Visions of Excess
Kenneth White

“ … It is from Freud … that a representation of matter must be taken.”
– Georges Bataille, Materialism (1929)[1]

Peggy Ahwesh’s films and videos engage the mediation of capital image-logic as inscribed on the individual. Each work doubly performs, as viewers do. Ahwesh’s camera is utterly subjective. Nearly every shot is a point of view, hand-held with intuitive, embodied movement. Her media performs the supposed film-language of the unconscious. Ahwesh’s subjects consciously mediate themselves for the camera; they “fictionalize themselves, and I’m basically getting the documentary of that process.”[2] The audience in turn internally performs capital labor of meaning making and externally performs the position of specific voyeur (the critic). Ahwesh in between provides the short circuit through her ‘home movie’ re-vision, “allowing something to erupt out of a nothingness.”[3] The private mechanizations of Super 8 reverse: in the medium’s supposed incapacity for professional image-labor, a spectacular ‘over-sight,’ Ahwesh finds fertile ambiguity. The culturally dismissed psychological space of Super 8 in and of her diegetic event structure becomes internalized mediation and conscious interactivity. Ahwesh’s confrontation erupts from the filmed performing subject to the viewing audience through her lived Imaginary of inefficient, excessive vision. Ahwesh’s subjects perform self-consciousness under her direction. Ahwesh’s editing method of unstable base-materialist juxtaposition directs our attention to the codification and expropriation of our viewing position.

Following Jonathan Crary’s exploration of “the deeply historical character”[4] of attention, Jonathan Beller explicitly addresses the concomitance of cinema and psychoanalysis. Like Crary, Beller dates the origination of the attention economy to the industrial revolution, but emphasizes the simultaneous emergence of Freud and the cinematic apparatus in the late 1800s, calling for “not just psychoanalytic film theory but psychoanalysis as proto-film theory”[5] in way of combating the “manageable subjectivity”[6] engineered by capital image-logic. For Beller, psychoanalysis is the symptom of cinema. Consciousness becomes an afterthought to the colonized unconscious that we inhabit. External interests colonize vision in the wage and leisure environments. Time is money, and we believe we are taking time to look. But in fact, those external mechanizations take and vigorously cultivate our attention value for the purpose of our continued conscription. We labor in capital image-logic, looking for meaning, looking for appropriate projections for our monetarily codified unconscious, for informative efficiency to that purpose, and we are thusly alienated from our visual attention. As Beller states, “the media are not merely engines of representation, they are economic engines, which as they represent they monetize.”[7] Ahwesh’s mode of counter-productive action is an advance on Georges Bataille’s ‘accursed share.’ How may we assess image-value in avant-garde cinema rooted in transgressive cultural economics so vehemently opposed to the impositions of abstract capital exchange?

Bataille defined the ‘accursed share’ as violent expenditure of excess energy and resources unaccounted for or unusable within the dominant economic system.[8] Those violent expenditures include human sacrifice, war, and sexual activity. In seeing Ahwesh’s films as manifested excess outside popular image-capital hegemony (also, notably, the image economics of the patriarchal master narratives of avant-garde cinema, “The Essential Cinema”) while also conducting system critique activated by established cinematic devices (match-on-action editing, montage, non-diegetic music tracks). Might it be possible to see forming an alternative image economics that begins with the accursed share in the moment of ritual expenditure, perhaps an attention value system that elevates the disbursement as the locus from which to begin eruption of identity critique and reformation?

In the cinema of Peggy Ahwesh, the accursed share is not a point of capital value speculation on attention, nor a site of stable canonical exploitation. It is an unsteady core of subjectivity poised for personal and social ritual rooted in curiosity. “In my Super 8 movies I don’t stage things,” said Ahwesh to MacDonald. “I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I like not knowing.”[9] Super 8 comes forward as the logical medium for pursuit of generative ‘nonknowledge.’ Its official bankruptcy as a communicative tool embodies the bankruptcy of the system mandating the medium’s demise. Super 8 is uniquely positioned to critique the increasingly complex colonization of the unconscious by the master narrative of capital image-logic.

Narrative is a generic convention undone by Ahwesh’s Super 8 application. Narrative becomes uninformative, a dominant fiction; she actively avoids its imposed resolutions.[10] Ahwesh begins her process from the internalized “cliché from Cinema Verite that the longer a shot goes on without a cut, the more believable it is as reality.”[11] Ahwesh’s cinema is all anecdote, all long-take of memory collage. Ahwesh constructs edits, not story lines. She speaks in generative cuts (to follow Luce Irigaray). From Lacan of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Beller argues: “If … the unconscious … first appears ‘through the structure of the gap,’ that is, in the cut between words, then the unconscious of the unconscious is cinema … Cinema … is the repressed of the theory of the unconscious … Psychoanalysis itself … is the symptom – of cinema.”[12] If the unconscious is structured like a language, the unconscious is subsumed by image-capital logic, and Ahwesh’s character-actors perform Bataille and Lacan, then I believe Ahwesh’s works are not meant to simply ‘détour’ endangered alphanumeric literacy from capital image-logic dominion through explicit citation. (To paraphrase Beller, writing is history, as in finished).[13] Rather, Ahwesh is visualizing language as a reverse recuperation. Diversified investment of surplus value explodes the unconscious capital image-logic/film-language. The restricted image economy cannot accommodate; cinematic “eruption” of multiplicity results.

It is in The Star Eaters (2004, 23 min) that Ahwesh’s image economics comes to its most explicit and poetic expression. Through literary voiceover and explicit diegetic citation, vignetting, altered shutter speeds, and repeated imagery Ahwesh shares a new and utterly valuable attention to film theory and production. Bataille states in his aphorism Materialism (1929) that “ … It is from Freud … that a representation of matter must be taken.” It is from Bataille, and Freud through Lacan, that Ahwesh arrives at her hybrid aesthetic. The Star Eaters presents Ahwesh’s formal and conceptual critique of dominant capital image-logic and her counterpoint from the radical unproductivity of the accursed share.

Ahwesh produced The Star Eaters on video “in the style of the old Super 8s.”[14] Taking inspiration from Bataille’s short novel The Blue of Noon[15] and his fragmentary writings collected in Guilty,[16] in addition to works by Frederick and Steven Barthelme and Maurice Blanchot, Ahwesh introduces two unnamed women (Jackie Smith and Alex Auder) on a gambling trip in Atlantic City. Electronic Arts Intermix, a distributor of Ahwesh’s films and videotapes, describes the voiceover with the following: “Telling her story in voiceover, the woman drifts through real and remembered relationships that speak to risk-taking and transgression.”[17] While Smith is one of the videotape’s subjects, I understood that her voiceover is extra-diegetic: related as concept to illustration but not specifically descriptive of the performed episodic content. This shade of meaning is informative. It asserts that the conceptual structure (Bataille, Barthelme, Blanchot) is the narrativizing subject of the videotape, performed by Jackie Smith and Alex Auder. High theory and staged performance are individualized experiences for both Ahwesh’s subjects and the viewer. Image and text are equally valued as communicative systems in communication.

We first see a hand-held medium shot of the two actresses on a hotel bed. Recorded with a slowed shutter, their movements have a blurred, textural quality that exaggerates gesture and smears color. We hear cheap fabric rustling. In voiceover: “I don’t think about the future. I don’t give myself a future. The present keeps bending … a burden of lightness.” One of the women rolls off the bed; by Ahwesh’s edit, her movement repeats. Straight cut to Auder puking over their hotel room toilet. In medium shot, we see a chandelier swinging. Its light and shadows shift in drunken disconcert across the frame. Smith enters the bathroom and tells a joke to Auder. “This yuppie is involved in a serious car crash” and doesn’t notice that he lost his arm. When his amputation is brought to his attention, he exclaims, “Oh! My God! My Rolex!” Auder giggles. Ahwesh cuts to black, then to an establishing shot of the Claridge Casino floor. We see Smith step to an escalator, the shot reminiscent of a surveillance camera position.

Ahwesh reverses the following hand-held shot by post-production means. We see Smith at a card table. She smiles, picks up several cash bills, and walks backward through the casino, her smile devolving into blank loneliness. Ahwesh cuts to black then to Auder crawling across the hotel room floor. We hear Smith in voiceover: “Gambling is a child’s vice practiced largely by adults, often aging adults. We were children. … We started to notice that a lot of what passes for maturity looks like play-acting. That was something we understood.” On the wall, we see an enormous framed five-dollar bill. Andy Warhol’s signature is scrawled across it.

The Blue of Noon details the desperate scatology of two young adults, Troppmann, no one more “derelict and adrift,”[18] and Dorothea nee ‘Dirty,’ under the fascism of Francisco Franco’s Spain of the mid-1930s. It is a narrative of political and psychological transition told in the first-person by Troppmann, whom ‘Dirty’ believes “might go insane at any moment.”[19] Bataille generates the corporeal agency of the accursed share in his characters’ transgressive expenditures. The central instability of the accursed share, its oscillation between generative sexual release and destructive expression in institutionalized warfare, manifests in the pall of inevitable conflict that pervades the novel. Bataille spurns language’s inability to sufficiently qualify either experience; “It has been my aim to express myself clumsily.”[20] Bataille’s writing is simultaneously economic theory, fiction, and confessional. As Stuart Kendall describes in his Editor’s Introduction to Bataille’s The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, “Chaos is the condition of his (Bataille’s) world, his reality, his consciousness … (H)is attempts to identify the meaning of this war-torn reality consistently, constantly fail him. This failing opens the wound through which communication becomes possible.”[21] Ahwesh borrows Bataille’s radical malaise as context for audio-visual critique of qualitative and quantitative emotional gambling. Bataille’s obsession with the binding and inherent chaos of experience, image, and writing affords Ahwesh an opening for radical re-integration of subjective, particularly feminist, discourse.

Smith in voiceover, from Bataille: “When I was a little girl I loved the sun. I used to shut my eyes and let the sun shine right through my eyelids. The sun was fantastic, all explosions and blood. … From the blood of the sun to the blue of the sky at noon, you could lose your mind in the stars.” Ahwesh changes “boy” of the text to “girl.” Bataille’s nonphallo-centric sexuality (recurring use of eyes, eggs, and testicles as objects of narrative activation) becomes explicitly feminist. The ‘clumsy’ male narrator (Troppmann/Bataille), constituting a categorical lack of authority in naturalist-realist cinema, becomes the transcendent “openness” sought by Ahwesh.

A shot sequence begins. Through a compressed wide-angle lens we see a male waiter depart an elevator. Smith, in her hotel room, looks to screen right, the direction from which the waiter walked. A standard eye-line match structure seems utilized. However, the waiter does not enter the room as anticipated. The camera moves to Smith’s position on the bed and directs straight upward to a mirror mounted on the ceiling. A point of view shot? Rather, Smith, now standing on the bed, leans into the frame and looks directly into the camera. The sequence ends; the waiter enters the room within the edit. He tells a joke: “Woman is in psychoanalysis. She’s having a problem with one of the basic concepts. She says to her shrink, ‘Doctor Freud, what is this phallus you keep talking about? He says, ‘Well it’s easier just to show you than to tell you.’ So he pulls his pants down and takes out his prick. She says, ‘Oh, I get it. Like a penis, only smaller.’” The woman’s specific expectation is mismatched with his identification with the universal, as Ahwesh’s short circuit to media consciousness confounds our expectation for standardized expository editing.

We see Smith and Auder playing cards at the casino; they find a new hotel. Ahwesh consistently records the two women at slower shutter speeds. We see Smith looking on depressed Atlantic City; the shot is presented in reverse. Later we hear Ahwesh giving verbal direction to the actors. Ahwesh’s post-production effects distance the women from their environment through distinguished material and psychological presence. The manipulation communicates the medium and confirms our spectatorship to ourselves. We identify the alterations as such. However, the goal is not narrative exposition through representation of their psychological state. As in Bataille’s writing, Ahwesh’s aesthetic decisions underscore the fictive reality of the performances of Smith, Auder, and our selves.

Smith and Auder adjust new dresses and apply make-up. From Smith’s shoulder in close-up we see her looking at herself in a small double-sided hand mirror. Auder looks at herself through the opposite side of the mirror held by Smith. The shot reverses: from Auder’s shoulder we see her looking into the mirror. Ahwesh cuts back and forth four more times. Whereas earlier Ahwesh discontinued the eye-line match, she now repeats the shot/reverse shot convention beyond naturalist-realist toleration. By the final shot of the series, the women’s conversation on white Russian violet perfume is asynchronous with their images; it is a performance of the mirror stage by adult children play-acting. Ahwesh cuts to Auder facing the camera as she pins up her hair. Auder looks beyond the camera, we assume to the large wall mirror behind the camera, behind us. The shot/reverse shot between Smith/reflection and Auder/reflection catches us within the performance. “I didn’t tell you that I have a foot fetish …” says Auder, her vocalized language unhinged from her performed image. Lacan is established as cinematic convention.

We see Smith and Auder lounging in a dive bar. A clean-shaven, bespectacled man (Ricardo Dominguez), with slick dark hair and wearing a shirt buttoned to the very top, enters the bar with a blonde woman (Lin Gathright). Dominguez approaches Smith. “Have you ever seen a film called ‘We Three Comrades’? Actually, it’s a mistranslation from the Italian. It’s actually ‘We the Living’ …” He recalls the film’s plot at length. Smith responds dispassionately, “No I’ve never heard of it.” Dominguez: “Hmm. That’s too bad,” and turns away. This exchange is reminiscent of Ahwesh’s art historian caricature in Ode to the New Pre-history who enthusiastically recuperates Hitler as a bucolic landscape painter, and in Martina’s Playhouse, her shots of Super 8 equipment self-reflexive to the degree of mockery. Dominguez appears as embodied film analysis obfuscation. He speaks, but seeks response only to fulfill his identification with discourse control. Film theory, warns Ahwesh, is not immune to the one-way conversation of capital image-logic. Later, Gathright will sneak into Smith and Auder’s hotel room and steal their casino winnings.

The Star Eaters concludes with point of view shots from Smith and Auder’s car departing Atlantic City. In one, we see the lights of the casinos recede in the distance. However, the rearview mirror of their car is briefly glimpsed in the lower left, meaning that the shot in fact is from their car approaching Atlantic City, reversed in the videotape. Ahwesh positions her works at the juncture of image and text insecurity. Super 8 home movie aesthetics, and their spill into video, is the premise for introduction of radical inefficiency to the spectacle’s master narratives of the unconscious, sexuality, and feminine agency. Ahwesh’s is a cinema of disintegration between the structure of the gap of capital image-logic.

Ahwesh melds Lacanian viewership analysis with Bataillean economics. She integrates Lacan’s registers as the decisive conventions of her film and video in complement to Bataille’s articulation of the accursed share of expenditure. We pay attention to a gamble on our identity structures. Our investment sees its return in a re-registering of economic, cultural, and psychological value systems. When we pay attention, we are not given information in the manner of narrative, documentary, or performance genres. It is not a system of closed circuits (Lacanian registers, shot/reverse shot codification, etc) but detourned from them. Particularly in the mirror shot series of The Star Eaters, the mode of communication is not the dialogue between two women (it falls out of synch), nor specular pleasure of watching (I am conscious of near-constant hand-held camera work, jarred by anti-diegetic editing techniques), and not Ahwesh’s ‘illustration’ of Bataille’s and Lacan’s theories. Rather, it is the commutability of the image itself within this hybrid context. The women may apparently ‘own’ their image to the degree beneficial for capital image-logic. However, in Ahwesh’s re-presentation, that investment does not return in the anticipated mode of patriarchal, imaged domination. The women are subjects in and of time, available for heterogeneous relations on the volatile base-materialist surface of history.

“(My films are) my own challenge to history. I remember thinking, early on, ‘Oh, women don’t write novels, they keep diaries.’ … There’s a romance about invisibility.”[22] Ahwesh recovers this invisibility, through the transparent aesthetics of Super 8 and the accursed share, as a generative retort to capital image-logic. Ahwesh is an animator of a de-centered Imaginary rediscovering its home movies. History speaks for itself in Ahwesh. It is subjective, contested, and always looking, looking for all its futures.


[1] Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985: 15-16.

[2] Peggy Ahwesh, interview with Scott MacDonald: 13. Transcript provided to the present author by Ahwesh.

[3] Ahwesh, interview with MacDonald: 9.

[4] Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000: 1.

[5] Beller, Jonathan. The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. Dartmouth: University of New England Press, 2006: 13.

[6] Crary: 2.

[7] Beller: 289.

[8] Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Volume One. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

[9] Ahwesh, interview with MacDonald: 9.

[10] Peggy Ahwesh, interview with Scott MacDonald. Millennium Film Journal 39/40: Hidden Currents (Winter 2003). New York: Millennium Film Workshop.

[11] Ahwesh, interview with MacDonald: 14.

[12] Beller: 18-19. Beller cites Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998: 29.

[13] Beller: 298.

[14] Ahwesh, email to present author (28 September 2007).

[15] Bataille, Georges. The Blue of Noon. Trans. Harry Mathews. New York: Marion Boyars, 2002.

[16] Bataille, Georges. Guilty. Ed. and Trans. Bruce Boone. San Francisco: The Lapis Press,1988.

[17] Electronic Arts Intermix website: Online Catalogue: Peggy Ahwesh: The Star Eaters. < http://www.eai.org/eai/tape.jsp?itemID=8537 > Accessed 4 December 2007.

[18] Bataille, The Blue of Noon, 12.

[19] Bataille, ibid , 19.

[20] Bataille, ibid, 128. Author’s Foreword to the original 1957 edition.

[21] Bataille, Georges. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge. Ed. Stuart Kendall. Trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: xvii.

[22] Ahwesh, interview with MacDonald: 12.

Art: Anne Collier, Woman with Camera, C-print, 2006.

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