- The Shape of Spectatorship. Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany by Scott Curtis
How does one write media history? Or rather, how could the discipline of media studies approach the history of media—any media, but especially a medium as potent as film? In his book, Scott Curtis reverses the tale of film told consistently as the story of modernity, spectacle, and sweeping success. Written with subtle irony, the book traces the history of film as a medium first and foremost confined by the world it was born into, namely the world of science. In order to become a successful new medium, film had to be accepted and endorsed by actors across various disciplines and discourses. Among other tools and techniques, it was bound by the conditions of the fields it came to be used in. These conditions were set, as Curtis argues, by science, experts, and aesthetics. Consequently, the formal features of the new technique are at the core of Curtis’s endeavor. Rather than presenting another study of the styles, class distinctions, and audiences of early film, Curtis examines film as a scientific tool, as a form of observation, and as a medium struggling to meet long-standing aesthetic criteria and ongoing debates in order for it to qualify as an art form.
Experts practice disciplinary modes of viewing, which are logical operations shaped by research questions and experimental techniques pertinent to a scientific field. As such, they are taught in institutions, require training, and convey social and academic hierarchies. How did motion [End Page 918] pictures both fit into and challenge—in equal measure—these traditions of expert viewing? It was the extraordinary malleability and adaptability to disciplinary tasks, Curtis holds, that shaped the technology and has thereby ensured its success. To the same extent that disciplines have appropriated film as a tool, the technology has propelled research in new directions. Curtis here equates film with an experimental system as conceptualized in the history of science. Following from this, one of film’s main objectives consists of the creation of difference between the known and the as yet unknown. Difference only yields new insights; these “are folded into the existing system which is thereby subtly changed” (10).
Over four chapters, Curtis carves out various modes of expert viewing whilst examining in some detail the cases of human locomotion, Brownian motion in physics, and cell motility in biology. Building on the work of Henri Bergson, notably his dictum of the sciences’ cinematographic logic, Curtis describes the correspondences between the sciences’ analytical need to compose and decompose time at will and film’s ability to make time tractable by speeding it up and down, by discretizing it into regular units and thereby making it measurable. From this point of view, Curtis asks dryly, what is cinema “except a technology that extracts bodies from their natural time and space, reproducing them mechanically, reanimating them repeatedly . . . long after the host has expired?” (88). The use of film in the medical sphere, tackled in the second chapter, gives insight into the deep ambivalence and suspicion caused by the new technology as physicians both lauded film as a laboratory tool and dismissed it as a mass-cultural phenomenon. Curtis points to movement and stillness as the central features of film most successfully adaptable to medicine’s conceptions of life, disease, and death. Due to the photographic character of the images, motion pictures obtained an “evidentiary status” to the medically initiated (93). To the uneducated beholder, in contrast, it was precisely the pictures’ motion, i.e. the rapidity of image succession, that posed a risk to reason itself in the view of the physicians. Shifting his focus to the projection of film, Curtis, in the remainder of the book, brings to the fore the spectator and forms of perception. Aesthetic education in its specific German manifestation as a way of pursuing aesthetic and moral Bildung, Kultur, but also social order, is the subject of Curtis’s further inquiries into...