Barfield Scholarship
Essays, Book Chapters, and Monographs
on Owen Barfield and His Work

David Lavery
Detached Retinas: "Camera Man"
and the Private-Eye Movie


Genre films, Leo Braudy suggests in The World in a Frame, are uniquely suited "to use our expectations against themselves, and, in the process, reveal to us expectations and assumptions that we may never have thought we had." More specifically, genre films, with greater precision than other kinds, "deal directly with the problem of the individual's psychic relationship to a society, a community, a world of others" (110-11). Presumably, the private-eye fil --a well defined, prominent movie genre--should then teach us much about the 20th century psyche, even if--especially if--we expand its parameters and re-imagine the meaning of the genre to include those movies which delineate the "psychic relationships" of a new kind of "private-eye," whom I will here designate (after Owen Barfield) "Camera Man."

Almost as soon as the movies were invented, Parker Tyler observed, "the idea was intuitively and forcefully grasped that this magic mechanism was a figure of speech for the searching eye and the responding mind of the detective himself." The movies, Tyler likewise noted, in "reproducing the physical condition, the concrete mise-en-scene" of the world, "increase the expectation of visual discovery which is the very heart of the detective mystery" (190-95). It should not surprise us then that the history of the detective genre--traced admirably in the studies of William K. Everson and Jon Tuska--is very nearly as old as the fiction film itself.

Neither detective films nor the movies in general were born parthenogenetically, however. Both the genre and the medium itself sprang up on already well plowed cultural soil; thus both inherited aesthetic and metaphysical predispositions of the century of their birth. In a rare venture into film criticism, Geoffrey Hartman has ably pinpointed the historical and cultural context of detective films, noting that cinematic versions of private-eye novels have always suggested "at once the desire and the difficulty of giving to daily existence that 'seriousness' which Erich Auerbach saw emerging in the great realistic novels of the nineteenth century." Instead, Hartman contends, the genre has come to depict, as its essential, heavily coded subtext, what Henri Lefebvre calls "an emptiness filled with signs"--a world, that is to say, in the process of being sucked into, consumed by, an ever voracious, decidedly modernist, human subjectivity (26).1

Thus "existential separation" has now become the detective film's dominant theme, and the private-eye himself a character leading a life of suspicion, one for whom "knowledge . . . imposes a permanent loneliness" (Hartman 27). In this, the detective can, of course be taken--as many commentators have observed--as representative of the stance of modern, post-Cartesian man under the reign of the universal doubt of a scientific world view. For the private eye, as for Descartes, champion of ratiocination, the world becomes a kind of "evil genius" whose web of illusionary signs he must decode, and hence surmount, with his logical powers. That sinister masterpiece of the genre, Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), exemplifies this tendency in its purest form.

But since none of us can now "look at the world" but "only out at it, from behind the self," the movie detective can stand as well for all of us--both as ordinary perceivers and as moviegoers. We identify with private eyes, then, because we are, like them, essentially displaced, terribly privatized, near-solipsists. And we are so removed from the world of common sense because we live in what Owen Barfield has called a "camera civilization": because we are all now Camera Men.


The advent of Camera Man is no mere historical accident; as Barfield has endeavored to show, the kind of subjectivity which we now take for granted, our present common sense, is, in fact, the end-result of the entire "evolution of consciousness." If, as Camera Men, we now believe that "the mind is something which is shut up in a sort of box called the brain" (Romanticism 148); if we find ourselves, as twentieth century psyches, inhabitants of a "room of one's own" from which we look "always at and never into what [we] see" (Rediscovery 73); if, in our self-conscious Egos, we experience perpetual "isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in a spiritual world, above all--uncertainty" (Romanticism 109), it is not because the human soul has always assumed such a stance before the world. The posture of Camera Man has been acquired.

Man, writes Barfield in The Rediscovery of Meaning, "did not start on his career as a self-conscious being in the form of a mindless or thoughtless unit, confronting a separate, unintelligible objective world very like our own." He has not always been an "onlooker." Rather,

Man has thus undergone through time an "evolution by detachment" (History, Guilt 27) in which the external world has been internalized into a human center. In an earlier age, man's inner world was recognized as a microcosm, representative in every particular of the external cosmos. Earlier still, in prehistory, this inner world did not yet even exist, for it was indistinguishable from the world of organic nature.2 But now, in a later stage of that same evolution, when "the individual feels himself to be entirely cut off from the surrounding cosmos and is for that reason fully conscious of himself as an individual" (Romanticism 72), we have come to seem more and more like that camera obscura within which Sir Isaac Newton, in a quintessentially modern act, secreted himself, ironically, to study the light.3

Having all but forgotten what the Romantics knew so well, that man is a creature "played on by nature herself,"4 Camera Man is no longer open to the world's inspiration. His aperture opens only for images, and the "room" into which they are admitted remains dark because, "whether it is called Logical Positivism or Linguistic Analysis, or by some other name, the burden of [modern materialistic epistemologies] is, that man has no insides" (Romanticism 193). He thus "finds himself confronted by--within--emptiness; and--without--a 'nature,' which is not, it seems, his own manifestation at all; which 'goes on by itself,' like a machine; which, if it ever was the work of the Gods, is only a 'finished work,' from which they have long withdrawn" (Romanticism 212): a world, in short, ready to have its picture taken.

The camera itself, Barfield argues in his "The Harp and the Camera," a startling comparison of that powerful Romantic search image, the Aeolian harp, with the equally generative controlling metaphor of the camera, should be understood an "an emblem" of the present stage in the world's interiorization, as a symbol of "that species of Copernican Revolution in the human psyche which was quite as much the cause as it was the consequence of the Copernican Revolution in astronomy . . . the revolution, formulated rather than initiated by Immanuel Kant, whereby the human mind more or less reversed its conception of its own relation to its environment" (Rediscovery 69). The camera, however, is more than an emblem; for the camera in its history has become, through a process Barfield calls "metaphoric internalization," "instrumental in actually bringing about the change of which I have spoken" (Rediscovery 69; my italics). For the entire "camera sequence" (as Barfield calls it), from the invention of the camera obscura in the Renaissance by Kircher, through the development of projection in the late 19th, has become part of the very fabric of our thought. "Perhaps it is not surprising," Barfield speculates, "that 'project' and 'projection' have become such loaded words. What a history they have behind them!"

Something comparable, it seems clear, has taken place in the wake of the camera sequence.

In an age of projection, it was inevitable that the movies, that unique twentieth-century art to which the camera sequence eventually gave birth, would, reflexively, come to tell the story of the projector himself, of Camera Man, and in so doing give new meaning to the private eye film: its natural narrative medium.

Three representative specimens of this sub-genre come readily to mind: Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), and Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch (1980).


Rear Window provides a perfect exhibit A. Beyond a few basics, I need not recall the film's story. It concerns a photographer named Jeff Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), who, injured in an automobile accident and thus unable for the time being to resume his career as a professional voyeur, must turn his Camera Man energies elsewhere: out the rear window of his apartment at the people and events transpiring in another apartment building across the courtyard. He watches every move of the drama as it develops there (often following the action through a telephoto lens), including a murder, the execution of which, in typical private eye fashion, he deduces.

Now Jefferies is a man, as one critic has noted, who "becomes increasingly the prisoner of his own fantasy life. His view of the outside world depends on the extent to which that fantasy life prevents outside reality from breaking in upon him" (Spoto 24). Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jefferies' nurse, calls him a "window shopper." Lisa (Grace Kelly), his would-be girl friend, describes him in turn as a "tourist on an endless vacation." Both appellations are correct, and yet they do not name his essence. A typical Hitchcock hero, living "in a small, enclosed world of his own fabrication" until reality intrudes (Wood 75), Jefferies is likewise the epitome of Camera Man.

It is quite possible, after all, to view Jefferies as a spectator in a cinema of his own projection, the apartments opposite being in effect the screen on which he watches his own desires unfold.5 And when Jefferies defends himself against the murderer Thorvald's attack by setting off flashbulbs and swinging his camera, it becomes manifestly apparent that his camera is "his means of keeping life (which includes his knowledge of himself) at a distance" (Wood 75). Jefferies' crippled legs are thus not his only injury. As an extraordinarily private eye, accustomed to looking at, not into things, he suffers as well from a detached retina, if you will. His paralysis is thus a synecdoche; it stands for his reluctance to actually venture out into the world and for his willingness instead to be a mere voyeur of it.

In this film which has been called the director's "testament," Hitchcock takes pains to make us understand that Jefferies is not an oddity. As Stella prominently announces at one point, his condition is that of all of us in a camera civilization. "We've become a race of peeping-toms," she fulminates. "People ought to get outside and look in at themselves." But Rear Window, typical of the genre, does not offer us such a look. Its very opening shot--in which credits are shown over rising bamboo curtains until we witness the apartments opposite Jefferies' own--tells us that the film to follow will look from inside out. As Spoto acutely notes, in the normal Hitchcock paradigm the camera at the beginning moves from outside to inside. In Rear Window, however, Hitchcock leads the viewer from inside to outside, thereby reversing the psychological search which his narratives customarily enact. Instead of "the typically downward journey of the Hitchcock hero," we witness in Rear Window "an outer-directed, subjective view" (Spoto 240).

And if Barfield is correct, this is how Camera Man now sees the world.


Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, unlike Rear Window, might actually be classified as a private eye film, since its hero is in fact a very special kind of detective. Geoffrey Hartman has spoken of "the ghostly sensationalism of detective fiction and film, in which every detail, however small, is potentially a telltale sign of human purposes, even if it disappoints an imagination it excites into voyeurism" (26-27). Blade Runner depicts such a world, one in which voyeurism is indeed rampant and human purposes have become so extensive that the key role of an unusual policeman known as a "blade runner" is simply to tell the organic from the android--to separate the projections from the reality.

Blade Runner's bleak, film noir atmosphere (all of the scenes take place at night, and an endless darkness seems to have descended upon the world) would seem to be a figurative representation of the inner world of the Camera Men who inhabit it.6 "The world itself on the one hand and the way we perceive and think it on the other hand are inseparable," Barfield reminds in an essay on "Science and Quality." "It must follow from that, if enough people go on long enough perceiving and thinking about the world as mechanism only, the macroscopic world will eventually become mechanism only" (Rediscovery 185). In Blade Runner, we might say, Barfield's thought experiment has been carried out to the full and proven accurate.

Despite its omnipresent human artifice, the world of Blade Runner is one of despair and unhappiness, in which huge, flying advertisements beckon desertion to "off-world colonies." The movie, as J. P. Telotte observes, is thus "a vision of man not only no longer at home with himself, but no longer at home with his home . . ." (48). In its memorable opening sequence, as a transition between the film's first shot (a panoramic aerial view of Los Angeles, 2019, a city which has deserted the horizontal to become off-world in the vertical dimension) and Holden's fatal interview with the android Leon, a close-up of an eye fills the screen. This eye, this detached retina, reminiscent of the shots of Bowman's eye during the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, remains unidentified, though eye close-ups soon reappear during the administration of the "Voight-Kampf Empathy Test" (in which the inhumanness of the "replicant," interestingly enough, is detectable only through the lack of emotion evidenced within the saccadic movements of the eye). But the suggestion is clear. Shown in montage with a mechanized, humanized (with a vengeance), meaningless, verticalized Los Angeles, this image seems to say, "I made this; this world is my domain, my projection, under my rule." And truly the issue of vision constitutes an important subtext of the film.

Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner and the film's erstwhile human focus, is a private eye and Camera Man in much the same way as Jefferies but at an advanced stage of development, even more of a camera obscura, in keeping with the camera civilization in which he lives. The android Rachel asks at one point if he has himself ever taken the test which has just exposed her, and in doing so, she gives voice to our own suspicions. Like the replicants, Decard's sense of his own past is maintained (created?) through photographic, not embodied, memories. (His apartment, for example, is filled with photos, many of a past which clearly cannot be his own.) Michael Dempsey has accurately described Deckard as a man "sunk so deep into the anomie of the classic film noir hero that the barrier between him and his mechanical quarry has become merely a semantic issue" (34). And that is because Deckard and the replicants are private eyes in competition, Camera Men: one still figuratively (though marginally), the other in fact by means of the technological literalization of a camera civilization's values.

"If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes," the replicant leader Batty (Rutger Hauer) tells their maker, a Chinese named Chu who "just does eyes" in his capacity as an android parts manufacturer for the Tyrrell Corporation, Batty's creator. And just before Batty dies--and in death sympathetically spares the life of Deckard--his last words return again to the subject of his vision. "I've seen things," he declaims, aspiring to nostalgia, "you people wouldn't believe . . . attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion. . . . All these things would be lost in time . . . like tears in rain." Is it any wonder that Tyrrell's Nexus 6 androids are obsessed with the persistence of vision? Their makers, after all, have supplied sets of photographs to give them a semblance of a past suitable to a camera civilization. To Rachel, who has naively "trusted her memories to Kodak," these photographs constitute absolute proof of her human identity.

Blade Runner's replicants would seem to represent the apotheosis of Camera Man, the ultimate in detached objectivity, devoid of feeling, disinterested in illusory secondary qualities, their eyes camera that should have no need for imagination. And yet, ironically, these techno-fantasies-come-true want nothing so much as ordinary life. They seek escape from human projections. They long to be human. And when Batty confronts his maker Tyrrell, understandably desirous of knowing his meaning, he kills him by attacking his eyes. Blade Runner is a vision of Camera Man's future and of its terrible poverty.


Based on a novel by D. G. Compton originally entitled The Unsleeping Eye, Death Watch also shows, through the metaphoric realization of science fiction, man on the way to literally becoming Camera Man with the aid of technology. Set in a not too distant future Glasgow, Scotland, a "postmodern necropolis" (Stewart 18) in a world where death other than from old-age has been eliminated and in which a bored populace, still a "race of peeping toms," is entertained by computer-generated books and morbidly exploitative television, Death Watch tells the story of a woman named Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider), who discovers that she is suffering from a terminal disease and is thus about to endure an abnormally early, tragic death. An unscrupulous television producer, Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton), discovers her predicament (actually, as we learn later on, he has caused it) and resolves to capitalize on it by turning her demise into a Laud-style TV documentary. He offers her $500,000 for exclusive N.T.V. rights to her story. Katherine, however, will not acquiesce in being reduced to a dying image.

When she flees N.T.V.'s clutches and embarks on a Gilgamesh-like journey to seek the wisdom of a real wise old man (not the ersatz Charon, "Ferriman," her former husband Gerald (Max Von Sydow), an individual in love with memory and medieval music, who dwells apart from the public eye of a society he finds empty and corrupt, N.T.V. resorts to its secret weapon in order to record her story. At Ferriman's direction--and unknown to her--Katherine's companion in her journey, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), is filming her every move. For Roddy, the network's crack camera man, has had a miniature camera implanted in his brain (as we learn in the film's opening sequence),7 a camera capable of capturing and then transmitting for projection all that he witnesses of Katherine's last days. And he sees it all, becoming her confidante and, against his own better standards of professionalism, her friend. The resulting TV broadcast, we learn, earns a 71% audience share, even though 37% find it offensive and none are aware that the documentary is being shot entirely through a living subjective camera.

Even before surgery, Roddy has been a loner, reclusive by nature, like Jefferies and Deckard uneasy in his relationship with women. His ex-wife Tracey, who still cares deeply for him, could not, it seems, live with his camera obscura personality. At one point she tells us (for the film's narrative voice is hers) that "terrible things happen to laboratory animals kept from dreaming," and it is Roddy--both voyeur and projector, devoid already, like Blade Runner's androids, of real memory, or dreams, or imagination, bereft of any real inner life--she has in mind.

As a side-effect of his experimental camera-mentality, Roddy must always have an external light source available to him or he will go blind. (From this comes much of the film's dramatic tension.) He must never be left for too long inside his camera mind--which evidently generates no light of its own--or the tiny aperture which alone provides a window between subject and object will forever close; he will be blinded, left to realize in terror the solipsism from which only his and his society's faith in projection shields him. Truly, as Garrett Stewart has noted, Roddy is a "technologically displaced person" (19).

The world of Death Watch, as Katherine tells Ferriman, is one in which "everything is of interest but nothing matters," where, we might say, the propensities of Camera Man have robbed the world of its last shred of meaning and real, sympathetic participation: a world full of spectators. Only at the magical home of Gerald Mortenhoe and only after Roddy loses his vision and N.T.V. its picture, does Katherine escape this world to find another where her single, uninteresting life truly matters. She learns, in fact, that the death of her matter matters because it is uniquely her own (she actually dies from an overdose--a suicide), lived from within: because it is not merely an image.


It might be argued that Rear Window, Blade Runner, and Death Watch are, in keeping with the postmodernist tendencies of our times, all metadramas. For each narrative is, in effect, self-referential. Each implicates its viewers in the cultural evils it sets out to criticize, turning them into voyeurs through their very involvement in the film. And each is art about art (or at least artifice). In this day of Derrida and deconstruction, when all art, indeed all thinking, bites its own tail and virtually all "texts" are overdetermined to the point of meaninglessness, metadrama (and metafiction and metapoetry and metahistory and metacriticism and . . .) is, after all, the order of the day. But as explorations of the causes and consequences of Camera Man, these films are more than merely fashionable. They plumb the root cause of metadrama; they hold our epistemology up for inspection and find it so heavily laden with contradictions and hell-bent for paradigmatic revolution that it necessitates this implosion of subjectivity which characterizes the psyche--and the art--of the late 20th century. They demonstrate that the absurd idea that the world is merely "a magic-lantern show, projected by our minds and senses on a back cloth of whirling particles or some mathematical substitute for them" (Worlds 87) can now no longer sustain the human imagination in any of its forms, even that cinematic medium which was historically created in its own image as the apotheosis of the camera sequence.

"If . . . the story of the harp and the camera is to continue instead of ending with a whimper," Barfield has written, "it will have to be by way of a true marriage between the one and the other." And he even offers an image by which we might be able to envision such a marriage: "Is it fanciful, I wonder, to think of a sort of mini-harp stretched across the window of the eye . . . as perhaps not a bad image for the joy of looking with imagination?" (Rediscovery 77). Certainly such a conception would be more likely to succeed in healing modern man's detached retina, and thereby bridging the ever-widening gap between his self-consciousness and the world, than that other implant surgery, enacted physically in the as/if of Death Watch and, via metaphorical internalization, as the project of contemporary culture: the installation of a camera in the human mind.


1 The work from which Hartman quotes is Everyday Life in the Modern World.
2 The phrases are quoted from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed, 102. Cavell likewise observes that

In viewing films, the sense of invisibility [which we experience in a movie theatre] is an expression of modern privacy or anonymity. It is as though the world's projection explains our forms of unknowness and our inability to know. The explanation is not so much that the world is passing us by, as that we are displaced from our natural habitation within it, placed at a distance from it. The screen overcomes our fixed distance; it makes displacement appear as our natural condition. (40-41)

3 For a fuller account of the process of "interiorization," see, in particular, Barfield's Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances. For a fascinating, phenomenological examination of the meaning of this act, see Robert Romanyshyn's Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor: 26-31.
4 If we consider the evolution of consciousness up to the present time, we are left, Barfield has written, with an unmistakable impression.

It [the evolution of human consciousness] is rather as if a musical instrument, which was being played on . . . an Aeolian harp perhaps, played on by nature herself . . . fell silent for a while. And then, after an interval, when it began to sound again, it was no longer merely an instrument, but had become aware of itself as such . . . and could itself take part in the playing of itself. (Romanticism 234)

5 Robin Wood has gone so far as to suggest that Jefferies is able to deduce the murder committed by Thorvald (Raymond Burr) only because he identifies with it, and that Thorvald should be viewed as a projection of "potentialities in Jefferies himself" (69, 75). 
6 As J.P. Telotte has noted, in Blade Runner's blackness, "we can see mirrored an interior darkness . . ." (48).
7 Actually, the film's first shot is of a graveyard, out of which the camera pans upward to reveal the cityscape of Glasgow. The shot which follows is an extreme close-up of a pinpoint of light on Roddy's eye. The editing pattern is thus comparable to the opening sequence of Blade Runner.