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The Vicarious Look, or, Andy Warhol's Apparatus Theory


The so-called “apparatus theory” that developed in France, England and the US in the 1970s, moving beyond formalist and aesthetic approaches, produced an analysis of the structural conditions (technological, social and economic) of the cinema. The concept of voyeurism was central to those accounts: the “cinematic apparatus” aligns the spectator’s look with the “all-seeing” look of the camera (the famous “primary identification” theorized by Metz). In offering him a “vicarious look” onto a world to which he is not responsible, the apparatus constructs the spectator, through technical means, as a voyeur: he (for this position was also shown to be gendered) sees without being seen. Subsequent approaches in film and media theory have attempted to de-prioritize vision, invoking a spectator who is embodied, synesthetic, proprioceptive, or involved in an “intersubjective” exchange with the “film body.” Exploring the virtues and limitations of such approaches, this paper argues that the idea of a technically mediated “vicarious look” remains crucial to an account of the “cinematic apparatus” and suggests a basis for understanding post-cinematic media as well. The argument proceeds through an analysis of the films of Andy Warhol, which offer, it argues, a profound reflection on the very “ontology” of the medium. Warhol’s proto-strutural ‘60s films, in isolating the operations of primary identification, restored to those operations a sense of their erotic foundation. Treating Warhol not as a gay iconoclast but as a film theorist, and putting him as such in conversation with Metz and Baudry, as well as Stanley Cavell and Linda Williams, the paper argues—clearing up some misapprehensions about the term—that the ontological “voyeurism” of the cinematic apparatus, though not always specifically sexual, is fundamentally queer. Finally, it suggests that even as apparatus theory describes a set of technological and spectatorial conditions that are no longer paradigmatic, its signal achievement was to lay bare the relation of technological elements to psychically dense modes of subjectivity, a relation which (far from universal) is both historical and ideological. This in turn gives us a crucial foundation for asking in what ways post-cinematic media produce a new orientation of, and technical infrastructure for, desire.

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