University of California, Berkeley
Unbracketing Motion Study: Scott Stark’s NOEMA [excerpt]
The complete version of this essay will appear in Porn Studies, Linda Williams, ed. Duke University Press, 2004.
Images from NOEMA can be viewed at Scott Stark’s website: http://www.hi-beam.net/mkr/ss/ss-bio.html
Scott Stark’s NOEMA takes its title from an analytical category found in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. In Ideas, Husserl distinguishes “noema” – a concrete judgment made by consciousness regarding an object – from “noesis” – a secondary reflection upon the status of that original judgment. Pol Vandevelde, in his introduction to Paul Ricoeur’s commentary on Ideas, writes that the meaning of noema is relatively mutable in Husserl’s phenomenology.
The noema can cover at least three different elements: it can be the correlate of
an act, as a punctual noematic appearance; it can also be the sense (Sinn or
Bedeutung) and as such be the identical or ideal content; and, the noema can
name the object constituted in its unity and be, thus, the intentional object
(Vandevelde, in Ricoeur 1996, 18).
This requires some explication. In the first case, the noema consists of the totality of sensual content which accompanies any given act of perception. One must note the word “act” in the previous sentence, to underscore the fact that for Husserl, perception is intentional, even if understood as passive intention, the intention to receive. So the noema is both the pure sense data from a perception, as well as the drive towards the object perceived, both as yet unshaped by the specificity of the object’s “thingness.” From this standpoint, the act contains an abstract correlative which makes it possible, by marking out a space for its intendedness. As Barry Smith and David W. Smith explain it, the real content of an act is its noesis, its intention is that act’s noema, and intentionality as such lay within this “noetic-noematic correlation” (1995, 22). The second and third parts of Vandevelde’s definition follow from this division of intentional labor. In the second sense, noema is the ideal meaning of the perception itself, analytically separable from its physical constituents. The third definition would refer to the object as an ideality, an object as intended by consciousness. In this case, noesis would be the secondary synthetic process by which we shape the information which consciousness actively receives. That actual perception would be a degraded form of the noema, which exists as a perfect intellectual concept. This definition of the noema would be the limit-case of philosophical idealism, the object existing in its truest form only in the mind of a hypothetical perceiver.
The fact that Scott Stark has given the title NOEMA to a film comprised of looped fragments of video pornography might seem incongruous at first. But the film’s means have a specific historical relationship to questions of perception, intention, and the problem of idealism vs. materialism. But more importantly, NOEMA confronts an ethical dilemma which has shadowed a certain strain of modernism, particularly in cinema. Husserl’s phenomenology is able to separate the experience of sense data from the conceptual recognition of objects, particularly as those objects fill out our preexisting categories of understanding. By distinguishing between these two analytical moments, it becomes possible to see shape, form, and motion as discrete entities in themselves. This in turn becomes a single moment in a dialectical tension, as “content” (understood broadly as any meaning not fully immanent to the sensual presence of an artwork) inevitably impresses itself upon consciousness. In actual experience, neither of these categories exists separately, nor does either of them arrive before the other. And so, in order to consider one and not the other, a significant degree of effort (that is, intention) is necessary on the part of the viewer.
Stark’s film dramatizes this intention as few other films have before. To watch NOEMA is in part to experience hard-core porn presented in a mode which both (a) asks us to “see through” the bodies of copulating men and women, in order to appreciate them as design elements within a whimsical motion study; and (b) forces us to confront the complete inability to see these undulating forms as anything other than naked people engaged in serious fucking. Rather than assuming a priori that the viewer of an experimental film can and must look beyond content into a pre-interpretive realm, Stark posits “formalism” as a chiasmus. The viewer of NOEMA is asked to reflect critically upon the ability to “bracket” the representational status of imagery designed to provoke intense heterosexual arousal.
A similar concern can be seen in earlier films by Stark. For instance, in Satrapy (1988), Stark used frame-by-frame photography to make a “flicker” film out of playing cards featuring pictures of naked women. The women in the film fly by, mere glimpses of smiles and flesh. As such, they take on the character of signifiers of sexually desirable objects, rather than objects of desire per se. In a sense, the film seems to slyly allude to a stereotypical male fantasy regarding the complete exchangeability of women. In Satrapy, this exchange rate attains unfathomable proportions, and as such, the male gaze is effectively blitzed. Nude centerfolds become formal features in a game of cards controlled by the House. This aspect is underscored by the pulsating mathematization of the film’s construction.
Rephotographed pornographic playing cards rhythmically intrude upon a piercing
5‑beat score of different‑sized black parallel lines, injecting a note of "negative sound"
every third beat against the 5‑beat background. As the film progresses, contrapuntal
variations of 3, 4, 5 and 7 beat rhythms blend and collide, creating an almost indiscern-
ible complexity, until the lined background ruptures and the sounds and visuals become
scattered and disordered.
As if peering through filmic “blinds” on the movie screen into a private booth filled with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them naked ladies, the viewer of Satrapy is assailed by disorienting sheets of visual noise (at times hypnotically lovely, at other points frankly painful), through which our hypothetical “he” must look if “he” is to exact Mulveyan visual pleasure. Like the story by Rabelais in which a man must eat through a wall of crud in order to reach the delicious food inside, Satrapy demands that we work for our jollies, snatching “content” while banging our heads against a vibrating wall of “form.”
Stark has made other films which, like NOEMA, could be called motion studies. One of the most elegant is Acceleration, a super-8 film from 1993, which consists of reflections in the windows of leaving and arriving BART commuter trains. Shot from the platform, the film shows us other passengers in waiting, as the flicker of window-metal-window creates a phenakistiscope. Jonathan Crary reminds us that the literal meaning of that word is “deceptive view,”and this is apposite considering Stark’s means. By triangulating the image of his subjects through the reflections off the speeding train, Stark uses the technological “advance” of cinema to record movement as though it were being generated by an earlier, “inferior” para-cinematic device. In this way, Acceleration reads like a double motion study, examining the movement of its outward subjects (passengers and trains) as well as the camera’s own ability to produce illusions of motion different than those usually generated by the apparatus.
But clearly NOEMA is a motion study of a different order. Stark is shifting the emphasis from filming to editing, using found footage from a particular segment of the entertainment industry with its own rules and structures of representation. Regarding his work and interests, Stark has said that he “likes to emphasize the physicality of film while humorously cross‑ referencing it to the world outside the theater, attempting to lay bare the paradoxes of modern culture and the magical nature of the perceptual experience” (Stark 1999). NOEMA brings these paradoxes of perception to bear upon material which carries with it a considerable amount of social and political freight. Most viewers have some opinion of or relation to pornography. Given the social environment into which NOEMA is unleashed, the film can scarcely be completely separated from questions of gender, race, sexual orientation, relations between labor and capital, the political character of cinematic spectatorship, and a host of related issues.
This seems utterly intentional. NOEMA actually seems to instantiate a dual response while explicitly thematizing that response. The film’s looping motion study of pornography provokes a divided consciousness on the part of the viewer. On the one hand, he or she is aggressively confronted with undisguised pornography. This content will inevitably touch off a set of associations for the viewer. On the other, the viewer cannot help but observe (and, in my opinion, appreciate) the formal repetitions and conjunctions which Stark has constructed through editing. This divided response is then reflected upon, as a second-order problem. The formal relationships within the piece seem to simultaneously demand and prohibit an abstract mode of looking, which could see NOEMA’s “rounded objects” going to town, and temporarily “fail” to see pornography. Stark’s motion study produces form which will not conform to formalism.
This second-order viewing challenge brings us back to Husserl. Once we reflect upon our perception of Stark’s film, we recognize that there are no naked people “there.” What we are actually evaluating are patterns of light and shadow on the screen. This is the sort of noematic response which both experimental film and analytic motion study often demand of their viewers. We are asked to see before we see “things.” We are asked to attempt to allow a first-order perceptual experience to marinate before we rush to conceptual judgment. In Husserl’s thought, we can separate this noema from its attendant noesis through phenomenological reduction.
In Ideas, Husserl explains phenomenological reduction as the process by which we can analytically distinguish the noema from its real world meanings (including those which we would consider cultural or historical). The aim of this is to achieve “the absolutely faithful description of that which really lies before one in phenomenological purity” (Husserl 1962, 242). This is in order to disentangle the “intentional object” (noema) from the “real object” (noesis), to gain scientific knowledge of the object’s activation of our sensorium. In order to free ourselves from the errors of prejudgment, Husserl states that “we must abide by what is given in pure experience, and place it within its frame of clearness just as it comes into our hands.” How to achieve this? “The ‘real’ object is then to be ‘bracketed’” (ibid 243).
“Bracketing,” set off in quotation marks throughout Ideas, becomes Husserl’s shorthand for the act of phenomenological reduction, and has become a popular idiom for the process of tabling a problematic issue in the text (“bracketing” issues of gender or race, for example) while going on to consider other matters which will be rejoined with the bracketed material, but which could not be worked through with that material at the fore. This aspect of the pragmatics of bracketing begins to address the possible ethical difficulties which the phenomenological reduction can provoke. In this light, reconsider the Flaherty incident. Ken Jacobs was chastised for expecting his Flaherty audience to be able to phenomenologically reduce, or “bracket,” the light patterns’ perceptual resolution into people having oral sex al fresco. The transcript of the Jacobs Q & A indicates that Jacobs was actually interested in how the tension between views – the sensual / formal and the intellectual / conceptual – would play itself out in Cherries. (It seems equally evident that Jacobs’s stance in the argument became more “formalist” as he was backed against the wall.) But whereas Laura Marks claimed that Jacobs’s means were fundamentally implicated in power relations which, as she presented them, sounded rather unilateral, Stark suggests that one must understand the social relations of the backdrop, before one can assess the meaning of bracketing as an intervention.
For Husserl, this act is necessary if we are to analytically distinguish “between the passing of a judgment and the judgment as passed” (Husserl 1962, 252 [emphasis in original]). And yet Husserl seems to admit that this procedure is asymptotic, because it is striving toward a preconceptual residue somehow prior to actual “experience” as we understand it. There may well be a ground zero of sensual experience, prior to full nominalization and conceptualization. But the noema is a hypothetical construction, extrapolated from “later” conceptual impressions. This is why the effort of bracketing is necessary in the first place. This level of preconceptual understanding can only be achieved retroactively.
This further complicates the ethical issues surrounding the phenomenological reduction. Husserl’s brackets are wide, because his phenomenology aims to achieve the noema by putting the “real” world aside. In section 97 of Ideas, Husserl gives the example of an apple tree, explaining what its reduction would entail.
. . . we have now to describe what remains over as phenomenological residuum,
when we effect the reduction to “pure immanence,” and what in that case should
count as a real (reelles) integral part of the pure experience, and what should not
be so regarded. And we have then to be fully clear about this, that whilst the “per-
ceived tree as such,” or, alternately, the full noema which is not affected by the
suspending of the reality (Wirklichkeit) of the tree itself and the whole real world,
does indeed belong to the essence of the perceptual experience in itself, on the
other hand this noema, with its “tree” in inverted commas, is as little contained
realiter (reell) in the perception as is the tree of the real natural order (Wirklich-
keit) (Husserl 1962, 261).
Later on, Husserl will further distinguish the real noema from actual experience, even at the sensual level. (Neither the noematic essence, nor the “real tree of the natural order” are actually contained in our perception.) This seems to me to underscore the fact that in attempting the phenomenological reduction, we are positing a synthetic noema which we must reconstruct from the sullied noeses of the real world. But as we also see from the passage above, in order to generate that noema, Husserl’s phenomenology requires the “suspending” of the “whole real world.” This suspension is intimately tied to the conceptualizing process itself, and so our conceptual categories will necessarily become involved in the reduction, what is reduced, and how the reduction will take place. That is, we posit a “real world” in order to strip it away, leaving a synthetic residuum which is the “other” of that stripped reality.
NOEMA dramatizes this perceptual gambit. That is, the pornographic footage reworked by Stark has already been “bracketed” by the rules of genre. When we watch the pornographic tapes in their original form, the logic of suture induces us to blot out, or bracket, those very moments which could jeopardize our pleasure. The process of self-selected, retroactive editing of the real world excises the in-between awkwardness, the industrial fatigue, and that most excessive realm of all, the aesthetic. By bringing motion study to bear upon video pornography, NOEMA brackets those seconds in which the bodily needs and visual desires of porn’s producers are no longer contained by the logic of manufactured entertainment. NOEMA isolates these elements, bracketing them for his own motion study, but in a larger sense unbracketing them, bringing them (as emissaries of the “real world” of production) back from the oblivion of psychic expurgation.
In using motion study as a tool for this analysis of generic fantasy, he firmly demonstrates that which Jacobs’s audience was incapable of conceding – that analytical motion study can do more with power than crudely exercise it over its subjects. But NOEMA goes further, because it allows pornography to speak back to motion study’s tendencies toward austere formalism. When we see and hear NOEMA, the bodies cannot dissolve into pure form; always on the verge of hard core sex, they hover near but are pulled back from the brink of abstraction. In this way, Stark has created a work of art which undermines its own foundation, which is, of course, one of the most radical formal gestures we can ask an artwork to perform, one certainly worthy of the designation “avant-garde.”
For invaluable help and suggestions on this essay, I’d like to thank Linda Williams, Minette Hillyer, Jennifer Wingard, and especially Scott Stark. NOEMA is available for rental on 16mm from Canyon Cinema, (415) 626-2255 or email@example.com. It may also be purchased on videotape from Stark. He may be contacted through his website: <http://www.hi‑beam.net/mkr/ss/ss‑bio.html>
1. While Husserl’s system of phenomenological perception is largely structural and relatively value-neutral, Heidegger will bring the question of intentional perception into the domain of ethics. (The term “ethics” is my designation, not Heidegger’s.) In his later essays, particularly those collected in the volume The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger contends that by insisting that an object assume a thinglike character before us, we are dominating that object, preventing it from coming into being.
2. Exhibiting his usual elegance, Andrew “Dice” Clay joked that the typical “guy” has a “masturbatory Rolodex” in his imagination, paging through until the ideal female image can be fixed. The rapid-fire nudie cards of Satrapy give a similar impression, although they are subjected to a formal procedure which draws attention to their rapid inscription on the surface of the film itself. Given this flicker film effect, Stark’s film makes an ironic point about pornography and plenitude. Ostensibly, the registration of a naked woman on each of the film’s frames would be extremely sexually satisfying, but instead it is likely to generate more migraines than erections.
4. Mulvey’s model of male scopophilia, of course, presumes maximum visual access. Satrapy is a good example of a film which destroys the more sexist forms of film pleasure Mulvey originally objected to. Stark’s film is funny, thoughtful, and rigorous, and to me exemplifies the best possible outcome of Mulvey’s hope (in 1975) that film might someday give us “the thrill that comes with leaving the past behind without simply rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, and daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.” See Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 16.
5. Crary discusses the phenakistiscope and other nineteenth-century “philosophical toys” in relation to the kind of embodied observer they seem to generate. See Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 97-136.
6. In this regard, the results of the phenomenological reduction have much in common with the function of “art” and the aesthetic within Russian Formalism. Victor Shklovsky, for example, writes “And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” However, in this passage one can certainly observe one key difference between Shklovsky and phenomenology. Phenomenology, as a form of inquiry, does not content itself with perception “in itself.” Rather, it attempts to glean knowledge about the object under scrutiny. See Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds. Russian Formalist Criticism. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 3-24.
7. He characterizes the distinction in this way, “that as correlatively related to the judgment as experienced we have the judgment simpliciter as noema” (Husserl 261). So we see that the noema is not really our purest form of experience – all experience is inevitably conceptualized – but is a correlative to the judgment as experienced.