Cine-Dispositives: Essays in Epistemology Across Media
by Francois Albera and Maria Tortajada, Editors
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2015
386 pp. Trade, € 99,00
Reviewed by Michael Punt
Writing in the Preface of 'Devant le Deluge" and other Essays on Early Modern Scientific Communications (Scarecrow Press 2004), David A Kronic reflects on his PhD dissertation submitted nearly half a century earlier. The subject of his thesis was the history of early scientific journals, and after a long career as a medical librarian (and a leading authority on scientific publication), he has the privilege of a relaxed assessment of his work as a graduate researcher. Of the twentieth century he writes,
"As each specialized journal is created with an ever-decreasing audience size and greater scatter of the literature, the distribution system becomes less visible. Nevertheless, the scientific journal basically has not changed in format and management from those that appeared in the eighteenth century, although the conditions in which they appear and the technologies that are available to us have changed considerably. One of the conclusions I reached in my earlier study of the scientific periodical was that it served two primary and important functions: first as a vehicle and then as a depository." (p. ix).
The important observation that he shares is that journal is a 'haven', to use his term, of material that can be retrieved through a particular referencing system and is also a mode of dissemination that is made up of a collection of related individual essays or papers, all of which may not be relevant to the reader. What Kronic does not discuss is how the scientific periodical differs from a bound volume of essays in book form. In a milieu of 'post-digital' printing with print on demand, podcasts, blogs and tweets, discussing the distinction between the hardbound book and the limp periodical may seem irrelevant. But books have protocols and conventional sequences that flag a particular kind of address. They are, in effect, a technological dispositive that does not map directly onto the journal.
Cine-Dispositives Essays in Epistemology Across Media is a book that is a collection of extended and 're-written' conference papers. These are organised within the familiar framework of a book sandwiched between the appropriate matter and with some attempt to organise the essays under thematic headings. Hardbound with all the conventional front matter, the end matter comprises notes on the authors, an index, no bibliography and a list of books in the Film Culture In Transition Series, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, and published by University of Amsterdam Press. It is a very distinct arrangement that sits between the periodical as a repository and the book as a monograph, and as such it is not clear if all the essays are intended to be relevant to the reader (as in a journal) or whether the whole collection is an anthology intended to deliver its argument across a flow of separately authored chapters. The style and essay tiles certainly have the feel of conference proceedings and perhaps might have made more sense to the reader published as such.
The star of the collection is clearly Elsaesser's dazzling oversight of the history, context, and problematic of the dispositive. He captures the sense of liberation that the idea of the dispositive offered to the discussion of the apparatus of cinema that seemed to be stuck in an endless catalogue of apparatus that drifted further and further away from why film was interesting to study. Albera and Tortaja make a valiant effort to manage the topic with grace and economy as well as situating the collection in ways that will certainly be useful to anyone tackling the concept anew. These are the first two essays in the book; those that follow many have interesting core ideas but carry with them the legacy of a conference paper in which hyperbole and short-cuts can convey ideas with immediacy and suggestive effect lost in 30 pages of extended description of data and process. The rhetorical flourishes of conference performance do not bear close scrutiny in print (e.g. 'Nevertheless, the 20 second film turned the middle-aged actor into a kissing star and did much to make kissing an accepted public display of romantic affection' P.151). There is not much evidence for this offered in an essay that appropriates quantitative methods to make its case using the evidence of the number of times the term 'Steriopticon' appears in two newspapers over 53 years--although, even here, it would have made a more convincing argument if space had been given to the comparative extent of the papers over the period and the editorial shifts that may have had some bearing on the frequency had been discussed.
Cine-Dispositive will have some resonance with a community committed to and familiar with the discussions around the cinema, and particular early cinema. It tramps familiar territory - indeed some the filmic material referred to as examples first appeared in the literature over 25 years ago, and there is something uncanny about their persistence when so much else from the period (that is much more interesting) is now available. But the collection appears to be an attempt to ensure that some of the early discussions of apparatus and cinema are captured in an enduring form. This may explain why two of the essays overlook quite important research and commentary concerning Marey and Bergson that has been published in the last decade. Overall some of the essays on the dispositive - particularly the first two - may liberate some thinking about contemporary media form, especially the degree to which Kronic's double function of the scientific periodical might inform how we think about the future of academic publishing, and how we think about retrieval and cataloguing in an environment of dissemination that flattens difference. Kronic's point about the persistence of the scientific periodical is well made but given the current multiplicity of publishing dispositives, we might want to consider more how and who is reading what we write (if indeed it is read) and how the authors might actively engage with publishers to determine media form.