Read an Excerpt
INVENTING FILM STUDIES
Duke University Press Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Cinema Studies and the Conduct of Conduct
* In his 1916 book The Photoplay: a Psychological Study, the philosopher and psychologist Hugo Münsterberg-a leading figure within applied psychology in America-argued that the "relation between the mind and the pictured scenes" is characterized in part by imaginative, emotional, and associative or memorial responses that find their "starting point" in the "outer impressions" of the photoplay and that are thus felt as "subjective supplements." In the photoplay, Münsterberg writes, "the massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness." Yet perception is not simply subjective, Münsterberg observes in his chapter "Memory and Imagination," for ideas can be "forced on us" through the "mental process" of "suggestion" and hence not "felt as our creation but as something to which we have to submit." Attention is "forced," that is, drawn away from the socially useful attentiveness critical to industrial discipline-and to the discipline of industrial psychology-toward a dangerously absorbed and directed attention. Outer impressions overwhelm the subject-spectator. In this way, film viewing, as an abandoning of conscious mental processes, is akin to hypnosis: "The extreme case is, of course, that of the hypnotizer whose word awakens in the mind of the hypnotized person ideas which he cannot resist. He must accept them as real." Audiences can thus be analogous to hypnotized subjects.
While the balance of this relation between the mind and pictured scenes was, for the neo-Kantian Münsterberg, in favor of the shaping influence of the mind, the converse of this influence, the power of movies over subject-spectators, hovers at the margins of his account of the psychology of the photoplay. In a curious passage toward the end of his chapter "Emotions," for example, he returned again to the example of hypnosis, invoked now as a way of explaining how emotions "take hold of us" in both a psychological and physical sense. To explain this emotional effect, Münsterberg imagines a scene from a film where a man is hypnotized in a doctor's office: "The doctor and the patient remain unchanged and steady, while everything in the whole room begins at first to tremble and then to wave and to change its form more and more rapidly so that a feeling of dizziness comes over us and an uncanny, ghastly unnaturalness overcomes the whole surrounding of the hypnotized person [and] we ourselves become seized by the strange emotion." Although technologically unrealizable, he admitted, the imagined scene of hypnosis was a compelling example for Münsterberg of the connections between "outer impressions" and the movie spectator's "submission" to the power of the other as a "seizure" of the conscious mind and a loss of self.
It was also certainly not a randomly chosen scene. Münsterberg was a trained doctor who had himself practiced hypnotic therapy-following the so-called Nancy school of Auguste Liébault and Hippolyte Bernheim-using the power of hypnosis as "suggestive therapeutics" to seek a cure for physical and psychological illnesses. For the self-confessed cinephile, watching pictured scenes placed Münsterberg on the other side of the doctor/patient and hypnotic relationship, rendering him dizzy with the uncanny and strange emotions dictated by the other.
Yet if this loosening of the connection to the "outer world" and the undermining of rational response was part of the pleasure of cinema for Münsterberg, explaining in part why he was "under the spell of the 'movies,'" it could also have deleterious social and psychic effects on other audience members who were not apparently capable of the self-discipline and absorbed attention of a university professor. Toward the close of his book, Münsterberg returned to the question of hypnotic suggestion, and the "seizing" of the emotions of audiences, to delineate these dangerous effects: "The intensity with which the plays take hold of the audience cannot remain without social effects ... The associations become as vivid as realities, because the mind is so completely given up to the moving pictures ... But it is evident that such a penetrating influence must be fraught with dangers. The more vividly the impressions force themselves on the mind, the more easily they become starting points for imitation and other motor responses ... The possibilities of psychical infection and destruction cannot be overlooked." Minds "forced" and "penetrated" by influences and impressions, hypnotized by the vivid intensity of cinema, were prone to imitative acts and corporeal "motor" responses that were potentially psychically and socially destructive. Watching pictured scenes threatened individual autonomy and civic responsibility for audiences unable to maintain the specular distance necessary for cognitive knowledge.
Written in 1916, Münsterberg's important and now canonical account of the psychology of the photoplay, and particularly his conception of the hypnotized spectator, was consistent with broad currents of thought in the human sciences that conceived of selfhood as fundamentally experiential and as "suggestible" and thus malleable or plastic. The explosion of work on hypnosis in the late nineteenth century that influenced Münsterberg in various ways had, for many others also, shown the suggestible nature of people and the complex imbrication of self and other. In turn, the development of psychology, crowd psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and social psychology further challenged the Cartesian ontology of the subject as autonomous, preexisting consciousness to posit a conception of the self as divided, as essentially social, and thus as derived from relationships with others.
In the context of this rearticulation of dominant ideas about selfhood, the question of mimesis became central to the varied sciences of the human and of society: the individual, it was widely argued, develops a self through mimetic contact with others (be that individuals or broad "attitudes" or "folkways"), thus becoming in some respects what the psychologist James Mark Baldwin called a "copying machine." Mimetic contact in turn both underpinned and potentially problematized what was widely called "social control," or the foundations of sociality and social order. In this sense, the human and social sciences, as the quest for knowledge about psychology and social groupings, were connected to the increasingly pressing need to guide "the conduct of conduct" of mass publics in the newly configured gesellschaft of urban modernity. Ambivalence about mimesis and the movies-about cinema as what the social reformer Jane Addams called "this mimic stage"-emerged in early-twentieth-century America in the intellectual and social context of work in the human sciences. The initiation of the serious study of cinema as exemplified by the thoughts of Münsterberg was fundamentally shaped by the work on subjectivity, mimesis, and governance that characterized social thought in early-twentieth-century America. Knowing cinema, and what it did to people and social groups, was for a time important to the broader governmental project of knowing people in order to act upon their conduct.
I thus begin this essay by mapping out in some detail the intellectual context that underpinned the emergence of the study of cinema as an object of the human sciences in America in the early twentieth century. I continue by examining the investigations of cinema, including social reform, government, and academic accounts, that emerged most clearly in the post-nickelodeon era and extended to, most famously, the Payne Fund Studies of the late 1920s and early 1930s. My endpoint corresponds with the consolidation of the conception of the study of cinema as a humanities subject. Yet it is worth noting that the historical divide between cinema as an object first of the human sciences and then of the humanities is not an absolute one. Indeed, I conceive of my task here as one of sketching out lines of genealogical descent. In other words, my account of the initiation of the study of cinema is guided also by the belief that the constellation of ideas about cinema, mimesis, and governance has continually and complexly informed the academic study of cinema across the social sciences and humanities, with cinema variously conceived as a form of mass culture and pernicious visual pleasure. I outline some of the parameters of these overlaps in the final section of this essay. I hope in doing so to point to what is recurrent, and in an important sense, structural, in the scholarship conducted on cinema throughout the twentieth century.
In his 1886 book De la suggestion et de ses applications à la thérapeutique (translated in 1889 as Suggestive Therapeutics: A Treatise on the Nature and Uses of Hypnotism), professor of medicine Hippolyte Bernheim defined "suggestion" as "the production of a dynamic change in the nervous system of a person ... by another person by means of the calling forth of representations or ideas." It is "suggestion that rules hypnotism," Bernheim argued, making hypnotic phenomena a consequence of "the influence exerted by an idea which has been suggested to, and received by, the mind." Images thus "created" in the minds of people are "like a living memory, which governs them to such an extent as to appear an incontestable reality." Arguing for the importance of suggestion to the formation of subjectivity, Bernheim proposed that the subject was penetrated by the discourse of the other and hence not fully conscious to him/ herself-thus functioning as a kind of somnambulist or automaton. We are all open to this power of suggestion, Bernheim proposed, for at base the subject is a highly plastic, receptive material, bearing the imprint of the other as suggestion. Or put another way, as Sigmund Freud observed in the preface to his translation of Bernheim into German: suggestion forms the subject.
The early work on suggestion, hypnosis, and the mimetic relation to others thus effectively offered a model of the mind as doubled or fragmented, leading to a reconceptualization of mental topography, a radical revaluation of the autarchy of the Cartesian subject, and thus to a conception of a lability central to identity. Imitation of others was at the base of the subject and hence the subject was socially formed, given a broad definition of "the social" as the effect of others. The mimetic paradigm was widely influential in the human and social sciences, providing a key structuring principle for the explosion of theories of subjectivity and social order in the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis in the late nineteenth century. Ideas about suggestibility and mimesis immediately informed the development of theories of collective psychology in the 1880s and 1890s. In seeking to describe and explain the phenomenon of collective behavior, scholars like Scipio Sighele in Italy, Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon in France, and Robert Park and Boris Sidis in the United States utilized ideas about suggestion and imitation to argue that collectivities of various kinds were drawn together by the power of suggestion and, furthermore, that the social was itself predicated on mimetic connections. The criminologist Gabriel Tarde in his influential book of 1890, translated into English as The Laws of Imitation in 1903, thus utilized ideas of hypnotic relations to develop an account of the interdependency of sociality and mimesis. As Tarde wrote: "Society may ... be defined as a group of beings who are apt to imitate one another," and thus imitation was "the elementary social phenomenon," the "fundamental social fact." Tarde's account of the importance of mimesis to collectivities and to sociality effectively extended Bernheim's account of the centrality of mimesis to subjectivity. Mimesis stood at the center of subject and social formation. Writing in the context of the perceived social and moral fragmentation of modernity and the attendant social crises, crowd psychologists viewed with considerable alarm the suggestible and irrational nature of collectivities. Tarde and Sighele, both criminologists, connected the heightened suggestibility of individuals in crowds to criminal acts. Crowds were, above all else, incapable of self-government. In his popular 1895 book La Psychologie des foules, translated in 1896 as The Crowd, Le Bon asserted that the individual in the crowd behaved like "the hypnotized subject" by undertaking the "accomplishment of certain acts with irresistible impetuosity." In this sense crowds were prone to irrational, dangerous, and impetuous antisocial acts. Rhetoric about suggestion, imitation, and crowd behavior was closely tied to anxieties about the governance of mass publics, forming one part of the invention of the new epistemological and, in turn, institutional practices to govern individuals and populations flourishing in late-nineteenth-century modernity.
Le Bon argued that crowds were particularly susceptible to the influence of images: "Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be impressed by images. It is only images that attract them and become motives for action ... Nothing has a greater effect on the imagination of crowds than theatrical representations." He would later go so far as to argue that cinema, the mass distribution of images, should be placed in the hands of government. Likewise, Tarde connected imitation to the power of images. Imitation was, he wrote, "the action at a distance of one mind upon another," or "the quasi-photographic reproduction of a cerebral image upon the sensitive plate of another brain." Imitation is thus "every impression of inter-psychical photography, so to speak, willed or not willed, passive or active." Later, a social psychologist writing on spectatorship would describe processes of suggestibility as like "a motion picture stamped on the film of associative memory." Tarde's account suggested that imitation functioned through images, and that the visual was critical to processes of mimesis. Language about representations, images, photography, and even motion pictures pervaded the rhetoric about suggestibility and imitation. Minds were particularly malleable in relation to images, this work suggested, a malleability that could be socially and politically problematic.
Work on mimesis from Europe, particularly that by Tarde, transformed American social thought from the late nineteenth century, informing the establishment of the human sciences as universitydisciplines. William James, for example, included a chapter on hypnosis in his extremely influential book Principles of Psychology in 1890, in which he observes that hypnotized subjects "repeat whatever they hear you say, and imitate whatever they see you do." Imitation is important to self-formation, James argued, like Bernheim and others, and thus the self is inextricably enmeshed with the social. Likewise, the psychologist James Mark Baldwin utilized Tarde's work on mimesis to develop an account of mental development in children. Imitation and "ideomotor responses" were critical for the development of selfhood, Mark Baldwin argued, a process that passes through the "projective stage," where the child receives impressions "of a model as a photographic plate receives an image," to the "subjective stage," where the child then assumes the movements and attitudes of the model and becomes what Baldwin termed a "veritable copying machine." "The self," Baldwin wrote, "is realized in taking copies from the world." In these important and influential accounts of the functioning of the mind, mimesis-again understood as connected to representations as mediated events-was thus posited as central to subject formation. James and Baldwin understood the mind and self to be a consequence of interaction and imitative responses with, and to, others. Implicit here was the import of thinking carefully about images.
Excerpted from INVENTING FILM STUDIES Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.