Indexicality, Fantasy and the Digital
ABSTRACT In this landmark essay, Willemen returns to several concerns he has worked with from some of his earliest writings. He revisits the concept of indexicality in ways that echo his explorations of inner speech and cinephilia, now made more urgent in the context of digital technology. The essay strongly argues that that while the cinema needs to be viewed primarily as an indexical process, film has never consisted of indices only, and, more important, even indices are internally heterogeneous. Such a dimension of the indexical needs to be both comprehended and stressed in the face of its threatened elimination by digital technology, and has to be seen today as a far more complicated matter than we have imagined. In exploring the issues, Willemen opens up the question of fantasy, and proposes that fantasy – in asking for a release from referential claims – in fact makes a referential claim of a different order: the celebration of the industrial machine that produces the spectacle. If we see it like that, it makes it possible for us to differentiate between two distinct, though related, levels in texts where fantasy processes are at work. One level is that of the substance of content. Here we often get something like a menu of culturally determined fantasy scenarios, which in turn exert pressure on the way various networks of ideas are knitted to underpin a particular “form”: a particular version of the fantasy performed by the text. A second is a text’s substance of expression. And so, although digital cinema questions the very “having-been-there” status of whatever was in front of the camera and left its trace on the photochemical plate or film, it becomes possible for us even with digital film to see that indexicality has not been drained out of the image altogether. Indeed, it often simply means that we have to look for indexicality elsewhere. Capital’s character mask reappears in the filmic texture, but not where people who demand “realist” character narrations look for them. Both iconic and symbolic aspects have never been absent from so-called indexical imagery. The problem is in the toolkit used to perform reading protocols.
Keywords: Indexicality, phantasy, digital technology, apparatus, signs, technology