click to buy 'The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive' at, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2002)

The achievement of modernity’s temporality, as exemplified by the development of the cinema, has been to fuse rationality and contingency, determination and chance.

– Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time (p. 208)

In her new book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, Mary Ann Doane suggests temporality as a master discourse for 19th century concerns relating to continuity and discontinuity. Modernity, and cinema, become equally characterised by control and a valorising of “the contingent, the ephemeral, chance – that which is beyond or resistant to meaning” (p. 10).

Doane’s chapters examine in turn contributing binary terms that play out productive tensions in science, statistics, and other disciplines as well as in early cinema and technologies preceding or engendering cinema, such as Marey’s chronophotography. Such sets of terms include legibility versus the illegibility of uncodified or overwhelming detail, the primary problematic of recording and reproduction itself; the notion of the archive, by definition a stable repository intended to show what-has-been for the purpose of future address, versus fleeting presence captured within the instantaneous photograph; representation of time outside the apparatus, that is, “historical” or “real” time, versus cinematic time; and the idea of the irreversibility of time, central to emerging scientific discourses, in relation to older, eschatological notions of history. The indexical trace, as a guarantee of past presence, is a central concept for Doane’s analysis.

These discursive formations are connected by the “historical pressure to rethink time in relation to its representability”, according to Doane (p. 20). Following Foucauldian principles, Doane’s interest is in the manner in which time as an “object of knowledge” was shaped in particular contemporary disciplines and what “knowledge effects” it produced, as distinguished from an older intellectual history tradition, concerned with “influences at work”. Doane explains her approach in terms of the episteme, which itself creates as an object of knowledge the possibility of unearthing “the conditions of possibility of knowledge within a given historical period” (p. 20). However, as opposed to Foucault’s view of a “self motivating and absolute” web of power relations, Doane sees debates on temporality as defined by historically specific changes to do with capitalism “in which labor time as the measure of value is reconceptualized and processes of abstraction and rationalization become crucial to that project” (pp. 21-22).

In Doane’s analysis, cinema acquires a privileged role, placing it apparently “outside” familiar productive systems. This “structuring…outside structure” “ma[d]e tolerable an incessant rationalization”. Further, “[s]uch a strategy is not designed simply to deal with the leakage or by-products of rationalization; it is structurally necessary to the ideologies of capitalist modernization” (p. 11).

If we accept such binary structures in order to analyse the ideological complicity of cinema in newly emergent consumer culture, we are led to ask what is at stake. Doane tells us that the pressures guiding time’s reconceptualisation also require new notions of “the situatedness of the subject” (p. 20). She means by this, “How does the subject inhabit this new space and time? What are the pressures of contingency and the pleasures of its representability?” (p. 20) This subject differs from that in Foucault, “the site of enunciation of a confession… or the nodal point of a system of psychological, penal, and ethical discourses” which does not allow for “desire, pleasure, anxiety, and lure” within subjectivity (p. 239, n38).

Doane’s question about this subject’s experience of contingency recalls Siegfried Kracauer’s concern with the appeal of mass-culture phenomena, the focus of Kracauer’s Weimar essays collected as The Mass Ornament. Doane’s concern with subjectivity and its relationship with cinema within this hinge moment in modernity parallels Kracauer’s in his later work on film and on history. As Heide Schlupmann has written on Kracauer with regard to his concept of “second nature”, the manner in which capitalism re-presents its own forms as natural, transparent, “under the rule of capital, film production necessarily becomes a mirror of the existing society and serves to maintain its structures of domination. It reveals repressed wishes and daydreams but only in an alienated form which at the same time reproduces their denial” (1). At the same time, photography (and film) can reveal the tenuousness of existing structures, suggesting that perhaps they could be otherwise: we do not yet know the real order of the world. Doane is closer to Frankfurt School investigations into the nature of ideology rather than to Foucault’s biopolitics.

Doane’s book treads similar terrain to that of Jonathan Crary’s earlier Techniques of the Observer, in which Crary examines the epistemic shift at the latter part of the 19th century that moved vision from a disembodied objectivity to a subjective matrix, lodged within the body. Here and in his later Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, which focuses more particularly on the kind of bodily attentiveness required of a modern subject, Crary describes the making-ready of subjects commensurate with the task of managing modernity’s influx of images, its constant flows of commodities, money, signs. This cultivation of subjective readiness is a necessary antecedent to new technologies, such as cinema. Doane shares Crary’s concern for a careful articulation of forces at work on subjects within a given nexus, as opposed to a technological determinism which could, in asserting the primacy of a new technology, posit a subject that is unchanging or solely reactive. This anti-technological-determinist view also allows Doane to see representational technologies in the same terms in which Kracauer viewed mass culture’s spectacular representations – as a social symptomatology, in the spirit of Freud’s analyses of the everyday (2).

Doane critiques Techniques for not having considered that, just as a subjectivised vision renders the body productive, it is plagued by the body’s vicissitudes and failures, thus opening the subject to psychical unease. Crary is then unable to consider that “photography and cinema become forms of prosthetic devices that compensate for a flawed body, for the finitude of human vision”; or the implications of the body becoming “disempowered, feminized in effect” (pp. 80-81). Crary also misses an opportunity to see how the body’s flaws and limitations can then iteratively define what is understood about technology. “[T]ropes of imprint, impression, and recording and their alliance with a theory of fatigue” (pp. 81-82) play out to define the archival – and then, in another loop, generate social anxieties about what can be archived.

However, this very omission of the psychical and the peculiarities of its fit with the technological also mark Doane’s analysis. Her book continually returns to the question of an excess that confounds or overwhelms the desire to record. Doane figures this excess as too much information, in the sense of a superfluity of a stuff which can be captured, say, by a camera left to run, but in its congruence at all points with the flow of “real life” would then disallow narrativising; and it is “that which resists meaning”, notably the event as an unassimilable marker, not unlike the index (p. 140). Death, Doane says, is an “ultimate” unassimilable event; she discusses examples in early cinema of, for example, staged executions. This “kernel of the real”, “assurance of the real” (that is, allied “with the factual, with history” [p. 140]; not the Lacanian real) serves a purely functional role: to show the “the subordination of the contingent to the rule of law” (p. 152).

While the subject may experience dismay at an overflow of visual information or be provoked to shock at the “realness” of a filmed execution, the desire, pleasure, or anxiety to which Doane refers is never other than that which is stimulated through engagement with capitalism’s ideological forms. For Doane’s model of the subject to come to rest at this point means, conversely, that the subject could, when not otherwise lulled or duped, opt for an escape from the alluring traps of consumerism through a rejection of its affect: Kracauer’s own escape occurs via boredom.

So, what does this excess mean for the subject, and for cinema? Friedrich Kittler reminds us that indexicality, that relationship of the trace to the body or thing that left it behind, on which the value of reproductive media relies, leaves its own after-trace. “Whatever runs as time on a physical or (again in Lacan’s terms) real level, blindly and unpredictably, could by no means be encoded. Therefore all data flows, if they were real streams of data, had to pass through the defile of the signifier” (3). What could not be recorded could not enter history (that is to say, history as historiography), but would instead haunt history. “A reproduction authenticated by the object itself has physical precision. This kind of reproduction refers to the real of bodies which necessarily slips through all the symbolic grids. Media always already provide the appearances of specters. For, according to Lacan, in the real even the word corpse is already a euphemism” (4). If this excess has something to do with the real in the Lacanian sense, it is as a waste that disorders (5), for which the cinema has a fundamental affinity. In his well-known Looking Awry, Slavoj Zizek gives us many examples of the way in which cinema so aptly conveys the irruption of the Lacanian real (6).

In her recent collection of essays, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, the Lacanian theorist Joan Copjec provides comment on Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer that is relevant here. Copjec takes issue with Crary’s conflation of Renaissance perspective into his model of a “classical” disembodied monocular gaze situated outside the scene it surveys. This, Copjec is at pains to tell us, is exactly the same mistake 1970s film theory made too, resulting in a wilful misinterpretation of Lacan’s theory of the gaze applied to cinema. Copjec explains that Renaissance perspective is, instead, a “folding back” or torsion of the scene upon itself to reveal the limited purview of an embodied subject within the scene; this subject is, however, “haunted by what is impossible to see”. This subject, which cannot see its own blind spot, which in turn is the point of view from which it is seen, is exactly the same sense of embodied subjectivity that Lacanian psychoanalysis takes up through the agency of the drive. Copjec leaves us at the end of her essay without telling us how different Crary’s model may have looked if he had considered the drive; and I do not see how (Copjec’s point about Crary’s misreading of Renaissance perspective notwithstanding) Crary’s “physiological” model does not accurately describe technology’s objectives for the body in terms of its productivity. I can imagine, however, that the drive would work to stop up the smooth processes that capitalism engineers – something would get in the way, even (and especially) against the subject’s acknowledged wishes, its engagement on the level of “desire, pleasure, anxiety, and lure”.

It is this very question of what stops up processes that could have allowed Doane a way forward to theorise the subject within modernity’s interweaving of cinema and time. Consideration of the drive may have helped reveal the implications of the flawed subject operating within new systems of flow and circulation that may not account for breakdown. Copjec’s description of the drive and Renaissance perspective (or Lacan’s, to which she refers), or even Zizek’s joke to the effect that “it’s obvious Shakespeare had read Lacan”, suggests trans-cultural and trans-temporal application of the psychoanalytic model is problematic – which may explain Doane’s reluctance to use it. (However, where better to apply this model than in the very crucible of modern subject-formation, the beginning of urban consumer culture in the West?)

Further, by referring to a “real” that is not, but raises the question of, the Lacanian model, and neither deploying nor rejecting it, Doane has no avenue for theorising the indexical in cinema or historiography, the key term which moves her analysis forward. Indexicality, or “the contingent”, the term she uses nearly synonymously, remains a kernel that at the same time marks an empty place and plugs an unfathomable hole. Doane can only suggest, in her last chapter, cinephilia as a theory that could “make use” of contingency. Cinephilia is, then, discussed as an end-game of cinema, which Doane draws from Paul Willemen as a love of the particular gestural moment that seems to “exceed” what is planned or scripted (7).

As an end-game too, Willemen comments, is film theory’s interest in “see[ing] film in a historical context, where it can be integrated into a broad-ranging analysis of cultural histories” (8). If, as Willemen says, digital media face cinema with extinction, then film theory is writing its own epitaph by locating itself within history. In her 1991 book Femmes Fatales, the conditions of writing film theory were such that Doane felt it necessary to enter into extended discussions on polarising debates within the discipline, in order to explain context and justify her position (9). Perhaps Willemen’s comments (of 1994) arise from a contemporary requirement for self-justifying or compensatory self-reflexivity to cover cinema’s, or film theory’s, lack. But the game isn’t over at all: Doane agrees with Philip Rosen, writing in the recent Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, that digital media rely on similar concerns, and draw on similar ideas of the indexical, history, and time, as does film (10). Doane’s work, and Rosen’s (which in a sense functions as a companion volume to Doane’s), creates a welcome space for more work to be done to theorise the history of film theory, and the strange turn of the indexical in film/digital media, historiography, and the history of the subject.

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  1. Heide Schlupmann, “Phenomenology of Film: On Siegfried Kracauer’s Writings of the 1920s”, New German Critique no. 40, Winter 1987, p. 99
  2. “What gave Kracauer’s work its contemporary radicalism was that he conducted his cultural analyses very much in the spirit of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, as a reading of signs and symptoms”. In Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinema – The Irresponsible Signifier or ‘The Gamble with History’: Film Theory or Cinema Theory”, New German Critique no. 40, Winter 1987, p. 68
  3. Friedrich Kittler, “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”, October no. 41, 1987, p. 104
  4. Kittler, pp. 110-111
  5. Kittler, p. 114
  6. Zizek would enjoy Kittler’s discussion of a science fiction story by Walter Rathenau, in which a telephone company democratically installs telephones in the graves at the local cemetery, so that all inhabitants of Necropolis, Dakota would have access to the public phone system. The dead, of course, immediately start using the phone system in order to complain.
  7. Paul Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered”, in Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1994
  8. Ibid., p. 225
  9. See the section in Femmes Fatales in which Doane covers the argument within the discipline in which “theory” is set up in opposition to “history” as a way to dispel a hegemonic theorisation of the universalising figure “Woman”.
  10. Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota and London, 2001