The Hauntology of Cinematic and Electronic Presence

Cinema is haunted by a spectral gaze that sees all but is never seen itself; an anticipation of a future not yet apparent; an absent but structuring presence. Like the vanishing point of the perspective painting, cinema constructs its diegesis in relation to a subject who both transcends and inhabits the composition (Baudry, 1975, 41). This vanishing point cannot be thought of as simply an objective technique, for its application alters the relation between subject-viewer and object-viewed, organising all around a single, monolithic gaze. In other words, it creates not simply an illusion of depth, but also, an illusion of mastery in the viewer (Baudry, 1975, 41, 45). For Baudry, cinema follows this tradition, adding the further dimension of time through the illusion of motion. This illusion is generated through the “denial of difference,” cinema’s effacement of itself—in other words, the obfuscation of its own production as text (Baudry, 1975, 40, 42). While cinematic capture generates a multiplicity of images, the viewing experience arises only through the negation of each image’s difference from the previous in sequence (Baudry, 1975, 42-43). Baudry (1975, 43) notes that such an operation bears similarities to that of the mind as conceived by psychoanalysis, in which manifestations of marked difference are repressed so that continuity (and therefore, consciousness) may be restored. The result of this, in cinema, is that both the illusion of depth and motion provide the subject presence across spatial and temporal dimensions (Baudry, 1975, 43). They slip between reality and dreams, here and there, then and now. They are transcendental, moving through the world, but not of the world. Furthermore, this cinematic subject is guided by an intentionality that inculcates meaning (Baudry, 1975, 43). Though a film may present multiple characters (and therefore multiple intentionalities), the cinematic subject ultimately structures them all (Baudry, 1975, 43-46). Baudry (1975, 44) notes that such a subject position is further enhanced by cinema’s mise-en-scene, which both cloaks the viewer in darkness and immobilises them. There is, in his own words, “no exchange, no circulation, no communication” for cinema severs the spectator from external stimuli (Baudry, 1975, 45). In cinema, the spectator is everywhere and nowhere, seeing all but interacting with nothing. For Baudry (1975, 45), such a state replicates that of Lacan’s mirror stage. Like the infant, one has little control over one’s fragmented body, however, the screen-mirror of cinema unites these disparate pieces into an imagined whole (Baudry, 1975, 45; McGowan, 2007, 1-5). Cinema, like the mirror stage, grants the subject a sense of mastery they do not in fact have (McGowan, 2007, 1-5). It attempts to restore a connection with the real through the collapsing of signification into myth. This is the paradox of cinema, for though it relies on signification, it must at the same time efface this process for meaning to arise. Both the techniques and technology of narrative cinema contribute to this effect, making the process both discursive (through techniques such as continuity editing), and physically-integrated into the cinematic apparatus (through the technology of film projection). What Baudry argues, then, is that this ideological effect is inherent to the cinematic.

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Metz (1981, 92, 94) further builds on this position, positing that cinema presents a narration with no narrator through the disvowal of its own discourse. What the spectator ultimately receives is a story that arises from nowhere, to address no one (Metz, 1981, 94, 97). Metz (1981, 92) compares such a phenomenon to that of dreams, for though dreams arises from one’s own mind, one does not realise so until after the dream has passed. The dreamer, like the cinema-goer, is both within and beyond the diegesis. It is in this lacuna, this space never filled yet yearning in its lack, that the transcendental subject fills (Metz, 1981, 97). While Baudry (1975, 45) equates the construction of the self with the construction of a diegesis, Metz (1981, 97) contends that cinematic subjectivity does not neatly conform to Lacan’s mirror stage. Because the camera is never actually seen, the viewer does not identify with it, but rather, with the act of gazing itself (Metz, 1981, 97). The transcendental subject escapes embodiment as a subject completely—they transcend the subject-object dialectic. One gazes, then, not to close oneself from the other, but to fill the absence that is oneself. Cinema does not grant mastery over the world, but rather, presents the world as self. It constructs a phantasy in which all that ever was and could be is contained by a gaze that looks upon its own silent enunciation—its own unconscious narrative—a narrative that slips through it like a dream. Such a subjectivity (if it can be called that) aligns with western philosophy’s long history of ocularcentrism. Objectivity, after all, is a seeing (Haraway, 1991, 188-196). One always, however, gazes from somewhere. To gaze objectively would be to transcend one’s own body, to transcend existence (Haraway, 1991, 188-196). Cinema enforces this lie to grant the illusion of truth—the subject as both dreamer and dream—transcendental subject and absolute objective reality.

If cinema attempted to replace reality, then television fused it with representations. Western imperialism involved not simply the conquering of land, but also that of culture. The integration of the screen into the home brought with it the ability to experience unseen realities without ever stepping outside (Spigel, 2002, 327). As with cinema, television was depicted as a window into another world; however, there were multiple differences between the technologies that would lead to the generation of divergent subjectivities. Firstly, its integration into the domestic sphere; secondly, the transition from analogue to digital; and lastly, the increased potential for interactivity. Spigel (2002, 329) notes that with the adoption of the television, spectatorship became privatised, with the home replacing the theatre. This change reconfigured one’s presence in relation to that of others, for one no longer had to leave the security of home. The spectator was freed from the gazes of all others, save those of their family (Spigel, 2002, 332). For Spigel (2002, 332-334), this generated a “crisis in vision” for no longer was spectatorship anonymous, but rather, shared within domestic space. Lost from cinematic presence was a gaze without reciprocation, without an oppositional presence that could contest one’s own scopic mastery (Spigel, 2002, 332-334). For Spigel (2002, 332-336), this anxiety was deeply gendered, for it was men who were constructed to gaze, and women, to be gazed upon. Televisual subjectivity then, was deeply affected by gender politics in ways that the cinematic subject was not. The loss of anonymity in the domestic space generated a manifold of subject positions, of which not all were equal in their capacity to gaze, and therefore, to dominate (Spigel, 2002, 336). Spigel (2002, 330-331) makes the cogent point that such an inequality between genders may have engendered resistance in women towards the televisual, for the notion that television would connect one to a global village may have come off as hollow to those who already saw the domestic sphere as dull and confining.

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The screen, however, invaded more than the domestic sphere. In our times, it has extended to computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones; can be seen in storefront, malls, restaurants, on the walls of corporate skyscrapers. The modern world is saturated with images. Sobchack (1995, 155), building on the work of Baudry, notes that the intentionality of cinematic presence generates an anticipation of the future, an experience of time unfolding continuously, and therefore, a single consciousness. This intentionality is lost in electronic presence, for though one may experience the same content as cinema, one’s interactivity disturbs and morphs what was once automatic and linear. One is no longer fixed into a diegesis, but is rather dispersed across a network of sites, a simultaneity of fragments from multiple spaces and times (Debord, 1997, 2; Sobchack, 1995, 153-154, 159). While they share with the cinematic subject a transcendental quality, rather than centred and total, they are fractured and partial. This fracturing affects both space and time for without intentionality experience becomes discrete, discursive and disconnected from causality (Sobchack, 1995, 155). Media becomes manipulable, capable of traversal in ways detached from the consequences of the real. Sobchack (1995, 154) notes that the digital remediates certain attributes from both the photographic and the cinematic, namely, the appearance of empirical objectivity and embodied subjectivity. These attributes, however, are not connected to referents, but to representations themselves (Sobchack, 1995, 154). The digital, in other words, constructs a hyperreality that has all the appearance of reality, but with no connection to any actual space or time (Baudrillard, 1994; Debord, 1997, 3). Like the spectral gaze of cinema, the spectral real haunts electronic presence, structuring it to replicate what never existed, and could never exist through signification alone. It attempts to reunite the subject with the real through the very thing that severed it in the first place. This hyperreality does not conform to the linearity of extra-medial or cinematic presence, but rather, reconstitutes presence as instant, immaterial and disembodied (Sobchack, 1995, 154). Consciousness is reified into representations, images that stand in for objects that stand in for social relations, that signify nothing; and because these representations are scattered across multiple (actual or virtual) screens, the gaze splits into a multiplicity of glances. Electronic presence, in other words, externalises subjectivity, moving consciousness to the surface of an image which may dissipate at any moment (Sobchack, 1995, 155-156).

I would like to return to Spigel and Baudry, for though Sobchack presents a powerful image of electronic presence, she omits the interplay between that of the real and electronic world, technology in relation to the situated body. In the case of cinematic presence, one is literally closed off from the external world. The layout of cinema resembles that of a theatre or lecture hall, fixing bodies and sights towards a single conspicuous point. As the lights dim, it is as if one were slipping into sleep, or entering a phantasmic reality. The electronic, however, does not exist in any one context. It cannot be generalised so easily. Though its uptake began in the domestic sphere, it has expanded both physically through space and technologically through the development of new devices. What all digital screens share, however, is their ability to instantly access a seemingly parallel world. This feeling of simultaneity is, I argue, predicated on accessibility, and increasingly now, more than ever, portability. It is this accessibility that connects all electronic subjects together and differentiates them from that of the cinematic subject. Though Spigel is right in pointing out that discourse structures our techno-performativity, the presence engendered once one is engaged inevitably constructs a subject position (or perhaps, multiple, contradictory positions). The encroachment of hyperreality into reality, then, is an actual phenomenon (even if its ultimate effects may be disputed). Where the cinematic structured itself around the gaze, the digital structures itself around the glance—momentary instances of an ever flickering presence. In such a way, it does not merely simulate reality (as always-already there), rather, it simulates an enhanced reality (that never truly was), where any experience can be obtained with minimum effort.

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Representations come to stand in for lived experience (Debord, 1997, 1). Unlike the closed diegesis of cinema, the digital presents itself as a sprawl, always more than what one can access. The electronic subject cannot contain the totality of any world, for they linger as a partiality across multiple media landscapes. Digital presence, unlike cinematic presence then, is one always in lack. The digital subject unfolds through networks (unfolding) to no determinable end(s). Each splitting of the subject multiplies this desire, generating only further dissatisfaction, for in pursuing the experience of the image the subject forfeits the experience of life (Debord, 1997, 1-3). Accumulation of digital experience is an accumulation of absence, ironically, driving the subject to desire further. The allure of such a misery can be tied to Lacan’s concept of jouissance—the ecstasy that comes through the transgression of desire, the overflowing of pleasure into pain (Hewitson, 2015). The example of binge-watching comes to mind, for though many attest to the pain, drudgery and absurdity of such a behaviour (myself included), the jouissance of such a suffering (beyond pleasure) propels it to completion.

Both the cinematic and digital, then, grant escape from alienation, through alienation. Again, the cinematic allows for “no exchange, no circulation, no communication” (Baudry, 1975, 45). The mass is effaced, darkened to the point of non-existence. As with the industrial city, one is surrounded by, not simply more and more people, but more and more strangers. The screen becomes that which unites through its alienating presence—its artifice of totality which is, ironically, predicated upon absolute isolation from the other (Debord, 1997, 3-4; Kraucauer, 1995). If the subject is both that which gazes and is gazed upon, then the subject is the-world-in-itself. Metz’s alteration of Baudry transforms the subject from god-of-the-world to god-as-the-world. Because the cinematic subject is self-contained, the social becomes the site of actualisation (rather than construction). Cinema inculcates both individualism and essentialism. The electronic presents a different ideology. Because no experience is ever complete, it operates through the proliferation of desire/lack. While this mirrors Lacan’s conception of the human condition, this desire does not arise from objects, but images—surfaces, rather than depths. While neither object nor image can ever dissipate desire, the hyperreality of the image collapses meaning into the image itself, disconnecting bodily investment from any actual referent (Sobchack 154, 158). The electronic subject, in other words, is alienated from reality itself. It is no wonder that hyperreality has become integrated so thoroughly into every aspect of our lives, for the lack that multiplied consciousness has also multiplied the screen to the point that reality simulates simulation (Baudrillard, 1994). The glance of the electronic subject does not simply move within one screen, but among multiple screens. Electronic presence is not simply fractured, then, but also layered potentially infinitely.

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Consider the film Inception, a rather generic action film, saved only by its intriguing exploration of dreams, desire and the unconscious. Through dreams, Cobb substantiates his imaginary, constructing a symbolic diegesis of himself in relation to the world. Such a scenario is eerily similar to Metz’s explication of cinematic presence as both dreamer and dream. Inception, however, complicates cinematic presence through a process of layering. One dream cannot capture the totality of the self; one instead must go deeper, into ”a dream within a dream” (Inception, 2010). With each level, more of the mind is revealed, along with its vulnerabilities. At the last layer the traumatic real appears as a structuring lack, a haunt that cannot be represented—namely, the source of his partner’s suicide. We are led to believe Cobb resolves this trauma. At the last instance, however, the film presents an image of a spinning top,[1] leaving ambiguous as to whether Cobb has truly returned to reality. Inception, then, can be thought of as a postmodern dialogue with the modern, an intervention of electronic presence into the cinematic which both undermines and complicates the concept of totality. Like the electronic, there is potentially an endless layering of dreams. Though the film explicitly speaks of three layers, the ending opens an aperture into which one wonders whether Cobb has simply awakened into another layer of dreaming, or conversely, fallen deeper. Like the electronic, Cobb inhabits multiple sites, layers of consciousness; however, none are fully closed off; they interact with one another like nodes in a network; and because there is always the potential for more, subjectivity is never whole. Dreams, like the digital, produce an endless present, an unfolding without purpose or referent.

From Baudry to Sobchack, we see an increasing loss of security in the mediated subject, the development of a scepticism, or perhaps, a dream-like irreality which folds representation and the real into one. This proliferation of the image at the same time proliferates desire, splitting presence through the ether of the digital to chase phantoms of human relations. Though the cinematic has mostly dissolved into nostalgic reverie, the postmodern subject is subsumed into newer forms of consumption, just as alienating as the previous.

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[1] Throughout the film, the spinning top in perpetual motion is used to connote irreality. The ending shot cuts before one sees whether the top falls or not (i.e. whether Cobb has awakened into reality).

Baudrillard, Jean (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. by S. Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Baudry, Jean-Louis (1975). Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus. Trans. Alan Williams. Film Quarterly 28 (Winter 1974-75): 39-47.
Debord, Guy (1977). The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Black & Red. Available from: [Accessed 31 May 2017].
Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 183‐201). London: Free Association Books.
Hewitson, Owen (3 July 2015). What Does Lacan Say About… Jouissance? Available from: [Accessed 31 May 2017].
Nolan, Christopher (Director) (2010). Inception [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bro. Pictures.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1995). The Mass Ornament. In The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (pp. 75-86). Trans. Thomas Y. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
McGowan, Todd (2007). Introduction: From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze. In The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan (pp. 1-20). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Metz, Christian (1981). Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism). In The Imaginary Signifier (pp. 91-97). Trans. Celia Britton et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sobchack, Vivian (1995). The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic and Electronic ‘Presence’. In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (pp. 36-58). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Spigel, Lyn (2002). Installing the Television Set. In The Everyday Life Reader (pp. 325-338). London: Routledge.

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