Now you can view this blog on your mobile phones! Give a try.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Philosophy and Literature notes- 30th sept 2011.

It was for the first time that any of us attended an M.Phil defense and to say the least, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I think it would be an injustice not to mention that Sreyashi Dhar’s paper on “Representation of Female Body in Select Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Basic Instinct 1 & 2” won accolades from the external examiner who even mentioned that it was perhaps one of the best defenses that he had attended thus far.

Sreyasi explored the diegetic gaze in the movies of Hitchcock and in Basic Instinct 1 & 2. While in Hitchcock the woman is “voiceless” and always “victimized” and “objectified,” in Basic Instinct, parts one and two, Sharon Stone shatters all these patriarchal norms using her “body as a weapon” and an agent of empowerment. The graphic inputs and the visual aids enhanced the audiences’ understanding of the key elements of Sreyashi’s discussion—woman’s body in sexual terms, body element, male gaze and voyeurism, sadism and fetishism. The theories and frameworks that Sreyashi uses, and simultaneously refutes, while her argument progresses, include Michel Foucault’s “theory of repression,” the psychoanalytic framework used by Laura Mulvey, Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” and Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.

Laura Mulvey in her essay writes, the woman “stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic commands by imposing them in the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not marker of meaning” (834). In the section: Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form, Mulvey explains that one of the pleasures that cinema offers is “scophophilia,” where both looking and being looked at become sources of pleasure, but later in the section on “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look,” Mulvey seems to be passing a judgment that Sreyashi contradicts through the portrayal of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Mulvey says: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been spilt between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to female figure which is styled accordingly” (837). Sreyashi counter-argues that Mulvey completely overlooks the idea of a “female gaze,” an example of which is Sharon Stone’s seductive gaze in the movies in question. However, the external examiner raised a pertinent question, saying Stone was merely aping the male gaze, and arriving at a concept of “female gaze” was hurried, but at the same time he acknowledged that the counterargument to Mulvey was indeed a prospective contributory step in the realm of post-feminism, especially the concept of the manipulation of the male gaze for the empowerment of the objectified female on screen.

Sharon Stone’s explicit sexuality as contrasted to Hitchcock’s representation of the body as sexual, completely, in Sreyashi’s words, “shatters all norms of the repressive hypothesis” and the notion of “guilt” that Michel Foucault talks about. What is the repressive theory? “Stated broadly, the repressive hypothesis holds that through European history we have moved from a period of relative openness about our bodies and our speech to an ever increasing repression and hypocrisy” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 128). In the blog, Foucauldian Reflections, Ali Rizvi mentions that “the point of repressive hypothesis is to reject a simplistic conception of power as domination and repression and consequently simplistic conception of freedom as ‘exit’ and ‘way out.’” One of the insights that he gives, and which becomes all the more relevant in the context of Sreyashi’s argument is: “But these notions are dangerous in the context of the workings of modern power, which does not work by ‘starving’ desire but prospers on creating, inducing and multiplying and through ramification of desire” (Foucauldian Reflections).

The Defender’s Insights:

ü  Mulvey fails to talk about the female gaze

ü  Mulvey does not take into consideration the process empowerment of the one who is objectified, through manipulation of the male gaze

ü  There is a complete breakdown of Michel Foucault’s repressive theory in the context of Basic Instinct 1 and 2

ü  Sharon Stone’s representation is post-feminist

ü  Sharon Stone does not define or exemplify any gender stereotypes and archetypes

The Expert’s Insights:

While it is definitely a refined and progressive understanding of the male gaze, the inter and extra diegetic gazes have been overlooked. Comment.

[Defense: Limitations of the scope of the research]

We cannot yet theorize about a “female gaze” but the insights on “gaze” are a definite contribution towards post-feminist theories. Comment.

[Defense: Female informant reversing the male gaze]

Does the research contribute to new ways of looking at gender?

[Defense: She is neither the masculine stereotype nor the feminine stereotype. Also, in the film she claims to be a lesbian*]

*Sharon Stone is also a self declared bisexual, and whether casting her in the role of Catherine Tramell is deliberate or otherwise, is speculative, but this definitely strengthens the argument with regard to the contribution of the research towards redefining ways of looking at gender

Class-room Discussion:

The class-room discussion ensued with individual reactions and observations pertaining to Sreyashi’s defense. The contributions that the class made were:

ü  We cannot dismiss any cinema as being commercial or use it in the derogatory sense. There is an excellent analysis of the difference between art and commercial cinema in Art and Commercial cinema – The different shades by Sreesha Belakvaadi, and I quote:

“Today, the idea of an art movie is that – it is slow moving; but that is not genuinely true. This is a gross misconception about art movies. The pace of a movie whether it is slow-moving or fast-moving is fundamentally a subjective matter. When we say slow, the question is : what is slow? Is it the story or the acting or the script or the music or the camera movement; and if slow, it is slow relative to what? And only such questions can throw some light here.

There is certainly a difference between art and commercial movies; but is it not how the general audience tries to infer the meaning. It has more than mere branding and labeling movies. The idea to perceive a movie as art or commercial lies in the “observation” of the beholder” (OurKarnataka). 

Commercial to go by the Online Dictionary of Etymology is an adjective that came into being in the “1680s, ‘pertaining to trade,’ from commerce + -al”(Online Etymology Dictionary). So anything that is shown to a larger audience and reaches the theatre would then become commercial.

ü  In the context of discussing cinema we discussed Stuart Hall. Hall in his essay on ‘Encoding/Decoding’ proposed a model of mass communication which highlighted the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes. The following image explains the concepts of coding and encoding as understood by Hall (Semiotics for Beginners).

To understand Hall’s concept let us take an example: If X tells Y that the latter has to make a movie for the Nazi’s that show the Jews as traitors, Y (as director) would give it to Z (a script writer). So at the script writing level some form of coding will occur and when the script is filmed, the director will enforce his own set of codes, the actor his own, and finally the audience will read it through a different coding system all together. Thus Hall’s argument justifies that the audience also has an agency.

ü  From the idea of the audience as having agency, we moved to cinepolitics and discussed Madhav Prasad who makes an interesting observation regarding South Indian and North Indian stars; the former never presenting themselves as stars off-screen but the latter live their image even off-screen.

ü  This difference necessitated a mention of S.V. Srinivas’ concept of mass mobilization, especially through politics, where he shows that the South Indian stars significantly abstain from such political mass mobilization strategies.

We finally returned to Zima and began reading the 6th chapter. The two questions raised were:

§  Why are we constantly returning to the question of meaning in literary texts, i.e. trying to reduce it to concepts?

§  Why does Zima use “remotely” in brackets when he says: “Eco’s idea for example, that the aesthetic object imposes limits on conceptual knowledge is (remotely) Kantian?”

We also discussed how Terry Eagleton in his essay does not delve into or trace the Prague structuralism, thereby eliminating the concepts of literariness and Greimas’ concept of identifying meaning in texts.


Belakavaadi, Sreesha. Art and Commercial Cinema—The Different Shades. OurKarnataka.Com, Inc. 1998. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners. Aberystwyth University. 19 Sept. 2001. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.
Dreyfus, Hubert l., and Paul Rabinow. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. The University of Chicago: Britain, 1983: 128. PDF.
Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2010. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. PDF

Pinto, Anil. Literature and Philosophy. Christ University. 30 Sept.2011. Lecture.

Rizvi, Ali. “The Repressive Hypothesis.” Foucauldian Reflections., 16 Dec. 2004. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Zima, Peter. The Philosophy of Modern Literary Theory. New Jersey: The Athlone Press, 1999. Print.

Prepared by: Suchismita Das

No comments: