The Sensations of Aisthesis “Exposed” in William Castle’s The Tingler (1959)

I am William Castle, director of the motion picture you are about to see. I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations – some of the physical reactions which the actors on the screen will feel – will also be experienced, for the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this audience. I say certain members because some people are more sensitive to these mysterious electronic impulses than others. These unfortunate, sensitive people will at times feel a strange, tingling sensation; other people will feel it less strongly. But don’t be alarmed – you can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious of a tingling sensation you may obtain immediate relief by screaming. Don’t be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you’ve got, because the person right next to you will probably be screaming too. And remember, a scream at the right time may save your life. [1]

The Tingler (William Castle, 1959)

To produce the effect of which Castle speaks, the release of The Tingler saw cinema seats wired with electric devices that would ‘tingle’ the occupant of the seat. Such a prescribed spectatorial experience was prescribed in another sense. The opening sequence of the film shows the execution by electric chair of the brother-in-law of cinema theatre owner Oliver ‘Ollie’ Higgins (Philip Coolidge). For the original release of the film, this execution was supported by promotional posters that asked: “Do you have the GUTS to sit in this chair?” This made the ‘tingling’ an electrocution in which the spectator became the executed. The electric chair of the film’s opening sequence and the cinema seat were, in this move, conflated. A second meaning of the ‘tingling’ is found in the narrative of the film, which describes the formation of an organism along the spine – ‘the Tingler’ – produced by spine-tingling fear. The organism dissipates when a person screams. Screaming is demanded of the spectator by the narrative when an extracted Tingler organism escapes into Ollie’s cinema theatre. Even though a Tingler organism is not produced in the actual cinema theatre of the spectator (as were some of Castle’s gimmicks, such as the ‘Emergo’ skeleton of House on Haunted Hill (1959)), the ‘tingling’ and subsequent tingling of the spine prescribes a metaphorical extension. This incitement of sensation by the cinematic apparatus offers a useful way to think about how the heterogeneity of the body is “exposed” and exploited in Castle’s cinema, allowing cinema to be more broadly understood as sensorial and energetic forces to be “exposed” and exploited.

The concept of aisthesis has recently been theorised by Jacques Rancière to refer to the way “regimes” of Art give rise to sensation, experience or thought. Prior to Rancière’s use of aisthesis, the concept was used in 1999 by Jean-François Lyotard to refer to an “exposure” of the heterogeneity of the body “before” its formulation into an ego and its subordination to the language of the law. I examine aisthesis in the context of William Castle’s exploitation film The Tingler (1959) to illustrate how aisthetic sensations are “exposed” and exploited by the cinematic apparatus. It is the cinematic apparatus that seeks to incite the sensations of the spectator but also control the spectator’s response. This incitement of sensations, however, goes both ways. This essay contends that it is not simply the spectator who is invested with intensities, but that the cinematic apparatus is also invested with an intense energetics. The locus of cinema is thus extended, such that cinema can be understood as a dispositif or arrangement (of which the spectator and cinematic apparatus are momentary parts) in which energies are distributed. I will argue that the complexity of the concept of aisthesis is useful for understanding the sensations of the spectator that are “exposed” by the cinematic apparatus; the prescription by the film of certain sensations of the spectator with the intent to exploit the spectator, even if these sensations can be prescribed but not controlled; the results of the “exposure” of these sensations by the cinematic apparatus that also results in aesthetics; and the investment of energies in the arrangement that determines how cinema can be understood as a dispositif. By examining the viewing conditions established for Castle’s The Tingler, which saw cinema seats wired with electric devices that would ‘tingle’ their occupants, I find that what this apparatus “exposes” is the aisthetic sensations of the spectator.

In this essay, I discuss aisthesis as it relates to Lyotard’s analysis of Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” in his essay “Prescription”. Aisthesis is the expression of sensations that are unmediated by the ego, language or law. Aisthetic spectatorship does not involve critical reflection or even judgement in recognition of an object or subject, but rather refers to sensation. This is not a distanced contemplation but an energetic way of thinking about aesthetics that is found to be in operation: a ‘seeing’ in the act of ‘seeing’. Such an energetics also characterises an Open relation between the world and the interior workings of the body. Sensation refers not simply to what is ‘seen’ without, but also what is ‘felt’ within. However, aisthesis must also be “exposed”, whereby, in Kafka’s story, aisthesis is “exposed” by an apparatus that executes prisoners by inscribing with needles their sentences upon their bodies. I examine how Castle’s The Tingler uses the cinematic apparatus, including gimmicks, to “expose” and exploit the sensations of the spectator. In this way, we can understand the cinematic apparatus as the proponent of cinema for inciting sensation but also for control or discipline; the brute sensations of aisthesis are heterogeneous and “savage” sensations to be controlled.

For the film The Tingler, Castle prescribes the spectator’s response and provokes this response through the mechanical manipulation of the body. Not only does the director’s use of the apparatus, in its prescriptive inscription upon the body, open the body to sensation, the apparatus “exposes” the sensations of the body, which I argue is an exposure of aisthesis[2] The beating of the heart, the tingling sensation in the spine, and the scream are the products of aisthesis “exposed” by the apparatus. This essay undertakes to revise existing philosophical, fictional, and film theoretical conceptions of aesthetics, by relating aisthesis to a sensorial and energetic understanding of cinema. Aisthesis is the sensation which is “exposed” or opened by aesthetics. [3] The film The Tingler perfectly emblematises that which is “exposed” or opened by aesthetics. Not just an aesthetic film, The Tingler, I contend, engages the spectator directly in sensation and “exposes” aisthesis.

The actions of the cinematic apparatus of The Tingler which hope to “expose” sensations are found in the beating of the heart in the sound track that, in the darkness of the cinema theatre, gives way to the sounds of the spectator’s own heartbeat, the cinema seats that ‘tingle’ the spectator, as well as the “prescription” for the spectator to scream to release fear. But understanding cinema in terms of sensation, is also to understand cinema as an intense energetics by which components of the arrangement or apparatus are invested. The cinematic apparatus can be described as a dispositif in this sense. The “theater of cruelty” that Lyotard says is an aspect of the execution apparatus in Kafka’s short story, is revivified in horror cinema as an energetic theatre in the arrangement of energies. Energies flow between and invest the components in the dispositif. I show how aisthesis, as a theory of sensation, can be used to rethink cinema as an intense energetics to be “exposed” and exploited. As a “theater of cruelty”, I demonstrate that while the spillage of blood in Castle’s film is aesthetic (and even pictorial), the exposure of sensations by this film is an exposure of aisthesis.

Aisthesis and Prescribed Lines

In his short story “In the Penal Colony”, Kafka describes the workings of an apparatus used in the penal colony. The apparatus was invented by the former Commandant, is operated by the officer, and is observed by the explorer. It is an execution apparatus that inscribes with needles – upon the bodies of those condemned – the commandment that has been disobeyed. The execution apparatus takes twelve hours to complete its inscription, after which time the prisoner, the officer explains, will have understood the sentence handed to him. The prisoner attains a certain enlightenment from the judgement handed down to him through his wounds, and, upon reaching enlightenment, expires and is pushed into the pit that lies beneath the Bed of the apparatus. [4]

“In the Penal Colony” reveals how the condemned are sentenced by the law. The punishment meted out by the law is performed by an apparatus that consists of three parts – the Bed, the Designer, and the Harrow. The Bed is covered in a layer of cotton wool on which the condemned lies. The Designer holds the sketches drawn by the former Commandant and controls the movement of the Harrow. The Harrow corresponds to the human form and has needles that pierce the skin, and thus, inscribe on the body of the condemned the sentence that the law has prescribed. The Harrow is made of glass and each needle fixed into the glass is accompanied by a shorter needle, which sprays a jet of water onto the skin to wash the inscription clear of blood. [5] The officer explains the punishment to the explorer:

“Our sentence does not sound severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow. This prisoner, for instance” the officer indicated the man “will have written on his body: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!” [6]

The explorer is appointed to watch the completion of the sentence prescribed by the law, a sentence that involves the sketching out of the former Commandant’s designs upon the body of the condemned.

Lyotard’s analysis of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” demonstrates the aesthetics of the “execution”. In Kafka’s story, execution is completed by the application of an apparatus that literally inscribes (in “writing”) the sentence on the body of the “condemned” over a period of twelve hours. Lyotard’s discussion of the story concerns the prescription that the law (through politics and violence) imposes upon a body. Prescription, not inscription, is what matters here because aisthesis is an exposure of what was “before”. [7] The apparatus in Kafka’s story, Lyotard argues, inscribes the criminal body because aisthesis is already prescribed on the body, and like “birth and infancy” is “there before we are”. [8] For the law, aisthesis is the “savagery of birth-infancy”, which is the potential of every body to be punished but also to feel sensation. [9] The aisthetic body is also described by Lyotard as “intractable” to the law. [10] The law can only have effect on the body by “exposing” aisthesis through the aesthetics of the “theater of cruelty” such as is found in Kafka’s story. [11] The law relates to the body through the sensible. The dilemma of the law, as Lyotard writes, is that the intractable body – intractable because it is aisthetic – is both “that which resists all law” and is an “absolute condition of morals”. [12] Aisthesis is an “absolute condition of morals” because it is morality acting directly on the body and not through mediation. Thus through aisthesis, we also get closer to defining a film spectatorship that is Open rather than mechanical: a cinema of the “exposure” of aisthesis rather than a cinema of the rhythmic inscriptions of the cinematic apparatus. The mechanical apparatus used for execution in Kafka’s story and the mechanical apparatus of the seats that ‘tingle’ in The Tingler are the ways by which the sensations of aisthesis are “exposed”.

Aisthesis, in Lyotard’s sense, is that which is “before” the law, and is already inscribed on every new birth. Aisthesis, for Lyotard, is also that which defies the law: “And the application of the law always entails the same extinctive prescription: twelve hours of agony in payment for an indubitable offense, that of not having been born first to the law but, rather, to and through the aisthesis.” [13] However, Lyotard also writes in his essay “Prescription” that “the law needs the body, its own dwelling upon the body, as well as the body’s resistance to it, in order to inscribe itself, that is, to execute itself”. [14] I argue that the relationship between the body and the inscription of the law reveals something about the relationship between aisthesis and aesthetics, which is that aisthesis requires aesthetics for it to be “exposed”. It is aesthetics in its most primitive state that Lyotard defines, and thus the archaic form of aisthesis that his work explores. However, the “theater of cruelty” produced by the law supplements the primitive aesthetics of aisthesis with a deployment of aisthesis for its own ends. Thus, the key argument that Lyotard makes in his essay “Prescription”, as far as this essay is concerned, is how aesthetics is changed between aisthesis and the enactment of the “theater of cruelty”. Aisthesis is imperceptible. Aesthetics, on the other hand, is made manifest in the execution of the law that inscribes the law’s sentence on the body: that which brings to death in “writing”; aesthetically, the blood that is spilled. [15] In this way, the aesthetic blood that is spilled by the “theater of cruelty” is what will “expose” the sensations of aisthesis.

The action of inscription of the apparatus upon the body causes blood to be spilled and is for this reason a “theater of cruelty”. For Lyotard, the blood that circulates is depictive of aisthesis and the blood that is spilled is depictive of aesthetics. [16] Lyotard writes: “We find aesthetics now, placed in the service of the former law, upon and in the tortured body of the condemned man”. [17] The law passes into a “corporeal impression”, but the “body effects the law … upon itself.” [18] Aisthesis, formerly of the body, is taken up by the “theater of cruelty” and blood is spilled, since this is what the body will understand. Lyotard writes:

The executor of the law knows that the infant body is ignorant of the law and can know nothing of it (in the sense of an explicit knowledge), unless the law is incised into it to the point where it draws blood. What it can know of the law, it can know only in the sense in which sapere means to savor, to be aesthetically passible, to be touched. [19]

The law directs the body in the execution of its lines, literally sketching its design on the body. Thus, aesthetics changes meaning between the touch of the body and the re-touch of the law – a change that comes about between the aesthetics of the blood that circulates (the bodily mode of aisthesis) and the aesthetics of the blood that is spilled (the “theater of cruelty”).

If aisthesis‘s state is found in the circulating blood of the pulse as the minimal condition of sensation, then the spilling of blood is aesthetic and even pictorial. Aisthesis is comprised of imperceptible sensations – what is “exposed” by aesthetics – as what was “before”. [20] I contend that Lyotard’s description of the “theater of cruelty” relates to the horror film precisely because of the aesthetics of the blood spilled that “exposes” what was “before”. What is “exposed” is not simply the sensation “exposed” by cruelty, but the freedom of the blood that circulates in the body. The circulating blood of the pulse and its freedom is what is “exposed” by the blood that is spilled in horror film.

Exploitation or horror cinema, as a sensible event, “exposes” the sensibility of aisthesis. Lyotard’s essay “Prescription” brings into focus the question of aesthetics as it relates to sensibility, and he does so by suggesting that it is via the action of the law upon the body that aisthesis is “exposed”. [21] Lyotard defines aisthesis as an “exposure” of the heterogeneity of the body, where what is exposed by the law is brute sensibility and “savagery”. The kind of aesthetics that aisthesis entails is a pre-experience not yet determined by ego, language or law. As Lyotard writes: “To be, aesthetically (in the sense of Kant’s First Critique), is to be-there, here and now, exposed in space–time, and to the space–time of something that touches before any concept or even any representation.” [22]

Rancière considers aisthesis in terms of aesthetics and the production of Art inasmuch as it involves the material and sensible qualities of the world, however, such sensible qualities according to Rancière, are apparent in Art, even if impossible in concrete terms. Writing on Rainer Maria Rilke’s expression of Rodin’s sculptural work, Rancière notes:

Rodin, Rilke tells us, does not want to know the body, the face or the hand, but ‘all bodies, all faces, all hands’. However, it is not a matter of opposing empirical multiplicity with the unity of the idea. A new ideality must be opposed to the old one: for ‘the body’, ‘the face’ and ‘the hand’ do not exist … ‘All bodies, all faces, all hands’ is an impossible totality. But this impossible totality is the asymptotic unity obtained by the active synthesis of a multiplicity of movements whose subject is not a finished unity, the body, but an infinite multiplicity, Life. Life … is an infinite power of invention of forms totally immanent to the movements and meetings of bodies. [23]

The circulating blood of the pulse as the basis of life allows us to understand this elastic and inventive movement in the meeting of body and world. The pulse has a freedom of movement that is Open to the world.

For Lyotard, aisthesis is what is “exposed” by aesthetics. Aisthesis, in other words, is the sensation that is not ready, never ready. Neal Curtis writes: “Aesthesis [sic], then, is an exposure, an openness, a candour; the susceptibility of a bodily mode not prepared.” [24] This is how I conceptualise the pulse aesthetically as aisthesis. The pulse is the force of intensity that Opens the body to the world. But the pulse is also “exposed” or opened by the world. This “exposure” or “openness” of the pulse to the world is revealed by “the susceptibility of a bodily mode not prepared” when, for instance, the pulse is jolted or shocked to a faster pace.

In cinema, aisthesis is the sensation that inspires a kind of seeing anew, an estranged seeing. Sensation is not a recognition of the object in the world (as representation) but an encounter with the energetic and material qualities of the world. [25] Rancière, however, does not depart too far from Lyotard’s notion of this “before” of aisthesis when he writes of thoughts and gestures ‘not yet’ formulated:

Life is not without reason. It incessantly creates thoughts that are in search of their formulation and gestures that have no yet become singular. Plastic work gives a body to these thoughts by giving a plastic figure to these gestures. [26]

Lyotard’s definition of aesthetics as a “touch” “before any concept or even any representation”, [27] has ramifications for thinking about the relationship between the body and the law, aisthesis and the “theater of cruelty”, and sensation and the sensational (which is also discipline in Castle’s films). Rancière’s example here is Rodin’s sculptural work and one wonders how, if this “plastic work gives a body to these thoughts” cinema poses a difference by the virtual nature of the image.

Writing on cinema, Rancière puts forward a perspective on how the “materials” of cinema as the production by the cinematic apparatus relate to the sensible that will be useful in my analysis: “Cinema cannot simply become an art through its own materials and instruments. Rather, it must rely on its capacity to adapt them to the new distribution of the sensible.” [28] Thus, in this essay aisthesis is used to describe a different kind of spectatorship: it is not a linguistic or representational but a sensible way of conceiving of film spectatorship.

Extracting the Fear that Tingles the Spine: The Hype, the Buzz of the Gimmick, and the Bottom Line: William Castle’s The Tingler (1959)

William Castle is known as the King of Gimmicks, the P.T. Barnum of film making, the director that led John Waters to exclaim in reminiscence of his childhood experience of The Tingler: “As I sat there experiencing the miracle of Percepto, I realized that there could be such a thing as Art in the cinema.” [29] He also inspired Waters to create his own gimmick “Odorama” for the film Polyester (1981). [30] I argue that, as a filmmaker, Castle plays a greater role in film history than purely as a creator of spectacle cinema. Castle’s contribution to cinema is one that engages in spectacle as an experience that refigures what is meant by aesthetics.

The Tingler‘s gimmick was “Percepto”. “Percepto” saw a selected number of cinema seats rigged with electric devices (similar to handshake gag ‘joy’ buzzers) that when activated by the film projectionist would ‘tingle’ the occupant of the seat. The intention was to make the spectator share in experiencing the “Tingler”: an ‘organism’ that, according to the film’s narrative, is a solidified form of the fear that develops in, and tingles, the spine. Promotional posters claimed: “The first motion picture in PERCEPTO! You will experience the emotions of the characters on the screen. Guaranteed: The Tingler will break loose while YOU are in the audience!” The electric ‘tingling’ of the spectator also doubled as a simulated electric chair gimmick. A further gimmick for The Tingler can be found in the blood filmed in red Technicolor in this otherwise black and white film, the film poster exclaiming:

The screen’s first BLOOD BATH IN COLOR!

Castle’s films intended, in their use of gimmicks, to produce ‘felt’ sensations. They were distinct from the identification of the spectator at a distance from the image. As David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror: “Horror gimmicks provided audiences with a needed sense of contact, engagement, and recognition. Even if the dominant sensation was gooseflesh, at least it was a feeling.” [31]

Most notably, Castle’s films contributed to a disciplining of spectatorship practices. Linda Williams reflects in her essay “Learning to Scream” that the first screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), released just a year after The Tingler, were a disciplinary exercise. Hitchcock stipulated that the audience arrive on time and not be permitted entry on late arrival. His practice, she argues, was a forerunner to a general disciplining of the film viewing experience with “set show times, closely spaced screenings, elimination of cartoons and short subjects and patient waits in lines that are now standard procedure”. [32] That is, the cinematic experience is one that works within the bounds of controls. However, I contend that it is not the controls that are important, or the level of interactivity that can be achieved through such controls, but the experience itself: the scream itself; that is, the way in which the experience of cinema engages the spectator in a sensorial response. The corporealised experience of cinema promotes an “exposure” of sensations. This “exposure” produces an aesthetic, even aisthetic, effect; that is, the sensorial apparatus is revealed or “exposed” by the operation of the cinematic apparatus.

And yet such disciplining of the film spectator also demonstrates a kind of prescription on the body that, as Lyotard writes about Kafka’s execution apparatus, is “translated aesthetically in the regulating trace” of the machine in its execution. [33] The “regulating trace” of The Tingler was produced by the “Percepto” devices that were wired to the cinema seats and “translated aesthetically” as the spine-tingling of the spectator. The film also prescribes the spectator scream, suggesting that it was by this means that the ‘tingling’ would stop. In a similar fashion to the way the law directs the execution of its lines on the body, the cinematic apparatus is made comprehensible by what the spectator learns on the body.

The Dispositif as the Investment of Energy in the Arrangement

There is no doubt that Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” describes an apparatus. The first line of his short story is: “‘It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus’, said the officer to the explorer and surveyed with a certain air of admiration the apparatus which was after all quite familiar to him.” [34] There is also no doubt that Castle’s The Tingler uses the mechanical cinematic apparatus to inspire the sensations of its spectators. The term dispositif, in lieu of apparatus, refers to the Open transfer of energy. And yet, the “theater of cruelty” in Kafka’s story is a dispositif that works to the will of the machine: a sequential rather than an organic beat. The dispositif, which has a “disposition” for the investment of energies, means that it is the apparatus that is invested with the sensations “exposed” by such cruelty.

Although The Tingler uses the apparatus to provoke the sensations of the spectator, it is the energetic arrangement or dispositif in cinema with which I am concerned. There is a direct encounter between the spectator and the cinematic apparatus: aisthesis and the sensations therein are “exposed”, and notably, “exposed” by the apparatus, but the encounter also “exposes” the energetic investment of the apparatus in cinema and the dispositif that is at work. The “theater of cruelty” as theatre indicates this energetic arrangement.

Lyotard defines the dispositif, and specifically the libidinal dispositif, in relation to structure, writing: “every energetic configuration … is a structure”. [35] This is because, as Lyotard writes, “intensities stabilize themselves into configurations … into voluminous bodies, into simulacra, and equally, therefore, into fixed organizations of elements of the ‘formerly’ libidinal skin become organism, psychic apparatus, or whatever you like of this kind of thing”. [36] Thus, the dispositif is a structure, or formation, as of an energetic formation. As Iain Hamilton Grant writes, “the ‘dispositif‘ [is] a disposition to invest, a cathexis”. [37] Defining the libidinal formation or dispositif in this energetic way Lyotard writes:

A libidinal dispositif, considered, precisely, as a stabilization and even a stasis or group of energetic stases, is, examined formally, a structure. Conversely, what is essential to a structure, when it is approached in economic terms, is that its fixity or consistency, which allows spatio-temporal maintenance of identical denominations between a this and a not-this, work on pulsional movement as would dams, sluices and channels. [38]

Thus as a “stasis or group of energetic stases” – an economy that has structure – the libidinal dispositif describes the way that the formation’s “fixity or consistency … work on pulsional movement”, where “pulsional movement” or “pulsion” is translated by James Strachey as instinct (Trieb). [39] That is, the “dams, sluices and channels” act like passages of intensity as intensities are corralled by structure. [40] Thus, Lyotard develops the concept of the dispositif to mean a disposition for the investment of energy or a cathexis suggesting operation and connection, where the investment of energy is Open and heterogeneous but also meets resistance.

The dispositif is not a mechanical apparatus, rather, the libidinal economy of the dispositif is a “disorder of machines”, or even, the libidinal economy invests machines which act to libidinally prescribe and inscribe. As Lyotard writes:

Libidinal economy is a disorder of machines, if you will; but what for ever prevents the hope of producing the systemization and functionally complete description of it, is that, as opposed to dynamics, which is the theory of systems of energy, the thought – but this is still to say too little – the idea of libidinal economy is all the time rendered virtually impossible by the indiscerniability [sic] of the two instances. [41]

The dispositif in this sense is one that pertains to a certain kind of subject, even “partial” subject, of aisthesis[42] The encounter with effects is the investment of energy – a cathexis – that has the force of a libidinal economy. As Lyotard writes, the libidinal economy “escapes” the “mechanical analogy”, [43] because the libidinal economy is not “thought” even as it exists as an analogue – a band/skin – for libidinal investment. Secondly, Lyotard writes that this libidinal economy has energetic force (puissance), which is different to the “cruelty” or violence of the power (pouvoir) of the disciplinary apparatus. [44] This is the difference in the force of sensation that arises in aisthesis and the “theater of cruelty”, which could be said to have disciplinary power. And yet, even the “theater of cruelty” must “expose” the forces of sensation that constitute aisthesis by which to enact itself.

The apparatus in Castle’s films mortify (in all senses of the term), and thus cause a particular economy to arise in the relationship between apparatus and body, or more to the point, in the economy of the apparatus that inscribes the body. The opening of the libidinal band/skin is an analogue for the connective ‘being in relation to’ by which the libido invests and thus invests the dispositif. This mortification is both an investment in the death drive and an opening of the body to the discomforts of the apparatus’s prescription. The ‘being in relation to’ of the apparatus and body is not a matter of ethics, but of aesthetics, because the apparatus makes a “corporeal impression”. [45] Such an aesthetics is one that relates to what Lyotard situates in “the first turn, this first touch“: an aisthesis “exposed” as a sensorial openness of the body.

Aisthesis, as Lyotard defines it, is an aesthetics that relates to the openness of the body, rather than an aesthetics that is caught up in the execution of a line found in the letter of the law – a praescripta or ‘graphy’. In other words, aisthesis is an openness of the body, which, when prescribed by the “theater of cruelty” becomes nothing short of a particular kind of dispositif. This dispositif is also a theatre of analogues of the body: the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, the mouth that screams. Like the analogue of the libidinal band/skin, these analogues are ways of conceptualising intensity. Analogues are the ways by which inscription gets in on the act of aisthesis but only inasmuch as it is mortifying.

It is evident that a frustration of representation occurs in many ways in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”. The libidinal nature of the apparatus – the forces and relations within it – make of the apparatus, what could be called an energetic set-up or dispositif. The excessive and heterogeneous body frustrates or scandalises the inscription of the law: in Kafka’s story, the needles that make the inscription on the body are accompanied by a jet of water to wash away the blood to ensure that the body, even in this moment, does not obscure the inscription of the law. Aisthesis frustrates the “touch” of the law and its inscription. The “first turn, this first touch” on the body that is already there, like “birth and infancy (Latin, in-fans) – there before we are”, [46] implicates the inscription of the law upon the body, which can only prove to be the bloody etchings of a re-touch: a touch “after the event“. [47] As Lyotard writes: “If the law is to execute itself, it must, like a touch, inscribe itself on the body.” [48] Or as the officer tells the explorer: “There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.” [49]

The re-touch of the law is frustrated by the body just as the body frustrates representation: such de/formation is scandalous. The libidinal body of incompossible zones and positions frustrates or scandalises the “theater of cruelty” because there is no conceptual opposition for that which has no discourse: the libidinal band/skin is fundamentally unrepresentative. It is in the incompossible multiplicity of libidinal investitures in the dispositif that we see the libidinal as an economy: a theatre only as much as it is “one dispositif among others”. [50] While the law inscribes the body in a certain way, the body has the potential of excess to disturb the law, or invest it with libidinal excess. As Curtis writes: “This body has no limits because various things such as books, food, images, as well as words, machines and even sounds can be charged with libidinal investment and therefore become areas of the body.” [51] The apparatus in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” is charged with libidinal investment.

I argue that the “theater of cruelty” offers cinema a particular kind of spectatorship as it engages in aisthesis. The wiring of the cinema seats with electric devices that would ‘tingle’ the occupant of the seat suggests an inscription by the mechanical cinematic apparatus that changes the aesthetic qualities of spectatorship. The Tingler even prescribes the spectator scream. When the Tingler escapes into Ollie’s cinema theatre, Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) instructs the spectators of Tol’able David (and, by extension, the spectators of The Tingler):

Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theatre! And if you don’t scream, it may kill you! Scream! Scream! Keep screaming! Scream for your lives!

This prescribed scream is just another way in which the “theater of cruelty” tries to get in on the act of aisthesis. The purpose and the problem of the “theater of cruelty” is that it can only make itself known by what it does to the body in a way that the body will understand. [52] For this reason, I argue that The Tingler prescribes responses for the spectator even before they are felt: the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, the mouth that screams. As this cinema attempts to garner a response from the spectator, sensation is transformed into prescribed but figural analogues. It is the transition from analogue to analogue by which the “theater of cruelty” attempts to generate a response from the spectator that makes such spectatorship metonymic.

Figural Analogues or “a Metonymy without End”: The Heart that Throbs, the Spine that Tingles, the Mouth that Screams. Do you have the Guts?

The Tingler is notable, particularly during its final sequences, for the way in which it establishes multiple and simultaneous positions for the spectator. When the Tingler organism is loose in Ollie’s cinema theatre during a screening of Tol’able David, the spectator in the screening of The Tingler responds interchangeably with the spectator of the film within the film, Tol’able David. The spectator of The Tingler is in fact interpellated into the cinema space just when the projection of Tol’able David is interrupted and the cinema goes dark. Warren’s instruction to scream reiterates Castle’s direct address to the spectator of The Tingler at the beginning of the film and pitches the substituting force of the scream – the screams of the spectators of Tol’able David would have merged with the screams from within The Tingler theatre. Allegedly, at the moment the diegetic cinema patron screams, faints, and is attended to in the film, a correlating scene took place within selected cinema screenings in The Tingler‘s original theatrical release in which an ersatz screamer and fainter was carried from the cinema to be attended to by the nurses stationed in the foyer.

The throbbing heart of (we can assume) the Tingler organism that pervades this sequence beats toward dissolution as it finds its answer in the throb of the spectator’s heartbeat. The collapse of the cinema into darkness pads out the driving return of the pulse to the body. Without a visual image, the throb of the Tingler’s heartbeat pervades the darkness of the cinema theatre, dissolving the distinction between theatre space and spectator: the heartbeat seizes the spectator by closing in around him/her. Here, what becomes evident is the confusion at the site of zones, pleasures, and places in the “dissolution into workings” by which rhythms “solicit an answering rhythm in the body of the viewer”. [53]

Warren’s encouragement to “Scream for your lives!” is accompanied by the electrifying ‘tingling’ of the cinema seat. Sensation is directed internally as a force that wells up from within, rather than as the effect of an image that frightens the spectator externally, and can be found in the reverberating beat of the heart, the tingling spine, and the scream. The darkness of the interrupted Tol’able David film, the throbbing heart, and the spine-tingling sensation released as a scream, is a cinematic experience of the spectator opening and discharging his/her tensions on the cinema space, rather than an eye that takes in external stimuli from its surroundings. Instead of an exterior visual image producing interior sensations, interior and intensive sensations produce exterior and extensive sounds, causing the spectator to become aware of surrounding spectators. Without a visual image, the spectator turns around and views him/herself and his/her surrounding spectators.

My point is that the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, and the mouth that screams are figural analogues for signifying aisthesis. By figural analogue I mean that which “will be able to be read, … from a metonymy without end”. [54] Signified by the spectacle – that which is prescribed – the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, and the mouth that screams are intensities that are in themselves unrepresentable, and form analogic chains for the sensations that the film attempts to elicit from its spectators. Like Lyotard’s “intense passages”, these analogues that signify intensities “take on value, as elements, from their continuation, from their opposition, from a metonymy without end”. [55] Such figural analogues are “figural” because they are moving and sensorial, and “analogic” because they are not the thing itself but a signifying metaphor in a line of contiguous metonyms that are linked by association. Figural analogues are a way of understanding the prescriptive mechanism of that which is already aisthetic. Figural analogues represent prescription trying to get in on the act of aisthesis. The effect which is, of course, generated, is not aisthetic but rather metonymic: a structure, value, sign that is a closing to signification in the opening to something else/the world.

What is also constructed by the figural analogue is a failure/comedy of that which would be aisthetic. This is because the analogue cannot capture all that can be found in aisthesis and in its transparent attempt makes a joke unto itself. While The Tingler would like to think that fear is cultivated by the film, instead it must prescribe the body to be ‘inscribed’ by the electric device. In other words, the fear that is cultivated by the film is a failure/comedy. However, this can only be supposed if we go on to suppose that corporealisation for this film also fails. Only by a certain reading does corporealisation fail, because if the spectator does not scream she/he certainly does laugh.

Thus, the resistance this argument meets is that the ‘tingling’ of the spectator in The Tingler is not designed to hurt or to spill blood, even if its embodiment in the film narrative is electrocution by chair. It is a gimmick designed for the purposes of the spectacle and to thrill audience members: to have them scream with delight. The Tingler is theatre but it is not a “theater of cruelty”. What happens then when “cruelty” is turned into a gimmick? James Williams writes on the exploitation of desire on the libidinal band/skin:

The dispositions control feelings and desires, for example they give accounts of the ‘proper’ use of a feeling or of the ‘proper’ way to exploit and satisfy desires. But the feelings also have a hold over the dispositions, that is, the occurrence of feelings and desires can challenge any given disposition and thereby demand a new set-up. [56]

In cinema, the gimmick is made possible because of the way the “occurrence of feelings and desires can challenge any given disposition”. [57] Gimmicks are a challenge, not necessarily to “the ‘proper’ use of a feeling” or to “the ‘proper’ way to exploit and satisfy desires”, but in that they generate the feelings that challenge “any given disposition”. [58] The gimmick demands a new way of generating sensation; it demands a “new set up”. [59] For film spectatorship, the gimmick’s challenge to the “disposition” means an exploitation of the intensities by cinema with no guarantee of the effectiveness for its spectator.

The “execution” of the body by an apparatus has been taken up by filmmakers in exploitative ways, and becomes apparent through the exploitation of desires on the libidinal band/skin. Castle is one such filmmaker, setting out to “execute” the audience of his films using electric devices, and telling them that the torment will only halt once they have screamed. The scream always exceeds the forms and methods that attempt to elicit it. The gimmickry of The Tingler means that this “execution” and prescription to scream is always a failure/comedy of the “theater of cruelty”. Nonetheless, Lyotard’s insight into the “position of the Signifier or of the Other” can perhaps be applied to the making of The Tingler: “in the concentratory dispositif, itself an enjoyable (jouissive) position, … the ‘rigour of the law’ gives more than one person a hard-on”. [60]

The difference then, between B-grade exploitation films and A-grade practices, is that the sensations that the mechanical cinematic apparatus incites the spectator to ‘feel’ in B-grade exploitation are of an unpredictable range. The spectator, in fact, expresses a “savagery” of feeling that cannot be controlled. Waters writes of one spectator’s response to Castle’s The Tingler in its original theatrical release: “In Philadelphia one beefy truck driver was so incensed that he ripped his entire seat from the floor and had to be subdued by five ushers.” [61] Aisthesis is apparently “exposed” by the mechanical cinematic apparatus in all its savage potential even when a certain response is prescribed. Despite A-grade horror’s simulation of real horror, the B-grade exploitation of The Tingler works with a mechanism that, by directly “touching” the body, incites aisthesis.

Countering the argument of figural analogues as the result of prescription, as one in a chain of analogues found in The Tingler that includes the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, the mouth that screams, the scream can be considered aisthesis par excellence. Williams describes it as such when he writes of the appearance of the scream on the libidinal band/skin:

With nowhere to go they [desires and feelings] circulate in desperation, until ‘with a scream’, another feeling, affect or desire emerges on the surface of the libidinal band. The scream that goes with a sudden crack-up marks the shift from one disposition to another. A crisis has occurred in one system through the emergence of an intensity that it cannot handle. A new system will have to be built to contain it. [62]

Williams demonstrates here the build-up of intensities on the libidinal band/skin and the dispositions that structure them. The scream by this reading is the height of affective change “from one disposition to another”. That is, the scream, as the response to an effect on the body, tears or bursts out of the body as affect. Castle’s The Tingler simply implicates the spectator in an enforced version – a prescribed inscription – of the scream.


Aisthesis is a useful concept for understanding the “exposure” of the sensations of the spectator by the cinematic apparatus for Castle’s exploitation film The Tingler. Aisthesis inaugurates a significant argument because it entails an aesthetics found in the opening of the spectator to the sensorial manifold. Aisthesis is ‘felt’ sensation “exposed”, and “exposed” most spectacularly when “exposed” by the “theater of cruelty”: blood spilled is an aesthetic that “exposes” an affective aisthesis that is already “there, here and now” for the body. [63]

I have considered how the cinematic apparatus “exposes” the heterogeneity of the body by inciting the sensations of the spectator in cinema. In the energetic arrangement of apparatuses and spectators, these components are charged with libidinal cathexis. By these energetic arrangements, apparatuses are dispositifs. And yet, the apparatus – whether Kafka’s apparatus in his story “In the Penal Colony”, the inscriptive prescription of Lyotard’s “theater of cruelty”, or the prescriptive cinematic apparatus of Castle’s The Tingler in its cinema release – can only hope to produce figural analogues for affective aisthesis. When talking about a prescribed and disciplinary incitement of sensation – sensation that by its nature is fundamentally unrepresentative – the prescription can only be but failure/comedy. This is precisely what can be said of the figural analogues in Castle’s The Tingler – the prescribed responses to the image, such as the fear produced by the tingling of the spine or the demanded scream, makes dissolvent real effects because of the failure or comedy of the apparatus to produce real effects; real aisthesis. The body acted upon by the “theater of cruelty” will only ever resemble the sensations of aisthesis. By presenting aisthesis with blood spilled and forcing from it a scream, the violence of the “theater of cruelty” produces just a callous mimicry of the sensations entailed in aisthesis.

However, the sensations inspired by the cinematic apparatus in The Tingler – the heart that throbs, the spine that tingles, the mouth that screams – are still sensations that arise in the spectator to be exploited by the film, even if the full extent of these intensities can only be represented as analogues. Aisthesis, and by extension, the sensations of the spectator are “exposed”; dispositifs are energised. If, as Williams writes, the scream is the way by which a “feeling, affect or desire” emerges on the libidinal band/skin, [64] what we find is that the intensities that escape via the scream are nonetheless aisthetic. Cinema is aisthesis “exposed” in the energetic arrangement or dispositif.

[1] William Castle, in his direct address, introduces The Tingler (and the device of “Percepto”) as a hawking exhibitor. This style of directorial showmanship and the guarantee of a scare continued into Castle’s other works such that Castle’s silhouette, cigar in mouth, became a recurring ‘brand’ for the films he was touting.
[2] Jean-François Lyotard, “Prescription” in Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (eds.), Toward the Postmodern (New York: Humanity Books, 1999), p. 179.
[3] Ibid., p. 179.
[4] Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony” in Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (trans.), The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 203–4.
[5] Ibid., pp. 193–200.
[6] Ibid., p. 197.
[7] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 179.
[8] Ibid., p. 179.
[9] Ibid., p. 179.
[10] Ibid., p. 176.
[11] Ibid., p. 180.
[12] Ibid., p. 176.
[13] Ibid., p. 184.
[14] Ibid., p. 185.
[15] Ibid., p. 180.
[16] Ibid., p. 180.
[17] Ibid., p. 180.
[18] My emphasis. Ibid., p. 178.
[19] Ibid., p. 180.
[20] Lyotard writes in his essay “Prescription”: “This before is not known, obviously, because it is there before we are. It is something like birth and infancy (Latin, in-fans) – there before we are” (Ibid., p. 179).
[21] Ibid., p. 179.
[22] Ibid., p. 179.
[23] Jacques Rancière (trans. Zakir Paul), Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (London and New York: Verso, 2013), p. 166.
[24] Neal Curtis, “The Body as Outlaw: Lyotard, Kafka and the Visible Human Project”, Body & Society, Vol. 5, nos. 23 (1999), p. 257.
[25] Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition: “Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon. It may be grasped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived. The sensible is referred to an object which may not only be experienced other than by sense, but may itself be attained by other faculties. It therefore presupposes the exercise of the senses and the exercise of the other faculties in a common sense. The object of encounter, on the other hand, really gives rise to sensibility with regard to a given sense. It is not an aisthēteon but an aisthēteon. It is not a quality but a sign. It is not a sensible being but the being of the sensible. It is not the given but that by which the given is given. It is therefore in a certain sense the imperceptible (insensible)” (Gilles Deleuze (trans. Paul Patton), Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 139–40).
[26] Rancière, Aisthesis, p. 168.
[27] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 179.
[28] Rancière, Aisthesis, p. 193.
[29] John Waters, “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?”, American Film: A Journal of the Film and Television Arts, Vol. 9, no. 3 (December 1983), p. 57.
[30] Odorama utilised scratch-and-sniff cards that were distributed to audience members. When a number (from 1 to 10) popped up on the screen, the corresponding number on the card could be scratched and sniffed. The smells correlated with the narrative, for example: the smell of air freshener when Francine Fishpaw (Divine) – who has an odour fetish – sprays it around her; the smell of human gas when Elmer Fishpaw (David Samson), Francine’s husband, passes wind in bed; the smell of natural gas when Lu-Lu Fishpaw (Mary Garlington) puts her head in the oven. These smells are critiqued by Laura U. Marks as being largely “synthetic smells – new-car smell, air freshener” (Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 124). Notably, they are all smells that Francine smells with her sensitive nose, and thus the film suggests a kind of spectatorship substitution for Francine and her odour fetish, rather than smell as a general atmospheric substance for the nose of anyone.
[31] David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), p. 259.
[32] Linda Williams, “Learning to Scream”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, no. 12 (December 1994), p. 15.
[33] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 177.
[34] Kafka, “Penal Colony”, p. 191.
[35] Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Iain Hamilton Grant), Libidinal Economy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 27.
[36] Ibid., p. 26.
[37] Iain Hamilton Grant, “Glossary” in Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Iain Hamilton Grant), Libidinal Economy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. x.
[38] Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, pp. 25–6.
[39] Grant, “Glossary”, p. xi.
[40] Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, p. 26.
[41] Ibid., p. 30.
[42] Lisa Trahair, “Jean-François Lyotard” in Felicity Colman (ed.), Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), p. 223.
[43] Lyotard writes: “If he [Freud] introduced the principle which he names Nirvana, it is in order that his libidinal economy escapes the thermodynamic and, more generally, mechanical analogy, and so that this thought of the unconscious does not precisely close up into a theoretical system; so close to Nietzsche in this respect” (Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, p. 30).
[44] Ibid., pp. 31–2.
[45] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 178.
[46] Ibid., p. 179.
[47] Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, p. 17.
[48] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 179.
[49] Kafka, “Penal Colony”, p. 197.
[50] Geoffrey Bennington, Lyotard: Writing the Event (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 27.
[51] Curtis, “Body as Outlaw”, p. 260.
[52] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 185.
[53] Jean-François Lyotard, “Several Silences” in Roger McKeon (ed.), Driftworks (New York: Semiotext(e), 1984), p. 101; Bennington, Lyotard, p. 57.
[54] Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, p. 27.
[55] Ibid., p. 27.
[56] James Williams, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), p. 48.
[57] Ibid., p. 48.
[58] Ibid., p. 48.
[59] Ibid., p. 48.
[60] Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, p. 5.
[61] Waters, “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?”, p. 57.
[62] Williams, Lyotard, p. 46.
[63] Lyotard, “Prescription”, p. 179.
[64] Williams, Lyotard, p. 46.

About the Author

Sharon Jane Mee

About the Author

Sharon Jane Mee

Dr Sharon Jane Mee is Adjunct Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is author of the forthcoming monograph, The Pulse in Cinema: The Aesthetics of Horror (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), and has had work published in SubStance, Film-Philosophy, M/C Journal, and Philament. Her work focuses on the aesthetics of rhythm, movement, and affect in early cinema and horror cinema.View all posts by Sharon Jane Mee →