Of the changes that ubiquitous computing has brought, few have changed the texture and contour of ordinary life as much as cheap and nearly endless digital photography and video recording. In a famous moment of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a character remarks on the crowd of people taking pictures of the second most photographed barn in America: “they’re taking pictures of taking pictures.”1 There are very few domains of life that aren’t taking pictures anymore. For large numbers of people in overdeveloped North America, digital photography and video saturate nearly every aspect of practical, social, political, and intimate life, from snapping and sending a photo of what you have worked out on a white board to a class, to Instagramming an especially pretty meal, to sending your potential trick dick pics. Reader, I have done all three. In the same day.
One response to this is the famous complaint that opens Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and that is also the lament on the lips of anybody old enough to have marveled at the uncanny miracle of the first iPhone: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”2 Indeed. But instead of the totalizing analysis that follows Debord’s articulation, I want to articulate a position that is a bit finer-grained—perhaps only a bit—to sound out both the fact that the practice of making digital image of ourselves is, in fact, a practice. To be sure, Instagram and sexting really are loci for anomie and alienation in contemporary life. But as an adjunct to, and perhaps as a component of, that anomie and alienation, the availability of cheap and mostly endless photo and video capture is transforming our lives, intimate and otherwise, in profound and sometimes frankly troubling ways. I adumbrate some—only some!—of these changes here. To do so, I develop a critical intuition that situates digital image-making practices as techniques—and indeed, technics—for the orientation of the self. Specifically, I will tarry with the ways that a digital camera moving through space can laminate spatial and sexual orientation onto each other, disclosing the technicity of such orientations.
My central case is the quasi-experimental French coming out film, Ma vraie vie à Rouen (My Life on Ice, dir. Jacques Martineau and Olivier Ducastel, 2002). Ma vraie vie is about a sixteen year-old with unspoken same-sex desire, and what he does with the capacity to record anything and everything he wants: what we see in the film is just what is recorded by a diegetic digital video camera the protagonist, Étienne, receives as a gift for his 16th birthday. He uses it for all sorts of things, from recording himself figure skating to taking a naked self-portrait in his bedroom. Which is to say, among other things, it is about what we might now call sexy selfies. When the film was made in the early years of the millennium, photo and video recording were still largely confined to special-purpose devices and not readily sharable. At issue in the film is a digital video camera, not a smartphone. By the same token, the attitude the film (and its characters) take towards the camera feels a bit dated: the camera’s presence remains disruptive in Ma vraie vie in a way that would not be plausible two decades later.
What the film helps us ask, however, is this: what does it mean that photography and taking video are now incredibly common, even banal, erotic and intimate acts? Certain kinds of sexual practice—from Craigslist personals to swiping on Tinder and much in between—are now organized around the making and exchange of photographs. One way to say this is that our sexual and intimate practices are more and more pornographic.3 That said, I will take a different, and largely nonrepresentational, tack here, asking not what it means that relational practices include or conform to certain genres or modes of image making, but asking instead what it means for intimate sexual practices to integrate technology in this way.
Ma vraie vie is a bit of an unusual choice of film for this project, but I turn to it for three reasons. First, I hope to use its slight, but significant, historical distance as a way to estrange us, slightly but significantly, from the overwhelming banality of our image making practices. Ma vraie vie belongs to a different moment when these technologies and practices were still newly ubiquitous and thus strange, were still objects of unease, still creepy. Therefore, they could not be referred to by a hand wave toward what we all know and do now. They had, that is, to be constructed as objects to be encountered at all, and Ma vraie vie’s construction is extremely fruitful, with its narrative and formal conceits investing as they do the camera’s disposition in, and movement through, an onscreen world. Second, the film stages the acquisition of digital video simultaneous with and largely coincident to the adolescent discovery and enactment of same-sex desire. But because the film’s protagonist, Étienne, never comes out, the film works out its thought about video recording and its erotic and relational possibilities without reference to a sexual identity. This is why I mostly do not refer to Étienne as gay; he isn’t, not yet at least. In this lies the film’s most experimental thrust.
And third, I have been fascinated with Ma vraie vie since I first saw it in 2005. That it is something of an object of personal fascination is not incidental to the account I present here. Rather, the sense I have that the film contains important news about contemporary queer life has organized my watching of it and returning to it for more than fifteen years. However, it did not occur to me until embarrassingly late in my engagement with it that the news the film brought was not about coming out or the formation of gay identity as such—in fact, it is explicitly not about either of those things—that instead the news here was about the technicity of sexuality, about sexuality itself as technics. The aesthetic exploration of technicity was hidden in plain sight: as a film, the technology of its making seems to coincide with the utterly familiar cinematic technology of its exhibition, and such familiarity rendered it invisible to me, erstwhile film scholar that I am. Instead of technicity, the experimentation in the film seemed to me to revolve around its narrative and form. Indeed, narrative and form are crucial parts of the story, and I will spend time unfolding them below. But I could not see the purloined letter of Étienne’s video camera until my primary scholarly target ceased to be cinema. And yet, Ma vraie vie is cinema, and is, in important ways, emphatically cinematic. It thematizes Étienne’s camera by elaborating the potentials and problems of cinematic identification, that old hobbyhorse of film theory. And, most important for this essay, it does so by an exploration of how its digital camera moves through the world onscreen.
To read Ma vraie vie for the news it brings about the ways digital video might reconfigure sexuality and technics, and indeed sexuality as technics, this essay continually and gradually increases the scale of its analysis. I begin with a close reading of two brief segments from Ma vraie vie, each organized by an especially significant camera movement, showing how Martineau and Ducastel offer a useful diagram for the ways in which sexual orientation—and indeed, sexual practice in general—is essentially technical. To flesh out this diagram, I turn to phenomenological film theory, especially Vivian Sobchack’s theorizing camera movement and its significance, to ask how the abstract position of primary identification, made famous by Christian Metz, is concretely embodied in the film. From there, I turn to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Sara Ahmed, reading Phenomenology of Perception for insight into the sexual schema and the technicity of sexuality. Finally, I turn to habit as a central crucial term for understanding the contemporary conjunction of sexuality and media technology, especially when it comes to the ubiquitous, utterly ordinary, completely befuddling ways we now use the digital cameras in our purses and our pockets.
On Movement and Identification
Let us begin with a single shot in the film: a camera, handheld by a character in the diegetic fiction, moves through an empty group shower—a place where video cameras really shouldn’t be. It’s plainly risky, sexually charged behavior. And so, here is a first question, which may seem obtuse for the obviousness of the sexual charge: How might we make sense of the fact that taking video and moving through the world can constitute risky, sexually charged behavior?
As this shot begins, we see nobody, but hear a shower running in just one stall. All we see is a row of stalls receding into the depth of the screen. The camera moves slowly along the z-axis, presumably to show us the person in the stall in question. Finally, we hear somebody, presumably the person showering, say, out-of-frame: “Je t’ai demandé de garder, pas de filmer” (“I asked you to take care [of it], not to film [with it]”). Then comes the rejoinder from the person holding the camera, also out of frame, “Agis comme si je n’étais pas là” (“Act as though I weren’t here”). After a long and tense pause, the boy in the shower, Étienne, responds to the sexualized presence of the camera in the shower with a sexualized rejoinder, although it’s not necessarily clear whether it is risky or brazen: he walks out of the shower naked, displaying himself for the camera and for the person filming. Again, after a long beat in which he’s naked in front of the camera, he puts on his bathing suit. It is, perhaps not surprisingly, an extremely charged moment in the film.
Martineau and Ducastel have described Ma vraie vie as a “quasi-experimental” “pre-coming-out” film.4 It is quasi-experimental because of its premise: what we see onscreen is supposedly only what is captured by Étienne in the camera he receives from his mother for his 16th birthday, and the editing is supposedly simply in-camera—in the diegetic camera. Étienne is a competitive figure skater (as is the actor, Jimmy Tavares), and the gift of the camera is meant to allow him to film himself skating, so as to improve—a sort of athletic-training disciplinary function. Very quickly, however, the camera becomes a sexual technology for Étienne. We might say that he uses the camera to put distance between himself and his sexual objects, uses the camera, in some sense, to turn them into sexual objects. Étienne interviews his best friend, Ludo—on whom, as a matter of generic necessity, he has a big crush—about the girls Ludo has kissed, whether he has had sex with any of these girls, and so on. Étienne also develops a crush on his young and handsome geography teacher, Laurent. Neither this nor his crush on Ludo are specified in dialogue. Rather, it is embodied in Étienne’s acts of filming. In particular, Étienne films Laurent surreptitiously in class, leaving the camera running out of the top of his bag. He also starts following Laurent down the streets of Rouen in a long series of shaky handheld shots, each of which is a long take. In these, Laurent is the barely visible object of pursuit and the plain object of erotic investment.
While these shots may be formally unremarkable, they are narratively important and theoretically interesting. They are narratively important not only because they help solidify Laurent as a sexual object for Étienne and escalate the stakes of Étienne’s behavior, but also because they solidify our own identification with Étienne. I do not experience the excessiveness of the adolescent queer male sexuality embodied in these shots as creepiness, but rather as riskiness. I am anxious with Étienne rather than creeped out on Laurent’s behalf.
Their theoretical interest lies in how they solicit this identification with Étienne. It is perhaps not remarkable that we should feel identified with the main character of a coming out (or pre-coming-out) film (or any film, for that matter). What is perhaps more remarkable is that we are identified with him while the film largely withholds the usual means by which identification is elicited and elaborated in narrative film, or in a coming out narrative. Étienne never tells anybody he has a crush on Laurent; we intuit this from his behavior. He never confesses or declares his same-sex attraction, never forms or performs an explicit identification that would stabilize his desire into a recognizable genre or an interiorized personality. Identified with him though we may be, Ma vraie vie studiously avoids any sort of confessional video-diarizing (and thankfully so). We have remarkably little insight into Étienne’s inner life. The film, moreover, avoids not only the narrative but also the usual formal devices for soliciting identification: we mostly do not see close ups of Étienne speaking or looking. And perhaps more to the point, by virtue of its handheld, diegetically-articulated single camera, Ma vraie vie withholds the shot/reverse shot and eyeline matching figures so important to sedimenting identification with one or more characters.5
And yet we do identify with Étienne. Perhaps it also not remarkable to point this out, but our identification with him proceeds primarily through the manipulation and movement of the camera. Vivian Sobchack teaches us to say that camera movement specifies an intentionality—and therefore a subjectivity—substantially different from our own.6 For the large majority of Ma vraie vie, it is Étienne who moves the camera, gives it its objects of attention, orients its framing and focusing and recording. His intentions, and indeed, his intentionality, organize the film. His intentions organize the film in a direct way: we often see what it is he records, what he wants to record. His intentionality, meanwhile, organizes the film in a more diffuse way—a kind of blanket assumption that what we see is what Étienne films. This leads to moments of small or large drama, surprises or reversals, when others hold the camera. At various points in time, his mother, his grandmother, his friend Ludo, his fellow figure skaters, and Laurent each take the camera and train it on Étienne. But for the most part, these reversals are explicitly marked either by fixing Étienne in a subtly moving, handheld frame from the beginning of the shot, therefore ruling him out as the one behind the camera, or by a visual or narrative or dialogic explication that the camera is changing hands.
The shot I began with, in the shower, is dramatic because it does not mark the fact that it is not Étienne holding the camera. In this, it is unique in the film. We do not realize it is Laurent holding and moving the camera until we hear Étienne speak out-of-frame. Which means, for the opening moments of that shot, we assume that Étienne has taken the camera into the locker room shower with the goal of filming Laurent naked as he showers. And, assuming that, what we feel is likely some admixture of sympathetic anxiety, anger at Étienne for taking too much a risk, fear of reprisal from Laurent, embarrassment that Étienne’s sexual impulsiveness has proved too difficult for him to control, and an anticipatory erotic thrill that we, too, will get to see Laurent naked. This shot comes after a series of moments, as summer unfolds, in which Étienne has increased the stakes and risk of his filming the men he is attracted to. He follows Ludo to a secluded spot on the seaside where he has sex with his girlfriend. He films Laurent napping in his skivvies and sunbathing at the pool. (Because it is a French film and the French have not let go of Oedipus and its epicycles, Laurent has started dating Étienne’s widowed mother, which is a convenient narrative ruse to throw Étienne and Laurent together in heightened, familial and incestuous, intimacy.) Which is just to say, for a moment, this shot appears as the logical endpoint of a series of increasingly brazen sexual behaviors with the camera. By bringing the camera into the shower, Étienne will surely anger Laurent, but perhaps more to the point, his behavior will finally prove too much to explain away, too much to hide—he will be discovered. And thus the film will resolve its narrative tension: Étienne won’t come out, he will be outed.
But you know how this turns out: as soon as we hear Étienne speak out of frame, however, the shot undergoes an astonishing reversal. The anxiety on Étienne’s behalf shifts from possible discovery to actual discovery: Laurent has turned the camera on Étienne, turning him into a sexual object, in a plainly aggressive manner. He parrots a demand Étienne had previously made of him: “act as though I weren’t here.” Laurent has decided that turnabout is fair play. And indeed, in the segment immediately preceding this, Laurent sends Étienne to buy a soda at the pool’s vending machine or refreshment stand. As Étienne returns, Laurent trains the camera on him, telling him “you’re a good-looking guy”—effectively flirting with Étienne, but in a way that’s subtly menacing. Not actually flirting, really, but instead conveying information: Laurent knows Étienne has a crush, and his filming has been an elaborate, if disavowable, sexual act.
So now, when Étienne steps out of the shower stall naked, this elaborates and completes an altogether different trajectory in the film: his occasional, and increasingly explicit, acts of putting himself naked on film. In an earlier moment of foreshadowing and reversal, Étienne films his skating teammate changing in the locker room, making him playfully and a bit mockingly uncomfortable—which discomfort is the homosocial alibi for Étienne’s same-sex desire, a boys-will-be-boys economy of humorous shaming. And so, when the teammate tries to make Étienne equally uncomfortable by filming his changing, Étienne doesn’t balk—he happily, and riskily, removes his briefs in front of his teammate and in front of the camera. It is the teammate, however, who balks, pulling the camera away just in time. Later in the film, Étienne films himself naked, wearing only a skating medal, holding (and thus hiding) his genitals. So this moment, in the shower, Étienne is finally putting himself fully, frontally naked on camera. In so doing, he completes a separate narrative arc whereby he is able to turn himself into a sexual object by putting himself on camera. And the film completes its own arc, turning Étienne into a sexual object for us. Which is perhaps also to say that in this moment, Ma vraie vie supplants our identification with Étienne, replacing it with objectification, removing him from the position of creepy voyeur, putting us in that place. And indeed, it is creepy—whether or not we experience an attraction to Étienne, and whether or not we experience it as an action belonging to Laurent, his nudity is sexually charged in a way that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, sit right.
To an unusual degree, Ma vraie vie makes camera movement a matter of diegetic character action—a formal description requires narrative exposition because the two are so deeply intertwined. This intertwining is complex, and difficult to describe. As Sobchack argues, camera movement in general specifies a substantially different intentionality from my own: that of a character who is not me. In Ma vraie vie, it does not do so in the way it does in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946) does, nor in Gaspar Noé’s similar effort in Enter the Void (2009). These latter films make the character and the point of view coincide by a fiction which elides the technological point of view of the camera. Ma vraie vie, on the other hand, exacerbates and exploits and invests the camera as a technological object. It uses what has come to be known as “found footage” techniques, famously innovated at feature length by The Blair Witch Project (dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) and popularized and elaborated by Paranormal Activity (dir. Oren Peli, 2007) and its sequels. That said, Ma vraie vie probably has more in common with Josh Trank’s largely unremarkable 2012 Chronicle than with Paranormal Activity, in the sense that Chronicle is very much concerned with its diegetic video recording, while laminating that concern with video recording to a narrative of adolescent self-discovery (although Chronicle takes a page from the second of Bryan Singer’s early X-Men films [2000, 2003], displacing as it does sexuality, and replacing it with superpowers). To be sure, Chronicle only reflects on video recording in a superficial and anodyne way; Ma vraie vie takes it up as a central concern, and explores its less seemly aspects. Indeed, Ma vraie vie is as much a film about what it means that video recording is cheap and available (even ubiquitous) as it is about Étienne’s process of sexual discovery. It is, to be sure, a film about how these two things might be fully inextricable.
To put it another way, Ma vraie vie is a film about what happens when a teenage boy with unaccountable and uncontrollable and unspoken same sex desire starts using a video camera as part of his process of self-discovery—and as a form of sexual expression. The film is not (at least in its fiction) the story of a boy and his camera, nor really of a boy and his discovery of his same-sex desire. Instead, the film is concretely (if fictionally) the enactment of his desire with his camera. Étienne’s use of the camera is, in decisively important ways, an elaboration, complication, and technologization of his sexual orientation. He uses the camera to produce sexual objects. He records erotically.
In the sequences of him following Laurent, he also uses the camera as a way of orienting himself towards his objects of desire: he stays as far away from Laurent as possible while still keeping him just visible in frame. Which is to say, it is not the perceptual limitations of Étienne’s visual field that organize the spatial relation to Laurent—it is the camera’s technical capacity to record, coupled with Étienne’s capacity to follow, that organizes the spatial and erotic relations in that scene. Which is also to say that Étienne’s intentionality not only organizes what the camera records and our ways of understanding its images—the camera, through a reciprocal pressure, organizes Étienne’s intentionality. In fact, it enacts his intentionality, and in so doing transforms it. In many ways, what I want to call the disposition or comportment of the film not only follows from Étienne’s movements and his intentionality, but includes how he moves and holds the camera, and how the camera requires him to move. His recording of Laurent and Ludo turns them into sexual objects for Étienne (and ultimately, for us), but it also brings into being a style of movement that the camera elicits from Étienne.
There are a few caveats here, of course. First, this is all in the fiction, according to a diegetic logic. You might reply that this isn’t especially salient, since a great many films help us think about questions of media and mediation through their fictions. But it’s worth noting that, from a theoretical standpoint, Ma vraie vie confuses Metz’s well-known modalities of identification: primary cinematic identification as identification with the technics of the cinema at the level of the apparatus; while secondary cinematic identification is identification with characters onscreen, or with a director, or an ideological point of view, or any other aspect of a particular film.7 Ma vraie vie, however, is about how technics and persons (characters) cannot be held apart. The technical aspect of the film—the camera itself, whose point of view we assume—is organized by a character: while they do not, in fact, coincide, primary and secondary cinematic identification are con-fused here, intertwined, inseparable and inextricable, each referred to the other in complex ways. Another way of putting it is that, to the extent that we have a world onscreen in Ma vraie vie, it is Étienne’s world: a world that not only includes other people and objects, but is organized by his erotic investments and embodied capacity.
Film’s Body and Cinematic Identification
Our identification with Étienne proceeds neither through eyeline matching nor direct point of view shots, nor even by his emotional reactions—indeed his affect is cool, and he never unfolds for us what he feels—but rather through the comportment or disposition of the camera’s movement through space. Which is to say, the primary spatializing identification with the camera’s point of view that organizes our basic spatial grip on a world unfolding onscreen is also and immediately the expression of a style of mimetic and secondary identification with Étienne. Or, more accurately, Ma vraie vie roughens the relationship between primary and secondary identification, mostly causing them to coincide, but at decisive moments in the film—as when Laurent brings Étienne’s camera into the group shower—creating dramatic effects by rupturing that coincidence.
And indeed, the way that Ma vraie vie elaborates and ruptures this relationship between primary and secondary cinematic identification marks its distance from Enter the Void and Lady in the Lake, which labor to make them coincide. In Vivian Sobchack’s words in The Address of the Eye, “Lady in the Lake insists that its inscription of perceptive and expressive activity is enabled by a single human being living his body introceptively as ‘mine’ and having access to that body as it is simultaneously a ‘visual body’ for others only in parts and through perception of its own reflection. In other words […], a character within the narrative is credited with the perceptive and expressive activity that radically originates in the film’s body and claims the perceptual power of constituting the narrative as the film’s autobiography inscribed through a human body.”8 For Sobchack, Lady in the Lake is illuminating precisely because it shows both the important structural affinities between human embodiment and her concept of film’s body. Lady in the Lake makes the technical body of the film and the human embodiment of its protagonist coincide, and such coincidence can only be possible to the extent that film can be said to be embodied. Importantly, though, that coincidence is never total, it has its various ruptures and remainders—and so it allows Sobchack to trace the convergences and divergences of film’s body and human embodiment.
Ma vraie vie, meanwhile, is not organized by such a coincidence of film’s technical body and a human fleshly one. Instead, it is organized by Étienne’s embodied relation to his technology. If The Lady in the Lake works to elide any discontinuity between its technical and fleshly bodies, integrating them as a kind of special effect, Ma vraie vie instead takes as its aesthetic field of investigation the complex embodied relations to our image-making technologies. Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness have recently argued that our technologies and genres of digital images (in their case, selfies) are less technologies for making digital images or for documenting the dramaturgies of a self than for differentiating a self from the world—a figure from a ground—that is its-self essentially an assemblage of human body and newly ubiquitous technology.9 As James Hodge puts it, selfies offer the self a reassuring shape in the face of the anxiety of unboundedness.10 As for Ma vraie vie, its elaboration of the moving camera dramatizes the deeply intertwined relations between a self that is still in formation (as an apparently gay adolescent) and the technologies that stabilize and articulate that self as a sexual being in relation to the world. These forms of stabilization and self-articulation, however, sometimes entail fixing an object in the frame and at other times lead Étienne to work to become a sexual object in his own right. In any case, Ma vraie vie instantiates its main character’s own embodied relations to space and to sexuality—that is, to various kinds of orientation. It does not do so, however, in a kind of masquerade, in which film’s technical body pretends to be a human one. Instead, Ma vraie vie à Rouen investigates and elaborates the technicity of the flesh.
The Technical Sexual Schema
Of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical claims, perhaps his most famous goes like this: embodied perception is never “objective” perception. Typically, this claim authorizes or entails additional, mostly anodyne existentialist-style claims about our inherence in the world, our belongingness to the world, and the limitation of scientistic accounts of perception. (I do not wish to discount these claims; I have made them myself.) But, as Merleau-Ponty suggests in Phenomenology of Perception, and as Sara Ahmed makes unavoidable in Queer Phenomenology, such embodied perception is further from “objective” perception than even that: embodied perception as it is lived is also always interested and indeed affective perception—which for Merleau-Ponty means it is desiring perception, sexual perception.11 In my field of perception, other human bodies are never simply objects in the world. And indeed, according to a familiar existential reasoning, they are never objects in the world because they are inhabited by other minds; each other person is, and has, an internal life to which I have access only through their acts of expression.12 However, other people are not simply objects only because they are other consciousnesses—they are always sexual bodies, capable of being reached or reaching us in erotic ways. That does not mean that those bodies are always sexual objects for us; rather, they are always potential sexual objects. In Ahmed’s terminology, what brings some bodies into our sexual orbit and excludes others is our sexual orientation.
For phenomenologies of embodiment in general, and for Merleau-Ponty and Ahmed in his wake, orientation and orientedness are never purely matters of spatial orientation—e.g. knowing where you are and how to get where you’re going, or figuring out where north is, or the act of translating between your phenomenal field and your iPhone’s Google Maps or Pokémon Go display. Sexual orientation is an aspect of a more general orientation in, and disposition towards, to the world; as Ahmed puts it, sexual orientation “puts some objects but not others in reach.”13 In much the same way that spatial orientation is preceded by a body schema, sexual orientation is preceded by a sexual schema. In Merleau-Ponty’s words, “a body is not perceived merely as just another object, this objective perception is inhabited by a more secret one: the visible body is underpinned by a strictly individual sexual schema that accentuates erogenous zones, sketches out a sexual physiognomy, and calls for the gestures of a [sexualized] body, which is itself integrated into this affective totality.”14 Each of us thus carries with us not only a body schema, which articulates a manifold of actual and virtual relations with the world; we also carry, as an aspect of this body schema, a specifically sexual schema, which articulates a manifold of actual and virtual sexual relations with others, and also the world.
Like the body schema in general, this sexual schema organizes the world for us—it is not so much an orientation as what precedes and produces an orientation. An orientation—spatial or sexual or otherwise—can only arise through my participation in and collaboration with the world. Unlike the body image, the body schema is not conscious—it is not a conscious representation of the body.15 Rather, it is a manifold of actual and virtual relations with the world. A sexual schema organizes our grip on the world in an obscure way; its obscurity takes part in the more general and intimate obscurity of the body. We cannot apprehend or introspect our sexual schema any more than our body schema; as the unconscious is impersonal, so the sexual schema is impersonal. At best, we grasp its effects or encounter it through mediations and representation, such as the body image—or indeed, sexual orientation.
As Ahmed points out, sexual orientations are conventional and habitual ways of representing, organizing, and relating to the sexual world. They are also generic ways of representing certain kinds of sexual behaviors, interests, and comportments. But indeed, they feed back into the body schema. Sexual orientations do not only represent the sexual schema, or express it, but they also make some behaviors and investments more available than others. Sexual orientations solicit, even demand, certain habits. And, as Merleau-Ponty suggests in the pages preceding those on the sexual schema, the acquisition of a habit is the acquisition of a world.16 If we make sense of an unaccountable, obscure sexual schema by recognizing it and organizing it as a sexual orientation, we also shape and discipline our sexual schemas through identifications with and performances of sexual orientations. They modulate, transform our worlds—they even bring new worlds into being.
But sexual orientation is not, or is not only, gay or straight. Ahmed tends to focus on sexual orientations in the colloquial sense, gay or straight, hetero or homo or bi, pan or ace, and so on. But in a necessary expanded sense, sexual orientation includes all of the habitual ways we orient ourselves sexually, whether or not these are articulated through generic, or socially intelligible, ways. To make this a bit concrete: Ma vraie vie withholds any identification Étienne may feel or perform with a gay or homosexual orientation. It presents him instead in a paradigmatic moment of adolescence: he has not yet assumed anything so stable as a sexual orientation as we usually mean the term. And yet, the film elaborates a whole complex set of ways that he orients himself towards his sexual world. His sexual schema is not (or is not yet) representable or mediated by an identification with a recognizable sexual orientation. Instead, it is expressed through his comportment with his camera. While his objects are men, his primary mode of sexual expression is filming with his camera: his sexual orientation passes through the technics of his video camera. Étienne is not yet a homosexual—we might instead call him a technosexual.17
As a form of embodied habit, Etienne’s technosexual orientation—made with and through his camera—constitutes a new way of relating himself to the world. In his famous discussion of the blind man and his cane, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the crucial role habit plays in how we relate to technics and the ways our technical entanglements bring new worlds into being.18 As his use of the cane to sense is sedimented as embodied habit, the blind man is relieved of the burden of having to interpret these pressures of the cane: “To habituate oneself to a hat, an automobile, or a cane is to take up residence in them, or inversely, to make them participate within the voluminosity of one’s own body.”19 Habit is one of the modalities—perhaps the most important modality—by which the body comes to incorporate that which is not organically part of it. What has passed into habit has passed into the intimate obscurity of the body—it belongs to the body instead of to consciousness. The removal from consciousness marks the successful acquisition of habit. The body’s capacity to form habits means that the boundaries and capacities of the body are never given in advance, but are produced in collaboration with the world in a biographical sedimentation. By the same token, it is technics—the technical extension that is the cane—that is the complement of habit, its necessary target. Technics is thus not only literal technology but is also much broader and more abstract: it is the name for that which the body can incorporate through habit.
If, as Ahmed argues, sexual orientation is really a form of habit, then sexual orientation—in the broader sense that Ma vraie vie explores—is also, and necessarily, a technics of sexuality. As Mark Hansen argues, our body schema and indeed our embodied life in general (even “the flesh”) is not only susceptible to modulation or transformation by technics. Our embodied lives require technics, are essentially technical.20 To borrow a formula from Bernard Stiegler, the invention of the human is the invention of the technical: human being is technical being.21 As with a great many of the sweeping existential claims that accompany phenomenological thinking, this particular one is often interpreted in a sanitized, sexless way. But the implication here is that our sexual existence, including the sexual schema, is also essentially technical. We not only recruit but require sexual technics to organize a sexual schema for ourselves. Sexual orientation is one of these technics.
What seems noteworthy to me here is that Étienne’s sexuality is manifested, embodied, and expressed through his behavior with his video camera: who he films, how he films them, how they provoke his desire, how they become objects for him. But then also: filming itself becomes an erotic act, a way of setting himself into relation with his objects, a way of expressing his desire. As I pointed out earlier, these camera movements, these acts of filming express, embody, even enact Étienne’s sexuality. And, intertwining as they do spatial and sexual orientation, we might even say that they render orientation itself erotic—the “objective” and technical space the camera occupies becomes a highly charged erotic space through Étienne’s acts of filming.
Do Not Come Out
Ma vraie vie was marketed, and largely received, as a coming out film—which is to say, a film whose drama is, or could be, resolved by an explicit act of identification as gay. But to understand the film, and its news about technology and the self, I want to insist on the fact that Étienne never comes out, never says that he is gay. Its drama, more to the point, plays out along a different axis than identification in this sense. To be sure, at one moment in the film, Étienne does ask Ludo about what he thinks about guys who love guys. (Ludo, sadly for Étienne, does not want to hear about anything of the sort. Happily for the film, however, this means that Étienne never performs any acts of identification.) But the film is not in any straightforward way about identity formation or identification. It is, in other words, not really about sexual orientation as a stable or stabilizing technology of the self. Indeed, sexual orientation often can be such a technology. This is why, in his late interviews, Foucault articulates an anti-identity politics whose means, if not to say purpose, is the disruption of such stabilizing techniques and the intelligibility they bring.22 But Étienne is a technosexual in ways that aren’t about identity.
As Nick Crossley has suggested, habit is not just a medium for adequating the body to technics—however expanded a sense in which we mean that word, which, given that I have just described sexual orientation as a technical phenomenon, is a pretty expanded sense—but it is also that which gives its body a social disposition. Reading Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu, he writes, “the actor [read: body] incorporates social structures as habitus and perpetuates them, by force of habit.”23 Tracking the importance of habit(us) across a number of sociological and phenomenological thinkers, Crossley shows the way in which habit is a locus not only of technics and the social, but also the modality “the way in which perceptual, cognitive and action schemas take shape within the biography of an individual.”24 Habit is not only the modality by which I incorporate technics, but it is also a modality in which I sediment a biography. (To be sure, there are others—to wit, memory.) To put this another way—and not to put too fine a point on it—habit, like sex, is a means of, or at least a site of, mediating between social and individual, between personal and impersonal, as a body emplaced in sociality and enmeshed in technicity. However, it is my means of doing so.
One way to work out my conclusion here is to suggest, by analogy, that the sexual habits which Étienne forms with his camera—his way of moving through the world with his camera—lie on the side of infantile sexuality, a sexuality that has not yet been tamed into socially intelligible and psychically stable forms. Which is to say, it lies on the side of, in Leo Bersani’s words, “that which is intolerable to the structured self.”25 (Although for Bersani, that is simply a definition of sexuality.) But that feels to me like this analogy overstates the disorganization Étienne undergoes when he follows Laurent through the streets of Rouen, or even when he films Ludo having sex with his girlfriend. More to the point, however, by habitualizing these activities, Étienne is able to negotiate a relationship to them that is less threatening to his self. To put this another way, rather than a technique of the self, Étienne’s camera and sexual orientation through it should probably be thought as technologies of the non-self. Étienne’s behavior with the camera brings intimately close and (barely) manages that which does not—does not yet, cannot—conform to an identity, to what can be avowed and acknowledged as belonging to the self, that which is impersonally intimate and intimately impersonal.
Habit, it hardly needs to be said, does not need to be legible or intelligible or even bearable to the self to be habit. In fact, to the extent that we embody something habitually, we are relieved not only of intentional action but also acts of identification. Habit may sometimes be a site of great investment, identification, and pride, as when a person may be virtuosically good at playing an instrument or a video game. But it need not be, and more often, I suspect it is not. What lays below or to the side of identity in us may be an abstract domain of affect or bare life or the impersonally social or the unconscious. But it may also just be the intimate obscurity and ongoing ordinariness of a body in its mediations of the forgotten and unacknowledged contingencies of biography and the more and less compulsory embodiments of technics and the social. Either way, what we can see with Ma vraie vie is the ways that the intimate and obscure ordinariness of technicity is embodied by habit, opaque to introspection, beyond and below identity, organized by difference, and invested by power. Even the primary identification of our encounter with technics as a body is shot through with sociality, with otherness, with the unbearable, with the confusing, with that which is not-me.
- Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 1999), 13. [^]
- Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Fredy Perlman (Black & Red, 1977), sec. 1. [^]
- I learned how to think this way from Damon Young, Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), epilogue on The Canyons; and from Paul Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013). [^]
- Jacques Martineau and Olivier Ducastel, in conversation at the Film Studies Center, University of Chicago, winter 2005. [^]
- The locus classicus of this figure in film theory is of course Kaja Silverman, “Suture,” in The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford University Press, 1983), 194–236. [^]
- This is the major claim of Vivian Sobchack, “Film’s Body,” in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 164–259. See also Vivian Sobchack, “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema,” Semiotica 41, no. 1/4 (1982): 317–35; and Scott C. Richmond, “On Learning to Fly at the Movies: On Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon,” Journal of Narrative Theory 46, no. 2 (2016): 254–83. [^]
- Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 56. For an elaboration of primary and secondary cinematic identification, see Elizabeth Reich and Scott C. Richmond, “Introduction: Cinematic Identifications,” Film Criticism 39, no. 1–2 (Winter 2014): 3–24. [^]
- Sobchack, “Film’s Body,” 230. [^]
- Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness, “Phenomenology for the Selfie,” Cultural Politics 13, no. 2 (2017): 156–76. [^]
- James J. Hodge, “The Subject of Always-on Computing: Thomas Ogden’s ‘Autistic-Contiguous’ Position and the Animated GIF,” Parallax 26, no. 1 (2020): 65–75. [^]
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012), Part One, chap. 5, “The Body as a Sexed Being.” [^]
- This existential reasoning has been done at length in the chapter on “The Look” in Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984). [^]
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 66, emphasis in original. [^]
- Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 158, emphasis added, interpolation amended. [^]
- Mark Hansen makes this point rather at length in Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006), Introduction and Part I. [^]
- Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 153. [^]
- See Preciado, Testo Junkie, especially chap. 4, “The History of Technosexuality.” [^]
- Merleau-Ponty, 154. [^]
- Merleau-Ponty, 144–45. [^]
- Hansen, Bodies in Code, Part I. [^]
- Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, Volume 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 50 and passim. [^]
- Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rainbow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: The New Press, 1998), 135–40; Michel Foucault, “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity,” in Ethics, 163–73; Michel Foucault, “The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will,” in Ethics, 157–62. [^]
- Nick Crossley, “Habit and Habitus,” Body and Society 19, no. 2 & 3 (2013): 141. [^]
- Crossley, 142. [^]
- Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 38. [^]