Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert Michael Brain reviews Psychomotor Aesthetics

Ana Hedberg Olenina. Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 412 pp.

Review by Robert Michael Brain

This book is a fabulous addition to a growing literature on the crucial early twentieth-century exchanges between physiological psychology, aesthetics, and early modernism in the arts, here focused especially on Russia and the early Soviet Union. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the institutionalization of physiological psychology laboratories produced a discursive space for interpreting bodily signs as indicative of inner processes. Some scientists extended these studies to the material form of the artwork, attempting to show that it was determined by physical parameters, and its effects on the human perceptual apparatus might be precalculated. Artists, poets, dancers, and cultural theorists seized upon the new scientific model, taking on the instruments, procedures, and modes of representation of the laboratory to challenge previous notions of art and modes of appreciation.  Before its recent rediscovery, this ruined archive of modernism had long been hiding in plain sight, shunned by artists and scholars suspicious that it represented a misguided lapse into scientific determinism. But Olenina upends any notion that this science-art exchange proceeded in a straightforward, deterministic, or teleological manner. Among Russian and early Soviet artists the “psycho-motor aesthetic” incited fiercely creative and open-ended cultural experiments, some conducted “under the banner of rational organization” streamlining physiological response, while others celebrated “irrational impulses,” exploring “the intrinsic aesthetic value of twitches, fumbles, and breakdowns” (pp. xiv, xxxviii). For Olenina the key question is how artists and scientists engaged, defamiliarized, or misappropriated the science, whether in making art or theorizing about it. With close analysis of the modes of transfer she shows how a generation of avant-garde artists in Moscow and St. Petersburg realized what Svetlana Boym called “off-modern” artistic practices: oblique, zigzagging plays of human freedom vis-a-vis the forward march of political and scientific ideologies and teleologies.[1]

The Russians were relative latecomers to physiological aesthetics, which meant that they approached it in a cosmopolitan, eclectic, and adventuresome manner. For Russian Futurist poets like Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladmir Mayakovsky it was not enough to absorb the lessons that French verlibristes and Italian futurists had drawn from experimental phonetics. Their zaum (poetry beyond reason) strove to be an experiment in the very conditions of verbal expression, a radical attempt to bypass all established linguistic systems in a quest for primordial sound-gestures.  Shortly after the October Revolution the Bolshevik authorities established the Institute for the Living Word in Petrograd to further these experiments and introduce a new era of oratory and declaimed poetry to socialist democracy. Olenina brilliantly explores the rich archive of the Institute’s collaborative research between literary scholars, orators, performers, phoneticians, physiologists, and psychologists, who attempted to explain how the body and the brain produce and process meaningful sounds.  Olenina finds prolific energy, but little consensus around key questions.  Out of this ferment came much of the work of Russian Formalist theorists, whose insistence on “objective criteria” Olenina shows to have been misrepresented in Western accounts of their legacy as forerunners of structuralism and post-structuralism (p. 47). Examining the work of Viktor Shkolvskii, Boris Eikhenbaum, Sergei Bernshtein, and others, Olenina shows how these theorists sought to counter naïve and trivial literary criticism focused on the emotional content of moments with the arsenal of “motoric” psycho-physiological research (p. 89).

Bolshevik leaders embraced materialist approaches to physiology and psychology in creating several new institutions designed to produce the New Soviet Man, whom Trotsky proclaimed would “take control of all unconscious processes: breathing, blood circulation, digestion, etc… becoming a higher social-biological type” (p. 109). Aleksei Gastev’s Central Institute of Labor, for example, applied psycho-physiological techniques to optimize the motor habits of Taylorized workers. Olenina examines this work with an emphasis on collaborations with filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who adapted Gastev’s methods to train actors’ gestural expression and corporeal plasticity. Sergei Eisenstein criticized Kulshov’s rhythmic formulates for the “metric grid” they imposed, attempting instead to develop sequences of elemental motor units (“jolts, rises, falls, spins, pirouettes”) that stirred the interior sensations of the spectator. (pp. 152, 185). The Bolshevik government had singled out cinema as “the most important of the arts” because of its potential for propaganda.[2] Eisenstein took this as a directive to revolutionize the sensory impact of the arts on the basis of kinesthetic empathy. He rendered tensions described by German psychologists between “‘an emotive-instinctive drive and the inhibitory conscious will,’” (p. 190) for example, as highly expressive dialectical spectacle, which Olenina shows as the structuring principle of famous scenes from The Battleship Potemkin (1925).

The experimental drive of the Soviet avant-garde ultimately withered in the nascent Stalinist state of the late 1920’s, as psycho-physiological research degenerated into audience research. In the final chapter Olenina brilliantly compares the parallel and mutually informed attempts of Soviet and American psychophysiologists and cinema professionals to configure the subjectivity of spectators through audience research. In both countries the once-promising methods of Eisenstein and Hugo Muensterberg, respectively, deteriorated into a crude physiological determinism in the service of banal commercial manipulation in the Hollywood case, or ideological solicitation in the Soviet example. In both cases the resulting cinematic productions were insipid, or dangerous, or both. This analysis bolsters Olenina’s contention that the value of the psycho-motor aesthetic rested entirely with the artists and thinkers who employed it: in the hands of off-modern avant-gardes it spurred revolutionary art, while in hands of uninspired hacks it yielded cinematic Muzak. This is the lesson Olenina brings to a brief epilogue on the current vogue for neuroaesthetics, which she sees as similarly unpromising because it appears to lack the kinds of impulses that might bring forth challenging forms of art. 

Neuroaesthetics stands in stark contrast with the world-making urgency of the psycho-motor aesthetics of the early twentieth-century Russian and Soviet poets, theorists, artists, actors, dancers, and filmmakers whose work Olenina so richly and thrillingly recovers.

[1] See Svetlana Boym, The Off-Modern (New York, 2017).

[2] Vladimir Lenin, “Directives on the Film Business,” Sovietskoye Kino 1–2 (1933): 10.