Sunday, June 10, 2007

Image Zone

In his records of hashish experiments Walter Benjamin spends a lot of time "characteriz[ing] the image zone" (March 1930, trans. Rodney Livingstone, in On Hashish, ed. Howard Eiland, trans. Howard Eiland et al. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006]). For Benjamin as for many post-romantic writers, visual perceptions become images of freedom when, because of their idiosyncrasy or fleeting quality, they become disconnected from action and use, and "we can do nothing but gaze at them" (ibid.)--when, in other words, we don't have to do anything with them because we can only gaze at them. The beauty of the image is its distance from property value. For Benjamin, hashish radicalizes this beauty by identifying it with the whole visual field:

In general, it can be said that the sensation of "outside," of "beyond," is connected with a certain feeling of displeasure. But it is important to make a sharp distinction between the "outside" and a person's visual space, however extended it may be--a distinction that has the same significance for the person in a hashish trance as the relationship between the stage and the cold street outside has for the theatergoer. Yet, to extend the image, on occasion something rather like a proscenium stage intervenes between the intoxicated person and his visual space, and through this a quite different air is transmitted--from the outside. (January 15, 1928; trans. Rodney Livingstone)

To the person on hashish, everything visible is not entirely outside, and the "outside" would be farther away than anything one can see, like another world entirely--as the street is not only outside the self, but outside the building. (There's a miniature neo-Kantian cosmology here.) This leaves Benjamin with the problem of accounting for how the hashish-user can have any notion of "outside" at all, and he goes on to explain that even what's visible can seem presented, as on the stage; that this sense of presentation creates an additional layer between the person and his own perception. Benjamin's reasoning is obscure, but the idea seems to be that the presentation-effect implies the possibility of something other than what's presented (what we're looking at). The word "inside," meanwhile, doesn't come up at all; however the outside may be "connected with a certain feeling of displeasure," insideness isn't used to conjure pleasure. Ultimately, it doesn't sound as though Benjamin is describing something peculiar to hashish: the "sharp distinction between the 'outside' and a person's visual space" pre-exists his mention of hashish, and what hashish adds to this distinction is only the additional impression that the visual space is theaterlike. And this theaterlike quality is actually the only element that, in the hashish experience, re-introduces a message from the outside (!). So we're left with the impression that with or without hashish, the visual field for Benjamin has a distinct and autonomous quality that eludes the faint unpleasantness of the outside and the still darker, unmentioned inside. The image zone is like the "transitional space" of D.W. Winnicott, in which we don't have to think of asking whether something has been found (and so in the public space) or invented (and so inside the private space).

Image: proscenium stage, B.F. Keith Memorial Theater, Boston (1928)

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