Cinema Beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era

François Albera and Maria Tortajada (eds.),
Cinema Beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era
(Trans. Lance Hewson)
Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-90-8964-083-3
US$35.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Amsterdam Press)

François Albera and Maria Tortajada’s collection Cinema Beyond Film: Media Epistemology in the Modern Era is comprised of eleven essays that examine a broad range of media objects and practices belonging to a variety of cultural traditions. Responding to the mid twentieth century scholarly shifts that focused critical attention on mass media, the collection advocates a closer look at early cinema amidst a range of audiovisual devices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking to investigate an “epistemology of viewing and listening dispositives.” (9) Such work necessitates a method bound up not so much in the materiality of media objects themselves, but with the modalities of viewing and listening present in a range of technologies and discursive possibilities in circulation at that time, leading contributors to appropriate Foucault’s notion of the dispositive as a way of characterizing the array of audiovisual forms at the turn of the century. Breaking away from semiotic or aesthetic approaches as the exclusive interpretive lenses for studying media, the dispositive as a critical construct affords consideration not only of material forms, but of the discursive and speculative incarnations of audiovisual technologies in arenas such as fiction, scientific practice, lectures, museum exhibitions, television, and theatre. In charting the institutionalization of these forms, the book explores the epistemological foundations of the cinematic dispositive.

The formulation of the dispositive, argue François Albera and Maria Tortajada in the first essay (previously a Domitor paper) arose out of changing conditions in science and industry in eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Europe (where most of the book’s analyses are based). These changes made possible new configurations among spectator, apparatus or machine, and representation. In its various combinations, this triad formed an epistemic schema (in Foucault’s terms), and each of the first section’s four remaining essays addresses a particular case study of what the editors call “the 1900 Episteme” at work. François Albera’s “Projected Cinema: A Hypothesis on the Cinema’s Imagination”, examines representations of audiovisual technologies in turn-of-the-century science fiction. Albera argues that incorporating speculative technologies into their diegetic worlds, science fiction literature introduced them into the popular imagination and provided an occasion to prototype their capabilities. Both modeled after existing technologies, but projecting imaginative possibilities, technology in science fiction literature thus advanced future ideas of the cinema’s potential.

The next two essays observe elements of assemblage and temporality in the chronophotographic undertakings of Étienne-Jules Marey. In “The Case for an Epistemography of Montage”, Albera endeavors to locate alternative practices of montage that have not been defined as such in Marey’s work. Marey’s scientific practice of breaking down movements and reassembling them, Albera asserts, pioneered methods of montage before the cinema as traditionally understood. Contrasting Marey’s notion of the instant with that of Henri Bergson, Maria Tortajada suggests that the key distinction is that, in foregrounding the import of the interval of rest between exposures in chronophotography, for Marey, the instant had a discrete duration. Approached from this perspective, Marey’s instant is paradoxical, as it lasts a particular amount of time in relation to the interval that marks its beginning and end. Tortajada’s essay that concludes the first section investigates the recurrence of photographic and cinematographic tropes and motifs in the literary work of Alfred Jarry – particularly his novel The Supermale (1901). Considering speed a modern phenomenon, Tortajada examines how, for Jarry, photography and the cinematograph can both capture (and isolate) instants in time, while always being considered in relation to movement and duration.

The book’s second section focuses on exhibition practices with two essays that investigate the presentation of audiovisual information in contexts where the cinematic dispositive encounters other media. Olivier Lugon’s “Dynamic Paths of Thought” explores the mobilized perception of the museum visitor in the exhibitions of Herbert Bayer, highlighting Bayer’s analogy between people moving through exhibition space and celluloid running through camera and projector mechanisms. By engaging spectators and making them mobile participants, Lugon argues, Bayer’s American propaganda exhibition “Road to Victory” (1942) heightened visitors’ psychological reactions to the exhibition’s themes. Lugon’s second piece, “The Lecture,” examines the architectural lecture as a dispositive, concentrating on how Le Corbusier’s performances, and the ways that his alternation of preparation and improvisation contributed to his ability to connect with and persuade his audiences.

The book’s final section, Voice/Body, considers a range of ways that audiovisual dispositives evoke human presence. In his two essays, Laurent Guido examines the fragmentation and assemblage of the human body in two different contexts: representations of dancers and television broadcasts of Wimbledon. His “Dancing Dolls and Mechanical Eyes,” focuses on representations of the dancing body in literature, theatre, and film, noting the mediated body’s relationship to changing technological modernity. Guido contends that various technologies, from the lorgnette or opera glass to cinematic montage, all cut up and isolate the dancer’s body, reducing it to resemble the parts of a mechanical system. Similarly, his Study of Wimbledon TV broadcasts from 1997-2007 in “From Broadcast Performance to Virtual Show” concentrates on how the editing, framing, and staging of tennis matches on TV enhances the psychology of the players, making them characters within the event’s narrative. Pointing to Leni Riefenstahl’s filming techniques in the 1936 Olympic games as a precedent for representing sports action, Guido demonstrates how devices such as camera perspective to flatten or lengthen space, remote controlled dollies, the pace of editing and gradual tightening of shots all advance and heighten dramatic action.

While Guido concentrates on visual representations of the body, the book’s final two essays by Alain Boillat look at how the human voice has been conjured in early audiovisual dispositives. In “The Lecturer, the Image, the Machine and the Audio-Spectator,” Boillat discusses the gradual dematerialization of the voice before talkies, formulating a typology of the kind of sound source, its location, and the mode of access to the visibility of the source, in order to better understand sound’s central role in early cinema. The book’s final essay “On the Singular Status of the Human Voice” explores the presence and absence of the human voice in Tomorrow’s Eve (1886), a novel that has been examined in relation to the cinema, but with an emphasis on the role and representation of the voice. Noting both occult and technological accounts of the voice’s origins, Boillat argues that regardless of the mechanism producing the sound, a human subject is assumed or invoked.

A brief overture after the introduction helps point to the book’s utility and scholarly contribution. It suggests that early incarnations of the cinematic dispositive “potentially contained today’s diversification, or hinted at possibilities that were never fully developed. Archaeology is thus a means of constructing the present.” (21) Although at times the book’s terminology proves challenging, approaching the turn-of-the-century mediascape from the critical frame of the dispositive opens up the potential for researching a wide array of objects and practices. The collection’s greatest strength also represents a question that such an approach introduces. While such a broadening of perspective helpfully expands the parameters of the field of media studies, the question of how to define the scope of this kind of collection arises. The book’s contributions all share a commitment to the same kind of Foucauldian approach and are, on the whole, coherent with one another. Still, there remains a question of what justifies its three sections as exemplary of this approach and further, whether a common theoretical frame alone is enough to serve as a unifying factor for such disparate work. In advancing this mode of inquiry, the collection does interface with the work of scholars undertaking similar endeavors, notably the work of Jonathan Crary and Friedrich Kittler, but it also misses the opportunity to engage with many more like-minded scholars, for example, Siegfried Zielinski, who has profitably employed the dispositive in his writing. Still, its distinct theoretical approach provides a helpful frame for scholars pursuing historiographic work on topics that stray toward the periphery of their disciplinary boundaries, including those scholars interested in media archaeology. Similarly, scholars whose work addresses any of the number of viewing and listening dispositives dealt with in the book, including the novels, scientific apparatus, theatrical productions, and museum exhibitions, may find with this book a helpful way of reconceiving of, or reframing, their objects of study. Despite the threat of disciplinary entropy that this collection introduces, it nevertheless offers an engaging new point of access to an extensive variety of audiovisual phenomena and provides a rationale for alternative ways of organizing and conceiving media history.

About the Author

Meredith A. Bak

About the Author

Meredith A. Bak

Meredith A. Bak is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include nineteenth-century optical devices and visual culture, media archaeology, material culture studies, archival and museum studies, and the history of childhood. She is currently completing her dissertation project, which focuses on optical toys and nineteenth-century children’s material culture.View all posts by Meredith A. Bak →