not the typical response (the deployment of stock footage of the military)—she returns to a moment in La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939) that she discussed in a much earlier essay ("Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary," included in the volume). She is expressly concerned with her different responses to the respective shootings of a character and a rabbit in the film. While the actor only pretends to be shot, the rabbit actually was. The rabbit’s death—when actuality suddenly overwhelms fictionality—remains shocking to her, bringing different existential and ethical investments into collision and reminding her that "although documentary and fictional consciousness are incommensurable, they are compossible in any given film" (275). She contrasts her response to the film with that of some interlocutors who "were not particularly shocked by the death of Renoir’s rabbit" but who had "however, expressed overall boredom with the film and indicated that they had watched the whole of it in a general and diffuse state of detachment" (274; emphasis in original). It is perhaps significant that, despite beginning with Zemeckis’s films, in which the cinematic is largely sublated by the electronic, the films on which she focuses her concern are much more distinctly cinematic. About them, she concludes that "charged with the real (and the obligations it imposes)," the documentary consciousness and space evoked by the representation of actuality "are ever-present possibilities in every film experience—even when that experience begins and ends as a designated fiction" (285, emphasis in original). But what happens when the charge of the real is overwhelmed by the digital? Sobchack does not say, but her argument might explain why I still find the death of Cooper and Schoedsack’s resolutely analog King Kong affecting, but that of Jackson’s digital ape just a blessed (and too-long-belated) relief.

The beauty of Carnal Thoughts is its abundance. This review barely scratches its surface. Every page seems to spark questions and ideas. I constantly found myself wondering what Sobchack would make of this film or that book, and I know I will be returning to it for years to come. Sobchack is among the very best of us, and these essays are among her very best. They should not be missed.


Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. Second ed. New York: Unger, 1987.

.-----. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992.


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