Today's date:
Fall 2005

The False Other of the Cinematic Conscience

Humberto Beck has been on the editorial board of Ixtus, Espíritu y Cultura for the past four and a half years. He has published widely on many topics. Some of his articles include: “Breton en México: una apostilla,” “La naturaleza como industria,” “Partenia: la redención en red” in Letras Libres and “Los límites del desarrollo: entrevista con Wolfgang Sachs,” and “Jacques Ellul y la subversión del cristianismo” in Ixtus, Espírtu y Cultura. He also worked as Ivan Illich’s research assistant at the University of California, Berkley.

Mexico City — One of the most original characteristics of everyday life in recent decades has been the desire for finding and re-creating in life moments whose specific theatricality correspond to the physiognomy of cinema. For more than a century, dramas and musicals, westerns and thrillers, have offered spectators a manual for sensibility and emotions: definitive instructions on how to cry or laugh, how to behave in a wedding or how to mourn. Such a manual, existing as it does in the mind of audiences, has modified the public’s humor and emotions, as well as its ways of loving or suffering. Everyday life has found in film not only a sentimental education, but also a true canon of emotion and perception. As a foreseeable result of such expressive autonomy of filmic representations, archetypal stories, images and viewpoints characteristic of cinema have become a sort of dramatic and narrative Gestalten that shapes imitable models for everyday perception and daily conduct. Film not only allows the audience to live imaginary lives: It encourages them to live real lives inspired by the silver screen.

The interior monologues, the vertiginous edition of a persecution (when you follow someone physically), the circular shots of endless kisses, the extreme close-ups that follow the trajectory of a tear, the reactions of the audience in the theater, the long shots of the hero walking toward the horizon, the journeys following a walk, the voice-over commentaries of the narrator, the jokes followed by a brief pause as if waiting for the prerecorded laughs or the induced clapping, the signal to look at the camera and wink to the spectators, the memory as a weak montage of evoked postcards, the apparent takes that open and close, going from the bedroom to the city to the galaxy or vice versa, inserting the characters in the dramatic evolution of the cosmos; all are ways in which life has taken form, mechanisms that personal imagination has acquired to represent itself.

Cinema or Life? | In the literary sphere, the subject of life imitating art is not new: Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are two well-known examples. However, in the moment in which the imitated object is transformed, when it is no longer strictly literary, but also cinematic, the nature of imitation is modified, as is the reality of the imitating subject. Emulating a cinematic story supposes the incorporation, in the perception and in conscience of the world, of others and of ourselves, the group of elements that constitute the particularity of film: its dynamic identity supported in writing by images and sounds in movement. The audio-visual synchronization, the temporal evolution of the tale and the notable mobility of the camera found an unprecedented visual conception of facts and conscience, a life conceptualized as film that is not read, but rather watched, observed, scrutinized.

Departing from the mental reproduction of the narrative signs of a film in everyday life, we invent our own existence as a small super production seen by an invisible and omniscient audience that follows us everywhere; an audience that judges and approves our actions, celebrates our successes and thoughts, cries our misfortunes and becomes one with our conscience. The uncommon desire of being fatally followed by a lens that puts us in contact with a room full of spectators through a sense of the I emerges, then mediated by the camera, making us think not of a lone reader, but of an expectant multitude, an audience like a collective image of the conscience that attenuates solitude. It installs itself in the capacity of experimenting the reality of a mental vision of the camera that functions as a sensorial extension of the body, and as an emotive continuation of the mind: a symbolic instrument susceptible of being confused with the self/same faculty of self-perception. In his or her role of unknown protagonist of the drama of modern world, the solitary individual in the middle of a crowd of people finds a new elaboration of him/herself: It returns to the mass of people that surrounds him or her as an agent of direction, moving it to his/her conscience transformed into an imaginary audience. On his/her habitual route to the office or in quiet, leisurely evenings, he/she remembers all that solitude accompanied by an assembly of eyes that secretly assist him/her on the other side of life, following him/her everywhere like a moving audience.

In these processes of interior assimilation of the meaningful procedures of a film, one arrives to a point where the cinematic, more than an artistic genre or a mere medium of entertainment, becomes an existential category, a way of conducting oneself in the world, and even the matrix for a new conception of conscience, mediated by cameras and screens. Cinematic imagination is no longer reduced to creating films: it makes films out of everything.

In the cinematic experience a split occurs between the spectator and the images being projected—between the looking subject and the object looked at—which reproduces the existing relationship between the gaze and its image. The spectator mentally re-creates the film without abandoning his/her condition of spectator: It is a presence that is external to the tale whose exercise of contemplation is realized, paradoxically, in the fusion of what is narrated by means of identification with the stories. His/her mind splits between his/her self-image and the figure of the character being interpreted on the screen, performing, at the same time, the dual role of being both the internal and the external agent of narration. The act of scrutinizing the screen’s errant mirror initiates a dialectic of the gaze that identifies itself with the procedures of conscience, and that allows for a new way of materializing the act of seeing oneself being seen. Cinema is a dynamic tale that, in the mind of the spectator, contemplates itself. The cinematographer’s light, similar to a certain poem by Octavio Paz, is also a “time that is thought.” But, contrary to what happens in the confrontation with the mirrors, in filmic production this dialogue between the inherent reflection and the manifestation of the conscience is effected following a diligent narrative form that, by the sole means of the camera, inevitably integrates the feigned vision of an exterior observer’s viewpoint.

From Mirror to Camera | In the contemporary world, the image of the camera has substituted that of the mirror as a universal metaphor of the conscience. This conversion in the dimensions of the mental space of cinema into an allegorical vehicle of reflexivity has given rise to a new conceptualization of the “I” and of life, of events and their meanings. In the cinematic I, conscience is no longer reflected in the eye that sees itself watching, but in the gaze that sees itself seeing itself in a strange act of self-voyeurism mediated by the eye of a third fictional person. In the middle of the multitude of critical attacks on the figure of the subject, the intimate appropriation of the cinematic experience has offered an unexpected medium for the affirmation of the ego cogito, a genuine “source of the I” that offers an unprecedented mold for subjectivity. By introducing the artifice of the foreign gaze in the image of conscience, the cameras of the world have reinvented the meaning of imagination, memory and desire, writing during the last 100 years, a new (hi)story of the eye. Contrary to the locomotive—another symbol of the modern world—the camera is not a vision of History, but it is a vision of the I: a new emblem of the new direction of personal stories.

In the current sensory criteria there seems to exist a tacit agreement that favors the existence of an absolute identification between the filmed and the real. In the logic of this agreement, anything not filmed by a camera or projected onto a screen seems to not completely happen or even to not happen at all. Beyond the series of speculations about the disappearance of reality that such opinion provokes, this generalized convention reveals the persistence of the unavoidable desire of being watched, if at least by the apocryphal gaze of artificial eyes that sooner or later result not only in the proliferation of cameras and screens with playful or penitentiary goals, but also in the camerization of conscience and of the world. Perhaps the deeper meaning of this collective practice resides in the discovery of the symbolic potential of film that, by means of the metaphysical structure of the camera and the screen, reveals that even the very same phenomenon of self-conscience inexorably needs some form of alterity.

“To think about a man is like saving him,” Roberto Juarroz reminds us in a poem about the infinite abandonment of solitary minds. That is why an effusiveness of reality travels through us every time other’s gaze takes us out of the abyss of nothingness with a redemptory interest. The eyes of others inspire reality in our own because we are only really in the world to the extent that the seed of a consciousness outside our own rescues us from emptiness, delivering to us the vital certainty that our limited self-conscience, locked away in itself, denies us. Similar to certain psychoanalytic theories in which love is not the desire for another person, but the desire for another desire, self-conscious free will is not the solipsistic affirmation of one’s own conscience, but the desire of another conscience: the desire to be thought by someone else. It is big modern mistake—one that extends from the historic to the personal—to believe that it is enough for conscience to look at itself to create a deeper human being. It is others who construct us with their gazes, and it is in the game of reflections between their eyes and ours that the I is constituted, emerging from the circular limbo of self-conscious reality. The fantasy of conscience as a camera, that simulates the presence of others perceiving life as a film, represents a degraded version of the desire for the redemptory gaze of others. The camera can turn us into stars, but it can also function as a telescope that turns us into inaccessible stars, far away from everything, even for ourselves. The power to give existence resides in the gaze: an existence that perverts itself when it is transformed in the origin of fiction of the conscience as an illusory audience that, by means of mechanical eyes, conceives us and creates the dark dream of redemption.

Translated by Brenci Patiño
Originally appeared in Letras Libres 61 (Jan. 2004): 12–13. Published by courtesy of the journal and the author.