The Mantics of Preying: Cine-matics as Projection and Auto-Mutilation

“I had searched for a soul akin to my own.” –Lautreamont

“Insects and Their Vicissitudes”

In other words, that Caillois’ male praying mantis first displaces its own desire onto the female, identifies itself with her, and then retroactively devours its own head, bites off and severs ties with its past.

Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915). Editor’s note (1957).

In Instincts and their Vicissitudes, Freud describes an instinct as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind. In a number of passages, Freud expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of psychological knowledge about the instincts. The instincts make their appearance at a comparatively late point in the sequence of his writings. But the instincts were there under other names. Their place was taken, to a great extent, by such things as excitations, affective ideas, wishful impulses, endogenous stimuli, and so on.

By the pressure of an instinct, we understand its motor factor, the amount of force or the measure of the demand for work which it represents. The aim of an instinct is in every instance satisfaction, which can only be obtained by removing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct. The object of an instinct is the thing in regard to which or through which the instinct is able to achieve its aim. By the source of an instinct is meant the somatic process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct. The essential feature in the vicissitudes undergone by instincts lies in the subjection of the instinctual impulses to the influence of the 3 great polarities that dominate mental life. Of these three polarities, we might describe that of activity-passivity as the biological; that of ego-external world as real; and finally that of pleasure-unpleasure as the economic polarity.

-Sigmund Freud

But why don’t we cut straight to the heart of the issue and propose that cinema is, in its essence, a corrosive, inherently destructive artistic medium, one which has more to do with slicing, fragmentation and decomposition than the construction of any unified experience. The cinematic frame, as pure differential; or the movement-image, as parastaltic advance ; are here to be understood in terms of mobile devices, or dissevering dispositifs which produce schism (σχισμή) and trauma (τραύμα). They are cutting machines, buzzsaws which literally lacerate and grind their way through the corporeal continuum of the life-world. Thus, as we saw with Hitchcock’s elevation of the souveneir postcard to the status of background and frame, here Deleuze gives us an alternative version of how content, or in this case a sub-genre, rises to constitute the set of which it is itself a member. All film making is a form of cutting; all films are slasher films.

And by extension, cinema simply offers a particularly bold example of what is the case with all artistic media. Each in its own way is cursed from the beginning what certain materials theorists such as James Elkins refer to as an “innate vice,” a fundamental tendency toward disintegration which is inherent in all substances, an unfixable instability intrinsic to all substrates. Cinema exists not as the result of any continuity of identity but rather it results from constant shifts and leaps and transformations. It is a relentlessly heuristic (ευρίσκω, βρίσκω) art form which comes into being only insofar as its unmakes itself, cuts itself free from any sense of integrity or continuity with tradition. Cinema chews its way into the future. This is what Johnston means by “machinic visions,” an ongoing appetitive processes in which the eye is recognized finally as an insatiable probing and predatory organ.

With this in mind, we might then turn to the paintings of Francis Bacon. If we actually take the time to examine his work, which Christian Metz would insist (right along with Johnston and Deleuze) is not at all photographic, which is to say not at all fetishistic; how many indications can we find that Bacon’s paintings are in fact highly involved with “cinematics”?

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

Offering what is probably the longest uncomfortable silence in the history of cinema, Stan Brakhage’s documentary short The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a harrowing, unshakable, but fundamentally fascinating, viewing experience. Set entirely in a Pittsburgh morgue, the film records three actual autopsies with an unflinching eye. In its willingness to stare death and our inescapably corporeal state in the face it practically begs the viewer to have an extreme reaction. Different viewers, with different levels of squeamishness, will respond differently to the material. For many, I imagine it is nigh-unwatchable. Personally, I’ve seen several autopsy videos before (both in exploitation films like the Faces of Death series and in tapes produced for educational purposes), but I still found viewing this movie a difficult experience and one that forced me to call into question whether the illumination that I got from examining Brakhage’s approach was worth the trauma of watching the movie. Because Act of Seeing is entirely silent and because Brakhage’s roving camera does more than passively observe the flaying of peoples’ bodies, it feels more immediate than any such film I’ve seen before. He zooms his lens in to get uncomfortably close to his subjects, turning flesh into an abstraction. In doing so prompts the audience both to see the beauty there that we might otherwise neglect and confront the fears that we’re able to avoid due to lack of proximity to awareness of internal selves.

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