Camera Obscura 15.3 (2000) 115-149
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The Body of Voyeurism:
Mapping a Discourse of the Senses in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom
Elena del Río
The eye is not the mind, but a material organ.
--Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception
The visible caresses the eye. One sees and hears like one touches.
--Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers
The theme of voyeurism unfolds in Peeping Tom (dir. Michael Powell, United Kingdom, 1960) as if through a magnifying lens. The organ of vision presides over the film in a number of both overt and substitute guises, from the first shot of the archers' logo, an arrow hitting a bull's eye introducing the opening credits, to the last frame, where a blank, reddish screen returns our gaze with the self-conscious reminder of our involvement in the film. Rather than seeking to dispute the centrality of voyeurism to the film's meaning--a centrality already exhaustively examined by psychoanalytic readings 1 --I want to draw attention to an aspect of Peeping Tom that has not been addressed by any published literature thus far. I am referring to Peeping Tom's pervasive articulation [End Page 115] of a discourse of touch and the provocative ways this discourse is intertwined with the general thematics of vision for which the film is so acclaimed. This essay thus seeks to supplement traditional views on voyeurism by foregrounding the sensual and bodily foundations of voyeuristic acts. Additionally, my phenomenological analysis of voyeurism aims at showing the latter's repressive and fetishizing dynamics in two interrelated spheres: on the one hand, the corporeal style or comportment attending voyeuristic perceptual operations, and on the other hand, the extension of such bodily repression to the level of the voyeur's linguistic performance. Voyeurism, I will argue, exhibits its own specific corporeal conduct--one whose relation to the linguistic function may be at best fragile, yet possesses nonetheless its own signifying status as symptom.
The relations between vision and tactility in Peeping Tom are indeed likely to provoke a rethinking of several major assumptions deemed 'essential' to the workings of voyeurism. Since the film itself works to minimize the difference between the diegetic voyeur turned murderer and the voyeur as mere (diegetic or nondiegetic) spectator, I think it is safe to extrapolate from its self-reflexive thematics onto the situation of the cinematic viewer. Film theory's elaborations on the spectator-voyeur as a disembodied eye have decisively contributed to the ways cultural critics have come to regard voyeurism as a psychic disposition disconnected from the viewer's corporeal engagement with the world of the film. 2 As Linda Williams and Vivian Sobchack argue in their respective valuable work emphasizing the corporeality of vision, apparatus theories as well as feminist film theory have unwittingly reinforced the Platonic mind-body split through their tendency to overvalue the eye (as the more intellectual of the senses) and to devalue bodily senses and sensations that are deemed less intellectually compelling. 3
Most paradoxical--and at the same time fascinating--about Peeping Tom's way of contravening the mind-body dualistic separation is that this film sets itself worlds apart from the kind of overtly sensual scenarios that both Williams and Sobchack use to advance the notion of a sensorial mode of viewing. Peeping Tom [End Page 116] might seem at the outset to provide the least likely of occasions for a joint discursive structuration of sight and touch. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) shows no desire to engage sensually or sexually with the women he films and kills. As Kaja Silverman points out, 'Mark tries to erect [a barrier] between himself and his victims so as to dissociate himself from them, and thereby consolidate his own claim to the paternal legacy. Here, too, Mark's project converges with classic cinema, which also turns upon the fiction that an irreducible distance isolates the viewer from the spectacle.' 4 If Mark replicates so seamlessly the classic voyeur's need for distance and separation from the...