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Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital

Editor: John Fullerton, Jan Olsson
Publisher: Rome, Italy: John Libbey Publishing, 2004
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Kristen Daly

Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, edited by John Fullerton and Jan Olsson, attempts to describe modernity as what Olssen refers to as a "technology-driven experience" (3). At the same time, each chapter in this volume strives to complicate the established picture by taking into account little known technologies of representation or describing new relations between technologies and trajectories. Each chapter takes an almost archaeological tact to the history of a specific technology, noting how development has been neither even nor straightforward, but rather involved complex interactions with other technologies and cultural, social and political attitudes and factors.

The chapters are organized around four sections. The first, "Mobilising Modernity," deals with how to portray a changing culture of mobilized communications, and includes contributions from Tom Gunning, Michael Renov, and Lynn Spigel. The second section, "Re-Reading Movements," takes a fresh look at the development of technologies, demonstrating that expectations for technologies do not always match the actual development. This section includes chapters by Trond Lundemo, William Uricchio, Stephen Mamber, and Malin Wahlberg. In "Mindshares and Interfaces," the third section, Donald Crafton, Jan Olsson, and John T. Caldwell demonstrate interactions between early media technologies and their cross-representations in the cultural sphere. And finally, the chapters of "Calibrating Visions," the fourth section, extend our understandings of entertainment and representational technologies via the work of Emily Godbey and J.A. Sokalski.

Tom Gunning begins the book with a bang with his chapter, "Fritz Lang calling: The telephone and the circuits of modernity." He examines the work of filmmaker Fritz Lang, but instead of looking at the more obvious themes of technology in his science fiction films, Gunning takes a look at Lang's urban thrillers, like Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and M (1930), and "specifically their use of the wonderfully cinematic, yet disarmingly unspectacular, technology of the telephone" (21). In particular, Gunning explores Lang's use of parallel editing in creating a world of complicated communication systems:
    Lang's sequence makes us experience this interlocking technological landscape as a lived dramatic event, conveyed through the new technology of film, especially through one of its specific means of representation, editing. Lang's editing models itself on the telephone's ability to carry instantaneous messages across space, and on a new temporality founded on instants and synchronization. (23)
Put another way, Gunning writes, "If the telephone had not existed, film would have had to invent it" (23). Gunning also examines how the uncanny nature of the telephone, as presented by Lang, "functions as an infrastructure of the systems of modernity, linking together disparate places and people into a coherent, but often corrupt system" (26). In Lang's films, messages are lost or overheard or misdirected. According to Gunning, Lang's films display not only the promising potential of the telephone, but also the fears -- of loss of control and of power shifts in the new system. He writes, "Lang portrays a world like the courtyard of Kafka's Emperor in China, in which messages are constantly sent and a complex system exists to deliver them. But, despite, or possibly because of, the system, the messages go astray, lost in the system designed to deliver (or repress?) them" (26-7).

Vreni Hockenjos, in her chapter, "Facing death with moving images: Strindberg's protocinematic figurations of life passed by," discusses the life review -- "a flash-back like rendering of one’s life in the face of death" (12) -- as presented in Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg's writings from the 1890s. She notes how the depictions of the life review changed over time and finds parallels between these depictions and contemporaneous developments in vision technologies. Hockenjos describes how by 1898 the life review began to be depicted like a nightmare, replaying over and over. As she writes in her description of Strindberg's writings, "the life review, for Strindberg, is the revenge of God in the age of mechanical reproduction" (257). Hockenjos attributes this to the advent of new technologies like photography and phonography, which threatened or hijacked memory, demonstrating its unreliability. She writes:
    The conflict between media and memory was intensified as technologies came to invade the fabric of everyday life. One might even say that what constitutes the core of Strindberg's predilection for the life review is the fact that a person's past was something no longer to be "remembered," but (as it was put in The Roofing Feast) to be "recorded." In the decades leading up to the twentieth century, the private sphere had become increasingly "recordable" and thus exposed: people started to leave traces. (257)
Thus, the uncanny is connected again to the loss of control brought about by new technologies of representation and recording.

In her very interesting chapter, "Portable TV: Studies in domestic space travels," Lynn Spigel uses the advertisements for portable television sets and remote controls to discuss changing ideals of middle-class family life during the 1960s. She writes: "These changes revolve around a shift from the Eisenhower era's emphasis on nuclear family consumer lifestyles to the Kennedy era's ideal of 'New Frontierism,' which stressed active citizenship, physical fitness, adventurousness and 'movements' of all kinds" (56). She relates this movement to portability both in the television set and in the making of television where mobile cameras were changing the style of television from the theatrical and static to the mobile. She relates this changing sensibility to post-war transformations in the relationship between public and private spheres.

A number of chapters attempt to complicate the concept of the logical progression from photography to film to television. Stephen Mamber, in "Marey, the analytic, and the digital," sets out to show how Étienne-Jules Marey, the French scientist who pioneered high-speed chronophotography of the movement of animals and humans in the late 1800s, has been given short shrift, being portrayed as an imperfect precursor to Lumière. Mamber points out that the perfect recreation of movement as seen by the human eye was never Marey's goal. Interestingly, his goal was much more digital in nature: to break down movement and demonstrate through photography, database, and graphing what the human eye could not perceive. Thus, Mamber says that Marey's photographs of movement were not poor substitutes or precursors to moving image cinema, but in fact were more advanced in terms of "discovering forms of representation which were superior to everyday perception" (84).

Trond Lundemo, in "The dissected image: The movement of video," complicates some of the medium specificity arguments that describe video as "a continuous but incomplete image, and, thereby, as fundamentally different from the film image" (107). He stresses the links between video and sound technology because as he says, "In videotape, the sound and image signals are of the same electromagnetic order, whereas the filmstrip is divided between the photogram and the sound track" (108). This leads to his thesis that "Several examples of early cinema conceptually integrate transmission technologies, and show how video was anticipated in films and theoretical writings before being a viable technology" (108). He demonstrates how numerous early films and writings portrayed telephones transmitting images, movie cameras transmitting "live" images, or phonograph type machines recording images -- all demonstrating the links with these technologies and the prefiguring of analogue video.

On a similar mission to give television a more prominent place in the history of technologies, William Uricchio, in "Storage, simultaneity, and the media technologies of modernity," complicates the relationship of television to film as a linear historical development. He states, "By examining the cultural imagination, technological capacity, and cinema's own early production practices, it might be argued that television rather than film occupied a central place on the nineteenth century horizon of expectations" (128). Uricchio brings up the relationship of early moving images to the printed photo in terms of news transmission and how (with a few exceptions, including film being developed on trains for same day viewing of momentous events) film could not compete with the timeliness of print and photos. On the level of simultaneity, film could not live up to what he calls "the temporal expectations in place since the invention of the telephone in 1876" (125). By the time cinema was introduced in 1895, close to one million families had phones in the United States (132). He writes, "But a look at broader cultural practices, at the telephone, at the ideas sparked by electricity, at the fantasies of new media, all suggest that simultaneity stood as a powerful anticipation which cinema could simulate but never deliver" (132).

Another theme in the book is the often overlooked aspect of the interaction between different technologies -- specifically, how one technology of representation represents another technology. In "Mindshare: Telephone and radio compete for the talkie," Donald Crafton illustrates the ad campaigns that both telephone and radio companies ran for credit for movie sound technology. As he points out, these ads did not directly sell telephones or radios but rather were meant to capture mindshare or the public's perception. Interestingly, both technologies claim to have pre-figured the talkie. Crafton also brings to light the cross-pollination amongst the three technologies. He references television and the anticipation of its creation by both telephone companies and radio. He brings this together into the context of the electrical mystique -- "that sound motion pictures and their presumed extension, television, represent a new stage of science and civilization. The campaign to conceptualize the talkies was designed to confirm and to play off the public's confidence in the founding technology of electrical science" (152).

In Trottoir roulant: The cinema and new mobilities of spectatorship," Anne Friedberg adds a nice twist to her own previous descriptions of mobilized visuality in her book Window Shopping by describing the actually mobilized gaze at the 1900 Paris Exposition. She describes the trottoir roulant, which was a mechanically mobilized walkway. The walkway had three levels -- one was stationary, one moved slowly, and the other more quickly. She describes also the elevator of the Eiffel Tower and the cinematic/photographic exhibitions, which mechanically integrated the moving observer while displaying images of movement. To complicate the matter, Friedberg describes how the visiting filmmakers attempted to represent these marvels of the Exposition. Thus, we see the interplay between actual machines of movement, machines to record, and project movement -- and the interesting attempts of representation at the moment when the cinema and the motor collide.

Erkki Huhtamo and Emily Godbey raise the ghosts of the forgotten (or neglected) entertainments of the moving panorama and the microscopic projection respectively. In "Peristrephic pleasures: On the origins of the moving panorama," Huhtamo points out that the traveling exhibition of the moving panorama, as opposed to the well studied 360-degree panoramas which were large and expensive and could only be built in cities with large crowds, "brought the city (and the world at large) to the provinces." The moving panorama, because it was less substantial and was generally used continuously in traveling shows until it completely disintegrated, has not been appreciated by cultural theorists despite the fact that "the majority of people still lived outside the large urban centers in the nineteenth century" (219). Huhtamo traces the history of the moving panorama and stresses its importance in the historical lineage of visual entertainment. In "The cinema of (un)attractions: Microscopic objects on screen," Godbey describes the world of the projected microscope, where microscopic creatures and bugs were projected, large-size, onto screens as a popular entertainment using solar microscopes and magic lanterns in the nineteenth century. She stresses how the large projected size of the bacteria and insects made the spectator "acutely aware of his own body, literally 'embodied' -- placed within a new awareness of corporeal size and physical vulnerability -- by the micrographic show" (292). With the then-popular microscopic projections she demonstrates the interplay of this microscopic way of seeing with the cinematic and magic lantern ways of seeing as presented in a public entertainment forum.

To end the collection, Richard Abel gives us an early look into his research into local newspapers and their coverage of nickelodeon culture, specifically in Cleveland and Canton, Ohio. He looks at what pictures were promoted and in which contexts to determine how the papers were trying to place the nickelodeon within the city's existing entertainments. He writes, "In short, the newspapers of these two neighbouring urban centers in the industrial heartland offer telling traces of the highly visible, yet very uneven developments that marked the transformation or (should we say) passing of nickelodeon culture" (328).

Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital is a fascinating collection of ideas -- all of which were new to me and which come together nicely into larger themes. At the beginning of each chapter, I thought to myself, "How can this obscure topic be of interest? Shouldn't I be writing my dissertation instead?" At the end of each chapter, I had been introduced to an important part of the history of media about which I was previously unaware. Upon finishing Allegories of Communication, I find myself thinking about and using these unusual examples in my work, and find new perspectives on larger themes of modernity, identity, and interaction.

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.

Kristen Daly:
Kristen Daly is a doctoral candidate in Communications at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. Her research involves cinema and digital technologies.  <kmd85@columbia.edu>

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