Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Richard Grusin reviews Screening Fears

Francesco Casetti. Screening Fears: On Protective Media. New York: Zone Books, 2023. 272 pp.

Review by Richard Grusin

7 December 2023

What do late eighteenth-century phantasmagoria theaters, picture palaces of the Golden Age of Cinema, and pandemic-era videoconferencing have in common? According to Francesco Casetti, they are all instances of what he calls the “projection / protection complex” (p. 9). In Screening Fears: On Protective Media, Casetti advances the bold thesis that screenic media have functioned across modernity as disciplinary dispositifs. Taking these three historically disparate media apparatuses as his exemplary cases, Casetti contends that screenic mediation occurs in physical environments that offer protection from the very material threats of the world they present on our screens. The distinctiveness of this thesis is developed by Casetti through focusing his astute scholarly gaze less on what screenic media represent than on how they operate in the world. Screening Fears is both persuasively argued and suggestive of further avenues of research.

Like another recent revaluation of screenic mediation, Mauro Carbone and Graziano Lingua’s Toward an Anthropology of Screens (2023), Screening Fears develops its revisionary genealogy of screen-based media out of the circumstances of daily life brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. During and after quarantine, the remediation of business, educational, medical, judicial, and social relations by videoconferencing platforms (like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype) operated effectively as a way to protect us from exposure to the dangers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus even while connecting us to the human and nonhuman world through the audiovisual projections on our digitally networked screens. Writing from amidst this pandemic experience, Casetti was able to reconceive the historical mediations of the phantasmagoria and the cinema as screenic precursors to the digitally networked bubbles of our current historical moment.

The brilliance of Casetti’s genealogical gambit is that it focuses on these disparate media not in terms of their similar logics of visual representation but their similar functions as disciplinary dispositifs. Most accounts of the phantasmagoria have tended to focus either on technologies of representation (such as the magic lantern), the content of their representations (for example, spiritual and supernatural phenomena), or the impact of these representations on their viewers (like the aesthetic of astonishment). While not ignoring these aspects of the phantasmagoria, Casetti is primarily interested in how this pre-cinematic screenic medium operates as a spatial dispositif, performing the double function of “hosting images and shaping the space where it was located” (p. 55). He argues that “the key element of the complex is fear of immediate reality,” particularly the fear of political and social revolutions at the time of the phantasmagoria’s emergence in the late eighteenth century (p. 59).

Casetti traces the “peculiar lineage” of the projection / protection complex to cinema’s Golden Age (p. 49). Like his analysis of the phantasmagoria, his discussion of cinema focuses on the space of the movie theater, in the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer’s treatment of Berlin’s picture palaces, but with greater emphasis on the US history of the theater as a physical space of comfort, an optical-environmental dispositif. Casetti lovingly describes the comfortable environment of the movie theater—seats, lighting, luxurious restrooms, and especially air-conditioned climate. But his focus is not only on theater architecture and its accoutrements. One of the most interesting and engaging parts of his discussion of cinema is his Foucauldian account of the disciplinary role of the usher in the sociotechnical assemblage of the movie theater. Ushers were trained to enforce “the rules of courtesy” and to provide filmgoers with whatever they needed for a safe and comfortable environment (p. 91).

The stress of everyday life in the COVID-19 pandemic worked to generate the third instance of Casetti’s projection / protection complex, the digitally networked screen-based bubbles of videoconferencing that allowed us to connect with others without facing the risks of illness and possibly death from exposure to the coronavirus. While maintaining that all three forms of mediation protect us from the world even while using images to create connections with it, Casetti does not minimize the differences between these instantiations of the projection / protection complex. He notes that where the phantasmagoria and the cinema brought people together in the same protective physical environment, digital screen-based bubbles brought people together in a virtual space. The ingeniousness of taking the inspiration of our pandemic-enforced, screen-based bubbles to crystallize the projection / protection complex arguably constitutes the fundamental contribution of Screening Fears. Although the book moves through its examples chronologically, it is the last example that retrospectively enlivens the first two instantiations.

In the book’s final chapter, Casetti compares the projection / protection complex with Sigmund Freud’s contention in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that “Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli” (quoted on p. 162). Where Casetti sees his three media instantiations of the projection / protection complex as providing a haven or enclosure from the fearful stress of everyday life, Walter Benjamin, following Freud’s example, sees media like cinema as training the sensorium to deal more effectively with these stresses rather than providing an escape or refuge from them. By drawing our attention to the spatial arrangement of these different screenic media, Casetti makes a different, if perhaps complementary, case for cinema and other screenic media as themselves sensoriums. But rather than training people to deal with the stresses of modernity, these dispositifs offer shelter from the storms of the world.

Screening Fears is a powerful and provocative book that provides an innovative framework for thinking about continuities of technical mediation across history. In addition to providing new insights into the operations of screenic media, it creates in this reader a desire to see the projection/protection complex extended to other media and concepts. When I was reading it, I wondered about the Burkean and Kantian sublime in relation to the phantasmagoria, Frederick Law Olmsted’s logic of recreation in Central Park as a precursor of the cinema, or the operation of social media to create bubbles of fear, not comfort. Others will undoubtedly find analogues of their own. But isn’t that what we expect any generative new concept to do?