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Screen Consciousness: Cinema, Mind and World

Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt, Editors
Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York, 2006
202 pp., Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 90-420-2016-4.

Reviewed by Anthony Enns
Department of English
308 English-Philosophy Building
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242


In their previous book, The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire, Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt argue against the binary logic of the digital paradigm, and they employ instead the metaphor of the membrane, which "gives form to complex phenomena . . . at the same time as enabling a continuity between them."[ 1] The "complex phenomena" under discussion in this book are "imagination, technology and desire," and the convergence of these three terms allows the authors to examine the continuity between art, computing, philosophy and science. A similar goal informs their most recent collaboration, an edited collection of essays entitled Screen Consciousness: Cinema, Mind and World. This volume is truly interdisciplinary, as it includes contributions from scholars in such varied fields as art history, cinema studies, and philosophy, and one of the primary goals of the collection is to illustrate the arbitrary and historical nature of disciplinary boundaries as well as the potential benefits of interdisciplinary work. As with their previous effort, Screen Consciousness also addresses the relationship between technology and consciousness, and many of the contributions similarly resist binary ways of thinking about the mind and the body, art and science, faith and rationality. The overall aim of the book, according to the editors’ introduction, is to examine how contemporary research in the field of Consciousness Studies might be incorporated into film theory, yet many of the contributions are far more ambitious, as they also explore what cinema might reveal about the nature of consciousness itself.

The authors approach these issues by attempting to move beyond the two dominant interpretations of film as either a realistic or an illusory form of art. One of the central claims of The Postdigital Membrane is that "reality, which was formerly understood as the counterpoint of imagination, was increasingly seen as continuous with it," [2] and several of the essays collected in Screen Consciousness similarly posit film as a technology that is simultaneously realistic and illusory. In "Shaping Consciousness: New Media, Spirituality, and Identity," for example, Michael Punt discusses the early reception of film as a technological spectacle that shared the stage with telepathic, spiritualist, and mesmeric practices, and he argues that the cinema’s fusion of technology and entertainment blurred "the distinction between the paranormal and materialist science" (p. 89). Punt refers to this as the "double life of the cinema, in which the fantastic and the real are visualised with equal conviction" (p. 101). Martha Blassnigg’s "Clairvoyance, Cinema, and Consciousness" similarly argues that early cinema was "an expression of technology and the occult that was an undercurrent in the nineteenth century" (p. 106), and she employs the theories of Henri Bergson, Edgar Morin, and Gilles Deleuze to show how the film spectator, like the clairvoyant, enters "a flux of continuous exchange and transformation of images . . . which is profoundly spiritual" (p. 116). Patricia Pisters’ "The Spiritual Dimension of the Brain as Screen Zigzagging from Cosmos to Earth (and Back)" connects Deleuze’s notion of the brain as the screen to recent neurobiological findings, which reveal that the "perception of reality and illusory perception of reality (like cinema) are quite similar" (p. 127). Pisters discusses "mirror-neurons," for example, which are fired "when we actually do something" as well as "when we see (or hear) somebody do something" (p. 128), which makes "the distinction between fiction and reality blurred and unimportant for the brain/mind" (p. 130). Pia Tikka’s "Cinema as Externalization of Consciousness" similarly questions the distinction between fiction and reality by arguing that cinematic narratives emerge "when mind recycles . . . ‘false’ body-state representations" (p. 146), which recreate situations that threaten the spectator’s survival, much like dream imagery. This theory problematizes the notion of cinema as a purely illusory artform because these states can only be experienced by drawing on "the embodied preconceptual schemata of being in the everyday world" (p. 140).

The last two essays in this collection, Susan Stuart’s "Extended Body, Extended Mind: The Self as Prosthesis" and Robert Pepperell’s "Where’s the screen? The paradoxical relationship between mind and world," are perhaps the most significant, as they address the potential implications of the previous film theories on our understanding of consciousness. Stuart, for example, does not locate the self in the mind or the body, but rather she describes it as "a set of relations between the senses, actions and objects; it is nothing more than an artefact of engagement with the world" (p. 164). Stuart thus supports the externalist view of consciousness, which asserts that "we are only conceivable as selves in dynamic conjunction with our world" (p. 168), yet she also adds that "a virtual world is as successful as a real world in providing the interplay and content we need to make these relata possible" (p. 176). Like Pisters and Tikka, in other words, Stuart concludes that media technologies play a key role in the formation of consciousness as they "alter irrevocably our perception of our location, our extension and our limitation" (p. 168). Pepperell complicates this theory, however, by showing how the cinema’s integration of the fantastic and the real illustrates the merging of the externalist view of consciousness and the internalist position, which claims that "the world we see is not objective or direct, but a subjective and indirect representation constructed internally by the nervous system" (p. 184). Instead of attempting to reconcile these apparently contradictory positions, Pepperell concludes that "mind and world are both distinct and unified," "visual perception occurs both internally and externally," and therefore "the screen is perceived ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ at the same time" (p. 192). The paradox of cinematic perception thus reveals the inherent paradox of consciousness itself, which "may help to account for the efficacy of the illusion in which we simultaneously believe in and do not believe in what the screen affords–the so-called ‘Paradox of Fiction’" (p. 193).

The only evident shortcoming of this collection is that the first three essays seem to have only a tenuous connection to the other contributions. The editors suggest, for example, that Angela Ndalianis’ discussion of robots illustrates "the investment of technology with a soul" (p. 19), yet it is unclear how this topic is relevant to the book’s overall theme. The editors also suggest that Sybille Lammes’ analysis of technoscience and eugenics in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and the film The Island of Lost Souls "argues for a kind of science informed by Christian belief" (p. 20), yet Lammes does not address how this merging of science and spirituality might represent a blurring of the distinctions between the fantastic and the real, which is the main focus of the remaining six essays. However, these later essays complement each other extremely well, and while they may not offer any definite conclusions they clearly illustrate the value of interdisciplinary research and the potential benefits of further inquiry into this fascinating field of study.


1. R. Pepperell and M. Punt, The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2000) p. 2.

2. Ibid.



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