- Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift
To be conscious is not to be in time But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden, The moment in the arbour where the rain beat Be remembered; involved with past and future. Only through time time is conquered. 1
As a trace of the paradoxical desire to contemplate time from without and comprehend it from within, these lines from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton seem the perfect epigraph for Leo Charney’s Empty Moments, an investigation of the compromised and often purposely dialectical attempts made by Marcel Proust, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sergei Eisenstein, and other [End Page 159] cultural actors to construct a sense of present time adequate to modernity. Charney skillfully represents many of these attempts as hedges against the fear that no discrete, unmediated present exists, but that rather, as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger argued, the present is only a construct on which we hang identity, since each moment has already evaporated by the time we perceive it as present. Empty Moments moves deftly toward an experiential philosophy of modern(ist) time, showing how even the most modernist of philosophers clung to the present as an all-too-literal ideal. The book offers instead an epistemology of the present that inhabits the “split between a bodily moment of presence and the cognitive moments that follow in its wake” and embraces defamiliarization, emptiness, and the randomness of experience (20).
Charney’s key contribution lies in his linkage of diverse modernist rhetorics via the trope of the present moment, from the shock effects championed by Eisenstein and the surrealists to the cubists’ attempts to “crystalliz[e] multiple perspectives” in the space of a single canvas (36). Buried in these rhetorics, Charney argues, is the inescapability of drift as both ontology—the guiding principle of the modern experience of time—and epistemology—the rubric guiding these attempts to represent time, even if they repress drift by foregrounding individual moments. To help explicate the relationship between shock and drift, Charney performs shock effects of his own, in stream-of-consciousness intercalary sections that repeat his themes. This courageous formalism produces a critical déjà vu in the reader, as quotations from Eisenstein and others return in the intercalaries after they have appeared in the main text, and vice versa, without acknowledgment. The effect is to spread Charney’s points out over our reading time so that we have difficulty sorting out whether our recognition stems from long-term memory or from a page just read, or whether the points simply rush at us with the force of a Joycean epiphany, a shocking realization that Lord Kelvin, Frederick Taylor, and André Breton all labored to reconcile the present(s) of shock with the abyss of drift. The intercalaries’ poetic sentence fragments themselves imply a desperation to reconceive temporal experience without relying too much on the rational contemplation that takes the mind out of time. This move makes Empty Moments as emotionally urgent as it is intellectually rigorous—a rare animal indeed in academic publishing.
What hinders Empty Moments at times is its tendency to compress experience and history into a tight frame. Charney idealizes the experience of modernity, thereby retaining simultaneously the most endearing and aggravating tendencies of the philosophers he cites. He also engages very little with the materiality of his central medium, film, except to break it down into historical categories of “attractions,” “montage,” and “narrative”; he refers to only two films and mentions none by name. By painting cinema in such broad strokes, he evacuates film experience of specific stimuli other than “shock” and “boredom.” This idealization of spectatorship is underscored by the sometimes fatalistic solipsism of the intercalaries, which makes it especially difficult to imagine what kind of “social transformation” he imagines will follow the reorganization of temporal experience he requests (138).
Moreover, Charney conflates an entire century of cultural production into the category of “modernity.” He does this implicitly through the intercalaries, where he turns to television as the...