Rattling Devils

[This essay is an excerpt from Evan Calder Williams’ new book Shard Cin­e­ma, out now from Repeater.1 Anoth­er brief excerpt, and longer descrip­tion of the book project as a whole, can be found at The New Inquiry.]

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from Jakob Tuggener’s Fab­rik

There’s a fun­da­men­tal ten­sion at play in how we think about the emer­gence of new tech­nolo­gies, espe­cial­ly those so sig­nif­i­cant that they seem to rewire the very paths and cat­e­gories we use to nav­i­gate the world. From a dis­tance of decades or cen­turies, when one might try and draw a clear divide between before and after, a com­mon temp­ta­tion is to focus on that ini­tial con­tact when a type­writer, car, mechan­i­cal loom, indoor toi­let, or tele­vi­sion is first glimpsed and used, the unini­ti­at­ed gasp­ing in won­der at the alien nov­el­ty dropped as if from on high. Accord­ing to this schema, the shock is one of the tru­ly new, the exot­ic, and the excep­tion­al, an essen­tial­ly mod­ernist and colo­nial­ist2 fan­ta­sy of a tech­no­log­i­cal event that inter­rupts and abol­ish­es what is sud­den­ly out­mod­ed, like Marinetti’s self-mythi­cized 1908 car crash or the Lumière broth­ers’ train rac­ing toward the screen and blow­ing the minds of a pan­icked audi­ence unprepped for any­thing of the sort.3 

Alleged­ly blow­ing the minds, that is. Because as far as we can tell, no one ever actu­al­ly ran from that infa­mous steam engine – the one in Train Arriv­ing at La Cio­tat and hence at the sup­posed ori­gin point for cin­e­ma, at least in terms of the first screen­ing for which peo­ple paid.4 In exist­ing accounts of the 1896 screen­ings of that film, that myth­i­cal moment of pan­icked belief – as the train threat­ens to roar through the screen and smush the audi­ence beneath spec­tral wheels… – nev­er appears.5 How­ev­er, this only ampli­fies its sig­nif­i­cance as a twinned myth of progress and obsti­na­cy, because it indi­cates the anx­ious urge for the sto­ry to be true (and, in oth­er moments, a vest­ed inter­est in it being oth­er­wise).6 More­over, as much as it has been end­less­ly rehashed, it can’t be ful­ly set aside, as it still informs how we work with and against images: in part because it names the inani­ty of divid­ing between rep­re­sen­ta­tions and things, in part because debates over the sto­ry became foun­da­tion­al to film his­to­ry and the­o­ry, as in Tom Gunning’s 1989 essay on the mat­ter.

In that essay, Gun­ning works to dis­man­tle three dis­tinct inher­i­tances: the sto­ry itself, the com­mon­place expla­na­tion (i.e. the naive view­er who mis­takes the train as real and/or gen­er­al­ly freaks in the face of advanced tech), and the “admirable sub­tle­ty” of Chris­t­ian Metz’s struc­tural­ism-on-over­drive take on it. For Metz, the sto­ry, how­ev­er false, was bound to be blown out of pro­por­tion by lat­er spec­ta­tors – by us, by all of us, you can feel Metz chid­ing – who use it to dis­avow our own latent creduli­ty in images through insist­ing on a his­tor­i­cal gulf sep­a­rat­ing they who shrieked from we who smirk. But this dis­avow­al is made nec­es­sary by the fact that it must remain incom­plete, because, in a fit­ting­ly hor­ror-film twist, the sophis­ti­cat­ed spec­ta­tor can nev­er tru­ly get rid of the naive believ­er. That believ­er is “seat­ed beneath the incred­u­lous one, or in his heart,” some par­a­site of blind faith wait­ing to gnaw its way out of Enlight­en­ment and into blink­ing day.7

Gun­ning pro­vides what remains an impor­tant rejoin­der to this, not because “we” do or do not believe but because Metz’s ver­sion reaf­firms a posi­tion that is just as ahis­tor­i­cal as the false image of the howl­ing crowd. “Removed from place and time,” Metz’s mod­el reduces the ear­ly film spec­ta­tor into “a pro­jec­tion of an inner decep­tion onto the myth­i­cal site of cinema’s ‘once upon a time” (the kind of maneu­ver one finds, for instance, in Jean-Louis Baudry’s anal­o­gy between Plato’s cave and the cin­e­ma).8 What Metz miss­es, accord­ing to Gun­ning, is how nei­ther the film nor the spec­ta­tor was ever time­less or with­out pred­i­cate, nev­er some tran­scen­den­tal ide­al of view­ing at its pri­mal source. The spec­ta­tors who came to those screen­ings did so in a con­text already thick with screens, com­pos­it­ed images, ani­ma­tions, and opti­cal tricks. Those sites of view­ing were already suf­fused with dynam­ics of gen­der, race, and class expec­ta­tions that delim­it­ed the pub­lic space of the screen­ing and that worked to dif­fer­en­tial­ly deter­mine the expe­ri­ences of who was watch­ing and how they were watched in turn.  Such policed expec­ta­tions would be con­tin­u­al­ly trans­formed and fought over in the next two decades, by those who found ways to sub­vert the demand­ed uses of such a space and by the own­ers and the­ater oper­a­tors who sought to turn the cin­e­ma into a bour­geois insti­tu­tion free of booze, pub­lic sex, and gen­er­al­ly rais­ing hell.9

With a thick­er media con­text restored, a dif­fer­ent bunch of gig­gles, gasps, and shud­ders comes into view, espe­cial­ly when we remem­ber, as Gun­ning points out, that the train was not pre­sent­ed as a mov­ing image from the start. Instead, the screen­ings pro­vid­ed an object les­son in the medi­um itself: they start­ed with the film’s first frame pro­ject­ed as a still, then began crank­ing it into motion. To start with a still image was cru­cial, because it engaged already-estab­lished famil­iar­i­ties with this new medi­um and used them to pro­duce its shock. For instance, at a sim­i­lar screen­ing, Georges Méliès him­self start­ed to com­plain to a friend that he had “been doing [still pro­jec­tions] for over ten years,” before the pro­jec­tion­ist start­ed to crank the film, and the image slow­ly groaned into “all the ani­ma­tion of the street.”10 Then, and only then, came those slack jaws, “aston­ished beyond expres­sion.” Far from being naive view­ers, the audi­ence was already too can­ny, already up on, if not yet bored by, what to expect at such screen­ings. In that way, the real aston­ish­ment was nei­ther befud­dle­ment at the capac­i­ty for tech­ni­cal move­ment nor con­fu­sion about just how much a pro­ject­ed train can maim. It was a dis­lo­ca­tion of slow­ly accret­ed media expec­ta­tion, and it was an expe­ri­ence of ges­ture as such, a medi­um com­ing into view by reveal­ing the process and lim­its of its con­struc­tion.

We also have to note how quick­ly that sup­posed blow to cog­ni­tion became avail­able for a gag, like in Uncle Josh at the Mov­ing Pic­ture Show (1902), where the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter is a coun­try “rube” who doesn’t know any bet­ter, jump­ing in mock hor­ror away from the screen’s approach­ing train – though not before get­ting in the way of the pro­jec­tor beam and goof­ing off for the audi­ence, with no evi­dent fear for his life. The fact that this works as a gag sug­gests a dif­fer­ent kind of tech­no­log­i­cal shock, one at work not when we alleged­ly shit our­selves in ter­ror at a pro­jec­tion mis­tak­en for a win­dow, but when, in the space of only a cou­ple of years, that same expe­ri­ence can become that fable of our old naivety, the out­mod­ed view­er as rube and yokel all agog. Its shock is retroac­tive, then, and finds us split in time, divid­ed by what has come into the world, as the way we used to be gets cor­ralled into some prelap­sian before, our anx­i­eties left behind for archive or gut­ter or an over-cranked gag reel.

What’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant about Uncle Josh play­ing the fool is that this veloc­i­ty of a shift to the famil­iar, with a slim four years sep­a­rat­ing the two films, sug­gests a timescale at fun­da­men­tal odds with that of absolute nov­el­ty, yet which comes far clos­er to the every­day expe­ri­ence of it. Because when we live through these emer­gent media and tech­ni­cal forms, we don’t expe­ri­ence them as bolts from the blue.11We detect them as a creep­ing sen­sa­tion, as we become grad­u­al­ly strange to our­selves, accus­tomed to pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent rela­tions of space, sight, time, and body with­out ever feel­ing the shift itself sud­den­ly click into place. Real shud­ders of nov­el­ty take shape retroac­tive­ly, as after­shocks, when a form becomes nat­u­ral­ized, expect­ed, and unthought to the point that we feel alien to our­selves only with­out it. It becomes part of our extend­ed assem­blage, and we type with­out look­ing, reach over the pil­low for glass bed­mates, and arrange faces into vec­tor planes before the cam­era flash­es. Only then do we ful­ly feel the inter­val between ways of life, there at the point just before invis­i­bil­i­ty, its last moment of appear­ance before it dis­solves into nor­mal­cy and what isn’t even worth com­ment­ing on.

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As schol­ar­ship gath­ered under that loose ban­ner of media archae­ol­o­gy has done a cru­cial job of point­ing out, it wouldn’t make sense to see such shifts as the result of a tech­nol­o­gy, giv­en that media forms them­selves draw omniv­o­rous­ly on dis­parate tech­niques and avail­able pro­ce­dures, just as we who engage them are slow­ly con­sti­tut­ed by his­to­ries that exceed the nar­row­er ambit of the mov­ing image or the touch­screen. In this regard, the hint that Gior­gio Agam­ben pro­vides in “Notes on Ges­ture” is a com­pelling if incom­plete one. There, in try­ing to sit­u­ate the ter­rain of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, he sug­gests that “An age that has lost its ges­tures is, for this rea­son, obsessed by them.”12A ges­ture, for Agam­ben, isn’t a means to an end, a suc­cess­ful sup­ple­ment to lan­guage or a move­ment that enacts or com­mu­ni­cates: it is instead “the process of mak­ing a means vis­i­ble as such,” a ges­tur­ing that always points back to the lim­its of com­mu­ni­ca­tion itself, that “mute­ness inher­ent in humankind’s very capac­i­ty for lan­guage.”13 In this case, he also means some­thing more tan­gi­ble: the tics and fran­tic ges­tic­u­la­tions that mark both the clin­i­cal “dis­cov­ery” of Tourette’s and the stac­ca­to, flail­ing move­ments of ear­ly film actors. His argu­ment is that dur­ing the mas­sive cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tions gath­er­ing force in the Glob­al North by the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the under­stand­ing that indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence might be com­mu­ni­ca­ble or that ges­tures had a sta­ble ground­ing breaks down. As a result, “the more ges­tures lose their ease under the action of invis­i­ble pow­ers, the more life becomes inde­ci­pher­able.” It is this sit­u­a­tion that cin­e­ma inher­its, as in these films “a soci­ety that has lost its ges­tures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss.”14

Whether or not one is con­vinced by his account, there’s a strange absence worth not­ing. In detail­ing just what marked that slow loss of ges­ture (oth­er than the “action of invis­i­ble pow­ers”), the only con­crete ref­er­ences made are to clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy and to break­downs depict­ed in, and with­in the for­mal struc­tures of, bour­geois sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and cul­ture.15 What nev­er get men­tioned in this essay are the dras­tic shifts in ges­ture, motion, mean­ing, and self­hood that more and more of the world’s pop­u­la­tion under­went in the cen­tu­ry pri­or to cin­e­ma: mech­a­nized work and the emer­gence of the fac­to­ry sys­tem. This omis­sion might not be espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the scope of Agamben’s work and its rel­a­tive dis­in­ter­est in labor his­to­ry, were it not for the fact that it is incred­i­bly com­mon. In the major­i­ty of influ­en­tial and com­pelling his­to­ries of the emer­gence of mechan­i­cal mov­ing images, the fac­to­ry goes just as marked­ly miss­ing.16

This sig­ni­fies some­thing worth paus­ing over: that accounts of what cin­e­ma might have meant, or might come to mean still, will turn their backs again and again on a form of intel­li­gence, aware­ness, and con­tes­ta­tion that did not come from bour­geois crises about the char­ac­ter of the human. It came instead from the expe­ri­ences of those who worked in the fac­to­ries and were forced to learn to become inhu­man – to expe­ri­ence the con­crete shat­ter­ing and recon­sti­tu­tion of their ges­tures, to live through the dif­fi­cult neces­si­ty of try­ing to make sense and sight of this new order and its dis­trib­uted vio­lence that their labor ani­mat­ed.

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While fac­to­ry apol­o­gists prop­a­gat­ed accounts of child work­ers lit­er­al­ly whistling while they worked, reform­ers and work­ers in Ger­many, Britain, France, and the Unit­ed States framed this expe­ri­ence of mech­a­nized work as a spe­cif­ic threat to the coher­ence of the human. An espe­cial­ly com­mon vari­ant was to focus on how the monot­o­ny and fatigue of such work might gen­er­ate “bit­ter recrim­i­na­tions against the social order” (i.e. revolts) and threat­en to erase the line that sep­a­rates “the brain of the civ­i­lized from that of sav­age man.”17But as the dual ref­er­ence to the insur­rec­tionary and “the sav­age” sug­gests, any attempt­ed uni­ver­sal­i­ty of claims about human nature was under­cut by his­tor­i­cal­ly-spe­cif­ic social anx­i­eties, espe­cial­ly as the labor itself was read as the bleed­ing edge of some seri­ous gen­der trou­ble. (Includ­ing from those in favor of the exten­sion of such work, as cham­pi­ons of mech­a­niza­tion hoped that rig­or­ous and exhaust­ing employ­ment might help ward off bands of dis­solute, unwed, and recent­ly pro­le­tar­i­an­ized women leav­ing farms to come walk the city streets.) In par­tic­u­lar, such mech­a­nized work was thought to desta­bi­lize the way that tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and capa­bil­i­ty was held in the body of the crafts­man who dis­played mas­tery over his pros­the­ses, his tools. For instance, in Ger­man stud­ies of die Schreck­en des über­wiegen­den Indus­tri­es­taats (“hor­rors of the indus­tri­al state”) that con­cerned work where both the human and the machine are mutu­al­ly pros­thet­ic for each oth­er, the pan­ic becomes unmis­tak­ably gen­dered: as the hand weaver tran­si­tions to a “tech­no­log­i­cal weaver,” he is “trans­formed from a mas­ter into a hired hand [Hand­langer], from a man into a maid­en.”18

In short, even as claims about machine expe­ri­ence address them­selves to the idea of the human ani­mal as such, they will be relent­less­ly worked out in terms of what it does to the sta­bil­i­ty of gen­der roles and fam­i­ly struc­ture: specif­i­cal­ly, to what guar­an­tees the repro­duc­tion of those humans avail­able for waged work and who gets tasked with it.19But this isn’t just a side effect of the slow for­mal­iza­tion of specif­i­cal­ly cap­i­tal­ist modes of gen­der con­trol. It’s also because one of the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of increas­ing­ly mech­a­nized work was to con­found the bound­aries between the pro­duc­tion of goods for sale and the repro­duc­tion, care, clean­ing, and main­te­nance of the hybrid sys­tems involved in that mak­ing, the most replace­able parts of which are human. The mon­ster must be moth­ered by some­one, after all. As Lucy Lar­com, a child work­er in the Low­ell cot­ton mills, would write lat­er of the machine she tend­ed:

Mine seemed to me as unman­age­able as an over­grown spoilt child. It had to be watched in a dozen dif­fer­ent direc­tions every minute, and even then it was always get­ting itself and me into trou­ble. I felt as if the half-live crea­ture, with its great, groan­ing joints and whizzing fan, was aware of my inca­pac­i­ty to man­age it, and had a fiendish spite against me. I con­tract­ed an uncon­quer­able dis­like to it; indeed, I have nev­er liked, and nev­er could learn to like, any kind of machin­ery. And this machine final­ly con­quered me.20

As Larcom’s descrip­tion sug­gests, that lan­guage of mon­stros­i­ty isn’t my own recast­ing of indus­tri­al­iza­tion in hor­ror-flick terms to match Metz’s par­a­sitic demon of faith. It was one of the most com­mon modes of depic­tion from those who wit­nessed and worked amongst these trans­for­ma­tions. Diaries, inquiries, ser­mons, and broad­sheets bris­tle with these “half-live crea­tures,” demons and “rat­tling dev­ils,” “lit­tle hells” and tongues of flame, sound­less “giant levers” that heave “upwards once in half a minute with a slow motion, and seemed to rest to take breath at the bot­tom.” In these texts, fac­to­ries “burst in our view […] as though by mag­ic.”21 “Had our ances­tral grand­moth­ers wit­nessed the antag­o­nism some­times man­i­fest­ed by machin­ery,” one woman writes, “they would have pro­nounced it bewitched and punched it with red hot irons.”22

Yet if the broad­ly super­nat­ur­al and primeval lan­guage gives one indi­ca­tion of how lit­tle frame of ref­er­ence work­ers had for what await­ed them in the mills and work­shops, the struc­ture of such writ­ing itself belies this lived cat­e­go­ry error all the more, as it search­es relent­less­ly for ade­quate com­par­i­son but set­tles on none. In a sin­gle para­graph from British ecol­o­gist Richard Jef­fries, for exam­ple, a met­al works is described as a “vast incon­gru­ous muse­um of iron”; Pro­teus, the shape-shift­ing aquat­ic god; a “vast wilder­ness”; “a tem­ple of Vul­can”; the heav­ens, as “the sparks fly in show­ers from the tor­tured anvils high in the air, look­ing like minute mete­ors”; and, above all, the fig­ure under­writ­ing not just his but so many nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry descrip­tions: Pan­de­mo­ni­um and Hell itself.23

One might blame this breath­less swap­ping of site and sense on bad writ­ing, at least accord­ing to some MFA swill about the dan­gers of mixed metaphors. That would whol­ly miss the point that, like Lar­com, Jef­fries is grap­pling with a ter­rain that had yet to become a tex­ture and fix­ture of dai­ly life, not yet avail­able to be con­jured in a reader’s mind with the words the fac­to­ry, the mill, the assem­bly line. So as David Zon­der­man sug­gests, this “cul­tur­al or con­cep­tu­al lag in the lan­guage” makes sense, because “there were no terms of ref­er­ence read­i­ly avail­able to describe labor that pro­duced no sweat but was nonethe­less exhaust­ing.”24 The only lan­guage ready at hand had been forged by grap­pling with a dif­fer­ent mode of work, one where move­ments don’t have to match their rhythm to a lurch­ing syn­chrony of met­al and force, and where it might be main­tained with some degree of plau­si­bil­i­ty that it is you who hold the tool – and not vice ver­sa.

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But what exact­ly did Lar­com mean when she wrote that the “machine final­ly con­quered me”? It isn’t that she grew to like her “over­grown spoilt child” – she’s writ­ing decades lat­er and still “nev­er could learn to like […] any kind of machin­ery.” Con­verse­ly, it would be wrong to see it as a sim­ple dom­i­na­tion, of being best­ed by and made sub­ject to. In an anony­mous 1844 let­ter signed as the “Low­ell Fac­to­ry Girl,” a more tri­umphal account of mech­a­nized work’s lib­er­at­ing poten­tial, the author claims that she was “allowed to make more and more mon­ey, by the accom­mo­da­tion of the speed of the looms to my capac­i­ty.”25 Whether one’s pace was met or dic­tat­ed by the machin­ery, the crux is that one adopt­ed a set of rhythms and ges­tures that weren’t oper­a­tive before and only make sense with­in a total assem­blage that’s simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mechan­i­cal and human. In this space, con­cepts and expla­na­tions find them­selves out­paced not just by the man­i­fest strange­ness of a sit­u­a­tion but also by one’s own phys­i­cal self, the fin­gers forced to quick­ly fig­ure what the mind doesn’t yet know it knows.

All ges­tures are per­haps inhu­man, because they enact that hinge with the world, forg­ing a bridge and buffer that can’t be nav­i­gat­ed by words or by actions that feel like pure­ly one’s own. In Vilém Flusser’s def­i­n­i­tion, a ges­ture is “a move­ment of the body or of a tool con­nect­ed to the body for which there is no sat­is­fac­to­ry causal expla­na­tion” – that is, it can’t be explained on its own iso­lat­ed terms.26The fac­to­ry will mas­sive­ly extend this ten­den­cy, because the “expla­na­tion” lies not in the lit­er­al cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion but in the social abstrac­tion of val­ue dri­ving the entire process yet nowhere imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble. We might frame the dif­fi­cul­ty of this imag­in­ing with the con­cept of “oper­a­tional sequence” (la chaîne opéra­toire), posed by French archae­ol­o­gist André Leroi-Gourhan, which des­ig­nates a “suc­ces­sion of men­tal oper­a­tions and tech­ni­cal ges­tures, in order to sat­is­fy a need (imme­di­ate or not), accord­ing to a pre­ex­ist­ing project.”27 In archae­o­log­i­cal terms, oper­a­tional sequences func­tion as total maps of how mate­ri­als and process­es are shaped to human ends, zoom­ing out, for instance, from a sin­gle chipped stone arrow­head to the ges­ture need­ed to strike it, the gath­er­ing of the stone, the con­struc­tion of the tool used to ham­mer at it, the wood, the fire, the food con­sumed to have the ener­gy to raise the arm… and out from there. In short, the oper­a­tional sequence moves us away from exces­sive focus on the vis­i­ble moment of pro­duc­tion to an obscure but still mate­r­i­al net­work, one whose junc­ture points are each con­sti­tut­ed by a dis­tinct ges­ture that alters the mate­r­i­al mov­ing through the web. These ges­tures form the essen­tial piv­ots of the chain, crys­tal­liz­ing a social intel­li­gence only in view when tak­en in aggre­gate. It impels us to look far beyond what appears to be the purview of a site of pro­duc­tion, like the fac­to­ry, toward the full net­work that folds in the slave labor that pro­vides the cot­ton, the log­ging and car­pen­try that makes the looms, and the homes where the work­ers are cleaned and rest­ed and cared for by moth­ers, part­ners, and friends.

Obvi­ous­ly, we’re far from the only organ­isms to be char­ac­ter­ized by this trans­for­ma­tion of mate­ri­als to our ends. (The nests of birds, the bur­rows of bad­gers, the myceli­um net­work under the for­est floor, the hives of bees…) For Leroi-Gourhan, the dif­fer­ence is that rather than genet­i­cal­ly inter­nal­iz­ing our species mem­o­ry as instinct, we exter­nal­ize our mem­o­ry of how to ges­ture and inter­act with the world, as “only with humans do we see these oper­a­tional sequences take mate­r­i­al form and become more-or-less per­ma­nent con­stituents of the human envi­ron­ment.”28 In this way, we evade “organ­ic spe­cial­iza­tion” in favor of a bio­log­i­cal non-adap­ta­tion, as our pros­the­ses allow us to shapeshift across forms – “a tor­toise when we retire beneath a roof, a crab when we hold out a pair of pli­ers” – and con­struct a mate­ri­al­ly trans­formed world in order to match our needs (or, per­verse­ly, to make them impos­si­ble to meet).29

Which is to say: we build fac­to­ries. And in those fac­to­ries, the process of the exte­ri­or­iza­tion of mem­o­ry and mus­cle becomes almost total, as “the hand no longer inter­venes except to feed or to stop” what Leroi-Gourhan, like Lar­com, will call “mechan­i­cal mon­sters,” “machines with­out a ner­vous sys­tem of their own, con­stant­ly requir­ing the assis­tance of a human part­ner.”30 But along with engen­der­ing the pan­ic of becom­ing care­giv­er to the inan­i­mate, this also pos­es the prob­lem of ani­ma­tion in an unprece­dent­ed way. Because if a “tech­ni­cal ges­ture is the pro­duc­er of forms, deriv­ing them from inert nature and prepar­ing them for ani­ma­tion,” the fac­to­ry con­sti­tutes us in a dif­fer­ent net­work of the ani­mat­ed and ani­mat­ing.31 It’s a net­work that can be seen in those writ­ings of fac­to­ry work­ers, with their dis­tinct sense of not just prepar­ing those mate­ri­als but becom­ing the piv­ot that eas­es, smooths, and guides the links of an oper­a­tional sequence. In par­tic­u­lar, a work­er func­tions as the point of com­pres­sion and trans­for­ma­tion between tremen­dous motive force and prod­ucts made whose reg­u­lar­i­ty must be assured. The human becomes the reg­u­la­tor of this process, the assur­ance of an abstract stan­dard­iza­tion.

Because as has long been observed, the point of a fac­to­ry is to pro­duce not only goods but also the per­sons involved in the process, to enforce and nat­u­ral­ize a lived cat­e­go­ry of abstract labor. This is cap­tured in a star­tling poem from Lar­com, as she zooms back, as if a float­ing cam­era, from her place at the loom to the entire set­ting:

And in a misty maze those girl­ish forms,
Arms, hands, and heads, moved with the mov­ing looms,
That closed them in as if all were one shape,
One motion…
32

The abil­i­ty to pull off that move isn’t just a mark of her capa­cious imag­i­na­tion and life­time of expe­ri­ence in the mills. It is also part of what the fac­to­ry means and meant, both the sen­sa­tion of get­ting fold­ed into a scat­tered, syn­chro­nized web of ges­tures and the mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion of an image of this process. If any oper­a­tional sequence forms a map of how ges­tures are nev­er sin­gu­lar, always just one junc­tion in a dizzy­ing col­lec­tive inter­change of action and sub­stance, then the fac­to­ry has the dis­tinct capac­i­ty to make this evi­dent in any giv­en moment. It is a freeze-frame unmis­tak­able to those involved in it, com­press­ing the whole sequence in minia­ture into a sin­gle “misty maze.”

--

How­ev­er, if the fac­to­ry sculpts a phys­i­cal dia­gram of these dis­parate forces, the lit­er­al images of them made in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, whether by human hand or with cam­era, showed them­selves dis­tinct­ly resis­tant to grap­pling with this tan­gle of ges­tures. A Gio­van­ni Migliara paint­ing from 1820, The Sala Silk Fac­to­ry at Castel­lo di Lec­co, shares some of Larcom’s pull back­wards, depict­ing a fac­to­ry floor reced­ing away from us, its high tim­ber ceil­ing angling in lin­ear per­spec­tive, matched by the bob­bins below. But unlike Larcom’s writ­ing, which pass­es from inti­mate knowl­edge of the process to this removed posi­tion, the spate of paint­ings, etch­ings, draw­ings, prints, and pho­tographs made of such spaces in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry fol­low Migliara’s lead: they keep their dis­tance. With few excep­tions, all share that same per­spec­tive, raised above the floor and angling down, so that the space is both expan­sive and yet man­age­able, archi­tec­ture and machine and work­er all present but nev­er com­min­gled or up close, look­ing down at the blur of chaff and sol­der and fin­gers. This holds even in the rare can­vas­es will­ing to show the work­site as a sput­ter­ing hell, like Adolph Menzel’s Iron Rolling Works (1872-75).

Lat­er pho­tographs, like those of Lewis Hine, cap­ture some of the mess, at least at break time, while Jacob Lawrence’s remark­able 1960s stud­ies of a tex­tile mill in Bed­ford, Mass­a­chu­setts, forge a scat­tered graph­ic dis­so­lu­tion of ele­ments into a chaos where bod­ies and looms alike are open vol­umes and ragged lines. But in the images made in the years when this was creep­ing into promi­nence as a lived real­i­ty across Europe and North Amer­i­ca, the dis­tance remains. It is the per­spec­tive and posi­tion of the boss, he whose hands nev­er enter the frame of the loom, whose ges­tures are not remade in the process of mak­ing. The only trace of such entan­gle­ment that appears in these images and pho­tos is the rare pres­ence of the scav­enger, the child work­er who crouched beneath the threads, body ghost­ed white by the inter­fer­ence. Above them, the machines seethe and do not rest, leav­ing stray fibers and dust to be snatched and cleaned, the small proof that they too gen­er­ate fric­tion, that even what will man­gle a hand must still be tend­ed to. 

--

If cin­e­ma steps into a world shaped by “invis­i­ble forces,” it isn’t because those forces are imma­te­r­i­al or pure­ly con­cep­tu­al. It is because they con­found­ed any such pos­si­bil­i­ty of crit­i­cal dis­tance, demand­ing that thought con­front abstrac­tions on the ground and alien­ation in the flesh, pro­duced phys­i­cal­ly and tan­gi­bly in the rep­e­ti­tion of ges­tures. The fac­to­ry itself, and the forms of intel­li­gence and resis­tance gath­ered there, will prove dou­bly resis­tant to imag­ing because it already is an image of itself, a mate­r­i­al dia­gram of flows drawn by the work­ers who are nec­es­sary for its motion but always fun­gi­ble, always sub­ject to replace­ment. This is the lived ter­rain that cin­e­ma takes shape in and draws its force from. And unlike the impass­es that still images kept hit­ting when try­ing to depict the fac­to­ry, cin­e­ma will be able to do some­thing par­tic­u­lar with that motion, in no small part because it makes it pos­si­ble for vision to lit­er­al­ly track from that dis­tanced view to the close-to-hand. It can bring the far­thest-flung paths of the oper­a­tional sequence into montage’s prox­im­i­ty, from the mine to the machine, the plan­ta­tion to the bank to the bed to back again, even if it too rarely makes use of this abil­i­ty, even – or espe­cial­ly – still. 

A full explo­ration of how mov­ing images both open up this pos­si­bil­i­ty and yet con­sis­tent­ly miss their chance to explode the dia­gram is for anoth­er essay, if not a whole oth­er book. Instead, what I’m sketch­ing here in this pas­sage through scat­tered mate­ri­als of the cen­tu­ry pri­or to filmed mov­ing images is some­thing sim­pler, a small cor­rec­tive to insist that by the time cin­e­ma was becom­ing a medi­um that seemed to offer a nov­el form of mechan­i­cal time, motion, and vision, one that his­to­ri­ans and the­o­rists will fix­ate on as the unique province and promise of film, many of its view­ers had them­selves already been enact­ing and strug­gling against that form for decades, day in, day out. The point is to place the human oper­a­tor back in the frame, to ask after those who tend­ed the machine before it was avail­able as a spec­ta­cle, and to lis­ten to how they under­stood what they were tan­gled in the midst of. But this is nei­ther a human­ist ges­ture of assur­ing the cen­tral­i­ty of the per­son in the mesh that holds them nor a his­tor­i­cal rejoin­der to the for­get­ting and active dis­missal of many of these per­son­al accounts. Rather, it’s an effort to show how only with the operator’s expe­ri­ence made cen­tral can we see the real his­tor­i­cal destruc­tion of such illu­sions of cen­tral­i­ty and, in their place, the nov­el con­struc­tion of the human as ten­der and mender of a flail­ing inhu­man net, the piv­ot who forms the con­nec­tive tis­sue that enacts the lethal ani­ma­tion around her. In short, to see how the real sub­sump­tion of labor to cap­i­tal is not only a sys­temic or peri­odiz­ing con­cept that marks the his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of dis­crete activ­i­ties in accor­dance with the abstrac­tions of val­ue. It also is the gran­u­lar descrip­tion of a lived and bit­ter­ly con­test­ed process by which those abstrac­tions get cor­po­ral­ly and mechan­i­cal­ly made and unmade, one which we can under­stand dif­fer­ent­ly if we shift our angle from the boss’ POV to those unable to get any respite or dis­tance from the sit­u­a­tion. 

To come back to that infa­mous pro­ject­ed train, I have no doubt that many view­ers of the first pho­to­graph­ic mov­ing images gasped and mar­veled at them, if only because I know how often I do the same 120 years lat­er. But the mar­vel isn’t and wasn’t because the tech­nol­o­gy feels alien or pro­vides a mag­i­cal recon­sti­tu­tion of halt­ed life or offers an unthink­able shock of the new. It’s the inverse of that. It’s because it is made from the same cir­cuits and paths – in and out of the ani­mal, the mechan­i­cal, the cal­cu­lat­ed, and the con­tin­gent – that con­sti­tute not just every­day life but many of its most crush­ing forms. In this sense, I think it was and remains right to speak of the “mag­ic of cin­e­ma,” just as it made total sense to speak of pow­er looms as demons behold­en to an infer­nal project. After all, both claims begin with the com­pli­ca­tion of, and a sub­se­quent refusal to flee from, the lim­its of gain­ing that clear crit­i­cal dis­tance. Both admit what it is to be too close and to be unable to begin oth­er­wise, to wish it away. In that sense, the mag­ic of cin­e­ma is that it gave image not only to but also through these ani­mat­ed sequences that had proven so hard to imag­ine and had so frus­trat­ed avail­able lan­guage and style even as they slow­ly remade what it meant to see and to move, eras­ing the bor­ders between a self and a world with a vest­ed inter­est in reap­ing the prof­its of that era­sure.


  1. A short, ear­ly ver­sion of this essay first appeared in the Lucy Raven: Edge of Tomor­row, a cat­a­logue accom­pa­ny­ing the exhi­bi­tion of the same name at the Ser­pen­tine Gallery. 

  2. For a clas­sic but still essen­tial study of this dynam­ic, see Michael Adas’ Machines as the Mea­sure of Man: Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Ide­olo­gies of West­ern Dom­i­nance (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). 

  3. The film would be reshot in 3D four decades lat­er and screened at the French Acad­e­my of Sci­ence in 1935, where that imag­ined moment of the train “com­ing through the screen” final­ly got real­ized, at least stereo­scop­i­cal­ly in neg­a­tive par­al­lax. 

  4. And in many ways, it isn’t wrong to iden­ti­fy that as a begin­ning, giv­en cin­e­ma will be so much about that prob­lem of how to eco­nom­i­cal­ly ani­mate the already built, the already screened and seen. 

  5. As Ben Singer draws out in Melo­dra­ma and Moder­ni­ty: Ear­ly Sen­sa­tion­al Cin­e­ma and its Con­texts (New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001), these same years would be full of spec­ta­cles that came much clos­er to this threat, in stage-spec­ta­cle melo­dra­mas full of live hors­es, buzz saws, and, “real fire engines, real patrol wag­ons and real loco­mo­tives” (in the words of a bril­liant­ly acer­bic 1894 review of a stage melo­dra­ma that “was evi­dent­ly writ­ten to appease the yearn­ing among play­go­ers for a dra­ma with a real steam pile-dri­ver in it”) (p. 51). Singer also details a 1906 play that fea­tured, in his words, “a four-way race between two auto­mo­biles, a loco­mo­tive, and a bicy­cle, as well as a motor­boat race, fire engines speed­ing toward a burn­ing build­ing, and var­i­ous tor­ture scenes” (p. 152). 

  6. What Furio Jesi would call a “tech­ni­cized myth,” fol­low­ing Károly Kerényi: a myth that has been tak­en out of spon­tane­ity and change, fixed, and pressed into ser­vice of a larg­er his­tor­i­cal-nar­ra­tive assem­blage. See: Furio Jesi, Spar­takus: The Sym­bol­o­gy of Revolt, trans. Alber­to Toscano (Lon­don: Seag­ull Books, 2014). 

  7. The Imag­i­nary Sig­ni­fi­er: Psy­cho­analy­sis and the Cin­e­ma (Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1982), p. 72. 

  8. Tom Gun­ning, “An Aes­thet­ic of Aston­ish­ment: Ear­ly Film and the (In)Credulous Spec­ta­tor,” in View­ing Posi­tions: Ways of See­ing Film, ed. Lin­da Williams (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), pp. 115-16. 

  9. One of my favorite texts on these shifts is undoubt­ed­ly The Per­ils of Moviego­ing in Amer­i­ca: 1896-1950, by Gary D. Rhodes (New York: Con­tin­u­um, 2012), which exhaus­tive­ly details tick­et mon­ey theft, in-the­ater sex work, the legit­i­mate fears of pro­jec­tor fires, and a whole slew of oth­er “per­ils” (real or per­ceived) that shaped what came to be under­stood as the space of spec­ta­tor­ship.  Anoth­er cru­cial text on the speci­fici­ty of Black ear­ly cin­e­ma expe­ri­ence, set in the wider con­text of urban trans­for­ma­tion (espe­cial­ly Chicago’s Black Belt movie the­aters) is Jacque­line Stewart’s Migrat­ing to the Movies: Cin­e­ma and Urban Black Moder­ni­ty (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005). 

  10. Ibid, pp. 118-19. We should note also how much the entire expe­ri­ence shares with, and draws from, oth­er avail­able media. Its nov­el­ty only works because of audi­ence famil­iar­i­ty with pro­ject­ed pho­tographs in mag­ic-lantern shows – the gag is to have that still start to move. It also shares a ges­ture with per­son­al modes of mov­ing-image view­er­ship, like the Muto­scope. As Erk­ki Huh­ta­mo notes, such crank­ing is “actu­al­ly not so far removed from that of (male) Muto­scope view­ers who would arrest the reel to have a bet­ter look at a ‘par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing frame (per­haps a half-naked lady)’.” Erk­ki Huh­ta­mo, “Slots of Fun, Slots of Trou­ble: An Archae­ol­o­gy of Arcade Gam­ing,” in Joost Raessens and Jef­frey Gold­stein (eds), Hand­book of Com­put­er Game Stud­ies (Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), p. 9. 

  11. The major excep­tions to this timescale are mil­i­tary tech­nolo­gies as expe­ri­enced by those in zones where such weapons haven’t pre­vi­ous­ly been deployed, like that of napalm in Viet­nam, for which there were no equiv­a­lent expe­ri­ences. 

  12. Gior­gio Agam­ben, “Notes on Ges­ture,” in Means With­out End: Notes on Pol­i­tics (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press), p. 53. 

  13. Gior­gio Agam­ben, “Kom­merell, or On Ges­ture,” in Poten­tial­i­ties: Col­lect­ed Essays in Phi­los­o­phy (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999), p. 78. 

  14. Agam­ben, “Notes on Ges­ture,” p. 53. 

  15. This skewed causal­i­ty haunts oth­er accounts that draw on Agamben’s essay in order to give relat­ed the­o­ries of fin de siè­cle shifts in human per­cep­tion and expe­ri­ence. For instance, in Pasi Valiaho’s Map­ping the Mov­ing Image: Ges­ture, Thought, and Cin­e­ma Cir­ca 1900 (Ams­ter­dam: Ams­ter­dam Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010), a com­pelling (and hyper-Deleuz­ian) account of rhythm and ear­ly cin­e­mat­ic ges­ture, he inverts the causal­i­ty latent in Agamben’s argu­ment to argue that, “these ner­vous ges­tures are not sole­ly a mat­ter of med­ical his­to­ry, but more fun­da­men­tal­ly, also embody changes in our cul­tur­al being brought about by cin­e­ma” (p. 17). 

  16. It is a gen­uine­ly wide­spread omis­sion. Con­sid­er the afore­men­tioned Vali­a­ho text, for instance. Giv­en how Deleuze-inspired it is, the book is expect­ed­ly full of machines, both lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive. We get hints of automa­ta and impor­tant sug­ges­tions of how machinic encoun­ters cre­ate “a zone of inde­ter­mi­na­tion or indis­cerni­bil­i­ty between spon­ta­neous and auto­mat­ic, the liv­ing and the machine” (p. 27). There are “graph­ic self-record­ing machines” (p. 34), sim­u­la­tion machines, machinic under­stand­ings of the body, a tachis­to­scope,  Freud’s under­stand­ing of the psy­che as a machine that “in a moment would run of itself,” an “inter­pre­tive machine,” a desir­ing-machine, cal­cu­lat­ing machines, a train, and a ship. But no real sense of the fac­to­ry: it’s only by way of Gilbert Simon­don that we get any­where close, in the pres­ence of a Jacquard loom. In Lisa Cartwright’s absolute­ly fun­da­men­tal work on cin­e­mat­ic imag­ing, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic forms of image-pro­duc­tion, these “self-record­ing machines” are set with­in the larg­er cat­e­go­ry of motil­i­ty, with a par­tic­u­lar­ly sharp grasp of the under­pin­ning shift in pathol­o­gy and anatom­i­cal under­stand­ing, that “did not sim­ply uncov­er but also pro­duced the body as ani­mate, as process incar­nate” (Cartwright, “The Hands of the Pro­jec­tion­ist,” Sci­ence in Con­text 24(3), p. 445). But there too, the medico-tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tif­ic remains brack­et­ed from the fac­to­ry (or even the indus­tri­al more broad­ly). And this holds in all the major works of Friedrich Kit­tler, Siegfried Zielin­s­ki, Giu­liana Bruno, Charles Muss­er, Mary Ann Doane, and oth­ers. In all, a sig­nif­i­cant inves­ti­ga­tion of the way in which fac­to­ry expe­ri­ence had shaped the audi­ences who came to watch is thor­ough­ly miss­ing, even as the same texts sug­gest at length how the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus itself echoed the machin­ery of mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion, war­fare, med­ical treat­ment, trans­porta­tion net­works, and sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion. 

  17. Ange­lo Mosso and Mar­ius Car­rieu, both cit­ed in Anson Rabin­bach, The Human Motor: Ener­gy, Fatigue, and the Ori­gins of Moder­ni­ty (New York: Basic Books, 1990), pp. 43 and 38. 

  18. Robert Wilbrandt, quot­ed in Kath­leen Can­ning, Lan­guages of Labor and Gen­der: Female Fac­to­ry Work in Ger­many, 1850-1914 (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1996), p. 35. 

  19. In this way too, the fig­ure and real­i­ty of slav­ery was absolute­ly cru­cial for the con­struc­tion of ideas about what “free” waged work should be, espe­cial­ly as unions and social­ists drew insis­tent­ly upon the exam­ple of Black slaves to try and sort out what sep­a­rat­ed “wage slav­ery” in the fac­to­ry from plan­ta­tion regimes of racial­ized ter­ror. For instance, con­sid­er this pas­sage from “York­shire Slav­ery,” pub­lished in the Leeds Mer­cury, Octo­ber 16, 1830: “Thou­sands of our fel­low crea­tures and fel­low sub­jects[…] are this very moment exist­ing in a state of slav­ery, more hor­rid than are the vic­tims of that hell­ish sys­tem “colo­nial slav­ery.” […] Poor infants! ye are indeed sac­ri­ficed at the shrine of avarice, with­out even the solace of the negro slave. […] Ye live in the boast­ed land of free­dom, and feel and mourn that ye are slaves, and slaves with­out the only com­fort that the negro has. He knows it is his sor­did, mer­ce­nary master’s inter­est that he should live, be strong and healthy.” I address this his­to­ry of com­par­i­son more at length in a forth­com­ing e-book, titled The Grid Aflame (from ICA Mia­mi, lat­er this year), which deals with anal­o­gy, infra­struc­ture, and colo­nial net­works. 

  20. Lucy Lar­com, A New Eng­land Girl­hood, Out­lined from Mem­o­ry (New York: Houghton Mif­flin, 1889), p. 226. 

  21. George Crab­tree, quot­ed in Robert Gray, “The lan­guages of fac­to­ry reform in Britain, c.1830-1860,” in The His­tor­i­cal Mean­ings of Work, ed. Patrick Joyce (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), p. 148. 

  22. Mrs. Ephrain Holt, on women work­ing in tex­tile fac­to­ries in Peters­bor­ough, NH, 1820s, in David A. Zon­der­man, Aspi­ra­tions and Anx­i­eties: New Eng­land Work­ers and the Mech­a­nized Fac­to­ry Sys­tem, 1815-1850 (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992), p. 21. 

  23. From Jef­fries’ Land: A His­to­ry of Swin­don, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1896 (Jef­fries died in 1887) and writ­ten in 1867 (Lon­don: Simp­kin, Mar­shall, Hamil­ton, Kent & Co, Ltd.), pp. 67-68. 

  24. Zon­der­man, Aspi­ra­tions and Anx­i­eties, p. 24. 

  25. Quot­ed in Helen L. Sum­n­er, His­to­ry of Women in Indus­try in the Unit­ed States (Wash­ing­ton: Gov­ern­ment Print­ing Office, 1910), p. 111. 

  26. Vilém Flusser, Ges­tures (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014), p. 2. 

  27. Cather­ine Per­lès, Les Indus­tries Lithiques Tail­lées de Franchthi, Argolide: Pre­sen­ta­tion Gen­er­ate et Indus­tries Pale­olithiques (Terre Haute: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), p. 23. 

  28. André Leroi-Gourhan, Ges­ture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berg­er (Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. xvi­ii. 

  29. Ibid, p. 246. 

  30. Ibid, p. 246. 

  31. Ibid, p. 313. 

  32. “The Idyll of Work.” Avail­able online through the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan library at: http://library.uml.edu/clh/all/lu01.htm 

Author of the article

is the author of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse; Roman Letters; Shard Cinema; and, forthcoming, The Grid Aflame. He is the translator, with David Fernbach, of Mario Mieli's Towards a Gay Communism. He teaches theory at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and film production at Cooper Union. He is the cofounder of Thirteen Black Cats, a research and production collective for moving images, and is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective.