The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity

The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity

Mary Ann Doane

Volume 18, Number 1 doi 10.1215/10407391-2006-025

© 2007 by Brown University and d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies

Photography is perfectly situated to act as the mediator of such a miracle because it shares the indexical status of the stainas the trace and hence corroboration 확증 of an existence.

The lure of the indexical is linked to its intimate collusion with what Didi-Huberman calls the “fantasy of referentiality,” with the inert stability of the real, most fully realized in death.

Certainly, within film theory, confronted with the threat and/ or promise of the digital, indexicality as a category has attained a new centrality, as has the work of Bazin. One might go so far as to claim that indexicality has become today the primary indicator of cinematic specificity, that elusive concept that has played such a dominant role in the history of film theory’s elaboration, serving to differentiate film from the other arts (in particular, literature and painting) and to stake out the boundaries of a discipline. Despite its essentialist connotations, medium specificity is a resolutely historical notion, its definition incessantly mutating in various sociohistorical contexts. At its birth, the cinema’s most striking characteristic was, in fact, its indexicality, commented upon in countless newspaper and magazine articles that heralded the new technology’s ability to capture time and movement—what invariably went by the term “life itself.” But with Griffith and Eisenstein, in entirely different ways, and with the rationalization of film as an art, editing or montage emerged as the principle of cinematic form and the true potential of the medium. Anchored by an account of the indexicality of the photographic image, the long take, and depth of field, Bazin marked out the terrain he viewed as proper to the ontology and power of cinema. For the Structural filmmakers of the sixties  and seventies (e.g., Peter Gidal, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, Paul Sharits), medium specificity was incarnated in film’s material base—the celluloid subject to scratching, the grain of the film, the gap between film frames and its production of an illusion of movement (subjected to scrutiny in the flicker film), and the projector itself and its cone of light. (129)Seventies film theory complicated and diversified the notion of medium specificity (129)  by situating it as a structure or system—the apparatus—that orchestrated camera, spectator, and screen in the production of a subject effect. Today, it could be argued, it is the indexicality associated with the analogical, chemical base of the image that emerges as the primary candidate, in contention with the rise of digital media. (130)

We tend to think of a medium as a material or technical means of aesthetic expression (painting, sculpture, photography, film, etc.), which harbors both constraints and possibilities, the second arguably emerging as a consequence of the first. The potential of a medium would thus lie in the notion of material resistances or even of matter/materiality itself as, somewhat paradoxically, an enabling impediment . The juxtaposition of negativity and productivity is crucial here. A medium is a medium by virtue of both its positive qualities (the visibility, color, texture of paint, for instance) and its limitations, gaps, incompletions (the flatness of the canvas, the finite enclosure insured by the frame).  medium에 대한 정의 (130)

Within art history, the concepts of medium and medium specificity have been yoked to a notion of Greenbergian formalism wherein every authentic work of art is caught in a self-reflexive spiral, referring only to itself and its own conditions of existence (in painting, for example, flatness). In striving to counter this Greenbergian appropriation as well as the reductive and reified understanding of medium as unworked physical support, Rosalind Krauss has defined a medium as “a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support, conventions out of which to develop a form of expressiveness that can be both projective and mnemonic” (“Reinventing” 296). Medium specificity names the crucial recursiveness of that structure that is a medium: “For, in order to sustain artistic practice, a medium must be a supporting structure, generative of a set of conventions, some of which, in assuming the medium itself as their subject, will be wholly ‘specific’ to it, thus producing an experience of their own necessity” (Voyage  26). This is a restricted specificity that takes the individual work and its activation of particular conventions as its point of departure, and not the medium itself. Those works that can be labeled “medium specific” are those reiterating and reconfirming the constraints of their material support. Yet, it is a strange type of specificity that is selective, and if certain works can repudiate that label, the medium’s constraints are, after all, not very constraining. 저자가 생각하는 Krauss notion of post medium의 한계. 문제점  Which is, I think, the point. Proper to the aesthetic, then, would be a continual reinvention of the medium through a resistance to resistance, a transgression of what are given as material limitations, which nevertheless requires those material constraints as its field of operations.

Hence—and I think Krauss would agree—it is ultimately impossible either to reduce the concept of medium to materiality or to disengage it from that notion. 그리 단순한 문제가 아님. In its very resistance, matter generates the forms and modes of aesthetic apprehension. Yet, technologies of mechanical and electronic reproduction, from photography through digital media, appear to move asymptotically toward immateriality, generating images through light and electricity. The answer to the question, “Where is the film?” is (131) less assured than that concerning the physical location of a painting. Is it the celluloid strip, the projected image, the viewer’s apprehension of the illusion of motion? This complexity may help to explain the constant return to and refinement of the concept of cinematic specificity in film theory. For the structuralist filmmakers of the 1970s, that specificity lay in film’s most palpable and delineable features—its chemical base, the projection of light, the grain of the film. Above all, it excluded notions of representation, of iconicity, of the illusion of the real, repudiating the optics of Renaissance perspective built into the lens. For Peter Gidal, one of the primary spokespersons for what he called “Structural-Materialist” film, the focus on this form of cinematic materiality had a direct connection to the methodology and epistemology of a Marxist materialism and shared in its radical critique of bourgeois culture.2 (132)

Nevertheless, an emphasis upon film’s chemical, photographic base now serves to differentiate the cinema from digital media and repeatedly invokes indexicality as the guarantee of a privileged relation to the real, to referentiality, and to materiality. 이게 궁극적으로 잘못되어 있는 시도라고 보고 있다.   For although not all of cinema is indexical (and animation, for some, would be the most striking counterexample),3 mainstream fiction and documentary film are anchored by the indexical image and both exploit, in different ways, the idea of the image as imprint or trace, hence sustaining a privileged relation to the referent (for Lev Manovich, cinema is the “attempt to make art out of a footprint” [295]). Paul Willeman, for instance, bemoans the shift from the photochemical to the digital image because it severs the link between representation and referent:

Willeman’s approach takes on an unacknowledged Bazinian inflection when he argues that digital media is authoritarian in opposition to the more open, democratic quality of filmic legibility. WTF This is Dai Vaughan’s argument as well, pushed even further in his claim that “the age of the chemical photograph has broadly coincided (132)

Unlike icons, indices have no resemblance to their objects, which, nevertheless, directly cause them. This is due to the fact that the index is evacuated of content; it is a hollowed-out sign. 즉, index는 pointing이다. 실제 내용이 필요한 건 아니다. 어떠한 대상을 ‘지시’하는 것이고, 다라서 pointing to, touching, 접촉이 중요하다. 

Unlike icons and symbols, which rely upon association by resemblance or intellectual operations, the work of the index depends upon association by contiguity (the foot touches the ground and leaves a trace, the wind pushes the weathercock, the pointing finger indicates an adjoining site, the light rays reflected from the object “touch” the film).(133)

Photography and film would seem to be excellent examples of sign systems that merge icon, index, and to some extent, symbol.4 Although indexical because the photographic image has an existential bond with its object, they are also iconic in relying upon a similarity with that object.(134)

Digital imaging allows for the manipulation of intensities, the seamless combination of image fragments from different sources, and invisible constructions or interventions in image formation (Mitchell 31). Most importantly, it is the ease and undetectability of these manipulations that most alarm Willeman and Vaughan, as well as their ability to undermine confidence in any  image.

The index makes that claim by virtue of its privileging of contact, of touch, of a physical connection. The digital can make no such claim and, in fact, is defined as its negation. The digital seems to move beyond previous media by incorporating them all (even the loop characteristic of optical toys, as Manovich has pointed out [314–22]) and by proffering the vision (or nightmare) of a medium without materiality, of pure abstraction incarnated as a series of 0s and 1s, sheer presence and absence, the code. Even light, that most diaphanous of materialities, is transformed into numerical form in the digital camera. In English, a telling symptom of this imperative of abstraction in the digital is its linguistic repression of touch. The first definition of “digital” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary  is “of or pertaining to a finger, or to the fingers or digits.” The transition from the digit to the digital is effected, first, by defining the most pertinent characteristic of the finger as its discreteness, its differentiation from the other fingers, and second, by emphasizing the way in which the fingers lend themselves to counting, enumeration.6 Yet, what is elided here is the finger’s preeminent status as the organ of touch, of contact, of sensation, of connection with the concrete. It could be said that the unconscious of the digital, that most abstract of logics/forms of representation, is touch.7  digital이 touch를 결여하고 있다고 사람들은 생각한다. 그리고 정말 그러해 보인다. 그러나, 과연 digital 에 touch가 결여되어 있는가? 질문한다. 그리고 아마 그렇지 않을걸이라 주장한다. (142)

Digital media emerge as the apparent endpoint of an accelerating dematerialization, so much so that it is difficult not to see the very term “digital media” as an oxymoron.8 Is the digital really a medium, or even a collection of media? Isn’t its specificity, rather, the annihilation of the concept of a medium? Its information or representations appear to exist nowhere and the cultural dream of the digital is a dream of immateriality, without degradation or loss. It might be argued that insofar as a medium derives its identity from its relation to the material conditions of its technical support, the limits of the hardware would delineate the specificity of the digital. But in the realm of aesthetics, at least, it is crucial not to forget the inextricability of the medium and the aesthetic object, which not only bears the imprint of its material conditions of existence but continually struggles to redefine and expand the limits of the medium. The motor behind the expansion of the limits of the digital is that of notions of technological progress, of speed, of expanded memory. And the relation of digital representations to their material conditions of existence (which does exist) is so abstract as to be almost unattainable. For the digital exudes a fantasy of immateriality, in contrast to the fantasy of referentiality of the indexical. 디지털은 마치 film이 referential indexicality에 대해서 환상을 풍기는 것처럼, immateriality에 대한 환상을 풍긴다. 

While the index’s fantasy has a chemical base, of agents and contact, the digital grounds itself in mathematics, the most abstract of epistemological realms. As Brian Rotman has pointed out, number as a sign system has “long [been] acknowledged as the paradigm of abstract rational thought” (46). Within the mathematical community,

As William J. Mitchell points out, Digital images seem even more problematic [than photochemical images], since they do not even have unique negatives. (143)

This is not true of the cinematic image, or at least of cinema as we have known it, wedded to a photochemical base. What is lost in the move to the digital is the imprint of time, the visible degradation of the image.10 (144) 디지털은 명백히 decay하거나 degrade하지 않기 때문에 time의 trace가 남지 않는다.즉, 이것이 history를 담아내지 못한다고 보면서 싫어하는 것이다. nostalgic perspective 에서.  

Bill Morrison’s Decasia  (2002) : What is indexed here is the historicity of a medium, a history inextricable from the materiality of its base. In the face of the digital, the (144)  image is rematerialized through its vulnerability to destruction. As Paolo Cherchi Usai has pointed out, there would be no history of the image if it were not subject to decay (41). Decasia  exhibits a nostalgia for a medium subject to dissolution and corruption, as the mark of its own historicity. Willeman and Vaughan, as well, display a resistance to the notion that we inhabit a postmedium era and to the dream of immateriality,13 precisely because such a stance refuses the claims of history.

that it is precisely at the moment of the obsolescence of that technology that it once more releases this dimension, like the last gleam of a dying star” (Voyage  4). (146)

If the cinema as we know it—contingent upon a photochemical epistemology—is on the verge of obsolescence, the utopian dimension such a fate releases is the desire for the certitude of the imprint, the trace, the etching in a medium whose materiality is thinkable. The source of this longing does not lie in the belief that the cinema gives us realistic representations of objects or people but that, in the manner of the “this,” the deictic index, it points to and verifies an existence. (146) 사람들이 film의 indexicality에 집착하는 이유는, 그것이 어떠한 대상/사람을 representation했다는 사실때문이 아니다. 오히려, 이 ‘지시성’에 있다. 즉, 그 대상/사람이 ‘존재’했었다는 것을 film이 담고 있기 때문이다. 

As Siegfried Kracauer pointed out, the photograph “must be essentially associated with the moment in time at which it comes into existence” (54). The photochemical image is an inscription, a writing of time. …Its promise is that of touching the real. (146-148)


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