Posted: October 27th, 2022


Discussion Threads are a place for you to ask questions, engage with your TAs and peers, to find collaborators, and generally deepen your engagement with the course and your own learning. You should think of these posts as mini papers. Write in complete sentences, do not use bullet points or ellipses. Your response should be between 250-500 words. The style of your post can be speculative and personal, you do need to come up with arguments, rather just reflect on your own comprehension of the material. Write in your own voice. But this is not a social media space– your posts should be thoughtful and structured.

Vivian Sobchack’s chapter, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh” makes the argument that “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” (p.60).  On pages 63-65 she describes her own experience of watching The Piano and locates her own understanding of a scene from the film through her own embodied spectatorhsip of it. She describes the feelings she has in her fingers and how that relates to her comprehension of the scene. Using her prose on those pages as a model, try to describe your own viewing of the Afronauts in haptic terms. Try to describe your viewing of some specific scene. Pay close attention to your experience and use that experience as a mode of analysis.

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What My Fingers Knew
The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh

[M]y body is not only an object among all objects, . . . but an object which is sensitive
to all the rest, which reverberates to all sounds, vibrates to all colours, and provides
words with their primordial significance through the way in which it receives them.
—maurice merleau-ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced.
—roland barthes, The Pleasure of the Text


1. Godfrey Cheshire, “Film: Auteurist Elan,” review of The Piano, dir. Jane Campion, Raleigh
(North Carolina) Spectator Magazine, Nov. 18, 1993.

2. Bob Straus, “The Piano Strikes Emotional Chords,” review of The Piano, Los Angeles Daily
News, Nov. 19, 1993.

3. Stuart Klawans, “Films,” review of The Piano, Nation, Dec. 6, 1993, 704.
4. Daniel Heman, “It’s a Bumpy Ride, but This Film’s Built for Speed,” review of Speed, dir.

Jan de Bont, Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 10, 1994.
5. Henry Sheehan, “Speed Thrills,” review of Speed, Orange Country Register, June 10, 1994.

Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine,
I am struck by the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema
and the theory that we academic film scholars construct to explain it—or per-
haps, more aptly, to explain it away. Take, for example, several descriptions
in the popular press of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993): “What impresses
most is the tactile force of the images. The salt air can almost be tasted, the
wind’s furious bite felt.”1 The film is “[a]n unremittingly sensuous experi-
ence of music and fabric, of mud and flesh.”2 “Poems will be written about
the curves of the performers’ buttocks as they’re outlined by candlelight;
about the atmosphere that surrounds the dropping away of each item of
clothing; about the immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in
close-up.”3 A completely different kind of film, Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994),
elicits the following: “Viscerally, it’s a breath-taking trip.”4 It’s “[a] classic
summertime adrenaline rush.”5 “This white knuckle, edge-of-your-seat

54 sensible scenes

6. Joe Leydon, “Breakneck Speed,” review of Speed, Houston Post, June 10, 1994.
7. David Ansen, “Popcorn Deluxe,” review of Speed, Newsweek, June 13, 1994, 53.
8. Anthony Lane, “Faster, Faster,” review of Speed, New Yorker, June 13, 1994, 103.
9. Stephen Hunter, “As Cosmic Battles Go, Kombat Is Merely Mortal,” review of Mortal Kom-

bat, dir. Paul Anderson, Baltimore Sun, Aug. 19, 1995.
10. Janet Weeks, “Is Faux Violence Less Violent?” review of Mortal Kombat, Los Angeles Daily

News, Aug. 19, 1995.
11. Stephanie Griest, “Mortal Kombat’s Bloodless Coup,” review of Mortal Kombat, Washing-

ton Post, Aug. 28, 1995.
12. Owen Gleiberman, “Plastic Fantastic,” review of Toy Story, dir. John Lasseter, Entertain-

ment Weekly, Nov. 14, 1995, 74.
13. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

1969), 57, 59.

action opus is the real thing,”6 “[a] preposterously exciting thrill ride that
takes itself seriously enough to produce gasps of tension and lightly enough
so you giggle while grabbing the armrest.”7 “We feel wiped out with delirium
and relief. The movie comes home in triumph and we go home in shreds.”8

Reviewers of Paul Anderson’s film adaptation of the kung-fu video game Mor-
tal Kombat (1995) emphasize “a soundtrack of . . . primitive, head-bonking
urgency”9 and endless scenes of “kick, sock, pow . . . to-the-death battles,”10

in which “backs, wrists and necks are shattered with sickening cracking
sounds.”11 And, of John Lasseter’s full-length computergraphically animated
feature Toy Story (1995), another says:

A Tyrannosaurus rex doll is so glossy and tactile you feel as if you could reach
out and stroke its hard, shiny head. . . . When some toy soldiers spring to life,
the waxy sheen of their green fatigues will strike Proustian chords of recogni-
tion in anyone who ever presided over a basement game of army. . . . [T]his
movie . . . invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new
eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for

What have we, as contemporary media theorists, to do with such tactile,
kinetic, redolent, resonant, and sometimes even taste-full descriptions of the
film experience?


During earlier periods in the history of film theory there were various
attempts to understand the meaningful relation between cinema and our
sensate bodies. Peter Wollen notes that the great Soviet filmmaker and the-
orist Sergei Eisenstein, fascinated by the Symbolist movement, spent the lat-
ter part of his career investigating the “synchronization of the senses” and
that his “writings on synaesthesia are of great erudition and considerable
interest, despite their fundamentally unscientific nature.”13 Gilles Deleuze

what my fingers knew 55

14. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 159.

15. Lesley Stern, “I Think, Sebastian, Therefore . . . I Somersault: Film and the Uncanny,”
Para*doxa 3, nos. 3–4 (1997): 361.

16. For relevant research by the Payne Studies see W. W. Charters, Motion Pictures and Youth:
A Summary (New York: Macmillan, 1933). In a related context Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic
Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner,” in Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Techno-
logical Embodiment, ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (London: Sage, 1995), writes that
the Payne Studies “presumed that the body might give evidence of physiological symptoms
caused by a kind of technological intervention into subjectivity—an intervention which is part
and parcel of the cinematic experience” (180).

17. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Walter
Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968),
240; and Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobio-
graphical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978), 333–36.

18. Quoted in Miriam Hansen, “ ‘With Skin and Hair’: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Mar-
seilles 1940,” Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (1993): 458 (the translation is Hansen’s). Hansen also goes
on to note: “Pointing to the example of ‘archaic pornographic flicks,’ Kracauer comes close to
describing the physical, tactile dimension of film spectatorship in sexual terms (though not in
terms of gender); in striving for sensual, physiological stimulation, he notes, such ‘flicks’ real-
ize film’s potential in general” (458).

writes that Eisenstein “continually reminds us that ‘intellectual cinema’ has
as correlate ‘sensory thought’ or ‘emotional intelligence,’ and is worthless
without it.”14 And, in a wonderful essay using the trope of the somersault to
address the relation between cinema and the body, Lesley Stern describes
how, for Eisenstein, the moving body was “conceived and configured cine-
matically . . . not just [as] a matter of representation, but [as] a question of
the circuit of sensory vibrations that links viewer and screen.”15 This early
interest in the somatic effects of the cinema culminated, perhaps, on the one
side, in the 1930s, with the empirical work done in the United States by the
Payne Studies—several of which quantitatively measured the “galvanic
responses” and blood pressure of film viewers.16 On the other, qualitative
side, there was the phenomenologically inflected materialist work done in
the 1930s and 1940s by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. Benjamin,
in his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”
speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of “tactile appropriation,” and
elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s “mimetic faculty,” a sensuous and bodily
form of perception.17 And Kracauer located the uniqueness of cinema in the
medium’s essential ability to stimulate us physiologically and sensually; thus
he understands the spectator as a “corporeal-material being,” a “human
being with skin and hair,” and he tells us: “The material elements that pre-
sent themselves in films directly stimulate the material layers of the human
being: his nerves, his senses, his entire physiological substance.”18

Until quite recently, however, contemporary film theory has generally
ignored or elided both cinema’s sensual address and the viewer’s “corporeal-

56 sensible scenes

19. Contemporary film theory as an academic designation usually refers to the period
beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s when semiotics, structuralism, and psychoanalysis
were regarded as methodological antidotes to a “soft” and unscientific humanist film criticism,
and Marxist cultural critique and feminist theory were regarded as ideological antidotes to bour-
geois and patriarchal aestheticism. An extended critique of the contemporary theoretical over-
sight (if not repression) of the spectator’s lived body, as well as a discussion of the historical and
theoretical reasons for it, can be found in my own The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film
Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

20. See Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4
(summer 1991): 2–13; “Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the Carnal Density
of Vision,” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1995), 3–41; and “The Visual and Carnal Pleasures of Moving-Image Pornog-
raphy: A Brief History” (unpublished manuscript); this latter essay was eventually incorporated
into the epilogue of the 1999 edition of Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy
of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

21. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
22. Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
23. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses

(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

24. Elena del Río, “The Body as Foundation of the Screen: Allegories of Technology in
Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts,” Camera Obscura 37–38 (summer 1996): 94–115; and “The Body
of Voyeurism: Mapping a Discourse of the Senses in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom,” Camera
Obscura 15, no. 3 (2000): 115–49.

25. Jennifer Barker’s dissertation, “The Tactile Eye,” (UCLA) is in progress; however, she
has delivered two conference papers that draw from her research: “Fascinating Rhythms: The
Visceral Pleasures of the Cinema” (“Come to Your Senses,” Amsterdam School for Cultural
Analysis, Theory, and Interpretation, Amsterdam, May 1998); and “Affecting Cinema” (annual
meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies, Chicago, IL, Mar. 2000).

material being.”19 Thus, if we read across the field, there is very little sus-
tained work in English to be found on the carnal sensuality of the film expe-
rience and what—and how—it constitutes meaning. The few exceptions
include Linda Williams’s ongoing investigation of what she calls “body gen-
res”;20 Jonathan Crary’s recognition, in Techniques of the Observer, of the “car-
nal density” of spectatorship that emerges with the new visual technologies
of the nineteenth century;21 Steven Shaviro’s Deleuzean emphasis, in The
Cinematic Body, on the visceral event of film viewing;22 Laura Marks’s works
on “the skin of the film” and “touch” that focus on what she describes as
“haptic visuality” in relation to bodies and images;23 several essays by Elena
del Río that, from a phenomenological perspective, attempt to undo “the
rigid binary demarcations of externality and internality”;24 and forthcoming
work from Jennifer Barker that develops a phenomenology of cinematic tac-
tility.25 In general, however, most film theorists still seem either embarrassed
or bemused by bodies that often act wantonly and crudely at the movies,
involuntarily countering the fine-grained sensibilities, intellectual discrimi-

what my fingers knew 57

26. Williams, “Film Bodies,” 5.
27. Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-

Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (Lon-
don: BFI, 1990), 56–62. Gunning comments: “Clearly in some sense recent spectacle cinema
has reaffirmed its roots in stimulus and carnival rides, in what might be called the Spielberg-
Lucas-Coppola cinema and effects” (61). It is worth noting that this move from use of the phrase
“cinema of attractions” to designate a historically specific mode—and moment—of film pro-
duction to its use as a more generic and transhistorical designation is seen as problematic. A
thoughtful critique was offered by Ben Brewster in “Periodization of the Early Cinema: Some
Problems” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies, Dallas,
TX, Mar. 1996).

28. Richard Dyer, “Action!” Sight and Sound 4, no. 10 (Oct. 1994): 7–10.

nations, and vocabulary of critical reflection. Indeed, as Williams suggests in
relation to the “low” body genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama
she privileges, a certain discomfort emerges when we experience an “appar-
ent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation
and emotion.” She tells us: “We feel manipulated by these texts—an impres-
sion that the very colloquialisms of ‘tear jerker’ and ‘fear jerker’ express—
and to which we could add pornography’s even cruder sense as texts to
which some people might be inclined to ‘jerk off.’” Bodily responses to such
films are taken as an involuntary and self-evident reflexology, marking, as
Williams notes, sexual arousal on “peter meters”; horror in screams, fainting,
and even heart attacks; and sentiment in “one-, two-, or three handker-

For the most part, then, carnal responses to the cinema have been
regarded as too crude to invite extensive elaboration beyond aligning
them—for their easy thrills, commercial impact, and cultural associations—
with other more “kinetic” forms of amusement such as theme park rides or
with Tom Gunning’s once historically grounded but now catch-all designa-
tion, “cinema of attractions.”27 Thus, scholarly interest has been focused less
on the capacity of films to physically arouse us to meaning than on what such
sensory cinematic appeal reveals about the rise and fall of classical narrative,
or the contemporary transmedia structure of the entertainment industry, or
the desires of our culture for the distractions of immediate sensory immer-
sion in an age of pervasive mediation.

Nonetheless, critical discussions often also suggest that films that appeal
to our sensorium are the quintessence of cinema. For example, writing about
Speed, Richard Dyer relates the Lumière audiences’ recoiling in terror from
an approaching onscreen train to IMAX and Showscan, proposing that all
cinema is, at base, a “cinema of sensation.”28 Indeed, he argues that the cin-
ema’s essence is to represent and fulfill our desire “for an underlying pattern
of feeling, to do with freedom of movement, confidence in the body, engage-
ment with the material world, that is coded as male (and straight and white,

58 sensible scenes

29. Ibid., 9.
30. Ibid., 8 (emphasis added).
31. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in

Language, trans. Robert Czerny, Kathleen McLaughlin, and John Costello (Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1977), discusses the status of the “as if ” in relation to metaphor and reference;
see esp. 248–56. He finds inadequate both “an interpretation that gives in to ontological naïveté
in the evaluation of metaphorical truth because it ignores the implicit ‘is not’” and its “inverse
interpretation that, under the critical pressure of the ‘is not,’ loses the ‘is’ by reducing it to the ‘as if’ of
a reflective judgment.” As he says, the “legitimation of the concept of metaphorical truth, which
preserves the ‘is not’ with the ‘is,’ will proceed from the convergence of these two critiques”
(249; emphasis added). Subsequent references will be cited in the text.

too) but to which all humans need access.”29 However, although Dyer
acknowledges the importance of the spectator’s direct bodily experience of
cinema, he is at a loss to explain its very existence. He tells us: “The celebra-
tion of sensational movement, that we respond to in some still unclear sense ‘as
if real,’ for many people is the movies.”30 The dynamic structure that grounds
our bodily response to cinema’s visual (and aural) representations is not only
articulated as a continuing mystery, but its eidetic “givenness” to experience
is also destabilized by the phrase “as if real”—the phrase itself surrounded by
a set of scare quotes that, questioning this questioning of givenness, further
plunges us into a mise en abyme of experiential undecidability.

This “still unclear sense” of the sensational movement that, “as if real,”
provokes a bodily response marks the confusion and discomfort we scholars
have not only in confronting our sensual experience of the cinema but also
in confronting our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more
than “mere” physiological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more
than metaphorical description.31 Thus, the language used in the press to
describe the sensuous and affective dimensions of the film experience has
been written off as a popular version of that imprecise humanist criticism
drummed out of film studies in the early 1970s with the advent of more “rig-
orous” and “objective” modes of description. Thus, sensual reference in
descriptions of cinema has been generally regarded as rhetorical or poetic
excess—sensuality located, then, always less on the side of the body than on
the side of language. This view is tautological. As Shaviro points out, it sub-
sumes sensation “within universal (linguistic or conceptual) forms only
because it has deployed those forms in order to describe sensation in the first
place.” This elision of the body “making sense” in its own right is grounded
in “the idealist assumption that human experience is originally and funda-
mentally cognitive.” To hold such an idealist assumption, Shaviro goes on,

is to reduce the question of perception to a question of knowledge, and to
equate sensation with the reflective consciousness of sensation. The Hegelian
and structuralist equation suppresses the body. It ignores or abstracts away

what my fingers knew 59

32. Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 26–27.
33. As Linda Williams, in “Visual and Carnal Pleasures,” summarizes: “In psychoanalytic

film theory this opposition between an excessive and inarticulate body and sensation on the one
hand and a mastering spirit or thought on the other has been fundamental, giving rise to the
concept of an abstract ‘visual pleasure’ grounded in a voyeuristic gaze whose pleasure presumes
a distanced, decorporealized, monocular eye mastering all it surveils but not physically impli-
cated in the objects of its vision” (n.p.). This “mastering” gaze has meant the privileging of Ren-
aissance perspective and its Cartesian “carpentering” of the world as the explanatory model for
describing cinematic space. For more discussion of this issue and alternative descriptive mod-
els see “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space” in this volume.

from the primordial forms of raw sensation: affect, excitation, stimulation and
repression, pleasure and pain, shock and habit. It posits instead a disincarnate
eye and ear whose data are immediately objectified in the form of self-con-
scious awareness or positive knowledge.32

In sum, even though there has been increasing interest in doing so, we
have not yet come to grips with the carnal foundations of cinematic intelli-
gibility, with the fact that to understand movies figurally, we first must make literal
sense of them. This is not a tautology—particularly in a discipline that has
worked long and hard to separate the sense and meaning of vision and spec-
ularity from a body that, in experience, lives vision always in cooperation and
significant exchange with other sensorial means of access to the world, a
body that makes meaning before it makes conscious, reflective thought.
Thus, despite current academic fetishization of “the body,” most theorists
still don’t quite know what to do with their unruly responsive flesh and sen-
sorium. Our sensations and responses pose an intolerable question to preva-
lent linguistic and psychoanalytic understandings of the cinema as grounded
in conventional codes and cognitive patterning and grounded on absence,
lack, and illusion. They also pose an intolerable challenge to the prevalent
cultural assumption that the film image is constituted by a merely two-dimen-
sional geometry.33 Positing cinematic vision as merely a mode of objective
symbolic representation, and reductively abstracting—“disincarnating”—
the spectator’s subjective and full-bodied vision to posit it only as a “distance
sense,” contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in compre-
hending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really “touched”
and “moved” by the movies.

At worst, then, contemporary film theory has not taken bodily being at
the movies very seriously—and, at best, it has generally not known how to
respond to and describe how it is that movies “move” and “touch” us bodily.
Instead, with some noted exceptions, film theory has attempted (somewhat
defensively, I think) to put the ambiguous and unruly, subjectively sensuous,
embodied experience of going to the movies back where it “properly”—that
is, objectively—belongs: it locates the sensuous on the screen as the semiotic

60 sensible scenes

34. Chiasm (sometimes chiasmus) is the term used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in “Eye and
Mind,” trans. Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James Edie (Evanston, IL: North-
western University Press, 1964), to indicate a “unique space which separates and reunites, which
sustains every cohesion” (187). In general, chiasm is used to name the ground of all presence
against which discrete figures of being emerge; as such, it is the ground from which oppositions
both emerge and fall away, on which they become reversible. Here I am suggesting that the
enworlded lived body functions as our own chiasmatic site in the matter of meaning and the
meaning of matter: that is, it sustains discrete and oppositional figures (such as language and
being) but also provides the synoptic ground for the suspension of both their discretion and
their opposition. See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,” in The Vis-
ible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Uni-
versity Press, 1968), 130–55.

35. Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New
York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 52–68. Miriam Hansen, “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The
Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,’” New German Critique 40 (winter 1987), writes of this
connection between “third meaning” and the lived body in relation to Walter Benjamin’s reflec-
tions on the “mimetic faculty”: “For Benjamin, the semiotic aspect of language encompasses
both Barthes’s ‘informational’ and ‘symbolic’ levels of meaning . . . while the mimetic aspect
would correspond to the level of physiognomic excess” (198).

effects of cinematic representation and the semantic property of cinematic
objects or off the screen in the spectator’s phantasmatic psychic formations,
cognitive processes, and basic physiological reflexes that do not pose major
questions of meaning. Yet as film theorists we are not exempt from sensual
being at the movies—nor, let us admit it, would we wish to be. As “lived bod-
ies” (to use a phenomenological term that insists on “the” objective body as
always also lived subjectively as “my” body, diacritically invested and active in
making sense and meaning in and of the world), our vision is always already
“fleshed out.” Even at the movies our vision and hearing are informed and
given meaning by our other modes of sensory access to the world: our capac-
ity not only to see and to hear but also to touch, to smell, to taste, and always
to proprioceptively feel our weight, dimension, gravity, and movement in the
world. In sum, the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but
because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the “carnal
thoughts” that ground and inform more conscious analysis.

Thus, we need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film
experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film
viewer’s lived body as a carnal “third term” that grounds and mediates expe-
rience and language, subjective vision and objective image—both differen-
tiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of percep-
tion and expression.34 Indeed, it is the lived body that provides both the site
and genesis of the “third” or “obtuse” meaning that Roland Barthes suggests
escapes language yet resides within it.35 Thrown into a meaningful lifeworld,
the lived body is always already engaged in a commutation and transubstan-

what my fingers knew 61

36. Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 255–56.
37. For discussion of these politics see, e.g., Cynthia Kaufman, “Colonialism, Purity, and

Resistance in The Piano,” Socialist Review 24, nos. 1–2 (1994): 251–55; Leonie Pihama, “Are Films
Dangerous? A Maori Woman’s Perspective on The Piano,” Hecate 20, no. 2 (Oct. 1994): 239–42;
Lynda Dyson, “The Return of the Repressed? Whiteness, Femininity, and Colonialism in The
Piano,” Screen 36, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 267–76; and Dana Polan, Jane Campion (London: BFI,

tiation of the cooperative meaning-making capacity of its senses (which are
always acculturated and never lived as either discrete or raw)—a process that
commutes the meaning of one sense to the meaning of another, translates
the literal into the figural and back again, and prereflectively grounds the
more particular and reflective discriminations of a “higher order” semiology.
Put another way, we could say that the lived body both provides and enacts
a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge,
between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning. In this regard
Shaviro is most eloquent:

There is no structuring lack, no primordial division, but a continuity between
the physiological and affective responses of my own body and the appearances
and disappearances, the mutations and perdurances, of the bodies and images
on screen. The important distinction is not the hierarchical, binary one
between bodies and images, or between the real and its representations. It is
rather a question of discerning multiple and continually varying interactions
among what can be defined indifferently as bodies and as images: degrees of
stillness and motion, of action and passion, of clutter and emptiness, of light
and lack. . . . The image cannot be opposed to the body, as representation is
opposed to its unattainable referent. For a fugitive, supplemental materiality
haunts the (allegedly) idealizing processes of mechanical reproduction. . . .
The flesh is intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus, at once its subject, its sub-
stance, and its limit.36


At this point, given my rather lengthy critique of theoretical abstraction and
its oversight of our bodily experience at the movies, I want to ground my pre-
vious discussion “in the flesh.” In my flesh, in fact—and its meaningful
responsiveness to and comprehension of an actual film, The Piano. However
intellectually problematic in terms of its sexual and colonial politics,37 Cam-
pion’s film moved me deeply, stirring my bodily senses and my sense of my
body. The film not only “filled me up” and often “suffocated” me with feel-
ings that resonated in and constricted my chest and stomach, but it also “sen-
sitized” the very surfaces of my skin—as well as its own—to touch. Through-

62 sensible scenes

38. I am certainly not alone in responding this way. See, e.g., Sue Gillett’s “Lips and Fingers:
Jane Campion’s The Piano,” Screen 36, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 277–87. Not only does Gillett open
and conclude her unusual essay using first-person voice to “inhabit” protagonist Ada’s con-
sciousness, but, as the critic, she also tells us outright, in a description I find resonant with my
own experience, “The Piano affected me very deeply. I was entranced, moved, dazed. I held my
breath. I was reluctant to re-enter the everyday world after the film had finished. The Piano
shook, disturbed and inhabited me. I felt that my own dreams had taken form, been
revealed. . . . These were thick, heavy and exhilarating feelings” (286).

39. Certainly some individual films like The Piano and those films grouped by Williams as
“body genres” foreground sensual engagement in explicit image and sound content and nar-
rative focus, as well as in a more backgrounded manner—that is, through the kinetic activity
and sensory experience of what I have, in The Address of the Eye, called the “film’s body” (see
note 48 below). Other films may show us bodies in sensual engagement but do so in a non-
sensual manner, thus distancing us rather than soliciting a similar experience through the
“attitude” of their mediating vision. Nonetheless, I would maintain that all films engage the
sense-making capacity of our bodies, as well as of our minds—albeit according to different
ratios (or rationalities).

out the film my whole being was intensely concentrated and, rapt as I was in
the world onscreen, I was wrapped also in a body that was achingly aware of
itself as a sensuous, sensitized, sensible material capacity.38 (In this context
we might remember the reviewers who spoke of the “unremittingly sensuous
experience of music and fabric, of mud and flesh” and “immediate tactile
shock.”) In particular, I want to focus on my sensual and sense-making expe-
rience of The Piano’s first two shots—for they, in fact, generated this essay.
Although my body’s attention was mobilized and concentrated throughout
a film that never ceased to move or touch me carnally, emotionally, and con-
sciously in the most complex ways, these first two shots significantly fore-
grounded for me the issue at hand (so to speak) of our sensual engagement
not only with this film but, to varying degrees, with all others.39 Most partic-
ularly, these inaugural shots also foregrounded the ambiguity and ambiva-
lence of vision’s relation to touch as the latter has been evoked here in both
its literal and figurative sense.

In visual and figural terms the very first shot we see in The Piano seems an
unidentifiable image. Carol Jacobs gives us a precise description and gloss of
both this shot and the one that follows it:

Long, uneven shafts of reddish-pink light fan out across the screen, unfocused
like a failed and developed color negative of translucent vessels of blood. . . .
Yet it is nearly no view at all—an almost blindness, with distance so minimal
between eye and object that what we see is an unrecognizable blur. . . . The
image we first see is from the other side, from Ada’s perspective, her fingers,
liquid fingers. . . . We see Ada’s fingers pierced through with sunlight, appar-
ently from her perspective, as we hear the voice of her mind, but then, imme-

what my fingers knew 63

40. Carol Jacobs, “Playing Jane Campion’s Piano: Politically,” Modern Language Notes 109, no.
5 (Dec. 1994): 769–70.

diately thereafter, we see them from the clear perspective of the onlookers that
we are, as they become matter-of-fact-objects to the lens of the camera.40

As I watched The Piano’s opening moments—in that first shot, before I
even knew there was an Ada and before I saw her from my side of her vision
(that is, before I watched her rather than her vision)—something seemingly
extraordinary happened. Despite my “almost blindness,” the “unrecogniz-
able blur,” and resistance of the image to my eyes, my fingers knew what I was
looking at—and this before the objective reverse shot that followed to put those
fingers in their proper place (that is, to put them where they could be seen
objectively rather than subjectively “looked through”). What I was seeing
was, in fact, from the beginning, not an unrecognizable image, however
blurred and indeterminate in my vision, however much my eyes could not
“make it out.” From the first (although I didn’t consciously know it until the
second shot), my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly
imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, “felt them-
selves” as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured
onscreen. And this before I refigured my carnal comprehension into the con-
scious thought, “Ah, those are fingers I am looking at.” Indeed, at first, prior
to this conscious recognition, I did not understand those fingers as “those”
fingers—that is, at a distance from my own fingers and objective in their
“thereness.” Rather, those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as
“these” fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on—sub-
jectively “here” as well as objectively “there,” “mine” as well as the image’s.
Thus, although it should have been a surprising revelation given my “almost
blindness” to the first shot, the second and objective reverse shot of a woman
peering at the world through her outspread fingers really came as no sur-
prise at all. Instead, it seemed a pleasurable culmination and confirmation
of what my fingers—and I, reflexively if not yet reflectively—already knew.

Although this experience of my body’s prereflective but reflexive com-
prehension of the seen (and, hence, the scene) is in some respects
extraordinary, it is also in most respects hardly exceptional. Indeed, I would
argue that this prereflective bodily responsiveness to films is a common-
place. That is, we do not experience any movie only through our eyes. We see
and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the
full history and carnal knowledge of our acculturated sensorium. Norma-
tively, however, the easy givenness of things for us to see at the movies and
vision’s overarching mastery and comprehension of its objects and its his-
torically hierarchical sway over our other senses tend to occlude our aware-

64 sensible scenes

41. The normative dominance of vision and its mastery over the world as objective is most
frequently overthrown in what is called experimental or avant-garde cinema. In this regard see
also Marks’s discussion of intercultural cinema in The Skin of the Film (see note 23).

42. The phrase “baffled vision” comes from Laura Marks, “Haptic Visuality” (paper pre-
sented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies, Dallas, TX, Mar. 1996).

43. Here I cannot resist citing a rather derisive comment about Campion’s next (and less
critically successful) film, The Portrait of a Lady (1996), that is explicit about the filmmaker’s own
symbolic “fixation” on what was once a dynamic representation of touch. Entertainment Weekly,
Feb. 7, 1997, has a sidebar called “Fixation of the Week” with the subtitle “Jane Campion’s
Hands-On Approach.” The text reads: “Starting with the title sequence, in which ‘The Portrait of
a Lady’ is emblazoned on a middle finger, the director gives us 60-odd shots of fingers. There’s
fly flicking, ivory tickling, skin stroking, nose scratching, cigarette holding, and that all-too-Piano
moment when Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer says, ‘I would have given my little finger.’ Oh,
Jane, please, not again!” (53).

44. Jacobs, “Playing Jane Campion’s Piano,” 770.
45. This issue of the discretion of each of the senses and their nonisolated relation to each

other is discussed in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), esp. 223–25. The philosopher writes: “[E]ach
organ of sense explores the object in its own way, [and] is the agent of a certain type of
synthesis” (223). And he elaborates: “The senses are distinct from each other and distinct
from intellection in so far as each one of them brings with it a structure of being which can
never be exactly transposed. . . . And we can recognize it without any threat to the unity of the

ness of our body’s other ways of taking up and making meaning of the
world—and its representation. Thus, what is extraordinary about the open-
ing shot of The Piano is that it offers (at least on first viewing) a relatively rare
instance of narrative cinema in which the cultural hegemony of vision is
overthrown,41 an instance in which my eyes did not “see” anything mean-
ingful and experienced an almost blindness at the same time that my tactile
sense of being in the world through my fingers grasped the image’s sense in a
way that my forestalled or baffled vision could not.42

Jacobs tells us that the initial image is “like a failed and developed color
negative of translucent vessels of blood.” Nonetheless, one senses that her
bodily reference is derived less from tactile foresight than from visual hindsight.
For, in an otherwise admirable essay that focuses on the film’s narrative and
visual emphasis on touch, Jacobs objectifies the site of touch far too
quickly—rushing to reduce vision to point of view, hurrying to consider tac-
tility and fingers and hands in terms of their narrative symbolism.43 Thus, she
tells us that Ada’s fingers in that first shot (as well as throughout) are used
symbolically to “render us illiterate” and “unable to read them.”44 Now, if
vision were an isolated sense and not merely a discrete sense possessing its own
structure, capacities, and limits, I suppose this might be true. But vision is not
isolated from our other senses. Whatever its specific structure, capacities,
and sensual discriminations, vision is only one modality of my lived body’s
access to the world and only one means of making the world of objects and
others sensible—that is, meaningful—to me.45 Vision may be the sense most

what my fingers knew 65

senses. For the senses communicate with each other. . . . [T]he experience of the separate
‘senses’ is gained only when one assumes a highly particularized attitude, and this cannot be
of any assistance to the analysis of direct consciousness” (225). Subsequent references will be
cited in the text.

46. del Río, “Body as Foundation,” 101.

privileged in the culture and the cinema, with hearing a close second;
nonetheless, I do not leave my capacity to touch or to smell or to taste at the
door, nor, once in the theater, do I devote these senses only to my popcorn.

Thus I would argue that my experience of The Piano was a heightened
instance of our common sensuous experience of the movies: the way we are
in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and
texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience
weight, suffocation, and the need for air; to take flight in kinetic exhilaration
and freedom even as we are relatively bound to our theater seats; to be
knocked backward by a sound; to sometimes even smell and taste the world
we see on the screen. Although, perhaps, smell and taste are less called on
than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see, I still remem-
ber the “visual aroma” of my experience of Black Narcissus (Michael Powell
and Emeric Pressberger, 1946), the film itself named after a perfume, or the
pork-noodle taste of portions of Tampopo ( Juzo Itami, 1986). (And why
should we be surprised at this when the very power of advertising cologne
and food rests heavily on transmodal cooperation and translation within and
across the sensorium?) Furthermore, as I engaged these films, I did not
“think” a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experi-
enced it without a thought. Elena del Río describes the phenomenological
structure of this experience: “As the image becomes translated into a bodily
response, body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as sur-
faces in contact, engaged in a constant activity of reciprocal re-alignment
and inflection.”46

In this regard we might wish to think again about processes of identifica-
tion in the film experience, relating them not to our secondary engagement
with and recognition of either “subject positions” or characters but rather to
our primary engagement (and the film’s) with the sense and sensibility of
materiality itself. We, ourselves, are subjective matter: our lived bodies sen-
sually relate to “things” that “matter” on the screen and find them sensible
in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later second-
ary identifications that are more discrete and localized. Certainly, my expe-
rience of the opening subjective shot of The Piano provides evidence of this
prepersonal and globally located bodily comprehension, but such ambient
and carnal identification with material subjectivity also occurs when, for
example, I “objectively” watch Baines—under the piano and Ada’s skirts—
reach out and touch Ada’s flesh through a hole in her black woolen stock-

66 sensible scenes

47. Although only discussed generally rather than elaborated as a specific phenomenolog-
ical structure of cinematic engagement, Marks uses the phrase “ambient identification” in her
“Haptic Visuality” to suggest an identification with the image that is not located in a single sub-
ject position or self-displacements in narrative characters.

48. I use the phrase the “film’s body” very precisely in The Address of the Eye to designate the
material existence of the film as functionally embodied (and thus differentiated in existence
from the filmmaker and spectator). The “film’s body” is not visible in the film except for its
intentional agency and diacritical motion. It is not anthropomorphic, but it is also not reducible
to the cinematic apparatus (in the same way that we are not reducible to our material physiog-
nomy); it is discovered and located only reflexively as a quasi-subjective and embodied “eye” that
has a discrete—if ordinarily prepersonal and anonymous—existence.

49. Iris Marion Young, “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation,” in Throwing
like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press, 1990), 161.

50. Elizabeth Grosz, “Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray in the Flesh,” in “Sense and Sensuousness:
Merleau-Ponty,” special issue, Thesis Eleven 36 (1993): 46.

ing.47 Looking at this objective image, like the reviewer cited earlier, I also
felt an “immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in close-up.”
Yet precisely whose flesh I felt was ambiguous and vague—and emergent from
a phenomenological experience structured on ambivalence and diffusion.
That is, I had a carnal interest and investment in being both “here” and
“there,” in being able both to sense and to be sensible, to be both the subject
and the object of tactile desire. At the moment when Baines touches Ada’s
skin through her stocking, suddenly my skin is both mine and not my own:
that is, the “immediate tactile shock” opens me to the general erotic mat-
tering and diffusion of my flesh, and I feel not only my “own” body but also
Baines’s body, Ada’s body, and what I have elsewhere called the “film’s
body.”48 Thus, even confronted with an “objective” shot, my fingers know
and understand the subjective meanings of this “seen” and this viewing situ-
ation, and they grasp textural and textual meaning everywhere—not only in
the touching but also in the touched. Objectivity and subjectivity lose their
presumed clarity. Which is to say, in this viewing situation (and to varying
degrees in every viewing situation), “to situate subjectivity in the lived body
jeopardizes dualistic metaphysics altogether. There remains no basis for pre-
serving the mutual exclusivity of the categories subject and object, inner and
outer, I and world.”49

Again, I want to emphasize that I am not speaking metaphorically of
touching and being touched at and by the movies but “in some sense” quite
literally of our capacity to feel the world we see and hear onscreen and of the
cinema’s capacity to “touch” and “move” us offscreen. As philosopher Eliza-
beth Grosz puts it: “Things solicit the flesh just as the flesh beckons to and
as an object for things. Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touch-
ing, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in
its own self-embrace.”50 Experiencing a movie, not ever merely “seeing” it,

what my fingers knew 67

51. Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991),

52. Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Rev-
olutionary Insights into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness (New York: Warner, 1993), 52. Sub-
sequent references will be cited in the text. For more recent works on synaesthesia see John E.
Harrison and Simon Baron-Cohen, eds., Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Cam-
bridge: Blackwell, 1996); and Kevin T. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search
for Transcendental Knowledge (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

my lived body enacts this reversibility in perception and subverts the very
notion of onscreen and offscreen as mutually exclusive sites or subject positions.
Indeed, much of the “pleasure of the text” emerges from this carnal subver-
sion of fixed subject positions, from the body as a “third” term that both
exceeds and yet is within discrete representation; thus, as Barthes has shown
us, “it would be wrong . . . to imagine a rigid distinction between the body
inside and the body outside the text, because the subversive force of the body
is partly in its capacity to function both figuratively and literally.”51 All the
bodies in the film experience—those onscreen and offscreen (and possibly
the screen itself)—are potentially subversive bodies. They have the capacity
to function both figuratively and literally. They are pervasive and diffusely sit-
uated in the film experience. Yet these bodies are also materially circum-
scribed and can be specifically located, each arguably becoming the “ground-
ing body” of sense and meaning since each exists in a dynamic figure-ground
relation of reversibility with the others. Furthermore, these bodies also sub-
vert their own fixity from within, commingling flesh and consciousness,
reversing the human and technological sensorium, so that meaning, and
where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies
or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction.

We might name this subversive body in the film experience the cinesthetic
subject—a neologism that derives not only from cinema but also from two sci-
entific terms that designate particular structures and conditions of the
human sensorium: synaesthesia and coenaesthesia. Both of these structures and
conditions foreground the complexity and richness of the more general bod-
ily experience that grounds our particular experience of cinema, and both
also point to ways in which the cinema uses our dominant senses of vision
and hearing to speak comprehensibly to our other senses.

In strict medical discourse, psychoneurologist Richard Cytowic notes that
synaesthesia is defined as an “involuntary experience in which the stimulation
of one sense cause[s] a perception in another.”52 Synaesthetes regularly,
vividly, and automatically perceive sound as color or shapes as tastes. One
woman explains, “I most often see sound as colors, with a certain sense of
pressure on my skin. . . . I am seeing, but not with my eyes, if that makes
sense,” and, as an example, she says that she experiences her husband’s voice

68 sensible scenes

53. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage, 1990), 291.
54. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1980).

and laughter not metaphorically but literally as “a wonderful golden brown,
with a flavor of crisp, buttery toast” (118). “Synaesthesia,” says Cytowic, “is
the most immediate and direct kind of experience. . . . It is sensual and con-
crete, not some intellectualized concept pregnant with meaning. It empha-
sizes limbic processes [over higher cortical functions of the brain] which
break through to consciousness. It’s about feeling and being, something
more immediate than analyzing what is happening and talking about it”
(176). Nonetheless, this does not mean that synaesthetic experience as
“more immediate than analysis” escapes culture—as evident in laughter per-
ceived as the taste of “crisp, buttery toast.”

Clinical synaesthesia is uncommon in the general population although, to
some degree, a less extreme experience of “cross-modal transfer” among our
senses is common enough to have warranted the term’s use and the condi-
tion’s description in ordinary language. Artists have long been interested in
synaesthesia (as were the Symbolists and Eisenstein); indeed, quite a number
of them also have been synaesthetes (novelist Vladimir Nabokov is but one
example). Furthermore, in common usage synaesthesia refers not only to an
involuntary transfer of feeling among the senses but also to the volitional use
of metaphors in which terms relating to one kind of sense impression are
used to describe a sense impression of other kinds. This move from an invol-
untary and immediate exchange within the sensorium to a conscious and
mediated exchange between the sensorium and language not only reminds us
of the aforementioned “synaesthesia-loving Symbolist movement”53 but also
points to a sensual economy of language dependent on the lived body as
simultaneously the fundamental source of language, its primary sign producer,
and its primary sign. Thus, in Metaphors We Live By linguist George Lakoff and
philosopher Mark Johnson argue that figural language emerges and takes its
meaning from our physical experience (however disciplined by culture),54

and Cytowic, working with synaesthetes, concludes that “the coherence of
metaphors . . . [is] rooted in concrete experience, which is what gives
metaphors their meaning. . . . [M]etaphor is experiential and visceral”
(206). This relation between the literal sensible body and metaphor as sensible
figure is central to both our understanding of cinematic intelligibility and of
the cinesthetic subject who is moved and touched by going to the movies—
and it is an issue to which I will return.

The neologism of the film viewer as a “cinesthetic subject” also draws on
another scientific term used to designate a bodily condition: coenaesthesia.
Neither pathological nor rare, coenaesthesia names the potential and per-
ception of one’s whole sensorial being. Thus, the term is used to describe the

what my fingers knew 69

55. See also Ackerman, Natural History, 289.
56. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,

1999), 4.

general and open sensual condition of the child at birth. The term also refers
to a certain prelogical and nonhierarchical unity of the sensorium that exists
as the carnal foundation for the later hierarchical arrangement of the senses
achieved through cultural immersion and practice. In this regard, Cytowic
notes, it has been demonstrated that young children—not yet fully accul-
turated to a particularly disciplined organization of the sensorium—experi-
ence a greater “horizontalization” of the senses and consequently a greater
capacity for cross-modal sensorial exchange than do adults (95–96).55 In
sum, whereas synaesthesia refers to the exchange and translation between
and among the senses, coenaesthesia refers to the way in which equally avail-
able senses become variously heightened and diminished, the power of his-
tory and culture regulating their boundaries as it arranges them into a nor-
mative hierarchy.

There are those instances, however, when we do not have to be clinically
diagnosed synaesthetes or very young children to challenge those bound-
aries and transform those hierarchies. The undoing of regulatory borders
and orders among the senses can occur in a variety of situations. For
example, Elaine Scarry, pointing to our encounters with something extraor-
dinarily beautiful, writes:

A visual event may reproduce itself in the realm of touch (as when the seen face
incites an ache of longing in the hand). . . . This crisscrossing of the senses may
happen in any direction. Wittgenstein speaks not only about beautiful visual
events prompting motions in the hand but . . . about heard music that later
prompts a ghostly sub-anatomical event in his teeth and gums. So, too, an act
of touch may reproduce itself as an acoustical event or even an abstract idea,
the way whenever Augustine touches something smooth, he begins to think of
music and God.56

In other instances involuntary cross-modal sensory exchange often becomes
foregrounded in conscious experience through perception-altering sub-
stances such as drugs. As Merleau-Ponty notes in Phenomenology of Perception,
“A subject under mescalin finds a piece of iron, strikes the window-sill with
it and exclaims: ‘This is magic’: the trees are growing greener. The barking
of a dog is found to attract light in an indescribable way, and is re-echoed in
the right foot” (229).

In a critique of objectivist science that well might be applied to objectivist
reductions of the film experience, the philosopher goes on to say: “Synaes-
thetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific
knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have

70 sensible scenes

57. Lisa Schwarzbaum, “Four-Star Feast,” review of Big Night, dir. Campbell Scott and Stan-
ley Tucci, Entertainment Weekly, Sep. 20, 1996, 49–50.

58. Lila Guterman, “Do You Smell What I Hear? Neuroscientists Discover Crosstalk among
the Senses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 14, 2001, A17.

59. Ibid.

unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce,
from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what
are to see, hear and feel” (229). We could add that we are also unaware of
synaesthetic perception because it is the rule, and we have become so habit-
uated to the constant cross-modal translations of our sensory experience that
they are transparent to us except in their most extreme instances. Exemplary
here for its ordinary quality is the common experience of those of us who
like to cook—and eat—of tasting a recipe as we read it. This commutative act
between the visual comprehension of abstract language and its carnal mean-
ing not only attests to a grounding synaesthesia that enables such translation
but also again demonstrates “the subversive force of the body . . . in its
capacity to function both figuratively and literally.” My eyes read and com-
prehend the recipe cognitively, but they are not abstracted from my body,
which can—albeit in a transformed and somewhat diffused act of gustatory
sense-making—taste the meal. Why, then, is it not possible that we might par-
take even more intensely of Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)? And to what
extent are we being quite literal as well as figurative when we describe the
meals in Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1994) as “a feast for the eyes”?
Here, in a popular review of Big Night (Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott,
1996), Lisa Schwarzbaum makes some apposite discriminations: “The dif-
ference between a movie that makes you admire food and one that makes
you love food is the difference between a dinner table posed like a still life
in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence [1993] and a clove of garlic sliced so
intently you can practically inhale its ornery perfume in Scorsese’s Goodfel-
las [1990]. One engages the eye and the other arouses all five senses.”57

This is not mere rhetoric. Philosophy aside, recent developments in neu-
roscience have indicated that “the boundaries between the senses are
blurred.”58 Furthermore, a series of experiments has shown not only that the
brain’s visual cortex is activated when subjects—who are blindfolded—touch
objects with their fingers but also that when researchers blocked the subjects’
visual cortex, their tactile perception was impaired. Apparently, research has
also shown that “the olfactory area of the brain also involves vision,” partic-
ularly in relation to the perception of color.59 We are, in fact, all synaes-
thetes—and thus seeing a movie can also be an experience of touching, tast-
ing, and smelling it.

In sum, the cinesthetic subject names the film viewer (and, for that mat-
ter, the filmmaker) who, through an embodied vision in-formed by the

what my fingers knew 71

60. For discussion of the way clothing (and touch) functions textually and symbolically in
The Piano see Stella Bruzzi, “Tempestuous Petticoats: Costume and Desire in The Piano,” Screen
36, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 257–66.

knowledge of the other senses, “makes sense” of what it is to “see” a movie—
both “in the flesh” and as it “matters.” Merleau-Ponty tells us that the sensi-
ble-sentient lived body “is a ready-made system of equivalents and transposi-
tions from one sense to another. The senses translate each other without any
need of an interpreter, and they are mutually comprehensible without the
intervention of any idea” (235). Thus, the cinesthetic subject both touches
and is touched by the screen—able to commute seeing to touching and back
again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to
experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the
site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen. As a lived body and a
film viewer, the cinesthetic subject subverts the prevalent objectification of
vision that would reduce sensorial experience at the movies to an impover-
ished “cinematic sight” or posit anorexic theories of identification that have
no flesh on them, that cannot stomach “a feast for the eyes.”

In a particularly relevant—and resonant—passage Merleau-Ponty elabo-
rates on the intercommunication of the senses, not only as they provide us
access to the rich structure of perceived things but also as they reveal the
simultaneity of sensory cooperation and the carnal knowledge it provides us:

The form of objects is not their geometrical shape: it stands in a certain rela-
tion to their specific nature, and appeals to our other senses as well as sight.
The form of a fold in linen or cotton shows us the resilience or dryness of the
fibre, the coldness or warmth of the material. . . . In the jerk of the twig from
which a bird has just flown, we read its flexibility or elasticity. . . . One sees the
weight of a block of cast iron which sinks in the sand, the fluidity of water and
the viscosity of syrup. (229–30)

(Here, citing this passage, I recall The Piano and my own bodily response to
the humid heaviness generated by Ada’s skirt hem and boots as they are
sucked into the viscous mud of the forest, or, later, the drag on my proprio-
ception caused by the weight and volume of her layers of wet skirts and pet-
ticoats as she tries to drown herself.)60

Continuing this discussion of the cross-modality of the senses, Merleau-
Ponty writes: “If, then, taken as incomparable qualities, the ‘data of the
different senses’ belong to so many separate worlds, each one in its partic-
ular essence being a manner of modulating the thing, they all communicate
through their significant core” (230). That significant core is, of course, the
lived body: that field of conscious and sensible material being on which
experience is gathered, synopsized, and diffused in a form of prelogical
meaning that, even as it is diffused, nonetheless “co-heres.” This is because,

72 sensible scenes

61. Grosz, “Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray,” 56n14 (emphasis added).

the philosopher says, “My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven,
and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument
of my ‘comprehension’” (235). Thus, while the senses each provide dis-
cretely structured modes of access to the world, they are always already inter-
active and “transposable, at least within certain limits, onto each other’s
domains”—and this because “they are the senses of one and the same subject,
operating simultaneously in a single world.”61 We could say, then, that it is the
lived body (as both conscious subject and material object) that provides the
(pre)logical premises, the foundational grounds, for the cinesthetic subject,
who is constituted at the movies as ambiguously located both “here” off-
screen and “there” onscreen. Indeed, it is to its grounding in the corpore-
ality of the spectator’s consciousness that any theory of cinematic intelligi-
bility must return.


Thus we are led back to the question of the specific nature of the relation
between the body and cinematic representation, between the literal and the
figural. For all my argument about the cross-modal communication of our
senses and the synthetic quality of the lived body that comprehends both our
sensorium and our capacity for language, it is phenomenologically—and log-
ically—evident that I do not touch the cinema, nor does it touch me in pre-
cisely the same way in which I touch or am touched by others and things
unmediated by cinema (or other perceptual technologies). However hard I
may hold my breath or grasp my theater seat, I don’t have precisely the same
wild ride watching Speed that I would were I actually on that runaway bus. I
also don’t taste or smell or digest those luscious dishes in Like Water for Choco-
late (or, for that matter, in my cookbook) in the same way I would if, unmedi-
ated by cinema, they were set on the table before me. Where, then, does this
leave us at the movies? Or as theorists of the cinema? Are we condemned to
speak of our sensual engagement of the cinema as confounding—our mate-
rial responsiveness to films understood only, as Dyer puts it, “in some still
unclear sense ‘as if real’”? And Dyer is not alone here: if we return to those
popular reviews with which I began, his uncertainty and ambivalence are
duplicated, albeit less reflectively. The Piano’s “salt air can almost be tasted”
one reviewer tells us—at the same time he speaks of “immediate tactile shock.”
The reviewer of Toy Story says the plastic Tyrannosaurus rex “is so glossy and
tactile you feel as if you could reach out and stroke its hard, shiny head”—at
the same time he says that “the waxy sheen” of toy soldiers “strike[s] Proust-
ian chords of recognition,” suggesting a sense memory less reflectively thought

what my fingers knew 73

62. Leonard Maltin, review of Eat Drink Man Woman, dir. Ang Lee, Cinemania 96, CD-ROM
(Microsoft, 1992–95).

63. I use the term vacillate rather than oscillate purposefully to distinguish between a rigid
sense of alternation and one less binary and regular. On this see James Elkins, On Pictures and
the Words That Fail Them (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Quoting the work
of Rosalind Krauss on what she calls the informe, Elkins writes of this schema: “The informe . . . is
a ‘disturbance . . . in the modality of alteration, of ambivalence,’ so that there can no longer be
a stable distinction between figure and ground, or any pair of ‘alternating’ opposites. Nothing
is secure, and forms and figures vacillate or shimmer rather than oscillate in a regular motion.
The informe is a principle that works against the concepts of antimony, binarism, opposition,
structure, and ultimately, figure itself ” (106).

than reexperienced. This complex ambivalence and confusion about the lit-
eral and figural nature of our sensuous engagement with the cinema is won-
derfully condensed in a review of Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994),
which tells us, “The presentation of food on-screen is, in all senses of the
word, delectable.”62 Here, not only is onscreen food “presented” rather than
“represented,” but it is also experienced as “delectable” both literally in “all
senses” and figurally in all senses of “the word.”

In The Rule of Metaphor philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes: “If there is a point
in our experience where living expression states living existence, it is where
our movement up the entropic slope of language encounters the movement
by which we come back this side of the distinctions between actuality, action,
production, motion” (309). Clearly, these ambivalent articulations of the
sensual experience of the lived body in relation to cinematic representation
mark just such a point. I want, therefore, to consider the ambivalence and
confusion of our sense at the movies of having both a “real” (or literal) sen-
sual experience and an “as-if-real” (or figural) sensual experience. I also want
to argue that this ambivalence has a precise phenomenological structure
that is grounded in the nonhierarchical reciprocity and figure-ground reversibil-
ity of “having sense” and “making sense”—meaning thus constituted as both
a carnal matter and a conscious meaning that emerge simultaneously (if in vari-
ous ratios) from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body.
This is another way of saying that the body and language (whether film lan-
guage or “natural” language) do not simply oppose or reflect each other.
Rather, they more radically in-form each other in a fundamentally nonhier-
archical and reversible relationship that, in certain circumstances, manifests
itself as a vacillating, ambivalent, often ambiguously undifferentiated, and
thus “unnameable” or “undecidable” experience.63

What, then, might it mean to understand what is meant by “all senses of
the word”? Or to describe our sensual engagement in the cinema as “real”
and “as if real” in the same breath—and, more often than not, in the same sen-
tence? Or for me to use such “wordplay” in describing our literal bodies as
“matter that means” and our figural representations as “meaning that mat-

74 sensible scenes

64. Umberto Eco uses the term sign-vehicle as distinguished from sign-content or meaning.
This term seems to me more useful than the term signifier in reminding us of the active and var-
ious material nature of the “stuff ” through which content and meaning are actively conveyed.
See Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 52–54.

ters”? Highlighted in these articulations—accomplished in and through lan-
guage—is the very chiasmatic structure of reversibility that exists between but
also subtends the body and consciousness and the body and representation.
Whether perceived as an ambivalent vacillation between or an ambiguous con-
flation of the real and the as-if real or the lived body (matter that means) and
representation (meaning as matter), this experience of the fundamental
reversibility of body and language is deeply felt—and often articulated—in
these unnameable and undecidable descriptions that nonetheless express
quite clearly the ambiguous and ambivalent point at which “our movement
up the entropic slope of language encounters the movement by which we
come back this side of the distinctions between actuality, action, production,
motion.” Thus, the wordplay at work in popular reviews, in Dyer’s com-
ments, and in my own phenomenological descriptions is quite precise and
empirically based in the structure and sense of embodied experience itself.
Indeed, it helps us not only to understand the enormous capacity of language
to say what we mean but also to reveal the very structure of our meaningful

The chiasmatic relation in which the subjective sense of embodied expe-
rience and the objective sense of representation are perceived as reversibly
figure and ground and thus both commensurable and incommensurable
may, in fact, be especially heightened and privileged by the medium of cin-
ema. This is because the cinema uses “lived modes” of perceptual and sen-
sory experience (seeing, movement, and hearing the most dominant) as
“sign-vehicles” of representation.64 Using such lived modes, the cinema
exists as an ambivalent and ambiguous sensual and perceptual structure.
That is, the cinema simultaneously represents experience through dynamic
presentation (the always verb-driven and ongoing present tense of sensory per-
ception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film for us and
for itself)—and it also presents experience as representation (the post hoc fix-
ity of already-perceived and now expressed images that stand as equivalent
to noun forms). In this regard, although I have in this chapter emphasized
the commensurability of body and representation because dominant theory
has so long insisted on their incommensurability, I certainly do not deny the
possibility of the latter—particularly in the film experience. Indeed, coming
from an alternative perspective, Lesley Stern deals with this incommensura-
bility by privileging the uncanny in—and of—cinema as an experience of dis-
juncture between the spectator’s lived body and cinematic representation:

what my fingers knew 75

65. Stern, “I Think, Sebastian,” 356–57.
66. Alphonso Lingis, “Bodies That Touch Us,” in “Sense and Sensuousness: Merleau-

Ponty,” special issue, Thesis Eleven 36 (1993): 162.

The cinema, while encouraging a certain bodily knowing, also, and in that
ver y process, opens up the recognition of a peculiar kind of non-knowing, a
sort of bodily aphasia, a gap which sometimes may register as a sense of dread
in the pit of the stomach, or in a soaring, euphoric sensation. . . . Out of these
tensions are generated a series of differences, gaps or discontinuities
between knowing and feeling that sometimes sharpen into a sense of the

Nonetheless, this sense of the uncanny is sufficiently occasional to be
marked as a figure against the more necessary and continuous ground of our
existence in which knowing and feeling are generally undifferentiated and
generally lived as commensurable—this because we are incorporated sys-
temically as embodied and conscious subjects who both “have” and “make”
sense simultaneously. Indeed, it is an undifferentiated experience of sense
that grounds and conjoins body and language, feeling and knowledge—their
coincidence so ordinary in our experience that their sudden divergence is
marked as frustrating or uncanny or, in the extreme, pathological. Empha-
sizing this intimate conjunction of the lived body and representation,
Alphonso Lingis tells us: “My body as the inner sphere where representations
are perceptible . . . and my body as an image seen by rebound from the
world, are inscribed the one in [the] other. . . . The density of the body is
that of ‘pre-things,’ not yet differentiated into reality and illusion. . . . [The
body] is a precinct of signifiers.”66 And Ricoeur, emphasizing the intimate
conjunction of representation and the lived body, tells us that language not
only designates “its other” but also “itself ”—and in so doing, it is not only ref-
erential but also radically reflective, bearing within itself “the knowledge of its
being related to being.” Ricoeur continues: “This reflective language allows lan-
guage to know that it is installed in being. The usual relationship between
language and its referent is reversed: language becomes aware of itself in the
self-articulation of the being which it is about. Far from locking language up
inside itself, this reflective consciousness is the very consciousness of its
openness” (304). In that we are both embodied and conscious, in that we
both have and make sense, the literal and the figural inform each other—as
they inform us. The “matter that means” and the “meaning that matters”
emerge in a reciprocal and reversible figure-ground relation that is the lived
body having a sense of the world and making sense in the word. Thus the (figural)
phrase “in all senses of the word” resonates with ambiguity and, in its “knowl-
edge of its being related to being,” it reflexively suggests its own reversal to
the (literal) phrase “in all words of the senses”—and this without a loss of

76 sensible scenes

67. On relevant issues of mimesis see Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, 52–53; and Michael Taus-
sig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1992). Taussig,
in particular, understands mimesis as a corporeal activity that does not require the translation
of conscious thought to be enacted or understood. On this carnal empathy in relation to bod-
ies and objects onscreen see also Williams, “Film Bodies.”

either reference or reflection, even as the focus and direction of the empha-
sis changes.

Our embodied experience of the movies, then, is an experience of seeing,
hearing, touching, moving, tasting, smelling in which our sense of the literal
and the figural may sometimes vacillate, may sometimes be perceived in
uncanny discontinuity, but most usually configures to make undifferentiated
sense and meaning together—albeit in a quite specific way. Although watch-
ing The Piano, I cannot fully touch Ada’s leg through her stocking, although
the precise smells of fresh laundry and the warmth of the linens that I see in
Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978) remain in some way vague to me, although I
cannot taste the exact flavors of the pork noodles I see in loving close-up in
Tampopo, I still do have a partially fulfilled sensory experience of these things
that make them both intelligible to and meaningful for me. Thus, even if the
intentional objects of my experience at the movies are not wholly realized by
me and are grasped in a sensual distribution that would be differently struc-
tured were I outside the theater, I nonetheless do have a real sensual experi-
ence that is not reducible either to the satisfaction of merely two of my senses
or to sensual analogies and metaphors constructed only “after the fact”
through the cognitive operations of conscious thought. The pressing ques-
tion is, of course, what kind of “different” sensual fulfillment do we experi-
ence at the movies? That is, what is the structure of such fulfillment, and how
does it occur so that, in fact, we experience films not merely as a reduction of
our sensual being but also as an enhancement of it?

First of all, in the theater (as elsewhere) my lived body sits in readiness as
both a sensual and sense-making potentiality. Focused on the screen, my
“postural schema” or intentional comportment takes its shape in mimetic
sympathy with (or shrinking recoil from) what I see and hear.67 If I am
engaged by what I see, my intentionality streams toward the world onscreen,
marking itself not merely in my conscious attention but always also in my
bodily tension: the sometimes flagrant, sometimes subtle, but always
dynamic investment, inclination, and arrangement of my material being.
However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular fig-
ure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional tra-
jectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse
its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more
literally accessible. That more literally accessible sensual object is my own sub-
jectively felt lived body. Thus, “on the rebound” from the screen—and without

what my fingers knew 77

68. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Philosopher and His Shadow,” in Signs, trans. Rich-
ard C. McCleary (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 166. Although he is dis-
cussing a more consciously reflexive experience of our lived body’s capacity to sensually sense
itself than our experience at the movies, the philosopher is still helpful to our understanding of
the way in which our sensual engagement can be “turned back” on itself to both intensify sen-
sual awareness and diffuse its specific content (a point related to our sense of the film experi-
ence to which I will shortly return):

There is a relation of my body to itself which makes it the vinculum of the self and things.
When my right hand touches my left, I am aware of it as a “physical thing.” But at the
same moment, if I wish, an extraordinary event takes place: here is my left hand as well
starting to perceive my right. . . . Thus I touch myself touching; my body accomplishes
“a sort of reflection.” In it, through it, there is not just the unidirectional relationship of
the one who perceives to what he perceives. The relationship is reversed, the touched
hand becomes the touching hand, and I am obliged to say that the sense of touch is here dif-
fused into the body—that body is a “perceiving thing,” a “subject-object.”

a reflective thought—I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual,
and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste
myself tasting, and, in sum, sense my own sensuality.68

Certainly, this feeling and the sense I have of sensing at the movies is in
some ways reduced in comparison with direct sensual experience—this
because of my only partially fulfilled sensual grasp of my cinematic object of
desire. But just as certainly, in other ways, the sense I have of sensing when I
watch a film is also enhanced in comparison with much direct sensual expe-
rience—this because my only partially fulfilled sensual grasp of the original
cinematic object is completed not in the realization of that object but
through my own body, where my sensual grasp is reflexively doubled since,
in this rebound from the screen, I have become not only the toucher but also
the touched. (This sensual enhancement in which the body reflexively
reflects—without a thought—on its own sensuality emerges in the most
intense of direct engagements in which we “feel ourselves feeling”: a fantas-
tic dish or incredible glass of wine in which we reflectively taste ourselves tast-
ing, great sex in which we lose ourselves in feeling ourselves feel.)

In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward
our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without a
thought (because our thoughts are “elsewhere”) in this vacillating and
reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of
my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the
screen. Within this structure my experience of my sensorium becomes height-
ened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse.
That is, insofar as my lived body senses itself in the film experience, the par-
ticular sensible properties of the onscreen figural objects that sensually pro-
voke me (the weight and slightly scratchy feel of a wool dress, the smooth-
ness of a stone, the texture and resilience of another’s skin) will be perceived

78 sensible scenes

69. Here we might think of states in which reflexively sensing ourselves cry, we stop; how it
is nearly impossible to tickle oneself; how self-consciousness about our laughing results in it
becoming forced. It also helps us understand how sexual desire is other-directed during mas-
turbation and needs an object that is not only oneself so as to avoid a reflexivity that is so
doubled as to cause conscious reflection on sexual desire itself.

in a somewhat vague and diffuse way. This diffusion of the film object’s par-
ticular sensual properties, however, does not diminish the sensual intensity
of my engagement with them since they are what solicit me and are where
my intentional interest invests itself. That is, insofar as I am sensually
solicited, provoked by, and consciously located in figural objects that are else-
where (on the screen where my senses partially grasp them), I am not focused
on my own body’s sensual particularity either. On the rebound from my
unfulfilled bodily intentions to feel fully the figures onscreen but still con-
sciously intending toward them and sensing them partially, my sense of my
own literal and particular incorporation will also be general and diffuse—
even as it may be quite intense. (The form of “self-touching” I’m discussing
here—a form that is consciously “other” directed—is thus different in struc-
ture from forms of conscious self-touching in which both one’s body and
one’s consciousness are self-directed; in this latter kind of reflexivity the
doubled intention and attention toward oneself often become so highly
reflective that despite one’s autoerotic goals, it can undo carnal pleasure.)69

In sum, my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound
diffusely on myself ultimately “opens up” my body to a sensuality that is both
literal and figural.

Watching The Piano, for example, my skin’s desire to touch streams toward
the screen to rebound back on itself and then forward to the screen again
and again. In the process my skin becomes literally and intensely sensitized
to the texture and tactility I see figured on the screen, but it is neither the
particularity of Ada’s taffetas and woolens nor the particularity of the silk
blouse I’m actually wearing that I feel on its surface. On the one hand (so
much for figures of speech!), I cannot fully touch taffeta and wool in this sce-
nario although I can cross-modally grasp their texture and weight diffusely.
On the other hand, although I do have the capacity to fully—and literally—
feel the specific texture and weight of the silk blouse I am wearing, my tac-
tile desire is located elsewhere in the onscreen taffeta and wool, and so,
intending elsewhere, I feel the specificity of the silk on my skin only partially
and diffusely. What is more, in this unthought carnal movement of an
ongoing streaming toward and turning back of tactile desire, my sense of
touch—“rebounding” from its only partial fulfillment on and by the screen
to its only partial fulfillment in and by my own body—is intensified. My skin
becomes extremely, if generally, sensitized. Indeed, this reflexive and reflec-
tive exchange between and diffusion of my “sense” of touch in both the lit-

what my fingers knew 79

eral and the figural has opened me to all these fabrics and their textures—
indeed, has made the literal touch of even a specific fabric on my skin an
overwhelmingly general and intensely extensive mode of being.

It bears emphasizing again that the bodily reflexivity I am foreground-
ing here is not consciously reflective. Indeed, in most sensual experiences
at the movies the cinesthetic subject does not think his or her own literal
body (or clothing) and is not, as a result, rudely thrust offscreen back into
his or her seat in response to a perceived discontinuity with the figural
bodies and textures onscreen. Rather, the cinesthetic subject feels his or
her literal body as only one side of an irreducible and dynamic relational
structure of reversibility and reciprocity that has as its other side the figural
objects of bodily provocation on the screen. This relational structure can,
of course, be refused or broken—and, indeed, it often is when the sensual
experience becomes too intense or unpleasurable. However, leaving the
theater because one has become literally sickened or covering one’s eyes
is hardly ever the outcome of a thought. It is a reflexive, protective action
that attests to the literal body’s reciprocal and reversible relation to the fig-
ures on the screen, to its sense of actual investment in a dense, albeit also
diffuse, experience that is carnally as well as consciously meaningful—an
experience, as Lingis notes, that is “not yet differentiated into reality and
illusion.” Watching The Piano, for example, because I might feel it too
intensely on both my body and hers (both bodies, to a degree, “mine”), I
could not literally bear to see Stewart figurally chop off Ada’s finger with
an ax. I therefore not only cringed in my seat but also covered my eyes
with fingers that again foresaw—in urgency rather than thought—the
impending violation.


Let us recall Lingis’s formulation: “My body as the inner sphere where rep-
resentations are perceptible, . . . and my body as an image seen by rebound
from the world, are inscribed the one in the other.” Both body and language
or figure pervade and inform each other in a reversible and reflexive inten-
tional structure. Thus, having considered the literal and carnal aspects of the
figural phrase “in all senses of the word” (figural because we “know” words
don’t really have senses), we need also to consider the figural and represen-
tational aspects of the phrase in the literality of its reversal to “in all words
of the senses” (literal because we “know” words do, indeed, describe the

Indeed, my argument here has emphasized that the sensual language
most people (and even a few film theorists) use to describe their cinematic
experience is not necessarily or solely metaphoric—hence my earlier men-
tion of Lakoff and Johnson and Cytowic on the corporeal bases of meta-

80 sensible scenes

70. See also sociologist Jack Katz, How Emotions Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1999), who points out in relation to metaphorical description: “It is the subject’s experience and
not the analysis that introduces the element of metaphor in the first place” (299).

71. Hubert G. Alexander, The Language and Logic of Philosophy (Albuquerque: University of
New Mexico Press, 1967), 92.

phor.70 Here, however, I want to go further and suggest that “all words of
the senses” used so often to describe the film experience are not meta-
phoric. First of all, traditional rhetoric describes metaphors as emerging
from a hierarchical relation between a primary and secondary context of lan-
guage use: a word is understood as literal insofar as it is used in a norma-
tively habituated context. The same word becomes understood as figural or
metaphoric only when it is used in an unusually extended sense and trans-
ferred beyond its normal context (indeed, the word metaphor means “car-
ried beyond”).71 If, however, we acknowledge that it is the lived body that
provides a normative ground and context for experience and that it oper-
ates, from the first, as a synaesthetic system in which the senses cooperate
and one sense is commutable to and understood as reciprocal and reversible
with the others, then we cannot argue that—in the undifferentiated sensu-
ality of the film experience—there exists the clear contextual hierarchy nec-
essary to the structure and function of metaphor. That is, once we under-
stand that vision is informed by and informs our other senses in a dynamic
structure that is not necessarily or always sensually hierarchical, it is no
longer metaphorical to say that we “touch” a film or that we are “touched”
by it. Touch is no longer a metaphorical stretch in the film experience, no
longer carried beyond its normal context and its literal meaning. Indeed,
we could say that it is only in afterthought that our sensual descriptions of
the movies seem metaphorical. Our received knowledge tells us that film is
primarily a visual and aural medium; it thus “naturally” follows that its
appeal to those senses other than sight and hearing are understood as fig-
ural rather than literal. By now, however, I hope to have shown that such
habituated knowledge is reductive and does not accurately describe our
actual sensory experience at the movies. When we watch a film, all our
senses are mobilized, and often, depending on the particular solicitations
of a given film or filmic moment, our naturalized sensory hierarchy and
habitual sensual economy are altered and rearranged. In that experience
the literal and figural reciprocate and reverse themselves as “sense”—pri-
mary and secondary contexts confused, hierarchy and thus the grounds of
metaphor undermined if not completely undone.

Writing about the relationship between vision and touch in painting, art
historian Richard Shiff tells us: “To speak of reciprocity is to eliminate the
possibility of setting subjective (or deviant) metaphorical elements against
objective (or normative) literal ones. Within the flux of reciprocity either every-

what my fingers knew 81

72. Richard Shiff, “Cézanne’s Physicality: The Politics of Touch,” in The Language of Art His-
tory, ed. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 150
(emphasis added). Subsequent references will be cited in the text.

73. J. David Sapir, “The Anatomy of Metaphor,” in The Social Use of Metaphor: Essays on the
Anthropology of Rhetoric, ed. J. David Sapir and J. Christopher Crocker (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), elaborates:

There is a great variety of expressions often used as examples of metaphor that are nev-
ertheless hardly ever felt as tropes. One common set uses body parts to represent the
parts of material objects: “leg of a table,” “head of a pin,” “eye of a needle,” “foot of a
mountain,” etc. Their representation is that of a replacement metaphor; thus for the
“head of a pin” we have pin as the topic and head as the discontinuous term. Unlike a true
metaphor, however, it lacks the continuous term, although one might be provided by cir-
cumlocution: “spherical or blunt circular and protruding end of a pin,” where the sup-
plied phrase is simply an enumeration of the common features linking X with head. In
most discourses the lack of a continuous term impedes us from sensing the juxtaposition
of separate domains essential to a metaphor. We cannot easily answer the question “if it
is not the head (of a pin), then what is it?” With a true metaphor we can. . . . William
Empson prefers to call these expressions “transfers” and Max Black, along with most
rhetoricians, considers them as types of catachresis which Black defines as “the use of a
word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary” (8).

thing becomes metaphorically figured or everything has the reality effect of the literal.”72

Evoking previous discussion here of the nature of the “as if real,” particularly
as its “not realness” is challenged by the scare quotes that always surround it,
Shiff suggests that within this flux of reciprocity “[o]ne could refer . . . to a
figurative literalness”—a usage that “would eliminate the need for quotation
marks, which do no more or less than counter the normalizing of literality
by adding a level of distance or figuration.” Shiff then asks, “What kind of
representation or linguistic construction conflates the literal and figural in
such a manner?” (158). The answer is not metaphor but catachresis, “some-
times called false and improper metaphor.” Catachresis, Shiff tells us, “mediates
and conflates the metaphoric and the literal” and is used “when no proper,
or literal, term is available” (150). Thus, borrowing a term from one context
to name something in another, we speak of the “arm” of a chair or the “head”
of a pin for want of anything else we might appropriately call it.73 Catachre-
sis is differentiated from proper metaphor insofar as it forces us to confront
and name a gap in language or, as Ricoeur puts it, the “failure of proper
words, and the need, the necessity to supplement their deficiency and fail-
ure” (63). Thus, when we avail ourselves of catachresis, we are on Ricoeur’s
“entropic slope of language”—seeking some adequate linguistic expression
of a real experience. Furthermore, insofar as the catachretic term substitutes
a body part (the “head” of a pin, the “arm” of a chair), we are emphatically at
the point where our movement up the “entropic slope of language encoun-
ters the movement by which we come back this side of the distinction
between actuality, action, production, motion,” that point “where living

82 sensible scenes

expression states living existence.” This kind of (dare I say) “throwing up
one’s hands” and naming something inadequately for want of a sufficient
word involves “the forced extension of the meaning of words” rather than the
linguistic play that is metaphor. In linguistic play we voluntarily use one term
to substitute for another to create a variety of figural meanings. Thus, for
Ricoeur, because its use is not voluntary, catachresis is not only a false meta-
phor but also should be excluded “from the field of figures” (53). Indeed,
Ricoeur sees catachresis as “ultimately an extension of denomination” and thus
“a phenomenon of language” rather than—as is metaphor—a phenomenon
of “discourse” (180). Catachresis, then, functions neither as metaphor nor
as figure. Rather, as Shiff writes, “Catachresis accomplishes precisely this: it
applies a figurative sense as a literal one, while yet retaining the look or feel
of figurality” (158). This is also precisely what cinema accomplishes through
its modes of representation—and it is also precisely how the spectator’s lived
body reciprocates so as to make matter meaningful and meaning matter.
Thus, as Shiff tells us, “The reciprocity or shifting produced by catachresis
undermines any polarization of subject and object, self and other, deviation
and norm, touch and vision” (150). Indeed, “touch and vision are caught in
reciprocal figuration: it is touch that is figuring vision, and vision that is fig-
uring touch” (158).

Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly
things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience
engages in a form of sensual catachresis. That is, it fills in the gap in its sen-
sual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to recip-
rocally (albeit not sufficiently) “flesh it out” into literal physicalized sense.
It is this same reciprocal relationship between the figural and literal that
emerges also in our linguistic descriptions of the film experience. That is,
trying to describe this complex reciprocity of body and representation, our
phrases turn back on themselves to convey the figural sense of that expe-
rience as literally physicalized. For want of any more appropriate or suffi-
cient way to name and convey the structure and meaning of the sensual
experience of watching a film, reviewers reflexively turn back on language
and apply its sensual figurations literally—both as a way to “flesh out” the
image and as a way to adequate reflective description with the sense of
actual cinematic experience. It is not particularly strange, then, that in
both our film experience and our linguistic attempts to describe it, some
ambivalent sense of metaphor and figurality remains—and we are caught
up in a catachretic structure of sense-making that, because of its only par-
tial sensual fulfillments but enhanced and intensified reciprocities in fill-
ing its own insufficiency, is experienced and described as both real and “as
if ” real.

Ricoeur discusses this tension between metaphorical and literal meaning

what my fingers knew 83

74. Ricoeur, Rule of Metaphor, 213.

in relation to Wittgenstein’s distinction between “seeing” and “seeing as,” a
formulation that parallels Dyer’s “real” and “as if real”:

The “seeing as” is . . . half thought and half experience. . . . “[S]eeing as” prof-
fers the missing link in the chain of explanation. “Seeing as” is the sensible
aspect of poetic language. . . . Now, a theory of fusion of sense and the sensi-
ble . . . appears to be incompatible with the . . . tension between metaphorical
and literal meaning. On the other hand, once it is re-interpreted on the basis
of “seeing as,” the theory of fusion is perfectly compatible with interaction and
tension theory. “Seeing X as Y” encompasses “X is not Y.” . . . The borders of
meaning are transgressed but not abolished. . . . “[S]eeing as” designates the
non-verbal mediation of the metaphorical statement. With this acknowledg-
ment, semantics finds its frontier; and, in so doing, it accomplishes its task. . . .
If semantics meets its limit here, a phenomenology of imagination . . . could
perhaps take over. (212–14)

A phenomenology of the cinesthetic subject having and making sense of the
movies reveals to us the chiasmatic function of the lived body as both carnal
and conscious, sensible and sentient—and how it is we can apprehend the
sense of the screen both figurally and literally. That is, the lived body trans-
parently provides the primary chiasmatic premises that connect and unite
the senses as both carnally and consciously meaningful and also allow for
their secondary differentiated meanings, one carnal and the other con-
scious. Correlatively, a phenomenology of the expression of this lived
“fusion” and differentiation in the film experience reveals to us—through
the catachretic articulations of language—the reversible and vacillating
structure of the lived body’s both unified and differentiated experience of
cinematic sense. Ambivalently subtending fusion and difference, ambivalent
in its structure and seemingly ambiguous in meaning, catachresis not only
points to the “gap” between the figures of language and literal lived-body
experience but also reversibly, chiasmatically, “bridges” and “fills” it. As
Ricoeur writes above, catachresis “designates the non-verbal mediation of the
metaphorical statement.” In the film experience the nonverbal mediation of
catachresis is achieved literally by the spectator’s lived body in sensual rela-
tion to the film’s sensible figuration. Indeed, as Ricoeur concludes: “Half
thought, half experience, ‘seeing as’ is the intuitive relationship that holds
sense and image together.”74

In the film experience, on the side of the cinesthetic subject experienc-
ing a given film sensually, this reciprocity and chiasmatic (con)fusion of the
literal and figural occurs in the lived body both having sense and making
sense; and, on the side of reflective sensual description, this reciprocity and

84 sensible scenes

catachretic (con)fusion of the literal and figural occurs in language—
whether cinematic or linguistic. Thus, the film experience—on both sides of
the screen—mobilizes, confuses, reflectively differentiates, yet experien-
tially unites lived bodies and language, and foregrounds the reciprocity and
reversibility of sensible matter and sensual meaning. Our fingers, our skin
and nose and lips and tongue and stomach and all the other parts of us
understand what we see in the film experience. As cinesthetic subjects, then,
we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their dis-
crete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by
the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins
and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies.

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