Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein and the Ecstasies of the Book.

University of Maryland, College Park

“It certainly seems that all art forms in their extreme manifestations, i.e. where they attempt to expand the limits of their potential and their material, invariably end up by trying to appropriate the rudiments of the art of the future: the art of cinema.”

In Sergei Eisenstein’s conception, cinema occupies less the place of one medium or art form among others than that point in the existence of any medium at which the medium transgresses its proper limits. When, for instance, the static picture produced by a painter attempts to express movement, painting suddenly touches on the most basic phenomenon of cinema. When a writer composes a scene by dynamically juxtaposing dialogue and descriptions of action, he in fact opens the novel’s path into the cinematic domain of audiovisual montage. In this view, cinema becomes a sort of meeting place, gathering the effects of all other arts and media. (And Eisenstein indeed thought of cinema, as was fashionable at the time, as a new artistic form whose destiny was to unite and serve the synthesis of all arts.) Yet what gathers at this meeting place are the fringe elements, the “extreme manifestations” of the individual arts and media, as though it were a matter not of polite parliamentary debate but a clandestine assembly of revolutionaries. Cinema produces a new coexistence among the arts by connecting the moments at which the capacities of other arts and media arrive at their breaking points, lose their identity, and step outside themselves. Cinema: the ecstasies of arts and media.

The same logic is at work in the encounter between Eisenstein’s idea of cinema and the medium of the book. As the French film theorist and historian François Albera puts it, “there is no doubt that Eisenstein was, more than anyone else in his time, preoccupied with the achievement of a book that would express his conception of art and cinema.” Particularly at the end of the 1920s, during his travels in Europe, the US, and Mexico, Eisenstein thought intensely about the possibility of producing a systematic book of film theory, in which the theory itself—especially the idea of montage—would work on the very shape of the book, transform the nature of this medium and, along the way, revolutionize also the principle of systematicity in accordance with which the theoretical knowledge of cinema was to be built. Putting it in contact with cinema, Eisenstein came to imagine the medium of the book in its “extreme manifestation,” a book (ecstatically) beside itself, at once book and no longer book. The shape this no-longer-book took in Eisenstein’s mind was that of a sphere, imagined as a three dimensional and rotating space within which various thematic clusters would be organized in such a way that the reader could move from one text to another (and back) in the manner resembling more closely the multiple and synchronic possibilities of a network or even a rhizome than the more traditional logic of linear unfolding. The great spherical book, Eisenstein figured, would be experienced by the reader as a vast simultaneity of connections (texts on montage organized according to the multiple logic of montage) and no longer sequentially, one “two-dimensional” page after another.

Here, not only are we far from the model of the film director’s handbook or that of an academic book on the subject of cinema; we are outside any proper understanding of what a book is or should be. Eisenstein, whose textual production was as systematically ambitious as it was essentially fragmentary, was himself of course aware that what he imagined under the idea of the spherical book was, strictly speaking, impossible. Yet it is precisely this element of impossibility that animates Eisenstein’s thought. In a manner that may be generalized also to cinema’s relationship to other media, Eisenstein posits that the encounter with cinema—and particularly with montage as the principle of cinematic form—does not merely expand the possibilities offered by the medium of the book. Beneath the utopic project of expanding the book’s capacities beyond the two-dimensionality and sequentiality of its pages toward a three-dimensional space of a multi-directional sphere, there operates a certain cinematic desire to exasperate the book and to exhaust the possibilities of its medium.

Cinema should, in other words, be seen not as simply continuous with other media: it does not take what they make possible and merely broaden the reach of their abilities. On the contrary, the effect of cinema lies in pointing to the impossibilities, the impasses of the media it touches, and thereby orienting us toward the possibility of their undoing.

Cinema—a catastrophe of the book.


Luka Arsenjuk is author of Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis. Arsenjuk is associate professor of film studies and core faculty member in comparative literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This is a book for all film historians and lovers of cinema."
—Timothy Corrigan, author of The Essay Film

"A uniquely striking work of film theory and historical reflection by one of the most exciting film and critical theorists working today. Movement, Action, Image, Montage is the most important theory of cinematic movement to have emerged since Deleuze’s cinema books."
—Brian Price, University of Toronto

"Movement, Action, Image, Montage is a critical tour de force, combining brilliant close readings of Eisenstein’s films, drawings, and major texts with subtle speculative thinking."
—Karla Oeler, Stanford University

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