Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


C. Paul Sellors

Rediscovering the Cinema


 

 

Brian Winston

_Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television_

London: British Film Institute, 1996

0-85170-601-0

0-85170-602-0 (pbk)

143 pages

 

Conventional film history locates the medium's beginning in the Grand Cafe in Paris on December 28th, 1895, where the Lumiere brothers first projected films on a screen for a paying audience. Beginning at least with Andre Bazin, historians of the cinema have begun to question the accuracy of this beginning, sceptical not of the event's date and location, but the historical explanation that presents this screening as the cinema's genesis. This scepticism forces us to reconsider both the historiography within the discipline and the very definition of the cinema itself. Why has cinema been defined in such a manner that the Grand Cafe screening should inaugurate cinema, relegating all previous screenings and inventions to the realm of the proto-cinematic? In _Technologies of Seeing_ Brian Winston considers these questions carefully. He contends that the Lumiere's screening does not mark the successful completion of the requisite technology for the cinema, but instead that *the cinema*, like all communications technologies, emerges within a dynamic structural interaction of science, technology, and society.

 

Winston does not simply offer a more complex perspective of the history of communications technologies. Through his analysis he demonstrates that the received wisdom of film history is inflected by ideology and a desire for logical causation. Many of the cinema's technologies are subsequently misplaced within its historical narrative (often to the benefit of white euro-american males) so that the arrival of the medium's component technologies directly *causes* the appearance of the phenomenon in society.

 

Within these historical narratives Winston discovers hyperbolic discourses that attribute fundamental changes in human society to technological developments. Such proclamations are not restricted to communications technologies, but are the product of the technological determinist's discourse in general. Yet, remarks Winston, after at least two centuries of hyperbole, the same social structures persist: 'stand close to the technologies and they loom very large; stand away and they blend into the fabric of society' (7). The introduction of communications technologies does not alter, but participates in the slow, conservative pace of social change. This embeddedness of technology in society challenges the perception Winston believes prevalent: technological innovations occur outside the social sphere and are then injected into it. If technology is not offered to society, he asks, then '[h]ow does technological change occur in mass communications . . . ?' (1). His book offers both a theoretical and empirical response to this question.

 

Winston's challenge to the explanatory efficacy of technological determinism is certainly a welcome and valuable contribution to film and media studies. His positive contribution to the debate reverses the causal chain. He replaces technological determinism by adopting Fernand Braudel's thesis of social determinism wholesale. Technologies arise within social constraints and are therefore determined by them. Socio-economic factors limit what technological advances are possible, how they can be developed, when they will be implemented, and under what conditions they will be available for use. Although this account offers a more robust historical picture than the one offered by the technological determinist, it also exhibits difficulties.

 

Winston constructs his model as follows. Technologies develop historically through synchronic intersections of science, technology and the social sphere that encompasses them. Within society, science develops ideas and theories that are consolidated and constructed into prototypes through the process of 'ideation' -- 'a transformation in the mind of the technologists who are, remember, themselves the products, and indeed the prisoners, of their culture' (4). These prototypes will only be exploited when some 'supervening social necessity' requires them to be developed into technologies proper. Because invention is engendered within the social sphere, control mechanisms will accelerate and retard its development and deployment, imbuing the technology with ideology at its foundation. The mechanisms of these accelerators and brakes often stem from two presuppositions that Winston maintains about society. First, social addictions to narrative and the illusion of realism act as supervening social necessities and cause technological development. Second, inherently conservative market economics strive to constrain any radical potential offered by technologies, thereby controlling the pace and characteristics of these technologies. Despite his goal to produce a complex and expanded historiographic framework to examine film history, Winston unnecessarily restricts his historical narrative through this static and limited conception of society.

 

Winston's social determinism agrees with a central tenet of the philosophy of technology: science is not abstracted from the social environment, but occurs within it and is inflected by it. However, apart from physically locating science within the social sphere, he does not provide a clear definition of what science is. Early in his argument he offers a rather ambiguous definition of science: 'in its original sense of fundamental knowledge (which might or might not encompass theoretical concepts)' (4). Science has often been understood to offer an objective and foundational explanation of the empirical world, largely through theorisation and experimentation. Although he does not state the case strongly, 'fundamental knowledge' smacks of the connotation of truth. If this connotation is correct, then the question of how science can be foundational and socially embodied is therefore raised, but not explored. However, when applied, Winston's view of science changes slightly. He clarifies his definition while discussing the cinema's beginning. Science equals 'the scientific level of 'competence' -- that body of knowledge and collection of devices which together enable a technological 'performance'. . .' or development of a prototype (33). If society has an influence on science, which is implied here via the addition of technological devices to scientific knowledge, then his insistence of fundamental knowledge is dubious since science would be immersed within ideology. Unfortunately, Winston does not clarify whether or not he maintains a distinction between ideology and science.

 

In addition, he does not clarify how scientific knowledge and its devices (whether they are scientific instruments or developments along a technological path) interact. Do fundamental knowledge *and* these devices combine to produce the technological performance or do the devices somehow contribute to developing this knowledge? One explanation places science as the knowledge from which technology develops, the other suggests that technological devices contribute to the development of further scientific knowledge and future technologies. In other words, does science cause technology or do science and technology interdetermine one another?

 

Winston is clear though that there is a linear causation between science (however defined) and the technologies that develop from it. Ideation is the mechanism that motivates scientific knowledge into a prototype. Originating in the mind of a technologist, it is also necessarily a product of society. However, if scientific knowledge exists and society is generally static, how does the ideation phase come about? For instance, in 1864 Louis Ducos de Hauron patented ideas which basically amount to the cinematic apparatus. What caused him (since all technologists are socially determined) to have the idea to develop the static, analytical technology of photography into a time-based synthetic reconstruction of motion? One possible answer, one that Winston works hard to avoid, is the periodisation of knowledge. Don Ihde argues that the transition from one technological paradigm to the next can be explained by such as phenomena as Kuhn's revolution of scientific knowledge or Foucault's epistemes -- both of which are socially founded. [1] This knowledge paradigm is not simply socially determined, but an interdetermination of technology, society and science. Once in the world, technologies allow us to perceive and conceive of the world and of possibilities differently from before. [2] The periodisation of knowledge can not only explain why it took from the 17th century to the mid-19th century before projection and the reproduction of motion through photography are brought together conceptually, but also provide a more sufficient explanation than Winston offers for simultaneous developments of technologies. In brief, Winston does not seem to want to allow that technologies can participate in reconceptualising knowledge.

 

Where Winston is hesitant to specify causation for ideation, he is all too hasty to offer it for invention through supervening social necessity. Again, he offers the scarcest definition: 'technologists are working to an agenda determined by society and subject to further social forces such as their own conditioning' (6). Two possible understandings of 'supervening social necessity' come to mind: (a) something innate or necessary in society will cause an invention or (b) a social quality is necessary for an invention to develop. Account (a) offers a teleological historiography, since a necessary property of society causes a technology to be produced, whereas account (b) supports a more contingent model, since a social property, however it comes into existence, is necessary for the technology to develop. Neither account seems satisfactory. With respect to account (a), neither an illusion of realism nor industrialism, for instance, could be construed as necessary properties of society. With account (b) it seems probable that no specific social property could be necessary for the cinema to have appeared. Nevertheless, Winston is not incorrect to look for causal mechanisms, since causal explanation is the role of the historian. However, causal determination through necessity restricts the explanation of the invention process too substantially.

 

Once the technology has come into existence, control mechanisms arise to restrict the technology's impact. Even though he rightly criticises a monocausal, economically determinist model, Winston nevertheless provides economics an overpowering role in his treatment through the 'Law of Suppression of Radical Potential'. Throughout cinema, HDTV and holography, market conditions limit, in a semi-law-like way, the diffusion of technologies by creating economic barriers to widespread usage. Through this economic divide, the communications corporations maintain a difference between amateur and professional formats and qualities. This point is most explicit with Winston's discussion of 16mm. Professional filmmakers shoot on 35mm while amateur filmmakers use smaller gauges. This caused John Grierson not to adopt 16mm as a professional format despite the superior mobility of the equipment and the need to develop alternative film distribution and exhibition systems. Undoubtedly this is in part correct, but Winston discounts the difference in image quality as marginal. Perhaps one difference between a professional and amateur is that the professional can appreciate these marginal differences and, when all things are considered, would prefer the bulkier 35mm apparatus to the compromises in image quality. Instead of considering issues of aesthetics, Winston simply contends that a professional snobbery towards amateur formats (founded upon Patricia Zimmermann's equation of professionalism with the expression of the public sphere, and amateurism with the expression of the private sphere) caused Grierson 'to ignore 16mm since, as a technology of the private sphere, it was, as it were, inconceivable that it could be of value for his public-sphere, public-education project' (67). Such omissions of aesthetics and practice prevail throughout Winston's book despite his claim that cinema develops from a social addiction to narration and the illusion of realism.

 

Winston explicitly states that the impetus for his argument derives from the work of Andre Bazin. The cinema's invention cannot be attributed to technological developments because the technology existed at least a decade prior to 1895. Instead, Bazin discovers a plethora of writings from the 19th century, 'all of them more or less wildly enthusiastic, in which inventors conjure up nothing less than a total cinema that is to provide that complete illusion of life which is still a long way away'. [3] Thus, he contends that the cinema owes its genesis not to technology but epistemology. 'The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature'. [4] Winston accepts this basic premise, but denies that the location of this primitive of the cinema resides only with 19th century inventors. Bazin's inventors have this vision of the illusion of realism only because it is a long-standing drive in western societies. Whether this drive is innate or acquired is not clarified by Winston; in fact, he contradicts himself on this point. He begins by claiming that Renaissance perspective breeds this addiction to realism. 'The Renaissance deployment of perspective impacts on the social sphere in ways that are crucial to all subsequent developments of the lens culture of the West. For example, it establishes a preference for certain forms of realistic modes of pictorial representation which are (or tend to be) illusionist' (22). A page later he asserts that '[t]his addiction to realism which produced Renaissance perspective painting also deeply affected the development of the Western theatre' (23).

 

He compounds this addiction to the illusion of realism with an addiction to narrative, suggesting that both are supervening social necessities that caused the cinema's invention and determined its characteristics. Subsequently, he has little alternative but to emphasise the importance of narrative throughout cinema, and therefore strongly disagree with Tom Gunning and the 'Cinema of Attractions' argument. Winston finds narrative omnipresent in even the earliest films, no matter how limited the narrative might be, and so contends that the 'attractions' argument must be incorrect. Winston misses Gunning's point, however. Gunning does not contend that cinema was not narrative prior to 1906, but that narrative was subordinate to the filmic attraction. Narrative was by no means absent, but it was restricted and often lacked self-sufficiency. Narratives existed to justify the attraction. [5] The narrative turn Gunning discusses is the development of self-sufficient, complex narratives. Winston provides no adequate reason to discount Gunning's claim that narrative form and internal coherence did change around 1906. Subsequently, the role narrative plays as a supervening social necessity in the invention of cinema is overstated by Winston, since the beginning of cinema is more closely associated with attraction rather than narrative.

 

Any relationship between the illusion of realism, narrative, and the appearance of cinema, is not detailed in his argument. Winston presents a rather loose history that begins with a treatise on vision via a spectator positioned in front of Brunelleschi's Renaissance painting of the Baptistery in Florence and moves through theatre lighting and set design, opera, pantomime, burlesque, music halls, vaudeville, industrialism, leisure, and finally the cinema. How vaudeville performances advance the realist addiction is not obvious, nor is it explained. Further, the late arrival of a realist/naturalist aesthetic in the theatre -- exemplified by such figures as Stanislavsky, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and Zola -- suggests that narrative arts and realism are not necessarily entwined. If narrative, the illusion of realism, and industrialism had been intimately connected, then certainly early cinema's content would have demonstrated the influence of realist theatre rather than the exaggerated gestures of actors and spectacles such as the chase. In addition, the eventual (rather than immediate) success of narrative fiction films over actualities (which also are narrative, Winston rightly insists) poses problems. Throughout, the supervening social necessity of the illusion of realism seems imposed on the historiographic model, rather than organic to it. The weakness here is not the structural model, but the necessity itself. His macroscopic perspective permits little more than the illusion of realism and narrative. A closer view would undoubtedly yield more diverse mechanisms. Different necessities, although they would produce a competing historical narrative, would not compromise his model.

 

Winston also offers a contradictory ideological position which causes him to misconstrue the social restraints that control technological innovation and dispersion. Throughout much of the book he appears to be offering a realist Marxist analysis, emphasising the fundamental shaping power of economics as the base in Marx's superstructure. This can be seen quite clearly with his analyses of sound and colour film. Optical sound film became 'a barrier to entry, deliberately erected' (72) because of its high cost and complexity. Thus, minor companies could be maintained within their subordinate position. When discussing colour, he compounds his analysis with a cultural base by discussing both the economic restrictiveness of Technicolor, and cultural assumptions which influence the representation of skin tones. Michele Barrett correctly points out that economics and cultural bases cross a science/ideology line established by Marx, thereby marking-out both realist and anti-realist attitudes towards ideology. [6] If Winston argues from a realist position, then the cultural assumptions behind the representation of skin tones are an ideological product of economic structures and thus take a secondary role. However, in Winston's account of colour film, cultural assumptions stand alongside economics as determining forces, asserting what would appear to be an anti-realist position. If Winston is arguing as an anti-realist, then his reliance on economics is overstated. Neither position is clearly identified in his text.

 

Moreover, the law of suppression does not provide much room for bottom-up pressures. How, for instance, are business interests modified and controlled by a social desire for technology? Ihde persuasively argues that these models of control do not take into account how the use of technologies cause us and industry to act differently, just as our actions cause technologies to develop in specific ways. Again, there exists a complex and indeterminate structure. 'The very question of control takes its shape within an implicit, but outdated, metaphysics of determinism. Just as the debate of technological versus social determinism is rejected here, so it should be seen that technologies-in-use do not, as such determine'. [7] Instead of discussing 'determinism', Ihde contends, 'inclination' is more appropriate. Such a term allows for competing forces and unpredicted results.

 

Interestingly, Winston does not investigate the issue of technique. He claims that lens and film technologies evolved because of the addiction to the illusion of realism, but does not question how aesthetics, for instance, determine the success of the invention. During the cinema's vaudeville days the filmic apparatus, not the individual films, were presented on the bill. Nevertheless, even though spectators went to see the Vitascope or the Cinematograph, they were in fact seeing _Butterfly Dance_ or _Arrival of a Train at the Station_. Had the spectacle of these early films not proved popular (despite Winston's resistance to the spectacle) then cinema, notwithstanding the addiction to the illusion of realism, would most likely have developed very differently, or perhaps not at all.

 

HDTV provides a better example of the potentially limiting qualities aesthetics has over technology. Winston asserts that the suppression of HDTV was a result of standards debates. Further, a world-wide re-equipping of home televisions is certainly an economic gamble. Despite having existed for years, HDTV has not been established because of an industry-wide conservatism among its biggest players. This argument seems to presuppose that the technology of HDTV is, by itself, marketable. Discussions about the improvement of the broadcast signal are, however, independent of any improvement in the broadcast content. Clearly, it is questionable whether the improved image quality and the addiction to the illusion of realism are capable of causing this invention to be realised because television already possesses a sufficient broadcast quality for home consumption.

 

_Technologies of Seeing_ presents the reader with a thoroughly researched history of the development of moving image technologies. The general premises of Winston's arguments -- that technologies are not offered to society, but are a product of it and therefore tainted with ideology -- are important additions to the way cinema and media studies conceive of the communications media. Conceptually, however, Winston's arguments are problematic. First, he does not adequately define his terms. Concepts such as 'supervening social necessity', 'the law of suppression of radical potential', and 'ideation', all suffer from vagueness. Even such conventional terms as 'science' and 'technology' could stand clarification. Second, Winston's macroscopic perspective on social change causes him to conclude that social structures have remained constant over at least the past two centuries, despite claims by many historians and theoreticians of technology that 'technologies contain considerable disruptive power' (7). This position does not allow Winston to see the way that social structures have changed internally. Third, he does not argue from a consistent ideological position, which causes him to overemphasise the influence of certain social properties on invention. Fourth, the content of communications technologies is generally absent from his discussion. In this respect he borrows a strategy from the technological determinist that he is at such pains to discredit by emphasising the technology itself over its usage. This lesson is already present in Bazin's writings. Throughout many of the essays in _What is Cinema?_ Bazin argues that the realist drive behind the myth of total cinema has not been met by the technology. The techniques of film practice strive to bridge the gap. Nevertheless, Winston's book is generally well written, clear and engaging. By pointing explicitly to much of the problematic historiography underscoring a great number of writing about the cinema's technologies, Winston has offered firm ground to better consider the cinema's past.

 

New York University, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Ihde, _Instrumental Realism_, p. 35.

 

2. Ihde, _Technology and the Lifeworld_, p. 73.

 

3. Bazin, _What is Cinema?_, p. 20.

 

4. Ibid., p. 21.

 

5. Gunning, 'The Cinema of Attractions', pp. 57-58.

 

6. Barrett, _The Politics of Truth_, pp. 12-13.

 

7. Ihde, _Technology and the Lifeworld_, p. 141.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Barrett, Michele. _The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault_. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

 

Bazin, Andre. _What is Cinema?_ vol. 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. London: University of California Press, 1967.

 

Gunning, Tom. 'The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.' _Early Cinema: Space/Frame/Narrative_. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: British Film Institute, 1990: 56-62.

 

Ihde, Don. _Instrumental Realism: The Interface between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology_. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

 

---. _Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth_. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

 

 

********

 

 

C. Paul Sellors, 'Rediscovering the Cinema',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 9, April 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n9sellors>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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