Film 1900
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Transformations in media culture in the early 20th century

The current digital revolution has sparked a renewed interest in the origins and trajectory of modern media, particularly in the years around 1900 when the technology was rapidly developing. This collection aims to broaden our understanding of early cinema as a significant innovation in media history. Joining traditional scholarship with fresh insights from a variety of disciplines, this book explains the aesthetic and institutional characteristics in early cinema within the context of the contemporary media landscape. It also addresses transcultural developments such as scientific revolutions, industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, as well as differing attitudes toward modernization. Film 1900 is an important reassessment of early cinema's position in cultural history.

Introduction: Triangulating a Turn: Film 1900 as Technology, Perception and Culture Annemone Ligensa
1. Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship Thomas Elsaesser
2. Viewing Change, Changing Views: The 'History of Vision'-Debate Frank Kessler
3. The Ambimodernity of Early Cinema Problems and Paradoxes in the Film-and-Modernity Discourse Ben Singer
4. Mind, the Gap: The Discovery of Physiological Time Henning Schmidgen
5. 'Is Everything Relative?': Cinema and the Revolution of Knowledge Around 1900 Harro Segeberg
6. The Aesthetic Idealist as Efficiency Engineer: Hugo Munsterberg's Theories of Perception, Psychotechnics and Cinema Jörg Schweinitz
7. Between Observation and Spectatorship: Medicine, Movies and Mass Culture in Imperial Germany Scott Curtis
8. The Scene of the Crime: Psychiatric Discourse on the Film Audience in Early Twentieth Century Germany Andreas Killen
9. Seen Through the Eyes of Simmel: The Cinema Programme as a 'Modern' Experience Andrea Haller
10. 'Under the Sign of the Cinematograph': Urban Mobility and Cinema Location in Wilhelmine Berlin Pelle Snickars
12. Perceptual Environments for Films: The Development of Cinema in Germany, 1895-1914 Joseph Garncarz
12. 'Fumbling Towards Some New Form of Art': The Changing Composition of Film Programmes in Britain, 1908-1914 Ian Christie and John Sedgwick
13. The Attraction of Motion: Modern Representation and the Image of Movement Tom Gunning
14. 'Dashing Down Upon the Audience': Notes on the Genesis of Filmic Perception Klaus Kreimeier
15. German Tonbilder of the 1900s: Advanced Technology and National Brand Martin Loiperdinger
16. Sculpting with Light: Early Film Style, Stereoscopic Vision and the Idea of a 'Plastic Art In Motion' Michael Wedel
17. 'A Cinematograph of Feminine Thought': The Dangerous Age, Cinema and Modern Women Annemone Ligensa
14. Cinema as a Mode(l) of Perception: Dorothy Richardson's Novels and Essays Nicola Glaubitz
Biographies of the Authors



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Date de parution 05 octobre 2009
Nombre de lectures 10
EAN13 9780861969166
Langue English

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Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture
Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture
Edited by Annemone Ligensa and Klaus Kreimeier
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture
A catalogue entry for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN: 9780 86196 696 7 (Paperback)

Ebook edition ISBN: 9780-86196-916-6
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Introduction     Triangulating a Turn: Film 1900 as Technology, Perception and Culture
Annemone Ligensa
Chapter 1          Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship
Thomas Elsaesser
Chapter 2          Viewing Change, Changing Views: The ‘History of Vision’-Debate
Frank Kessler
Chapter 3          The Ambimodernity of Early Cinema: Problems and Paradoxes in the Film-and-Modernity Discourse
Ben Singer
Chapter 4          Mind, the Gap: The Discovery of Physiological Time
Henning Schmidgen
Chapter 5          ‘Is Everything Relative?’: Cinema and the Revolution of Knowledge Around 1900
Harro Segeberg
Chapter 6          The Aesthetic Idealist as Efficiency Engineer: Hugo Münsterberg’s Theories of Perception, Psychotechnics and Cinema
Jörg Schweinitz
Chapter 7          Between Observation and Spectatorship: Medicine, Movies and Mass Culture in Imperial Germany
Scott Curtis
Chapter 8          The Scene of the Crime: Psychiatric Discourses on the Film Audience in Early Twentieth Century Germany
Andreas Killen
Chapter 9          Seen Through the Eyes of Simmel: The Cinema Programme as a ‘Modern’ Experience
Andrea Haller
Chapter 10        ‘Under the Sign of the Cinematograph’: Urban Mobility and Cinema Location in Wilhelmine Berlin
Pelle Snickars
Chapter 11        Perceptual Environments for Films: The Development of Cinema in Germany, 1895–1914
Joseph Garncarz
Chapter 12        ‘Fumbling Towards Some New Form of Art?’: The Changing Composition of Film Programmes in Britain, 1908–1914
Ian Christie and John Sedgwick
Chapter 13        The Attraction of Motion: Modern Representation and the Image of Movement
Tom Gunning
Chapter 14        ‘Dashing Down Upon the Audience’: Notes on the Genesis of Filmic Perception
Klaus Kreimeier
Chapter 15        German Tonbilder of the 1900s: Advanced Technology and National Brand
Martin Loiperdinger
Chapter 16        Sculpting With Light: Early Film Style, Stereoscopic Vision and the Idea of a ‘Plastic Art In Motion’
Michael Wedel
Chapter 17        ‘A Cinematograph of Feminine Thought’: The Dangerous Age , Cinema and Modern Women
Annemone Ligensa
Chapter 18        Cinema as a Mode(l) of Perception: Dorothy Richardson’s Novels and Essays
Nicola Glaubitz
Biographies of the Authors
Triangulating a Turn: Film 1900 as Technology, Perception and Culture
Annemone Ligensa

O ur cultural ‘matrix’ today is not only digital, it is also still filmic, in the sense that it is significantly comprised of technologically (re)produced moving images. Film did not die in the digital age; rather, it is noticed less per se , precisely because it is ubiquitous: it is now playing not only in cinemas, or even on television, but on airplanes, advertising screens in public spaces, notebook computers, mobile phones – and thus on our minds more than ever before. It has become so pervasive, that it is not only part of everyday reality, it may be difficult to image life without it. Around 1900, by contrast, media of any kind were still a rare experience for many, as an account from Max Hölz’ (1889–1933) autobiography exemplifies:
Up until I was fourteen years old, I had taken part in only three children’s amusements: the first was a school trip to the ruins of a monastery, the second was a puppet theatre show … and the third … was a visit to a panopticon in the nearby town during a local festival. 1
Early cinema scholars have described the ‘train effect’ (i.e. reports of spectators’ fear of being hit by the locomotive depicted in Lumière’s Arrival of a Train ) as the ‘founding myth’ (Martin Loiperdinger) of the new medium in 1895: 2 even though it is not literally true (neither was the illusion complete, due to the black and white as well as silent images, nor did spectators lack knowledge that what they were seeing was a technological reproduction), it does encapsulate the cultural ‘impact’ of the novel experience of seeing an artificial, but lifelike representation of movement. Contemporaries were already aware that this effect would wear off; but some also saw that film had the potential to become a less ‘direct’, but all the more lasting and profound cultural force. Just as film, in many respects, had its roots far back in the nineteenth century (e.g. individual technological elements, exhibition practices, aesthetic forms), it took many years for the technological innovation to become a culturally dominant new medium. Hence, ‘1900’ is not intended to point to the developments of a single year or to claim that a cultural phenomenon emerged in a mere moment, but to signify a significant turn in media history, which has continuing effects to this day. Furthermore, since film is a part of modernisation, i.e. it is shaped by it, represents it and perhaps even promoted it, it seems apt to connect the emergence of film with the ambivalent connotations that regularly arise with new centuries in general and the specific cultural concerns around 1900 in particular. 3
To structure the exploration of this media turn, technology, perception and culture can be usefully employed as a conceptual ‘triangulation’. As a technological medium, film from its inception was shaped by the restrictions as well as potentials of industrialisation and commercialisation. Even before film became a large-scale industry, film producers adopted many of the strategies of modern capitalism (e.g. standardisation, transnational operation, advertising). 4 However, it is important to recognise how these developments depended on and were also shaped by culture, especially the acceptance of audiences. 5 Examples of this are the integration of the new medium into existing cultural traditions (e.g. variety shows, fairs), the adoption of forms familiar from other media (e.g. theatre, illustrated press) as well as processes of differentiation for various audience segments (e.g. age groups, local audiences). The well-known debate about the so-called ‘modernity thesis’ (David Bordwell) 6 foregrounds, among other concerns, the question of whether audience preferences were pre-existing and relatively unchanging (i.e. film became such a success because it best catered to them), or emerged together with modernity, even with modern media themselves (i.e. the specific conditions of modern life brought about new leisure activities, modern advertising induced new desires etc.). That contemporaries were debating such questions as much as we are today is indication both of their importance as well as the difficulty to answer them conclusively. But within a larger framework, more often than not, differing positions reveal themselves to be complements to each other, rather than contradictions.
In various ways, ‘perception’ is a central and mediating concept between the other two. Conceptualising ‘film as a form of perception’ is a powerful, yet potentially problematic metaphor that requires some explanation and differentiation. The short-circuiting of what is represented with the process of its reception, to the point of conflating subject and object and focussing only on the ‘percept’, tends to understate the potential for difference, creativity and even resistance on the production as well as the reception side (which need to be studied empirically). Furthermore, the physiological connotations of the term may tempt one to overstate the malleability of the experience of media technology on a psycho-physical level. 7 A cultural history of the emergence of film is an ideal ground to rethink such issues. For instance, Jonathan Crary charts the history of the theory of perception, including its changes around 1900; 8 but as Michael Chanan reminds us, the invention of film, which successfully (re)creates moving objects for our ‘perceptual apparatus’, was possible under a theory of motion perception that we now know is wrong (and even today, we still do not fully understand how it works). 9 One might even argue that science was inspired more by practical discoveries of new technologies than vice versa . Furthermore, the (entertainment) audience neither needs nor necessarily wants explanation of theory or technology to experience media. Hence, the relationship between epistemes, technologies and experiences is indirect and complex. Bearing this in mind, ‘perception’ is nonetheless useful as a concept to capture the ‘deep impact’ that media have as sensory experience, both on an individual level as well as on a societal one. Transferring the concept to a ‘social body’ (i.e. as ‘public perception’) provides a fruitful connection to the theory of the ‘cultural public sphere’, 10 in which film undoubtedly brought about a profound transformation (e.g. wide diffusion, access and participation of social strata, convergence of high and popular art).
The contributions to this volume each address one or more of these three aspects – technology, perception, culture – and their interrelations, in different configurations and degrees of emphasis. Hence, even when the authors argue on the basis of individual examples, they are not primarily concerned with early filmmakers and films, but with the cultural significance of film as a new medium per se . In order to further the understanding of the conditions for and reverberations of film’s emergence around 1900, some of the studies look far back into the nineteenth century, and some even forwards to ours. The contributions not only stem from a range of disciplines, but many work in an energetic spirit of transdisciplinarity. Several times, two studies are in direct dialogue with each other on the basis of a shared topic, but sometimes aspects only touched upon in one study are elaborated in others, creating a complex map of interconnections.
The noticeable interest in German examples and theory perhaps requires some explanation. As is well-known, many of the oft-quoted, contemporary theorists of modernity in general and of film in particular were German (e.g. Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer). It is perhaps less well-known what the reasons for this may be. Germany experienced a particularly dynamic process of modernisation precisely at the time when film emerged, and reactions to both were not only unusually prolific, but particularly critical. Hence, the German discourse is a rich and fascinating source, but we should be wary of reading it as general experience. In this regard, both the examples from other countries that some of the studies provide in this context and the analyses of the cultural background of the German examples is of great theoretical value. 11
In his ‘archaeologies of interactivity’, Thomas Elsaesser discusses the trope of the naïve spectator, which repeatedly appears throughout media history in different guises (e.g. rube, zapper, video game player), not simply with new media technologies, but, according to Elsaesser,
versions of the ‘rube double-take’ on attention, interaction and bodily presence tend to turn up whenever there is transference of, or struggle over, symbolic power between one medium or media-technology and another .
This also shows that, despite the indisputable importance of cultural conditions, media developments have a certain logic of their own, and different media directly and self-referentially react to each other.
Frank Kessler’s contribution provides a thorough and lucid account of the idea that ‘vision has a history’, as well as suggestions how to explore it further, based on the concepts of ‘dispositif’ (Jean-Jacques Aumont) 12 and ‘cultural series’ (Michèle Lagny) 13 . He argues that this notion should not entail the assumption of a ‘unified scopic regime’, because various aesthetics and reactions to them may co-exist simultaneously (across media and even within a single medium). Ben Singer takes up and expands the ‘modernity thesis’-debate more generally. He explores the paradoxicality of early cinema, i.e. the fact that contemporary film theories and films expressed ambivalent and contradictory currents, rather than simply siding with modernisation. He proposes the term ‘ambimodern’ to point to antimodernity as an essential element of the modern.
Henning Schmidgen’s challenging study explains the basis of Henri Bergson’s film theory in nineteenth-century physiology, connected in turn to phenomena of modernisation (e.g. standardisation of time, communication technologies). Via Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Bergson, Schmidgen presents ‘a history not only again highlighting the fact that cinema is sometimes experimental, but also showing that physiological laboratory experiments are essentially cinematographic’.
Harro Segeberg’s discussion of the aesthetics of the ‘cinema of attractions’ (Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault) 14 in the context of contemporary epistemic revolutions, such as Albert Einstein’s relativity theory and the ‘psychological physics’ of Ernst Mach, provides a nuanced exploration of the relationships between epistemes, aesthetics and new media. In Segeberg’s words:
the term ‘emergence’ … is taken to imply that in media history, not only manifest technological and economic conditions need consideration, but also cultural configurations, which consist of autonomous, irreducible elements (e.g. epistemes and aesthetics). Such elements cannot be derived or interconnected on the principle of strict causality, which is precisely why they are ‘creative’, but they develop in complex co-evolution, rather than being merely contingent.
Jörg Schweinitz’ analysis of the first major academic film theory, Hugo Münsterberg’s The Photoplay , highlights the tensions between modern and traditional values that cinema provoked, as well as providing an important example of the concerns of German theory, even in the case of a German psychologist who emigrated to the USA and worked as a ‘psychotechnician’ for modern capitalism. Despite the fact that Münsterberg was willing to take the new medium more seriously than many German critics, he based his optimism on envisioning film as a further example and fulfilment of idealist aesthetics. (We might remind ourselves that Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of German physiological psychology, also explicitly identified himself with Kantianism.)
Scott Curtis does not explicitly address it, but (Neo-)Kantianism also seems to be the shared epistemic, aesthetic and ethical background of the medical applications of cinematography and the discourses on the potentially harmful physical effects of cinema on audiences that he describes as a significant part of the German Kinodebatte (‘debate on cinema’). Curtis shows that ‘by understanding what German doctors considered to be the improper mode of spectatorship, we come to understand what they thought was a proper way of viewing images’.
Andreas Killen explores a cultural phenomenon that Curtis also mentions in his context, and that Stefan Andriopolous has introduced into film theory: hypnosis. 15 By analysing several examples of films that deal with hypnosis as well as censorship cases against the contemporary background of expert as well as public discourses, Killen reflects Kracauer in a new light:
For all his commitment to taking mass culture on its own terms, Kracauer’s analysis remains embedded within an older, deeply conservative set of discourses about film and its relation to its audience, according to which the cinematic image, by virtue of its unheimliche Macht [‘tremendous/uncanny power’], established a virtually demonic influence over the viewer’s psyche’.
Andrea Haller and Pelle Snickars analyse different sides of the same coin, the connection between cinema and urbanisation. While Snickars examines the material web of public transportation and communication, i.e. the relationship between modern means of transportation and cinema location in Berlin, Haller explores the web of discourses on big city life and the early cinema programme, revealing their similarities. Snickars argues that for Berlin audiences, the easy accessibility of cinemas through public transportation as well as the convenience of the continuous programme were the significant characteristics of the cinema experience: ‘Hence, attending the cinema was effortless entertainment: Kintopps temptingly positioned themselves at busy street corners, willing to satisfy one’s visual pleasure at almost any time’. Haller concludes that
Cinema critics adopted concepts and arguments that had already been developed by cultural theorists, such as Simmel, in other contexts. The concern about the effects of cinema and especially its programming practices was fuelled by the same uncertainties and worries that accompanied modernisation in general.
Hence, despite many factual connections between film and urban life, e.g. that permanent cinemas first emerged in big cities and adapted themselves to their urban environment, interpreting the new medium as essentially sharing the characteristics of modern urbanisation, especially its negative aspects, was itself a particular perception .
This, among other aspects, is further substantiated by Joseph Garncarz’ overview of the development of cinema as a media institution in Germany, e.g. by the fact that the short-film programme, adapted from the live programme of urban variety theatres, worked equally well with the rural audiences of travelling film shows. In Europe, before permanent cinemas appeared, apart from the ‘optische Berichterstattung’ (‘visual reports’) in high-class variety theatres, film was mainly shown in itinerant cinemas on festivals, markets and fairs, and the diffusion of this exhibition form has thus far been underestimated. Hence, the new media technology was integrated into diverse cultural contexts and established traditions, before becoming the basis of a separate and distinct media institution.
Ian Christie and John Sedgwick’s study on the so-called ‘transitional era’ in Britain (i.e. the turn towards the longer narrative film that was connected with permanent cinemas, especially those for middle-class audiences) 16 surprisingly reveals, among other things, that in contrast to the USA and Germany, this development does not seem to have entailed ‘nationalisation’. Neither did British producers immediately embrace the trend towards the longer film, nor did exhibitors mainly select US films (as they did later). This deserves further investigation, for which cultural comparison should prove valuable.
Tom Gunning’s and Klaus Kreimeier’s essays aim to recapture the essence of what was new about film: ‘the attraction of motion’. Early cinema not only recorded movement as a spectacle in itself, but many subjects and genres of early cinema, such as phantom rides, serpentine dances, physical comedies etc., highlighted and played with it. Gunning regards this fascination with technologically (re)produced motion as having been deeply ambivalent, fraught with danger and sexually charged energy. Read with Benjamin’s film theory, such virtual thrills served as a cultural reaction formation against the shocks of modernity. According to Gunning, the phantom ride
provokes not only a crisis within the spectator’s relation to space and landscape, but a heightened awareness of perception and consciousness itself, its temporal protentions and retentions, its constant reach into the distance, balanced by its sense of passing by and leaving behind. If the phantom ride is ‘a mysterious and impressive allegory’ one might describe it as an allegory of spatial perception itself.
Martin Loiperdinger’s contribution analyses Tonbilder , i.e. early German musical films with synchonised sound – a little-known phenomenon, despite recent interest in the sound of early ‘silent’ cinema. 17 Loiperdinger explores technological, economic and cultural characteristics to reveal the surprising degree of technological sophistication and cultural specificity of this genre. Despite their success with audiences, Tonbilder experienced only a short boom phase, followed by rapid decline, for which Loiperdinger identifies economic reasons. Similarly, Michael Wedel deals with a perceptual and technological phenomenon that one does not immediately associate with (early) film: stereoscopy. Wedel shows that stereoscopy influenced the aesthetics of early as well as German expressionist cinema, which aimed to achieve virtual ‘relief effects’. According to Wedel, the exploration of stereoscopy across media reveals that
in a particular historical situation – characterised by competing technologies, arts and forms of entertainment, as well as specific creative environments and cultural pressures – stylistic paradigms take shape in variable degrees, depending on current aesthetic debates and generic horizons, but also on personal dispositions and cross-media concerns.
The collection concludes with two studies on gendered perception and the perception of gender, respectively. Nicola Glaubitz finds in the film theory of the British modernist Dorothy Richardson a contemporary precedent to Jennifer M. Bean’s contention that early cinema was ‘dominated by exhibitionism rather than voyeurism, by surprise rather than suspense, and by spectacle rather than by story’. 18 However, Richardson simultaneously complicates this view, by also imbuing her theory with a more contemplative, literary mode of perception. My own study, dealing with the reception of the Danish bestseller The Dangerous Age and its filmic adaptations, aims to highlight the sensationalism of early cinema well into the era of the longer narrative film and the culturally specific reactions to it.
1. Max Hölz, Vom ‘Weißen Kreuz’ zur roten Fahne: Jugend-, Kampf- und Zuchthauserlebnisse (Berlin: Malik 1929), 22 (my translation).
2. See Martin Loiperdinger, ‘Lumière’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth’, The Moving Image 4, 1 (Spring 2004): 89–113.
3. On ‘1900’ as a significant turn in media history, apart from the work of the University of Siegen research centre ‘Medienumbrüche’, see e.g. Friedrich A. Kittler, Aufschreibesysteme 1800, 1900 , 4th, rev. ed. (München: Fink, 2003), Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), Thomas Elsaesser, Filmgeschichte und frühes Kino: Archäologie eines Medienwandels (München: edition text und kritik, 2002) and (specifically on the USA) Carol A Stabile (ed), Turning the Century: Essays In Media and Cultural Studies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000). For a cultural analysis of ‘turns of centuries’, see Arndt Brendecke, Die Jahrhundertwenden: eine Geschichte ihrer Wahrnehmung und Wirkung (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1999).
4. See e.g. Deac Rossell, Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).
5. The role of audiences, users etc. is stressed e.g. in Brian Winston’s media theory, see his Media Technology and Society (London: Routledge, 1998).
6. See e.g. David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1997) and Tom Gunning, ‘Modernity and Cinema: A Culture of Shocks and Flows’, in Murray Pomerance (ed), Cinema and Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 297–315. See also Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (eds), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
7. For an excellent discussion of these issues, see e.g. Noël Carroll, ‘Modernity and the Plasticity of Perception’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59, 1 (2001): 11–17.
8. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992) and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
9. See Michael Chanan, The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema In Britain (London: Routledge, 1980); Oliver Braddick, ‘The Many Faces of Motion Perception’, in Richard L. Gregory (ed), The Artful Eye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 205–231; Joseph Anderson and Barbara Fisher, ‘The Myth of Persistence of Vision’, Journal of the University Film Association 30, 4 (Fall 1978): 3–8; Joseph Anderson and Barbara Anderson, ‘The Myth of Persistence of Vision Revisited’, Journal of Film and Video 45, 1 (Spring 1993): 3–12; Dale Purves, Joseph A. Paydarfar and Timothy Andrews, ‘The Wagon Wheel Illusion In Movies and Reality’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 93 (April 1996): 3693–3697; Robert M. Steinman, Zygmunt Pizlo and Filip J. Pizlo, ‘Phi is not beta, and why Wertheimer’s discovery launched the Gestalt revolution’, Vision Research 40 (2000): 2257–2264.
10. See Corinna Müller and Harro Segeberg (eds), Kinoöffentlichkeit (1895–1920)/Cinema’s Public Sphere (1895–1920) (Marburg: Schüren, 2008).
11. On Germany’s cultural Sonderweg , see e.g. Sabine Hake, The Cinema’s Third Machine: Writing On Film In Germany, 1907–1933 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993).
12. See Jacques Aumont, L’Image (Paris: Nathan, 1990).
13. Michèle Lagny, ‘Film History: or History Expropriated’, Film History 6, 1 (1994): 26–44.
14. See e.g. Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
15. See Stefan Andriopoulos, ‘Spellbound In Darkness: Hypnosis As an Allegory of Early Cinema’, The Germanic Review , 77 (2002): 102–117 and Besessene Körper: Hypnose, Körperschaften und die Erfindung des Kinos (Munchen: Fink, 2000).
16. See Charles Keil and Shelley Stamp (eds), American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).
17. See e.g. Richard Abel and Rick Altman (eds), The Sounds of Early Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001).
18. Jennifer M. Bean, ‘Introduction: Toward a Feminist Historiography of Early Cinema’, in Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (eds), A Feminist Reader In Early Cinema (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2002): 1–27, quote p. 6.
Chapter 1
Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship
Thomas Elsaesser

I t is difficult not to discuss contemporary cinema in terms of its multiple – and for some, mortal – crises: loss of indexicality, due to the transition from photographic to digitally generated images; death of the auteur cinema, even in Europe, as a creative force, overtaken once more by Hollywood’s Bat-, Spider- and Iron-Men, with their sequels and prequels; decline of the cinema as an art-form, its medium-specificity diluted by the hybridisation of a film’s textual autonomy in the DVD bonus package; appropriation of the cinema’s history and cannibalisation of its cultural memory through television and the internet serving up teasers, trailers and other pre-cooked forms of compilation and compression. Finally, some of the most persistent anxieties arising from these crises of cinema centre on spectatorship and narrative, figured as a loss of attention and the decay of storytelling. Filmmaking, according to this argument, is threatened by the impatient, hyperactive spectator, and trapped by the contradiction between ‘game logic’ and ‘narrative logic’.
Of course, these symptoms of decline can be turned around and advertised as signs of continuity, transformation and renewal: digital technologies have vastly extended a filmmaker’s creative tools; special effects have been the lifeblood and ‘attractions’ of cinema since its beginning; platforms like the video recorder or the DVD player have created new markets not only for the mainstream; the bonus package encourages reflexivity, provides historical information, technical background and can be put to good pedagogical use, while television and the internet open up distribution, circulation and choice unmatched by site-specific cinemas. As to the active-interactive spectator, his or her heightened involvement in the story or immersion in the spectacle has been the goal of the popular arts for centuries.
In what follows, I shall take a different line of defence, arguing that it is possible to map certain variables around spectatorship and narrative (which include some, though by no means all of the phenomena just listed) and trace their persistence as a constant throughout the history of cinema, thus providing a possible ‘archaeology’ for both the impatient viewer and the interactive user. It means shifting somewhat the ground and focus of our theories, while extending the conceptual framework deployed by the studies of spectatorship in film theory and cultural studies towards anthropology. As so often, such a shift is best implemented by a ‘return’ to early cinema: reviewing – and, if necessary, revising – our interpretations of the cinema’s initial modes of bodily engagement and sensory immersion. If successful, it should permit a fresh approach to the issue whether there is a future for the cinema after narrative, thereby also illuminating another perennial question: why and how did the cinema turn to narrative in the first place?
Modernity and the attention economy
An obvious starting point for such an archaeology would be to re-examine the evidence we have of how spectators construed or experienced cinema around 1900, how they made sense of the different kinds of movement and of the new kinds of surface agitation within the fabric of the everyday. Did the apparitions on the screen take them out of their lives into the ‘kingdom of shadows’, or were they inclined to integrate or embed moving images into the urban experience, as its natural extension and site of heightened sensation? Such studies have been undertaken under the headings of modernity and visuality , of shock and protective shield , conceptually held together by the idea of a ‘cinema of attractions’, typical for an intense and immersive but also intermittent and impatient spectatorial habitus. Fast-forward to 2000: can one locate a similarly contradictory dynamic (or ‘dialectic’) in contemporary modes of spectatorship, and how might one describe their polarities? In other words, what are the dynamics of attention and interaction commensurate with our contemporary media environment, and what kinds of bodily presence and sensory agency do they entail or stage?
A second shift is required: one that opens up the somatic as well as the perceptual field, taking us away from the cinema as a physical site of optical projection, though hopefully only in order to bring us back to the cinema as a space of mental, affective and sensory extension. Firstly, then, let us look at ‘attention’, that is, the selective perception of a particular stimulus (sustained by means of concentration and the exclusion of interfering sense-data). 1 In the contemporary knowledge society and information economy, attention has arguably risen to the status of a universal currency, while also becoming this society’s scarcest resource. As such, it paradoxically emerges as both a problem (for child psychologists, cultural critics and advertisers) and a solution (for audiences and spectators), in that the audio-visual media constantly solicit our attention and spare no effort or expense to retain it. Attention is the problem for educators, under the name of attention deficit disorder, and for cultural critics who lament the general amnesia in our culture, blaming television or video games. But attention is the solution when considered as a response to the dilemmas of overload and over-exposure, because as a form of selectivity, as an ability to shift or switch, it allows for a mode of perception – and by extension, spectatorship – that refuses to be absorbed or drawn in, that resists contemplation or analysis in depth, resolutely staying on the surface and remaining alert. It is the reed rather than the rooted tree that weathers the storm, and it is the cork, bobbing on the water, that survives a flood.
What if the attention economy demanded choices being made between being ‘reed’ or ‘cork’, rather than, as used to be, between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ spectatorship, or between ‘identification’, ‘distraction’ and ‘distanciation’? In such a case, the much-maligned figure of the television zapper, along with the equally despised first-person shooter of the video game might yet become the unlikely heroes of these new ‘flexible’ modes of perception: witting or unwitting vanguard figures, parrying the double-binds of interactivity, as bodies engage with images, and images require different motor-skills or hand-eye coordination in order to be ‘grasped’. At once target and survivor, the zapper wields the remote control as much to ward off the ever-increasing army of programmes, as s/he selects favourites or chooses amongst them. But the zapper is also the canny user, the disabused and uncommitted sceptic, who surveys all, brushes or grazes the media world with the lightest of touches, before deciding who or what to engage with, and for how long. Similarly, the first person shooter, armed with joystick, console or mouse, learns to be both defensive and aggressive, to anticipate the ambush and prepare for the next proactive, pre-emptive move, all in order to gain a foothold on the terrain, and then to stay the course.
It may seem that these two figures – the zapper and the gamer – are typical phenomena of the last 30-odd years, products of television and the Internet and thus symptomatic of precisely those crises of the cinema just mentioned, especially the decay of narrative and the corresponding decadence of spectatorship. 2 Yet one can also recognize in this configuration a much older cultural trope, that of ephemerality, chance and the fugitive moment, first diagnosed by Charles Baudelaire around the emergence of photography, with its confusing and hyper-stimulating l’émeute du detail (‘riot of detail’), given a heroic-ironic embodiment in the urban rag-picker, the drunk and the dandy, but also – even more emblematic for our purposes – typified in the ‘man of the crowd’, from the story by Edgar Allen Poe. The significance of this tale largely comes to us through Walter Benjamin, interpreting Baudelaire, who translated Poe. The man of the crowd’s modernity is manifest in his anonymity as much as in his ‘state of heightened sensitivity’: As Poe describes him, in ‘one of those happy moods – which are so precisely the converse of ennui-moods – of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs … and the intellect, electrified, surpasses greatly its everyday condition’, 3 he can stand for a new somaticsensory state of immersive bodily attention.
Yet such clarity of alertness, coupled with introspection, also acts like a shield or mirror: for much of the time, Poe’s protagonist is not immersed in the ebb and flow, but glued to his window as if to a screen, watching the crowd over a whole day and night cycle, both switching focus and varying speed. It is as if Poe’s narrative anticipates or emulates some typically ‘cinematic’ techniques of montage and editing, as well as ‘televisual’ ones, of fast-forward and action-replay, and thus the protagonist becomes not only the well-known flâneur of the metropolis in Benjamin’s interpretation, but already the zapping attention- flâneur of media-immersion and media-saturation.
In other words, the trope of the ‘fugitive moment’, of ‘sensory overload’, of ‘heightened sensitivity’ and selective surface attention inevitably brings us back to Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer’s theories of the ‘culture of distraction’, which Benjamin contrasts to the reception mode of ‘auratic’ works of art, and Kracauer to the reading mode of the realist novel. If Versenkung (‘sinking into a text’) is the gathered, focused concentration that leads to immersion, distraction is the mode of perception engendered by the technical media, particularly the cinema.
At this point, one needs to be clearer what is meant by ‘cinema’. Benjamin keeps intact the essential tensions just outlined between distraction and focussed immersion, which I argue are typical for the contemporary mode of selective attention and bodily participation. Yet he refers to a cinema that knows about the problematic status of narrative, as in the films of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, neither of whom assumes storytelling to be the necessary destiny of cinema, as it reaches ‘maturity’ as an art form. Likewise Benjamin, for whom the turn to narrative is more like a compromise formation or even a reactive rearguard action, a sign of the cinema mimicking the bourgeois novel. As is well-known, in the debate between ‘realists’ and ‘formalists’, Benjamin favoured the montage cinema of the Soviets, but not exclusively for the political reasons of outlining an aesthetics appropriate to the Socialist revolution.
The mode of ‘distracted viewing’ and the ‘montage of attraction’ advocated in Benjamin’s ‘Artwork’-essay 4 signify both more and less than artistic experiment and revolutionary practice. They can be understood as a complex counter-stance to another kind of revolution. For with the emergence and rapid dissemination of mechanically reproduced sounds and images at the turn of the twentieth century, there began a data-flow previously unknown in human history, whose main material supports were the cinema, photography, radio and the gramophone. Time and the moment could now be stored, without the intervention of any kind of symbolic notation, such as a musical score, verbal language or a chronometer. But the recording and transmission of sights and sounds, thanks to the camera and the phonograph, also meant the proliferation of acoustic and optical data in quantities, and with a degree of physiological presence as well as signal precision (‘fidelity’) hitherto unimaginable. The impact can be measured negatively: widely resented as a threat to the established arts and their institutions, the cinema also occasioned medical warning about eye strain and attention-deficit, besides the better-known moral panics about sexuality, drink and other ‘depravities’ or ‘degeneracies’. But mechanical reproduction also gave rise to what has been called ‘haunted media’: extremely popular para- and pataphysical experiments that accompanied the discovery of electricity, electro-acoustics, electromagnetic fields and radio waves. Jeffrey Sconce (who coined the term) has documented some of the rich folklore and fantasy-literature accompanying the introduction into everyday life of the telephone, the telegraph and the wireless. 5 Friedrich Kittler has shown how
all data-flows prior to the phono- and cinematograph had to be cut up, symbolized and pass through the ‘gate’ of the signifier: alphabet, grammatology, writing … [so that the technical media] launched a two-pronged attack on … the book [and its monopoly] on the storage of serial data. The gramophone [for instance] empties out worlds by bypassing their imaginary aspect (signifieds) for their real aspects (the physiology of the voice). 6
Against this background, Benjamin’s theories and Eisenstein’s practice can be seen as the complex aesthetic-philosophical interventions that they are: both mimetic of the riot of detail unleashed by audio-visual technology and anti-mimetic in that they try to recapture or re-instate the regulatory powers of language and grammar, of form and syntax for these seemingly undifferentiated, unframed, horizon-less magnitudes of data. A materialist media theory (around repetition, seriality and assembly) as well as the idea of film language (around montage and interval) answer to Benjamin’s dual concerns, namely to identify the cinema as the art-form appropriate to technical modernity and to elaborate a theory of spectatorship that combines the mode of distraction with that of immersion . At another, philosophical stage, the cinema exposes the contradictions between Erfahrung and Erlebnis (two kinds of ‘experience’: integrated and continuous vs. shock-like and intermittent), thereby becoming, in Benjamin’s words, modernity’s optical unconscious. 7 It is in this context that the question of narrative becomes decisive: its therapeutic function – to contain conflicts by representing actions and motives as Manichean either/or choices – at once disguises and highlights the breach in the fabric of experience that it is meant to heal. In terms of the embodied spectator as modernity’s subject, Benjamin argues against narrative, because its ‘linearised’ focalisation of attention and its causal chains of temporal succession put the body under the tyrannical dominance of the eye, while repressing this body’s other faculties and senses. 8 Instead, filmmakers should use the ‘dynamite of the millisecond’ to blast open the artificial continuum of narrative, to inoculate the spectator against the very hierarchy that vision imposes on the sensible world.
Forty years on, the same questions would be debated around ‘interpellation’, ‘voyeurism’ and ‘subject-positioning’ as the ideological effects of narrative in psychoanalytically inspired film theory. In both Benjamin and Screen Theory, the cinema appears as an apparatus of integration and stabilisation, disciplining the spectator via pleasure rather than coercion. Yet only Benjamin – emphasizing the somatic, traumatizing aspects, where bodily motor-skills are the perpetual ‘return of the repressed’ and thus the default mode of cinema’s mode of perception – is fully alert to the monitoring, and, above all, self-monitoring type of reflexivity inherent in the cinema. Anticipating Michel Foucault’s surveillance paradigm, Benjamin, perhaps more than Jacques Lacan, is the theorist to take along when undertaking an archaeology of the zapper and the gamer, who is training, besides the eyes and vision, also fingers, touch and hands, making them fit for new steering, monitoring and self-monitoring tasks. Such an archaeology would inevitably lead us back to early cinema and the origins of narrative in the dilemmas of spectatorship.
One of the singular achievements of New Film History and early cinema studies is surely the systematic deconstruction of the notion that narrative was either natural or pre-ordained. The cinema adopted story-telling formats only gradually, and for reasons that were social (attracting a middle-class audience), economic (charging higher admission) and ideological-institutional (shifting power from exhibitors to producers), rather than merely technical or aesthetic, suggesting that longer narratives did indeed have a containing, controlling and ‘disciplining’ function. 9 But as a large cultural form , present in very different media and across the arts, narrative is not only a widely disseminated mode of address and intersubjectivity (i.e. ‘narration’, ‘narrator’, ‘point of view’, ‘tense’). As an almost universal cultural framework for ‘meaning-making’, narrative is also an efficient and tested principle of data storage and symbolic data processing.
Having proved remarkably well-suited for processing the data produced by human perception and the brain, one might say, how well did narrative perform with mechanically generated sounds and images? From about 1912 onwards, films were deploying narrative’s formal resources ever more successfully as a way of coping with the levels of contingency and ‘meaninglessness’ in the data generated by the new technical media. But this sorting and coding of sensory data in order to make them fit for human comprehension and consumption came at a cost. Narrative radically reduces the quantity and complexity of visual and aural signals, and ‘matching’ the (‘raw’) data with the (already culturally coded) story material meant imposing hierarchies as well as producing a ‘surplus’ and repressing it – precisely what Benjamin meant by the ‘optical unconscious’. Or, to paraphrase Kittler, narrative would be the cultural ‘gate’ of the signifier, once more reminding us why film theory is periodically so concerned to establish a ‘grammar’ or filmic ‘language’ – the ‘alternative’ to narrative, but within the same anthropological-ideological perspective. In such a view, narrative cinema represents a historically specific solution to a problem, namely how to manage (audio-)visual data in the first century of technical media. The ‘realism’ of narrative fiction, as one encounters it in the nineteenth century novel and as it was partly taken over in twentieth century mainstream cinema, represents an optimised form of information transmission: the very high density of data storage (in the photographic image) is ‘scaled down’ (or compressed) by linear narratives with individualised agents, while the reduction is, in turn, compensated by the universality and ease of access, represented by stories with a beginning, middle and ending (no special skills or mediators are required), taken from the cultural repertoire of European literature (and, rarely, also other cultures).
As a compromise formation and the outcome of several kinds of struggle, narrative cinema has, in its hegemonic, universalising claims, always been contested (e.g. by the avant-garde, by European auteur-cinema), as well as historicised and polemically polarised by early cinema studies (e.g. Noël Burch, Tom Gunning, Ken Jacobs), so that non-narrative forms are now assumed to be typical for films up to 1907, but also – as the ‘cinema of attractions’ – an autonomous, alternative mode, present throughout the history of cinema and currently once more in the ascendant. 10
The rube films: towards a theory of embedded attention
Returning to spectatorship, then, I want to propose as emblematic for this ‘early cinema’ not the rowdy masses in smoke-filled rooms, nor young couples enjoying brief moments of unchaste behaviour, but the phenomenon that Tom Gunning, Stephen Bottomore and Yuri Tsivian have discussed under the heading of ‘the (in)credulous spectator’, 11 when alluding to the so-called ‘train effect’, that is, the widely reported and often repeated stories of people fleeing in panic from the onrushing train upon the screen, or women pulling up their skirts so as not to get wet when watching films with titles like Rough Sea At Dover (1895) or Panoramic View of Niagara Falls In Winter (1899). Were these reports ‘for real’, or were they simply ways of advertising the sensationalist effects of the cinematograph, exaggerating its potential for embodied perception? Did the make-belief of fright and anxiety give extra cover to erotic foreplay and licentiousness, or what exactly was going on?
My suggestion is to accept all of the above explanations, but to take them as indices of a particular form of reflexivity in the mode of ‘embodiment’ and ‘interactivity’. It seems to me that spectatorship right from the start was a) reflexive in relation to consciousness (‘I am watching a film’), b) reflexive in relation to the spatio-temporal dimension (‘I am here but transported elsewhere’) and c) reflexive in relation to embodiment and situatedness (‘I am watching with my eyes, but my other senses are also present, as is my capacity for taking action’). Possible proof for these assertions of reflexivity is a re-reading of one particular type of film practice associated with early cinema and repeatedly revived in subsequent decades.
The (in)credulous spectator that I have in mind is most fully embodied in that often-ridiculed figure of the country bumpkin, who makes a sporadic appearance throughout film history, so much so that one can speak of a genre, usually referred to as the ‘rube film’. The rube is almost as old as the cinema itself, emerging at the turn of the century, first in Great Britain and the USA, but similar films were also produced in other countries. 12 In the best best-known example of the genre, Uncle Josh At the Moving Picture Show , made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Company in 1902, the simpleton spectator leaves his box, climbs onto the stage and ‘enters the story’ – by attempting to grasp the images on the screen, by reacting to them physically, by joining the characters on the screen, in order to interfere with an ongoing action, or by looking behind the image to discover what is hidden or kept out of sight. Characteristically enough, Uncle Josh At the Moving Picture Show is a remake of a British prototype, Robert Paul’s The Countryman’s First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901). Part of the Edison catalogue entry reads:
Here we present a side-splitter. Uncle Josh occupies a box at a vaudeville theatre, and a moving picture show is going on. First there appears upon the screen a dancer. Uncle Josh jumps to the stage and endeavors to make love to her, but she flits away, and immediately there appears upon the screen the picture of an express train running at sixty miles an hour. Uncle Josh here becomes panic stricken and fearing to be struck by the train, makes a dash for his box. He is no sooner seated than a country couple appears upon the screen at a well. Before they pump the pail full of water they indulge in a love-making scene. Uncle Josh evidently thinks he recognizes his own daughter, and jumping again upon the stage he removes his coat and prepares to chastise the lover, and grabbing the moving picture screen he hauls it down, and to his great surprise finds a Kinetoscope operator in the rear. The operator is made furious by Uncle Josh interrupting his show, and grappling with him they roll over and over upon the stage in an exciting encounter. 13
Insofar as Uncle Josh At the Moving Picture Show was a remake of Robert Paul’s film, the differences are equally telling. Porter, for instance, substituted for the films-within-a-film his own company’s films, including Edison’s Parisian Dance (copyrighted 15 January 1897) and Black Diamond Express (copyrighted 27 April 1897), thus taking reflexivity from the realm of illusionism and trickery into self-reflexivity, i.e. product placement and self-promotion.
These ‘Uncle Josh’ or rube films pose a question. Are they intended, as is often claimed, to be didactic parables, teaching a rural or immigrant audience how not to behave in the cinema, by putting up to ridicule someone like themselves? 14 Yet – similar to the ‘train effect’ – was there ever such an audience, or such a moment of ‘infancy’ and simplicity in the history of the movies, where this ontological confusion with regards to objects and persons might have existed? If the ‘train effect’ and Uncle Josh belong to the folklore and urban mythology that early cinema generated about itself, then the second level of self-reference, citing the first, would be that they promote a form of spectatorship where the spectator watches, reacts to and interacts with a motion picture while remaining seated and still, retaining all signs of affect and agency bottled up within him/herself.
This, then, would raise a further question: do these films articulate a meta-level of self-reference in order to ‘discipline’ their audience – not by showing them how not to behave , i.e. by way of a negative example, by shaming and proscription, but rather by a more subtle process of internalised control? Do the rube films not discipline their audience by allowing them to enjoy their own superior form of spectatorship, even if that superiority is achieved at the price of self-censorship and self-restraint? The audience laughs at Uncle Josh, who is kept at a distance and ridiculed, and thereby it can flatter itself with a self-image of urban sophistication. The punishment meted out by the projectionist at the end is both externalized as the reverse side of cinematic pleasure (watch out: ‘behind’ the screen, there is the figure of the ‘master’) and internalised as self-control (watch out: in the cinema – as in the modern world of urban display and self-display – the rule is ‘you may look, but you may not touch’). 15
This gives an additional dimension to the genre: the cinema would collude with, and be part of the civilisation process as conceived by Norbert Elias (or Pierre Bourdieu), 16 according to whom the shift of bodily orientation from touch (a proximity sense) to sight (a sense that regulates distance and proximity) constitutes a quantum leap in human evolution. What, however, typifies the cinema’s particular ‘modernity’ would be that it re-enacts, but also exacerbates this quantum leap, by ‘performing’ the kind of cognitive-sensory double-bind, associated in Marxist theory with commodity fetishism. For instance, the object on display in the shop window also says to the consumer ‘look, but don’t touch’, but it resolves the conflict by inviting the flâneur or gawker to enter: a gesture that relieves the eye and promises control through the sensory plenitude of touch and caress (‘the eye handing over to the hand’, you might say) with the act of purchase (i.e. ‘possession’). In the cinema, by contrast, the same scene of desire and discipline is staged as a kind of ‘traumatic drama’ of touch and sight, with both senses at once over-stimulated and censored, seduced and chastised, obsessively and systematically tied to the kinds of delays and deferrals we associate with the workings of narrative. 17 The theorist of this promise of proximity enshrined in the cinema and also elegiac allegorist of its traumatic deferral is once more Benjamin. One recalls the famous passage from the ‘Artwork’-essay in which he outlines the cultural-political significance of tactile proximity and haptic perception as it takes shape around the moving image and its contact with the masses:
The desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of everyday reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. 18
What is hinted at here through the act of substitution – likeness – and mechanical duplication – reproduction – is the ontological gap that opens up in the trade-off between the sense of proximity and the one of distance-and-proximity, and also the irreversible nature of the deferral that pushes haptic perception into the realm of the optical unconscious and visuality into the realm of phantasmagoric possession. 19
The rube, in other words, like the zapper or the first-person shooter, at first glance appears to be naively ‘trapped’ in the superabundance of data he [sic] encounters in the realm of the sound-image, but on reflection, he also ‘performs’ this entrapment, either for the benefit of another viewer/spectator, or as the reflexively doubled self-discipline, in which he is both attacking and defending, ‘getting lost’ on the surface, in order not to get caught, pushing buttons, in order not to get pulled into the spiral of the ‘Maelstrom’ – another Poe-reference, this one dear to Marshall McLuhan as an allegory of mankind extending itself via its media and at the same time encircling itself. The rube film, then, in my extended definition, would refer to a genre or practice of self-reflexive or auto-referential cinema that inserts the body (of the protagonist/spectator) as both blockage and enabler, as source of breakdown and triumph, at the interface of active and passive, manipulator and manipulated. In this sense, the rube film returns us to some fundamentals of the cinema’s mode of spectatorship, concerning the questions of attention and agency, fixed site and mobile view, temporal delay and instant reaction, while also bringing into play the philosophical conundrum of how an image ‘enters’ a body and a body ‘enters’ an image. It represents, if you like, a counter-ontology to both the ‘cinema as window on the world’ and the ‘cinema as mirror to the self’, each of which have held sway for about half of the last 50 years of film studies.
The (extra-)diegetic spaces of early cinema
We can return to the question of narrative from an anthropological perspective, poised between embodying a set of intuitively graspable sorting and ordering principles of contingent data and acting as a ‘defensive shield’ or ‘protective film’ to manage this data’s overload. By replicating the autobiographical mental schema we all carry in our heads (since one tends to regard one’s life as a linear trajectory, inflected by goals and moving in an irreversibly forward direction), narrative in the cinema does double duty: it acknowledges contingency, excess and overload, but also articulates time, space and agency in such a way as to assure consistency of self, represented as an ongoing process rather than a fixed identity.
A term for this time, space and agency configuration of narrative in both cinema and literature is ‘diegesis’, first used by Etienne Souriau and subsequently made famous in literary studies by Gérard Genette. 20 Souriau’s definition seems very simple: ‘everything which concerns the film, insofar as it represents something’, but also: ‘the reality of the fiction’. More commonly, diegesis refers to the time-space continuum represented (but also merely implied or supposed) by the film: in other words, the ‘world’ of the film. Even more commonly, diegesis is invoked negatively: when referring to something as ‘extra-diegetic’, one usually means a space deemed to be present, but represented neither on-screen nor implied as off-screen (e.g. a piece of music heard, but whose origins are not locatable in the narrative, or another absent-present sound-source, such as a voice-over commentary). 21 The point about early cinema, in relation to narrative, performance, commentary and spectatorship – in contrast to ‘classical cinema’ – is that it did not practice this clear distinction between diegetic and extra-diegetic. Given the multiple kinds of possible interrelationship between screen space and audience space (e.g. pianola music or an orchestra performing in the auditorium, the presence of a lecturer, frontal staging, actors directly addressing the audience), a film’s diegesis was far less stable and predetermined, being more like a score that needed an event to realise itself, with each ‘film performance’ dynamically establishing a diegesis by the interplay between what occurs on screen and in the auditorium. 22 I have elsewhere argued that the changing relations between screen space and auditorium space constitute one of early cinema’s most crucial variables and a key determinant of the cinema’s adoption of narrative, which suggests that only when considered together, in their mutual interdependence, can we begin to understand how spectatorship functioned in this unique, but also uniquely overlapping diegetic space. 23 In my argument, it is the rube – sometimes within the film, sometimes from outside – who personifies spectatorship at this delicate, but also turbulent juncture, where diegetic and extra-diegetic worlds, the imaginary space of the action and the physical space of the audience, are not yet rigorously separated nor ‘disciplined’ by a newly empowered eye at the expense of hand and touch.
If film scholars now tend to speak of ‘haptic vision’, a ‘tactile cinema’ or ‘the skin of the film’ – a perceptual-sensory configuration that, after Annette Michelson, Antonia Lant, Vivian Sobchack, Laura U. Marks, Angela della Vacche and many others, seems set to become a new paradigm of spectatorship for Anglo-American film studies – it might be worth looking for the ghost of a ‘rube’ haunting any smooth transition or clean break from the ocular-centric theories of classical cinema to a body-based aesthetic of ‘early’ and ‘late’ cinema. The rube’s ambiguous and disruptive mode of reflexivity stands guard, as it were, when we begin to rewrite all of film history and spectatorship around the body as total perceptual surface, in order to accommodate the digital. That the highlighting of texture and touch opens up genealogies that bypass the photographic mode (based on luminosity through transparency) is evident: haptic vision, for instance, can help reinstate video as the true predecessor of the digital image (whose luminosity is achieved through refraction, opacity and saturation) and thus avoid the deadlock and blockages currently surrounding accounts of the cinema that insist on projection and transparency as that which must define cinema, or declare ‘indexicality’ to be the main dividing line between photographic and post-photographic (also now often called ‘post-film’) cinema. However, in the rush to leave behind the ocular-centric paradigm, the rube reminds us that one of the enduring appeals of the cinema since its beginnings was the separation of eye from body, allowing the eye to travel, transgress, explore and penetrate spaces otherwise too far away or too close, too small or too big, too dangerous or too socially out of bounds.
The return of the rube
I want to end by hazarding a hypothesis, namely that versions of the ‘rube double-take’ on attention, interaction and bodily presence tend to turn up whenever there is transference of, or struggle over, symbolic power between one medium or media-technology and another . One instance I am currently exploring concerns classical narrative’s transition to – or perhaps more accurately: Hollywood filmmakers’ and screenwriters’ testing and toying with – interactive narrative and game-logic. This, too, has produced its share of rubes, usually coded in stories that either double a conventional diegetic world with a parallel universe of surveillance, which at crucial points tilts the more familiar one out of kilter, or introduce an alternative world in the form of time travel, underscoring how both worlds are inextricably interdependent of each other. A good example of the former is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), while Richard Kelly’s cult film Donnie Darko (2001) could be a case of the latter. A film that combines both the surveillance paradigm and the necessity of time travel is Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006), a blockbuster full of chases and explosions, but readable also as meta-cinema: ‘Edwin Porter’s Uncle Josh meets Jean Cocteau’s Orphee in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo ’.
I realise that this brief account of the rube figure as spectatorial delegate does not provide adequate proof that early cinema, contemporary Hollywood science-fiction thrillers and the interactive narratives of video games share sufficient pertinent traits to support as wide-ranging a thesis as the one I am proposing. Nonetheless, my suggestion is that across the two lines of inquiry – reassessing the diegetic space of early cinema and re-activating the (in)credulous spectator embodied in the ‘rube’ phenomenon (also originating in early cinema) – one might arrive at a possible understanding of how the audiovisual media themselves figure media change and the transfers of cultural capital, complementing, as it were, ‘from within’ our own scholarly analyses ‘from without’. 24 More specifically, my claim would be that the cinema has periodically re-calibrated its spectator by allegorical figures such as the rube (who can be comic or tragic or both) and narratives that play with ontological confusion and information overload. At the same time, the persistence of the ‘rube’ and his many different incarnations across the history of the cinema at crucial turning points suggests that attention, interaction and reflexivity based on bodily self-presence, performed failure and cognitive or ontological ‘category mistakes’ might prove to be as salient for interactive narrative and spectatorship in the new century as typically ‘modernist’ forms of reflexivity and self-reference, such as mise en abyme , mirroring, doubling or alienation/distanciation were for the last. Just like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, became the patron saint of the ‘active reader’, from Laurence Sterne to Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust to Thomas Pynchon, so the rube of early cinema, tearing down the screen while trying to rescue the world, might yet preside over the ‘interactive spectator’, from early cinema to present-day video games, via Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard, Buster Keaton and Steven Spielberg, but also Edwin S. Porter and Tony Scott.
1. See also: ‘Everyone knows what attention is’, wrote William James in his Principles of Psychology (New York: Holt, 1890). ‘It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. ... It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction , and Zerstreutheit in German.’ Quoted from (14 September 2008).
2. The director Gianni Amelio once bitterly complained: ‘Young people today want a product that is not to be consumed individually, but rather collectively. They go to the cinema in groups of 20 to 25 and need it as an accomplice to their behaviour, a cinema with regular gags, for example, that allow you to slap the person beside you on the shoulder. This sort of movie-going functions much like being in a bar or discotheque: you go to the cinema, not primarily in order to see a film, but to enjoy yourself and each other, preferably at the expense of the film.’ Jörg Hermann, ‘“Wir gehen auf den Tod des Kinos zu”: Ein Gespräch mit Gianni Amelio’, in Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Filmjournalisten/Hamburger Filmbüro (eds), Neue Medien contra Filmkultur? (Berlin: Spiess, 1987), 28–37.
3. Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1850), available online at (2 October 2008).
4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, in Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 10th ed., 1977), 7–44; English translation ‘The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations , trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), 211–244.
5. For a history of electricity in popular culture see Jeff Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy To Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
6. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 246.
7. Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings , ed. by Peter Demetz, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978).
8. The term ‘linearised’ was introduced into film studies by Noël Burch, ‘Passion, pursuite: la linearization’, Communications 38 (1983): 30–50.
9. Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
10. See e.g. Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
11. See Tom Gunning: ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator’, Art & Text 34 (1989): 31–45; Stephen Bottomore, ‘The Coming of the Cinema’, History Today 46, 3 (1996): 14–20; Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema In Russia and Its Cultural Reception , trans. by Alan Bodger (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 134–155.
12. For an extensive discussion of rube films in American cinema, see Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 25–30.
13. Edison catalogue , 1902, quoted from (1 October 2008).
14. See Isabelle Morissette, ‘Reflexivity In Spectatorship: The Didactic Nature of Early Silent Films’, Offscreen (31 July 2002), (2 October 2008).
15. For an inverse reading of the relation between looking and touching, see Wanda Strauven, ‘Touch, Don’t Look’, in Alice Autelitano et al (eds), I cinque sensi del cinema/The Five Senses of Cinema (Udine: Forum, 2005), 283–291.
16. Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power , (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
17. I have written elsewhere about two scenes from 1924 films (Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen [ Nibelungen ] and Buster Keaton, Sherlock Jr .) that exemplify these dilemmas, by precisely citing the rube film genre. In both cases, the film spectator’s implicit contract with (barred) haptic palpability of the moving image is made explicit. See Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Die Nibelungen: Siegfried’, in Paolo Bertetto and Sergio Toffetti (eds), Incontro ai fantasmi – il cinema espressionista (Rome: Centro Sperimentale 2008), 87–98.
18. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, 223.
19. The appropriate cinematic illustration of Benjamin is the famous ‘rube’ scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers ( The Carabineers , 1963). Godard harks back to the turn of the century, but also looks forward to ‘interactivity’, because his film is about the category mistake of thinking that the civilisational ‘quantum leap’ from hand to eye might be reversible. See Wanda Strauven, ‘Re-Disciplining the Audience: Godard’s Rube-Carabinier’, in Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds), Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 125–133.
20. Etienne Souriau, ‘La structure de l’univers filmique et le vocabulaire de la filmologie’, Revue Internationale de Filmologie 2,7–8 (1951): 231–240; Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse , trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980 [1972]).
21. In some cases what appears to be extra-diegetic will reveal itself as ‘diegetic’ after all, as in films by Orson Welles (voice over commentary) and Fritz Lang (music).
22. An attempt to re-think ‘diegesis’ in relation to both early cinema and television can be found in Noël Burch, ‘Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits’ in Screen 23, 2 (July/August 1982): 16–33.
23. Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Once More Narrative’, in Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (London: BFI, 1990), 153–155.
24. I am referring, among others, to Jay David Bolter and Richard Gruisin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000) and – with its idea of the cinema as the digital media’s cultural interface – Lev Manovich, ‘An Archaeology of a Computer Screen’, Kunstforum International (1995), available online at (2 October 2008).
Chapter 2
Viewing Change, Changing Views: The ‘History of Vision’-Debate
Frank Kessler

I n the late 1940s, in an essay for Revue Internationale de Filmologie , 1 the Belgian psychologist Albert Michotte van den Berck replied to critical comments regarding his theses on the ‘impression of reality’ in the cinema, which had been brought forward by the French art historian Pierre Francastel in a previous issue of the journal. 2 Michotte concluded his rectification with a remark that betrayed some exasperation on his part:
All this shows once again how difficult it can be for people of different backgrounds, practicing different disciplines, to comprehend the questions posed in the framework of their own science and the significance attached to the solutions of those problems. 3
Michotte’s complaints about Francastel’s misreading of his ideas were undoubtedly justified, but, obviously, the major difference between the two authors’ approaches had deeper roots. The point of the argument is not just a misunderstanding caused by Francastel’s drawing hasty conclusions from a few passages in Michotte’s article that, it seems, he did not fully grasp. While Michotte is interested in elucidating the differences between the perception of filmic images and everyday perception at a psycho-physiological level, in order to then ask the question how, in spite of those differences, the viewer still experiences an ‘impression of reality’, Francastel argues in a more general way that cultural factors need to be taken into account in order to fully, and correctly, understand how films are perceived. On the one hand, Francastel is opposed to approaches that take the filmic image to be a simple reproduction of reality – but Michotte, in fact, would hardly have disagreed with him in this regard – and, on the other hand, he considers representations to be historically and culturally determined. Movement, he states, is not perceived as an essence by direct intuition, but by distinguishing a series of ‘signs revealing more complex realities. One or more thresholds of intellectual perception must exist that differ from the threshold of optical perception.’ 4 Hence, with regard to filmic space, Francastel proclaims:
The point of departure for all concrete speculation on filmic space is in the recognition of the psychological and social character of perspective. It is not a golden rule or a fixed law corresponding to a substantive law of nature: it is a function of the intellect, one of the frames which confers an order to the sensations in the mind. 5
He goes even further, extending his claim beyond images to the way the world is viewed:
Each epoch, each society, each age of humanity, each profession, each human being has its attention attracted by a particular aspect of the exterior world; each has its space, its perspective. 6
Hence Francastel, opposing an approach to the visual as signification to one that privileges physiology, takes a ‘culturalist’ view of perception, while Michotte concentrates on psychological mechanisms that he implicitly takes to be transcultural and transhistorical. And even if, as one can infer from Michotte’s reaction, this is rather a dialogue des sourds (‘deaf men’s dialogue’), the argument opposing, in a certain sense, the art historian and the psychologist inaugurates, at least in the field of film studies, a debate that, as we will see, is still underway – intermittently, but nonetheless persistently, and in its latest version with regard to early cinema. Theorists arguing in favour of an approach regarding ‘perception’ as culturally and/or historically determined, albeit with very different definitions and from different theoretical and epistemological backgrounds are, for instance, Jean-Louis Comolli, in a series of articles published under the general title ‘Technique et idéologie’ in Cahiers du cinema , but also the anthropologists Sol Worth and John Adair in their study on Navajo filmmaking, Through Navajo Eyes , or Paul Virilio in his Guerre et cinéma . 7
A recent chapter in this debate was opened by David Bordwell, with his attack on what he calls the ‘history of vision’-approach in his History of Film Style , continued and renewed in Figures Traced in Light . 8 But now the positions are reversed: whereas Francastel, Comolli, Virilio and even Worth implicitly or explicitly criticised approaches that did not take into account the crucial importance of culture, history or ideology with regard to perception, Bordwell criticises Tom Gunning and others for linking stylistic features of (early) cinema too hastily to aspects they identify as the specific conditions of vision that characterise modernity, such as urbanisation, mechanisation, industrialisation, acceleration and fragmentation. Bordwell concludes: ‘In sum, we do not have good reasons to believe that particular changes in film style can be traced to a new way of seeing produced by modernity’. 9 For Bordwell, in other words, the so-called ‘modernity thesis’ (a term he coined himself) is but another variant of ‘Grand Theory’, a top-down model seriously lacking explanatory force and, ultimately, a form of faulty reasoning:
The appeal of the modernity thesis seems to spring from two sources. First, epochal accounts in general exercise a commonsense power; they promise ultimate explanations. As a causal force, modernity looks more significant than the camera lens’s optical pyramid. Second, the modernity thesis relies on two basic strategies of informal cognition: picking out prototypes (unusually vivid instances) and reasoning by association (the dominant approach to interpreting literary texts). Writers in this tradition have typically started by asserting the power of modernity and then illustrated their claim with striking examples. No proponents have sampled a wide range of early films to find out how many are shocking. 10
However, in spite of these clear-cut conclusions, it is in fact much less clear what exactly is at stake in this discussion, and so it may be useful to undertake a reconstruction of the various levels at which Bordwell’s criticism is aimed. The questions Bordwell is asking concern (i) the way in which the phrase ‘changes in perception’ is to be understood, (ii) the explanatory range of the ‘modernity thesis’ and (iii) its adequacy, or productivity, with regard to the analysis of stylistic phenomena.
(i) Bordwell’s starting point is a famous quote from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ (‘The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’), first published in 1936, in which Benjamin states, that over long periods in history, ‘the mode of human perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence’, in this context referring to Alois Riegl’s art-historical studies on the late Roman art industry. 11 Obviously, as Bordwell also acknowledges, this cannot mean that cultural changes affect the biological sense apparatus and the psycho-physiology of perception as such, and so he asks: ‘should we not rather speak of changes in habits and skills , of cognitively monitored ways of noticing or contextualizing information available in new surroundings?’ 12 For Bordwell, however, this would be ‘a big concession’ 13 to be made by advocates of a history-of-vision approach, but this in fact does come much closer to the type of argument Benjamin proposes. In Benjamin’s view, historical factors do play a role in the way human perception ‘is organised’ (again a term that is indeed ambiguous, yet not necessarily referring to the biological level of organisation; in fact, the German text reads ‘organises itself’, which rather evokes the idea of an adaptation to a cultural situation), but by no means an exclusive one. 14 At another, somewhat more hidden point in his essay, namely in a footnote, he refers more specifically to ‘tiefgreifende Veränderungen des Apperzeptionsapparates’ (‘profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus’), 15 thus pointing explicitly at a different and more complex level of perception. Apperception, in the Leibnizian sense, is defined as ‘perceptio melior, cum attentione et memoria coniuncta’ (‘higher perception, connected to attention and memory’), 16 and it seems that this comes closer to what Benjamin has in mind than the biological and psycho-physiological level of perception. 17 Benjamin, in other words, talks about perception as a historically specific experience, and not about mankind’s biological constitution. But here Bordwell objects that talking about culturally acquired perceptual habits and skills does not necessitate presupposing the existence of a single ‘mode of perception’. He refers to Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience In Fifteenth Century Italy as an exemplary study, which takes into account historically specific habits and skills, without positing the existence of a specific Renaissance way of seeing. 18 This, however, somehow reduces the gap that, at first sight, so radically seemed to separate Bordwell’s position from the history-of-vision approach. The question now is, in how far the expression ‘mode of perception’ is conceptualised as an all-encompassing, monolithic ‘scopic regime’, 19 or rather as an attempt to bring together various and heterogeneous facets of the visual experiences that were brought about by the modernisation processes in the nineteenth century.
(ii) What then is the explanatory range of the modernity thesis, Bordwell subsequently asks, and he points to the fact that Benjamin’s essay, written in the 1930s, mainly refers to editing as the central device that makes cinema a medium responding directly to the modern mode of perception, while the films of the early period ‘rely little upon editing, and thousands of the films that purportedly exemplify modern vision consist only of one shot’. 20 This, it seems, poses a number of problems. Firstly, Benjamin’s remarks refer to a type of film belonging to a historically different period than the ones to which the modernity thesis refers. Secondly, editing as a device can be used in a great variety of ways, not all of which produce the abruptness and fragmentation that is taken to be characteristic of modern urban life. Thirdly, the overall process in the course of which the cinema of attraction is by and large replaced by the cinema of narrative integration as the dominant product of the industry (with the exception of, among others, Soviet montage cinema, which indeed appears to be the main point of reference for Benjamin), clearly is at odds with the idea that it is foremost the cinema of attractions which corresponds to a modern mode of perception – especially when it is supposed to ‘have overhauled humans’ experiential equipment’. 21
These arguments do indeed point to a number of fundamental problems one would encounter if the so-called modernity thesis (a) really implied the idea of a fundamental and irrevocable modification of our biological equipment; if (b) it were used as a guiding principle to explain and account for changes in the history of film and, more specifically, film style; if (c) Benjamin’s essay were read as a theoretical model presupposing a mere cause-and-effect relationship between film and the modern urban environment; and if (d) the essay were to be taken simply at face value, without taking into account its specific place in Benjamin’s philosophical project, and hence taken out of its own historical context. Obviously, one can never be quite certain in how far theorists arguing for an approach that takes into account the changing perceptual environment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century do stay clear of such problematic assertions, but overall, it seems to me, scholars mostly have tried to prudently avoid any kind of oversimplification or dogmatism in this respect. Bordwell, however, is surely justified in pointing out these dangers and demanding from those who disagree with him to reflect upon the methodological and theoretical basis on which they build their argument.
(iii) Finally, Bordwell raises the question in how far the history-of-vision approach has anything to say about the history of film style. Here the discussion becomes somewhat confusing. Bordwell’s conclusion that the explanatory force of the so-called modernity thesis with regard to film style seems to be rather unpromising 22 is countered by Gunning, by declaring that ‘no one has claimed that modernity supplies the total explanation for film style’. 23 To this, Bordwell retorts that in Gunning’s account, Griffith’s crosscutting in rescue scenes is ‘explained by appeal to broad social and economic forces characteristic of modernity’. 24 In reply, Gunning affirms that he in fact had shown that there was a complex combination of factors, all of which played their part in the stylistic transformations taking place around 1909, but that, on the other hand, ‘this is not to say that modernity cannot be related to different styles and their success with audiences’. 25
In a way, the debate ends up turning in circles, because the ‘modernity thesis’ appears to be the construction of an ultimately untenable position, while those who are attacked for adhering to it, refuse to defend it. So instead of going further into a discussion which basically concerns the weight – or rather: the relative weight – that is attributed to the experience of modernity as a contextual factor in the process of stylistic change in cinema, one could, once again, point to the obvious danger of oversimplification, but one could also just turn the question around and ask: is it really possible to entirely exclude the changes in everyday experience brought about by urban modernity, when looking at early cinema as an emerging medium of the late nineteenth century?
Linking this debate back to the Michotte-Francastel discussion and other attempts to look at cinema from a ‘culturalist’ point of view, that is from a point of view that presupposes the existence of a variety of ‘ways of seeing’ that are culturally and historically dependent (or, to put it in a somewhat more nuanced way: that take into account historically specific perceptual habits and skills), a number of problems arise, which can be addressed in a series of caveats.
(i) It is important to be clear about the level at which such culturally or historically determined perceptual effects are supposed to occur. The expression ‘perceptual change’ is extremely vague and thus there is the danger that it may function as a convenient – an all too convenient – explanation, and hence become part of a rhetorical strategy that, in the end, has a tendency to veil more than it reveals.
(ii) The notion of culturally and historically determined ‘ways of seeing’ refers, generally, to a complex conglomerate of factors ranging from discursive constructions of the visual to a broad field of experiential phenomena not all of which are related to vision in the strict sense of the term. 26 The heterogeneity of elements that tend to be evoked makes it often difficult to estimate in what way they contribute to an explanation of the issue at hand.
(iii) The exact relationship between the contextual factors – culture, ideology, language – (which in fact are rather seen as ‘background’ factors than as contextual ones) and the filmic manifestations on which they are supposed to shed light – representational strategies, stylistic features, thematic choices – is notoriously difficult to establish if one wants to avoid over-simplification.
(iv) Finally – and this is a point upon which Bordwell does not even touch –, there is the vexed issue to what precisely the term ‘modernity’ refers. 27 Charles Baudelaire’s famous remarks on the flâneur and the urban crowd, probably written in 1859 and published in 1863, are separated from Benjamin’s essay by over 70 years, with Georg Simmel’s equally often quoted reflections on ‘Die Großstadt und das Geistesleben’ (‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’) from 1903 situated in between. 28 Obviously, these three authors refer to different experiences when talking about modernity, something that becomes quite clear, for instance, when one looks at the kind of artistic practice they allude to as modern. For Baudelaire, the ‘painter of modern life’ is Constantin Guys, and Simmel sees Auguste Rodin as the emblematic modern artist, while Benjamin evokes Dadaism and Surrealism. To make matters even more complicated, Henri Meschonnic has shown that within Baudelaire’s text itself there are different, even contradictory, conceptualisations of the modern. 29 Accordingly, Raymond Williams comes to a rather critical conclusion:
Thus the retention of such categories as ‘modern’ and ‘Modernism’ to describe aspects of the art and thought of an undifferentiated twentieth-century world is now at best anachronistic, at worst archaic. 30
All in all, it seems, looking at cinema in the context of ‘modernity’ poses a number of theoretical and methodological problems that are not easy to solve. Obviously, the methodological choices that inevitably have to be made depend on the kinds of questions one wants to ask. The important thing, in any event, is to make them explicit in order to be able to counter objections of the kind put forward by Bordwell. In his extraordinarily rich discussion of the different facets of the image with regard to its perception, apperception, reception, form and aesthetics, Jacques Aumont uses the concept of dispositif as the instance that regulates the relation between the viewer and the image in a given symbolic, and thus also social, cultural and historical, context. 31 This approach, it seems to me, can indeed be very productive, and I have tried to adopt it, albeit in a slightly different way, in order to conceptualise the ‘cinema of attractions’ from the perspective of historical pragmatics. 32
As for the specific problems that the ‘modernity thesis’ poses, things might become less complicated if one reversed the perspective. Instead of asking how the experience of modern (urban, mechanised, industrialised, fragmented etc.) life has impacted on cinema and, conversely, in what ways cinema affected the visual habits of its viewers, it might be easier to explore the various ways in which cinema taps into such experiences. This, in my view, is what most authors working on such questions have actually done. However, as Bordwell’s objections show, this may not have been stated explicitly enough to avoid misunderstandings.
What would be gained by such a change of perspective? In the first instance, it entails that the weight of any kind of explanatory claim is lifted. Looking at the way in which films relate to aspects of modern life does not mean that the latter have the power to determine the shape of the former. 33 In becoming a form of popular entertainment, early cinema had to find ways to attract audiences – being an attraction, and presenting attractions definitely offered a possibility to do so. This, I think, is more than a tautology or a truism. In order to successfully establish itself, early cinema needed, among other things, to relate to its audiences’ experiences and demands; and it needed to do so also in order to be able to compete with other kinds of ‘visual delights’. So early filmmakers exploited film’s astonishing capacities to ‘remediate’ 34 stage acts as well as panoramic views, magicians’ tricks as well as wax work scenes, instant photography’s accurate depictions as well as the exoticism of colonial exhibitions or the excitement of fairground thrill rides, while turning all these into a specific form of spectacular (re)presentations. The social and cultural developments brought about by modernity offered new ways of providing mass entertainment, and cinema tapped into them, just as other popular media of the period did. Cinema, in other words, simply had to be modern in order to stay in business. These are questions that scholars such as Vanessa Schwartz, Lauren Rabinovitz, Rae Beth Gordon and many others, including, of course, Tom Gunning and Ben Singer, have explored in many fascinating studies. 35
Secondly, on the methodological level, the change of perspective allows the construction of various ‘series’ of documents and to look at the way they intersect, without having to establish a hierarchy among them and without using them as direct empirical evidence. As Michèle Lagny, from whom I borrow the term ‘series’, observes:
In fact, ‘series’ exist simply because we are asking preliminary questions of a group of comparable documents; yet they can describe with convincing precision and insight only some aspects of a social phenomenon. … The structure and the global evolution of a phenomenon can be interpreted only if we compare the observed aspects with other aspects designed through other ‘series’, yet its articulation remains a random factor. 36
Keeping this in mind, we shall need to carefully evaluate what kinds of conclusions can be drawn when looking at correspondences and differences between such ‘series’. This might help us reduce the danger of overstating the case we are trying to make.
In order to illustrate my point, I propose to look at a specific group of films, which are often seen to represent an almost emblematic aspect of modern life, namely the urban street scene. Studies linking cinema and the experience of big city street life frequently draw upon literary sources, the most famous of which are Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840) and Baudelaire’s poems – especially in the reading proposed by Benjamin 37 –, but also on philosophical and sociological reflections such as those presented by Simmel, as well as many other contemporary sources, such as reports by travellers, journalists etc. Particularly relevant, of course, are contemporary texts that themselves directly and explicitly make a connection between modernisation, big city life and cinema. To quote just one example:
Then there is the most important characteristic of the cinema: its absolute modernity . … The peculiarly vibrating atmosphere of our time and the nervous, fast-paced, abbreviating existence of modern man is suddenly taken out of the dance and change of time and experiences a moment of eternisation. Existence depicted is existence transfigured. The transfiguration of the flow of the present into the sphere of reverie and illusion impresses us so strongly, that only when our existence passes before us in a play we come to believe that we understand it. 38
These written documents constitute a ‘series’, an extraordinarily rich one, indeed, in which the perceptual aspects of the urban experience are particularly highlighted. Torn between fascination and anxiety, the discursive constructions of urban street life provide a background against which cinema as a medium, but also particular films, have been read, often backed by socio-historical data. This, however, resulted, in many cases, in more or less homogenising readings, downplaying the tensions within the series, and not always taking into account the diversity of representational strategies that can be found not only in films, but also in other media.
Looking at representations of urban street life in paintings, photographs or films and considering them as different documentary ‘series’, one can easily observe similarities that create links between them, but also dissimilar features that separate them. There are aspects specific to the respective medium, which allow us to establish continuities within each of the ‘series’, but also lines cutting across them and producing units at a different level. All this makes it difficult to claim the existence of a unified scopic regime, but it does provide reasons to take into account the historically specific visual and sensory environment that surrounded cinema as an emerging medium.
Thus, for instance, it is possible to distinguish a number of viewpoints adopted by painters as well as photographers and cinematographers: the bird’s eye view, photographed from an actual window or painted from a real or imagined one, the observational position at a street corner, the immersion in the flow of urban movement etc. There are virtual and actual panorama views in all three media, but also, as a cinematographic specificity, the view taken from a vehicle in motion. All this asks, of course, for a more systematic study of representational strategies, the effects they produce and the way in which they refer to aspects of the modern urban experience. However, it is clear that, at least for photographers and cinematographers, choosing a certain point of view means setting up their camera at one place rather than another, and it is therefore deliberate, but it may simply be dictated by practical considerations or the conditions under which the photographing or filming takes place.
As I have argued elsewhere with regard to early cinematographic street views, 39 there is also a pragmatic dimension to these images: they may concentrate on characteristic sites and thus emulate the tourist’s gaze, but also on the crowd and the traffic in the streets, they may focus on the typical as well as on the topical, on the exotic as well as on the familiar (especially the last aspect will depend on the exhibition context in which they appear). Furthermore, when we are dealing with moving images, they may foreground the continuous and regular flow of movement or, by contrast, disruptive change; they can aim to convey the impression of an accidental observation and try to avoid the curiosity of on-lookers, or, by contrast, as is the case with many travelling showmen, actively invite reactions from the passers-by, e.g. in order to lure them to their screenings. 40
In order to understand the street scene in turn-of-the-century films, we thus need to take into account a variety of representational conventions, a range of thematic options, as well as a number of different pragmatic functions. While these can be regarded as rooted in specific aspects of modern visual culture, they cannot (and need not) be reduced to a unified mode of vision. Undoubtedly, we could often identify instances of the fleeting, ephemeral, fragmented and accidental character of the modern visual experience, as many scholars have, but in limiting ourselves to this dimension, we would neglect the variety of strategies, functions and modes of address these films can have. For instance, as Martin Loiperdinger has shown in the case of various Lumière films, 41 the seemingly ‘accidental’ view is quite often the result of rather elaborate strategies in which the opérateurs engaged. The extraordinary immersion into the urban environment that many Lumière cameramen have sought to convey depended on choices regarding camera position and angle. Hence, the corresponding views should be understood as the results of production processes that were sometimes highly complex, rather than as mere registrations of a profilmic modern environment spontaneously captured by the cinematographic lens.
To just briefly discuss one example: the Lumière view Berlin – Potsdamer Platz (1896, catalogue number 220). It could be taken as a more or less typical instance of a film depicting the continuous flow of vehicles and pedestrians that characterise the metropolitan cityscape, whereas the Potsdamer Platz is not shown as a recognisable architectural ensemble. The dense urban traffic, however, does not look chaotic, but appears to circulate in a complexly organised fashion. This is the result of the way in which this view was taken. The camera is situated at a corner of Potsdamer Platz, close to the kerb, filming at eye-level diagonally across the street. The image is thus divided into several planes on which movement occurs in different directions: directly in front of the lens, horse-drawn omnibuses and cabs pass from right to left, and behind them in parallel, others move in the opposite direction. Still further in the background, perpendicular to the central axis, a third line of vehicles appears. In addition, pedestrians cross the street, run alongside to catch a bus, or walk past the camera, sometimes glancing furtively towards it.
An article published on 29 November 1896, in the Provinzialzeitung of Bremerhaven, a small town by the North Sea, comments on this particular film, asserting:
With the view Potsdamer Platz one feels spontaneously transported to the big city. The cabs, the horse-drawn trams and buses, the passers-by anxiously making their way, all this provides a life-like image of the enormous traffic in the metropolis. 42
While this statement could be seen as an almost perfect illustration of Benjamin’s observations, the Lumière view itself, interestingly, hardly supports such a reading. The passers-by seem not at all frightened; they routinely and skilfully circulate between the numerous vehicles, apparently unaffected by the dense traffic that surrounds them. The anonymous journalist from the provincial newspaper may actually have projected his or her – and/or possibly the potential readership’s – feelings about the big city onto the images on the screen. The view conveys a fascination with the spectacular rush of urban traffic rather than a feeling of threat or anxiety. The comment published in the Provinzialzeitung , however, indicates the range of reactions such images could provoke. Whether pleasurable or menacing – in this film, the Lumière cameraman, by choosing this particular point of view, turns metropolitan life into an attraction: a spectacle of multi-layered movements, a constant renewal of sights to see, a visually engaging composition. Hence, such a view serves at least two functions: it demonstrates the capacity of a modern technological achievement, the Lumière cinematograph, to capture and reproduce movement, and by the same token it turns such movement into a spectacle, a living picture that gives the viewer an impression of modern metropolitan life. The view, however, is anything but a random record of urban modernity: it (re)creates it as an image resulting from a purposeful representational strategy.
In conclusion, I would like to return to Pierre Francastel and his critical comments on Michotte van den Berck. When he remarks that ‘each epoch, each society, each age of humanity, each profession, each human being has its attention attracted by a particular aspect of the exterior world; each has its space, its perspective’, 43 he obviously does not refer to a biological level of perception, but to the field of historically and culturally specific experiences within which perceptual (or rather: apperceptual) acts occur. This is what he means by stating: ‘One or more thresholds of intellectual perception must exist that differ from the threshold of optical perception’. 44 Hence, his – as well as Benjamin’s – ideas need not be taken as a unified ‘scopic regime’ dictating ‘ways of seeing’ in a biological or deterministic sense. Granted that the perceptual input as such is not treated differently at a physiological level, the interpretation of this input (the ‘intellectual perception’) depends on the culturally and historically specific experiences that people use as a frame of reference. In any event, operating with a dichotomy opposing ‘naturalist’ and ‘culturalist’ approaches to perception is too simplistic to grasp the complexities involved here.
In dealing with the history of moving images, we may analyse to what aspects of the exterior world the attention has been drawn, in what ways they are seen, what feelings and values are associated with them and through what representational strategies they have been depicted. Early cinema around 1900 is a part of, and participates in, the visual culture of its time. Undertaking to understand the ways in which the new medium tried to attract its audiences should also entail the analysis of the kinds of ‘visual delights’ it had to offer them. The attempt to historically reconstruct its ‘ways of seeing’ with regard to its visual environment constitutes one approach to this question.
1. Albert Michotte van den Berck, ‘Le caractère de “réalité” des projections cinématographiques’, Revue Internationale de Filmologie 1, 3–4 (1948): 249–261.
2. Pierre Francastel, ‘Espace et Illusion’, Revue Internationale de Filmologie 2, 5 (1949): 65–74.
3. Albert Michotte van den Berck, ‘A propos de l’étude de M. P. Francastel “Espace et Illusion”’, Revue Internationale de Filmologie 2, 6 (1949/50): 139–140, quote p. 140. English translation quoted from Edward Lowry, The Filmology Movement and Film Study in France (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985), 131.
4. Francastel, ‘Espace et Illusion’, 66 (my translation).
5. Ibid. 68, quoted from the English translation in Lowry, The Filmology Movement and Film Study in France , 130.
6. Ibid.
7. Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘Technique et idéologie’, Cahiers du cinéma 229–240 (1971–1972); Sol Worth and John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1972); Paul Virilio, Guerre et cinéma I. Logistique de la perception (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma/Editions de l’Etoile, 1984).
8. David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1997), 139–146 and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley, CA et al.: University of California Press, 2005), 244–249. Roughly speaking, and without doing justice to all the nuances in the various contributions, one could say that the debate includes in particular David Bordwell and Charlie Keil on one side, and Tom Gunning and Ben Singer on the other.
9. Bordwell, On the History of Film Style , 146.
10. Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light , 247. When introducing a label such as ‘modernity thesis’ Bordwell, by the same token, ascribes a level of consistency to a body of work that is undoubtedly less dogmatic than the term might suggest.
11. Walter Benjamin, ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, in Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 10th ed., 1977), 7–44, quote p. 14. English quotation from the translation available online at (18 August 2008). The original German version is actually somewhat more nuanced in that it does not refer to ‘humanity’ in general but to ‘human collectivities’. See also Alois Riegl, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Berlin: Mann, 2000 [1901]); English translation: Late Roman Art Industry , trans. by Rolf Winkes (Rome: Bretschneider, 1985).
12. Bordwell, On the History of Film Style , 142.
13. Ibid.
14. Benjamin, ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, 14. ‘Die Art und Weise, in der die menschliche Sinneswahrnehmung sich organisiert – das Medium, in dem sie erfolgt – ist nicht nur natürlich, sondern auch geschichtlich bedingt.’ (‘The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.’)
15. Ibid., 39, note 29 (note 19 in the English translation). ‘The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus – changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.’
16. According to the entry ‘Apperzeption’ in Rudolf Eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe , Vol. 1, (Berlin: Mittler, 2nd edn, 1904), 58.
17. See also Noël Carroll, ‘Modernity and the Plasticity of Perception’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59, 1 (2001): 11–17. Carroll also attacks the so-called modernity thesis for postulating a transformation of human perception at a biological level. My thanks to Annemone Ligensa, who drew my attention to this text.
18. Bordwell, On the History of Film Style , 143 and 301, note 93. See also Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (London: Oxford University Press, 1972). Similarly, Carroll, in ‘Modernity and the Plasticity of Perception’, describes the difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘noticing’, the latter also being a matter of habits and skills.
19. I borrow this term from Martin Jay, who in turn borrows it from Christian Metz. See Martin Jay, ‘Scopic Regimes of Modernity’, in Hal Forster (ed.) Vision and Visuality (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1988), 3–23. Note that Jay in fact talks about a ‘plurality of scopic regimes’ with regard to modernity.
20. Bordwell, On the History of Film Style , 143.
21. Ibid., 146–147.
22. Ibid., 146; see also Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light , 246.
23. Tom Gunning, ‘Modernity and Early Cinema’, in Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 439–442, quote p. 441.
24. Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light , 245.
25. Gunning, ‘Modernity and Early Cinema’, 441.
26. For example, Jonathan Crary particularly addresses contemporary theories of perception, an approach which space does not permit me to adequately discuss here. See Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992) and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
27. See e.g. the excellent overview in Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), ‘ Chapter 1 : Meanings of Modernity’, 17–36.
28. Charles Baudelaire, Ecrits esthétiques (Collection 10/18, Paris: UGE, 1986) 360–404; Georg Simmel, ‘Die Grosstädte und das Geistesleben’, in Theodor Petermann (ed.), Die Grosstadt: Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung (Jahrbuch der Gehe-Stiftung, Vol. 9, Dresden: von Zahn & Jaensch, 1903), 185–206. English translation: ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in The Sociology of Georg Simmel , trans. by Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1964), 409–424.
29. See Henri Meschonnic, Modernité Modernité (Collection folio essais, Paris: Gallimard, 1993), 105–120.
30. Raymond Williams, Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 2007), 38.
31. Jacques Aumont, L’Image (Paris: Nathan, 1990), 147 and passim .
32. See my ‘The Cinema of Attractions as Dispositif ’, in Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 57–69, and also my ‘La cinématographie comme dispositif (du) spectaculaire’, Cinémas 14, 1 (2003): 21–34.
33. Obviously, cinema, as a medium, is dependent on modernity in a variety of ways: in order to come into existence, it needs the kind of mass audiences with enough leisure time and income to spend to turn it into a viable business, which, in turn, depends on the infrastructure of industrial production and distribution, on transportation networks etc.
34. I borrow this term from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999).
35. See, among others, Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris (Berkeley, CA et al.

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