The Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory offers a unique and progressive survey of screen theory and how it can be applied to a range of moving-image texts and sociocultural contexts. Focusing on the “handbook” angle, the book includes only original essays from established authors in the field and new scholars on the cutting edge of helping screen theory evolve for the twenty-first-century vistas of new media, social shifts and geopolitical change. This method guarantees a strong foundation and clarity for the canon of film theory, while also situating it as part of a larger genealogy of art theories and critical thought, and reveals the relevance and utility of film theories and concepts to a wide array of expressive practices and specified arguments. The Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory is at once inclusive, applicable and a chance for writers to innovate and really play with where they think the field is, can and should be heading.
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About the Author
Hunter Vaughan is associate professor of cinema studies at Oakland University, USA. His work focuses on environmental media, screen theory and philosophy, and issues of identity and ethics in visual culture. He is the author of Where Film Meets Philosophy (2013), Screen Life and Identity: A Guide to Film and Media Studies (with Meryl Shriver-Rice, 2017) and Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret (forthcoming).
Tom Conley is the Lowell Professor in Visual and Environmental Studies and Romance Languages at Harvard University, USA. He is the author of Film Hieroglyphs (1991/2006) and Cartographic Cinema (2007), and co-editor of the Wylie-Blackwell Companion to Godard (2014).
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THE BRAIN'S LABOR: ON MARXISM AND THE MOVIES
Karl Marx died in 1883. He was buried in a Victorian cemetery in Highgate, North London. Still today, a small but regular flow of tourists from across the globe visits the grave, where the British communist party built a tombstone with a portrait bust in 1954 (Figure 1.1). Some of them bring flowers, some even burst to sing aloud "The Internationale" in front of the cenotaph. But, very rarely do these visitors happen to cross another grave, which is located off the beaten track at the far side of the cemetery, next to the fence that borders Swain's Lane and the mock Tudor houses from the 1920s. This is where we encounter the grave of William Friese-Greene, a British entrepreneur and early pioneer in the development of moving picture technology in the United Kingdom (Figure 1.2). Friese-Greene passed away in 1921.
Surely, it is merely a coincidence that these two individuals came to share the same cemetery. The spatial proximity of Marx's and Friese-Greene's earthly remains nonetheless suggests resonations and overlaps between the two key historical forces of modernity these two individuals were part of, and in many ways epitomized. In this respect, a visit to the Highgate cemetery today brings about a certain sentiment of loss, even nostalgia. On the one hand, we remember the individual who gave his name to one of the defining political worldviews and philosophies of the twentieth century, a worldview that is increasingly undermined by the triumph of the current neoliberal form of capitalism.
On the other hand, we are reminded of a person who, even if he holds merely a minor position in the (pre)histories of cinema written today, contributed to the birth of a medium that is now losing its status as the leading global cognitive and cultural technology.
Digitalization and neoliberalism — those are the predatory forces (tightly married to one another, one could argue) that have been eroding the subjects of this essay: films and Marxism.
But how are we to map cinema in relation to Marxist thought? Marx, as is known, was a philosopher and political economist of German Jewish origin, famous for his theory of historical materialism — stipulating, to put it crudely, that a society's means of production determine its makeup. He was above all a theorist of the industrial age, a sharp critic of the forms of capital accumulation and exploitation of labor force that various amalgamations of human and machine performance and the emergence of mass-production methods gave rise to in the nineteenth century. His analyses emphasized material relations of doing and making of which, he argued, everything else — philosophical ideas, religions, moralities, aesthetic judgments — were mere sublimations. Marx announced that historical materialism was a matter:
Not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. (Marx and Engels 1998, 42)
With this in mind, when pacing from Marx's grave to Friese-Greene's, the idle visitor to the Highgate cemetery can draw parallels between capitalism and the beginnings of movies in several ways. She or he can, for instance, view cinema as part of the technological system of production and circulation that supported the rise of industrial and consumer capitalism — of railways and automobiles that brought about new velocities, of semi-automated industrial machines that required workers to adjust to their monotonous rhythms. Cinema and new transport technologies both exemplified how, as Marx pointed out, "capital [...] drives beyond every spatial barrier." Marx noted that capitalism is in the first instance a question of managing time, of "the annihilation of space by time," which becomes "an extraordinary necessity for it" (1993, 524). In this respect, when thinking about the immediate historical precursors of the movie machine, the visitor may also remember, among other things, the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographic experiments with the dynamics of human and other animals, which disclosed an organic link between the recording of movement and time, and the control and administration of bodies. In Marey's experiments, which fed into the so-called rationalization of labor in Taylorism, cinema began as a machine for calculating the body's expenditure of energy and for optimizing how one is to move one's body when performing a particular task. Cinema thus began as the capture and organization of the time of living labor (see Crary 2013, 62).
The history of cinema aligned early on with the epistemic and pragmatic concerns of industrial labor and capital accumulation. Not surprisingly, one of the first films made by Auguste and Louis Lumière — the Frenchmen known for their invention of the cinématographe — portrayed a group of workers (mostly females) marching out the gate to the brothers' factory in the Lyon suburbs, having apparently ended the day's work of manufacturing the photographic plates and paraphernalia that Auguste and Louis were, and still are, famous for (Figure 1.3). In this instance, cinema wanted to impose its presence at the moment the day's work was over; it appeared, not inside the factory, but when individual narratives could restart after having escaped the factory's confines, the evening involving the promise of a chance encounter or just the repetition of ordinary routines. Cinema, the Lumière brothers' Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895) suggests, has ever since its beginning been an art of the masses, of the anonymous crowds that flock in and out the gates of factories as well as office buildings.
The gate in Workers marks a threshold between two critical poles: production and consumption. Labor, the film reminds us, is what keeps the movies going — the labor of both manufacturing and consuming. What Marx was acutely aware of was that labor is a world-changing process: it transforms one thing into another, a piece of metal into a spoon, a piece of cloth into a shirt, nitrocellulose (and other materials) into celluloid film and so on. However, by labor power, Marx noted (1990, 283), we not only act upon external nature and change it, but also simultaneously change our own nature. Labor produces us: it is a dynamic, temporal process of "becoming," if you will. So is the labor of making and watching films.
How might making and watching films shape us and the world in which we live in? This is the conundrum that has preoccupied Marx-inspired film theory and practice since the early twentieth century. On one side, Marxist critics have often denounced the cinema as an industry of dreams, the primary purpose of which is to allow moments of escapism for capitalism's alienated individuals. Siegfried Kracauer (1995, 326) asserted in the 1920s how the masses had become "addicted to distraction" that the movies offer them, captivated by auditory and visual "stimulations of the senses that succeed one another with such rapidity that there is no room left between them for even the slightest contemplation." Theodor W. Adorno (1995, 25), for one, complained that "every visit to the cinema leaves me, despite all my vigilance, stupider and worse." Adorno's critique focused on cinema (and other modern media) as "culture industry" and social regimentation, which, rather than changing prevailing historical and material conditions, only reinforces them, producing individuals "without autonomy of substance of their own" (Adorno 1995, 15).
On the other side, however, cinema has also given us a powerful, often utopian promise of contributing to the class struggle, of allowing the working class to assert their autonomy and to capture the means of production into their own hands. Cinema's emancipatory potential was perhaps most extensively and acutely taken up in the newly founded Soviet Russia of the 1920s, where links between cinema and labor became articulated not only in terms of alienation, but also in terms of social change. "Of all the arts for us cinema is the most important," Vladimir Lenin famously exclaimed in 1922, about five years after the Bolshevik revolution (Taylor 1979, 26). By this he meant, to be sure, cinema's significance as a propaganda machine, its power to get the message across, so to speak, to as many people as possible, literate as well as illiterate. Yet more importantly, Lenin was alluding to cinema's key role in the process of social transformation, in mobilizing the masses in the class struggle as well as in giving birth to the new communist society. We know the role that several film directors (who were simultaneously also early theorists of film) played in this process, from Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov to Sergei Eisenstein. Film was seen as a primary means to give rise to the revolutionary collective consciousness, and even as a "cyborg" system in which the hardware of cinema could merge with the wetware of our bodies and minds and thus give rise to a "new, perfect man" (Vertov 1984, 17).
Overall, we might now be in a better position to plot a path from Marx to cinema and back. Pacing from Marx's grave to Friese-Greene's can indeed take several intellectual directions. On the one hand, Marx's critique of capitalism has provided conceptual background for a wide range of theories of cinema as a capitalist machinery of exploitation and appropriation. On the other, his thinking has also been essential to explorations of cinema's political potential, the medium's promise to give birth to a new society, even a new type of human. The intention of what follows is to mainly follow the former path, and to investigate some of the key concerns of critical Marxist theorization of films. The following paragraphs will explore critiques of cinema as an industry of money and dreams, of "girls and guns," as Jean-Luc Godard put it. The chosen path will take us from Marx's critique of commodity to the development of modern film theory in the 1960s and 1970s and the critique of mainstream spectatorship, in particular, as well as to recent reassessments of Marxist thought in the so-called post-cinematic age.
It will obviously leave several alternative paths unexplored concerning the development of political cinema, for instance, including the Soviet filmmakers noted above as well as the decolonial projects of the 1960s and 1970s such as the "Third Cinema" manifesto driven by a desire to create "a subversive culture capable of contributing to the downfall of capitalist society" (Getino and Solanas 1969, 107). At the end of the essay, however, we will pause on some perhaps now obscure concepts and images from the first half of the twentieth century so as to understand what an emancipatory politics of cinema might mean.
In 1889, six years after Marx was buried, Friese-Greene filed a patent for his apparatus of making "animated photographs," a patent that, we are told, "contained many of the features of the future movie camera proper" (Chanan 1996, 89). Very soon after filing the patent, Friese-Greene, at least according to his own account, sent a description of his invention to Thomas Alva Edison in the United States. Historians can only speculate whether Friese-Greene's invention was of essential inspiration to the kinetoscope, a motion picture exhibition device developed by Edison and his employee William Dickson. But what historians can confirm is that with Edison, if not with Friese-Greene, a long story of moving images meant for mass consumption began; a story of entertainment parlors equipped with various kinds of apparatuses, from kinetoscopes (Figure 1.4) designed for individual observers to vitascopes (Figure 1.5) amassing, like the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, large numbers of spectators transfixed on the screen, each displaying varying cinematic contents to trigger the consumers' pleasure nerves.
What can be said about these contents? About the parents feeding the baby on a summer's day, the gardener being tormented by a boy or the little child tormenting a goldfish, that the Lumière brothers' famous first commercial cinema show at the Grand Café in Paris, on the December 28, 1895, put on display? Likewise, where shall we place the boxing cats, or the Sioux Indians performing a ghost and a buffalo dance, that populated the visions of those who paid a nickel for the opportunity to peep into Edison's kinetoscopes? One crucial point to note is that, from early on in the movies, images became treated as commodities: as products of mass labor meant to be exchanged on the "market," that is to say, within networks of circulation and reception. As Walter Benjamin (1968) observed in the 1930s, in the age of "mechanical reproduction" (photography and cinema), images have acquired the status of commodities in the sense of ephemeral copies to be traded without any essential difference between them, losing thus their historical religious functions (as objects of worship) and artistic values (as aesthetic experience).
Benjamin was indebted to the critique of commodity — this "very strange thing" (Marx 1990, 163) — that Marx put forward in the volume one of The Capital (1867). Marx was puzzled by how the objects of utility that individuals manufacture can become abstracted from their immediate, practical uses and be attributed with other kinds of properties and values. Most notably, he wanted to understand how labor power is turned into exchange value when its products are traded for each other or for money. Commodities are precisely objects that have become abstracted as items of exchange, objects that thereby crystallize the economic structure of capitalism. Today, perhaps more than ever, our lives are saturated by such things — Apple iPhones, Gucci handbags, Levi's jeans, you name it. What is crucial is that these products have come to mediate and structure our social relations, exchanges of looks, gestures, smiles and words. The commodity, Marx (1990, 165; 1991, 72) wrote, "is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them the fantastic [phantasmagorische] form of a relation between things." Commodities thus, in Marx's terminology, "reify" social relations, meaning that our relationships with ourselves and with others around us become expressed in terms of traded things. The power of commodities lies precisely in this objectification of the human world.
The English translation of Capital somewhat occludes the media's historical underpinnings of Marx's analysis. The original German word Marx used to describe the work of commodities — phantasmagorische, "phantasmagorical" — we should note, bears the trace of a popular entertainment form from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Phantasmagoria was a type of magic lantern spectacle that dealt with ghostly apparitions and everything otherworldly (Figure 1.6) — and as such also a veritable visual innovation of its times (see Mannoni 2000, 136– 75). Magic lanterns mounted on wheels, and always hidden behind a screen, projected images that grew or diminished as quickly as they appeared and disappeared. Not only solid objects but also smoke were used as projection surfaces to create vibrating, eerie visual impressions. These projections would mediate between the living and the dead, as a phantasmagoria showman going under the pseudonym Paul Philidor claimed:
I will bring before you all the illustrious dead, all those whose memory is dear to you and whose image is still present for you. I will not show you ghosts, because there are not such things; but I will produce before you enactments and images, which are imagined to be ghosts, in the dreams of the imagination or in the falsehoods of charlatans. (Quoted in Mannoni 2000, 144)
Phantasmagoria projections were situated somewhere between illusion and reality, the brain's internal phantoms and the external world. They wanted to burst out the traditional picture frame, which separates between them and us, appearing to "abandon their material supports and enter our world" (Elcott 2016, 47).
Marx's choice of words ought to be considered in relation to this media's historical background. His critique was that commodities turn material, that is to say, real relations into mere appearances, or rather, that appearances acquire the status of the real. Capitalism, Marx observed, rules by overshadowing reality: by producing projected illusions — those otherworldly creatures that commodities are — that we (the spectators) take as factual. Marx (1990, 165) continued: "In order, therefore, to find an analogy [to commodity] we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race."(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
List of Figures; Preface, Hunter Vaughan; Acknowledgments; Introduction Post- , Grand, Classical or “So- Called”: What Is, and Was, Film Theory?, Francesco Casetti; Part I What We Are; Chapter One The Brain’s Labor: On Marxism and the Movies, Pasi Väliaho; Chapter Two Racial Being, Aff ect and Media Cultures, Camilla Fojas; Chapter Three Thinking Sex, Doing Gender, Watching Film, Theresa L. Geller; Chapter Four “Complicated Negotiations”: Reception and Audience Studies into the Digital Age, Brendan Kredell; Chapter Five World Cinema and Its Worlds, James Tweedie; Chapter Six Screen Theory Beyond the Human: Toward an Ecomaterialism of the Moving Image, Hunter Vaughan; Chapter Seven “We Will Exchange Your Likeness and Recreate You in What You Will Not Know”: Transcultural Process Philosophy and the Moving Image, Laura U. Marks; Part II What Screen Culture Is; Chapter Eight Apparatus Theory, Plain and Simple, Tom Conley; Chapter Nine Properties of Film Authorship, Codruţa Morari; Chapter Ten “Deepest Ecstasy” Meets Cinema’s Social Subjects: Theorizing the Screen Star, Mary R. Desjardins; Chapter Eleven Rethinking Genre Memory: Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Its Revision, Elisabeth Bronfen; Chapter Twelve Digital Technologies and the End(s) of Film Theory, Trond Lundemo; Chapter Thirteen How John the Baptist Kept His Head: My Life in Film Philosophy, William Rothman; Part III How We Understand Screen Texts; Chapter Fourteen The Expressive Sign: Cinesemiotics, Enunciation and Screen Art, Daniel Yacavone; Chapter Fifteen Narratology in Motion: Causality, Puzzles and Narrative Twists, Warren Buckland; Chapter Sixteen He(u)retical Film Theory: When Cognitivism Meets Theory, William Brown; Chapter Seventeen Philosophy Encounters the Moving Image: From Film Philosophy to Cinematic Thinking, Robert Sinnerbrink; Chapter Eighteen Screen Perception and Event: Beyond the Formalist/ Realist Divide, Nadine Boljkovac; Postface, Tom Conley; Notes on Contributors; Filmography; Index.
What People are Saying About This
“In the wake of the post-theory wars, this collection stakes a bold claim for the relevance, importance and centrality of theory for film and screen studies. […] This book represents not merely a survey of the field, but a rich and open foray into current and future debates, often raising points that are challenging and controversial.”
Richard Rushton, Senior Lecturer, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, UK
“Whoever claimed that film theory is dead should read The Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory. This excellent collection of essays forcefully demonstrates that film theory is well equipped to face the challenges of the digital age of moving images.”
Sulgi Lie, Visiting Professor of Media Aesthetics, University of Basel, Switzerland