Jennifer M. Barker


On her book The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience

Cover Interview of December 10, 2009

The wide angle

The Tactile Eye emerged as a response to my own craving for what anthropologist Paul Stoller calls “sensuous scholarship.”  I was inspired by certain film and art history scholarship in the mid-1990s that took up an interest in the non-visual senses, including work by Vivian Sobchack, Tom Gunning, Giuliana Bruno, Laura Marks, and Elena del Río.  These writers, alongside others working in philosophy and anthropology, informed my own thinking about phenomenological film theory and issues of embodiment.

The book takes up two concepts in particular: “body genres” and the “film’s body.”  In writing about horror, melodrama, and pornography, Linda Williams defined as “body genres” those genres in which viewers identify with certain characters’ embodied on-screen behavior in complex ways.  The Tactile Eye argues that all genres are “body genres” in the sense that viewers identify not solely with characters’ bodies but also, and more importantly, with films’ bodies.

I also expand on the notion of the “film’s body,” developed substantially by Sobchack. When we watch a film, we’re seeing the film seeing; we see its own (if humanly enabled) process of perception and expression unfolding in space and time.  Camera movements, fluctuations in sound, and degrees of intensity, attention, distraction, etc.—these are embodied behaviors and/or attitudes of the film’s own lived body, which is unified in time and space and which performs its own perception (of the world) and expression (to the world) in embodied ways that are muscular, tactile, and distinctly cinematic.

I’m especially intrigued by the carnal resonance between the film’s body and the viewer’s.  Watching a film, we are certainly not in the film, but we are not entirely outside it, either. We exist and move and feel in that space of contact where our surfaces mingle and our musculatures entangle. This sense of fleshy, muscular, visceral contact seriously undermines the rigidity of the opposition between viewer and film, inviting us to think of them as intimately related but not identical, caught up in a relationship of reciprocity and reversibility, rather than as subject and object positioned on opposite sides of the screen.

The Tactile Eye broadens the definition of “touch” in a literal but imaginative way, to include not only haptic but also muscular and visceral modes of touch that shape the encounter between films and viewers.  For example, the film has a skin in the sense that it has a surface that is at once porous—impressionable, prone to contagion, and yet capable of transmitting its own qualities to others —and firm—a boundary, a container, and a shield against the world but also a source of contact with it. The press of skin against skin, both within the film and between film and viewer, can provoke an intersubjectivity that entails pleasure, horror, and many things in between.

Haptics are the most immediately apparent form of touch, and the only one for which there are precedents in film scholarship, but cinematic tactility is more than skin deep.  Indeed, if the film has a body, it must have body language, and for this I devised the category “musculature”: films and viewers express themselves through movement, comportment, gesture, and the arrangement of the body in space.  Here I turn to perceptual psychology to discuss proprioception, psychic blindness, phantom limbs, and the notion of embodied empathy.

Drawing upon medical phenomenology, I develop the notion of “viscera” as a means of discussing both the resonance and the tension between the internal rhythms of the human body and those of the film’s body.  I describe the way film and viewer suffuse one another with their respective textures, temperatures, intensities, rhythms, gestures, and contours in a way that encompasses surface, middle, and depth.  The embodiment of emotion, an idea that permeates the entire book, comes to the forefront here.