- Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film by Louise Hornby
At the Oxford University Press stall at last year's Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, Louise Hornby's Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film was propped up next to Moving Modernisms: Motion, Technology, and Modernity, a new collection of essays edited by David Bradshaw, Laura Marcus, and Rebecca Roach. Accidental, perhaps; mischievous, I hope: an editorial assistant with a twinkle in her eye.
Either way, the play between Still Modernism and the many Moving Modernisms made Hornby's point succinctly, which is that stillness jars, jolts, and recalibrates our received narratives of modernism in motion, of moderns always in a rush, on the go, swept along by trains or automobiles, or else by the cinema, that other kind of transportation—chasing the thrill of what Enda Duffy calls "adrenaline aesthetics," accelerating away from boredom, inertia, the stagnant, the past.1 Hornby's witty and surprising new study proceeds from her recognition that our accounts of modernism's relentless kinetic drive are imbricated with a discourse of technological progress that crowns the cinema victorious over photography, as film is seen to subsume and overcome—outrun, outpace—the stasis and fixity of the earlier medium. Enshrined in the classical film theory of André Bazin and others, this discourse of cinema as the modernist medium par excellence emerges out of the same media landscape it claims to organize, since it is only after the invention of motion pictures that photography's stillness comes into (negative) focus: as pathologized lack, as refusal and failure. But what if we take photographic stillness on its own terms? Stillness usually falls, Hornby notes, "on the wrong side of the subject–object divide," standing for "immobility, finitude, paralysis, and death" (Still Modernism, 3). These negative categories are specifically gendered ones, as Hornby argues with reference to F. T. Marinetti's futurist manifestos, in which the celebration of "movement and aggression" for the futurist subject is correlative to the condemnation of a "pensive immobility" pejoratively associated with the feminine.2 [End Page 219] For the moderns and for us, stillness is unpleasant, aberrant, wrong; it's a wrench in the gears of Bergsonian durée and a roadblock frustrating a masculinist need for speed.
Hornby's purpose isn't to recuperate stillness but instead to accommodate it: to let it be the strange impediment or obstruction within the field of modernist cultural production that, she maintains, it always was. For as ideologies and technologies of motion proliferate in modernism, "stillness is not actually taken over by kinesis, but … lingers as a perceived threat or source of fear" (Still Modernism, 20). Hornby elaborates on stillness as threat in the first chapter of Still Modernism, identifying how early film sought to stave off photographic stasis by its impressionistic depictions of ephemeral phenomena—the floating, puffing, undulating movements of dust, steam, wind, and so on. However, in materializing and dematerializing motion, this visual trope inherited its effects of blur and abstraction from photography, the very technology it was designed to repudiate. And the cinema's formalizing of motion as visual obscurity and difficulty yolks it with photography as media confronted by, and obsessively meditating on, motion's illegibility as representation.
In making this argument, Hornby carves out a place for photography in film studies, from which it has conventionally been excluded. This critical move reflects a certain catholicity in her approach, which incorporates an impressive range of texts and theoretical perspectives. The first chapter alone gives detailed attention to early film, including the Lumière brothers' famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the train films of Thomas Edison, and a host of British comedies featuring cars that can't, or won't, stop; early twentieth-century writing on film and photography by Bazin, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, and Virginia Woolf; Jacques-Henri Lartigue's well-known photograph of a speeding race car, Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France (1912); Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929); the photographs of "smoke fillets" produced...