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The Elusive Body: Abstract for a History of Screens

Dario Cecchi
p. 35-51


In riferimento alla teoria della rappresentazione visiva di Louis Marin, mi propongo di analizzare alcune immagini filmiche e non filmiche (episodi biblici, quadri, arazzi, film e immagini digitali) in quanto esse mostrano i caratteri di uno schermo. Cercherò quindi di generalizzare tale convergenza tra schermi e rappresentazioni visive, per mostrare che, almeno durante l’epoca moderna, la visione dell’immagine ha spesso funzionato come un’immersione nello spazio di uno schermo in cui lo spettatore era non solamente in grado di riorganizzare la propria esperienza scopica, ma anche, grazie alla relazione che stabiliva con le figure all’interno della rappresentazione, messo nelle condizioni di agire e mostrare la propria capacità d’azione, i propri desideri e diritti. Considerate come schermi, le immagini mostrano così una coincidenza tra esperienza estetica e politica, in cui lo spettatore non è consumatore passivo, bensì attore sulla scena.

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1In the present paper I will try to show that screens represent a general condition of the visual representation, even for these images being not – or having not been – actually projected on screens. In other words visual representations’ beholders approach to images as if they are dealing with screens, whether screens are the effective media of images or not. The beholder, while reorganizing his (or her) visions in a way that makes evident that it is a representation, and not a real experience, is already projecting the image on a virtual screen: the beholders “screen” images, by grasping their representational sense.

2The screens are not to be confused with visual surfaces. Surfaces refer to the pure materiality of the image, whilst screens’ representations regenerate that which French theorist and philosopher Louis Marin calls transitivity. It is the capability of referring images to some reality external to the representation. In particular screens make us experience reality as a bodily matter. On screens reality appears as made up by bodies in mutual communication. The beholder experiences his (or her) very nature of a body in communication with other bodies, and of the power engendered by the constitution of that kind of relationships, among bodies. A screen provides the beholder with the possibility of imagining a public space where different bodies – the beholder’s body among them – act and meet. Screens can be then interpreted as peculiar frames of reference, whose political value goes beyond the pure reproducibility of things through images: representation results to be a political device, as things cannot be reproduced unless we are not able to confer them some power, ideally “enunciated” in the representation itself.

3In order to demonstrate my thesis, I will discuss, especially thanks to the theories and examples proposed by Louis Marin, three fundamental turns in the history of representation: the scene of the Holy Sepulchre, the royal tapestry by Le Brun, and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, which is both a film and a work of video art. In particular the Sepulchre’s scene will show a kind of primeval form of screen, where the object that constitutes the major referent can be experienced only as an ontologically absent body: it is the corpus gloriosum of Christ resurrected. Screen works here only at piercing the representation’s surface, in order to give the beholder an access to a radically transcendent reality through that hole.

  • 1 Bellour 2009.

4The second example, Le Brun’s tapestry for Louis xiv, shows how, by relating himself (or herself) to the space displayed by the modern representation of absolute monarchy, the beholder is now able to apply to the embodied referent he (or she) deals with a process of virtual montage, enabling the constitution of new form of power relationship between the body represented in action and the body contemplating the scene, which are mutually and conversely sovereign and subject. In place of a religious pathos the beholders experiences now a new kind of pathos, at the same time aesthetic and political, promoting his (or her) imaginative powers, and empowering him (or her) as an agent in the public sphere. The body of the image is then no more absent from the screen, like in the Sepulchre’s scene, but only partially visible. Its visibility can be however compensated by the virtual montage of further sequences narrating the drama in action on the tapestry. Modern representation can be also considered as a form of proto-cinema then. As Raymond Bellour states, the specificity of cinema is given by the fact it constitutes a body in itself1, whilst in tapestry, as well as in painting and in other forms of visual art, the space between the real body of the beholder and the virtual body of the scene represented is not physical, but purely virtual. Screens, montage, film are all material objects and techniques that cooperate to the realization of the imaginative scene the beholder creates in his (or her) mind. The sequence in the movie has to be related to the virtual sequence in the beholder’s mind.

  • 2 Casetti 2008.
  • 3 Bolter and Grusin 1999; Grusin 2010.

5Finally I will argue that the contemporary experience of screens opens the path to new, unexpected developments. Screens are now not merely means of representing reality: they are ways of interacting with it and each other. We are no more passive beholders, but active prosumers of images, according to the new media’s jargon. Another important feature of the new digital screens is that they ask the active and multisensory involvement not only of eyes and sight, but also of our entire body and senses. They are touch screens, relocated in various spaces and times of our lives2. It means that representations do not differ in principle from direct experience of reality, but are rather interconnected with at different levels and degrees. Our sense of reality is now at least partly dependent from the representational devices offered by digital screens3. The risk our contemporary digital culture might run is that, thanks to the huge power the beholder – or I should say: the user – now has of shaping and redesigning his (or her) own experience could become elusive. What I want to argue is that the entire body of the beholder is now engaged at a multisensory level in the operation of constituting the frame of reference of vision – that is the grammar of visual performances, as well as the codified rules of vision as a barely perceptual activity, displayed by a representational device, like painting or cinema, in order to refer to reality, only virtually too, since the reference as such grants the access to some (virtual or “real”) reality. Therefore visual representations cannot be questioned (positively or negatively) as bare copies of reality, as their referentiality, not an image as such, stand for reality through vision. Images resulting from this process could also be not the referents of real bodies beyond or within images, but the mere negative of our bodies in motion. Bodies, even our bodies, could become elusive to our own eyes. A possible function of art in the digital era, as epitomized by Lech Majewski’s work, could be then that giving screens the capability of promoting and proposing a deep experience of reality.

Embodied images

  • 4 Mitchell 2005.
  • 5 Marin 1993 and 1994.

6What role screens play in our lives in the digital era? Can we say that screens have some agency they exploit and display in the real world, in analogy to what W.J.T. Mitchell says about pictures, that they have desires like living beings4? In the present paper I will try to show that, pace Mitchell, the distinction a media or image theory needs is not that between images (mental representations), on one side, and pictures (real representations), on the other. As far as an aesthetic, an art or a media theory is concerned, such a distinction between images and pictures is partially artful: would really pictures ever exist, unless some image – no matter whether artistic or non-artistic – is implied? Conversely: could we really speak of images without referring to actual pictures? Have ever existed, for instance, somewhere – in the painter’s mind presumably – a perfect and complete representation of St. Matthew’s conversion before Caravaggio completed that painting? As Louis Marin highlights, especially in his latest works5, investigating the relationships existing among the specific “visual grammar” connecting some representational forms, images as such and vision is probably the best strategy to understand the powers exerted by images.

7The French art theorist is interested in the referential power of images, in the fact they can be seen and used as (visual) representation of some reality, no matter if present or past, if real or mythological (or even virtual and self-produced by art), as I said before. In order to be such representations – that is re-presentations of some actually absent reality – images display the specific quality of presenting itself while representing an object. This structure of the visual representation points out to its oscillating between the transparency of the re-presentation (the referential power of images) and the opacity of the self-presentation (the reflective quality of images). Unless those two poles cooperate, visual representations would not be possible, according to Marin, since they would not make sense as a kind of language for eyes, so to say. In Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas, for instance, Marin remarks that the beholder does not see anything but three objects: a glass vase with a flower, a skull and a hourglass. There is nothing else: the black, plain background stresses on this absence of other meanings. This particular condition reinforces however the representation’s overall sense: this world’s sensible things are deemed to be vain, to become nothing. Visual representations produce meanings: we could also say that what Roman Jakobson calls “poetic function” of language, which is activated only in some occasions when we speak or write – not necessarily when we compose poems – is always implied in representations. Poetically relevant speech acts “recreate” the possibilities of language; likewise representations – all representations – recreate the possibilities of vision more or less significantly. In other words, images always express some power, both according to the history of the visual representation they refer to, and to the historical context they are created or viewed. Those two aspects produce (and always reproduce) the overall frame of reference of vision, which is then both linguistic (or para-linguistic) and experiential. Power is here but what images let the beholder do, not only to react to the their effects on him (or her), but also to regenerate his (or her) own experience through vision.

  • 6 Marin 1993: 18.

8It is noteworthy that, for the reasons above mentioned, the way images enrich our experience of the world is deeply related to the institution of a power relationship, because our experience, so deeply regenerated through the vision of images, affect in many different ways, and is often directed to that ultimate effect by images themselves, is necessarily bound to our intersubjective dimension. We have experiences, but we also share them, and make them become symbols and values for judging collectively things. Images exert then some power on their beholders – according to W.J.T. Mitchell they manifest desires and ask the beholders to correspond to them. «Aesthetic pathos», as Louis Marin calls it6, and political agency are then interdependent. Since, according to Marin, real power is not bare bodily force, and therefore real power is not to be found in bodies, but in images, power is a mise en reserve, a kind of “energetic substitution” of force by power through the means of visual signs. That fact, going beyond the art objects the French theorist analyses – which focused on the images of absolute royal power, and consider the beholder as a “subject” of the “sovereign” image – and generalizing his theses, can also mean that images are able to empower the beholders. Images, in other words, are able to show new ways to act, exert power and create relationships among human beings. We can say that the very agency of images is to promote political agency among their beholders. As far as images, rather than words, are concerned, it seems that the action of producing meaning is inseparable from that of empowering new political agents.

9Let us think to what Marin considers the archetypal figure of political power for the European modern age: Christ’s resurrected body his followers do not find in the sepulchre. Agency needs an embodied agent, as well as the exploration of the possibilities of acting. The kind of power represented by Christ’s prophetical message, according to its written (and previously verbal) documents, the Gospel, is of the highest order: it is the promise of eternity, both for the soul and the body. The Holy Sepulchre presents however a paradox: its empowering image is that of an absent body. By promising to the beholder spiritual (and bodily) eternity, the representation of the Sepulchre presents no image at all.

10The representation offered by the void sepulchre epitomizes quite well the promise of eternity expressed in the Holy Writings: an eternity concerning bodies as well as souls implies actually a radical transformation of experience as such, primarily of vision. In the framework of our actual sense perception, the resurrected body cannot be experienced. As a consequence, the beholder must construct this experience through the image of that body. It is noteworthy that the transient manifestation of Christ’s resurrected body provokes incredulity (the Apostle Thomas) or non-acknowledgment (the disciples at Emmaus). It follows that faith – power in a theological perspective, since faith, and not deeds, gives eternity in a Pauline and extensively Christian perspective – compels the religious man to become an active producer of images. The absent body of Christ in the Sepulchre revokes thus the ancient iconoclasm of the Hebrew tradition for the very fact that it tries to answer the ancient promise of eternity contained in the Bible.

11We can conclude that images are bodies able to act like living bodies. More exactly they are bodies for the very reason that we recognize them acting on us. Moreover images make us obtain an agency, for instance when they show eternity as the horizon of our earthly life, and devotion as the way to get it. In that sense images both represent an object – eternity, for instance, or sovereignty, or something else – and are bodies themselves: they re-present something, and present themselves. To do that, representations capture our vision, and involve in this process visible signs (colours, lines etc.); however, those signs are not images as such. As in the case of the resurrected body of Christ, the beholder is asked to construct the image. To construct, not to reconstruct: properly speaking, there is no archetypal non-visual model to follow in order to draw the image. Any non-visual source of images – for instance the written documents of the promises generating our need of resurrection’s images, like in the case of the Biblical narration – does not work like a model of images. The relationships (and struggles) between word and image, which engaged much of the energies of the visual scholars in the last years, are not then the main point as far as the power of images is concerned. The crucial point is that, so to say, far from being the naïve presentation of reality “as such”, images have to be experienced, as mediators between reality and us, twice: as representational machines, that is as devices displayed in order to “affirm” some message, and as screen surface, that is surface where the beholder is able to “rewrite” messages which are only partly codified, and which ask not only to be de-codified, but also to be partly rewritten.

Screening images

  • 7 Corrain and Fabbri 2002; Careri 2002. Careri criticizes this purely semiotic approach Fabbri and Co (...)

12As we saw, a barely semiotic reconstruction of the basic elements of the visual representation7 is not sufficient to give an adequate account of the way images work on our experience as beholders. Louis Marin’s image theory opens the path to the study of image as the result of different layers of meaning, co-produced by the interaction between the representational intentionality and the beholder’s agency, and inter-related one with the other, so that they forge together a living and self-transforming corpus interpretandi.

13The question is now: If image is always relatively, at least partly, ever absent, and the beholder is asked to construct it in order to give the representation a meaning, where does the beholder literally project his (or her) vision of the representation? To put it in a nutshell: Have screens always been implied in the possibility of seeing images through the representations of objects, also when screens did not materially exist yet?

14Can we really say that screens already existed – that is: beholders projected their visions of images only virtually present in the representations on some ideal screen – although they were not present as tangible technological devices, as it became later necessary after the birth of cinema? The point is exactly that: images are intrinsically virtual objects. Their virtuality guarantees the possibility of experiencing autonomously, and interpreting creatively representations; otherwise we would be deemed, as beholders, to a barely passive apprehension of visible signs. As far as images are virtual, they do need some device like screens, no matter whether material or ideal, without which the beholder would not be able to give images a shape, and visual representations a sense.

15Going back to Louis Marin’s example of the void sepulchre, the belief in the Holy Shroud bears witness to the need of finding in something tangible and material the ideal screens of those images – the resurrected bodies, and the body of the Saviour above all – which are in principle the invisible archetypes of all visible images, and empower our vision with a new agency. The Holy Shroud can be actually seen as the screen where the absent body of the resurrected Messiah projected its image, committing it to the durability of a material thing, while the real object (the resurrected body) enters eternity. Recent attempts to ground scientifically the miracle claimed that the shroud is the actual towel into which Jesus was wrapped up. Those attempts focused on the idea that a strong source of light, like that coming from Christ’s resurrected body, could impress the shroud, transforming it into a screen where the image of resurrection drew its figure, and left its trace. The Holy Shroud shows Jesus’ body still lying like that of a dead man. The power of light is, however, already in action. That sort of archetypal screen shows then the passage from earthly death to eternal life, from the visible to the invisible world.

  • 8 Marin 1994: 342-363.

16We can say that the Holy Shroud gets an archetypal value for the argument about screens, because it is the first image we remember along our tradition that fundamentally refers to an offside. By this statement I do not mean that visual representations before the Holy Shroud had no offside at all. As Marin puts it, every representation has its «cadre», or frame8, a setting of figures and rules that organize and direct the beholder’s vision. Among its tasks, that setting separates the fictional representation inside the painting from reality in a way the beholder knows where one finishes, and the other begins. In that sense the offside of the Holy Shroud is the Holy Sepulchre.

17In the case of the “proto-screen” I am analysing, the written source is, of course, fundamental: without referring to some holy text, one would never interpret the image of a shroud vaguely holding the signs of a dead man’s body lying in rest as if they were signs of the incoming resurrection of the Saviour, announced by a spread of light leaving its traces on that piece of cloth. Doubtlessly texts, written or oral, are often the referents of the representations we make or contemplate. I would not consider however those referents as the offside of images – I repeat that once again: I speak only about images whose relationship to the fact that they are actually or ideally projected on a screen is a necessary condition in order to recognize them as images. Nor the context – the environment giving the image its sense, the Holy Sepulchre in our case – neither the referent – the source explaining why the signs we see must be interpreted according to the resurrection promised in the Bible – can constitute the image’s offside. As far as images that have to be projected on a screed are concerned, only the reference of the image can be considered its offside.

18Let us see why, when screens are involved, ideally or materially, in the representation of images, these latter’s offside must be searched only in their frame of reference – and not in their context, not in their referent. Let us go back to the story narrated at the end of the Gospels – the disciples’ visit to Jesus’ sepulchre and the discovery of his body’s absence – in order to understand those statements about the nature of the reference and offside in images. I have already said that the purpose of the narration, as well as later representations, of the scene is to confirm the faith of the believers. The absence of their rabbi’s body, whose nature of Messiah is more or less firmly affirmed by his followers, could virtually bring them into a state of desperation. They had to reverse its sense, by giving it a completely different meaning through an image, that of the resurrected body, they could not see, but they had to assume as the real reference of what they actually see. If one believes, one has to project that image on the void sepulchre of Christ, like on a screen: otherwise one would lose the entire value of a belief one does not refer only to that singular events, or to his (or her) religious practices, but also to reality as such, whose filter is for the believer the supernatural meaning of life.

19The believer is of course disoriented and even traumatised by that void. He (or she) must however undergo what Louis Marin calls an «aesthetic pathos» if he (or she) wants to recreate the conditions for believing in his (or her) faith, by making it his (or her) way to have an experience. It is the well-known theme of the kenosis, broadly discussed by the theologians. What I would like to demonstrate – going beyond theological dissertations that do no constitute the core of my argument, and concentrating on what an art theorist like Louis Marin argues, by referring directly to the Evangelical scene – is that the faith of the believer, like probably any other sense of reality governing and directing experience, cannot be finally subsumed under its referents, but rather displays their frame of reference. To do that, however, as far as representation and not direct experience of reality is concerned, we must create a frame of reference that might also modify representation itself according to the transformations occurring in our sense of reality along as we experience something – the void of the Holy Sepulchre, for instance – asking for new patterns of comprehension.

20The scene represents the threshold from the visible world of mortality to the invisible world of eternity: its context is Jesus’ sepulchre. The drama being that of entering eternity, it is a context to be overcome. No representation could be then adequate to that image. In principle the image of the passing towards eternity is not even visible – and then available for representation. If the scene’s referent is eternity, or the transit towards it, this cannot be the pivot around which it is possible to organize and govern the forces and forms of representation. This is true also in the case we do not assume the naïve relationship between referent and representation taken as “real object” and “bare imitation” of it. In the case of the modern religious or mythological paintings – where Poussin was a master, according to Louis Marin – the point was not plain imitation. The referent had to be represented per analogiam, by seeking how it could be possible to translate into a vision what had been transmitted through written documents. However, even in this revisited version, the idea that representation is oriented by its referent is not adequate to the image of resurrection. As long as the beholder considers the scene under that frame, he (or she) cannot avoid a sense of desperation: is the sepulchre void because Christ is resurrected? Or was his body stolen away? Or worse, was the whole affair a trick organized by his closest disciples? Reconstructing what happened in the sepulchre hypothetically brings us nowhere. Interpreting the representation of the Holy Sepulchre in that way helps only in amplifying the «aesthetic pathos» which will bring to reconfirm more strongly the faith of the beholder.

21The point is that a real pathos spreads from the vision of the sepulchre, together with the regeneration of the faith for the believer, for the very fact that the beholder has to change his (or her) frame of reference if he (or she) wants to understand the scene. The entire representation becomes then a screen where eternity projects its light, enlightening the beholder’s vision (and heart). The void sepulchre cannot be then interpreted merely as the exemplary evocation e contrario of eternal life. It is the actual screen where eternity projects its light: the signs on the shroud bears witness of what happened there. The light that impressed the cloth could come from nowhere else than the body itself. That body was then resurrecting: we can say that it was literally pierced – as if Christ’s sacrifice was to be reversed in an image of glorification – by the eternal light that entered into our reality. Since that moment our whole natural, sensible and material world becomes, thanks to what happened in that dark cave – where no natural light could enter, and which was visited by a supernatural light – the virtual screen of a new agency governing the world and the lives of human being: the divine providence, whose promises have been maintained. The point that interests me above all is that a new reference of the representation has been established in the Holy Sepulchre, if we follow Louis Marin’s argument. Its frame is not the canvas’ surface, although for centuries this latter will continue to be its material device, but the screen. The Holy Shroud is the proto-screen of the Western culture, and the Holy Sepulchre is its theatre.

Sovereign Screens

  • 9 Marin 1993: 13.

22In the essay where he presents his analysis of the Holy Sepulchre, Louis Marin puts this image in relationship to the representations of power and monarchy in the Western Modernity, especially in France under Louis xiv’s absolutism. In his previous book Le Portrait du roi Marin has already argued that power, unlike force, does not rest on the presence of a body actually in action. An acting body discharges its force, or energy, in the course of action, and tends to eliminate, or to be eliminated, by another body, seen as an obstacle to its action, during the activity of discharging its energy. As we see, the French theorist holds a mechanic point of view. Since bodies are machines endowed with some energy or force, if we want to safeguard the form of life those bodies represent – for instance human social life – we must imagine some reserve of force. That reserve is power: power is the reserve of force in signs9. Images provide thus politics with what agent bodies could not: the relationship of a sovereign to his (or her) subject. Power is that relationship, whilst force, according to the physics of politics sketched by the image theorist, engenders no relationship, since bodies acting by force can only destroy or be destroyed. We can say that visual representations are processes of subjectification.

23The most significant shift Marin makes from Le Portrait du roi to the later introductive essay to Des pouvoirs de l’image – the last being published posthumously in 1993, Marin died a year before, whilst the latter had been published in 1981 – can be found in the centrality the French theorist recognizes to Christ, and above all to his absence in the sepulchre, as the archetypal figure of sovereignty for the Modern Age. I do not point out to that particular because I want to stress on the Christological nature of modern sovereignty: I do not recognize any specific genealogical line in a Foucaultian sense. The most important aspect is in my opinion that the modern absolute sovereignty acquired, and at the same time weakened, the idea of power expressed – but I could also say: projected – on the screen of the Holy Shroud, in the theatre of the Holy Sepulchre. The difference that persists between the scene of the Holy Sepulchre and that of the monarchic absolute power can be recognized if we pay attention to one of the many ways recalled by Marin the absolute monarch has for displaying his (or her) power through images.

  • 10 Marin 1994: 313-328.

24In his essay Figures de la réception10 Louis Marin analyses the case of a tapestry. That tapestry is part of a series celebrating Louis xiv’s reign and particularly his marriage with the Spanish Infanta. The tapestry, realized by Le Brun, represents Louis xiv who meets the king of Spain, Philip iv, his future father-in-law. The two kings are at the centre of the scene, surrounded by the respective courtiers. The two kings show off their indifference towards the beholder. Describing that tapestry, Marin focuses on two «reception figures» on the left side of it. He calls them «reception figures» because they direct the beholder’s vision, considering that the principal figures, the kings, refuse to look outside the image. The refusal of the sight displayed by the kings creates a situation similar to that of Christ if we compare it to the Holy Sepulchre: the image that could provoke our pathos, activating an experience at the same time aesthetic and political (or ethical, religious etc.), is not available for the beholders, who were presumably also the subjects of al least one of the two kings. To fill that void, the two «reception figures» above mentioned make available an analogue experience. Following their directives, the beholders can enter virtually the scene, and become active participants of the event. Those two figures are Monsieur, Louis xiv’s brother, and an unknown gentleman. We do not the gentleman’s face, as he looks at the two kings meeting. However, unlike them, he dictates us a precise way of directing our sight: we are asked to look at the scene with devotion, like faithful subjects. Also the gesture of Monsieur’s hand, pointing out to his brother and the king of Spain, claims attention and devotion. However he corresponds the beholder’s sight, by looking directly in front of him, outside the image: we could consider his sight as a looking into the camera, if the representation were a cinema screen. Monsieur compensates our need for an image of power his brother, the king, is not able to satisfy, as he is physically – being a “political body” – engaged in expressing his force to another monarch.

25Both directives – that of the unknown gentleman, as well as that of Monsieur – are necessary to give shape to the beholder’s vision and to the space where the image viewed becomes manifest. The first directive, dictated by the gentleman, teaches the beholder how to look at the scene; the second, suggested by Monsieur, is also necessary because it creates the mutual relationship between the subject and the monarch. That is the decisive point: power is a matter of relationship, and implies consequently a mutual and convergent movement. While enforcing the idea of absolute power, the image above described suggests that there is no fundamentum inconcussum of power, and in short absolute power is intrinsically aporetic. The aporia could be solved only if we do not consider that image of power as a representation in the traditional sense of mimesis, but as a screen that refers to an offside of the image. In the case of the Holy Shroud the offside is purely ideal: it is the light of eternal life. In the case of Le Brun’s tapestry it is the sight of the king the beholder can virtually provoke, by imagining if and how he (or she) would be able to capture the king’s attention, and make him turn his face. In other words the beholder is able to re-narrate the scene he (or she) looks at, by mastering its offside as a frame available for a new different montage.

  • 11 Kant 1790.

26Let us think to a scene at the beginning of the film The Madness of King George (1994) by Nicholas Hither. The English king’s new gentleman-in-waiting suddenly opens the door of the room where his master is dressing regalia before attending the opening session of the Parliament. The king astonished turns his head towards the unexpected visitor, capturing his uncomfortable sight, as the camera makes a reverse shot. Now the offside is no more a purely ideal claim of an image that is not only virtually, but actually projected on a screen. The passage from the proto-screen of the Holy Sepulchre to the actual screen of Hither’s film – and of cinema generally speaking – through the intermediate scene of the royal representation in the Modern Age lets the referential power of the offside become manifest, not only thanks to the material invention of montage, but also and above all because offside becomes now a creative reference process at the service of imagination. The referential quality of offside is indeed no more dependent from a transcendent force (divine light) or from a rational ideal of power (absolute monarchy). Images (eidola) definitively won their battle against super-sensible ideas (eide), not because images lose any reference going beyond their bare visible surface, but because ideas have now to be meant as forms produced by imagination along its reconnaissance of the world, rather than produced by reason alone. They are aesthetic rather than rational ideas11.

  • 12 Bredekamp 2009.
  • 13 Casetti 2005; Montani 2007.

27In other words cinema, like every art or technique depending from the use of screen devices, develops the hidden heritage of the offside received by art history. I do not argue that montage was technically, though implicitly, already present in the visual representations of art. I would rather argue that its imaginative conditions – namely offside as frame of reference refiguring the representation as a screen – already constituted a premise of the artistic work, cinema and the others were able to render materially12. An important consequence of that historical passage is that now the power relationship at work in the image is not be considered as the relationship between a monarch and a subject, and as a form of subjectification, but as an exchange of sights among equal subjects, who, by the force of montage, are able to create new public space, becoming each other a screen where everybody can project and negotiates his (or her) claims13. In the following and last paragraph of the present paper we shall see how cinema and video art developed materially the new state of things, and formulate a hypothesis about the future.

Screens as public spaces

28To summarize what said above, we can recognize now that the history of Western visual representation – at least since the scene of Christ’s resurrection, and if we consider the modern representation of sovereignty as a pivotal turn in that history, focusing less on the theological background of the European monarchy, and more on its most relevant visual innovations – as a history of screens. How representations, considered as screens where it is possible to project images of power, developed since their origin, and especially during that fundamental turn? Did their functions change? First of all: has the role of body as referent of the image been modified by those turns? As it appeared qui clearly in the two examples analysed above, the ways bodies enter – visibly, invisibly or only partially visibly – into screens as images is dependent from the degree we are able to refer ourselves to the screens’ offside, and manipulate it, in order to make it work as the frame of reference of the representation.

29In the case of the Holy Sepulchre’s scene, the body (Christ resurrected) is absent, and the offside indicates only that the body is absent because it is somewhere else. That “somewhere else” is the absolutely else: Heaven, Paradise, the place of eternal life. In the case of Le Brun’s tapestry the import of the offside is much more significant. First of all that offside is present inside the representation: it is Louis xiv’s face the beholder cannot see, but is invited to imagine. The kind of work the beholder is asked to do with the images is much more relevant for the relationship between images’ offside and representations’ frame of reference. The body of the image (the king) is now present. What lacks to the beholder’s experience is however what constitutes the centre of that body: power. By forbidding the beholder the vision of the king’s sight, the artist veils the king’s power to his subjects (and beholders). Those are however able to reconstruct, by the means of an imaginative montage, the sequence of the king turning his face towards them. Were the representation a film rather than a tapestry, the sequence would correspond, in terms of meaning, to the full manifestation of the king’s power. As long as the king directs his face to the other king, he is only, strictly speaking, the “energetic body” moving its force towards the obstacle of another energetic body (the other king). To give that sort of political physics full sense as aesthetics of power, the beholder has to imagine the king gazing outside the representation, as if he were looking at his subjects. The consequences are however fundamental: now power is no more considered as the transcendence of the divinity. Power depends on the imaginative powers of the beholders, and to their “cinematic” processes. Radicalizing Louis Marin’s hypothesis, I argue that the beholder makes the subject at the centre of the representation “the king”, and not the contrary – the king who, by the means of his denied gaze makes the beholder “a subject”. It is however only cinema – in other words a form of representing things through images materially dependent form montage – that could display that “democratic” and plural character of the screen space.

  • 14 Vertov 1985; Ejzenštejn 1986. I mention the Italian edition of the Selected Writings by Ejzenštejn (...)
  • 15 Montani 2011.

30By that perspective cinema traditionally construed is to be interpreted more as a transitory passage from the purely virtual screen device implemented by the modern forms of representation to the new interactive and touch screens provided by the digital technology. Filmic experience – since it is an experience fundamentally bound not only to material screens, but also and above all to “screening” processes governed by the imagination – was meant since its origin to be relocated into a plurality of screens of different formats and applications. Screens do not invite the beholder to a passive contemplation, whose only possible effects in terms of regenerating his (or her) experience of the world go in the direction of the exemplarity of the images exhibited, as well as of the stories narrated. Or rather we should turn to the Russian avant-garde line to find different examples of cinema: Dziga Vertov and Sergej Ejzenštejn, at least the Ejzenštejn who realized Strike in 192414. Those film-makers considered cinema as a medium capable of reorganizing the political engagement of the masses, and even rethinking the actual forms of life through a work of “cinematization” that should have led to a massive employment of this technical device for documenting reality, as well as for creating a network of communication among human beings15. That line did not represent the mainstream of the political engagement through cinema, which, also in some films directed by Ejzenštejn, has always tended to prefer exemplarity on some form of education to the new technologies and on some promotion of the relationship of the subject to the experiences he (or she) has.

31Going back to Louis Marin’s mechanic image of power as a way of producing energy through the encounter between two bodies in a space, interactive and touch screens tend to reorganize this space in a way that exalts the import of the directly active and even bodily intervention of the beholder in the production of the general image displayed by a screen. Two lines of development can be indicated according to the sort of abstract of the history of screens I tried to sketch above. One goes towards the direction of depressing the effective capability of intervention of the subject into the world through the means offered by the new media, or better to its prospective “ludification”. In those cases the beholder is asked to interact with the technical device in order to modify the image, as he (or she) wants. However, modifications are practically entirely foreseen by the device’s programme. The kind of projection of our desires, reflections and claims on the image – making the screen our ethical or political frame of reference, by putting in communication our bodies with the body represented – could actually lead to nothing but the mere self-experience of our own body, redesigned by the very movements we actually make as we interact with the device: the image we see is only our dynamic negative superposed on the screen, but with no relationship to it.

32A more creative use of the technical devices connected with interactivity seems still to be developed, at least in strictly artistic terms. Among the many use cinema and video art do of the new digital technologies an interesting example is given by Lech Majewski’s last work, The Mill and the Cross (2011). The work is about the reconstruction of Brueghel’s Way to the Calvary. Following the essayist Michael Francis Gibson’ hypothesis, Majewski believes that Brueghel actually wanted to represent the slaughter and persecution of the Calvinist Dutch people by the troops of the Spanish king Philip II. The film-maker’s aim is to show that the Way to the Calvary is a disguised actualization of the religious and artistic theme of Christ’s sacrifice in order to make it communicate a new ethical message: mutual respect among different faiths and religious tolerance by the political authorities. In its widest meaning The Mill and the Cross seems to be an artistic defence of an Erasmian approach in our age of global struggle.

33On a strictly artistic level Majewski realizes his idea by imagining that the painting could assume the function of background of the story narrated in the film. He uses and reshapes, thanks to the digital technologies, parts of the painting in order to do that. Thus reconfigured, the Way to the Calvary becomes at the same time the environment where the protagonist, the Flemish painter Brueghel the Elder, lives and experiences the atrocities of the religious persecutions, and the way the artist is able to interpret, re-elaborates and finally represents the religious scene by making it the hidden testimony of his time’s evil. Eric Rohmer did something similar in one of his latest films, The Lady and the Duke (2001), whose backgrounds resulted from the digitalization of some original watercolours mirroring 18th-century Paris. Rohmer however did not introduce any form of interaction between the drama and the background. Majewski works exactly on that point, and makes us feel the presence and function of the screen as a medium between our vision and the representation – a medium able to redefine the horizon of our experience.

  • 16 For a philosophical account of this theory of the imagination, and the imaginative processes in rel (...)

34The beholder constitutes actually the third pole of Majewski’s artistic device, since the film-maker foresees the actualization of the film’s message. Indeed the beholder must enter into the density of the image produced by Majewski in order to distinguish between the painter’s world and imitation of the world, since the referent and source for both is the painting painted by Brueghel. The beholder recognizes then the difference between those two levels, because he (or she) distinguishes between the artistic representation projecting its meaning on the world, and the world literally transmitting information on the painter’s imagination, which develops and reorganizes its image of the world according to the stimuli coming from it16. By realizing such a distinction, the beholder puts the protagonist of the film in his right place, and at the same time gives himself (or herself) the possibility of actualizing his (or her) cultural tradition, art history and history tout court in a new perspective. It is noteworthy that the film ends with an imaginary visit in the museum that hosts the majority of Brueghel’s works.

35What is most interesting, however, is that Majewski realized also a video installation, by using some of the images taken from the films, in particular those from the sequence where Brueghel describes to a friend the imaginative process that led him to realize the Way of the Calvary, as if he were a film-maker who organizes a film’s set before he begins to shoot. Now, thanks to the kind of medial network with the film the video installation creates, the beholder is able to fully conceive the image he (or she) watches as a screen putting him (or her) into the reality of representation. That is: where reality and representation meets, and realizes an exchange – a piece of reality enters into the representation, in order to let that be verisimilar; and the representation becomes an instrument available for interpreting reality –, there is a point of indistinguishability between reality and representation. Experience begins there. The video installation does not allow such an operation, but in principle it is possible to imagine that the beholder reshapes the image elaborated by Majewski, in order not to project his (or her) subjectivity in a self-referential way, but in order to experience how far the image is able to scan reality.

  • 17 Bolter and Grusin 1999; Jenkins 2006; Montani 2010.

36A possible alternative for the artistic practices involved in the realization of digital interactive screens is that of promoting new forms of networking among different media17. In an age where everyday experience is more and more the result of a mediation between online and offline status of our life, we often confuse reality and its representation. Screens could become instruments for acquiring new skills and abilities in making sense of that state of things.

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Bellour, R.
– 2009, Le corps du cinema. Hypnoses, émotions, animalités, Paris, Pol

Bolter, D.J. and Grusin, R.
– 1999, Remediation. Understanding New Media, Cambridge (Mass.), Mit Press

Bredekamp, H.
– 2009, Una tradizione trascurata? La storia dell’arte come Bildwissenschaft, in A. Pinotti, A. Somaini (eds.), Teorie dell’immagine. Il dibattito contemporaneo, Milano, Cortina: 137-154

Careri, G.
– 2001, Postfazione, in L. Marin, Della rappresentazione, L. Corrain (ed.), Roma, Meltemi: 246-256

Casetti, F.
– 2005, L’occhio del novecento. Cinema, esperienza, modernità, Milano, Bompiani
– 2008, L’esperienza filmica e la ri-locazione del cinema, “Fata Morgana”, 4: 23-40

Corrain, L. and Fabbri, P.
– 2001, Introduzione, in L. Marin, Della rappresentazione, L. Corrain (ed.), Roma, Meltemi: 7-29

Ejzenštejn, S.M.
– 1986, Il montaggio delle attrazioni, in Il montaggio, P. Montani (ed.), Venezia, Marsilio: 219-226

Grusin, R.
– 2010, Premediation. Affect and Mediality after 9/11, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan

Jenkins, H.
– 2006, Convergence Culture. Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press

Kant, I.
– 1790, Kritik der Urteilskraft, K. Vorländer (ed.), Hamburg, Meiner, 1963

Marin, L.
–1993, Figures de la réception dans la représentation moderne de peinture, in De La Représentation, Paris, Gallimard-Seuil: 313-328
– 1993a, Le Cadre de la représentation et quelques-unes des ses figures, in De la représentation, Paris, Gallimard-Seuil: 342-363
– 1994, L’être de l’image et son efficace, in Des Pouvoirs de l’image. Gloses, Paris, Seuil: 9-22

Mitchell, W.J.T.
– 2005, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago-London, Chicago University Press

Montani, P.
– 2007, Bioestetica. Senso comune, tecnica e arte nell’età della globalizzazione, Roma, Carocci
– 2010, L’immaginazione intermediale. Perlustrare, rifigurare, testimoniare il mondo visibile, Roma-Bari, Laterza
– 2011, Introduzione, in D. Vertov, L’occhio della rivoluzione. Scritti dal 1922 al 1942, P. Montani (ed.), Milano, Mimesis: 9-24

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1 Bellour 2009.

2 Casetti 2008.

3 Bolter and Grusin 1999; Grusin 2010.

4 Mitchell 2005.

5 Marin 1993 and 1994.

6 Marin 1993: 18.

7 Corrain and Fabbri 2002; Careri 2002. Careri criticizes this purely semiotic approach Fabbri and Corrain actually defend.

8 Marin 1994: 342-363.

9 Marin 1993: 13.

10 Marin 1994: 313-328.

11 Kant 1790.

12 Bredekamp 2009.

13 Casetti 2005; Montani 2007.

14 Vertov 1985; Ejzenštejn 1986. I mention the Italian edition of the Selected Writings by Ejzenštejn because, among the many translations available into different languages of the film-maker’s theoretical, critical and aesthetic essays, that one, edited by Pietro Montani, constitutes perhaps the most reliable.

15 Montani 2011.

16 For a philosophical account of this theory of the imagination, and the imaginative processes in relationship to perception, see Garroni 2005.

17 Bolter and Grusin 1999; Jenkins 2006; Montani 2010.

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Dario Cecchi, «The Elusive Body: Abstract for a History of Screens»Rivista di estetica, 55 | 2014, 35-51.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Dario Cecchi, «The Elusive Body: Abstract for a History of Screens»Rivista di estetica [Online], 55 | 2014, online dal 01 mars 2014, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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