- Historicizing Perception:Film Theory, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Mind
In the discipline of film studies, there has long remained a standoff between two important yet perpetually estranged research programs. On the one hand, the dominant mode of contemporary film scholarship finds much of its roots in the political and theoretical conversations associated with twentieth-century German and French thought—namely, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Althusserian Marxism, semiotics, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School—and the shared concern over the historical and cultural modes of producing knowledge and subjectivity. That cinema is always already configured into the broader discursive and affective formations of the self and community is a conceptual commitment that continues to remain pervasive in, among other areas, studies on the politics of identity and intersectionality, postcolonial and oppositional cinemas, and the social and material economy of film production and consumption. On the other hand, a strong challenge to this paradigm that gained distinction in the 1980s [End Page 83] has sought to ground explanations of cinematic composition and spectatorship on methods and insights offered by analytic philosophy and cognitive research. Broadly construed, what binds the rich variety of writings that is now most widely recognized as "cognitive film or media studies" has been to employ the best available theories to explain how the constructions of a narrative or scene and the viewer's engagement are rationally motivated—where the standards by which to measure the viability of a theory and the veracity of rationality are rooted in naturalistic discourse.1
Because much of the exchange between the two camps has been steeped in disputes over the incompatibilities of differing methodological commitments, the debates have been historically marked by attacks on either the politically reactionary inclinations of "scientific imperialism" or the empirically unverifiable and thus impressionistic speculations of "cultural relativism."2 Among the most vitriolic of such sentiments is perhaps Bill Nichols's assertion that "the most regressive current in contemporary film study is the nomination of analytic philosophy and cognitive psychology as global theoretical frameworks" that are incompatible with the "politics of multiculturalism and social representation" so crucial to cultural studies.3 As a result, David Bordwell has recently assessed that "a sustained conversation between the cognitive and Cultural Studies approaches has yet to occur."4 Indeed, what began around specific points of contention that quickly led to acrimonious dispute has now given way to institutional compartmentalization whereby neither side substantially engages much with the other.5 This essay seeks to address this discursive impasse by shifting the emphasis away from methodology and placing it on the more moderate level of specific claims. Thus, by returning to the last major debate between culturalist and cognitivist film scholars, which centers on the arguments surrounding the historicity of perception (HP), I will elucidate and critically engage with arguments about perception and consciousness on which the opposing positions have been staked.
Ben Singer concisely defines the HP argument as maintaining that alterations to the sensory environment, which were pervasive in late nineteenth-century to early twentieth-century Western metropolitan centers, caused some significant change in the human perceptual apparatus.6 Thus, HP posits a strong correlation between the physiological mechanisms of perception and historically contingent cultural phenomena. As Singer notes, much of the debate on HP has traced one of its core conceptual roots to the following passage in Walter Benjamin's seminal essay titled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": [End Page 84]
During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.7
It is precisely this articulation of HP that a few prominent cognitive film scholars have attempted to undermine by arguing that such changes to the perceptual apparatus are empirically implausible outside of a grand evolutionary scale.8 In what follows, I will make significant appeals to key developments in perceptual neuroscience and the philosophy of mind not only to provide a number of different ways in which the plausibility of...