- Acts of Erasure: The Limits of the Image in Naomi Uman’s Early Films
In Naomi Uman’s 2002 film Hand Eye Coordination, cutouts of hands are reassembled and made to dance or crawl across the screen (figure 1). By evoking the bodily gestures used to construct the film—the work of the hands manipulating found-footage images—Hand Eye Coordination locates the immediacy of the body at the place of vision while displacing the eye from its primacy as the origin of the image’s production. This short movie, a film caught in the act of its own making, can thus serve as a shorthand for Uman’s broader investigation of the place of the body at the site of production.
Explored through found-footage works and experimental documentaries made between 1998 and 2003, Uman’s film situates the body in a double relation to the image, first as its genetic property, its incorporated origin and that which makes possible its formal arrangement. Scratches, stains, and visible seams, an entire catalog of “imperfections” visible in the images of her early films, act as testimonies to the production process and the intimacy between the filmstrip and the filmmaker’s labor embedded in the film. What gives these imperfections importance beyond their foregrounding of the filmic material is that they gesture toward a second location of the body, that of an absent figure that cannot be made visible. Second, the body marks an external limit of the [End Page 207] image, an element that cannot be documented or brought to light within the cinematic frame. Not simply missing, the bodies that Uman investigates are marked through their absence, signified by their erasure from the scene. They constitute a spatial gap and a temporal hesitation in the visual fullness promised by the integration of the work of production within these films. In each case, a series of looks running between the characters, the filmmaker, and ultimately the spectators is organized around a dead zone of an overlooked body: a rupture within the frame. Both inside and outside the image, both its origin and that which exceeds its finality or closure, the body constitutes an internal offscreen space, a visible other side of the scene.
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This essay will trace the different ways in which in Uman’s early films the body is made visible as an absent presence, arguing that they function as critical re-visions, making visible the nonvisibility of gendered and raced bodies within the sites of desire and labor. Relying on the psychoanalytic concept of cryptonymy developed by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, I will treat these films as cryptic texts in which bodies appear as taboo images: images that have been excluded from the scene of signification and that in order to be seen must undergo a material deformation.1 Focusing on three works—Removed (1998), Leche (1998), and Mala Leche (2003)—I will show how each in their own way and in response to the specific [End Page 208] conditions of their production, they visualize an unacknowledged absence or loss within the fullness of the visible.
Abraham and Torok’s The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, a revision of Sigmund Freud’s case study of the Wolf Man, proposes that a failure or refusal to mourn may give rise to a psychic process that the authors call “incorporation.”2 Refusing to acknowledge the loss of the object, while at the same time denying the very knowledge of this refusal, the subject buries the loss alive—in a secret “safe” in the corporeal ego that Abraham and Torok call a “crypt.” Thus interred within a new architecture of the psyche, the lost object continues a phantom existence, living on in the host. The lost object saves the living from the painful work of mourning by taking with it, into the silence of the crypt, the very possibility of ever remembering the trauma of its loss. For the subject who has incorporated loss, however, there will now arise a new drama: how to maintain this untenable contradiction between knowledge and nonknowledge without raising...