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  • The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism*
  • Miriam Bratu Hansen** (bio)

In this essay, I wish to reassess the juncture of cinema and modernism, and I will do so by moving from the example of early Soviet cinema to a seemingly less likely case, that of the classical Hollywood film. My inquiry is inspired by two complementary sets of questions: one pertaining to what cinema studies can contribute to our understanding of modernism and modernity; the other aimed at whether and how the perspective of modernist aesthetics may help us to elucidate and reframe the history and theory of cinema. The juncture of cinema and modernism has been explored in a number of ways, ranging from research on early cinema’s interrelations with the industrial-technological modernity of the late nineteenth century, through an emphasis on the international art cinemas of both interwar and new wave periods, to speculations on the cinema’s implication in the distinction between the modern and the postmodern. 1 My focus here will be more squarely on mid-twentieth-century modernity, roughly from the 1920s through the 1950s—the modernity of mass production, mass consumption, and mass annihilation—and the contemporaneity of a particular kind of cinema, mainstream Hollywood, with what has variously been labelled “high” or “hegemonic modernism.”

Whether or not one agrees with the postmodernist challenge to modernism and modernity at large, it did open up a space for understanding modernism as a much wider, more diverse phenomenon, eluding any single-logic genealogy that [End Page 59] runs, say, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, from T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka to Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, from Arnold Schönberg to Karlheinz Stockhausen. For more than a decade now scholars have been dislodging that genealogy and delineating alternative forms of modernism, both in the West and in other parts of the world, that vary according to their social and geopolitical locations, often configured along the axis of post/coloniality, and according to the specific subcultural and indigenous traditions to which they responded. 2 In addition to opening up the modernist canon, these studies assume a notion of modernism that is “more than a repertory of artistic styles,” more than sets of ideas pursued by groups of artists and intellectuals. 3 Rather, modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity, including a paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed. In other words, just as modernist aesthetics are not reducible to the category of style, they tend to blur the boundaries of the institution of art in its traditional, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century incarnation that turns on the ideal of aesthetic autonomy and the distinction of “high” vs. “low,” of autonomous art vs. popular and mass culture. 4

Focusing on the nexus between modernism and modernity, then, also implies a wider notion of the aesthetic, one that situates artistic practices within a larger history and economy of sensory perception that Walter Benjamin for one saw as the decisive battleground for the meaning and fate of modernity. 5 While the spread of urban-industrial technology, the large-scale disembedding of social (and gender) relations, and the shift to mass consumption entailed processes of real destruction and loss, there also emerged new modes of organizing vision and sensory perception, a new relationship with “things,” different forms of mimetic experience and expression, of affectivity, temporality, and reflexivity, a changing fabric of everyday life, sociability, and leisure. From this perspective, I take the study of modernist aesthetics to encompass cultural practices that both articulated and mediated the experience of modernity, such as the mass-produced and mass-consumed phenomena of fashion, design, advertising, architecture and urban environment, of photography, radio, and cinema. I am referring to this kind of modernism as “vernacular” (and avoiding the ideologically overdetermined term “popular”) because the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability. In the latter sense, finally, this essay will also address the vexed...