Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology, and the Silent Cinema

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In Picturing American Modernity, Kristen Whissel investigates the relationship between early American cinema and the experience of technological modernity. She demonstrates how between the late 1890s and the eve of the First World War moving pictures helped the U.S. public understand the possibilities and perils of new forms of "traffic" produced by industrialization and urbanization. As more efficient ways to move people, goods, and information transformed work and leisure at home and contributed to the expansion of the U.S. empire abroad, silent films presented compelling visual representations of the spaces, bodies, machines, and forms of mobility that increasingly defined modern life in the United States and its new territories.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Picturing American Modernity is a noteworthy contribution to the ongoing historiographic reworking of early cinema history. It is based on excellent archival work, which leads to new conclusions about the complex forces that shaped the cinema in its first two decades.”—Anne Friedberg, author of The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft

“In Picturing American Modernity, Kristen Whissel thinks through the relation between early cinema and American culture at the turn of the century in imaginative and original ways. Probing cinema’s interaction with both current events and other forms of mass entertainment (such as the Spanish-American War, the World Expositions, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show), Whissel traces the creation of a new mass audience and cinema’s role in shaping the culture of American imperialism. Her in-depth analysis of the films Traffic in Souls and Shoes reveals that the concept of ‘traffic’ can also organize strategies of film narration, as the cinema began to define itself as a new form of storytelling and national identity.”—Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342014
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kristen Whissel is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Traffic, Technology, and the Silent Cinema
By Kristen Whissel


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4201-4

Chapter One


War Actualities, American Modernity, and Military Masculinity

In August 1898 The Century magazine published accounts of naval battles fought during the Spanish-American War in which the United States defeated Spain to establish military, political, and economic dominance in the Western Hemisphere. As Captain John W. Philip of the USS Texas, after detailing the courage, efficiency, and technological mastery of his crew in battle, lamented: "I shall ever regret that the snap shot of the crew of the boat ... proved to be a failure, the films being ruined by sulphur. The crew was muscular and well developed, stripped to the waist and their bodies were besmeared with perspiration and the refuse of burnt powder. They were a mild and well-disposed set of men, but they looked angry." Although Captain Philip regretted the destruction of this particular photograph, the early cinema more than compensated for the loss. The Edison Manufacturing Co.'s war actuality films provided civilians with numerous life-size moving images of military men (at times "muscular and developed" and "stripped to the waist") who promised to rescue Cuba from an oppressive Spanish colonial regime and in the process deliver the United States from the ills of technological modernity. With the ability to reproduce "life-size" images of bodies in motion and views of disparate and distant points around the globe, moving pictures were particularly well suited to give new and compelling visibility to an emergent imperial masculinity. Following the declaration of war, the Edison Manufacturing Co. dispatched its newly licensed cameraman William Paley to military camps in Tampa, Florida (which served as a point of departure for troops and ships headed for Cuba and Puerto Rico), and then later arranged for Paley's transport to Cuba on one of the New York Journal's news yachts. The resulting films found in Edison's War Extra catalogue promised exhibitors films that "are sure to satisfy the craving of the general public for absolutely true and accurate details regarding the movements of the United States Army getting ready for the invasion of Cuba." Focusing on short bursts of "purposeful" movement, films shot at the military camp in Tampa make visible the kinetic movement and circulation of the male body in motion preparing for the conquest of the new overseas empire. In turn, naval views exhibit battleships adorned with "bustling" activity and the flag, thereby displaying in a single image the synthesis of militarized masculinity, powerful technology, and patriotism. Such films proved to be exceedingly popular with the audiences that flocked to venues such as New York's Eden Musée to see them, thereby "bringing moving pictures into an unprecedented number of metropolitan theatres" and revitalizing a flagging film industry.

In doing so, the moving pictures joined a range of other mass cultural forms in generating images of disciplined white male bodies harnessed to military technologies that came to represent a newly forged national-imperial identity based on an amalgamation of social Darwinism, the imperatives of industrial capitalism, the myth of the frontier, and the ideology of manifest destiny. The proliferation of such images in the sphere of commercialized leisure was joined by a resurgence of claims to an Anglo-Saxon virility that had led the "English-speaking race" to conquer and civilize vast areas and populations around the world. These discursive constructions provided compelling counternarratives to the all-too-familiar image of an enervated male body exhausted and effeminized by the demands of industrial capitalism and technological modernity that circulated throughout popular American culture. Moreover, they seemed to provide evidence that despite the increased participation of the New Woman in suffrage, reform, and anti-imperialist movements and the increased presence of immigrants in politics, the workplace, and the spheres of commercialized leisure, native-born Anglo-American men might once again strengthen their privileged grip on political legitimacy, cultural authority, and social control.

The emergence of this new image of martial masculinity on moving picture screens arrived at an opportune moment, for alarmists had repeatedly warned their fellow Americans that if native white masculinity declined as a result of the exigencies and excesses of modern life, so too would American "civilization." In the last decades of the nineteenth century, such concerns had brought American masculinity under the scrutiny of an older generation of male scientists, adventurers, psychologists, reformers, military veterans, and educators who described the younger generation as "unnatural," "degenerate," "effeminate," "over-civilized," "neurasthenic," and therefore in need of reform. As Gaylyn Studlar has shown, this group of specialists promoted a range of semicompulsory activities (scouting, competitive athletics, hunting trips, etc.) that would revitalize and strengthen individual character. As part of this trend, the discipline of military life was promoted as a corrective for the modern ills that plagued the male body and the national body. T. J. Jackson Lears has shown that a culturally powerful "martial ideal emerged as a popular antidote to over-civilization. Joining transatlantic currents of romantic activism, it animated cults of strenuosity and military prowess; it influenced literature and social thought, education and foreign policy. Though conventional wisdom dismissed war as an anachronism, many Americans began to hope that the warrior might return to redeem them from enervation and impotence." Hence, in 1898 war with Spain was welcomed in newspapers (especially William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal), magazines, and vaudeville houses as an opportunity to build male bodies and, in the process, national character.

The actuality films described in the Edison Manufacturing Co.'s War Extra catalogue give insight into how the early American cinema's encounter with empire helped reformulate the relationship between modern technology, masculinity, and national-racial identity in late-nineteenth-century American culture. In many respects, these war films drew from and transformed existing early film genres with which moving picture audiences were perhaps already familiar. To be sure, like travelogues and panoramic views war films gave audiences visual access to distant spaces and sights of great topical interest, and so participated in the cinema's characteristic annihilation of space and time. However, the cinema's "mobile virtual gaze" (to use Anne Friedberg's term) took on the added feature of allowing civilians illusory participation in the mass mobilization of troops first to Florida and later to Cuba and the Philippines, thereby conflating the cinematic "journey" with the military mission to incorporate audiences visually into the circuits of imperial traffic. The film Morro Castle, Havana Harbor (Edison, 1898) provides a case in point. Made after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, this film provided audiences with a view of the old fortress shot from the deck of a moving vessel. The catalogue description for the film explained that "an excellent view is afforded of the entire fortress. Waves are seen dashing up against the rocks at the foot of the abutments. The lighthouse and sentry box are so near that the guard is plainly seen pacing up and down. The photograph is excellent, and in view of a probable bombardment, when the old fashioned masonry will melt away like butter under the fire of 13-inch guns, the view is of historic value."

Not only did this film bring audiences to the site of impending conflict, it also provided a visual context for imagining the potential destruction to be wrought by the navy in upcoming battles. However, the absence of any visible trace of the agents of the military power of the United States makes Morro Castle different from most of the other films in the War Extra Catalogue. More often than not, the primary attraction displayed by war films were the spectacles of an ideologically powerful and visually compelling imperial masculinity harnessed to new military technologies. In this chapter I analyze the participation of Edison's Spanish-American War pictures in a broader cultural project that subjected American masculinity to a scrutinizing gaze. As I will show, the visual pleasure provided by these films derived not simply from their topicality but also from their ability to invest curious audiences with a disciplinary gaze able to observe and inspect soldiers as they prepared for war, marched in formation, engaged in drills and target practice, or simply carried out the everyday activities of camp life such as bathing and eating. By positioning audiences this way, the moving pictures endowed them with the illusory power of circulating alongside imperial traffic and operating, however briefly, within the military's scopic regime.

Attention to catalogue descriptions is crucial to establishing the broader interpretive horizon in which these films were projected and consumed. As Charles Musser argues about early nonfiction films, "A simple viewing of these films might suggest a comparative 'value-free' depiction of events. The catalogue descriptions, however, indicate that this was not the case. Such texts were often adapted for a lecture to accompany the film's screening. In any case, they articulate the framework within which contemporary spectators were viewing the films." Indeed, catalogue descriptions point to the features and details that the films' producers themselves sought to trade upon.

Though extremely valuable, catalogue descriptions alone cannot flesh out the broader social, political, cultural, and interpretive context in which these films resonated; and so I turn to articles and personal accounts found in the magazines that were such an important part of the world of commercialized leisure at the turn of the century. As Richard Ohmann has shown, the broad circulation of monthly magazines in the 1890s helped integrate the nation into what Benedict Anderson calls an "imagined community" based on shared experiences of leisure and consumption. Together these sources suggest that the war actuality played a significant role in shaping the early cinema's ability to allow audiences to see (and perhaps make sense of) American modernity, the new overseas empire, and the place that the United States would occupy on the world stage. As part of this process, the cinema participated in the struggle over changing definitions of nation, gender, and race resulting from complex and often contradictory social, cultural, economic, and political changes that stemmed from processes of industrialization taking place at home and around the globe. In what follows, I will focus on the war actuality's discursive construction of a rejuvenated white masculinity that was manufactured in response to such changes, oftentimes at the expense of African American masculinity, the New Woman, and newly conquered overseas populations. Significantly, the war actuality helped refashion the image of American military masculinity into one of modern mobility that was iconic of the efforts of the United States to expand its commercial and political power around the globe.

Curing the Ills of Industrialization: Overseas Empire, Modernity, and American Masculinity

The historian Amy Kaplan has argued that following the closing of the American frontier in the 1880s the prospect of a new overseas empire helped refashion concepts of the nation: "With the end of continental expansion, national power was no longer measured by the settlement and incorporation of new territory consolidated into a united state, but instead by the extension of vaster yet less tangible networks of international markets and political influence." Such changes led the naval officer and theorist Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan to urge Americans to turn their "eyes outward, instead of inward only, to seek the welfare of the country," for, he noted, "there is a restlessness in the world which is deeply significant if not ominous." To protect the United States from foreign restlessness, and, moreover, to take advantage of distant markets overseas, Mahan argued that the United States needed to build up its naval power and establish "points of support" and "means of influence" on the islands peppering the Caribbean and the Pacific. To justify such endeavors, Mahan invoked what he called a "fundamental truth": "That the control of the seas, and especially along the great lines drawn by national interest or national commerce, is the chief among the material elements in the power and prosperity of nations. It is so because the sea is the world's great medium of circulation." For Mahan, the strength and integrity of the nation's continental core depended upon the circulation of modern American power and commodities throughout a strategically mapped network of naval bases, markets, annexes, and protectorates linked by the supporting technologies of the steamship, railway, and telegraph. This web of commercial and military technologies would help establish a vast commercial empire that would open up new Asian markets-particularly in China-as outlets for the surplus production that was depressing the domestic market. In short, Mahan advocated extending throughout much of the globe the traffic network that spanned the continental United States, thereby accelerating the circulation of commodities and machines to new and highly profitable markets.

This bid for an overseas empire necessarily entailed a shift in the technology of American expansionism, and in the early 1890s the United States began to build its modern battleship fleet. In pro-imperial discourse the railway lost its status as the primary vehicle for expansion, and thus it functioned less to extend the nation's continental boundaries than it did to bind the nation into a commercial-industrial unity. For example, in comparing the railway to the steamship following the close of the continental frontier, Commodore G. W. Melville argued in the North American Review that "on the land, rails of steel, traversing valley, plain, and mountain, make easy the path of the flying express and the fast freight, which, together, conquer time and distance in the binding into a homogeneous whole of the many States which form a republic almost continental in extent; but the railroad is a fixed, permanent way, whose direction varies only with new constructions. The sea, on the contrary, gives a track-fluid, mobile, universal-which turns wherever swift prows may point, and on which massive hulls, much too huge for any form of land transit, may pass with ease from port to port." Thus, following a "fluid, mobile, universal" track the steamship emerged in the 1890s as the primary vehicle for circulating military and commercial traffic in the United States and hence for imagining and acquiring a commercial and territorial overseas empire.


Excerpted from PICTURING AMERICAN MODERNITY by Kristen Whissel 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.

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Table of Contents


1 The Early Cinema Encounters Empire: War Actualities, American Modernity, and Military Masculinity....................21
2 Placing Audiences on the Scene of History: Modern Warfare and the Battle Reenactment at the Turn of the Century....................63
3 Electric Modernity and the Cinema at the Pan-American Exposition: The City of Living Light....................117
4 Regulating Mobility: Traffic, Technology, and Feature-Length Narrativity....................161
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