Department of Theatre and Film
From This Moment On: The Dialectics of Modernism
Darin D. Kerr
Darin Kerr is a doctoral student in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University. His research interests include queer theory, (sub)cultural histories, and the performance of gender. He is currently working on a study of the impact of dandyism on contemporary performances of masculinity.
Walter Benjamin, in his influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” opens with an epigraph from Paul Valéry’s Aesthetics: “Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours” (qtd. in Benjamin 217). Here Valéry distinguishes his own aesthetic moment from those preceding it through a differentiation in terms of the “power of action upon things,” an ability to control, to possess, to master. This impulse in Valéry, to identify not only the degree, but perhaps the very fact of one’s own progressiveness through comparison to others’, may arguably be somehow innate in the human psyche, though I don’t propose to take that question up in this essay. Valéry’s emphasis on development and progress, however, does set the modernist stage for Benjamin’s own deeply ambivalent examination of the ramifications of (then-)modern technology on the field of aesthetics. (In this essay, I use the terms “modern” and “modernism” to refer to a set of overlapping discourses that attempt to produce and codify knowledge and meaning in relationship to changing cultural practices, primarily in so-called “Western” society, from sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century to roughly World War II. Understandably, this periodization is open to much debate.) Valéry’s (and, by extension, Benjamin’s) nod to progress, however, also serves as an exemplar of what is traditionally noted as a hallmark, if not an obsession, of the modernist period: the will to progress which seemingly drove both technological and social change.
The mere existence of such a tradition, however, doesn’t necessarily establish its validity, and the view of the modernist era as singularly focused on progress, as an inexorable march towards mechanization/fascism, does not (and should not) remain free from criticism. Indeed, it might be argued that perhaps this progressivist philosophy, based in an evolutionary model of change, has received somewhat undue attention (or insufficiently critical attention) from many scholars of the period; after all, every age certainly has its own reformers. Why, then, should the modernist period be so unfairly singled out for its interest in utopian progress? It is perhaps only through the lens of the sobering events which were to follow (World War II and global conflict, the reification through industrial production of immense economic differentials, the “postmodern” fragmentation of identity and the self) that the dystopian shadow side of modernity reveals itself, creating the kind of heightened chiaroscuro effect that makes modern ideals of progress stand out in such sharp contrast. As a result, conventional wisdom has often carried the day, to the point that the narrative of progress as the triumph of mechanization, the final conquest of form, has too frequently dominated the field for much of the twentieth century. More recently, however, interdisciplinary interventions in this conception of the period have begun to shift our perceptions of what we might understand as the effect(s) of progress as a discrete idea or concept.
Hillel Schwartz’s masterful essay, “Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century,” gathers together diverse strands from cultural history to weave a tapestry that tells the story of, both figuratively and literally, new movements. In doing so, the conventional wisdom regarding bodies and motion in the early twentieth century is turned on its head. Schwartz describes the changing kinaesthetic as one which emerges from both the physical core, the torso, as well as a spiritual core, as in the work of Delsarte. Schwartz quotes Delsarte’s Law of Correspondence as a distillation of his philosophy: “To each spiritual function responds a function of the body; to each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act” (71). The body responds to the spiritual core by moving from its own physical center, the torso. For Schwartz, then, this movement can be translated across a wide array of concerns, from handwriting to modern dance. By tracing the genealogy of movement and the new kinaesthetic back to Delsarte, Schwartz is able to locate the ghost in the machine, the unvoiced soul trapped by academic tradition in the increasingly mechanized body. The argument here, however, is that the conception of the body as a mechanical object has not supplanted other conceptions of the body; rather, they coexist, creating a tension and interplay that can be read as a metacritical vision of the relationship between the organic and the technological. Schwartz goes against the grain here, arguing for the change in movement and kinaesthetics as an ongoing dialectical process:
[P]eople have not begun to move like machines. Nor do they admire mechanical motion in others, except perhaps to applaud the patience and phenomenal physical control of those performers who imitate penny-arcade automata and repeat a stilted series of isolated movements extremely difficult to learn. If women, men and children these days experience themselves as off-balance, gawky, clumsy, stiff, they also share a vision and experience of flowing movement spiraling outward from a soulful center. (108)
For Schwartz, then, the traditional depiction of the modernist approach to movement has been an imbalanced one. Consequently, a more complete understanding of movement and the meaning of the new kinaesthetic can only be achieved through this dialectical relationship, one which perhaps has yet to achieve meaningful synthesis.
This comparative process, however, increasingly appears to have been key to the modern audience’s apprehension of the new aesthetic products being placed before them by the technological innovations of moving pictures. Charles Musser argues for a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between theater, film, and the visual arts as a means of reckoning with audience reception of these aesthetic products. For him, a full understanding of how such audiences aesthetically constructed the texts made available to them necessitates a clear depiction of how the formal strategies of such texts’ presentations were interdependent on one another. The audience viewing early moving pictures, he argues, would have understood those images through an essentially pictorial lens, likening them, even down to their ornate frames, to the paintings or photographs they’d seen, evaluating them in those terms. Moreover, the drawing of such aesthetic parallels wasn’t strictly confined to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas or the photograph. The theatrical tradition of the tableau vivant, actors striking static poses to illustrate some dramatic scene, would also have provided a possible point of reference for the audience attending the moving picture show. Thus, the audience was able, through comparison, to attempt their own aesthetic evaluation based on a complicated matrix of representations available to them as entertainments. Like Schwartz, then, Musser structures his argument around a dialectic. Here, that dialectic is proposed as an essential component of spectatorship:
If cinema produced, as Tom Gunning has suggested, an aesthetic of astonishment, it also offered an aesthetic of discernment. Although commercial considerations generally motivated and shaped these discourses in the popular realm, this discrimination between and among artworks/cultural texts often involved a working through of issues surrounding reproducibility, emergent consumerism, and evaluative judgment that capitalism required of those active in the marketplace. (6)
Aesthetics in the modern period, then, can only ever really be understood as an inherently interdisciplinary field, one in which visual literacy was increasingly a case of dialectical evaluation, a process of juxtaposing an understanding of one form or medium against the comprehension of another.
Central to this understanding of the emergent moving pictures, then, is the distinction they created between themselves and other visual representations. They were pictures, yes, and to be understood pictorially, but they were also moving, and the quality of movement and how they achieved that quality, was essential to the audience’s perception of them. As Nancy Mowll Mathews writes, “It was inevitable that the sensations of travel, speed, and change would become interwoven in still and moving representations of motion in this period” (2). Once the kinaesthetic genie was out of the bottle, it would no longer be contained. The sensations of movement, and the associations which such sensations evoked, necessarily began to serve as primary factors through which the burgeoning aesthetic of film could be understood in relationship to other art forms prevalent in the modern period.
Somewhat ironically, these very factors are perhaps most pronounced when juxtaposed with the modernist concept of the “moment,” the phenomenological experience of strong sensation mediated by its temporal ephemerality, its necessarily transient nature. This conception of the “moment” is central to Jean Epstein’s theorization of photogénie, what Leo Charney describes as “fleeting fragments of experience that provide pleasure in ways that the viewer cannot describe verbally or rationalize cognitively” (285). Epstein positions the experience of the fragmentary moment, rather than a steady sense of forward momentum, as the essential element of film art. When understood as central to the aesthetics of film, the intermittent pleasures derived from these moments complicate our notion of modernist cultural forms as juggernauts of progress, moving inevitably forward; if we are to take such theorists as Epstein at their word, the emergent (and immensely popular) form of moving pictures was structured precisely around a celebration of the moment, a concept that is, if not at odds with a rhetoric of progress, certainly in tension with it.
Film, then, emerges in this period as a contact zone in which modernist ideas regarding the relationship between stasis and dynamism can play themselves out on the screen. The audience’s understanding and appreciation of motion pictures, however, already arguably informed by preexisting relationships to other art forms and media, cannot be simply reduced to a valorization of technology and mechanization as progressive, utopian forces. Rather, the emergence of new technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries allowed for the simultaneous expression of multiple and contradictory impulses, impulses that have too often been regularized under the single rubric of “progress.” It seems possible, then, that just as our understanding of aesthetic engagement in the modernist period can be better understood as an interdisciplinary, dialectical process, so too can our conceptions of progress be more nuanced when held in tension with circulating theories about the power of the “moment.”
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations.
Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 217-251.
Charney, Leo. “In a Moment: Film and the Philosophy of Modernity.” Cinema and the Invention
of Modern Life. Ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz. Berkeley: U of California P,
Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Introduction. Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-
1910. By Nancy Mowll Mathews and Charles Musser. Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills
Press, 2005. 1-3.
Musser, Charles. “A Cornucopia of Images: Comparison and Judgment across Theater, Film, and
the Visual Arts during the Late Nineteenth Century.” Moving Pictures: American Art and
Early Film, 1880-1910. By Nancy Mowll Mathews and Charles Musser. Manchester,
VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2005. 5-37.
Schwartz, Hillel. “Torque: The New Kinaesthetic.” Incorporations. Ed. Jonathan Crary and
Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone Books, 1992. 71-127.