Suturing in Film Theory and Other Narrative Practices
On a very literal level, to suture something is to sew something back together, usually imperfectly, usually with a substance that is alien to the body that is being altered -- such as the doctor's suturing thread that stitches together an open wound. On a semiotic level, according to Jacques-Alain Miller, Miller's definition of suture (in a nutshell) is that the suturing process in culture is the process through which a subject is joined into the signifying chain of culture, allowing a signifier to stand-in for the subject's absence in discourse. (Suture as a Laconian Concept)
This idea is derived from the Laconian concept of gesture, or pseudo-identification, where one thing is used to stand in for another in a system of signification. This standing-in sutures the system of signification, and makes it seem more seamless than it truly is. The stand-in may be false as the doctor's thread, or it may be alien to the substance of the object being sutured to, as nylon is to flesh. However, the act of suturing creates a sense of unity that is not actually present in the system of signification, or any signification system.
The concept of suturing has been taken up by film theorist to suggest the idea by which a gazer at a film is taken up into the narrative fabric of the film and is changed by what he or she sees. The experience of seeing the film alters the unique subjective consciousness of every individual viewing that film, in and at a particular moment and in a particular space where the film is being show. Usually this alteration takes the form of a confirmation, confirming certain cultural ideals.
This act is accomplished as the individual watching the film becoming the 'stand in' for the camera gazing at the objects of the film. Note the falseness that is inherent in the system of suturing in the gazing-at of a film. The camera itself is a false or non-integrated object supposedly true to life in the way it captures images. The capturing and editing of film invisibly changes the quality of the life passing before the camera, by observing it and setting it down in the form of a viewed film. To observe something is to change it.
In suturing, the individual watching the film stands in for the camera, and takes on that camera's gaze, adding another level to fictionally constructed nature of the narrative. The images passing before the camera are selected and (usually) fictionally rendered, or if documentary, are at least limited by the focus of editing and the camera's gaze. Every level of analysis of the filmed process itself yields another level of suturing; another level of what is fiction. The objects on the screen 'mis-recognize' the eye of the viewer and treat the viewer as if his or her eye were a camera. The viewer is placed in thus an imaginary place of transcendence, becoming an all-knowing eye (or 'I') replacing the supposedly all knowing camera. (Flickering in the Dark: Suturing in Film Theory)
In the sutured spectral gaze of cinema, the camera itself is limited, selecting only certain perspectives and bits of life to know, and the viewer is thus similarly limited in his or her own perspectives, although they are being granted an empowering voyeuristic experience. The experience of watching a film grants the viewer the sense that he or she is recognizing him or herself in the unfolding narrative, without having to truly participate in or experience that narrative language in a bodily fashion. The experience of watching a film is thus an intensified form of what Lacan talks about, in observing staged Asian combat in the theater or Marines grimacing at one another as they engaged in a fight. (Suture as a Lacanian Concept) In staged combat, the warrior's grimace and the not-touching blows stand in for the real blows of fighting. In watching a film, the standing-in of the not-connecting gesture is replaced simply by a gaze, an apparently non-participatory presence that in actuality invisibly shapes the texture of the narrative and is shaped by it.
This absence gives the gazer a certain power. Often by not being present, but not being acknowledged or understood, an individual is given a certain status of omniscient knowledge.
People speaking a foreign tongue often appear more logical and intelligent than those who can be actually understood do. It is inconceivable that extraordinary sounds should signify something trivial or mundane. (Sarah Canary Chapter 1) spectator, for instance, gazing at the naked, vulnerable body of a young woman in a film is granted power over the actress, rendering her exposed by his or her gaze. However, the act of suturing the spectator within the film poses the question -- what to do when the body of that spectator is in fact similar to the body of the gazer's eye being sutured into the film. A female viewer, for instance, becomes both sutured into the film, judging the woman, and yet a reflection of her own body is similarly being judged. This suturing renders the idea that there is a seamless dichotomy of the male gazing at the female body written as an object of desire, yet writes out the idea that women also gaze.
Identity, unlike the ideal of suturing film narrative, is thus relational to not only a particular subjective state, but also a particular state of body.
The personal history I venture here is thus also an interrogation of its own key terms, including "identity," "race," "gender," and "class." Although I do not attribute to any of these concepts a substantial "truth," I insist upon the dynamic reality of their operations in all areas of personal and social life. (Oxydol Poisoning (http://www.anotherscene.com/oxydol/op1.html)
The narrator of this particular autobiography, in contrast to a suturing experience of viewing a film does not insist upon the objectivity of her gaze. Because of her race, gender, and class, she is already rendered as a particularity in the hegemonic discourse in which she dwells. She admits her subjectivity.
Beyond the intellectual and political agendas that motivate and inform this experiment, I write this essay as a means of self-understanding, a reflective act within the very practice that occasioned my loss. (Oxydol Poisoning (http://www.anotherscene.com/oxydol/op1.html)
Unlike the author of a film, she is quite explicit in the fact that the reader cannot perfectly assume her gaze. Through this act she de-sutures the narrative texture and makes the reader not a participant in the form of a gazer attempting to recognize him or herself within the dominant male, white, or middle-class discourse. Rather, the reader exists in relation to the narrative as someone who is observing a particular event to a particular person who differs from the gazer in that the person has actually experienced these events in an autobiographical fashion.
Is it possible for film, documentary, or otherwise, to construct itself in a non-suturing fashion? The filmmaker Chantal Ackerman attempted to do this. One of her most characteristic films is that of "Je, tu, il, elle." As its title suggests, the film deals with the multiplicity of perspectives. The film chronicles a strange act, a woman who has decided to deal with the breakup of her relationship by locking herself in a room. The subject of the film apparently wishes to be alone, yet the viewer is within the room, with her. The woman engages in strange behavior, such as eating sugar and painting her furniture. The spectator becomes an unwary part of this woman's life, yet is clearly an onlooker in this highly personalized ritual. The woman writes to her lover obsessively, trying to clarify what she thinks occurred in the relationship. The inability of conveying a singular, linear meaning is underlined in these actions. When the woman does interact with another man, who also relates his own subjective romantic experiences to her, the gazer is again reinforced by the unique personal nature of these actions and the character's decisions by the intimate level in which the characters open up to one another. The filmmaker's decision to appear as the main character in her film, and to appear in other roles in other films in her body of work, such as "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," heightens this sense of particularity and subjectivity. There is no omnipresent gaze, the film is a product of a particular person, created by a particular person, and is clearly constructed rather than seamlessly produced.
The filmmaker Ranier Werner Fassbinder's work "Despair" is yet another example of a film that attempts to undercut notions of the gazer of the film becoming sutured into the web of the film and of becoming socially subjected to the predetermined constructions of reality within the film's text. It is interesting to note, however, that this particular film was based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. This writer has a highly elliptical, destabilizing style.