Monthly Archives: January 2014

On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

by Lois Barnett

Writing from a sociological perspective in 2004, Richard Leppert describes modern life as indexbeing ‘marked and defined by an obsession with ‘evidence’, visual culture and personal visibility’ (2004: 19). Although Leppert’s understanding devised in accordance with a more contemporary context only nine years ago, his observations are concurrent with thought emerging both earlier in the discourse of modernity and in its later academic discussion, highlighting the longevity of these qualities which persist into the present day. These three concepts – a thirst for recorded proof and ‘evidence’, an emphasis on the visual and the rise of individualistic sentiment within an emergent mass culture – are fundamental attributes of the role played by cinema in the formation of modernity. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwarz describe ‘a developing mass audience,’ motivated by the desire to ‘freeze fleeting distractions and evanescent sensations’ via the visual methods facilitated by the ‘talismanic innovations…the telegraph and telephone, railroad and automobile, photograph and cinema’ (1995: 1-3).  Charney and Schwarz conclude that ‘modernity can be best understood as inherently cinematic’ (1995: 1-3).

… the cinema formed a crucible for ideas, techniques, and representational strategies already present in other places…a specific culture of the cinematic emerged from – yet also ran parallel to – other transformations associated with modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in such countries as France, Germany, England, Sweden and the United States. (Charney and Schwarz 1995: 1-3).

The concept of ‘an obsession with ‘evidence’’ is also prevalent in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who argues that:

With the beginning of modern times, religious belief was becoming more and more externalised as a lifeless convention; men of intellect were lifted by a new belief, their great belief in an autonomous philosophy and science. (Garcia-Gomez 2005: 225)

Husserl’s observation that religious beliefs were rapidly being replaced by a ‘new belief’ focused on an ‘autonomous philosophy and science’ describes a replacement of the Church as the source of reason and justification by a terrestrial and human-based form of ‘proven’ knowledge – at its most basic level, this simply depicts cinema as a locus for the invention of modern life due to its technological origins, not dissimilar to Charney and Schwartz’s assertion that cinema became the ‘talismanic innovation’ most symbolic of modern life itself (1995: 1-3).  However, the role of cinema as replacement for theistic power in the development of everyday life transcends its position as a symbol of scientific prowess in two ways: firstly, in its ability to visually capture the scientific ‘evidence’ described by Leppert, and secondly in its creation of a quasi-didactic public space for mass attendance.

The place of the cinema in documenting this ‘evidence’ must be ascertained. The constant thirst for ‘evidence’ itself, which in its very nature requires some kind of recording in accordance with the new thirst for ‘proof’ evoked by the emergent interest in new science described by Husserl, is enabled by the need to capture a ‘moment’ as envisioned by the philosophers of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century. Continue reading On Space and Seeing: Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life