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Carnivore or Chameleon: The Fate of Cinema Studies

Gertrud Koch

To discuss the fate of my discipline entails the old problem of Nietzschean perspectivism: how can I observe my own practices if there is no vantage point from which I can view my own culture, my own scientic lifeworld, and so on? Isnt it asking for too much? Can one be ones own prophet? Probing fate reminds us of tragedies and their relationship to action and death. Sailing with the tailwind of a future fate reminds us of Walter Benjamins angel of history; it is the storm of the past that blows the angel into the future.1 For Benjamin this storm is the image of progress. One can ask oneself whether or not reading the future in the signs of the past is a futile endeavor. To speak about fate is to speak in terms of life and death. Therefore I
Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. 1. Es gibt ein Bild von Klee, das Angelus Novus heit. Ein Engel ist darauf dargestellt, der aussieht, als ware er im Begriff, sich von etwas zu entfernen, worauf er starrt. Seine Augen sind aufgerissen, sein Mund steht offen und seine Flugel sind ausgespannt. Der Engel der Ge schichte mu so aussehen. Er hat das Antlitz der Vergangenheit zugewendet. Wo eine Kette von Begebenheiten vor uns erscheint, da sieht er eine einzige Katastrophe, die unablassig Trummer auf Trummer hauft und sie ihm vor die Fue schleudert. Er mochte wohl ver weilen, die Toten wecken und das Zerschlagene zusammenfugen. Aber ein Sturm weht vom Paradiese her, der sich in seinen Flugeln verfangen hat und so stark ist, da der Engel sie nicht mehr schlieen kann. Dieser Sturm treibt ihn unaufhaltsam in die Zukunft, der er den Rucken kehrt, wahrend der Trummerhaufen vor ihm zum Himmel wachst. Das, was wir den Fortschritt nennen, ist dieser Sturm. [Walter Benjamin, Uber den Begriff der Geschichte, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main, 197289), 1:2:69798]

Critical Inquiry 35 (Summer 2009) 2009 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/09/3504-0015$10.00. All rights reserved.


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assume I should say something about the future of my discipline and about the crucial, lethal question: does cinema studies have any? The discourse about the end is a rather repetitive one. Hegel, after all, twice announced an end in his work, though he became famous only for the proclamation of the end of art in philosophy. An earlier version of this topos appeared in the anonymous formula from Das alteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus (1796 or 1797), which was transmitted in Hegels handwriting though is now usually attributed to F. W. J. Schelling: Poetry . . . at its end becomes again what it was in the beginningthe teacher of humanity; for there is no longer philosophy, no longer history; poetry alone will survive all the other sciences and arts.2 The entwining of philosophy and art, with each an advocate for the others end, could be seen as a model discourse for the fate or end of disciplines. The fate or end of cinema studies is most often linked to the fate or end of its objectlm.3 The fatal prognosis about the end of cinema studies is that it has lost its object, which apparently came to an end with the digital transformation of photographic apparatuses; the change that killed the discipline is a technological one. Cinema as the institutional habitat of lm is a future ghost townfrom Hollywood to Silicon Valley. The same story was told when TV was hired as a contract killer of the movies. To tell the story of a disciplines object in terms of an inevitable step-by-step demise from one technology to the next, however, is only one story, leaving out many others. The explanatory story I wish to tell about the future of cinema studies is not one about carnivores but about the survival capacity of
2. Die Poesie bekommt dadurch eine hohere Wurde, sie wird am Ende wieder, was sie am Anfang warLehrerin der Menschheit; denn es gibt keine Philosophie, keine Geschichte mehr, die Dichtkunst allein wird alle ubrigen Wissenschaften und Kunste uberleben (G. W. F. Hegel, Das alteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus [The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism], Werke, ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 21 vols. [Frankfurt am Main, 196979], 1:235). 3. Not only is this clearly present in the decision taken by the American Society for Cinema Studies to rename itself the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, but the German analog also dropped the term cinema/lm completely.

G E R T R U D K O C H is professor of cinema studies at the Freie Universitat Berlin. Her books include Herbert Marcuse zur Einfuhrung (1987), Bilder: Zum Diskurs der Geschlechter im Film (1989), Was ich erbeute, sind (1989), Auge und Affekt: Wahrnehmung und Interaktion (1995), Bruchlinien: Tendenzen der Holocaustforschung (1999), and Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction (2000). She is coeditor, with Christiane Voss, of Zwischen Ding und Zeichen: Zur asthetischen Erfahrung in der Kunst (2005) and . . . kraft der Illusion (2005). She is currently working on a book about the aesthetics of illusion in lm and the other arts.


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the chameleon that escapes by changing the color of its surface, by the illusion of sheer appearancesin short, aesthetically. My argument here has two steps: rst, I challenge the nality of the story that has xated on visual medias carnivorous technology; second, I take a path toward the redemptive criticism of lm aesthetics, with illusion as its property and a trajectory that is transferred and interchanged between media. In order to sketch some pictures of the future I must rst delineate the borders of the discipline in its current state. One might argue that the object of cinema studies is the product of strategies that traversed the sayable and the seeable. When cinema rst appeared it was understood as a medium that could bridge the gap between the restricted codes of multiple languages by offering a universal language of images. Instead of grammar- and vocabulary-bound communities, cinemas mimetic representation promised a worldwide embrace of humankind. Seeing was considered an unmediated power, with technology being nothing but its prosthesis. During the last century lm developed into cinema, that is, into a cinematic dispositif that arranges our ways and modes of speaking and thinking about lm. The cinematic dispositif is dened by its technological apparatus, by its modes of appearance, and by its inuence on our relations and perceptions of the world. One can argue, with all of this dispositifs institutional codes of production and reception, its architectural settings, its administration of time through screening schedules and norms of lm duration, and its modulations of affect as biopower (that make us scream, cry, and laugh), that it constitutes the subject of the discipline inasmuch as it generates the scholarly discourse as well as everyday chatter about the movies. The cinematic dispositif entails a discourse in the Foucauldian sense of discourses as practices obeying certain rules.4 In this sense, Raymond Bellour suggested that the computer generates an image discourse that could still be called cinematography, provided that one includes the power of the voice and the physis of the words into the graphein, as well as the touch of the hand and all kinds of time in the kinema.5

1. The Role of Technology Arguments about new media can roughly be split into two. Both sides suppose that the ontology of a medium is grounded in its specic technology of production. The inner dynamics of a technology, in the Foucaul4. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York, 1972), p. 138. 5. Raymond Bellour, La Double Helice, LEntre-images 2: Mots, Images (Paris, 1999), p. 24.

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dian sense, stems from the inherent power of technologies to speak us in the same way as language is said to do. It is not we who are speaking a language but we who are spoken by a language. In the same sense, technology is not something outside that we try to use or master but something that makes us do things, that (per)forms us. Technology encompasses the idea of techne in the sense that at its base it is not only a tool for the construction of objects in the world but also for the construction of a world in the radical sense that Martin Heidegger read the Aristotelian conception of techne. Most theories of old and new media share this idea of the per formative power of technology, but they emphasize very different aspects and perspectives. Around the time that Heidegger made this radical interpretation of Aristotle, Ernst Cassirer was also commenting on the inner link between symbols, forms, and techniques. He situated the shift from magical practices of wish fulllment to the technical constructions of instruments and machines as a means not only to disclose the world but to construct it. The will now functions instead of the wish, and planning for construction instead of magic, and with the construction of machinery culture itself changes. Technique becomes a symbolic form in the same sense as Erwin Panofsky analyzed Renaissance perspective as a symbolic and thus a cultural form in his famous essay of the 1920s, Perspective as Symbolic Form, which fty years later became crucial for lm theory.6 Cassirer was one of the rst to point to the mediated character of culture. He did so in the context of a semiotic analysis that echoes the three-dimensional semiotic structure of C. S. Peirce. Symbolic forms, Cassirer writes, are media . . . in and through which . . . the intercourse between me and the world takes place.7 Only by way of media are those distances possible that create the counterworld that is culture, which enables us to communicate no longer directly with things, but via signs.8 In Cassirers theory of symbolic forms the existence of media and of culture are intertwined. Mediated culture contains the possibility of distantiation, creating epistemic and expressive modes of world-disclosure. The media not only in culture but of culture gain this key function of world disclosure and world construction insofar as they create the world picture at the heart of a culture. In this context of a broader general media theory of cultural commu6. See Erwin Panofsky, Die Perspektive als symbolische Form, Vortrage der Bibliothek Warburg 4 (192425): 258330. 7. Ernst Cassirer, Zur Metaphysik der symbolischen Formen, vol. 1 of Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Texte, ed. John Michael Krois and Oswald Schwemmer (Hamburg, 1995), p. 56. 8. Ibid., p. 60.


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nication, expression and understanding are not separate from each other. In changing symbolizations, expression and concept intertwine. Instruments and apparatuses, technical equipment and big technologies are tools to master nature. And by shaping nature they themselves produce culture. The technological overwriting of culture remains one of the main ambivalences from which cultural critique starts. Cassirer makes a shift between modes of expression and modes of meaning. In his conceptual framework, technique equals knowledge; it tends to the objective sphere of mere signication. It therefore has to be seen as an autonomous and indispensable proof of humanity.9 That is to say, technique is a human capacity. As such one can look at technique with concerns other than those of epistemologyparticularly ethics and aesthetics. A consideration of these philosophical discussions brings back the underlying concept in theories of old and new media, namely, the question of the specic relationship between technique and man understood in the anthropological sense. Most theories of media try to answer the question of this relationship, regardless of whether they direct themselves to articial intelligence or the body/machine interface or formulate critical assumptions about technological culture on a normative level. All of these theories ask the question, What does technology do with us, or what are we, humans, doing with it? The split occurs primarily at the level of denition. On the one hand, there are doubts about the ontologies ascribed to different mediafor instance, differences in the denition of the status of each being in the world. On the other hand, there are very different assumptions regarding social and cultural changes and practices that are emerging from these technologies. Taking some pleasure in sharpening contradictions, one could say that the thin line between the two sides of the argument is demarcated by the remnants of ontology and anthropology. This is astonishing insofar as ontological questions have been considered odd for quite some time and assumed to have faded out in light of the performative turn that arguessimilar to speech-act theoryin favor of the pragmatics of constructing identities, lifeworlds, cultures, and so on, as opposed to those who see such qualities as inherent. On one side we have all those arguments that emphasize the logic of production: the indexicality produced by the photographic apparatus that depends on a world outside of the apparatus; the digital code for programming the computer in order to obtain images; and so on. On the other side
9. Cassirer, Form und Technik (1930), Symbol, Technik, Sprache: Aufsatze aus den Jahren 19271933, ed. Ernst Wolfgang Orth and Krois (Hamburg, 1985), p. 86.

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we nd all those arguments that look for either more holistic aspects of the relationship between technologies and their users (phenomenology for example) or for a critical revision of the concept of what a medium is (theories of performative rather than ontological difference). For me it was interesting to discover that in his study The Language of New Media Lev Manovich starts with a discussion of lms power of illusion and ability to create reality effects (a concept rst developed by Christian Metz). Film at some point became the model for a tradition of pictures that Manovich still sees alive in new media, a tradition of pictures that have a mimetic dimension in the sense that they are still representing a world. In this sense digital pictures are adopting styles created by photographic pictures. Consequently he devotes a whole chapter to illusions, some of which already crop up in earlier chapters.10 Why, one could ask, does Manovich return to a concept that was so crucial for lm theory but is now offered up exactly at the moment when the debates around new media beg for new concepts? Two features are in the background of Manovichs argument for taking the cinematographic model of illusion as his point of departure, the rst an implicit theory of history, the second an implicit theory of attraction.

2. Historicity of Forms and Meanings of Media As far as the rst feature is concerned, Manovich returns to the old quarrels about pictures in antiquity, especially the notorious ghts over similitude. The suggestion was that the best painter is he who knows how to deceive his competitor, who himself only knows how to fool the birds. In the end the aim in painting is to create absolute similitude, a kind of similitude that creates the illusion of physical reality and presence. Manovich argues that this model of illusionary simulation remains valid throughout the entire history of pictorial representation. In an ironic turn he states that we are confronted with a shift in time and not in vision because the way images are produced changes in time but not the way they present vision. One of his examples is Steven Spielbergs Jurassic Parka lm that indeed shows us the future as a generic renaissance of past worlds that only exist in our imagination and reconstruction. Ever since Gertie the Dinosaur made her rst appearance on the screen cinema has loved to evoke such worlds through mechanical and optical special effects. The moment that digitalization allowed for a merging of photographic and digital images, we could no longer see the tinked-up image of a sunken
10. See Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), pp. 176 211; hereafter abbreviated L.


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world that is no longer real, but a more-than-real world that could be our future. In his witty remarks on the inversion of the revolutionary Soviet model, Manovich suggests reading Vertovs notion of the communist decoding of the world in such a way as to recognize the future all around you (L, p. 203). Manovich here links the revolutionary aesthetic impulse of Soviet cinema with the later forms of socialist realism. Socialist realism sought the representation of role models (positive heroes) that were expected to be realized in the futurewhich meant that the future was already represented and therefore present. Manovich sees a similar inversion: a vision of the future as already present underlined by a scientic worldview. And this is similar to Spielbergs science-ction world in Jurassic Park, insofar as the park is presented as our possible present. Manovichs account of the history of old and new media, conducted under the sign of reality effects and illusionist approaches to similarity, is xed to the idea that the more that media change the more they stay the same. It is by no means accidental that he ends with remarks on how the revolutionary model of history has itself become an aesthetic artifact that merges the present and future on the same surface. One could ask whether this isnt already the model for Manovichs own historical narrative. Caught between ontological arguments about media specicity and historical arguments about their emergence and convergence, it seems hard not to fall prey to a vision of history as a kind of cannibalistic devouring. In his recent book New Philosophy for New Media, Mark Hansen criticizes Manovich for using cinema as a general term, arguing that Manovichs installation of cinema as the dominant aesthetic medium (or set of conventions) overdeterminesand consequently limits his understanding of the aesthetic potential of new media.11 Hansen criticizes Manovichs emphasis on lm and his use of cinema as a backdrop that swallows the differences between media in an essentially culturalist frame.12 Cinema therefore allows Manovich to frame new media as old aesthetics. Although I agree with a number of Hansens arguments about Manovichs book, when it comes to the analysis of video art and the denition of images I still nd it fascinating how Manovich comes to terms with the obvious fact that the cinematographic code has endured much longer than the prophets of new media predicted. Here I come to the second feature that moves Manovich, the question of what made or makes cinema such an attractive regulating idea for him. I assume that its thrill is due not so much to its empirical features as it is to the capacity that is ascribed to cinema as
11. Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), p. 33. 12. Ibid., p. 35.

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a cultural practice, one which has always functioned as cinemas psychological raison detre, namely, its enormous capacity to bring the spectator into a mode of absorption in distraction. One can argue that at the heart of the so-called reality effect is not the creation of an illusion in the sense of an epistemological deception about what reality is or what is real but rather the sense of a playful absorption in a ctional world that has the look of a possible world. In this regard one might agree with Manovich that there is a formal link between the forms of visual media, despite their different techno-ontological status. Manovich at least tries to dene the forms of media, above and beyond their mere codes of production, as language in a richer sense. Given that the term language in relation to pictures and visual media has a long and dubious history, one can easily argue that this accounts for some of the loose strands in Manovichs net of arguments. The only denition he gives is very pragmatic: In putting the word language into the title of the book, I do not want to suggest that we need to return to the structuralist phase of semiotics in understanding new media. However, given that most studies of new media and cyberculture focus on their sociological, economic, and political dimensions, it was important for me to use the word language to signal the different focus of this work: the emergent conventions, recurrent design patterns, and key forms of new media. I considered using the words aesthetics and poetics instead of language, eventually deciding against them. [L, p. 12] While I take issue with the way Manovich invents a vocabulary in a rather decisionistic way, to say nothing of the historicity of certain ideas and their discursive fates, Im nonetheless convinced that he sets up a useful frame of comparison. It allows us to look for a further set of functions. Closer to Cassirer in this respect than to Heidegger, he is not so much interested in an ontology of media as in their different functions: semantic, expressive, and logical. Manovichs own approach is made apparent in his use of the notion of information culture, which includes iconography as a historical method as well as patterns of user interaction (L, pp. 13, 14). In this relationist approach phenomena are tied to each other in emergent communicative sets. Against this background, the term cinemaincluding its competitors and fellow travelers, its forerunners and imitators entails semiotic functions similar to language codes. Manovich constructs cinema as a communicative, symbolic practice. To be sure, there are many, many details in this construction that are imprecise or supercial in relation to arguments in lm theory and would denitely not pass as a history of ideas. But what can pass as a new idea is his


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effort to use lm-theoretical arguments to explain how media history functions. Perhaps one can take Manovich as a pre-text, in the Derridean sense, for a new reading of the matter. The force of cinemas illusions is described by Manovich in rather simple terms of cognitive realism in his statement that illusionist images share some features with the represented physical reality and share some features with human vision (L, p. 181). These old concepts need to be supplemented with more appropriate models of active access to account for the world of computer media, where the image is not static and framed but is more like a stage one can enter and where action is involved. But even in this eld Manovich stays with the concept of reality effect: simulation in new media aims to model realistically how objects and humans act, react, move, grow, evolve, think, and feel (L, p. 182). One could state here that, following Michael Heim, what Manovich has in mind entails a concept of worlda world he sees as deliberately rebuilt and performed through human media actions. A world is not a collection of things but an active usage that relates things together, that links them. . . . World is a total environment or surround space.13

3. The Aesthetic Illusion The cinematic interplay of the technological apparatus and a psychophysiological disposition makes it difcult to determine the exact transition from objectivity to the aesthetic illusion. I will call this imbrication of the technologically produced and the psychophysiologically perceived the aisthetic (aesthesis) quality of lm, which is based in the properties of the medium prior to the differentiation of lm according to particular objects (such as genres). The aisthetic dimension of lm is thus the dimension that constitutes illusion. This does not at all mean that lm inevitably constitutes illusions at the aesthetic level, in the sense that all those objects we take to be lms would necessarily base their aesthetic formation on the framing of medium as aisthetic. On the contrary, many lms engage in an aesthetic reection of this aisthetic condition, for instance, by experimentally exploding the ow of movement. But even these experimental lms are based on the fact that any moving image is illusionistic, in the sense that it works and plays with our perception of movement. Movement in classical lm logically goes from zero to nfrom the single photogram to the additive strip. Or, in reverse, it goes from high speed to standing still in a freeze frame of a photogram. But to freeze a frame consists in copying and
13. Quoted in Marie-Laure Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore, 2001), p. 91.

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repeating one frame over a given time span; even stillness is a form of moving. It is illusionistic in the sense that it appears to be one in a ow instead of many of the same in a ow. The aesthetic illusion is not a regressive technique of deception for the lower ranks of mass art but rather goes to the very core of a poetics that turns on the experience of dynamizing horizons of space and time or, to use Mikhail Bakhtins term, chronotopes. The fact that the moving image is produced by mechanical means led Henri Bergson, in Creative Evolution, to the premature conclusion that thinking that proceeds cinematographically remains just as mechanical as the cinematograph.14 For Bergson, the cinema is a rigid contraption whose only movement is that of the lmstrip through the projector; in other words, it produces a merely mechanical movement, inadequate to the essential movement of the surrounding world. In his rst Cinema book, Gilles Deleuze productively revises this conclusion when he points to other writings by Bergson that while not explicitly discussing the cinematographic offer much more precise descriptions of the lmic. Bergson criticizes lm for only containing movement qua still images that the projector animates in an illusionist waythat is, through a movement that is not its own. Deleuze argues with Bergson, against Bergson, that as early as Matiere ` et memoire he developed a more complex concept of movement-images that make them productive for a prelmic theory of lm. Deleuze likewise assumes something akin to an aesthetic correction of the mechanically produced illusion when he writes: Is not the reproduction of the illusion in a certain sense also its correction? Can we conclude that the result is articial because the means are articial? Cinema proceeds with photogrammesthat is, with immobile sectionstwenty-four images per second (or eighteen at the outset). But it has often been noted that what it gives us is not the photogramme: it is an intermediate image, to which movement is not appended or added; the movement on the contrary belongs to the intermediate image as immediate given.15 For Deleuze, this apprehension of movement in lm reception is thus an immediate given that in turn, by way of articial-mechanical mediatization, references a real, empirical given. Space is functionally articulated through movement; the camera (like the body for Maurice MerleauPonty) opens up space in movement, and this movement creates mobile, indenite spaces. In the experience of a dynamically mobilized space, lm corrects and transforms its mechanical and apparatus-specic a prioris
14. See Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (1944; New York, 1975), p. 332. 15. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis, 1986), p. 2.


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into reexive world experiences. This marks the philosophical potential of lmits capacity to generate ever new spaces and create worlds. Just as philosophy develops its concepts from innite delimitations among extant concepts, lm proceeds by uncovering something new in its movementimages. Film actualizes movement rather than represents it. In this mode of actualization, aisthesis turns into lm aesthetics, the immediately given into the movement-image.

4. Conclusion What I wanted to demonstrate with these remarks is the stability of the cinematic dispositif insofar as it remains based in aesthetic illusionism. The lament that cinema studies has been robbed of its object doesnt hold in my view. If one longs for foundationalist arguments for a discipline one can nd them here. Besides, there may be many other reasons to put an end to disciplines and submerge them in a broader eld of humanities. But here we dont speak of an individual death but about a general migration. My experience is that even under transdisciplinary conditions disciplinary methods remain the wunderblock of disciplines. Disciplines come to a natural end when their objects vanish. But the objects of a discipline are interdependent on the discourse running the discipline because the discourse also constitutes the objectsas one can learn from the debates about lm and the new media. As long as there is still a discourse around the cinematic dispositif there can be cinema studies in a literal sense even if there are no more classical lms (which, by the way, is not entirely the case). Cinema studies has the competence to theorize and analyze moving images, moving images of many kinds, regardless of their technological origins. Therefore I suppose cinema studies can differ from media studies just as well as it can merge with it. But there is no logical reason to order these disciplines hierarchically in terms of historiography, that is, in terms of what was rst and what will exist longer. One could even add the Foucauldian argument that the older illusionistic model of the reality effect is already a discourse of biopower rather than the disciplinary power of the panopticon, the latter of which is usually attributed to the visual dispositif of lm that some like to take as the tombstone of lm and cinema (studies). The cinematic illusionism of moving images has the impression of livelihood as one of its reality effects; the cinematograph has always been a bioskop. It repeatedly makes life and bans deatha motif that Stanley Cavell has worked out. Even if one doesnt share my version of the redemptive illusionism of cinema one could agree that there is still force behind this broader notion of biopower.