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  • The Brain is the Milieu: Speed, Politics and the Cosmopolitan Screen
  • Richard Smith (bio)
William Connolly (2002) Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Cinema is all movement without any need for equilibrium. Of all the sensory logarithms of reality, the photogenic is based on movement. . . . Derived from time it is acceleration. It opposes the event to stasis, relationship to dimension. Gearing up and gearing down. This new beauty is as sinuous as the curve of the stock market index.

— Jean Epstein,“Magnification”

1. Scale

Epstein’s praise of the cinema, penned in the 1920’s, is notably contemporary. Schooled in medicine and philosophy, his poetic-theorising captures something of the cultural and aesthetic importance of the cinema in the early twenty-first century. For Epstein the cinema is a magnifier of reality, an optical instrument that allows the viewer and the filmmaker to look into the movement of things. This movement, be it of the human face or of a mountain landscape is micro-physiological. Microphysiological movement passes through the face but it also sweeps across the landscape. It is like a threshold at which things that appear solid to the naked-eye are suddenly swept up in a storm of movement: “a road is a road but the ground which flees under the four beating hearts of an automobile’s belly transports me” (Magnification. 237). This last phrase evokes the sense of rush that accompanies scenes of the road beneath the hijacked bus in the action-film Speed (1992). The shots of the road beneath the bus evoke the same sense of vertigo as the shots of the elevator shaft falling away beneath the stranded elevator — the difference is that Epstein thinks of these impressions in terms of the swarm of life whereas Jan de Bont, the director of Speed, thinks of them in terms of the onslaught of death.

Epstein’s natural philosophy of the cinema, or photogeny, has been overshadowed by a range of political philosophies that make cinematic movement entirely industrial and urban. Political philosophies of the cinema tend to treat it as an important machine of acceleration and reproduction, its temporalities and rhythms belonging to modernity and the logic of capital, not to those of nature. Modernity itself is placed outside of nature or in contra-distinction to nature. The idea that cinema would possess a “beauty . . . as sinuous as the curve of the stock market index” may not be out of the realm of the possible but that this sinuous beauty could move like nature is out of the question.

In Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed William Connolly reverses this tendency to substitute modernity for nature. Although Neuropolitics is not a work of film theory, it’s theoretical perspective (and methodology) in some important respects echoes Epstein’s theory of film — natural science is folded into human science. In both instances the theoretical perspective is that of a microscopic lens that is able to reveal the movement within apparently solid reality. In other words, Connolly’s method is akin to the cinematographer who uses the lens as “an intensifying agent” (239), but it is also that of a scientist who, with capacities supplied by new technologies, is able to reveal things and relations hitherto obscured — suggesting that a scientific revolution rests beneath or behind the new perspectives. Another effect is the drastic and sudden alteration of the scale and scope of theoretical vision. Just as Bergson accepted Einstein’s right to represent the universe on a sheet of paper, Connolly asks us the reader to accept his right to represent culture through neurological sparks: “neurons that fire together wire together.” Finally culture and nature are conceptualised together, the one is not derived from the other nor are they separated: from the perspective of film theory it is as if Connolly is picking up where Epstein left off.

In fact Connolly’s work could be treated as a magnification of Epstein’s micro-physiology of movement and as a significant re-orientation of Epstein’s folding of natural sciences into film theory. A contemporary theory of film that follows this dual course could therefore revisit the earlier theory of movement equipped with new...

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