Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Chang-Min Yu reviews Cinema’s Bodily Illusions

Scott C. Richmond. Cinema’s Bodily Illusions: Flying, Floating, and Hallucinating. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 232 pp.

Review by Chang-Min Yu

Scott Richmond’s Cinema’s Bodily Illusions is the latest addition to a specific strain in the phenomenological tradition of film studies, which includes Vivian Sobchack’s The Address of the Eye (1991), Laura U. Mark’s The Skin of the Film (2000), Jennifer Barker’s The Tactile Eye (2009), and many more. The innovation of Cinema’s Bodily Illusions is to recast the entanglement of the body and the world via the concept of technicity. Richmond, informed by Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time (1994–2001), understands this existential structure to be technical: “Cinema’s Bodily Illusions is about the cinema as such a technological system and its vocation of perceptual modulation” (p. 6). In Mark Hansen’s terms, Richmond insists on the “technicity of the flesh” (p. 163). Cinema, diverging from ordinary perception just enough, makes us feel both “beyond the infinite” and “at home.” This is probably why Richmond repeatedly uses the term “voluptuous” to pin down the weird sensation of flying, floating, and hallucinating he feels when watching Gravity (2013) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—scintillating, gratifying, and finely-tuned in a luxurious manner afforded by the technical resonance of cinema. Neither too little disorientation, nor too much. The sensitizing technic dispostif of cinema modulates our perception ever so slightly that it makes the viewer aware of one’s proprioception, which requires neither “intellectual elucidation” nor “critical athleticism.”

The proprioceptive films are located between theatricality and absorption.  Displaying a rotating disc with animating whirls, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma (1926) discloses both a flatness and a depth that are inseparable in viewing. The former marks the “physical support” of the media, whereas the latter points to the audience’s involvement in creating the illusion of movement on screen: modernism versus ideology, so to speak. Richmond then draws on Stanley Cavell, Rey Chow, and Sianne Ngai to contend that proprioceptive aesthetics, unlike modernism, returns us to ordinary perception and reforms aesthetics categories.  Films like Koyannisqatsi  (1982) and The Flicker (1966) are not haunted by philosophical skepticism. They abstain from an interrogation of ontology and place their faith in our embodiment in and with the world. In other words, the proprioceptive films are immediately communicative in their aesthetic effects and affects. As brilliant as the argument goes in parsing out the conundrum of modernist aesthetics, Richmond’s protracted emphasis on immediacy and communicability only acknowledges, contradictorily, the need of “critical reflexivity” (p. 41). A similar issue emerges with the concept of technics. While Richmond contends that proprioceptive aesthetics is “against ontology” (p. 45), his reference to Stiegler—whose concept of technics is in service of ontology—indicates otherwise. In other words, there is too much of Stiegler and too little of Andre Léroi-Gourhan. The latter’s paleontological analysis traces the technics of the human body—for example, erect posture and bipedalism that we need to give up temporarily when floating in space—without which the “technicity of the flesh” rings empty, as if technicity were something only on the side of the apparatus.

That said, Cinema’s Bodily Illusions catalyzes a fundamental issue in modernism—the body’s antagonistic relationship to modernist aesthetics. In so doing, Richmond reinitiates a dialogue between modernism and the body as well as introduces crucial insights from the philosophy of media into phenomenological film studies.