This is an expanded
transcript of a talk broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 23rd and January
26th 2000, as the third in a series of four 'philosophical adventures in
the everyday' entitled Rough Magic. The programmes were produced
by Tim Dee.
Screens have two functions; they show, and they conceal. The primary meaning of a screen is in fact something that blocks, separates or filters; as in the rood screen which separates the nave from the chancel in a church; the cricketer's sight screen; firescreens, hospital screens, sunscreens, windscreens. There is a subtle but important difference between a screen and a blind: a blind shuts off altogether. A screen filters; it is a permeable membrane, not a locked door. Screens cover and conceal: but in presenting a secondary or fictitious surface, they also partially disclose.
Looking, we have always known, is deeply pleasurable to human beings. It is pleasurable because it is so closely linked with desire, and possession. A baby learns that it can reach for what it sees. Thereafter, seeing and grabbing are indissolubly hooked together. Seeing, the philosopher Merleau-Ponty has remarked, is a kind of having. Of course, what the baby wants to do with anything it manages to get in its hands, is to take it into its mouth, which actually means making it invisible once again. As long as you can see something, you haven't quite got it, which is why it is a stimulus to craving. If this makes looking pleasurable, it also makes it avaricious, dangerous.
One of the most ancient and widely-spread beliefs is in the power of the evil eye, the power to inflict harm by looking, especially envious looking. Indeed, the word video is derived from a Latin root which also gives the word invidia, meaning envy, or jealousy, and our word invidious. Some psychoanalysts see that envy as focussed above all on food and eating, and on my desire to take the food from the mouth of my sibling. Hence the association between looking and poison, in the tradition of the cockatrice, or basilisk, a mythical creature capable of killing both with its stupefying gaze and with its mephitic breath. Women, for so long the victims of avaricious looking, have also often been credited with a magical power to injure through the eye. Girolamo Fracastoro, in his treatise On Sympathy and Antipathy of 1546, declares that `there exists in the nature of some persons a poison which is ejaculated through their eyes by evil spirits', a poison which is the more effective because of the heightened susceptibility of the eyes when the potential victim of fascination is being praised. To such a conception of the eye's powers and susceptibility belongs the extraordinary superstition, taken seriously by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and later commentators, that, if a menstruating woman looks into a mirror, she will cause its surface to be coated with blood. The Acts of the Academy of Paris of 1753 record a version of this superstition, in solemnly affirming that an old woman who had approached a mirror and looked into it for some time had left upon it a film of filth, which, when gathered and investigated, proved to be poisonous. But it is not just ugliness which blocks looking. The beauty of women is often associated with veils, which both screen out and draw in the hungry eye. The relationship between the face of the female star on the cinema screen and the magical, glowing light of the screen itself was often emphasised by the use of soft focus, achieved by the veiling of the camera, or even the smearing of the lens with vaseline. Beauty blears the eye; its blearing is its beauty. The cinema screen is both shiny, immaculate, untouchable, and sticky with our longings.
We fear, we men hitherto somewhat more than we women, that what we look at will gobble us up with the greed with which we ourselves want to eat it. We make it responsible for our hunger, suspecting it of wanting to poison us. The wicked queen in Snow White moves naturally from the operations of the mirror to those of the poisoned apple. After succumbing to her stepmother's powers, Snow White herself is turned back into a mirror, put on show in her glass coffin. Vision is always invidious, and, to the degree that it is hungry, also enveloping, and envenoming.
How do you forestall the powers of the evil eye, the powers of the fascinator, who can consume you with a look? Many mythologies and folk beliefs cohere around the idea that the only way to do this is to trap or deflect the gaze of the fascinator, with an object called a fascinum, which would often be an obscene or ridiculous picturing of a phallus. The fascinum is a counter-charm to the fascinating powers of the eye, a way of screening out looking. Perseus traps the poisonous, consuming look of the Medusa, the Gorgon who is both gorgeous and gorging, which would otherwise turn him to stone, in a mirror. He gives her back her own ugly, avaricious rage, or, rather, forces her into the image of the ugly, avaricious rage which is all he can make of her.
Ours has become a world of screens, a world which endlessly and on all sides calls out 'look here' to our overstuffed, but still insatiable eyes. Screens are everywhere: on the street, in shop windows, at the desk, on the back of the airline seat, projected against the sides of buildings, winking at us from the mobile phone or the palmtop. The world of neutral surfaces, brick walls and the blank back sides of things, is progressively being screened off; as the older meaning of the screen as something behind which something invisible may be going on is replaced by the newer conception of the screen as something on top of which things are being made available to sight.
Screens represent at once the jeopardy and the making safe of the eye. They are food for the eye's endless, unassuagable appetite, even as they are a place where the eye may come to rest. If our gaze can be fixed by a screen, then we might be protected from its own hunger, even as we consent to be consumed by it. Our restless lines of sight are endlessly interrupted, by images that offer themselves for ocular appropriation, calling us to let our look linger, and offering to allow the dangerous exercise of the eye unchecked. And yet such images also lure and solicit, like the amulets and emblems intended to gather up and turn aside the evil eye, and to that degree, may seem to capture the gaze to which they appear merely to succumb, exercising their own form of fascination over us.
Screens are also increasingly credited with active powers, the powers to attract the look, to petrify us in the act of looking. Watching the screen in the cinema, one in a sense merely receives the visual impressions that have been deposited on the screen by the projector. It has not always been believed that the eye was passive in this way. The belief that looking involved the projection of streams or particles or effluvia from the eyes survived long into the early modern period in Europe. This is where our word influenza comes from: the victim of 'flu is under the influence, or the inflowing of this malign force. However, the experience of the cinema screen also puts each viewer in the place of the projector, gathering back the fantasy that it itself projects outwards. The complication of who is doing the looking and from where is even greater in the case of the television screen, in which the projection occurs from behind the screen rather than in front of it, and therefore comes through the membrane of the glass rather than being reflected back from that surface to the eye of the spectator, makes things more complicated. Now, the surface itself appears to be expressive, rather than merely receptive. While the cinema screen has an obverse (you can go behind the screen and see the images projected back-to-front from the other side), the TV screen and the VDU have no back. You can go into them, but can never get behind them. This complication of the hypothesis of the surface seems to encourage fantasies of the video screen not only as a kind of eye, but also as a kind of mouth, as in David Cronenburg's Videodrome which dramatises fantasies of video screens which begin to bulge outwards to envelop the viewer.
The arrival of the screen into modern consciousness is perhaps marked by an essay by a psychoanalyst called Bertram Lewin in 1946. Lewin was struck by a patient who spoke of the experience of seeing her dream roll itself up like a window blind and roll away from her as she was trying to recall it for her analytic session. He came to the view that she was visualising the screen upon which dreams are `projected', a screen which is usually as invisible as the cinema screen because of the engrossing nature of the dream-contents playing over its surface. Lewin postulated that this dream screen, which sometimes also becomes apparent in the blank screen of certain dreams without visual content but with a high erotic charge, derived from the primary experience of infant sleep. The screen represents the breast, which, as it approaches, loses its volume and visibility; the flatness of the screen represents both the undifferentiation of tactile contact with the skin, and the more specific experiences of the loss of ego boundaries in the oral satisfactions of feeding. In fact, the dream screen is the effect of a merging of identities centred specifically on the mouth, and on a substitution of orality for perspective, of eating for seeing. There is no terror of being eaten in this experience, since there is no other being to threaten the infant, who, in his condition of satiety, has `eaten himself up, completely or partially...and become divested of his body - which is then lost, merged in its identification with the vastly enlarged and flattened breast, the dream screen'. . This may help explain why the lowering of the lights in the cinema brings on such a storm of slurpings and crunchings. Jean Piaget records that when he asked a group of children where they thought dreams took place, one of them said that he dreamed in his mouth.
One may wonder whether this idea of the dream-screen, if generalised, would tell us more about the dream-like nature of the experience of the cinema, or about how dreaming might have started to have become a specifically cinematic experience. Perhaps it is not just that movies have learned how to work like dreams; perhaps it is also we who have learned to dream like the movies.
But there is another feature of Lewin's analysis that can highlight something about screens. Dreams testify to the release of crazily incoherent thoughts, images and feelings, which threaten all the time to wake us up. The screen, Lewin says, has the function of keeping us asleep, by holding the dream together, like a skin. Or it is the image of the dream itself, in its own integrating function.
Screens are of course like mirrors, and mirrors are always dangerous moments of encounter between different worlds and states of mind. Mirrors can feed you back yourself, joyously entire, and shiny with youth. Surely it is for this reason that idealised forms of the human body, whether they be the beefcake or the glamourpuss, are nowadays always represented as shiny, as though some of the silvering or glister had rubbed off on their skins. And do we not speak of the silver screen?
But mirrors also testify to the possibility of the breaking off of this continuity. The Lady of Shallot sees her mirror `crack'd from side to side'; Narcissus is finally engulfed in the mirror of his self-love, as he reaches forward to embrace his watery image. Narcissus falls into his dream, while the Lady of Shallot is forced into tragic wakefulness, but death results in both cases. Mirrors represent not just the suspension of the world in dream, but the threat of the dream's interruption. The wicked stepmother wants the mirror to tell her her truth, but it eventually tells her the intolerable truth of the beauty of another.
The shininess of screens and mirrors is a sign of their ambivalence; shine is a sign both of something organically moist and of something mineral or metallic. The lustre of the silver screen solicits touch, even in seeming to prohibit it, as something profane. The beauty and inviolability of our screens has something to do with the horror of touching an eye, or having your eye touched. This is surely the reason for the continuing popularity of the glossy finish of the photograph, perhaps the first portable screen. This sheen signifies the magical preciousness that we wish the photograph to retain, giving the eye notice that it is a tangible thing which looking is insufficient to encompass. The gloss of the photograph is an ideal, untouchable skin, though its untouchability also suggests its quality of tenderness, that word that signifies both the quality of something touched and the manner of our touching. This image has been touched and can touch us back. Perhaps it is for this reason that we feel called to handle photographs, both to caress their glossy surfaces and occasionally, in sadness or anger, to gash and efface them. The gloss of the photograph signifies its more than human perfection, and therefore its vulnerability to the attentions of fingers, and the scratches, creases and corrupting smears of greasiness they can impart. This quality of the photograph is transmitted to the surfaces of other technological objects, such as the vinyl gramophone disc, tape (now boxed protectively in cassettes), and the CD, in the reverent kind of touch that it seems to teach us to use in handling it, a touch in which we keep the living, vulnerable surface of the object intact, instinctively preferring to hold it by its edges. When they first appeared, we were told that CDs were incorruptible; but nobody ever wanted to believe it, and we were glad when we discovered that, like living beings, they were indeed vulnerable to erosion and to the damage wrought by our tactile attentions. The practice of `scratching', the manipulation in live performance of vinyl records, which grew up the club culture of the 1980s, at once rescued the possibility of damage in a world of incorruptible and immaterial data and preserved this ideal delicacy in our relationship to objects, drawing attention to the surface that would be as sensitive to our attentions as the skin of another person.
The projected images of cinema is shadowed by the techniques of reproduction and enlargement that have made the living environments of the twentieth century a phantasmagoria of signifying surfaces. If anything and everything can become a screen, then everything has the capacity to bear faces and exposed bodies. The harsh banality of brick and metal, the sides of buildings, cars and buses, are capable of being made the vehicle for visible flesh. Anything can wear a face; anything can have, or become a front. The new function of the material world, to be the support or carrier of images, means that the world literally makes eyes and makes faces at us.
It appears that, as soon as you have screens, you must have skinflicks. The intense attentiveness that we are called upon to pay to images of naked human skin which fill our screens (why do we speak of screens being filled, unless in acknowledgement of the desire for engorgement) passes across to actual skins, as people have started to make screens or visual display units of their own skins. The cult of tattooing, piercing, scarification and other kinds of skin-marking in the West has little enough to do with a desire to return to or rediscover the `primitive', as is often claimed; rather it is an embrace of the principle that anything and everything can become a screen. If a screen is an idealised form of the human skin, then it is perhaps only to be expected that human beings should come to make screens of their skins.
Films through the century have sought to burst out of their flat, merely optical condition, to become palpable, to touch us, to move us, whether to shivers, screams or tears (literally in the case of the famous Lumière brothers sequence of a train arriving at a station which is said to have caused the audience of a cinema in 1895 to flee in panic from the train that appeared to be bursting through the screen). Contemporary films return obsessively to what might be thought of as this primal threat of cinema, that its contents will be so powerful and real that they will burst through the screen upon which they are displayed, and that the petrifying gaze of the Medusa may result in one being swallowed up in her mouth or decapitated wound. The woundings, flayings, lacerations and eruptions of bodies in contemporary film, whether in violent thrillers, or in science fiction and `body-horror' films, such as Alien and The Fly, expose the viewer to a kind of bodily disintegration, which is both provoked and oddly assuaged by its very visibility. The desire to cut into the skin is evidenced not just in the display of lacerated bodily surfaces on our screens, but also in the ritualised piercing, cutting, scarring and branding among sadomasochists, modern primitives and other enthusiasts of what a grisly bureaucratic phrase calls 'body modification'. This apparent assault upon the surface is always in the end for the purposes of display and the leaving of visible marks; its larger purpose is not to display the mark, but to summon and make manifest the surface or screen upon which the mark may be made and retained. Such practices may evidence the depletion, and as a consequence the violently emphatic reassertion, of the function of the skin as a magical surface, whether screen or mirror, which serves, as does the fascinum, to capture and make safe the power of the oral eye.
But perhaps all this is just a prelude to something a little more disturbing. We have learned with the development of touch screens, and screens activated by eye-movement (and soon, we hear, by internal willing or wishing alone) to make screens responsive to our touch, to make looking and wishing into a kind of touching. Perhaps this heralds a world in which we will be so thoroughly immersed that the screen will have no visible edges any more; or, looking at it the other way round, we will have moved into such intimate contact with our screens that we will have taken them in to us, so that they lie sunk beneath our surface. If the world becomes indistinguishable from a screen, then the screen melts away, and we, like Alice, will melt through the mirror, as it melts through us. The screen, the function of which has for so long been to capture and keep safe the voracious eye, will have eaten us up.