Chapter 1 – The Eye’s Touch

‘And I found that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the most haughty, smell the most voluptuous, taste the most superstitious and inconstant, touch’

–          Denis Diderot

Chapter 1 – The Eye’s Touch: situating the tactile in philosophical theory and contemporary theory throughout the 20th Century.

In order to evince Beckett’s tactility, we must first connect all the salient points of tactility itself within their wider contexts.

The 20th Century saw the fullest definition of a philosophy of phenomenology. In arguing that Beckett denigrates the eye so much in Film that the body becomes the only philosophical and experiential truth, we must also connect the salient points of tactility with a philosophy of phenomenology as the two are so intertwined throughout the 20th Century. The beginning of the 20th Century is where we will begin our exploration.

In 1907, the neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington wrote On the Proprio-ceptive System, Especially in its Reflex Aspect. This clearly defined the terms proprioception, interoception and exteroception as three differing bodily reflex-states of understanding sensory data as we can see in this quote:

This part of the receptive field of the animal’s surface, which is turned inward upon the alimentary contents, may be termed the intero-captive, in contradistinction to that larger part of the surface field which looks outward upon the free environment in general, and the latter may from that circumstance be termed the animal’s extero-ceptive surface.[1]

Here Sherrington delineates types, and begins the lexicon, of tactility. What sensory data we feel emerge from within us – such as pain, abnormalities or hunger – is interoceptive and stimulus from without us is exteroceptive. He then goes on to define how we feel our whole-selves:

Therefore, a character of the stimulations occurring in this deep field [of sensory data throughout the body] is that the stimuli are traceable to actions of the organism itself, and are so in much greater measure that are the stimulations of the surface field of the organism. Since in the deep field the stimuli to the receptors are delivered by the organism itself, the deep receptors may be termed proprio-ceptors, and the deep field a field of proprioception.[2] [Original emphasis].

Proprioception then is how we feel our bodies as a whole – where each limb, muscle, tendon, etc. sits and how they sit in connection with the rest of the body. These terms are integral to discussing Beckett’s Film in light of its tactile-haptic qualities and so have been given in-depth quotations to allow us to return to these definitions later. For now, we can see an interdisciplinary lexicon of somatic tactility emerging at the beginning of the 20th century in more than philosophy.

Many 20th-Century philosophers re-examined the focus of philosophical thought. Such figures include Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Nancy. We will be using these philosophers later in this exploration – especially in Chapters 2 and 3 – to further understand how interwoven phenomenology is in Film. They explored notions of embodiment while other areas of the sciences were beginning to investigate the body further, also – it is within this re-examination where our philosophical focus begins in earnest.

From Husserl’s lead[3], Heidegger began his work in a philosophy of phenomenology. Our phenomenological focus lends itself to Heidegger’s work Being and Time where he considers a philosophy wherein ‘…being in the world’ is experienced as ready to and ‘…present-at-hand’.[4] Heidegger’s theories on technology are also apt here – his definition of technology is any extension of our embodied selves – much as his theory of our relationship to the world is embodied, so too is his understanding of technology.[5] This approach will be useful when looking at haptic technologies in Chapter 2.
Both Husserl and Heidegger influenced the French thinkers of the mid 20th-Century: importantly for us, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Sartre is especially important as he wrote on both phenomenology and Existentialism[6]. Sartre’s 1943 treatise, Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology[7], echoed Heidegger’s work by stating that consciousness does not come into being or understand things without external input; thus it is a phenomenological treatise through its further definition that consciousness is a somatic consciousness-of-things. A definition of phenomenology for the purposes of this paper will be given in Chapter 2 where we will use Heidegger, Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal work, Phenomenology of Perception[8], was an extensive engagement with the importance of the senses in understanding perception and experience. This further thrust embodied theories into the academic limelight by engaging with Cartesian theory as a point of theoretical departure alongside associating phenomenology with psychology and social sciences. This engagement is evident too in the chronological progression of Beckett’s works and will be evinced in Chapter 5. Merleau-Ponty’s interdisciplinary work meant a renewed vigour came to the study of the body but few focused on skin and touch.

Post-Merleau-Ponty, whose mid-1960’s period was prolific with useful work for us[9], we have seen a growth-spurt of studies on skin, cutaneous consciousness and interdisciplinary research on the importance of considering the body as a holistic sensory organism.
Ashley Montagu’s 1971 study Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin is a seminal example of the work done from a socio-biological approach – though its focus isn’t philosophical, its content and repercussions are. Here we see him discuss his focus that is, in turn, an element of our focus:

The skin as an organ, the largest organ of the body, was very much neglected until quite recently. But it is not an organ as such that I am here concerned with the skin; rather, in contrast to the psychosomatic or centrifugal approach, I am interested in what may be called the somatopsychic or centripetal approach. In short, I am interested in the manner in which tactile experience or its lack affects the development of behaviour; hence, “the mind of the skin”.[10]

In this Touching quote, Montagu declares the importance of his ‘mind of the skin’ and then goes further in the book to evince “…the more we learn about the effects of cutaneous stimulation[,] the more pervasively significant for healthy development do we find it to be.”[11] So we can see its somatic focus and wider ramifications to late 20th Century thought.

Mikel Dufrenne furthered Merleau-Ponty’s work in 1973 with The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience when he says:

…the quality of the atmosphere gives rise to a new countenance for the object…the cinema in this way can convert the objects which it represents, and not only by exiling them on screen…it is in like manner that the space and time of the novel or theatre can become veridical.[12]

Here Dufrenne works examples of film into his philosophical exploration and indirectly begins our upcoming work for us. Through a projected embodiment, ‘…the space and time of’ art becomes truthful.
From Dufrenne in 1972, our next important marker is Didier Anzieu with The Skin Ego in 1974[13]; in 1979, James J. Gibson published the psychology-focused The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception which challenged the basic assumption that vision depends on the eye and instead stated “vision is kinaesthetic”[14]; and from there many interdisciplinary explorations persisted in studying embodiment throughout the 1980s – notably David Appelbaum’s The Interpenetrating Reality[15], Michel Serres Les Cinq Sens[16] and Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1[17] – followed by an explosion of somatic-based, inter-disciplinary, academic explorations in the pre and post-millennial years.

All of the works mentioned so far offer us signposts toward a growing understanding, throughout the 20th to the 21st Century, of the necessary importance of discussing embodiment however it is only in the latter half of the 20th-Century and the beginning of the 21st that a language of holistic embodiment has begun to emerge. By holistic embodiment I mean phenomenological discourse that is based on more than one sense, grounded in the body’s experience and not abstracted but investigating the connections between philosophy, biology, arts, the skin and technology on a fundamentally physical level. It is the texts published in the aforementioned pre-and-post-millennial years that are the theoretical foundations of that holistic discourse. Our exploration of Beckett’s Film will use that discourse.

Grounding themselves in the noted examples here as well as many cross-discipline, non-humanities based theorists, contemporary studies have taken embodiment further into a discourse exploring holistic embodiment, tactility and haptics. By contemporary, I mean from 1990 until 2010. Here we’ll look at 1990 to 2000 and in Chapter 2 we will look at 2000 to today.

From 1990 to 2000, hundreds of studies were released furthering this interdisciplinary discourse. At least twenty of those apply directly to us however, due to limitations, many of these will have to be condensed.

Drew Leder’s The Absent Body followed on from Sherrington’s work by taking philosophical conclusions from Leder’s medical background and found that “As such, the body itself is not a point but an organized field…Thus, at any given time the body manifests a gestalt structure.”[18] Leder’s position within phenomenology is particularly interesting as he attempts to combine it with Cartesian thought through the use of his Cartesian-dualism term “a phenomenological vector” – this emerges from “the ecstatic and recessive nature of the lived body”[19] which create vectors as “a structure of experience that makes possible and encourages the subject in certain practical…directions, while never mandating them as invariants [that might cause a conflict with Cartesian models of knowledge].” It is especially important to us because, as Merleau-Ponty engaged with Descartes, Leder does also and this connects to Beckett’s own philosophical path [from Cartesian to phenomenological] that this essay will detail. Leder’s Absent Body was published in 1990 and marked the beginning to two decades of renewed vigour in the discourse of tactility and embodied understanding.

This renewed vigour can be seen in the publications made in that first decade: The Irigaray Reader in 1991 alongside the 1998 release Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray and 1999’s Irigaray and Deleuze[20] conveyed a renewed interest in the feminist-phenomenologist Luce Irigaray; three books published revealed a renewed interest in the big thinkers of phenomenology – Routledge’s 1992 reprint of Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was reprinted by Beacon Press and The Cambridge Companion to Husserl[21] was published in 1995; alongside the second edition 1996 reprint and re-titled work E.H. Weber and the Tactile Senses[22] which was originally titled E.H. Weber: The Sense of Touch; especially important to us is Martin Jay’s 1994 book Downcast Eyes[23] which explored the slow denigration of sight as the primary sense within 20th-Century French philosophical thought; 1993 saw the publication of Constance Classen’s anthropological approach to embodied understanding, Worlds of Sense[24] – Classen is notable because she would later go on to edit The Book of Touch[25]. In making this short list, my intention is not to show all of the works that have influenced this essay – by no means as there are more – but instead create a brief glimpse of the swell of publications that arose around our subject.

It is the continued hybridity of the social and the hard sciences with the humanities in this pre-and-post-millennial period that makes our study all the more potent. Access to technology and information has undergone an exponential growth in this period due to the increasing spread of the internet. This has lead to further growth in all areas of study but has been especially evident in artists exploring the limits of the scientific body.[26] This exponential growth in interdisciplinary work has meant we now have a much fuller and more comprehensive lexicon of tactility.

This lexicon has bridged many disciplines and also made an art, initially presumed to be primarily based on vision, embodied – the art of cinema. Though there are precursors, we’ll begin our understanding of embodied cinema with Walter Benjamin because it runs truer to my line of thought and the analytical tools we need to look at Beckett’s works.

Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, says “…the film, the distracting element of which is also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator.”[27] Benjamin’s essay was seminal in beginning to explore socio-political effects of new media in the 20th-Century and in detailing its importance. Here he has stated the way that film is somatically felt in the observer by way of habitually understanding and analyzing space. Much as Condillac argued that ‘touch…was capable of discovering space and also of instructing the other senses to relate their sensations to bodies extended in space’[28], Benjamin is arguing that cinema lets the senses project onto the screen and the on-screen actors project their senses, and their surrounds, onto the audience – reason enough for the labour of projectionists to be explored but also an entirely apt name for the practice. This dual process of reciprocal projection situates the audience within the space on screen and allows Sherrington’s proprioceptive centre to be shifted, through the eye, into a new habitat – and thus habit – of understanding. Contemporary film theorist Giuliana Bruno agrees when she says “From Condillac’s sensate statue to film’s own sentient cyborg, the sense of space is confirmed as more than the product of the eye alone…it is the tactile sense that extends surface into space”[29] and “As a house of moving pictures, film is as habitable as the house we live in.”[30]

There has been much cross disciplinary work on the tactile eye that has helped further the phenomenological approach. The psychologist Robert H. McKim wrote of how “the tactile, kinesthetic eye”[31] might be tested and prefaced those tests with a quote from Rudolf Arnheim – “In looking at an object, we reach out for it. With an invisible finger we move through the space around us.” Anthropologist Laura Marks carefully reviews and summates vision’s place in cinema studies while confirming that “…the critique of visuality has come to a turning point,”[32] turning toward engaging the eye with the body. As Marks details the way a film ‘…[uses] my vision as though it were a sense of touch…brushing the …fabric with the skin of my eyes’[33], so too does Beckett’s camera brush up against Buster Keaton’s character ‘O’ in Film. Like phenomenologists before her, Marks engages the projected eye with the philosophical body when she writes ‘…so cinema bears the marks of sense memories that do not find their way into audiovisual expression’[34] and from this we can extrapolate that cinema innately teases out philosophical arguments differing from simply the Cartesian. These philosophical cinema studies will be further explored in Chapters 2 and 4.

It is apt to have started this chapter with a quote from the Enlightenment as Beckett made Film in response to the Enlightenment philosopher Bishop George Berkeley’s statement that “…real things, in themselves imperceptible, are perceived by sense”[35] or as it has been put since, ‘a thing does not exist unless it is seen by man.’

All of this compounds to give us a thorough history and contemporary-history of the (ignored and renewed, respectively) academic interest in skin, embodied approaches, touch, movement and haptics – a term we shall explore fully in Chapter 2. In this history we can see a networked theoretical structure of the salient points of tactility that I will use to feel out Film.


[1] Charles S. Sherrington, ‘ON THE PROPRIO-CEPTIVE SYSTEM, ESPECIALLY IN ITS REFLEX ASPECT’, Brain.(1907) <http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/29/4/467.pdf&gt; [accessed on 08th April, 2009.] (p.469)

 

[2] Ibid. (p.472 )

[3] Edmund Husserl, [trans. Dorion Cairns], Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (The Hague: M. Nijhoff , 1973)

[4] Martin Heidegger (1927), [trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson], Being and Time. (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1962. p.267)

[5] Martin Heidegger, (1954) ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Basic Writings, [ed. David Krell] (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. pp. 328-340)

[6] As has been re-highlighted by Steven Connor’s essay in Matthew Feldman and Ulrika Maude [eds.], Beckett and Phenomenology (London: Continuum Literary Studies, 2009) which we will consider in Chapter 3.

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre (1943), [trans. Hazel E. Barnes.], Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. (London: Routledge Classics, 2003.)

[8] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, [trans. Colin Smith] Phenomenology of Perception. (London: Routledge Classics, 2002)

[9] Further useful examples of work from this period are The Primacy of Perception (1964) and The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes (1968)

[10] Ashley Montagu, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. (USA: Columbia University Press, 1971. p. viii)

[11] Ibid. (pp. 20 – 21)

[12] Mikel Dufrenne, [trans. Edward S. Casey] The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. (USA: Northwestern University Press, 1973. pp. 188-189)

[13] Didier Anzieu, [trans. Chris Turner] The Skin Ego. (USA: Yale University Press, 1989)

[14] James Jerome Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. (Boston, USA: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1979.  p. 2)

[15] David Appelbaum, The Interpenetrating Reality. (New York, Peter Lang, 1988)

[16] Michel Serres, Les Cinq Sens. (Paris: Grasset, 1985)

[17] Gilles Deleuze, [trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam] Cinema 1: the movement-image. (London: Continuum, 2005)

[18] Drew Leder, The Absent Body. (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1990. pp. 24-25)

[19] Ibid. (p.150)

[20] Tamsin Lorraine [ed.], Irigaray & Deleuze. (Ithaca, USA: Cornell University Press, 1999)

[21] Barry Smith & David Woodruff Smith (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Husserl. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.)

[22] Pages 91 and 92 detail his approach to skin succinctly.

[23] Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes. (USA: University of California Press, 1993)

[24] Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across culture. (London: Routledge, 1993.)

[25] Constance Classen [(ed.], Book of Touch. (Oxford: Berg, 2005.)

[26] Stelarc, Orlan and universities embracing sciences/arts hybrids enough to make whole departments [Greenwich 2010, Edinburgh before them]

[27] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and other Writings on Media, (eds.) Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin. (USA: Harvard University Press, 2008. p. 39)

[28] Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, [trans. Geraldine Carr], Treatise on the Sensations. (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1930. p. 59)

[29] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: journeys in art, architecture and film. (London: Verso, 2002. p. 252)

[30] Ibid. (p. 251)

[31] Robert H. McKim, Experiences in Visual Thinking. (California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1972. p. 61)

[32] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses. (Durham, USA: Duke University Press, 2000. p. 131)

[33] Ibid. (p. 127)

[34] Ibid. (p. 129)

[35] George Berkeley (1713) and Colin M. Turbayne, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. (Indianapolis, USA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954.  p. 45)

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