Friday, 6 February 2015

Ways of Being: A Dissertation Rationale and Literature Review

To provide a fresh approach, it will absolutely avoid the “digitalisation is heralding the death of cinema” argument and focus more on how the technology of cinema is evolving, how cinematic exhibition is embracing these changes and how the spectator’s experience is changing as a result.

Before Ways of Being: The Spectator and the Spectacle - the award-winning theoretical dissertation I authored for my final year of undergraduate study - there was a rationale and literature review I compiled in preparation.

In the following rationale and literature review you can see the groundwork for my final paper; even if, at the time, I thought my rationale and literature review was a terrible mess that would never amass to a finished dissertation. 

It was only when this rationale and literature review was awarded a first that I began to suspect that I might be on to something...

Research Title

Film and Multimedia: Reconfiguring the Spectator


The topic will be an examination of the different modes of film exhibition to determine how the introduction of new technologies and techniques is transforming the cinematic experience into an immersive commodity, less about the gaze and more about satisfying a full-body experience. The contemporary nature of this subject, in regards to the changes the film industry has been experiencing for many years now and will continue to experience for many years to come, is the primary incentive for the study of this subject. To provide a fresh approach, it will absolutely avoid the “digitalisation is heralding the death of cinema” argument and focus more on how the technology of cinema is evolving, how cinematic exhibition is embracing these changes and how the spectator’s experience is changing as a result. The second point that makes this topic worthy of academic study is the impact this continually changing state of spectatorship is having on film theory, how film theory has been responding to these changes and how the spectator’s position in this theoretical debate is shifting. Ultimately, the topic will endeavour to provide an up-to-date definition of the spectator’s position within the cinematic experience; this topic is worthy of study because it is focused on re-affirming the primary purpose of cinema – the spectator.

The academic approach will be non-empirical and will focus, in the broadest sense, on an examination of spectatorship. However, gaze theory will inform a large part of the discussion; as well as apparatus, ideological, technological, philosophical, psychoanalytical and physiological disciplines. 

Key Reading List

Allen, R. (1997) Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Allen, R.C. Maltby, R. Stokes, M. (2008) Going to the Movies: Hollywood and The Social Experience of Cinema. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Balcerzak, S. and Sperb, J. ed. (2009) Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Vol. 1: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture. London: Wallflower Press.

Balcerzak, S. and Sperb, J. ed. (2012) Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Vol. 2: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Berenstein, R. J. Clover, C. J. Crary, J. Friedberg, A. Gunning, T. Hansen, M. Mayne, J. Schwartz, V. R. Sobchack, V. C. Williams, L. (1994) Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Elsaesser, T. and Hagener, M. (2012) Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York: Routledge.

Klinger, B. (2006) Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and The Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McGowan, T. (2007) The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany.

Rombes, N. (2012) Cinema in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sobchack, V.C. (1992) The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Detailed discussion of three key texts

Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film is an anthology compiled by Linda Williams and, in regards to spectator theory or its sub-theory that is more precisely termed as gaze theory, William’s central aim is revisionist: “many of the insights into what I am calling gaze theory are still relevant to film studies. There is still the need for a theoretical understanding of relations between films and viewers” (Williams 1994:4). As the book’s title suggests, John Berger’s highly influential assertions in his Ways of Seeing documentary series and companion book form the starting point of Viewing Positions. While acknowledging Berger’s pioneering influence in how traditional film theorists came to understand the gaze in the traditional film studies of the 1970s and 1980s: “what all these theorists shared was the belief that in most seemingly natural or beautiful of visual images, there is an invisible ideology that affords the gaze it surveys both mastery and equilibrium” (Williams 1994:1); ultimately, Williams is saying that the gaze theory of Berger, Metz, Baudry, Mulvey, Doane and Silverman is largely outdated because their arguments are too narrow: “the concept of a singular, dominating, voyeuristic male spectator-subject is in as much need of revision as that other stereotype: the spectator as passive subject, as pure absorber of dominant ideology” (1994:4). To this end, Williams expands gaze theory with multiple ways of seeing and, through the nine essays that make up Viewing Positions, provides an overview of the: “general debate about relations between spectators and films in important new directions without opting to speak only for the interests of specific audiences” (1994:4). 

Each with their own author, these nine essays are split between three sections, the first section, Vision and Apparatus, most directly challenges traditional gaze theory: “by asking whether there really has ever been such a thing as a continuous tradition of a centred, unitary, distanced and objectifying gaze” (Williams 1994:5). The three theorists of the three essays offer up three primary conclusions: “Crary and Sobchack eschew the disembodied, distanced control and mastery of a classical gaze and reenvision vision as a bodily implicated in what it sees… Friedberg maintains a gradual slide into postmodernity” (Williams 1994:10). 

Section two, Historians View Spectators, builds on this by examining the wider contexts of pre-, early and late cinema to determine how spectator theory has actually already evolved: “much more than technology was involved in the invention of cinema, and… cinema as we know it was not necessarily what audiences of early cinema saw” (Williams 1994:10). Ultimately, these three essays are presented with the aim to dispel the classical model as the dominant and only model: “It is possible that the homogeneity of classical cinema and of classical spectatorship will one day seem more like the aberration than the norm of cinematic history” (Williams 1994:13). 

The final section, Viewing Antithesis, is the most radical, because this one dares to explore the different types of spectators who make up an audience: “the classical model of spectatorship, which too easily assumed fixed ideological and psychic effects on spectators, needs to be viewed… as a more complex set of paradoxes” (Williams 1994:14). Indeed, the three essays of this section assert that any theory of the spectator must: “be historically specific, grounded in the specific spectatorial practices, the specific narratives, and the specific attractions of the modilized and embodies gaze of viewers” (Williams 1994:19), only then will gaze theory be in a position to adequately factor in a reliable account of the spectator.

Similar to Williams’ approach with Berger, In The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan Its author Todd McGowan’s draws on the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan to re-examine spectatorship. While not a film theorist himself, Lacan was a hugely pioneering influence In the film studies of the 1970s: “Lacan’s theory of the mirror phase and the formation of the ego… was taken by many film theorists as a model for the relationship between the film projected on the screen and how this affected the film viewer or cinematic spectator” (Homer 2005:2). 

McGowan is less of revisionist towards Lacan’s views and more of a revisionist towards how traditional film theorists have developed Lacan’s thinking. Ultimately, McGowan asserts that the traditional gaze theorists have misinterpreted Lacan’s understanding of the gaze: “Lacan’s conception of the gaze has been almost completely absent from the world of film theory” (2007:5). Accordingly, it is McGowan’s opinion that Lacan’s concept of the gaze is highly beneficial to film theory when properly understood: In Lacan’s view the gaze is an object-cause of desire (objet petit a) – it can no longer be associated with an active process but acts to visually trigger our desire:

“This special term objet petit a indicates that this object is not a positive entity but a lacuna in the visual field. It is not the look of the subject at the object, but the gap within the subject’s seemingly omnipotent look. This gap within our look marks the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see. What is irreducible to our visual field is the way that our desire distorts that field, and this distortion makes itself felt through the gaze as object. The gaze thus involves the spectator in the filmic image” (McGowan 2007:6).

This definition is significant because by focusing on the unfilled space between spectator and film text it moves the concept of the gaze beyond “the male observer” and “absorber of ideology” which the traditionalists were defining it as: “By following Lacan and conceiving of the gaze as an objet objet petit a in the visual field, we can better avoid the trap of differences in spectatorship that snared traditional Lacanian film theory” (McGowan 2007:7); which is exactly what is being addressed in Viewing Positions: “There is, as the contributors to Post-Theory rightly point out, an unlimited number of different possible positions of empirical spectatorship” (McGowan 2007:8). 

However, now that McGowan has used his re-examination of Lacan’s theory to move the gaze away from the narrow thinking of the traditionalists: “This conception of the gaze entails a different conception of desire than the one that has predominated in the early Lacanian film theory. As the indication of the spectator’s dissolution, the gaze cannot offer the spectator anything resembling mastery” (McGowan 2007:8); he goes even further and explores: “the various relations that film can take up to the gaze… The way in which a film deploys the gaze is, I would argue, the fundamental political and existential act of cinema.” (2007:18). 

Ultimately, the way a film deploys the gaze is the focus of the book and McGowan splits the book into four sections: “films that make the gaze present through fantasy, films that sustain the gaze as a fundamental absence, films that obfuscate the gaze through a turn to fantasy, and films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze”(McGowan 2007:18); under each of these headings McGowan selects various films and filmmakers to illustrate the different ways in which a film can deploy the gaze. Using the re-examined psychoanalytical teachings of Lacan, it is McGowan’s ultimate aim to provide a new means by which film can be considered and categorised: “Instead of grouping films by genre, nation, historical epoch, or some other category, we can group films in terms of how they approach the gaze.” (2007:18).

Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses by Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener offers up a radically revisionist take on all the major film theories when considering: “the relationship between the cinema, perception and the human body” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:4). While film theory of the early, classical and post-classical cinema has always been aware of this relationship, Elsaesser and Hagener argue that it has neglected to examine and understand the relationship as being something inherently significant throughout the process by which a film text is experienced: “there are additional ways the body engages with the film event, besides the senses of vision, tactility and sound: philosophical issues of perception and temporality, of agency and consciousness are also central to the cinema, as they are to the spectator” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:4-5). While accepting the post-theory validity of Viewing Positions and The Real Gaze, Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses is about moving beyond gaze theory in regards to understanding cinema (especially spectatorship) and integrate a wider logic.

Crucial to understanding this argument are: “the dynamics connecting the diegetic and the non- and extra-diegetic levels of the “world” of the film and how they intersect with the “world” of the spectator.” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:5). To this end, the argument and sub-arguments of the book have been configured to focus on the key contact points with the body and human senses of the spectator in relation to the film text: “despite covering core arguments from very disparate and seemingly incompatible theories, the chapters – on window/frame, door/screen, mirror/face, eye/gaze, skin/touch, ear/space and brain/mind – nonetheless tightly interlace with each other” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:6). 

However, by the very nature of its integration, the success of Elsaesser’s and Hagener’s goal to understand the role of the body: “involves the beginnings of a re-classification of film history… based on the premise that the spectator’s body in relation to the moving image constitutes a key historical variable, whose significance has been overlooked, mainly because film theory and cinema history have been kept apart” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:7); as well as re-conceptualising established film theory: “we want to probe the usefulness of the various theoretical projects of the past for contemporary film and media theory… thus of fashioning, if not a new theory, then a new understanding of previous theories’ possible logics” (Elsaesser et al. 2012:7). 

While their argument goes a long way in affirming the body’s presence in the understanding of film theory, Elsaesser’s and Hagener’s conclusion is by no means absolute: “Our mission – to condense a hundred years if history with thousands of pages of history with thousands of pages of theory – necessarily involves losses, biases and omissions” (2012:7). However, this is the book’s redeeming strength – it proposes a radical new way to look at film theory and then leaves it open to be built upon. This is clear in what Elsasser and Hagener hope will be its eventual and startling outcome:

“Our initial premise of asking film theory to tell us how film and cinema relate to the body and the senses thus may well lead to another question… namely whether-when putting the body and senses at the centre of film theory-the cinema is not proposing to us, besides a new way of knowing the world, also a new way of ‘being in the world’, and thus demanding from film theory, next to a new epistemology also a new ontology” (2012:12).

In his preface, McGowan claims: “Film theory today is almost nonexistent. The universalizing claims about cinematic experience made by figures such as Sergei Eisenstein, Andre Bazin, Christian Metz, and Laura Mulvey have disappeared. Contemporary film scholars are increasingly content to make local, particular claims about film” (2007:ix), of course The Real Gaze was published five years before Film Theory and this assertion may have gone a long way in assisting Elsaesser and Hagener to develop their argument. However, while this claim could also be seen as an expression of McGowan’s own self-importance, it does raise the question of just how universalising the film theory of the last twenty years has actually been. The collection of ideas that makes up Viewing Positions, published nearly twenty years ago, certainly shows a universalizing claim to the contrary – in this case that spectator theory needs to be re-thought to actually consider the spectator and the different ideologies which are generated from a plenitude of spectators. 

In this light, Viewing Positions is cut from the same theoretical cloth as The Real Gaze and, therefore, probably is not what McGowan is referring to when claiming film theory is dead. However, this stance is indicative of McGowan’s whole approach and exposes a fault – he believes his argument to be absolute! Viewing Positions and Film Theory are both very clear in establishing themselves as introductions for further discussion. While McGowan does want his system of categorising films according to how a films deploy the gaze to be utilised, in his mind there are only four ways in which a film can deploy the gaze; at no point is the question of more raised. 

In his preface McGowan says the reason why the universalising claims have disappeared is because what used to be film theory has become: “focus on particularity-that is, the analysis of isolated phenomena-completely dominates the field of film studies” (2007:ix). However, it is this analysis of isolated phenomena in the last twenty years that has been gradually picking apart the arguments of the traditional theorists and identifying their faults. A picking apart which The Real Gaze would be well served by, not least with McGowan’s criteria for how a film deploys a gaze!

However, universalising claims are still healthy for film studies and the single unifying cause that permeates throughout Viewing Positions, The Real Gaze and Film Theory is the search for the spectator and an understanding of the influence that spectator, in his ideological multitudes, has on the filmic experience – this is a truly huge universalising goal! Certainly, each of the books can be seen as making particular or isolated investigations of a larger theory or paradigm and, ultimately, the particular claims of the books build on each other and through their interesting series of shifts come together to form the universalising claim in regards to understanding the spectator and the spectator’s relationship to the cinema in the context of the contemporary. 

Viewing Positions takes the traditional gaze theory and shows it as fatally lacking the spectator and proposes integrating the entirety of spectator theory back into our understanding of the gaze. The Real Gaze pushes this one step further and, by re-examining the pioneering psychoanalytical ideas of Lacan, not only offers a place to include the spectator in the filmic experience but endeavours to refine the concept of the gaze into something closer to the intentions of Viewing Positions. Finally, Film Theory pushes things into the physical dimension and asserts, we not only have to consider the ideology implications of a multitude of spectators, we also have to factor in the actual physical presence of the spectator and the implications this creates in regards to the filmic experience. Elsaesser and Hagener argue this is the most important variable missing from the understandings of the spectator and of cinema as a whole:

“The idea of the body as sensory envelope, as perceptual membrane and material-mental interface, in relation to the cinematic image and to audio-visual perception, is thus more than a heuristic device and an aesthetic metaphor: it is the ontological, epistemological and phenomenological “ground” for the respective theories of film and cinema today” (2012:6).

In a satisfyingly roundabout fashion these lines of thought restore spectator theory back to the intentions of its unintentional pioneers, Berger and Lacan. While Lacan’s original intentions for the gaze as including the spectator have already been explained, as represented in McGowan’s reading, Berger’s might still seem lost within the rigid framework of the traditionalist theorists, but as William’s points out Berger asserted: “that spectators are somehow ‘in’ the work” (1994:4); certainly, the logic of this line of thought is plain to see after examining the three volumes.

Throughout this gradual shift from the narrow thinking of traditional gaze and/or spectator theory to its modern equivalent that absolutely integrates the ideologies of a multitude of spectators, the theory of the spectator has become something much more fluid. Not fluid in the sense that anything goes but rather that the theory of the spectator is able to adhere to the changes in film exhibition which, at the moment, is experiencing an array of new innovations and evolving tastes. The kind of changes which makes the views of the traditionalists appear incredibly prehistoric! This demonstrates the importance of the endeavours of Viewing Positions, The Real Gaze and Film Theory – they contest film theory and, ultimately, either change it or open up the discussion with the eventual aim of producing a refined theory that applies to the contemporary. 

The purpose of the cinema is the spectator and, because of this, it could be argued that spectator theory is the most important film theory. Therefore, it needs to adhere to the constantly shifting profiles and ideologies of the spectator in regards to the filmic experience; Viewing Positions, The Real Gaze and Film Theory provide three strong theoretical shifts, in regards to this essential standpoint.


Berenstein, R. J. Clover, C. J. Crary, J. Friedberg, A. Gunning, T. Hansen, M. Mayne, J. Schwartz, V. R. Sobchack, V. C. Williams, L. (1994) Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Elsaesser, T. and Hagener, M. (2012) Film Theory: An Intorduction through the Senses. New York: Routledge.

Homer, S. (2005) Jacques Lacan: Routledge Critical Thinkers. New York: Routledge.

McGowan, T. (2007) The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany.


Ways of Seeing (1972); directed by Mike Dibb. 120 minutes. UK: British Broadcasting Corporation.

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