The Scene of the Screen Envisioning Cinematc and Electronic Presence

This essay is published in Materialities of Communication., eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994): 83-106. A much shorter version also appeared in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanties 10.1 (Fall 1990): 50-59, under the title "Toward a Phenomenology of Cinematic and Electronic Presence: The Scene of the Screen." It is used here with the permission of the author.

It is obvious that cinematic and electronic technologies of representation have had enormous impact upon our means of signification during the past century. Less obvious, however, is the similar impact these technologies have had upon the historically particular significance or "sense" we have and make of those temporal and spatial coordinates that radically inform and orient our social, individual, and bodily existences. At this point in time in the United States, whether or not we go to the movies, watch television or music videos, own a video tape recorder/player, allow our children to play video and computer games, or write our academic papers on personal computers, we are all part of a moving-image culture and we live cinematic and electronic lives. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to claim that none of us can escape daily encounters--both direct and indirect--with the objective phenomena of motion picture, televisual, and computer technologies and the networks of communication and texts they produce. Nor is it an extravagance to suggest that, in the most profound, socially pervasive, and yet personal way, these objective encounters transform us as subjects. That is, although relatively novel as "materialities" of human communication, cinematic and electronic media have not only historically symbolized but also historically constituted a radical alteration of the forms of our culture\'s previous temporal and spatial consciousness and of our bodily sense of existential "presence" to the world, to ourselves, and to others.

This different sense of subjective and material "presence" both signified and supported by cinematic and electronic media emerges within and co-constitutes objective and material practices of representation and social existence. Thus, while cooperative in creating the moving-image culture or "life-world" we now inhabit, cinematic and electronic technologies are each quite different from each other in their concrete "materiality" and particular existential significance. Each offers our lived-bodies radically different ways of "being-in-the world." Each implicates us in different structures of material investment, and--because each has a particular affinity with different cultural functions, forms, and contents--each stimulates us through differing modes of representation to different aesthetic responses and ethical responsibilities. In sum, just as the photograph did in the last century, so in this one, cinematic and electronic screens differently demand and shape our "presence" to the world and our representation in it. Each differently and objectively alters our subjectivity while each invites our complicity in formulating space, time, and bodily investment as significant personal and social experience.

These preliminary remarks are grounded in the belief that, during the last century, historical changes in our contemporary "sense" of temporality, spatiality, and existential and embodied presence cannot be considered less than a consequence of correspondent changes in our technologies of representation. However, they also must be considered something more, for as Martin Heidegger reminds us, "The essence of technology is nothing technological."[1] That is, technology never comes to its particular material specificity and function in a neutral context for neutral effect. Rather, it is always historically informed not only by its materiality but also by its political, economic, and social context, and thus always both co-constitutes and expresses cultural values. Correlatively, technology is never merely "used," never merely instrumental. It is always also "incorporated" and "lived" by the human beings who engage it within a structure of meanings and metaphors in which subject-object relations are cooperative, co-constitutive, dynamic, and reversible. It is no accident, for example, that in our now dominantly electronic (and only secondarily cinematic) culture, many human beings describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs (even as they still describe and understand their lives as movies). Nor is it trivial that computers are often described and understood in terms of human minds and/or bodies (for example, as intelligent, or as susceptible to viral infection)--and that these new "life forms" have become the cybernetic heroes of