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Animals, Animacy, and the Moving Image

Animals attract moving images. They always have. Animals flapped and galloped around the zootropes, bioscopes, phenakistoscopes, and other proto-cinematic toys of the mid-nineteenth century. They left ghostly traces on Jules Étienne-Marey’s chronophotographs and strode across the grids of... ... more

Animals attract moving images. They always have. Animals flapped and galloped around the zootropes, bioscopes, phenakistoscopes, and other proto-cinematic toys of the mid-nineteenth century. They left ghostly traces on Jules Étienne-Marey’s chronophotographs and strode across the grids of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. Before the development of film recording technologies, nonhuman creatures, like young children, were very difficult to photograph: they rarely stayed still long enough for their images to register at nineteenth-century shutter speeds. To record and project animal life came to constitute an impressive technological achievement. The inventors who managed this feat showed it off. Indeed, we could associate almost every major technological innovation in the history of cinema with a signature animal—from Topsy the elephant, whom Thomas Edison electrocuted in a 1903 short intended to demonstrate the power of his electric current, to King Kong, whose unmistakable drumroll roar heralded the advent of synchronized sound in 1933, to the 3D creatures who populate Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).

Critics and theorists of the cinema have also often observed this affinity between animals and moving images. Precisely one century ago, in Psychology of the Photoplay (1916), a book often cited as the first work of film theory, Hugo Münsterberg rhapsodized at length about the "marvelous success of the kinematograph with the life of nature." In his recent work, Le corps du cinéma (2009), Raymond Bellour declared the existence of a "primordial link between animals and cinema attested throughout its history." Between Münsterberg and Bellour comes a long list of theorists in between who recognized that there was something animal about the cinema, and cinematic about animals. In his film Strike (1925), Sergei Eisenstein creates a direct visual analogy between the montage cut and the slaughter of livestock. André Bazin, by contrast, used nature documentaries to articulate many of his central claims about realist aesthetics based on continuous long takes; his disciple Serge Daney would later profess that for Bazin "all cinema becomes a story about animals." From the Hungarian-German critic Béla Balász to the American film philosopher Stanley Cavell, other critics have observed that cinema has a kind of ontologically de-centering effect, providing a non-anthropocentric view on the universe. Human actors appear on screen not as privileged subject but as one kind of "enchanted object" among others, or ambiguous "human-somethings."

The texts and media gathered in this Colloquy present a diverse range of approaches that scholars are taking toward the "Question of the Animal" within cinema and media studies. Some fall within established disciplinary frameworks, such as textual approaches toward "reading" individual films, historicist investigations into conditions of production and reception, or cultural studies of how the meanings particular publics make out of cinema intersect with other discourses, particularly concerning gender, race, class, and sexuality. In addition to examining how the categories "human" and "animal" "are constructed and construct each other," as Cary Wolfe has put it, these authors often attend to the ethical demands that animals places on us or the unsettling effect that an encounter with an animal can have on our own self-perceptions.

Others recent interventions in the overlapping fields of animal and cinema studies are more difficult to place in existing scholarly taxonomies. Many theorists of the "posthumanities" have argued that, by exposing the exclusions on which anthropocentric knowledge is based, they have undermined the conceptual foundations of academic disciplines as such. Scholars influenced by actor network theory, affect theory, Marxist and feminist ecologies, and varieties of German media theory, have approached questions about nonhuman life and film—and the nonhuman life of film—from radically materialist perspectives. It is not yet clear where the work of this camp will find its institutional home. However, they may carry animal and media studies away from questions of ethics, ontology and representation toward histories of capitalism and technology and the "hard" sciences. 

 

Moira Weigel's picture
Curator Moira Weigel

Moira Weigel is a writer currently completing a PhD in the joint program in Comparative Li

Moira Weigel is a writer currently completing a PhD in the joint program in Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. Her dissertation focuses on animals and animacy in trans-Atlantic cinema, literature, and philosophy of the 1880s to 1950s. Her first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (FSG) was published in May 2016.

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Excerpt from "Why Look at Dead Animals?"

by Sarah O'BrienJournal Article
from 
Framework: A Journal of Cinema and Media
57.1 (2016)
An excerpt from O'Brien's essay, which explores 'slaughter cinema' and the deaths of animals on screen.  more

Afterword: So-Called Nature

by Jussi ParikkaBook Chapter
from 
A Geology of Media
The use of certain key minerals enables the miniaturization of the computational worlds; they become mobile, ubiquitous, pervasive, and embedded into the natural environment. Parikka's book calls for a further materialization of media not only as media but as the geophysical elements that give us digital culture.  more

The Dogs Who Saved Hollywood: Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin

by Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Jeremy GroskopfBook Chapter
from 
Cinematic Canines: Dogs and Their Work in the Fiction Film
Cinematic Canines
Historical studies of filmic dogs can help us to understand the changing perception of dogs in Western culture. Silent-era dog heroes show film’s first steps toward humanizing dogs, for better or worse, through stories of heroism, gracing them with complex intellectual faculties and courage. more