October 15, 2012 – Download as PDF

The Cinematic Man
by Mikhail Iampolski


Mikhail Iampolski (New York University) retraces the genealogy of the cinematic man starting with Soviet films of the 1920s, and ending with contemporary Russian cinema. He argues that a study of the respective epochs reflects the emergence of a distinct human as created by artists, societies, and political systems. In his postscript to the essay, Iampolski turns to Sergei Loznitsa’s “My Joy” (2010), arguing that it is tied to another condition – the “indeterminate man”, – a de-individualized human detached from consistent historical narratives…


When I was a young man, I believed the Formalists, who argued that the language of a creative work (especially poetry) is somehow self-referential and makes itself apparent, as in the case of Shklovsky’s defamiliarization, which halts “recognition”. The same feature was defined by Jakobson as a poetic function of language. Many years passed before I began to realize that the OPOJAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) understanding of poetic language, which aspired to universality, was in fact determined by its epoch. Let us recall how Shklovsky introduces defamiliarization in his famous work “Art as Device.” At first, he firmly rejects Potebnya’s view that artistic creation is “thinking in images” (“And why not?” we shall ask today); he then criticizes Spencer’s assertion that art is related to an economy of effort. He recognizes this law only in prose, where the economy of effort is expressed in the automatization of perception. Things begin to be given to us “algebraically,” “with one characteristic”: “…life fades away into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and our fear of war.” Accordingly, artistic creativity, which in Shklovsky’s eyes stands in opposition to the routine prose of everyday life, should return to us our things, furniture and wife; in other words, it must deautomatize perception, and, violating the law of economy of effort, introduce difficulty, obstruction. It serves to recall Shklovsky’s classic definition: “The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “estranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose of its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.”

What strikes us today in this theory of artistic language (which Shklovsky calls “device”) is a particular kind of machinism. The perception of art is built on the laws of thermodynamics, on the expenditure and conservation of energy. The result of these thermodynamic processes is automatization, the transformation of perception into pure mechanics. Deautomatization – defamiliarization – should allow us to relive the making of things, that is, to engage in a certain process of production. “Making” is contrasted by Shklovsky with “made things,” which, according to Marx, have undergone a process of the alienation of labor in acquiring commodity value.

Today, of course, we pay no attention to this significant element of theoretization. However it is precisely this element which allows us to understand that Shklovsky’s notion of artistic language is rooted in a particular conceptualization of the person, who for him is primarily a manufacturer or producer of goods, and who in his functionality reproduces the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics. That which laid claim to universality turns out to be but a special instance of the transfer onto the language of art of a particular understanding of the person, determined by the era of Modernism and characteristically for that era, tied up with the cult of machines, which exemplified the ideals of the new rationalism.

This fully applies to the cinema of the time, as well. The cinema of the ’20s had yet to be viewed through the prism of automatization in Shklovsky’s understanding. It had come into being too recently for its perception to have undergone the process of routinization, for it to have already swallowed “things, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war.” But the language of film in the ’20s is no less dependent on this understanding of the “new person” as machine. What springs to mind first is of course Vertov’s mechanical Cine-Eye. Indeed “montage” is not simply an engineering term transferred to film. It is the construction of a person from parts (as in Kuleshov’s famous experiments); it is the poetics of mechanical assembly. The crowd is the first “assemblage” of elements seen in Soviet film of the 1920s. The crowd consists of discrete elements just as the montaged person consists of “arms,” “legs” and “heads.” The mechanical assembly of the elements of film should affect the viewer deterministically, just as a switch or lever would a machine. This is why directors of the ’20s felt such an affinity toward reflexology—because it turns a person into a machine. Shklovsky’s deautomatization is paradoxical because it too is based on the principles of machinism. Defamiliarization is a machine which extricates a machine from its mechanical mode. It’s characteristic that in Envy, Olesha invents a machine, “Ophelia,” which is designed to destroy all machines and mechanically bring about anti-mechanical behavior. But what is Kuleshov’s famous experiment, with its close-up of Mozzhukhin, on whose face we first read hunger, then pity, then joy, if not the same kind of machine? This experiment proved that through purely mechanical means, through the assemblage of pieces which have no relation to each other, it is possible to produce the illusion of a deeply human affect, which Eisenstein would later call pathos.

Of course, I am not claiming that montage is a purely mechanical phenomenon. But a machine must not necessarily be viewed through the prism of pure mechanics. Here I am above all referring to the innovative studies of Gilbert Simondon. Simondon referred to machines as having been “an intellectual system transferred into the material” and described its genesis as the movement from the abstractness to the concreteness of a material. In the course of this movement, the machine acquires a stability in its function, and only when it becomes a material machine, as Simondon thought, it ceases to fight itself. Montage in film can be imagined as an abstract machine which never fully becomes a machine of metal, a mechanical intellectual system which preserves contradiction as a principle of its speculative function. Eisenstein felt this particularly keenly, in consistently pointing to conflict as a principle of montage which disappears from the material machine. Conflict is an integral part of the functioning of the speculative montage machine; it is precisely conflict which allows this machine to produce affect. But this subject cannot be sufficiently developed within the parameters of this short article.

I propose that all 1920s Soviet revolutionary language acquires its meaning only in relation to a certain type of anthropology: one that understands human beings as machines. By the middle of 1930s, this language becomes, by and large, a thing of the past.

Discussions of the connection between montage and machine in the 1920s are not new, of course. Many scholars have spoken on it at great length. But it is considerably more difficult to demonstrate how, from the second half of 1930s, an understanding of the human determines the cinematic language itself (these boundaries are, of course, arbitrary, as no period has any anthropological purity). The key here, in my understanding, is a concept of a narrative. It is a known fact that the Soviet cinema reform was directed at increasing the role of the script (a trend that was minimal back in 1920s). Film industry executives made an effort to mobilize writers to work for them. In Shklovsky’s terms, this was a “second literary period” in cinema. A standard interpretation of this trend links it to censorship, and hence, an ideological control over film production. There are many examples proving this interpretation. In the 1940s, film officials increased their tendency to see directors not so much as authors, but as specialists who literally translated scripts to pictures (take, for example, a well-known story of how Stalin himself used to edit certain scripts). However, it seems to me that to interpret this solely through the framework of control and censorship would be an unwarranted reduction. Even more so because the role of scriptwriters, and hence that of narrative construction, was equally on the rise in American and European cinemas of 1930s.

In my opinion, it would be correct to talk about this as a special attitude toward humans (or, as I express it in this article, an anthropology). What we are discussing here is the emergence of a narrative man, a man who is tightly embedded within a certain narrative. Theories of “narrative identity” (as some people call them) help us to see a connection between narration and anthropology. In philosophy, these theories were developed by Alasdair MacIntyre, David Carr, and – in a more complex form – by Paul Ricoeur. The narrative theory of identity strives to solve the problem of the I in time and its temporal changes. According to this theory, identity is the aggregate result of a human life, its total. Similarly to Shklovsky’s theory, this theory claims universality. However, it is also quite possible that this theory reflects only a certain stage in the history of human studies. In a narrative about a protagonist, a personal story always, at some point, becomes an opportunity to integrate someone’s life and identity into a larger narrative, namely a grand historical narrative. That is the question at issue. History is often thought of as a grand narrative that has a beginning, an end, and an Aristotelian peripeteia in between. The structural isomorphism of individual and national (class, religious, etc.) histories allows the linking of the life of a separate individual to the life of a society. “Small” stories, combined together, form the “grand” narrative.

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1. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher. (Normal, IL.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), p. 5
2. Ibid. Ibid., p. 6.
3. Its designer Ivan Babichev describes it thus: “Just think, the machine is their idol, the machine… And all of a sudden… And all of a sudden, the best machine of all turns out to be a liar, a lowlife, a sentimental good-for-nothing. Let’s go… I’ll show you… She can do anything, but right now she sings our ballads, the foolish ballads of the old era, and gathers the old era’s flowers. She falls in love, gets jealous, cries, dreams… I did this. I mocked the divinity of these coming men, I mocked the machine.” Yuri Olesha, Envy, translated by Marian Schwartz (NY: NY Review of Books, 2004), 115. In Envy, Ophelia reproduces stereotypical patterns of behavior in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, but does so mechanically. It produces emotions in a markedly unemotional way, as Mozzhukhin in Kuleshov.
4. Gilbert Simondon. Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Paris, Aubier, 1989), 46. Simondon understood the technical object as a collection of basic but multifunctional elements, which, once they are included in the machine, lose their polyfunctionality. In cinema, this loss is only partial. No one piece of a montage becomes narrowly-functioning after its integration into a montage phrase.
Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher. (Normal, IL.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), p. 5
Ibid. Ibid., p. 6.
Its designer Ivan Babichev describes it thus: “Just think, the machine is their idol, the machine… And all of a sudden… And all of a sudden, the best machine of all turns out to be a liar, a lowlife, a sentimental good-for-nothing. Let’s go… I’ll show you… She can do anything, but right now she sings our ballads, the foolish ballads of the old era, and gathers the old era’s flowers. She falls in love, gets jealous, cries, dreams… I did this. I mocked the divinity of these coming men, I mocked the machine.” Yuri Olesha, Envy, translated by Marian Schwartz (NY: NY Review of Books, 2004), 115. In Envy, Ophelia reproduces stereotypical patterns of behavior in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, but does so mechanically. It produces emotions in a markedly unemotional way, as Mozzhukhin in Kuleshov.
Gilbert Simondon. Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Paris, Aubier, 1989), 46. Simondon understood the technical object as a collection of basic but multifunctional elements, which, once they are included in the machine, lose their polyfunctionality. In cinema, this loss is only partial. No one piece of a montage becomes narrowly-functioning after its integration into a montage phrase.

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