Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012


Gert Jan Harkema


“A continues dying and reviving in the same instant. The end of time and space! The destruction of gravity! The secret of four dimensional motion.” — Theo van Doesburg writing on cinema to fellow De Stijl member J.J.P. Oud.[1]

The introduction of the cinematic technique famously resulted in an astonishing experience for cinema’s earliest viewers.[2] Especially the moment of movement—as the pivotal moment when the apparatus was started and the image changed from stillness to movement—caused an “extreme spectator involvement.”[3] Moreover, at this particular moment the temporality of now-ness was installed over and within the then-ness of the still photograph.[4] Therefore, this moment of movement can be righteously interpreted as a destabilizing experience that had its grounds in the collision of multiple temporalities.


This essay delivers a philosophical argument that reframes very early cinema’s rapturous viewing experience as a sublime aesthetic experience. As Mary Ann Doane recognized, the cinematic technique’s (deictic) indexical character coincided with Étienne-Jules Marey’s ultimate desire to “represent all time—to a dream of representation without loss.”[5] I will argue that the ‘zero degree of filming’ in the earliest actualities by R.W. Paul and the Lumière brothers was the attraction of plain time represented. Moreover, the early cinematic technique emphasized a pure impression of time without meaning for the sake of the event. Thereby it aligns to Lyotard’s reading of the sublime as the pure indication of the “that it happens” before the question “what happens.”[6] As a result, the impact of the earliest cinematic technique took on the level of presentation (Darstellung) rather than representation (Vorstellung). I argue that this is the proper explanation for the “sudden burst of presence”[7] that was part of cinema’s earliest astonishing experience.  

[1] Theo van Doesburg was reviewing a Keystone-Comedy and writing this in a letter to the architect J.J.P Oud. As cited in Ansje van Beusekom,“Theo van Doesburg and Writings on Film in De Stijl,” in Avant-Garde and Criticism, Avant-Garde Critical Studies, ed. Klaus Beekman and Jan de Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 57.

[2] Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 118.

[3] Tom Gunning, “Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality,” Differences 18, 1 (2007):39, 47-48.

[4] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second (London: Reaktion, 2006), 102. Although there is still the knowledge at the side of the spectator that the images come from the past, they are phenomenologically and bodily experience in the present tense. See Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and the Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 145.

[5] Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 61.

[6] See Jean-François Lyotard, “Newman: The Instant,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press), 78-88.

[7] Tom Gunning, “ ‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions,” The Velvet Light Trap 32, (Fall 1993): 6.

Only abstracts are available on this site

About the Presenter

Gert Jan Harkema
University of Groningen

Gert Jan Harkema is a postgrad student at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen where he is currently finishing his master’s degree in Culture, Arts and Media (Film Studies). This essay is inspired by his MA-thesis in which he revisits the very early cinema viewing experience as a sublime aesthetic experience. His thesis is supervised by Prof. dr. Annie van den Oever (University of Groningen) and Prof. dr. Amanda du Preez (University of Pretoria, SA). He received his BA in American Studies and Cultural Theory as well as in Culture, Arts and Media with a specialization in Film Studies, both from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

He will present a different chapter (on the representation of movement) from his thesis at the Alphaville inaugural conference held at the University College Cork.