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The Pentagon Of Screens. A Taxonomy Inspired By The Actor-Network Theory

Laurent Jullier
p. 123-138


Il presente articolo si propone di costruire una tassonomia degli schermi, ispirata alla teoria actor-network elaborata da Michel Callon e Bruno Latour. L’analisi si declinerà in cinque tappe corrispondenti a cinque diversi campi: a partire da un modello epistemologico (1) gli schermi saranno compresi come lenti; importando un modello proprio al campo della narrativa (2) gli schermi saranno visti in quanto porte; secondo un paradigma derivante dalla storia dell’arte (3) gli schermi saranno considerati a partire dal sistema espositivo del quadro; in riferimento al campo della lettura (4) gli schermi saranno compresi come tablets; infine, a partire dall’ambito del divertimento (5) gli schermi saranno considerati come giochi. Sarà inoltre possibile combinare due, tre o quattro, ma anche cinque di queste categorie, derivanti dalla “situazione” nel senso che attribuisce a questo termine Erving Goffman, ovvero come l’incontro di un dispositivo tecnico, di un tipo di immagine e di un tipo di sguardo.

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1Today, mobile phones can be used to share with friends an old silent movie. People can rent a theatre just to watch their home videos. And it happens to assume the gaze we usually address to art films when looking at security cameras displays, like those we find in banks. In such a scenario, is it reasonable to build a general taxonomy of screens? Is it reasonable to draw categories when the agency of the engineers conceiving technical objects, as well as that of social actors, of pictures designers and of audiences seems to be boundless? Probably not. But we shall try nonetheless: we shall build a taxonomy of screens, partly lead by Michel Callon’s and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, and structured on the classical analogy “A (which I don’t know how to describe) works as B (which is well-known)”.

2Five fields will be considered. Importing a model from the field of epistemology (1) screens will be seen as lenses; importing a model from the field of fictional narratives (2) screens will be seen as doors; importing a model from the field of art (3) screens will be seen as picture-hanging systems; importing a model from the field of reading (4) screens will be seen as tablets; importing a model from the field of leisure (5) screens will be seen as toys.

1. Screens as lenses

  • 1 Alpers 1983: 45, 69. Adjectives derive from Johannes Kepler and Leon Battista Alberti.

3Our first two categories have become common through the work of art historians, since they have been used to describe ways of painting. Among others, Svetlana Alpers insisted on their opposition. I borrowed her opposition between Seventeenth century Northern painting as a mirror (or a lens) and Renaissance Italian painting as a window (which we shall rather consider as a door). The former «takes the place of the eye» while the latter opens «a framed window to which we bring our eye» – or to put it in another way, Keplerian pictures give us «the world that is seen», while Albertian pictures give us «the world we see»1. Such a conceptual opposition is close to a duality that is crucial to the cognitive psychology of perception, namely the exocentric/allocentric dialectic. When moving in an environment, human beings combine an exocentric perception (based on the relationship between the objects themselves) and an allocentric perception (based on the relationship between the perceiving subject and the objects). In the former, I cognitively stand in front of the environment, monitoring and analysing it from an “objective” point of view, while in the latter I cognitively stand inside the environment, evaluating my own closeness to things. Indeed, many video-games mimic this very duality, allowing the player to move from a third-person point of view (here: an allocentric point of view, which can be seen in Keplerian paintings) to a first-person point of view (here: egocentric view, which can be seen in Vasarian paintings).

  • 2 Alpers 1977: 5.
  • 3 Dutch geographer W.J. Blaeu in 1663, quoted in Alpers 1983: 27.
  • 4 Bazin 2005: 97.

4Thus, the prototype of our first category is Northern art, which «moved from the eye of God to the optical lens like a reflecting eye»2. This means that in paintings by Vermeer and others, «the image spread out on the pictorial surface appears to be an unbounded fragment of a world that continues beyond the canvas. [The] viewer, neither located nor characterized, perceives all with an attentive eye but leaving no trace of his presence»3. This description would be suitable for a vue Lumière too, with its Nineteenth century bystanders coming and going in and off the screen. And the screen as a mirror matches with the theoretical apparatus of the French critic André Bazin, for whom cinema «relays the presence of the person reflected in it – but it is a mirror with a delayed reflection, the tin foil of which retains the image»4.

  • 5 Alpers 1983: 32-33.
  • 6 Ibidem: 159.
  • 7 Alpers does not mention cinema, but she states «photography is properly seen as being part of the d (...)

5«Historians of science tell us that though the lens was long known, it had been considered distorting and deceptive. It was not until the Seventeeth century that it was trusted» – when the «age of observation» arises, «the skies are scanned, land surveyed, flora, fauna, the human body and its fluids are all observed and described»5. The comparison continues, since the Lumière brothers used to send operators all over the world to bring back descriptions of far countries. The Lumières did what Dutch painters and geographers did themselves: their self-titled vues functioned like maps that «enable us to contemplate at home and right before our eyes things that are farthest away»6. Jean-Luc Godard is then right when he declares by the mouth of Jean-Pierre Léaud, in La Chinoise (1967), that the Lumière brothers are “the last Impressionists”. In fact, the Impressionists themselves share with the Seventeenth century Dutch painters an artistic preference for «the world that is seen»7. At the same time, originating from the same wave of thinking and engineering, scientific cinematography developed. In 1904, Lucien Bull could show a soap bubble bursting in slow motion, shot at 1,200 frames per second. And nowadays, the eye of God and the mapping mode of picturing of the Dutch Seventeeth century art is daily exemplified by Cctv (Closed-Circuit TeleVision) cameras, or by video-games designed for a top-down view (Civilization, Legend of Zelda, Grand Thieft Auto, etc.).

  • 8 Ibidem: 78, 93.

6In the Dutch tradition, there is «a desire to preserve the identity of each person and each thing in the world», probably since its upholders believed that «God creates by imprinting himself (as the imprinting of a coin or a seal) in things rather than by writing texts»8. In the field of cinema, it is impossible to read these lines without thinking of André Bazin’s writing on Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle’s Silent World (1956):

  • 9 Bazin 1985: 35.

Il y a un aspect dérisoire dans la critique du Monde du silence. Car enfin les beautés du film sont d’abord celles de la nature et autant donc vaudrait critiquer Dieu9.

  • 10 Daston and Galison 2007: 81.

7In short, if you complain about the underwater sequences of this movie, it means you’re complaining about God, accusing him of making ugly fishes. Any point of mediation or subjectivity has vanished in Bazin’s conception, and the gaze on the fishes pictured on the screen, when The Silent World is cast, is nobody’s gaze in particular – like the view on the city of Delft pictured on Vermeer’s View of Delft is nobody’s gaze in particular. It is no surprise, under such conditions, to see that one of the strongest defenders of the usefulness of “objective” images was French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), namely the builder of the chronophotographic gun (1882), which can be considered as one the “ancestors” of cinema. «Wary of human interventions between nature and representation, Marey and his contemporaries turned to mechanically produced images to eliminate suspect mediation. […] “Let nature speak for itself” became the watchword of a new brand of scientific objectivity that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century»10.

  • 11 Alpers 1983: 91.
  • 12 Remembering the Catholic traditional look at the Holy Shroud of Turin as a “true print” (see Bazin (...)
  • 13 The Art of Describing, pp. 103, 223.

8Dutch paintings, chronophotographies and film sequences made according to the Bazinian point of view, are a «feast for the attentive eye»11 In this sense, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) can be seen as a canonical cinematic example since it mainly consists in wide shots whose complexity require several looks. Not to mention X-Ray pictures or Mri scans waiting for the radiologist’s «attentive eye». At this point, science goes side by side with religion: in fact, the attentive eye of the scientist sees more of the “real world” than it could without his microscope or telescope, just as Bazinian aesthetes (like Roland Barthes, Jacques Rivette, Roberto Rossellini and many others) see more of the “real world” through the eye of the camera than they would with their own eyes only12. But there are other kind of links than those of religion: interestingly, Svetlana Alpers suggests there is a gender aspect in the Keplerian/Albertian duality, thus suggesting that «the Italian sense of the inferior nature of an observational art like that of the Dutch» could originate – into the tradition of masculine domination – from the attribution of «habits of attention» into womanhood (and childhood), making them attuned to «a flood of details»13. Without being too essentialist or excessively generalising, we might say that slight echoes of this idea shall be found in the style of some female filmmakers like Jane Campion or Pascale Ferran, who use close-up insert shots to make the audience experience the texture and the materiality of the surfaces, i.e. crediting description (and not narration) by making us capable of comprehending the world, to put it in Alpers’ terms.

  • 14 Daston and Galison 2007: 81.

9When screens work like lenses, images can be seen as improved sight of the world, whatever their modes of capturing may be. The removing of subjectivity is not inevitably bound to a print-like process. As Datson and Galison show in their book14, scientific objectivity can be achieved by noninterventionist mechanisms as well as by artistic drawings or computer programs. It is not bound to sight either: even sound can work in the same Keplerian or Bazinian way, in science just like in the movies. Moreover, scientific objectivity is not bound to the pictures themselves either, considering that in the foreword to his novel Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (published in 1847, after the 1839 presentation of Niépce and Daguerre’s pioneer photographic process called daguerreotype), the French author Honoré de Balzac declared his will to “daguerreotype society”. Also, in Le Rouge et le Noir, the French author Stendhal wrote, nine years before this presentation, that:

  • 15 Epigraph of chapter XIII.

Un roman: c’est un miroir promené le long d’un chemin15.

  • 16 Alpers 1983: xxv.

10This is a similar kind of artistic sensibility to that of the Dutch artists, i.e. «a formidable sense of the picture as a surface (like a mirror or a map, but not a window»)16. Indeed, even in the case of Stendhal, a mental image initiated by words stands for the picture.

11Classical Hollywood cinema, just like today’s mainstream movies and TV-series, are reluctant to embrace the idea of the screen as a lens. In fact, they trust narration far more than description. Regarding the average visual “grammar”, description only briefly surfaces upon establishing shots, which function as topographical pauses between scenes (The View of Delft “is” a typical establishing shot). Furthermore, several movies praise theVasarian images for revealing the «tricks of the picture». To mention sci-fi movies only, Back to the Future Part II (Robert Zemeckis, 1989) tells us how poor people, in the future, will replace the windows of their homes by screens displaying beautiful landscapes instead of the gutter they actually live in. In its turn, Resident Evil (Paul W. S. Anderson, 2002), shows employees voluntarily believing they live downtown Manhattan on the basis of what they see through their windows, which are actually screens («It’s easier to work underground when you think there’s a view», cynically says the manager). In both of these cases, far from increasing knowledge, pictures only bring illusion.

12The American Law itself keeps up «to consider the lens distorting and deceptive». Just think of the mandatory mention on rear-view mirrors:

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

13Indeed,what we hear here is the voice of a non-Keplerian way of life, since not only it distrusts the lens, but more importantly it does no justice to the proper use of lenses. There are no objects in the mirror; only light. Thus, the quoted sentence is pretty incorrect from a scientific point of view. To set things right, it should be formulated as follows:

Objects [whose reflections appears] in the mirror are closer than [you think they are on the evidence of how] they appear.

  • 17 Exhibited during Ars Electronica 2006, it displays a flexible screen that spectators can touch in o (...)
  • 18 Not to be confused with the tours de force of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or Alexander Sokurov’s (...)
  • 19 Anna: 6-18, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov in 1993, adds a Bazinian touch, since it shows the daughte (...)
  • 20 I transfer an analysis of a painting by Gabriel Metsu in Alpers 1983: 186.

14Yet, rear-view mirrors, as well as windshields, could be understood in a more Keplerian way. In fact, drivers are trained to attentively look at “screens as lenses” in order to improve their knowledge of the real world in front of them. With this in mind, windshields do not function as windows, but as framed screens that cut off rectangles of reality calling for an attentive eye (more attentive, in any case, than the glance casted through a window). In other words, they function as lenses. And maybe modern offices function in the same way, even if we don’t live in the Resident Evil universe. Indeed, the simple fact that it is forbidden (and anyway impossible), for people working in a skyscraper, to open windows, prevents windows from functioning as windows, i.e. to extinguish their mediation function as soon as somebody decides to open them. Actually, they better work as screens, leading the employees to wonder whether it is «the real world on the other side of the glass or a projection on it». Going back to the visual arts field, one will find many more Keplerian representations in three other fields at least: (1) that of pornographic works, where actors and actresses are contractually performing «for real» in front of the camera; (2) that of some contemporary art installations –see for instance the ultra-Bazinian Khronos Projector by Alvaro Cassinelli17; (3) and that of some “neoprimitivist” branches of Modern Cinema, no doubt since art houses display “screens as lenses” more frequently than multiplex movie theatres. With their four-minutes wide shots, some movies of Chantal Akerman, Straub & Huillet, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov or Sergei Loznitsa18 openly pay a toll to the Keplerian conception of pictures19, frequently displaying scenes where «the relationship of the [represented human beings] is unstated as is our relationship to the work»20, as it is in many vues Lumière too. Besides, many of the above-mentioned film directors are known to have created art installations too, which is not surprising, since museums and art galleries suit the kind of gaze they demand better than a movie theatre. One can think of Andy Warhol’s eight-hours long 1964 Empire too – or, even more accurate in a Keplerian way, Wolfgang Staehle’s 1999 Empire 24/7 installation, providing the visitors of the Zkm Museum in Karlsruhe with a never-ending view of the Empire State Building from the point of view Warhol adopted, via a security camera.

  • 21 Ibidem: 179.

15Similarly, «the artist’s presence as a witness to the world»21, famously embodied in Dutch painting by Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434), can be found in modernist movies by Jean-Luc Godard, when he makes the screen function like a mirror and gives back the 180° countershot, showing the camera and its operator (Le Mépris in 1963, La Chinoise in 1967).

2. Screens as doors

  • 22 Ibidem: 245.
  • 23 Ibidem: 39.
  • 24 Quoted in Schickel 1981.
  • 25 Alpers 1983: 246.

16Continuing with Svetlana Alpers’ duality, let us deal with those screens that, either officially or privately, mean to welcome Albertian pictures, i.e. «pictures dominant in the Western tradition since the Renaissance, [and inviting us to] look out through a frame to a (second) world»22. When we sit down in front of these screens – or even when standing, if we switch on our phones – that is in most cases in order to enter such a “second world”, because there a story is told. «Italian masters of the Renaissance embody the communicative function of painting – a function which seems removed in Northern pictures», and their contemporary descendants – in cinema, Tv and web – do the same. Both the pictures of the Italian masters and those of modern films, Tv or transmedia storytellers «refer not to the appearance of things but to their selection and ordering according to the judgment of the artist»23. This remark could easily fit with film directors like Alfred Hitchcock or George Lucas, who preferred to shoot onstage to achieve a better mastering. Even if their means were different, their aim was similar. In fact, the former traditionally tried to bring the audience “within” the story by means of a constant suspense, whilst the latter would better work as a worldmaker by building the Star Wars universe. However, their common goal was to move us, admittedly in the sense of “carrying away” but also and even more importantly in the sense of “conveying”. Besides, Lucas once said his movies were closer to amusement park rides than to novels or plays24. So if Alpers uses the metaphor of the window to qualify these Vasarian/egocentric images, I would rather opt for the term “doors” to name the category of screens these images are associated with. Indeed, the idea of doors – since we commonly enter a house through its door and not through a window – suits the diegetic/narrative aim of fictional (or fictionalised) images: making the audience enter the depicted world. This means inhabiting the represented world rather than the real world: on the one hand, Northern paintings worked as replicas of the world (replicas we can collect and quietly watch back home). On the other, Italian paintings work as substitutes for the world25, asking us to leave the nearby reality – namely, what classical film theory calls “identification”. Caring for characters – carried in a “second world”, invited to “read” figures beyond their appearance – we are ready to receive prescriptive meanings and life lessons.

  • 26 Ibidem: 218.
  • 27 “Vanity Fair”, January 2nd, 2008. Even the famous bird-view shots of Busby Berkeley could hardly be (...)
  • 28 Alpers 1983: 196.
  • 29 One example only, about religion: since the filmmakers of The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) (...)
  • 30 Or the optical idea of a wide-angle lens, if we speak of a computer-generated image.
  • 31 This phenomenon originates in our build-in connexions between perception and movement. Video-game d (...)

17Whilst the Dutch masters, as we saw, recommended to see the clouds as clouds in order to understand their nature, Leonardo recommended his pupils to see figures in (or beyond the surface of) the clouds. In fact, fictional egocentric pictures ask the spectator to see the character beyond the surface of the actor’s performance. It is easy to notice the “Italian side” of cinema as a medium. For example, in watching silent movies with their actors «being expressive of inner feelings – affetti, as the Italians called them», in other words, urging us to remain blind to the person they are in order to go directly to the character they play. In Dutch painting people are simply “performative”, i.e. self-absorbed in the action they are performing26. And this is not limited to actors playing a role, but functions in the same way with sets, props, Computer-Generated Imagery e tutti quanti. Indeed, mainstream movies and Tv-series presume to order the world by displaying with “transparency” (i.e. carefully trying to move us without showing any trick) a substitute of the world itself. In other words, they supply underlying meanings and graspable presences, assuming that meaning does not reside in the very representation of things but, to put it in Svetlana Alpers’ terms, in our commitment to the depicted world. If seeing (in the proper way) was knowing according to our first category, experiencing wold be knowing according to our second one. Indeed, mill run movies and Tv-series help us to achieve our commitment by means of a collection of audiovisual and narrative devices. Here are three examples (picked out among others) of such devices:
– The topographical (Albertian) ease of the spectator, which is achieved by means of geometrical rules like the “180° rule”. In a classical movie, we can always say where “we” are, and if the good guy is on the left and the bad guy on the right, even when both of them stand offscreen the moment the question is asked. Classical filmmakers «go for geography», to quote Steven Spielberg qualifying his own style27.
– The shot/countershot associated with a point-of-view shot. On the one hand, Dutch art is full of women reading letters, «absorbed in the perusal of a correspondence that is closed to us»28. On the other, movies since the 1910’s often feature women beginning to read a letter, and two seconds later we see what they read, either through an over-the-shoulder shot (the name speaks for itself) or a “subjective” (psychologists would say egocentric) shot. When the screen is acknowledged to function as a door, to be in someone else’s shoes is the aim of the audience, and the artists are supposed to make this job easier. This device even helps to deal with religious and moral taboos, since forbidden events are not shown but seen through the eyes of the characters29.
– The range of camera moves. Track-in shots, especially, are made for “enrolling” spectators, whatever their commitment into the diegesis and the story is. Whether you care of what is going to happen to the main character in the next minute or not, if you look at the screen when a track-in move is performed, you are caught – and even more definitely if such a move has been designed with wide-angle lens30, which increases the immersive effect31. Louma, Steadycam, TechnoCrane, AirTrack cam, HeliCam, are names of numerous inventions that, since fifty years, help filmmakers to easier achieve such effects.

18In this category we meet Daguerre again. We shall consider him as linked to the Keplerian label exemplified by his daguerréotype, an invention which, according to the partisans of the “substitute of the world”, lacked of soul. In this sense, the Swiss engraver Rodolphe Töpffer disdainfully wrote in 1840:

  • 32 Quoted by Font-Réaulx: 56.

Une peinture n’est pas une glace bien polie32.

19A Vasarian painting, he could have added, bearing in mind that a Keplerian painting is a polished mirror… But Daguerre had something that could please Töpffer and the Vasarian partisans, namely, the Diorama, of which Balzac wrote in 1822:

  • 33 Quoted by Michaux: 32.

Devant une toile tendue, on croit être dans une église à cent pas de chaque chose. C’est la merveille du iècle33.

20Balzac remains aware of the illusion (“on croit être”), voluntarily accepting to suspend his disbelief in order to enter the substitute of the world.

  • 34 See van den Oever 2010.

21«It is false therefore it is true»: no Seventeenth century Dutch painter would have embraced such an artistic cause. However, the Italian painters of the Renaissance, and after them countless artists who found in ostranennie34 the key to build useful iconic substitutes of the world, enthusiastically embraced that very artistic cause. Of course, Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999) is a canonical example of such substitutes: not only are we watching characters living in an iconic substitute of the world, but we even pause to explore it – their movements are frozen, while our camera, without mishap, turns around them. The present fondness for 3D-movies can also be seen as the triumph of the “screens as doors” category, by promising the spectators that they will even be dispensed from the task of opening the door, since the “second world” (at least in its optical perceptibility) will be coming straight to them.

3. Screens as picture-hanging systems

  • 35 A better name would have been Bellian, with reference to the English critic Clive Bell (1881-1964), (...)
  • 36 Proust 1988: 623.

22If we continue to take into account Svetlana Alpers’ gesture consisting in naming types of images according to a major intellectual, we might say our third category of screens is Kantian35. In this category, we sit in front of screens to contemplate what they display, occasionally passing disinterested judgments on the beauty of what we see. Here we no longer deal with substitutes or replicas of the world, but with autonomous pictures standing for nothing else than themselves. Several experimental movies, music videos, art installations, and web objects might fulfil such a function well – and it is not even a matter of content, since, for example, Jean-Luc Godard tries in his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) to make us look at some classical Hollywood movies as if they were no longer narrative life lessons, but (almost abstract) paintings. Certain works of art also try to change our gaze, or, to be precise, to make us stop “believing” into Keplerian and Vasarian pictures. Consider as an example among thousands Daniel Sauter & Osman Khan’s 2003 installation We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program, which transforms the continuous flow of Tv images into abstract pictures; or Lettrist movies like Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951), which draw the attention on the celluloid itself rather than the picture printed on it. A feedback effect of these works treating our eye «à la manière d’un oculiste», according to Marcel Proust36, is to make us see the entire real world through an invisible screen functioning as a picture-hanging system:

  • 37 Ibidem.

Des femmes passent dans la rue, différentes de celles d’autrefois, puisque ce sont des Renoir (…) Les voitures aussi sont des Renoir, et l’eau, et le ciel37.

  • 38 Letters VIII: 724. Quoted in G. Smith 2003: 14.
  • 39 Compare with French writer Guy de Maupassant who wrote in a very Keplerian way in 1890: «J’ai le dé (...)
  • 40 Like one can see in Godard’s Le Mépris, shot on location.
  • 41 Duchamp 1955.

23Before him, Charles Dickens wrote to W. H. Wills when taking in his apartment on the Champs-Elysées, that it had «a moving panorama always outside, which is Paris itself»38. This shows a slighter preference for Keplerian replicas39 and a stronger propensity for the art-likeness of daily life framed by windows functioning as paintings. A transfer of function that will be evident in the villa designed in 1937 for the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte: its windows40 feature frames that make the sea look like a picture (or help guests to see it as a picture of itself). Marcel Duchamp famously declared «Ce sont les regardeurs qui font les tableaux»41, but «faire un tableau» (i.e. to make a picture from what lays in front of your eyes) is easier when you look through a frame which appears as a picture-hanging system.

4. Screens as tablets

  • 42 Once again, to be more rigorous would lead to replace Gregorian by Morian: Gregory can be said of t (...)
  • 43 Alpers 1983: 218.
  • 44 The idea of floating is more graspable when watching a subtitled 3-D movie with appropriate glasses

24Continuing in the game of naming categories after historical figures, let us call Gregorian our fourth category of screens, after Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604), who famously wrote in his Epistle CV «images are but the books for the illiterate»42. In this category, we do not look at screens to find replicas of the world, substitutes of it, nor works of art, but rather to find useful data. Forerunners of images fitting into this category of screens, according to Svetlana Alpers (even if she does not mention this particular category) are Dutch art and comic strips: in fact, in both cases, «the text and image are treated as equals»43. The best candidates to enter this category are tablet computers, cell phones, Gps automotive navigation systems, giant stadium Led screens or advertisement boards, and Augmented Reality (Ar) systems, like Ar eyeglasses, handheld displays or head-mounted displays for Formula 1 or fighters pilots. Several video games transform the Tv screen into a tablet too, when displaying data in the corners of it, like strength, range, ammunition supply, etc. One can even say that the simple experiences of watching a movie on Tv or a subtitled film in a movie theatre would turn the screens into tablets: the former because the channel’s logo remains embedded in a corner as long as the movie lasts, never allowing you to forget which channel you are on; the latter because the subtitles are floating between the film and the audience, “augmenting” the “reality” of the movie alone44.

25Silent movies captions already put in danger the Vasarian equilibrium and the so-called transparency of the narrative, when breaking the flow of moving images in order to deliver verbal data. But a screen does not need to deliver verbal data in order to appear as a to-be-consulted tablet: displaying iconic data sometimes suffices. The technique of compositing, for instance, which consists in congregating separate visual elements into a single image, can turn the screen into a tablet. This cannot be said of the cases in which compositing was invisible or faded away in the shot for diegetic reasons, like in Méliès movies, but when it is exhibited, like it is in the figure of the split screen. Andy & Larry Wachowski’s 2009 Speed Racer exemplifies in a baroque way this mix between the traditional Vasarian pictures and the multiple simultaneous points of view that can be found in video games.

5. Screens as toys

26To finish with an intellectual figure a little more controversial than the previous ones, let’s call Learian our last category of screens. Not because of King Lear but because of the American psychologist Timothy F. Leary (1920-1996), famous for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs. Indeed, the term “toys” shall not be understood according to the meaning it assumes in Huizinga’s writings, i.e. a device included in a ruled game, but as an instrument of pleasure included in a non-conceptual play. So far, in other terms, we are closer to the sex toy rather than tin soldiers or Monopoly™.

  • 45 See Goodale and Humphrey 1998.
  • 46 G.M. Smith 2003: 29.
  • 47 See Jullier 2013.

27A (Learian) screen is used as a toy as long it provides a quasi-physiologic pleasure epistemologically disconnected from visual knowledge of the world (Keplerian pictures), diegetical absorption (Vasarian pictures), aesthetic contemplation (Kantian pictures), and data consulting (Gregorian pictures). “Quasi-physiologic” means it is a gender and cultural proof pleasure, driven by encapsulated bottom-up psychological mechanisms and in this sense resembling the recreational drug use. One can find these kind of stimuli into some film sequences, especially when seen on giant screens completed by immersive “surround” sound systems. And the effect is even better if you sit in the first row of the theatre, since this position (close to a screen bigger than the visual field) seconds your use of the archaic Action-Oriented visual system at the expense of the more sophisticated Perception-Oriented one45. The “Beyond the Infinite” sequence of 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example here, with its tunnel of coloured light explored with an hypnotic effect of track-in. The countless «emotional markers»46 that action blockbusters and horror movies traditionally provide can be added too: with their thunder and lightning effects, they provoke jolts and screams in the audience. And the recent trend for run and gun movies47 goes in the same direction– in fact, when Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008) were released in the Usa, at the entrance of the movie theatres a sign was displayed: «This film may induce motion sickness».

28This reminds us that we sometimes want to pay for discomfort or good-to-feel unpleasant sensations – as in Gaspard Noé’s Irréversible (2002), with its stroboscopic and low-frequency disorienting effects. In 2003, the French artist Christophe Bruno mocked this “decadent” attitude, meant as a way of getting pleasure from pictures without lingering over their diegetic content nor their ethical dimension. This is what his installation WiFi-Sm: Feel the Spectacle of Pain was all about:

WiFi-Sm is an Internet connected wireless device that you can fix on any part of your body. It automatically detects the information from approximately 4,500 news sources worldwide updated continuously and analyses them looking for specific keywords such as death, kill, murder, torture, rape, war, virus etc. Each time the text of the news contains one of these keywords, your WiFi-Sm device is activated through the Wi-Fi network and provides you with an electric impulse48.

29The mechanical principle of this installation leads us to video games, whose haptic peripherals, such as Dualshock® Wireless Controllers for PlayStation™, clearly show the use of the screen (even if the term “screen” can be understood in this case as a global term for output interface) as a toy providing cultural-proof direct sensations.

Conclusion: Mona Lisa on screen

30In this essay, screens have been described as the marriage between a particular kind of pictures (on the side of the image-makers) with a particular kind of gaze (on the side of the spectator). The taxonomy counts five categories. When the marriage was presided over by epistemological concerns, screens looked like lenses which delivered Keplerian pictures functioning as analysable replicas of the world. When it was presided over by the tradition of fictional narratives, screens looked like doors delivering Vasarian pictures in order to absorb the audience into a “Bildung-esque” experience. When it was presided over by Western post-Enlightment art, screens looked like picture-hanging systems delivering Kantian images that were enjoyable for themselves. When the marriage was presided over by literacy, screens looked like tablets delivering Gregorian pictures made of iconic and non-iconic useful data. And to finish with, when it was presided over by the tradition of leisure and the universal human taste for playing, screens looked like toys delivering Learian pictures working as pleasurable stimuli.

31Anyway, one must not forget that, in daily life, these marriages rarely appear as “pure” and unmixed as the presentation above could make one think. That is why the title of this essay is «the pentagon of screens», a pentagon whose five corners are connected to one another. Each combination of two, three, four or even five categories is possible. Everything depends from the “situation” in Goffman’s meaning, i.e., the technical apparatus, the kind of image and the type of gaze.

  • 49 As far as I know, only one place is left, where there is no glass between the Vermeer and its viewe (...)

32As a last example, think of a visit to an art museum. Let us consider the Vermeers in Amsterdam. A Vermeer is intended to be a Keplerian image, but the domination of the Vasarian image now encourages us to find out metaphors or hidden narratives in the content, while modern and contemporary art made us become familiar with the Kantian attitude consisting in enjoying the artistic work for itself, not to mention the weight of the “distinction” (in the meaning of Pierre Bourdieu) in social life, which can drive us to look at the Vermeer as a Gregorian picture, i.e. a single data («To see the Vermeers in Amsterdam: checked.»). The protecting glass on the paintings makes the task even harder: not only this glass cuts off the haptic presence of the painting, but it inevitably adds reflections on the surface, reflections that usually go together, for contemporary eyes, with clip-framed mechanically reproduced still pictures hung in homes and offices on the one hand, and computer and Tv screens on the other49.

33The mix of the gazes and the categories of pictures is even greater in the museums displaying multimedia supports, like the Louvre, in Paris. Try the “Louvre-Nintendo 3ds xl™ Audio Guide, sponsored by Korean Air”, and feel the Keplerian images relocated in the mapping of your own presence into the museum:

The new interactive map on the dual screen of the Ds means you can’t get lost: the Louvre-Nintendo 3ds xl™ Audio Guide tracks your position and you’ll be guided through the museum step by step50.

34Then, since «you’re keen not to miss the museum’s must-sees» and since Nintendo has «picked them out for you», hold your Ds and feel free to get your experience of looking at Mona Lisa. In 2013 it became totally impossible to see it “for real”. Mona Lisa now is on screen. Even if you stay, along with hundreds of on-edge tourists, right here in the Louvre Salle #6 de l’Aile Denon, «whose renovation has been sponsored by Nippon Television Network Corporation» (my emphasis), it is on screen – or shall I say, on screens. The painting is so precious that it disappears under many layers of sun-proof and bullet-proof glasses which make it look yellow like an old reproduction, and cover it with reflections. Such reflections are as many as the tourists who, despite the “No pictures are allowed” sign, cannot stop taking photos, even if these photos are going to be unwatchable crooked pictures of underexposed heads of visitors framing the overexposed head of Mona Lisa, not to mention that at any time some visitor may raise his hand to take his own picture just when you are shooting, then you will have his Mona Lisa on the Lcd screen of his phone right in the middle of your picture. That is why some visitors prefer to keep watching their Nintendo 3ds xl™: Mona Lisa looks better on the screen than she actually is, a few meters over there.

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Alpers, S.
– 1977, Is art history?, “Dedalus”, 106
– 1983, The Art of Describing; Dutch Art in the 17th Century, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Aumont, J.
– 2007, Moderne?, Paris, Cahiers du Cinéma

Bazin, A.
– 1985, Qu’est-ce le cinéma?, Paris, Cerf
– 2005, What Is Cinema?, vol. I, Berkeley, University of California Press

Daston, L and Galison, P.
– 1992, The image of objectivity, “Representations», 40, Special Issue, Seeing Science

Duchamp, M.
– 1955, Entrevue avec Jean Schuster, “Le Surréalisme, Même”, 2, 1957

Font-Réaulx, D. de
– 2012, Peinture & photographie. Les enjeux d’une rencontre, 1839-1914, Paris, Flammarion

Goodale, M.A. and Humphrey, K.
–1998, The objects of action and perception, “Cognition”, 67: 181-207

Johnston, M.
– 2012, Guy de Maupassant, Paris, Fayard

Jullier, L.
– 2013, Post-Modern hi-fi vs. post-cool lo-fi: An epistemological war, in A. van den Oever (ed.), Technology, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press

Michaux, E.
– 1999, Du panorama pictural au cinéma circulaire, Paris, L’Harmattan

Proust, M.
– 1988, À la recherche du temps perdu, tome II, Paris, Gallimard

Schickel, R.
– 1981, Cinema: Slam! Bang! A Movie Movie, “Time”, June 15th

Smith, G.
– 2003, Dickens and the Dream of Cinema, New York - Manchester, Manchester University Press

Smith, G.M.
– 2003, Film Structure and the Emotion System, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

van den Oever, A. (ed.)
– 2010, Ostrannenie, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press

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1 Alpers 1983: 45, 69. Adjectives derive from Johannes Kepler and Leon Battista Alberti.

2 Alpers 1977: 5.

3 Dutch geographer W.J. Blaeu in 1663, quoted in Alpers 1983: 27.

4 Bazin 2005: 97.

5 Alpers 1983: 32-33.

6 Ibidem: 159.

7 Alpers does not mention cinema, but she states «photography is properly seen as being part of the descriptive mode» (ibidem: 243-244).

8 Ibidem: 78, 93.

9 Bazin 1985: 35.

10 Daston and Galison 2007: 81.

11 Alpers 1983: 91.

12 Remembering the Catholic traditional look at the Holy Shroud of Turin as a “true print” (see Bazin 2005: 14), Jacques Aumont somehow ironically calls this belief «the Religion of the Real» in his Moderne? (Aumont 2007).

13 The Art of Describing, pp. 103, 223.

14 Daston and Galison 2007: 81.

15 Epigraph of chapter XIII.

16 Alpers 1983: xxv.

17 Exhibited during Ars Electronica 2006, it displays a flexible screen that spectators can touch in order to explore the time of the depicted world: the more you press, the more you go backwards in the past.

18 Not to be confused with the tours de force of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Arch (2002), which belong to narration and to our next category, namely “screens as doors”.

19 Anna: 6-18, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov in 1993, adds a Bazinian touch, since it shows the daughter of the author growing up “for real”, in front of the camera, from the age of 6 to 18.

20 I transfer an analysis of a painting by Gabriel Metsu in Alpers 1983: 186.

21 Ibidem: 179.

22 Ibidem: 245.

23 Ibidem: 39.

24 Quoted in Schickel 1981.

25 Alpers 1983: 246.

26 Ibidem: 218.

27 “Vanity Fair”, January 2nd, 2008. Even the famous bird-view shots of Busby Berkeley could hardly be taken into account as Keplerian pictures: indeed, they did not intend to make girls look like abstract art (our next category) not to map the chorus line (our first one); they asked spectators to move above the scene of the music-hall, from the seats to the flies.

28 Alpers 1983: 196.

29 One example only, about religion: since the filmmakers of The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) felt they had no right to represent the Virgin, they kept her off-screen when she appears to the bewitched Bernadette, concentrating the artistic efforts on Bernadette alone by means of the actress’s performance (she was played by Jennifer Jones), of the lighting and of the music.

30 Or the optical idea of a wide-angle lens, if we speak of a computer-generated image.

31 This phenomenon originates in our build-in connexions between perception and movement. Video-game designers know it very well, since they use the wide-angle lenses effect to render the first-person view in a lot of games (in fact, all of the First-Person Shooters and racing games, I would say).

32 Quoted by Font-Réaulx: 56.

33 Quoted by Michaux: 32.

34 See van den Oever 2010.

35 A better name would have been Bellian, with reference to the English critic Clive Bell (1881-1964), whose formalist book Art (1914) radicalises some assertions made by Kant in order to justify his taste for Post-Impressionist art (while Kant says very little on painting, and of course even less on abstract art).

36 Proust 1988: 623.

37 Ibidem.

38 Letters VIII: 724. Quoted in G. Smith 2003: 14.

39 Compare with French writer Guy de Maupassant who wrote in a very Keplerian way in 1890: «J’ai le défaut, ou la qualité si vous y tenez, d’être un miroir, un miroir qui reflète sans déformer, sans expliquer. Il me semble que je suis comme la fenêtre ouverte d’une chambre vide devant laquelle défile le monde» (quoted in Johnston 212: 855).

40 Like one can see in Godard’s Le Mépris, shot on location.

41 Duchamp 1955.

42 Once again, to be more rigorous would lead to replace Gregorian by Morian: Gregory can be said of the idea, but it was St. Thomas More who wrote in 1529 the sentence as we know it.

43 Alpers 1983: 218.

44 The idea of floating is more graspable when watching a subtitled 3-D movie with appropriate glasses.

45 See Goodale and Humphrey 1998.

46 G.M. Smith 2003: 29.

47 See Jullier 2013.


49 As far as I know, only one place is left, where there is no glass between the Vermeer and its viewer: it is the Frick Collection in New York.


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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Laurent Jullier, «The Pentagon Of Screens. A Taxonomy Inspired By The Actor-Network Theory»Rivista di estetica, 55 | 2014, 123-138.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Laurent Jullier, «The Pentagon Of Screens. A Taxonomy Inspired By The Actor-Network Theory»Rivista di estetica [Online], 55 | 2014, online dal 01 mars 2014, consultato il 19 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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