The Intelligence of a Machine
By Jean Epstein, with translation and introduction by Christophe Wall-Romana
Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, MN, 2014
111 pp., illus. Paper, 19.95
Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
Christophe Wall-Romana presents this original text by acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker and poet Jean Epstein (1897-1953) through an annotated translation and introduction aimed at claiming its place among the early (if not first) works in the philosophy of cinema. It first appeared in the French original as L’intelligence d’une machine in 1946 and is presented as the first full-length translation of Epstein’s work in English, which alerts us to the pertinent gaps of language barriers and delayed reception of works in academia and as such offers an important milestone in particular within film, cinema, and media philosophy.
Jean Epstein takes cinema as genuine inspiration and addresses it head-on with the intention of discerning the cinematograph’s suggested world-view through its workings in order to create a philosophy of cinema on its own terms. As such, it is a provocation to Kant and chimes with aspects of current philosophical moves in object-oriented-ontology and speculative realism. Epstein, who Wall-Romana calls a “cinema-existentialist”, opens by discussing the coexistence and mutual contingency of continuity and discontinuity, the homogeneity of matter and spirit, as they present themselves in the cinematic mechanism and contextualises these reflections with aspects of early twentieth century scientific theories derived from mathematics, relativity theory, and quantum physics. Key to his thought is the ability of the cinematograph to accelerate and slow down the speed of projection and the reversal of movement, which leads Epstein to acclaim the relativity of time and space as well as all measures and discusses the cinema is a tool that enables profound changes in perspective.
Through an inventive montage of writing and his fluent poetic expression (a challenge for any translation), Epstein addresses what, in his own words, he calls a cinematographic robot-philosopher can tell us about space, time, and laws of life in the cinematic universe. As such, he sees the importance of cinema not in the creation of the “seventh art” but in the creation of a form of “witchcraft” or prophecy that “frees our worldview from servitude to the single rhythm of external, solar and terrestrial time” (p. 89). The cinema liberates time and space as an effect of mobility without any existence in themselves, as profoundly relational and dependent on their correlations in their perspectival nature as “pure ghosts”. Contemplating a new kind of monism, Epstein connects with discoveries in alchemy and early 20th century natural sciences, opening up some intriguing crossroads that invite the reader to follow these classicist and esoteric sources more in depth. In some of these places the editor/translator Christophe Wall-Romana has provided informative endnotes with references and brief explications to these intersections. However, the at times insightful, imaginative, and thought provoking excursions can only be sincerely followed, if one accepts the collapsing of a differentiation between the discussed technology, the perception of its projection, and an assumed reality that contains the former. This is a distinction that has played a key role in earlier influential works in psychology and philosophy engaged with the cinematic technology, such as by Henri Bergson and Hugo Münsterberg who provided explicit clarity in the necessary qualitative distinction between the internalised engagement of the beholder, the technical apparatus, and the projected film despite their profound intersections and overlaps during the cinema experience.
Epstein’s authority in his assertions derives from his very practice as filmmaker and poet. He operates through the sophisticated skills of a poet-conjurer, whose succinct style of expression shifts the reader’s engagement at times smoothly from one category to another, from one perspective to another whilst breaking laws of logic withstanding critical scrutiny. At heart, it is Epstein’s own rhetoric that becomes subject to his reflections on the cinematograph, which can be regarded as the most intriguing implications of The Intelligence of a Machine. This has a lot to say about writing and literature at the crossing with science and philosophy. Epstein’s account operates on its own terms and, as such, eschews any categorisation. Whilst some of the presented philosophical and scientific ideas may be too readily dismissed by a critical framing, The Intelligence of a Machine demands to be read more like a filmic exposition, where one scene paves the way for the next scene in the short pieces of texts, each of which contain their own micro-universes, providing pathways into a larger connections, constantly attempting to escape the apparatus of its own making. This does not go without contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies, and, as such, Epstein’s exquisite writing presents cinema poetry at its best in order to reveal, in his own words, cinema’s ‘true magic’.