Tight focus

In the film American Sniper, the protagonist Chris Pyle (or Pike?) — author of a book of the same title, or maybe a slightly different title (The Snipe?  Sniping America?) is stationed in an occupied city somewhere in Iraq. The year is a fateful 2013, or ’14, or ’15, or ’16, or some combination thereof — which seems probable, hadn’t the man requested another tour of duty? The motives behind such a selfless, selfish, or self-destructive act, like the motives of the director himself — Clint Eastwood, no mistaking that — will be clearer to anyone who’s done more than glance at a passing billboard. What should be obvious to all, though, is that the film is exploitative Hollywood fare and a whitewash of the dirty politics behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If it’s possible to make a film about the Iraq War without actually dealing with the Iraq War, isn’t it legitimate to write a totally ignorant review?

But a review that knows strictly nothing about the film or the book is impossible when ads and commentary saturate the mediascape. Besides, as Pierre Bayard argues in How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read, everyone can claim some useful knowledge on topics outside their field thanks to the abundant paratexts surrounding any given cultural artifact, whether hearsay, synopses, clichés or random chatter.* This reviewer admits having sat through the movie trailer, read a column by Matt Taibbi and gotten wind of the film’s box-office triumph. Something prevents us from doing any more. Call it negligence. Call it laziness. Or call it “ethics.” Here Bayard’s book is again of some use. Despite its baldly instrumental title, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is far from a being a cynical invitation to speak superficially or opinionate at will. Rather than advocating for careless and uninformed speech, Bayard in fact promotes an ethics of reading and dialogue freed from dogmatism and the tyranny of absolute truths.

In that spirit, what better foil to resurgent American triumphalism than a foray into academic research on Marcel Proust, which, thanks to Steve Carell’s star turn as a disgraced Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine, now serves as a handy American cultural symbol of “failure”? This will allow us to analyze the most distinctive and ideologically troubling feature of American Sniper: the use of the camera as a scope-view that turns the movie viewer into a virtual accomplice to mass murder. Paul Virilio’s study of the parallel technological development of warfare and cinema is certainly pertinent here. We’ll limit ourselves to a narratological analysis of the film’s strategies of focalization.

In a scene that plausibly occurs toward the middle of the film, the character played by Bradley Cooper, bored and trigger-happy, shoots a stray dog from a distance of a half a mile. Or perhaps it’s a cat, or a goat. The animal is killed or wounded; the sniper is exultant or impassive. Does he smoke? He lights a cigarette. No, Nicorette’s safer. More important than these details, no doubt compellingly rendered, is the tight framing by which we look through the sniper’s scope, seeing exactly what he sees. From this perspective, the identity and very being of the target is secondary if not nil. In narratological terms, the limited focalization makes all that appear appear in his eyes, from his distant perspective, laden with ignorance and cultural prejudice. And what does he see? An old woman, no doubt a grandmother, come to gather up the dead animal, but not before she looks in the direction of the sniper, that is to say, ourselves. But her glance misses the mark, it searches vainly and captures nothing. The grandmother is strictly focalized, her eyes mere objects under the viewer’s gaze, when the sniper decides to consign her to oblivion.**

In narratology, focalization names what is specifically seen by a character, as opposed to what that character may only think or imagine. The visual register of experience in a narrative text is thus the analogue of a camera-eye view in cinema. Distinct as it is from mental images or thoughts, this visual register might lead us to believe that its contents are somehow more “real,” more “objective.” Such is hardly the case, however. As Mieke Bal succinctly puts it, “focalization is already an interpretation, a subjectivized content. What we see is before our mind’s eye, it has already been interpreted.”*** Focalization, then, often lends itself to surreptitious bias or even outright manipulation, as it can show things in an apparently objective fashion while obscuring the motives and prejudice behind that presentation.

Marcel Proust provides a striking demonstration of the risks of focalization by showing that when the act of seeing is non-reciprocal, the person viewed can become a mere object under one’s gaze. Proust’s example is all the more striking given that the person reduced and objectified, virtually killed by the “photographic” nature of his gaze, is a person he dearly loves. Moreover, this photographic objectification entails a risk for the viewer too, who, abstracted from the organic familial rituals of exchange, becomes a virtual non-presence himself; only reciprocity and mutual recognition, Proust suggests, can ground the subject’s identity in social space. In the scene in question, nicely analyzed by Mieke Bal, Marcel has dropped in on his grandmother without announcing his arrival. Standing at the doorway, he notes that “I was there, or rather I was not yet there since she was not aware of my presence, and […] she was absorbed in thoughts which she never allowed to be seen by me” (168). Tellingly, the grandmother’s private thoughts are rendered as existing outside the realm of vision, which implies that even mutual recognition has its limits. An ethical formula is sketched out here: mutual understanding necessarily involves a partial blindness that sustains the vital alterity of the other. Building on this insight, Proust’s scene develops into a remarkable study of memory, vision and time.

Of myself — thanks to that privilege which does not last but which gives one, during the brief moment of return, the faculty of being suddenly the spectator of one’s own absence — there was present only the witness, the observer, in travelling coat and hat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again. The process that automatically occurred in my eyes when I caught sight of my grandmother was indeed a photograph (169).

Underscoring the objectified, photographic nature of the sight before him, and demeaning the guilty interloper Marcel has inadvertently become, if only for the time it would take him to click the shutter, Proust describes his grandmother as a repugnant stranger.

I saw, sitting on the sofa, beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman I did not know.

Bal’s conclusions regarding this passage can serve as an indictment of the camera-eye scope vision focalized by the sociopathic hero of Eastwood’s film. The photographic eye in Proust, Bal says, “mercilessly dramatizes what remains of the puppet that is the other, divested of the protection of perceptual and affective routine” (170). “The ‘truth’ of photography,” she adds, “is this stranger, this unknowable person, cut off from the familial, affective gaze by photography” (169).

The “unknowable person” focalized in the photographic scope-vision can hardly be a target of the violent injunction that one know one’s enemy. Unlike the merely “unknown,” unknowability eludes the grasp of even the most intimate understanding, and thus defies instrumental logic and its technological outgrowths as well. In this way, the old woman whose thoughts are unknown to Proust reveals the trace of an alterity asymmetrical to vicious binaries of all kinds and invisible to any bipolar strategy of vision. Combined with a skeptical eye for Hollywood’s slanted vision of the world, Proust’s critique of focalization can help us divest from the sniper’s vantage point and its objectifying focalizations. Rather than hide in a sniper’s post or get lost in the darkness of a theater, the cinematic consumer of ideological phantasms  should assume his true role as as invisible non-entity, as spectral intruder in a world of misrecognized others. In this way, as Marcel puts it, one can become “the spectator of one’s own absence.”


*Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read (London: Granta, 2007).

**Aestheticization of the sniper’s viewpoint is a notorious feature of Israeli warfare as well. A recent book titled Digital Militarism studies IDF soldiers’ practice of claiming “mementos” of human targets as seen through the scope of a rifle. The explosion of social media has allowed these “photographer-perpetrators” to extend their scopic violence into a broader field of “networked spectatorship.” As the authors put it, “networked spectatorship is a condition of the militarized field, integral to its workings, as the image’s violence rests not only in framing the Palestinian as target, but also in its deployment of social media conventions, in the unsettling coupling of everyday digital aesthetics with militarized ways of seeing.” Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, Digital Militarism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 74-5.

***Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (University of Toronto Press, 1997).

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