- The Intelligence of a Machine by Jean Epstein
by Jean Epstein, with translation and introduction by Christophe Wall-Romana. Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2014. 111pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-9375-6118-5.
Christophe Wall-Romana presents this original text by acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker and poet Jean Epstein (1897–1953) through an annotated translation and introduction aimed at claiming its place among the early (if not first) works in the philosophy of cinema. It first appeared in the French original as L’intelligence d’une machine in 1946 and is presented as the first full-length translation of Epstein’s work in English, which alerts us to the pertinent gaps of language barriers and delayed reception of works in academia and as such offers an important milestone, in particular within film, cinema and media philosophy.
Jean Epstein takes cinema as genuine inspiration and addresses it head on with the intention of discerning the cinematograph’s suggested worldview through its workings in order to create a philosophy of cinema on its own terms. As such, it is a provocation to Kant and chimes with aspects of current philosophical moves in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism. Epstein, whom Wall-Romana calls a “cinema-existentialist,” opens by discussing the coexistence and mutual contingency of continuity and discontinuity, the homogeneity of matter and spirit, as they present themselves in the cinematic mechanism and contextualizes these reflections with aspects of early-20th-century scientific theories derived from mathematics, relativity theory and quantum physics. Key to his thought is the ability of the cinematograph to accelerate and slow down the speed of projection and the reversal of movement, which leads Epstein to acclaim the relativity of time and space as well as all measures and discusses the cinema as a tool that enables profound changes in perspective.
Through an inventive montage of writing and his fluent poetic expression (a challenge for any translation), Epstein addresses that which he calls, in his own words, a cinematographic robot-philosopher can tell us about space, time and laws of life in the cinematic universe. As such, he sees the importance of cinema not in the creation of the “seventh art” but in the creation of a form of “witchcraft” or prophecy that “frees our worldview from servitude to the single rhythm of external, solar and terrestrial time” (p. 89). The cinema liberates time and space as an effect of mobility without any existence in themselves, as profoundly relational and dependent on their correlations in their perspectival nature as “pure ghosts.” Contemplating a new kind of monism, Epstein connects with discoveries in alchemy and early-20th-century natural sciences, opening up intriguing crossroads that invite the reader to follow these classicist and esoteric sources in more depth. At some such points, editor/translator Wall-Romana has provided informative endnotes with references and brief explications to these intersections. However, the at-times insightful, imaginative and [End Page 310] thought-provoking excursions can only be sincerely followed if one accepts the collapsing of a differentiation between the discussed technology, the perception of its projection and an assumed reality that contains the former. This is a distinction that has played a key role in earlier influential works in psychology and philosophy engaged with cinematic technology, such as works by Henri Bergson and Hugo Münsterberg, who provided explicit clarity in the necessary qualitative distinction between the internalized engagement of the beholder, the technical apparatus and the projected film—despite their profound intersections and overlaps during the cinema experience.
Epstein’s authority in his assertions derives from his practice as both a filmmaker and a poet. He operates through the sophisticated skills of a poet-conjurer whose succinct style of expression shifts the reader’s engagement at times smoothly from one category to another, from one perspective to another, while breaking laws of logic withstanding critical scrutiny. In essence, it is Epstein’s own rhetoric, which becomes subject to his reflections on the cinematograph, that can be regarded as the most intriguing implication of The Intelligence of a Machine. This says a great deal about writing and literature at the crossroads of...