The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

February 15, 2007

Reel Histrionic

In Eloquent Gestures, The Transformation of Performance Style in the
Griffith Biograph films, Roberta E. Pearson describes 'histrionic' and
'verisimilar' codes of acting - a transformation from a melodramatic locus
to incipient realism. She considers them in relation to 'analogical' and
'digital' communication: "Though most gestural communication systems are
unsegmented and analogic, the histrionic code, with its emphasis on the
isolation of gesture, does resemble segmented, digital communications such
as speech. Actors deliberately struck attitudes, holding each gesture and
abstracting it from the flow of motion until the audience had 'read it.'"
[...] "Not only were aspiring actors told to 'rest long enough in a
gesture,' they were urged to avoid excessive movement, which might detract
from attitude-striking." [...] "The elimination of the small gestures
brings about the physical equivalent of silence between the grand, posed
gestures, resulting in the 'discrete, discontinuous elements and gaps' of
digital communication." In contrast, the analogical references the uncoded
real, motions and emotions of daily life.

The digital is catastrophic, fold-catastrophic; it consists of jumps
between gestures or stances, between emotions and their concretion as
attitude. The histrionic is dependent upon the diegetic - it as acted
action of the unfolding interpreted world. The histrionic is therefore
always stylized and responsive, within and up to thresholding. A threshold
is constituted by an increased differentiation between gesture and the
diegetic real; this itself is stylized. In other words, there are two
levels of code, stylization at work: the semantic contents of individuated
gestures, and the syntactic divisions between them. The gestures are
individuated (not individual); as with other linguistic formation, they
are constituted by difference, differance, the playing among gestures
'down the line of the unfolding of the diegetic.' So histrionic gestures
bridge from one moment to another in the form <------<----<----- - they
are held positions until anomaly (threshold) defers them.

Gestures are concretions operating within time's arrow, objectifying the
body in a sequence of irreversible positions. The body constitutes the
proffering of desire - it is held for the viewer, much as the display of
the (sexualized) body operated in some elements of Weimar dance/cabaret
culture. This holding is reminiscent of the still pornographic image,
which is presented to the (mostly male) viewer; the viewer is aware that
the histrionic is there for his or her pleasure. In the pornographic
photograph, the erogenous zones function as 'strange attractors'; the
diegetic is constructed by the viewer who creates a narratology resulting
in masturbation, the cessation of (that) pleasure. The zones, however, are
grounded in the analogical, the abject; the viewer is without the gesture
of the histrionic (in both silent film and pornography).

Stylized gestures reference a repertoire, of course; they must be under-
stood by both the actor (in re/presentation) and viewer (as indexical
within the diegetic). And repertoires are always stylized, enumerations of
entities that play, one way or another, within specified cultural milieus.
In this sense, all repertoires are accumulations of conventions and genre;
in the case of the histrionic, they are a rough set of mappings into (and
constituting) the diegesis, in order that the photoplay 'move forward' for
both actor and spectator. (This moving is literally self-centered within
the pornographic, which plays within the (transitive and transitional)
body of the viewer in both (interrelated) psychoanalytical and biophysical

(But pornography as well as photoplay is never fully reductive; defuge
creates another deferral, from image to image, film to film. This is what
might be considered the 'repressed of the analogical,' the referencing of
the clean and proper body and life-story in relation to the messiness and
decathection of everyday life. The analogical is always excessive and
irreducible; digital mappings are mappings from one-to-many, mappings into
the analogical (body and) real. Digital mappings are not only stylized;
they are undergoing continuous transformations, splittings, decathecting,
disinvestment, as the surplus of the analog has moved elsewhere. What
constitutes pornography or photoplay, fashion or convention, at one
synchronic instant, is constituted elsewhere at the next. The repression
constructed by the diegesis itself (which leaves out so many things in the
world) returns in so many different forms which become increasingly
mutually unreadable.)

"The name _sensuality_ seems to be taken from the sensual movement, of
which Augustine speaks, just as the name of a power is taken from its act,
for instance, sight from seeing. Now the sensual movement is an appetite
following sensible apprehension. For the act of the apprehensive power is
not so properly called a movement as the act of appetite; since the
operation of the apprehensive power is completed in the very fact that the
thing apprehended is in the one that apprehends, while the operation of
the appetitive power is completed in the fact that he who desires is borne
towards the desirable thing. Hence it is that the operation of the appre-
hensive power is likened to rest; whereas the operation of the appetitive
power is rather likened to movement. Therefore by sensual movement we
understand the operation of the appetitive power. Thus, sensuality is the
name of the sensitive appetitive." (From Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans-
lated by Anton C. Pegis, Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, Modern
Library, 1948.)

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