Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Leo Cahill reviews The Shape of Spectatorship

Scott Curtis. The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 371pp.

Review by James Leo Cahill.

Scott Curtis’s The Shape of Spectatorship seeks to refresh the historiographical methods of cinema studies, shifting attention from concentrations on style and textual analysis to analysis of patterns of usage. This approach reminds researchers not to take film, or any other medium or technology, for granted as having a stable or given identity. Curtis’s work recalls the “crisis historiography” of Rick Altman’s Silent Film Sound (2005) and Lisa Gitelman’s attention to “supporting protocols” that constitute a vital part of any medium in Always Already New (2006) in proliferating and complicating its account of media technologies as always potentially plural. Describing his method as “tactile historiography,” Curtis emphasizes the heterogeneity of film forms that come into visibility when one focuses on how communities of users handled, manipulated, and appropriated the medium, particularly in nonentertainment contexts (p. 246). The book features four case studies of the appropriation and reception of film and cinema amongst various expert communities in imperial Germany, including research scientists in motion studies, physics, and biology and medical doctors, educators, and aesthetic philosophers. The scholarship is empirically rich and conceptually generative, and it would be a shame if the readership were limited to students of early cinema and the history of science (to whom this book offers a great deal), as the implications of his method readily apply across the many subfields of cinema and media studies, as well as the histories of science and technology, modernism and modernity, and theories of aesthetic experience.

Curtis’s case studies allegorize the book’s disciplinary interventions through analyses of the “expert modes of viewing” that frequently comprise the training and practice of disciplines (p. 6). The mobility and malleability of the cinematic dispositif across various disciplines was a matter not only of its prefabricated fit but also its creative adaptation to the localized techniques of observation, which in turn could be altered by the incorporation of the new medium. The first chapter focuses on how various scientists developed “ambidextrous” uses of the modes of inscription and capture of the cinematograph in research on human locomotion, Brownian motion, and biological studies of tissue culture and nerve fiber growth. The balance of the book explores practices of looking at motion pictures in the contexts of medical observation, pedagogical reformers interested in educational applications of cinema, and with respect to shifting conceptions of aesthetic experience. Curtis distinguishes discourses of observation—defined as the “practical manifestation of attention and volition” (p. 133) and characterized by control over the medium and its conditions of reception—from spectatorship, where the rapid stream of flickering images was often imaged as overwhelming and controlling passive and pacified viewers. He mines the dynamics of the expert/lay dichotomy for insights about the shapes of reception to the medium.  

In the final chapter Curtis recasts the Kino-Debatte (debates over cinema) of the years preceding World War One as a discourse on aesthetic experience rather than as a literary reaction to cinema, as it is traditionally read. This reframing clarifies the aesthetic traditions of critical, autonomous contemplation that cinema potentially disrupted. Curtis examines how the generation of thinkers preceding the Frankfurt school conceptualized aesthetic experience and negotiated film and cinema, a history that provides a valuable intellectual context for the Frankfurt school’s subsequent commitment to theorizing distraction while exploring some intriguing paths not taken in the encounter between cinema and aesthetic experience. Notable in this respect is his discussion of Einfühlung, or “feeling into,” a form of embodied vision conceptualized by the philosopher Robert Vischer in his thesis On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics. Although not directly taken up by contemporaneous thinkers with respect to cinema, Curtis elaborates a mode of embodied, projective reception that mediates individual and mass spectator experiences, drawing upon traditions of active beholding and passive being held by aesthetic objects. He does not directly address the implications of anthropomorphism in this mode of perception, which would have dissatisfied researchers in many fields covered in the first chapter, as well as the more radical aesthetic thinkers of film’s break from humanist expression. But Curtis’s account of Einfühlung offers a very productive avenue for contemporary theorizations of media reception in its capacious attention to the haptic, affective, emotional, imaginative, and rational aspects of aesthetic experience.  

The Shape of Spectatorship models an uncommonly rigorous practice of interdisciplinary research, that, pace Max Weber, endeavors to pose “useful questions” (p. 3) to the fields it strays into, of a nature that would not occur to those enmeshed in the discipline. Curtis’s arguments skillfully animate a deep trove of archival and primary sources, as well as extensive engagement with secondary literature of the various disciplines he brings into conversation with cinema studies, setting a high bar for those in this book’s wake. Such painstaking work has its rewards: Curtis challenges and renews cinema scholars’ own expert modes of viewing, training patient readers in new ways of looking at and thinking with cinematic media, of restoring to an apparently congealed object of study its former and virtual dynamism, that in exploring its manifold historical uses, recall its enduring usefulness for thought.