"Looking Underneath the Surface: A Review of Vincent J. Hausmann’s Cinema, Technologies of Visibility and the Reanimation of Desire" by Zsuzsanna Tóth
Zsuzsanna Tóth is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her fields of interest are cultural history and iconology. Email:
Cinema, Technologies of Visibility and the Reanimation of Desire
Hausmann, Vincent J.
Palgrave Macmillan, March 2011
5-1/2 × 8-1/4 inches, 244 pages, Includes: 15 pgs figs
The connection between mass media, images and the presence/absence of desire is inextricably present in our contemporary alienated consumer culture, to which Vincent J. Hausmann, teacher of cinema studies and literary theory at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, calls special attention in his most recent book, entitled Cinema, Technologies of Visibility and the Reanimation of Desire (2011).
Chapter 1 introduces the four films to be analyzed in the following chapters: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991). Hausmann chose these films because all of them intend to re-imagine looking in order to sustain the vitality of psychic life, and to figure disciplinary relations among traditional and new forms of art and technology. There are two theoretical viewpoints here: Hausmann relies on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic themes, including the injunction against incest, the resistance of acknowledging a fundamental Otherness and the encouragement of Symbolic mediation. On the other hand, Hausmann looks to Julia Kristeva’s theories of the ruined family unit and the interplay of cultural causes that threaten the vitality of psychic life. The history of visual culture in this study involves both the possibilities and limits of looking and vision, the establishment of the genealogies of visual arts, and the stultifying effects of a media-dominated culture. This book is a collection of loosely connected essays in which Hausmann aims to recover the exigency and the retrograde denials of desire at the limits of the visible.
Chapter 2 is devoted to the examination of American Beauty (1999) directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. This film calls attention to the fact that desire is inextricably bound up with vision (23), which culminates in voyeurism. This kind of looking, especially ‘cinematic viewing,’ obviously implies the potential of some degree of violence. The film affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition of incest between parent and child, yet Hausmann provides a strained analysis on the presence of a multitude of repressed, yet interrelated incestuous desires between fathers and sons in the lives of not only the characters (in particular the colonel Frank Fitts and his son, Ricky), but also the script-writer, Ball. He even connects the film’s ideology of appreciating things to be seen behind things (opposed to the superficiality of American culture, says Hausmann) to the issue of incest. By drawing a parallel between arts/media (photography, video and cinema in particular) and homosexuality, the critic states that the film’s objective is a specific notion of cinematic origins. In Hausmann’s interpretation, American Beauty also attempts to mobilize a problematic relation among visual arts/technologies that would deny the role of symbolic castration and the play of Lacanian Otherness in homosexual relationships.
Chapter 3 discusses Gore Verbinski’s film, The Ring (2002), based on Koji Suzuki’s novel, entitled Ringu (1991). Hausmann focuses on the denial of Otherness and (Lacanian) Symbolic elaboration in a troubling mother/child relationship, including the difficulty of drawing the border between inside and outside, self and other, and the undervaluation of the paternal function. The grandiose vision of the mother/child relationship, as Hausmann emphasizes, significantly threatens the child’s development. He states that Samara and her lethal tape embody both the turn against the representation of unimaginable trauma, and the increasing alignment of drawing and video. Samara and her tape also claim a direct inheritance for the cinema against photography, which responds to an extensive shock. The Ring focuses on thermography in the hope of liberating the “static, teleologically driven geneology of the visual arts/technologies (93).” The X-ray represents the avisual threat––the destructive power, like the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki––that light or radiation could wield bodies or objects, as well as the fear of the loss of surface markers, especially of gender.
Chapter 4 revolves around The Elephant Man, a 1980 film directed by David Lynch. The film is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man living in nineteenth-century London. Hausmann pays attention to how Lynch links the responses to Merrick to troubling views of his own maternal origin and to the “figuring of technologies of visibility that labor to advance a static understanding of Otherness and the field(s) of vision (107).” As the severity of the Elephant Man’s deformities is still registered as anticipating a frightening collapse of numerous borders, especially between humans and animals, Merrick and the troubling invocations of his body are associated with colonization and the threatening aspects of human origins. The film analyses the birth of the cinema including its relation to clinical and scientific arts/technologies. In addition, The Elephant Man emphasizes how scientific arts/technologies cannot be removed from the exigencies of desire or from popular and subcultural knowledge of the human, animal and mechanical body.
Chapter 5 contains the analysis of Wim Wenders’ 1991 film, Until the End of the World, which is a futuristic tale, an “end-of-the-millennium trek across the globe (157).” The film focuses on the complex understanding of cross-cultural encounters between people who bear a relation to specific individual and cultural traumatic memories due to the remnants of Nazi ideology in post-war Germany. Internal exiles from different parts of the globe may find each other and some solidarity through those technologies that have increased the speed and range of delivering images. This process, as Hausmann warns, has been exploited by certain governments in order to “control flows and responses to information as well as population (165).” The film situates its concerns for maintaining space for the play of Otherness in psychic/social life within the context of conceptions of relations among arts/technologies.
The last chapter summarizes Hausmann’s concluding thoughts on exploring the figure of the undead. The living dead have found portals and new technologies of visibility, which is, according to the author, best embodied in Bruce LaBruce’s film, Otto; Or, Up with Dead People (2008) in which the director’s take on a necrophiliac encounter still remains attuned to its call for something Other. The dead body has become the site of voyeuristic fascination. In my opinion, this process is similar to American TV series such as CSI or Bones in which viewers can see aesthetically pleasing corpses nearly aspiring to the sublime in pathology. Conceptions of psychic (re)animation remain interwoven with notions of cinematic motion, and emerge in narratives of relations among analog and digital arts.
Hausmann’s book contains original and fascinating approaches and associations of senses and sight; however, sometimes his interpretations seem to be exaggerated, e.g., the over-emphasized, yet non-cohesive role of incest in nearly all chapters. In addition, heavily detailed arguments and ideas expressed in long and complex sentences and the study’s lack of internal structure sometimes make following the author’s train of thoughts difficult. This book was published in 2011 and its bibliography consists of recently published studies, all of which makes Hausmann’s interpretations up to date. The attractive book cover represents Verbinski’s protagonist, Samara, under medical experiments, and the few, but well-chosen illustrations nicely illuminate the author’s arguments and explanations. Offering food for further scholarly disputes, this book is duly recommended to those who are familiar with psychoanalysis, film, media studies and visual culture.