Film-Philosophy

(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 20, September 2000

 

 

Aylish Wood

Textual Subjects

 

 

 

Silvio Gaggi

_From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the

Visual Arts, and Electronic Media_

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997

ISBN (hbk) 0-8122-3400-6

169 pp.

 

In _From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the

Visual Arts, and Electronic Media_ Silvio Gaggi sets out to discuss the

crisis of the subject as theorised and actualised through postmodern

conventions. In the preface he indicates that his purpose is to answer the

following question: 'Given the power of the media, the subject

deconstructed inevitably will be reconstructed in some form, old or new,

and if so, on what basis shall that reconstruction be conducted?' (xi) He

goes on to to argue that the critic's role is to 'examine how texts speak

to the social subject, how they imply or construct a subject to which they

speak, or how they deconstruct that always already spoken subject' (xii).

 

Gaggi goes about this task by ambitiously attempting to cover several

different kinds of text -- the still image (painted and photographed),

written fiction, the moving image, and hypertexts. His approach is to begin

with a text which locates the subject within a unified position, and then

to mobilise other texts to argue that postmodern views of the subject have

ensured that attempts at this kind unification are past, and that 20th

century works of art explore the problems and potentials of a constructed

and decentered subject. Gaggi's usage of the term 'subject' here moves

between the subject as topic, an individual who is subject to larger

forces, the subject as in subjectivity, and a subject represented in

language: 'hailed by ideology, constructed as a subject, and subjected to

the force of representation' (xii).

 

The readings of the particular texts are framed through a set of

theoretical positions, primarily Jean Baudrillard, though also Louis

Althusser, Laura Mulvey (and psychoanalysis more generally), Michel

Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson. As _From Text to Hypertext_

is essentially a set of readings of fictional texts, it does not operate as

a critical assessment, nor an extension of the range of theoretical

positions used to address ideas about subject(s); rather, it puts this

particular set of theories to work. As such the book might not be of

interest to those seeking a radical intervention in the debates about

subjectivity and postmodernism. However, as a series of readings of

individual texts, Gaggi analyses are well wrought and informative,

providing a good framework to either move beyond or argue against.

 

Chapter one, 'The Subject's Eye', centres on a series of still images --

from _The Wedding of Arnolfini_ (1434, Jan van Eyck), _Giving the Keys to

St. Peter_ (1481, Perogino), to _Demoiselles d'Avignon_ (1907, Pablo

Picasso), through to the late 20th Century photographic and mixed media

works of Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Mike and Doug Starn. The

complexities of reading the subject(s) of _The Wedding of Arnolfini_ is

evident as Gaggi moves between invoking the ambiguities of the text, whilst

also asserting a coherency within the text. He suggests that this tension

amounts to the realisation of a subject who has become bound by a contract

in an equivalent way to being interpellated. These ambiguities are also

evident in the presence of the painter as both signature and image; the

inconsistent perspectives; the flatness of the figures; and the symbolism

of the objects.

 

Moving beyond the details of Gaggi's analysis, it is worth asking if the

project of reading _The Wedding of Arnolfini_, and also _Giving the Keys to

St Peter_, through 20th century theories is a valid one. Gaggi's analysis

utilises Louis Althusser's theory of the interpellation of subjects by

ideological apparatus (not to mention Foucault and Derrida on the

relationship between words and images), ideas which revolved around the

notion of the individual as a subject, a concept which has, at this point,

been around in different forms for at least two centuries. In contrast,

_The Wedding of Arnolfini_ was painted in the early Renaissance when ideas

about the individual were only coming into being. How appropriate is it,

then, to read this painting through late twentieth century ideas about

subjectivity?

 

Having argued that _The Wedding of Arnolfini_ and _Giving the Keys to St.

Peter_ are both classic realist texts, in the sense that they attempt to

present a 'total world', Gaggi leaps chronologically to the early twentieth

century to discuss _Demoiselles d'Avignon_.

 

Painted by Pablo Picasso in 1907, this image is placed in the context of

the beginning of a modernist attack on illusionistic painting; the multiple

perspective of the _Demoiselles d'Avignon_ offers the viewer nothing in the

way of a unitary view of the text. Furthermore, the multiple perspectives

of the painting flatten the space, bringing everything into an impossible

juxtapositioning in which different parts of the face are simultaneously

seen in profile and frontally. Gaggi argues that _Demoiselles d'Avignon_

suggests 'an incoherence and incongruity of the depicted subject

[prostitutes in a brothel], just as the spatial inconsistency suggests an

incoherence and incongruity in the viewer' (19).

 

This discussion of decentred images is continued through the works of

Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and the Starn Brothers. He discusses

Kruger's _Untitled_ from 1982 (for convenience referred to as 'You are Not

Yourself', the words within the image). Like _Demoiselles d'Avignon_,

this photograph has a fractured perspective, the face of a woman split

through a reflection in a cracked mirror. Gaggi makes a reading of this

through a commentary of woman caught in the prisonhouse of media images.

Here he especially makes use of psychoanalysis, whether it be traditional

Freudian/Lacanian constructions of gender through a relationship with the

phallus, or through revisions of this position by feminist theorists such

as Luce Irigary. Linking (the illusion of) access to the phallus to access

to power, Gaggi links the power to control the visual world to the

phallocentric control of language, and that Kruger's work is a refusal of

this particular aspect of power.

 

On reading the section on Barbara Kruger I found myself questioning the

validity of Gaggi's statement that the images are directed towards the

female viewer. There are two points to make here: firstly, are the pictures

are only directed towards women, and consequently, will only women read

them? A related question would be whether only male viewers are addressed

by the prostitutes of _Demoiselles d'Avignon_? But perhaps more important

is a second point: what do we understand by the term 'woman' here? In a

sense it is the subsequent texts under discussion (images created by Cindy

Sherman) which could address this very question. Sherman's multiple series

of stills, each a different iconic figure with Sherman herself as the

model, might be seen as addressing the ways in which the term woman

operates through a series of images, images which are always shifting,

referring only to other images, making the term itself incoherent. Gaggi,

however, does not see Sherman's work in this way, and in considering them

less political than those of Kruger argues: 'But the theatrics seem almost

playful and suggest the possibility of playing roles, even victim's roles,

as a tongue-in-cheek game, one that relates to cultural images and

conventions but has little to do with real victimization.' (29)

 

Whilst Gaggi's case for seeing Sherman's images as only play is as valid as

the alternative suggested above, if not more so since his is the more

sustained argument, it does seem odd that in a book about decentering and

fragmentation, he keeps gender categories stable, without even alluding to

the difficulties of a such positions. It is evident that Gaggi is aware of

such questions, and after his commentary on Sherman considers the work of

the Mike and Doug Starn, twin brothers who deliberately keep the question

of the authorial subject uncertain. In this section Gaggi comments on the

criticism of the Starns' work as having humanistic tendencies because they

keep in place traditional artistic subjects such as 'beauty',

transcendental sentiments, and expressionistic styles. Nonetheless, he

still considers their work to problematize representation and the subject.

In some ways this kind of tension is evident in the first chapter. There is

a clear articulation of the problems of representation and the subject, but

there is also a tendency, especially evident with reference to gender, to

keep certain categories intact.

 

Chapter two, 'The Subject of Discourse', follows a similar pattern, moving

through texts which variously depict the dissolution of the unified

subject. The chronology in this chapter is much tighter as Gaggi keeps to

texts written in the 20th century -- _Heart of Darkness_ (Joseph Conrad,

1902), _Lord Jim_ (Joseph Conrad, 1900), _As I Lay Dying_ (William

Faulkner, 1930), and _If on a winter's night a traveller_ (Italo Calvino,

1979). He brings these works (the first three by canonical authors of

modernist literature, and the last a key postmodernist author) together to

nicely illustrate the shifting position of subject(s) in the written text.

Utilising Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Catherine Belsey, Gaggi

clearly lays out the ways in which the shifting positions of narration in

_Heart of Darkness_ creates an unknowable subject, an empty centre in the

text. The central figure of the text, Kurtz, is absent; as Gaggi puts it:

'Kurtz's voice produces an expanding aura that seems to originate in a

transcendental subject -- a genuinely remarkable man with immense power to

good and evil. But in fact there is no Kurtz behind the voice.' (36) The

modernist writing of Conrad refuses the reader omniscience as she/he is

denied any overall perspective, finally being made aware of the partiality

of the perspective they have.

 

Such partiality is again the point of the discussion of _As I Lay Dying_.

Gaggi describes the narration of this text as a 'dispersal of consciousness

across and through various subjectivities' (42). Unlike the hierarchy of

narration in _Heart of Darkness_, in _As I Lay Dying_ there is a series of

juxtaposed narrative positions from several, often contradictory

perspectives, which ensure that a lack of certainty is maintained. Gaggi

argues that this lack of certainty is extended by the textual strategies

evident in _If on a winter's night a traveller_. Here the multiplicity of

levels and alignments/misalignments in the narration of the text variously

destabilise the story, the narrator, the reader, and also the author. To

expand on these questions Gaggi draws on Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault,

and Jean Baudrillard. Barthes for the idea that _If on a winter's night a

traveller_ is a text of both pleasure and bliss. As Gaggi says: '_If on a

winter's night a traveller_ plays off this tension; it has an overarching

plot that impels the reader forward, but it is structured around a series

of digressions that are enticing enough to encourage blissful attention and

forgetfulness of their relation to the whole.' (53) Baudrillard is used to

consider the loss of groundedness which occurs on reading a text that

constantly shifts voice; and Foucault is used to frame a reading of the

loss of authority of the author as it is played out within the novel.

 

This combination of theorists touches on one of the key themes of this

chapter, and indeed the book: that is the tension between the sense of loss

implied by the decentering and fragmentation of the subject, versus the new

possibilities that such a process might provide. Such a double positioning

becomes clarified in the end section when Gaggi states:

 

'[I]f . . . the sense of a coherent speaking voice is weakened, this

weakening is not the result of a frontal attack on the classical subject

but is carried out in the name of creating a new kind of collage-like art

construct that reflects the complexity of subjectivity and

intersubjectivity and the heterogeneity of modern life' (64).

 

The third chapter, 'The Moving Subject', is on the cinema. In this chapter

Gaggi considers three films: _The Stuntman_ (1980, Richard Rush; US), _One

from the Heart_ (1982, Francis Ford Coppola; US), and _The Player_ (1992,

Robert Altman; US). The texts under discussion here are all US productions,

with Coppola and Altman particularly known as directors who prefer to work

outside the mainstream of the Hollywood based film industry. Gaggi begins

with a discussion of _The Stuntman_, a film about the making of a film.

Much of the action of _The Stuntman_ occurs in the drama between Cameron,

an escaped criminal coerced into taking the place of the dead stuntman, and

Cross, the director of the film; according to Gaggi, the latter as director

is the originator of meanings within the text. Gaggi reads the film as a

kind of Oedipal struggle between Cameron and Cross, one where Cameron can

only finally make sense of the ambiguous perspectives and contradictory

points of view he is presented with, can only clarify the distinction

between reality and illusion by acquiescing to the authority of Cross. In

invoking Oedipus and psychoanalysis, Gaggi is here suggesting the process

by which a subject secures a place in the order of the world. It is

perhaps, then, a little confusing when Gaggi moves towards Baudrillard

again when he says: 'The problem posited by _The Stuntman_ is precisely one

that has been treated in many recent discussions of the hyperreal. Should

we reconcile ourselves to the world of simulacra, let, in fact, our selves

be constituted by representations of selves, and despair of the possibility

of seriously engaging the world?' (76) Whilst there may be elements of 'the

world of simulacra' in _The Stuntman_, such a world is usually

characterised by the absence of a clear point of authority, and as Gaggi

himself has clearly articulated, the figure of Cross operates as the source

of meaning generation in _The Stuntman_.

 

Gaggi continues with the hyperreal for his reading of _One from the Heart_,

a film about the lives of a group of people who live in Las Vegas. He

considers this film 'to be about a world that has itself become a cinematic

fiction' (79). The absence of any sense of reality created through the

exaggeration of conventions and clinches, the referencing of other film

characters, collapses the depth of the image, making it seem as flat as the

perspectives created by the use of sets, rather than the actual streets of

Las Vegas. Gaggi provides a sense of the cinematic work of the film by

alluding to the visual play, the use of reflections and inserts as elements

that disturb coherent time and place. Again we find the double positioning

which ended the previous chapter as Gaggi suggests that the film might

'cause us some disturbance, some uneasiness, some gnawing dissatisfaction,

even as we also delight in the roller coaster ride of disorienting pans,

startling transitions, light imagery and visual excess' (85).

 

_The Player_ is the final text discussed in this chapter, like _The

Stuntman_ it is a self-referential film, though this time about film

producers in Hollywood. As in _The Stuntman_, there is a crossing over

between reality and illusion, and the film's structure is finally

self-engulfing: in the final moments of the film, the story which has been

told in the duration of the film, is itself presented as a fiction. In this

moment the question of authority is dissolved as the figure who seemed to

be in control of the narrative, the producer Griffin Mill, becomes engulfed

in the strategies of another character. For Gaggi what is interesting about

_The Player_, as well as _The Stuntman_ and _One from the Heart_, is the

ways in which the different characters are 'radically constructed' (93),

they are characters that take on roles and masks without ever revealing an

authentic or original presence. At this point in _From Text to Hypertext_

Gaggi, far from celebrating the new possibilities, reveals a tangible sense

of loss in this constructedness, saying: 'in these films growing up is

giving up on the real world so that we can live in the world of hyperreal

dreams. Those who do not grow up are . . . abandoned to a powerless 'real'

of non-representation, a real whose existence is ignored' (93).

 

In the final chapter, 'Hyperrealities and Hypertexts', Gaggi moves onto

electronic media and virtual texts. Essentially, the hypertext, which

exists in the creation of electronic linkages across a series of texts, is

thought by Gaggi to encourage a writerly reader, a reader who creates

connections for themselves, and in so doing generates the text for

themselves. As a specific example Gaggi cites the _In Memoriam_ project, a

textual system built around the Tennyson poem. Through the writerly reader

Gaggi returns to the figure of the author. Picking up on a thread from his

analysis on _If on a winter's night a traveller_, hypertext represents a

much more radical problem for the author, because the degree to which the

reader is a part of generating the text, deprivileges the author of any one

of the pieces brought together in the linkages as the site of meaning

generation. Clearly, they are still a part of the process, but they are

more displaced than in the traditional system, a displacement which has the

potential to create difficulties in copyright and payment for the author.

Gaggi sees this process of displacement also at work in the intellectual

communities which come into play via chatrooms and e-lists. In the

interplay of the discussion does the source of the idea get lost, leaving

everyone able to claim the idea, without adequate attribution? The

implication of this kind of reading is that hypertext users are a different

kind of intellectual community. However, maybe we could see hypertext users

as bringing to our attention the processes of communication that already

exist, whether they are part of an institutional framework or less formal

ones. The author, the scholar, the reader, the viewer, have rarely carried

out their activities in a vacuum. Being linked by an electronic system has

the potential to make the processes of exchange more evident, altered

certainly in terms of speed, accessibility, etc., but also to remind us

that our intellectual lives have been based, more often than not, in

sharing.

 

Gaggi ends this chapter with a discussion about the ways in which hypertext

is causing the transformation of the subject. The dispersed author and the

polyphonic text both decentres and expands the subject, as readers and

writers we are out there instead of in here. Returning to an issue which

has run through this book -- the tension between the double articulation of

loss and gain -- Gaggi discusses the pessimistic and optimistic

perspectives on the new media, finishing with an analysis of how the

hypertext narratives 'Afternoon, a story' (1987, Michael Joyce) and

_Victory Garden_ (1991, Stuart Moulthrop). He considers how these authors

put hypertextual strategies to create narratives which engender new reading

relationships and as well as new ways of telling/showing stories.

 

_From Text to Hypertext_ is a series of readings across a range of

different media, close readings which ably demonstrate the 'crisis of the

subject'. In many ways Gaggi succeeds in his intention to,

 

'determine what those texts say or imply about the subject, by their

explicit representation of characters or figures, by their presentation of

themselves as enunciations that may or may not seem to emanate from unified

source, and by their implications regarding the reader or the viewer they

seem to address' (xiii-xiv).

 

In the Epilogue, Gaggi extends his discussion to broader questions about

the subject, moving beyond textual subject(s) he begins to address the

problem of the decentered subject within the world of politics, law,

justice systems, etc. This movement, however, reveals the impasse at the

heart of _From Text to Hypertext_ as it moves between the dissolution of

the subject and an exploration the radical contingencies that always go

into the creation of any subject. As Gaggi takes us through 'the conflict

between the moral imperative to speak and the conviction that speech is

never adequate to its task' (146), the difficult question of what happens

next remains unanswered.

 

University of Aberdeen, Scotland

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Aylish Wood, 'Textual Subjects', _Film-Philosophy_, vol.4 no. 20, September

2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n20wood>.

 

  

 

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