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Time, Memory, Consciousness and the Cinema Experience: Revisiting Ideas on Matter and Spirit

Time, Memory, Consciousness and the Cinema Experience: Revisiting Ideas on Matter and Spirit

by Martha Blassnigg
Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2009
254 pp., Paper, € 50 / $ 65
ISBN: 978-90-420-2640-7.

Reviewed by Anthony Enns
Department of English
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


Martha Blassnigg’s Time, Memory, Consciousness and the Cinema Experience represents a significant contribution to media philosophy—a field that employs philosophical concepts to understand the function of media technologies. Blassnigg’s primary argument is that cinema provides a way of understanding cognitive processes that closely parallels the theories of French philosopher Henri Bergson, and Bergson’s concepts are particularly relevant today as they offer a valuable alternative to the predominantly materialist approach to cinema employed by contemporary film scholars.

Blassnigg begins by discussing the connections between the cinema experience and the concept of duration. According to Bergson, time is perceived not as a series of isolated moments or “simultaneities” but rather as an accumulation of remembered events. This theory is also the basis of Bergson’s distinction between intellect and intuition: intellect perceives spatial relations, or material objects in the present (simultaneities), while intuition perceives temporal relations, and it is thus linked to the past and to the spiritual (duration). Cinema spectators similarly perceive film as an accumulation of sequential images rather than a series of individual frames, as each image builds on the images that preceded it: “The perceiver’s mind is continually stimulated to draw memory-images from the depth of pure memory in order to recognize, recollect and recreate in the sense-making of the filmic image sequences” (178). The cinema experience can thus be described as “a deep immersion within time, as an experience of durée” (195), and “it is the qualitative dimension of lived duration that facilitates a sympathetic immediacy through which the cinema experience becomes intuitive and ‘spiritual’” (192). By encouraging spectators to draw connections between the present and the past, in other words, cinema effectively stages the interplay between intellect and intuition, matter and spirit.

Blassnigg expands on this theory by examining several other proto-cinematic technologies that similarly reflect a spiritual or intuitive notion of consciousness. Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs, for example, appear to contradict Bergson’s argument because they only capture discrete moments in time rather than an accumulation of past experiences. While Bergson “saw that the confined conception of time as measurable quantity limited a full understanding of the extensive dimensions of consciousness in the experience of duration” (81), for example, “Marey understood time purely scientifically as a mathematical, measurable and homogeneous quantity” (80). Blassnigg adds, however, that Marey emphasized the limitations of sensory perception, and he attempted to break movements down into single frames precisely because this was a form of perception that was foreign to consciousness. Blassnigg thus concludes that “it is not the figures in themselves, but the invisible movements in between the states that constitute the very forces that Marey sought to study” (147). While Marey’s chronophotographs isolate one modality of time, in other words, his work also reinforces the notion that time is perceived internally as duration, and therefore Bergson and Marey simply “took very different approaches to venture into the unknown and invisible” realm of consciousness, intuition, and spirituality (135).

Blassnigg’s third and final example is Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, a collage of “art reproductions . . . newspaper clippings, geographical maps, advertisements, astrological charts, play cards, images of coins, stamps or emblems” (143) that similarly reflects Bergson’s notion of consciousness. Warburg was less interested in the images themselves than their relation to each other, so he constantly reorganized his collage in different ways. Like Bergson, therefore, Warburg “understood movement as the very emergence of motion, dynamics and underlying energy of the creative processes of art” (150). Blassnigg refers to this dynamic energy as the “affective power” of images, which “lies in the perceptual tensions of consciousness within the beholder” (167). The key connection between Bergson, Marey, and Warburg, in other words, is that they all recognize how images facilitate mental experiences or cognitive processes by illustrating the constant oscillation between the present and the past, intellect and intuition, matter and spirit: “While Marey acknowledged the underlying dynamism, core to his research, for Bergson the underlying forces could not be described nor expressed, never be measured, but only lived and relived through experience. This was the ingenious intervention of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas as a gestural catalogue of an exemplary cultural history; to create a platform for accessing these invisible, intangible forces beyond or rather between the images” (166-167).

Blassnigg’s book draws some fascinating connections between Bergson’s philosophical concepts and the cinema experience, and Bergson’s theories seem particularly relevant to cinema as he employed cinematic metaphors to explain his own notion of consciousness: “Whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematograph inside us” (87). It would have been helpful, however, to explain how Bergson’s concepts relate to other theories of cinema and consciousness, such as the work of Hugo Münsterberg and the field of psychophysics. Although Blassnigg mentions Münsterberg’s work in her discussion of physiological optics, it remains unclear whether psychophysics complements or contradicts Bergson’s approach. In her conclusion, Blassnigg suggests that Bergson’s theories can also be understood in a “political sense as means for action” (204). This is a compelling claim, but it remains unclear how the foregoing discussion of time, intuition, and spirit might be interpreted in political terms. Blassnigg also claims that Bergson’s theories support the “empowering agency of the spectators’ active engagement” (12), which is the basis of reception studies, yet she emphasizes that this approach moves beyond “the cultural or socio-economic perspectives of reception studies” (15). It remains unclear, therefore, how a media philosophical approach would be of any use to the study of cinema audiences. The implication seems to be that cinema extends consciousness, thus enabling spectators to intuitively imagine virtual worlds that offer alternatives to existing political and economic conditions, but this argument is not fully articulated.

Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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