Mapping the Moving Image. Gesture, Thought and Cinema circa 1900
by Pasi Väliaho
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2010
“Film Culture in Transition” series
256 pp., illus. 12 halftones. Trade, $83.00; paper $41.00
ISBN: 978-90-8964-141-0; ISBN: 978-90-8964-140-3.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Mapping the Moving Image is without any doubt the most ambitious work on film theory that I have read recently. It opens, I believe, really new perspectives for a better understanding of the medium’s history or rather the medium’s genealogy, because the theoretical framework that is engaged in this book is not that of empirical historical studies (as illustrated for instance in certain types of audience studies and moviegoing) but that of Foucault’s biopolitics, Deleuze’s philosophy of becoming, and Kittler’s medium theory. The book ends symptomatically with a dialogue with Sean Cubitt’s postmodern film semiotics (see his work The Cinema Effect, 2004) and its last sentence, before the concluding remarks, is a critical homage to Stanley Cavell “Cinema, then, is the world viewed anew” (p. 181, a clear allusion to Cavell’s masterwork The World Viewed, 1979, in which he defends a powerfully yet quite traditional realist stance on cinema, in the tradition of André Bazin). All these references, to which one should add a permanent conversation with the best that has been said around the notion of cinema as cinema of attraction and around the cultural history of cinema, make clear that the stakes of this publication are very high and that Väliaho has the aspiration to make it all anew. Perhaps not all the ideas discussed in this book are totally new in themselves, but their gathering and synoptic presentation certainly are. And perhaps not all the hypotheses are automatically convincing as well, but the sharpness and intelligence of the book’s argumentation will seduce the most reluctant reader. In short, the impressive depth and breadth of Väliaho’s work makes Mapping the Moving Image a true event, which may become an important stepping-stone in the history of film theory.
In his reading of the film’s genealogy, Väliaho is defending a certain number of hypotheses that imply a dramatic reinterpretation of how we see the emergence of the film medium. The most important, perhaps, is the idea that the basic context of film is neither optics, nor theatre, but recording. For Väliaho, cinema is not an expanded version of previously elaborated forms of optical-mechanical reproduction or, to put it more simply, it is not (only, or mainly) a remediation of photography as animated or moving photography (this shift also implies why Mapping the Moving Image does not dwell very much on the notion of gaze). Corollarily, cinema is not the encounter of moving and projected images with the existent culture of theatrical and non-theatrical entertainment and performance, as a narrow interpretation of the concept of cinema of attraction may have suggested. Without rejecting of course the historical importance of these two aspects, Väliaho emphasizes on the contrary the relationship between the moving image and other recording techniques of “life” (such as illustrated for instance in the first attempts to establish psychology laboratories or the first examples of visual inscription of what is beyond the reach of our eyes and the normal use of our senses). Most importantly, what all these innovations disclose is a major crisis in the relationship between subject and object, whose frontiers become blurred, and in the age-old distinction between knowledge and self-knowledge, whose parting becomes questionable as well. The cinema is part of a larger cultural shift in which the Western starts realizing that the division between inside and outside, the former knowable through mental introspection, the latter knowable through sensory perception and the link between both being guaranteed by the concept of representation, does no longer hold (in this regard, one could say that Väliaho’s is radicalizing Jonathan Crary’s work on Techniques of the Observer (1991), although he does so in a framework that is broader than the biopolitical stance taken by Crary). Cinema is a crucial aspect of this change, for the filmic moving image exemplifies a new way of thinking that is no longer that of classic mimesis. Cinema as a recording techniques shows that the self, i.e. the way in which we define and experience ourselves, is no longer a retrospective self, but a produced self, more specifically a self produced via the media that disclose discontinuous, unpredictable, automated, ghostlike, haunted, both spatialized and temporalized forms of life. The perception of “reality”, as perceived through the traditional Kantian aprioristic categories of time and space, and the experience of “oneself”, as a given essence and accessible as a steering conscience, are not only modified by the appearance of all kind of new recording techniques, of which the cinema is just the most “popular” one, they are also and deeply reshaping each other. The self is no longer experienced as a knowable whole, but is both dissolved and reinvented by its contact with a newly recorded outer world, and vice versa.
A second major innovation put forward by Mapping the Moving Image, besides the reinterpretation of cinema of attraction in relationship to the traditions of recording techniques, has to do with its very broad cultural approach, which reminds the work on cultural history by Edwin Panofsky (and perhaps psychologically compensates, in its strongly synthesizing efforts, for the very disintegration that is at work in Väliaho’s material). Apparently, what is lost on one side (a traditional view of self and the world) is re-established on the other one (a new Grand Theory). Indeed, what Väliaho proposes in his book, is a breathtaking synthesis of (almost) everything that was changing in late-19th Century and early-20th Century Western modernism: everything fits so nicely together, that it becomes almost suspect. By making a clever distinction between cinema (as a social phenomenon) and the concept of the moving image (which is a real “concept”, in the Deleuzian sense of the word, i.e. an intellectual philosophical creation aiming at producing new knowledge), Väliaho manages in splitting his object in a certain number of supplementary concepts, each of them representing a specific aspect of the moving image, that help him link the emergence of cinema with the major thinkers and the major innovations of Western modern culture. The moving image becomes then a “lense” through which it becomes possible to reread, for instance, Freud, Nietzsche and Bergson –and conversely, for the idea is not only to disclose how these thinkers are indebted to the new ways of thinking made possible by the new forms or recording such as the (pre)cinema, but also to demonstrate that the moving image is a truly philosophical mechanism that produces in the field of the automatically produced image the same effects as what the typewriter meant for Nietzsche’s writing and thinking for instance. The key reference here is of course Kittler, but Väliaho’s rereading of Nietzsche’s “Schein” (“semblance”) and “eternal return” (as extreme and permanently reborn potentiality) in the light of the cinema’s moving image is extremely convincing and very illuminating.
Mapping the Moving Image is a significant piece of scholarship and theory, which is also a vibrant defence of Theory with a capital T–a highly salutary position in a period of increased empiricism in film studies. Many hypotheses defended by Väliaho should stimulate intense discussion, as should do also his attempt to rewrite in a finally quite homogenizing way a history of dissolution of old categories. But this is the prize to pay for this great example of challenging scholarship and audacious theory.