Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

LEVIATHAN'S LABORS LOST, Or: WHO WORKS AFTER THE SUBJECT?

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

LEVIATHAN'S LABORS LOST, Or: WHO WORKS AFTER THE SUBJECT?

Article excerpt

Monumental in ambition, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's 2012 documentary Leviathan is hardly monolithic. Like the famous frontispiece of Hobbes's treatise, the film contains unruly multitudes. The fluidity of its mobile gaze and its hidden splices belie incommensurable contradictions; the scholarly imprimatur of "Sensory Ethnography" underplays both its wild abstraction and its calculated rhetoric. As with the greatest maritime narratives, Leviathan is a document of contests-between forms of life, between forms of representation. This article, too, attests to a struggle, between my admiration for the film's vivid renderings of interspecies encounters and my misgivings about its representations of labor.

Such fissures all but disappear when we grant, as we must, that few films in recent memory have achieved such a remarkable parity of formal innovation and philosophical ambition. The former marries elements of avant-garde cinema to ethnographic film; the latter seeks nothing less than the redistribution of agency across species lines. Both proceed by rejecting human subjectivity as the primary measure of experience.

Exploring the ecosystem surrounding a New Bedford commercial fishing vessel, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's roving cameras register bristling interactions of human, animal, ecological and technological actors, all of whom are granted screen credit for their input to the film. Human actors no longer play the central roles in this environmental drama; rather, diverse natural and technological agents mutually establish arenas of contact and conflict. To capture this diversity, the filmmakers forsake both spoken language and the camera's conventional surrogacy for the human eye, stressing the sonic and visual alterity of the digital sensorium. This sensory alienation, however, is not an end in itself. Leviathan marshals our perceptual empathy with machines, our ability to identify with and reorient ourselves from such mediated perspectives, to forge new relationships between humans, machines and other forms of life.

Leviathan contributes to an ongoing phenomenological renegotiation of the eye/I dyad. The scheme of monocular perspective was once thought to fulfill the same function as the acquisition of language; identifying with the camera led to the assumption of a subject position in the symbolic order. However, in recent years, film scholars have challenged the notion that "the spectator's identification with the cinema leviathan's labors lost [is] constituted almost exclusively as a specular and psychical process abstracted from the body and mediated through language."1 For Vivian Sobchack and others, identification with the camera is no longer a discursive function of ideological interpellation. Rather, cinematic vision is celebrated as the coproduction of an embodied viewer and a technological sensorium.2 Leviathan mobilizes this hybrid being produced between audience and screen in order to effect "a kind of visuality [...] that is labile, able to move between identification and immersion" with and within multiple human and non-human perspectives.3 To achieve this expanded mode of identification, the film pursues four experimental formal strategies: the redirection of focus away from the human towards other entities; the assumption of perspectives alien to the human eye; an emphasis on the abstraction introduced by the digital apparatus; and the categorical rejection of language. Traditional constructs of cinematic subjectivity are dismantled, opening onto a new, immersive vision of human-technological or "cyborg" hybridity; this hybridity in turn facilitates renewed, embodied relationships with other species and with environmental systems at large, encouraging us to "see with" and "see as" multiple human and non-human entities.

In effect, the film's form recapitulates the three stages of the development of what has been called a "posthuman turn" in the humanities.4 Drawing from a number of emergent perspectives in philosophy, actor-network theory, political ecology, animal studies, science and technology studies, biology and anthropology, posthumanism, like the world depicted in Leviathan, is a highly contested space, an intellectual ecosystem as intricate as those it aims to describe. …

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