A Table without Organs

Robert Lestón
CUNY, New York City College of Technology

As each year rolls by, more scholars and their students use video, sound, and images in writing projects. Unsurprisingly, when images and sounds are incorporated, they are done so in order to enhance the rhetorical ends of the writing modality being composed, whether that writing takes the form of narration, argument, discussion or some combined or other mode. Projects that use video typically take one of two forms: either the video clips serve illustrative purposes for the larger writing project or a “video essay” is created that uses a voiceover narration to explain the images being seen. In both cases video and voice are used dialectically but not equally: the images and sounds are, almost always, subordinated to the presence of the human voice, whether that voice appears as voiceover or as words on a screen.

We should not be surprised that scholars subordinate other media to the linguistic and the rhetorical. As Steven Krause has pointed out in his video against scholars making video, “it seems very clear to me now that our scholarly work in writing can be supplemented and enhanced by images and sound but these things cannot replace our words in rows.”

While Krause argues that the distinction between those who can work fluidly in the medium of video and those who must rely on the voice is determined by a professional/amateur distinction, professional filmmakers have always privileged the voice over other sounds and images, taking what sound theorist Michel Chion has called a “vococentric” approach. Early documentary, the form compositional video essays most closely resemble, explicitly used a “voice of God” narration that spoke from above the sounds and images, imparting them with meaning and in so doing giving the audience certainty concerning what it was seeing and hearing. But while the human voice has always been a site of privilege in the visual medium (with few exceptions), filmmakers of Left Bank Cinema—Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker—exposed the problem with the meaning that we think we gain through the voice. Rather than duplicating a “voice of God” approach, one that remains present even in our own compositional video experiments, Left Bank filmmakers recognized a subjective uncertainty in their voiceovers, the impossibility of the representation of one medium through another. No longer did they pretend to know what their images and sounds said. Not unlike John Cage, their interest was more in moving out of the way and letting the images and sounds speak for themselves. Film was poetry too. It’s what got lost in translation.

The larger mistake, however, is to think that images and sound could or should replace words, that images and sound, somehow, are not enough, that they don’t deliver enough meaning, logic, or argument. Given our training and a lifetime of genre expectations, we are wrapped up in disciplinary mindsets and are, quite understandably, often unwilling and sometimes unable to think without the voice telling us what to think. We listen for the language, the saying (θέσις). We want to experience multimodality but only on our terms. Where we have yet to explore, what this project tries modestly to do, is to allow sound and image to speak without words, via communications of ambience and inhuman voices of affect. Rather than words, a glance. Rather than ideas, an aural mood. Rather than concepts, a family of stingray swimming in Caribbean waters against a winter sunset. Rather than arguments, pelicans. Perhaps we don’t find meaning here. But we do find a tone, a rhetoric of sensation.

We are frustrated and persuaded. We disidentify and then reidentify. We are moved. It is not the information that strikes our minds but the affective architecture that strikes our nervous systems. Finally, we leave not with a greater knowledge but with a Spinozan hope—a greater capacity to affect and to be affected, a greater capacity to care rather than a greater capacity to judge.

A word about the project, A Table without Organs:

It would be fair to say that I have a deep interest in all things that come from the earth. In this voiceless, experimental film three mirrored balls are discovered in cakes of mud underneath the North Florida sands of Pensacola. Only an act of digging into the soil and breaking apart their egglike walls reveals their perfected, silvery symmetry. Born from the crust, they are not merely recipients of kinetic forces acting upon them as they would be in the more mechanical environments where stainless steel mirrored balls are typically found, such as in aerospace, medical, automotive, pinball, or other industrial machines.

Those remotely familiar with the work of Deleuze and Guattari will notice in the title an echo to their A Body without Organs. For Deleuze and Guattari, the body without organs precedes the formation human and animal subjectivity. The BwO is the zero state, the place we have to get to, like the prisoner in Kafka’s "The Penal Colony," to rewrite how our cultural formation has encoded our conscious and unconscious humanity. Like the primordial drives criss-crossing the infant’s BwO, these balls are not merely forged by humans to be acted upon. They carry a primordial charge. Drive. Desire. Force. Will to Power. In the “Hoot in the Dark,” the rhetorician George Kennedy called this force that comes from the earth energea. Historically humans have given various names to the forces coming from the earth, in order to try to channel or stabilize chaos.

In earlier times, these animating powers caused giants and monsters to walk the earth with humans. Demons, devils, poltergeists, sorcerers, vampires, and dragons were not merely fabrications of active imaginations, but their myths and tales were woven into the fabric of works and days. "Yard with Lunatics" by Francisco de Goya in the Romantic period, "Saturn Devouring his Son" by Peter Paul Rubens during the Baroque, Gargantua and Pantagruel of Francis Rabelais and the various depictions of demons, half-human animals and machines of Heironymous Bosch during the Renaissance are merely a few monstrous reflections of the materialities of the subterranean, unearthly realm.

Our attraction to the fantastical, the strange and unfamiliar, the demonic has never waned. From the zombie apocalypse to Game of Thrones, some of our most popular cultural manifestations continue to be our obsessions with the weird, monstrous, and subterranean. In 1979, at the height of the golden age of pinball, Williams Electronics released a game based on a fiery demon named Gorgar, clearly related to the Roman god of fire, Vulcan. In the Vulcan tradition, a virgin would be dropped into the volcano, not to perish, but to be impregnated so to give birth to kings. The Gorgar machine, the first pinball machine outfitted with a talking chip set, verbally challenged the hero-player to beat the game and to save the virgin painted lying unconscious at the demon’s feet on the game’s backglass. The first game that could speak, Gorgar became a novelty and an instant success. In addition to its seven-word vocabulary, Gorgar included the sound of a beating heart. This sound, subterranean as it was, would vibrate and resonate through the metal and glass into the player, so that when the beat sounded it was also felt, haptically, vibrationally, affectively. You and Gorgar, you and the machine, you and the earth, were connected.

The film depicts mechanical balls being born from organic material, charged with rhythms and vibrations. Movements of chaos that circulate and condense that eventually give rise to the humans, machines, and monsters, much like the swirling gasses that give violent birth to a star. The woman in the film escapes Gorgar’s traps, refusing to be sacrificed to a male god to give birth to future rulers. Her creations unfold safely outside the game. What she cannot escape, however, are the subterranean forces of the earth acting on her body without organs, the heartbeats she inhabits with the pulse and rhythms of all things both beautiful and infernal.

Works Cited

Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Translated by Claudia Gorbman and Walter Murch. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kennedy, George. 1992. “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 25(1): 1-21.

Krause, Steven. 2012. "Amateur Auteurs: The Challenge of Producing and Publishing Multimedia Scholarship in Writing Studies." Accessed February 18, 2014. Krause4C12. https://sites.google.com/site/krause4c12/.