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The Cinematic Regime: Biopolitics, Spectral Life, and the Crisis of Ontology
In 1895, the first cinema cameras — the US Vitascope, the German Bioscope, and the English Animatograph — were produced and patented almost simultaneously. The names of these new inventions made a powerful claim: the cinema will capture, or produce, life itself. But this cinematic mode of life is not confined to the movie theater. The world of the twentieth century is shaped by the spectral-spectacular life/death of the cinematic image. In this chapter, I will sketch out some of the central features of this regime of life so that, farther on, we will be able to closely track the transformations from the cinematic regime to the animatic apparatus.
As the new medium is born, so is a new kind of body with new senses of liveliness. These are the twinned and intertwined axes of the cinematic regime of production — as well as of the twentieth-century management of the human body theorized under the rubric of "biopolitics." The new medium is likewise linked with what we might call the cinematic "reality function," that is, the means through which at least much of twentieth-century film and film theory understands itself as existing, if complexly, in relation to what is commonly referred to as a "pro-filmic real." Finally, as Louis-Georges Schwartz remarks, this twentieth-century cinematic spectrality casts the philosopheme life/death into an undecidable, aporetic relation. Its liveliness is always ambivalent, oscillating, haunted. The cinematic regime operates in and as a kind of crisis in ontology.
As Giorgio Agamben describes it, we can see cinema as a kind of "eye" with a very particular relation to the living, human body (Agamben 2000, 50). Cinema, as I discuss it here, is a way of seeing, a form of technological vision that extends beyond the material production and spectatorship of films. It structures a way of seeing and a way of understanding visuality and its objects. It also produces a new understanding of living bodies; we can say, even, that it creates them.
A New Kind of Body
One of the cinema's most important technical precursors, the chronophotographic camera, was developed as a means to study the living body. The "chronophotographic gun" was a scientific imaging device developed by Etienne-Jules Marey that played a central role in the emerging discipline of physiology. Marey's object of study was animal motion. His camera captured twelve consecutive frames per second and displayed the images on a single plate. The task of this apparatus was to transcend the speed of the human eye in order to see the body in ways that human perception could not. It was able to break down bodily movement into its hitherto invisible constituent parts, making the living body available to study and analysis. Marey's chronophotographs showed the micro-movements involved in running, in jumping, in a successful — or failed — pole vault. It could analyze the gait of soldiers.
There's a story about Marey's more famous contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographs of horses running and women disrobing often grace the opening pages of film history textbooks, that illustrates the capacities and uses of these then-new high-speed imaging devices. Leland Stanford, the horse-owning former governor of California, wanted to settle a famous question about horses' gaits while trotting and galloping. The common consensus and the model for artists' depictions of horses held that horses always maintain one foot on the ground at a trot, while at a gallop, on the contrary, all four hooves leave the ground at once, with the horse's front legs stretching forward and its back legs stretched back. Muybridge used his own version of chronophotography to disprove both of these beliefs, beliefs incarnated for centuries in paintings and sculptures. Horses are in fact airborne while trotting, as they are at a gallop. In their galloping stride, all four legs leave the ground as they are drawn up under the horses' bodies, not as they stretch forward and back.
High-speed imaging overcame the limitations of the human eye to produce these renderings of horses' bodies in motion. From one perspective, cinema, because of its abilities to slow down and speed up the world, often has been seen as a kind of revelation machine, illuminating a previously unseen world. From another perspective, however, one stressed in the pioneering work of visual studies, the cinematic apparatus and its companions create a new world, one where the human body can appear at extra-human scales and speeds.
In the final chapter of Foucault's History of Sexuality, Volume 1, "Right of Death and Power Over Life," he describes the transformations in mechanisms of power that enable the development of the modern biopolitical state. Before the classical age, the form of sovereign power that "was formulated as the 'power of life and death'" was essentially deductive power, "in reality the right to take life or let live. Its symbol, after all, was the sword" (Foucault 1978, 137). This began to change in the seventeenth century, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the deductive power of the right to take life became just one part of a set of powers designed to "incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize" the vital forces of a population (137). "Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding," Foucault writes, "that power establishes its dominion" (138). Public health and housing initiatives, for example, protect and optimize the vital forces of states' populations with one hand and set up systems for surveilling, monitoring, and controlling them with the other. Once the management and optimization of forces of life becomes the political object par excellence, life also becomes the material for cultural and technological production of all kinds.
One of Marey's students proclaimed that Marey was not so much a scientist as "an engineer of life" (Rabinbach 1990, 90), and as we've begun to see, his chronophotographs have a proscriptive as well as descriptive function. A 1914 article in Scientific American, "The Human Body in Action," presents a very telling example:
It is perfectly apparent that from pictures such as [these], the athlete can learn much. He sees at once at what particular point of a movement he assumed an incorrect position, and why it is that he runs, walks, leaps, or fences inefficiently. At the Joinville School [a military training school in Joinville, France], they are used to record and register the physical conformation and development of the pupils before, during and after training. The studies thus obtained are applied in choosing and instructing the gymnastic staff of the French army.
Athletes see their bodies differently than they would in life, in a painting, or in a mirror. They see them from outside the possibilities of the human body itself, as objects of machine vision. They learn from this machine-produced body, incorporating its techniques into their own. Or, in this example as in many others, the institution (the Joinville School, the French Army) disciplines and administers these techno-bodies to their own particular ends.
These methods perhaps find their most famous incarnation in the "scientific management" inaugurated by Frederick Winslow Taylor's industrial efficiency and productivity analyses of just a few decades later. Taylor's method attempted to discover, through photographic and filmic analysis, any individual expressivity contained in the gestures of factory workers and to excise it in favor of perfectly homogeneous and efficient gestures synchronized with the movements of machines.
The study and management of corporeal practices thus are carried out through images; images are used to reprogram bodies. While Foucault himself never engaged biopolitics' entanglements with modern media, these images and associated practices are implicated in the biopolitical management of life. By the twentieth century, a "culture of life" emerges that produces and is produced by modern media.
With the Lumière brothers' synthesis and projection of images with their Cinématographe in 1895, the analytic sequence of bodily gestures returned as a form of spectral life. It would be almost impossible to overstate cinema's mutual imbrication with both popular and theoretical discourses of life — as well as practices of liveliness — across the twentieth century. In its early years, it was often referred to as "living photography." In 1896, the English version of a program that accompanies a screening of the Lumière brothers' films proclaims: "The interval during which one picture is substituted for a succeeding one is so infinitesimal that, the retina of the eye preserving one image until the next one takes its place, an effect of absolute continuity and perfect illusion of life is obtained" (Cholodenko 2000, 20). In 1926, film theorist Terry Ramsaye wrote that the cinema is "like the tree, clearly an organism, following organic law in its development," (Ramsaye 1926, xxxviii) while numerous other commentators reflected on cinema's uncanny ability to revivify the dead.
While early cinema's zoetropic monikers would be eclipsed by the term cinema's emphasis on movement, its interior preoccupations with — and productions of — its own particular liveliness continue unabated. In 1960, Siegfried Kracauer claimed that:
Due to the continuous influx of psychophysical correspondences thus aroused [by films, and more precisely, "cinematic films"], they suggest a reality which may fittingly be called "life." This term as used here denotes a kind of life which is still intimately connected, as if by an umbilical cord, with the material phenomena from which its emotional and intellectual contents emerge (Kracauer 1997, 71).
These entries into cinema's life discourses diverge in important ways. The Lumière film program celebrated the wondrous technology of cinema and its transcendence of human capacities to produce the illusion of life. Ramsaye departed from the emphasis on representation to assert that cinema is itself an organic, evolving being. Kracauer's suggestion that spectator, film, and material world are connected by an "umbilical cord" conjures an organic, symbiotic, nurturing relay. Here, "psychophysical correspondences" convey "emotional and intellectual contents" through the physical, material connections between life and cinema. Cinema is composed of and transmits vitality effects and affects.
As I discuss in more detail elsewhere, the gesture that is fragmented and analyzed in the physiology lab is returned in its spectral form in the movie theater. If the poles of cinematic life are the gestural fragment and the spectral survival of the image, the latter screens (in both senses) the former, encrypting the productive, biopolitical dimensions of cinema in the discourse of reflection, representation, and reality. In other words, the same set of techniques that open up a new kind of access to corporeal management and optimization for science, medicine, industry, and government also produce the luminous, larger-than-life bodies of the cinema. These two poles of the biopolitical-cinematic body subtend cinematic life, but the latter tend to occult the former. And the living human body is for the most part — even in abstract film and body horror, where it persists as absent referent or object to be transgressed — preserved or conserved as an autonomous, massy anatomical entity in an anthropocentric world, even where light, the machine, and an analytic eye intervene in its "revelation."
To emphasize this point about the twentieth century's sense of living bodies, even where Marey's images dove down below the full body of the organism — he developed a technique of graphic inscription which led to his invention of the cardiograph (with Auguste Chauveau in 1865), the pneumograph for respiration, and the myograph for nerve and muscle action — it was in the interest of imaging the mobility of what could hitherto only be viewed in immobility. He could explore bodies in living motion (rather than through studies of cadavers). His goal, that is, was to image what he described as "the functions of life, that is to say the play of the organs which anatomy has disclosed to us" (Marey 1868, 280). The functions of life are linked to a vision of the human body as an autonomous organism, as are the techniques he prescribes for the body's improvements. Life was a key term for Marey, and it is precisely this version of life — developed in Marey's physiology lab and becoming spectral in the films that the Lumière brothers and Georges Melies would make just a few years later — that no longer possesses the requisite stability to be the subject of representation, no longer may act as referent in the sense that Marey deploys it here.
Life, Death, and Ontological Crisis
Let's now look more closely at this spectral-spectacular cinematic life. There's a very striking — and instructive — moment in Fellini's 1987 Intervista. Two aging movie stars, Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, watch themselves in another Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, a film made twenty-seven years earlier. In La Dolce Vita, these two play almost impossibly beautiful people — she, a statuesque and voluptuous blonde, he, tall, dark, and handsome in an impeccably tailored mod suit — who are also paragons of the exploding global media spectacle circa 1960. She is an American screen goddess and he a celebrity gossip writer. (Marcello's colleague and sometime sidekick in the film, Paparazzo, will lend his name to the emerging "profession".) In the sequence they watch, a now hyper-iconic scene shot in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, they dance, talk, and kiss as dawn breaks. Watching these spectral images of their youthful selves, Marcello wistfully tilts his head; Anita wipes a tear from the corner of her eye — carefully, so as not to smudge her elaborate makeup.
This scene is Fellini's own nostalgic, elegiac, look back at his own career, but it is also a profound reflection on the cultural significance of the cinematic apparatus itself, and particularly its very special relation to time, life, and death. As Fellini's scene presents it, as a luminous, indexical inscription of a pro-filmic real, cinema's projected images and sounds revivify the world as it returns what has passed, and what has passed, along with the dead, always haunts the time-space of cinema's projected present. If, as Vivian Sobchack so aptly suggests, cinema is a form of cosmetic surgery —"its fantasies, its makeup, and its digital effects able to 'fix' (in the doubled sense of repair and stasis) and to fetishize and to reproduce faces and time as both 'unreel' in front of us"— it is, like its surgical counterpart, also always shadowed by its own undoing, haunted by the specter of temporality and decay (Sobchack 2012, 50).
The scene plays out across a series of layered topoi involving embodiment, temporality, reality — and a particular conception of life. To begin with, it is packed with bodies: If, as Sobchack details in a different context, a star actor always has at least four bodies, even in a single role — a no-body-in-particular, a personal body, a character body, and a star body — in this scenario, the bodies proliferate as we try to sort out the confrontations between them. To take Anita as our exemplar, four current bodies confront not just one but four former selves, and each confrontation is slightly different. She is nobody in particular looking across time at this revivification of a youthful body. At the same time she is the private person, Anita Ekberg, looking at a younger version of her personally identified self. She is also a character in one film looking at a character in another, an aging actress watching a young one in a now-iconic film, and an aging actress looking at herself not only as a young actress, but as a young star actress playing the urtype of the screen goddess.
In this relay of bodies, the older one cries from nostalgia for youth or dismay at age (or both), and the "real" body — despite its visual and visceral presence — is so overdetermined as to almost collapse under the combined weight(lessness) of the spectacle's spectral bodies. It's a story of time's passing. Its pathos comes from the pathos of aging itself, with its implication of the inevitability of death, from the particularity of this "tragedy" for the female body, the movie star, and the female star even more particularly, but also from the relationship between the "real" and the cinematic body — the former's subjection to the vagaries of time, decay, and death only amplified by the latter's silvery, luminous vitality. (I'm going to bracket the relevance of the shift from the cinematic to the animatic regime to issues of gender and sexuality here, but I will return to address it in Chapter 7.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Animatic Apparatus"
Copyright © 2017 Deborah Levitt.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Cinematic Regime: Biopolitics, Spectral Life, and the Crisis of Ontology 6
Chapter 2 The Animatic Apparatus: Desiring Images 19
Chapter 3 Phantasmatic Simulacra and Anti-Pinocchios 30
Chapter 4 The Doll Theme: Object Lessons in An-Ontology 47
Chapter 5 An-Ontology and Animatic Aesthetics 58
Chapter 6 Animatic Aesthetics, Part 2: Affects, Anagrams, Simulacra 66
Chapter 7 Animatic Pop: Body-as-Image, Image-as-Body 83
Conclusion: How-Ethics 109
Works Cited 140