Issue #20 Reviews
BY Kevin ChuaJanuary 25, 2017
BY Kevin ChuaJanuary 25, 2017
For a long time, magic lanterns were thought to be educational toys, mere trifles of entertainment. Those who posited some greater significance to these objects—by, for instance, drawing a connection to madness—paid scant attention to questions of structure and form. Jill Casid uncovers a different story in Scenes of Projection. Drawing from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, she rereads the medial history of projective devices, stretching from the camera obscura and magic lantern of the 16th and 17th centuries, to the slide projector of the 20th. Her goal is to uncover a deeper, and more difficult, political history of these devices that cuts across the terrain of colonialism and gender.
If many writers have described the many technical variations and contextual deployments of the magic lantern, her book takes a more contrary, deconstructive tack: how has the magic lantern not so much illuminated, than actually structured, the Western modern subject? Instead of dealing with the magic lantern as an object in separate fields of art, film or pop-cultural history, she finds its core operative mechanisms articulated in philosophy and science. Some readers will find this book’s methodology confusing—where is the art? the history?—but the payoff lies exactly in its Visual Cultural flouting of disciplinary boundaries. Not only a media-archaeological take on magic lanterns, the book also contributes to the ongoing decolonization of psychoanalysis.1
Casid’s argument is that magic lanterns are not simply mechanisms of transparency and reason, but work in more complex ways. As a bright light is projected across a distance, and a flat surface is lit up, a corresponding disavowal—of gender, race, or colonial imbrication—occurs in the self. A key component of her argument is the Freudian concept of “projection,” which involves a process of repudiation. At the very moment we project or cast a thought or emotion, a simultaneous and corresponding denial or rejection occurs, to which we are oblivious. The magic lantern, then, is at best a paradoxical object, at worst a ruse: seemingly offering up reason and clarity, it casts both audience and lantern manipulator into shadow. At times Casid’s book called to mind Hubert Damisch’s The Origin of Perspective, with its deft tracing back of a Lacanian split in the Cartesian subject to the origin of perspective.2 Perspective, camera obscuras, or magic lanterns were models of vision, in the way that they functioned schematically in the mind.
The first two chapters were, for me, revelatory, even stunning. Chapter one connects projection devices to what she calls “paranoid reason.” Going through a familiar list of names in the history of the camera obscura or magic lantern—della Porta, Kepler, ‘s Gravesande, Kircher, among others—Casid provides a rich counter-history of such “magical” devices. Many of us are familiar with the camera obscura as a metaphor of human consciousness; she argues, contrarily, that “the production of the phantom subject of rational vision depended on the vigilant demonstration of and subjective internalization of a paranoid version of projection.” (30) So if, in the old manner of looking at magic lanterns, the monster in the projected image alluded to a purifying of vision, a purging of sin, for Casid, the monster allegorized the split “in” the projecting subject. One externalized what one didn’t or couldn’t admit in oneself. (One important move she makes is to combine camera obscura and magic lantern historiographical traditions, which allows her to move beyond Jonathan Crary’s now-tired thesis of the long, 17th to 19th-century genesis of the disciplinary subject of vision.3) Chapter two is about “the extent to which an ‘Asia,’ ‘Africa,’ or ‘America’ failed to function as a blank screen that stayed safely ‘over there’ because of the ways the device was so fused and infused with what it mediated.” (31) Projection here also refers to the way that Europe geographically projected its power onto ‘its’ colonies. The chapter explores several curious cases in which projection devices were brought to far-flung places, whether the 1760s Obeah trials in Jamaica or Houdin’s 1856 trip to Algeria. Reason, the chapter argues, wasn’t formed in the West and then disseminated out to the colonies. No—the subject of European reason began with the prior disavowal of the colonial Other. If, at first, projective devices seemed to be brought to the colonies to dispel non-Western magic and proffer the superiority of Western science and reason, what emerges is a more fascinating story in which one form of magic faced off with another. Such moments in her book are forcefully decolonial, and recall the work of Michael Taussig.4
Chapter three considers the psychoanalytic process of introjection—the taking-in of objects into the self or psyche. Hence it is often thought of as the opposite of projection. From Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), she salvages the fact that introjection was “a machine of social and political discipline.” (128) “[The] use of the magic lantern to produce images of phantoms, devils, and monsters endeavored to dissociate,” she writes, “through a complex manipulation of techniques of mimicry, the demonstration of the way in which images are cast into the dark room of the mind from the fear of introjection as demonic infection or false belief .” (129) Let play these dazzling images of monsters, in other words, to keep at bay a more unsettling spiritual contamination and invasion. Of the Tipu Tiger case, she shows how this “hybrid” tiger-organ “turns inside out the boundaries of Indian and European, top and bottom, masculine and feminine” as a transculturating “heterogeneous machine” (139)—a strikingly expansive take on the seemingly inward phenomenon of introjection.5 If chapter four, on early photography as a kind of “shadow writing,” especially in the work of William Henry Fox Talbot, feels a bit familiar, perhaps this is because of the intense reexamination Talbot’s work has received by historians of photography.6 Chapter five delves into Newton’s prism experiment, which he famously called “the crucial experiment,” and uncovers what she calls a “prismatic politics”—a pluralist politics of race and gender—via Frank Oz’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Casid’s explication of Newton’s experiment is convincing, and her treatment of Oz innovative and refreshing.
Projection in psychoanalysis refers to a form of defense whereby unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they appear as a threat from the external world. So, for example, feelings of guilt on the part of the colonizer are transferred onto the colonized, who are taught that they are responsible for their own fraught condition. Racists project their own faults onto the group that they revile, occluding the fear and anxiety in themselves.7 Projection had a flurry of meanings in psychology and psychiatry in the late-19th century; out of this Freud forged a “strong,” synthesizing definition that took projection to refer to the displacement of thought or affect onto another person, and the corresponding disavowal that occurs in the self. (Seen especially in cases of paranoia, such as judge Daniel Paul Schreber.) Projection, always-already defensive, harks back to an early time in the psyche’s history. The strong definition, then, involves the constitution of the ego. But Freud also toyed with a “weak” definition: when projection is generalized to refer to all manner of throwing ideas onto people and things.8 We see this in Freud’s long quote from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (quoted on Casid, 14), where he points out how primitive people misguidedly projected their ideas of religion onto the natural world, naïvely seeing inanimate objects as imbued with life and agency. These primitives were hampered by their own false consciousness, and refused to recognize the truth or reality of the object world. At these moments, Freud pulled away from the strength of his own insight—the strong definition of projection—and bought into the late-19th century Tylorian misunderstanding of animism, which was itself premised on a long mechanistic understanding of matter as “dead.”9 In other words, Freud became a victim of projection. Casid’s argument would have been strengthened if she had clarified this confusion in Freud’s own writing (cf. 39-40).
While the production of projected image and rational subject is expertly done, the book, I think, lacks an adequate account of the phenomenology of viewing projected imagery. Casid mostly deals with the spatial dynamics of projection, and not enough with time.10 It is easy to conceive of the instantaneity of projected imagery—the flash on the wall—but was such imagery experienced durationally? Was the power and effect of projective imagery cognitive rather than affective? The challenge, of course, is to describe the time of the ego. Teasing out the nuances of temporality may also help explain why so many contemporary artists who use projected imagery are eager to exploit the seam between old and new media or technology.11
While Casid’s argument certainly involves the construction of models of vision that are prior to local circumstance, the question begs as to when they are deployed in actual contexts: do all image projections entail disavowal? Did projection simply feed the education of spectacle—did it always come down, or back, to discipline? Viewers ‘caught’ in the projected image (as in figures 6, 17, 19) may have been desiring something other than what Casid suggests. We know that 18th- and 19th-century viewers often wanted to interact with the projected image, and imagine themselves ‘in’ the scene: compare the way viewers, in front of a mirror, inhabited Jacques-Louis David’s Sabines.12 Sculptures viewed by torchlight exerted a strange fascination—perhaps a form of virtuality we no longer have access to.13 These ambulatory viewers may have been trying to retrieve what was disavowed in themselves; introducing a third term between light source and screen may have been a way to break out of the destructive dyad of the Lacanian Imaginary.14
I hesitated at Casid’s phrases “projecting the projection” and “recasting” (e.g. 7, 33, 41), by which she means the reversal of the projection onto the projectionist, “sustaining an analytic reckoning with those abjected and opaque aspects of the subject” (14). If projection is premised on a founding disavowal, can such conscious reversal ever bring the subject back into light? I also wonder if bringing back the cast out or disavowed simply repeats the regressive logic of projection (e.g. 29). Perhaps a better analogy for psychoanalytic insight isn’t the shining of light onto darkness; it is to come to terms with the constitutive dimension of shadow. Shadow allows the presentness and presence of light. Casid’s “prismatic” politics seems to draw on a particular ecstatic reading of Deleuze and Guattari (cf. 86-7)—but I remain skeptical.15 So acutely deconstructive of identity politics in its first half, it would be a shame if the book ended up in a simple rainbow coalition politics in its second.16
Though she works hard to uncover the politics of projection, Casid ends up, I think, making projection’s relation to the subject mechanistic. Because if all image projections do this one thing to every beholder—subject one to paranoid reason—they are doing something, rather than meaning something, to us.17 With art that formally adopts image projection, one cannot know in advance, cannot discover, if the projection is paranoiac (rather than ordinary)—just as one cannot guarantee whether the work will count, as art. This is also to say that not every camera obscura or magic lantern suffers from projection, in the psychoanalytic sense. No doubt the artists discussed by Casid who adopt magic lantern techniques (181-94, 236-44) were shrewd and reflexive enough to unbind structures of reason, to turn projection on itself. If, indeed, the dialectic between illumination and darkness were built into artistic intention—and intention can arrive in the making of a work—this would have resulted in a more complex work of art. But rather than assume that the merging or confusion of body and world (e.g. “the real, enfleshed encounter with the palpable stuff of illusion,” 241) will result in a more capacious or critical viewer, it is the point of intention to figure the paradoxically non-programmatic constitution of the subject in the world.
By essentially offering a media-archaeological pre-history of the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena, appearances (Erscheinung) and the thing-in-itself18, Casid’s book bravely asks how modern history would look if reason is seen as the effect of a prior irrationality. Projection, Freud believed, played a crucial role in constituting the boundary between the ego’s inside and outside. To some degree, we are all projecting creatures ourselves.