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Frame-Up: James, Caché, and the Borders of the Visible

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 223-238 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0016

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This is the Fourth in a Series of Reflections on the Fiction of Henry James in relation to modern and contemporary cinema. In comparing late James novels and stories to the films of Hitchcock, Nolan, and Tarrantino, I have been interested in tracing an arc that runs from James’s visual imaginary and the epistemological complexities he associated with acts of envisioning and representation, to the foliation of those complexities in films that limit—as James does for print narrative—the capacities of the cinematic medium to represent objects, memory, temporality, and mortality. The relationship between James and film that I am interested in is not primarily anticipatory or adaptational, as it is reiterative of a problem—Žižek describes it as one of observation, or more precisely, as one of our modern knowledge about how observation works—that inheres in the act of visualizing per se, whether doing so in terms of an unfolding field of optic possibilities, as described in the famous “house of fiction” metaphor, or doing so for the sake of establishing mise en scene. For Žižek, the reflexive glitch induced by embodiments of modern visuality that formally and materially worry about the provenance of envisioning can be conceived as a “parallax,” or:

the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added … is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” because the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or—to put it in Lacanese—the subject’s gaze is … inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot” … the point from which the object returns the gaze…. Materialism is not the direct assertion of my inclusion in objective reality (such an assertion presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality); rather, it resides in the reflexive twist by means of which I am myself included in the picture constituted by me—it is this reflexive short-circuit, this necessary redoubling of myself as standing both outside and inside [the] picture, that bears witness to my “material existence.”

In the Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James had anticipated this Heisenbergian view in the notion of “an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality” standing behind the facade of “the house of fiction” with its “number of possible windows not to be reckoned” that, by virtue of their multitudinous existence, serve to frame “the individual vision and … the pressure of the individual will” (James 1934, 46). James figured the windows as claustrophobically disconnected “mere holes in a dead wall,” and behind each, “a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass,” all “watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine” (1934, 46). While James appears to take some comfort in the fact that this radically relativistic and indeterminate view of perspective and witnessing takes place against the backdrop of a common, singular “show,” Žižek emphasizes in his description of the parallax the shortcircuit, or gap, or shift in perspective inherent in acts of seeing and observing objects in motion that produce a visualizing agency—the subjectivity who witnesses, watches, records—in the first place.

In this essay, I will explore more fully how the parallax view operates in James via an examination of The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, and his prefaces to Roderick Hudson and The Golden Bowl and, correspondingly, Michael Haneke’s 2005 film about the cinematic medium and the enabling or disabling powers of observation, Caché. But first, a brief reprise...



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