anamorphosis

Once you see the face in this Picasso still life, you can't stop
seeing it. Anamorphosis — literally the 'image within the image'
has broad application in other media as well.

There could hardly be any debate that anamorphosis is both the most publicly recognizable as well as the most concrete. Anamorphosis is demonstrated by even the simplest visible sample; its power lies in its ability to extend, as a logic of concealment, to non-visual situations. Stated as a general principle, anamorphosis is the idea that multiple meanings can be materially and mutually supported within the same material circumstances. Such conditions are so pervasive that anamorphosis is almost inseparable from the phenomenology of the clue. It is the implicit structure behind any multiple "reading" of events, any characters that share names or appearances, any two competing story lines, or any condensation of these themes into a "portable" object such as a ring or lighter. Anamorphy in other media is sometimes as striking as its visible forms, particularly where sound imitates the alternation between doubled or flipped meanings ("zig-zag," "see-saw," "flim-flam," "flip-flop"). Verbal anamorphy is also evident in cases of reversed antonomasia, where a metonymic word is used in a metaphoric way, as when Odysseus gives the metaphor-bound Cyclops a metonymic name, "Nohbdy," or, when Walter O. Thornhill in North by Northwest repeats the trick when he says that the 'O' initial "stands for nothing." Comedy duos turn the two competing images of the anamorph into the idea of incompatible personality types, such as the thin Stan Laurel and fat Oliver Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the English team of the 30s and 40s, Naughton and Wayne, or, with less emphasis on body mass and more on motion and voice, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

In short, anamorphosis can quickly adopt virtually any new medium, and this adaptability justifies its privileged relationship to the clue. When anamorphy takes us from glimmers, blinks, blurs, etc. to acoustic and other realms, the goal of ambiguity is the same. The object petit a, the lack or surplus in the Other, serves as a gateway for recognition (anagnorisis in the classical terms of Greek drama) - materiality structured by metonymy.

Four Ways of Looking at Anamorphosis

Graphic shorthand depictions of anamorphosis and phenomena closely related to it can go a long way towards showing the efficient operation of this initially visual ploy. The first and most direct symbolization of anamorphic logic is a diagram of two intersecting circles. This could be compared to the vesica piscis, laden with theological over-determinations, or, more simply, a Venn diagram for the overlap of two logical elements. The anamorphic interpretation is more direct: we see something different with a shift in our point of view, but these two things share a common substance, designated by the zone of overlap, B. This is also, quite significantly, one (informal) way of representing the enthymeme, the rhetorical syllogism, where two terms are linked at a common "internal" region. If we assigned the outer terms to the realm of metaphor and the internal common link to metonymy we would not be far off the mark.

A contrasting but equally informative view of anamorphosis involves taking into account the pleasure or pain caused by the lack or surplus that prevents closure of the "circle" of desire. The circle with a gap shows this: that desire always returns to the same impasse, that it curves around to rediscover/re-confront the obstacle that it itself has created. One sees in the mirror, instead of a reversed face, the impossible back of one's head. These Lacanian motifs guide the mystery's own application of the self-reference structure, the compact web of relationships that differentiates the mystery story from crimes in reality. In Strangers on a Train, this is Bruno's direct reference to "criss-cross"; in North by Northwest, it is the inescapable though idiotic logic of mistaking Walter O. Thornhill for the nonexistent ('O') Kaplan.

What makes this gap into a gateway is its idiocy, its self-contained quality. We might invent a third diagram to accompany the circle with a gap: two "angles" - each representing the combination of metaphor with material metonym - placed in a yin-yang fashion. Thus, idiotic symmetry provides the road map for the entry and exit through this portal created by desire. Now we are very close to Lacan's idea of "quilting" and the creation of sinthoms out of sliding signifiers. What makes this particular image of anamorphy informative is its diagrammatically explicit alignment of metaphor and metonym. The metaphoric "meaning" of the anamorph is the thing in contention, the tug-of-war over what is the "real content" of the work. The skull in Holbein's portrait of "The Ambassadors" cannot be seen without casting the main figures into obscurity.

But, the material substructure - the painting, the canvas, etc. - is the same for both, and the unity behind the disparity is grounded in a "negotiation" centered on this material basis. The artifact of the ambassadors and other "main images" meant to be seen head-on is the freedom of movement of the viewer that permits the selection of the acutely skewed point of view from which the skull is visible.

That this point is geometrically aligned with the small crucifix barely visible in the upper left-hand corner of the portrait completes a circle of clues connecting the theme of Golgotha ("place of the skull") to the precise date given for the painting, April 11, 1533, Good Friday of the year that many believed to be the date of the Apocalypse (three sets of five centuries, plus the age of Christ at his death). The angle made by the crucifix, the horizon of the painting, and the skull, 27º (3x3x3), was also the angle of the sun at 4 p.m. in London on that date. In other words, the key behind the "idiotic symmetry" of anamorphy is that there are two kinds of artifact, one relating to the subject's abjection, the other to the "scandalous" shortcomings of the object-world of the Other.

The final image of anamorphy would be the well-known Möbius strip, the strip of paper twisted once so that its topology is radically transformed into a one-sided, one-edged form. There can be no adequate pictures or maps of the Möbius band. These would require an additional projective dimension that, in the Möbius band's topological way of carrying on business, cannot exist. In the standard illustrations, we see a twist, but no twist exists in topological terms. The issue becomes one of representation: a projective image of the Möbius band necessitates a falsification, just as a flat map of the curved surface of the earth sacrifices either shape or scale.

When Zizek builds up a composite diagram of Lacan's idea of quilting in The Sublime Object of Ideology, the idea is to show a successive layering not only of phenomena but the way in which those phenomena are successively and interdependently understood. Each of the four images of anamorphology tells something about the nature of the mystery story, with its sinthom. Like Lacan's "layered" concepts, the mystery story's variations on the theme of anamorphosis form a sequential chain of parts, each of which nonetheless retains its own autonomous relationships with psychology, rhetoric, logic, topology, and poetics. The overall structure is mandated by the idiotic symmetry created by the anamorphic condition and Möbius-band rules of topological circulation. The important part - the two parallel but oppositely pointing legs of the composite angle representing "signs" - take up the role of two "free radicals." The one, from the side of the subject, provides a metonymical escape (Ø) from the network of symbolic (metaphoric) relationships that binds or bars the subject within a restrictive matrix of desire. This restriction is Lacan's que vuoi? ("What do you want from me?") - the subject, 'S', immobilized/barred ($) by the Other's (unknown) desire. The subject gets around this impasse by imaginatively projecting a new land at an "impossible distance" from his/her own barred position or by creating a version of him/herself with ideal qualities. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's escape from Kansas depends entirely on this irrational hatch. Metonymically, the justification for her trip is a concussion. The sinthom created is Oz, whose capital is the jewel-like Emerald City, which in turn has an empty center, the palace of the Wizard, who turns out to be "just an ordinary man from Kansas." The deficiency of this ultimate Big Other () is the objective counterpart of the subjective surplus, Ø - naturally so, since the Big Other is nothing other than a projection of the subject's hopes and fears, sparked by the unanswered question, Que vuoi?

Compare Dorothy's plight to Marcel Proust's in Remembrance of Things Past. Both are "orphaned" and unable to find a place in the network of adult symbolic relationships. This explains why flight is so necessarily connected to dreams and why returning requires the pleasurable suture/return that deconstructs the Other, Swann or Oz. Waiting in his bedroom for his mother's kiss, fetishized into a magic release from daytime wakefulness, the young Marcel reviews in succession a countless succession of confusions, where metaphor and metonymy, like runaway convicts chained at the ankles, cannot escape each other. A lantern-slide projects the image of the bandit Golo galloping over the contours of curtains and furniture. The horrors of dreams are traced to uncomfortable positions of the limbs in sleep. The shadow created by moonlight on the ground is a surface of silence on which merges near and far, and is more real than the objects that cast it. These composites, like the farmhands who are the defective magi in Oz, show that the metonymical ends of these knots offer the only free ends to be untied and rejoined, once the distant symmetry of Ø and are realized.

What is this , this key to the return to Oz, this deficiency or surplus of the Other that, anamorphically masked as a blur or stain, erupts from the very center of the spotless scene of authority? It is none other than the return path home taken by the objet petit a, that jouissance that, as a composite of unsymbolizable pleasure and pain, responds to all calls for justice and completion. The relation of the objet petit a to jewelry is not surprising, given the Gnostic tradition that connects the jewel to the broken fragments of the cosmos whose edges, like the edges of the broken pottery (tessera) kept by parting friends would celebrate their reunion. Now, that reunion can be understood in terms of , and vice versa. The "ambiguity of the jewel" (Lacan) is the line-of-fire that connects the most distant points of this structure to each other as if they were two city dwellers living in separate buildings but adjacent apartments, who drill a hole through the walls rather than having to walk downstairs and around the block. Proust compares this to an orchestra playing pianissimo, so that the music appears to be coming from outside the theater. It would be equally instructive to think of stories, such as Ovid's "Pyramus and Thisbe," where the topology plays the key role to get the lovers out of their connected houses mediated by voice and into the fields where, like Romeo and Juliet, a "false death" leads to two true ones.

The near-far collapse of scale can be traced back to the clue, whose composite nature requires the viewer to stand over there, in the footsteps of the "cool detective," to see the anamorphic stain in perfect shape. This viewpoint is outside the zone prescribed for customary symbolic relationships. It crosses the forbidden boundary; it enters a Hermetic space: the wilderness, the crossroads, the abandoned house. Like the Murakami characters who discover a "fourth-dimensional floor" in Wild Sheep Chase, the zone projected by the subject through an effort of fantasy (Ø) is for the very purpose of seeking a jewel, a treasure, a secret that will deconstruct the Other. This is why is so consistently related to the act of suture that pulls the exile back into the banquet hall (Simonides), the fugitive onto the lecture platform (The Thirty-nine Steps), or the lunatic into the art auction (North by Northwest). The Ur-model for may be the episode from The Odyssey where Odysseus, disguised, sneaks into his own palace to slay his wife's suitors in bloody revenge. The objet petit a in that case was the famous scar, noticed discretely by Odysseus's old nurse, a jewel of skin that, like some crystal ball, led to a recounting of the circumstances when it was made. The discovery-through-scale-collapse aspect of is condensed in Hitchcock's famous tracking shot, where the camera zooms from a distant view to frame a small object (the key in Notorious) or face (the blinking dummer in Young and Innocent). This returns the desire isolated in the clue to the mysterious Other who had prohibited our finding it, for whom the objet petit a is a scandal and catastrophe. Again, one thinks of the story of Simonides, the inventor of artificial imagination, called back into the ruins of the banquet hall to identify the crushed bodies of the guests whose names he had memorized according to their positions at the banquet table.

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved