The Cinema Effect
Author: Sean Cubitt
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: February 2007
First off, many thanks to Anxo Cereijo Roibás for his generous and painstaking review. The Cinema Effect was the product of many years research, teaching, discussion, and eventually writing. I'm especially touched that Cereijo Roibás enjoyed the filmography: one reviewer had a good laugh at the bloated references section; another limited his review to noting that I had missed out recent archival scholarship on 19th century cinema. You can't win 'em all.
Cereijo Roibás also picks up on a critical aspect of the work: the concept of the object. The school of film studies I grew up with was fascinated with subjectivity. Of course, as any good graduate student would, I tried looking in exactly the opposite direction. I found some wonderful things: Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, some inspiring work in design history and technology studies, Baudrillard's little book on the système des objets, and my first attempt to read Adorno's Negative Dialectics (I now realise that this is not just a difficult book but an impossible one: I'm looking forward to the new translation). The attempt floundered back then, forced to the back burner by the exigencies of the hour, but remained a nagging question.
After The Cinema Effect, it remains one. The division of subject from object remains the original sin of western philosophy, certainly in the tradition from Hegel to Heidegger. Various dei ex machina have been offered, none of them wildly satisfactory. A couple of weeks ago, sitting among the rocks watching the pelicans launch themselves off to fish in the Southern Ocean, I had a thought which may help me finally start to answer it.
I have been writing and saying for several years that media studies is the most important study of them all, not just because it encompasses all human activity, nor because it is the royal road to a materialist analysis of what humans do, but because communication is fundamental, and all communication is mediated.
The surprise was the thought that not all mediations communicate. The ecology of the coastline near Melbourne is informational, certainly, but to call it communicative would be to stretch the meaning of the term to breaking point. What do the pelicans in flight tell me? Nothing much, really. No doubt if I were a zoologist or an aerodynamicist, something, but my experience was one of pleasant, vacant contemplation. They communicated nothing, and yet their flight, the extraordinary grace of these otherwise somewhat ungainly birds, the steadiness of the forceful downward push of wing against air, mediates between them and me, but doesn't communicate.
Mediation is fundamental. All communication is mediated, but not all mediation is communicative. An act of beauty is the proof.
I am beginning to think through the implications of this thought. I have before me the challenge which The Cinema Effect begins to lay out: If everything mediates, if the universe is a constant fluid mediation, how come it is so lumpy? How come some people get all the mediation and some people get none? Only the old problem of why there is poverty, injustice, and oppression in the world. I believe it has something to do with communication, and something more to do with the constitution of objects and, because you can't have one without the other, of subjects.
Subjects and objects, I suspect, are produced by mediation, which separates at the same time that it connects, since the two actions are mutually necessary. What makes media studies different from philosophy, however, is that we deal with the stuff that mediates: matter and energy, space and time, emergence and entropy; and we deal with them in actually existing or historical assemblages like the cinema, the internet, or the face-to-face. That means we deal with them in time, as historical. That is why The Cinema Effect is structured like a history: it is about the micro-historical accumulations and destructions that make up the everyday experience of mediation in the materials of film.
Today, I am working on two parallel projects, one in the philosophy of media, the other in media history. The media history concerns the story of the technologies and techniques of light from pigment to pixel. The philosophy of media is tentatively entitled Mediation and Media Formations. No doubt there will be other detours and distractions along the way. But then, as the poet says, "What you depart from is not the way." Think about it.
Many thanks again.
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