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Can the Camera See?

Mimesis in "Man with a Movie Camera"
Author(s): Malcolm Turvey
Source: October, Vol. 89 (Summer, 1999), pp. 25-50
Published by: The MIT Press
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Can the Camera See? Mimesis in
Man with a Movie Camera*


Machineshave lessproblems... I would like
to bea machine,wouldn'tyou?
-Andy Warhol
It comesto this: only of a living human being
and what resembles(behaves like) a living
human being can one say: it has sensations;
it sees;is blind; hears;is deaf; is consciousor
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
There is a remarkable sequence somewhere near the end of Man with a
Movie Camerain which the movie camera, having enjoyed a starring role throughout
the film, performs an encore. Emerging on its own onto a bare stage, the camera
proceeds to walk about on its tripod like a human being, carefully displaying its
limbs to the appreciative audience within the film and almost bowing to the
audience in the process. The audience members smile with delight in recognition
of the machine's virtuosity, and in doing so, echo the smiles of children from an
earlier sequence in the film who witnessed and similarly delighted in the performance of a magician. And indeed, if we had to choose a human being whom the
camera most clearly resembles at this moment, it would be the magician from the
earlier sequence because of the aura of "magic" that surrounds its appearance on
the stage.
By conferring human attributes on his camera in this celebrated sequence of
his 1929 film, Vertov is replicating in his film practice a major rhetorical tendency
I thank Annette Michelson, Brian Price, the members of Richard Allen's informal dissertation
seminar at New York University, and the members of the University Seminar on Cinema and
Interdisciplinary Interpretation at Columbia University for their invaluable comments and criticisms. I
thank Maria Gough for her kindness in giving me bibliographic advice.
OCTOBER89, Summer1999, pp. 25-50. ? 1999 MalcolmTurvey.

As Wittgenstein reminds us. Vertov grants the camera the ability to do at least one of these things. Why does Vertov do this? Why does he routinely violate the logical grammar of expressions that are normally only predicable of human beings and living creatures by extending them to the film camera. Theaudiencefor whomthecameraperformson stage. a kind of free indirect speech on behalf of the camera: "I am kino-eye. show you the world as only I can see it. . I. trans.Man with a Movie Camera. 1929. for us it is living human beings "and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being" who see and hear. p. This is his tendency to ascribe to the camera predicatesprimarily perceptual predicates-that we normally reserve for human beings and other living creatures. 1984). I am a mechanical eye. But in his film theory. a machine? Why does he confer human attributes upon his camera in his film theory and practice? 1."l Vertov's theoretical writings are full of similar passages in which he bestows on the camera the power of sight and the capacity to show and reveal things to the film spectator.26 OCTOBER of his film theory.Here is a typical example. a machine. a will. Dziga Vertov. "The Council of Three. who are hungry and feel pain. Dziga Vertov. the ability to see. Reading these passages. Kevin O'Brien (London: Pluto Press. 17. it is as if Vertov's camera were somehow alive. namely." in Kino-Eye:The Writings of Dziga Vertov. as if it were an agent of some kind with intentionality. Annette Michelson.ed.

rule-governed activities.4 Does Vertov therefore say that a camera sees because this is the task that it performs-its purpose-as defined by ourselves as human beings? 2. We sometimes go further and attribute mental capacities to machines. they argue. 1985). It is we human beings who define the meaning of these tasks with action-terms and other expressions. not an empirical one. for example. that computers can calculate and make deductions. Philosophers such as Charles Taylor have an explanation for how we use action-terms in relation to machines: [T]he attribution of an action-term to such [machines] is relative to our interests and projects. Hyman [London: Routledge. "if [like a machine] I am causally constrained from breaking a rule (or. and the criteria for saying that someone is calculating are the person's behavior while calculating and the person's ability to explain his or her calculations. For Taylor. just as we attribute mental capacities to computers? This is a philosophical or logical question. Charles Taylor.and this makes them "self-interpreters. 16). These tasks are merely the contingent output of their causally interacting parts. about the grammar or rules of use of certain expressions. from obeying it). Human beings are creatures for whom actions have meaning. the actions of human beings do have meaning for them. "Cognitive Psychology. the fact that the action-terms we attribute to machines are relative to the interests and purposes of human beings constitutes the fundamental difference between human beings and machines. We say that a computer calculates because its parts interact causally to produce something that we call a calculation. p. because a computer does not follow any rules at all. wash dishes." in Human Agency and Language: PhilosophicalPapers 1. then I can no longer obey or break the rule at all: the rule can no longer apply to me" (Hyman. 193. Might it not be acceptable. therefore. 3. for Vertov to attribute perceptual capacities to his camera. For we often say that machines can do things that human beings do. 1991]. As John Hyman puts it. Philosophers warn.Can the Camera See? Mimesis in Man with a Movie Camera 27 I We might begin to answer this question by briefly considering whether Vertov's camera-eye does in fact constitute a violation of the grammar of perceptual expressions. we say that a machine can heat a room. for that matter. Tasks such as calculation. are practices. or we use it to phi. The tasks that machines perform have no meaning for machines themselves. such as the conclusion that computers are reallycapable of calculating. according to Taylor.3 and we say that a radiator heats a room because its parts interact causally to accomplish a task that we call heating a room. By contrast. however. p. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. we attribute action-terms to machines to refer to the purposes defined by us and served by machines. Like a human being. In this sense. A machine phis because we have manufactured it to phi. We say. and their meaning is defined by human beings.ed. 4.2 In other words. or we are interested in it in respect of the phi-ing it gets done. introduction to Investigating Psychology. and cook food." . a computer does not calculate anything. about when and how we use such expressions correctly. about drawing mistaken conclusions from this use of cognitive predicates in relation to computers. The tasks that machines perform are the contingent product of their parts.

conative and affective responses to visibilia. audibilia. However.5 It is for this reason that we do not ascribe perceptual predicates to parts of the body. as we use our eyes to see. we say that we see throughor see with telescopes and microscopes. and we determine that it perceives by observing its behaviorin appropriate circumstances. Hacker. They enablehuman beings to see better by extending our perceptual and cognitive access to the natural universe. Rather. the living creature. a "tool of enlightenment.. These instruments do not themselves see and we did not design or build them to do so. smells or warmth in its environment. It is for the same reason that we do not say that a camera sees. p. It is not the eye. For the purpose of these instruments is not to see." or "My eyes are looking through this book. This is because. "I am looking through the book." or. etc.28 OCTOBER It is true that the camera's standard purpose is to give us perceptual access to something. arguing that the camera is. . Rather. whether organic or mechanical. a camera enables us to see. Seeing and hearing are not tasks that we perform like cooking. any more than we say that these instruments observe. not one of its parts such as its eyes. sounds. or that a telescope looks. S. but. by recording something for us. to borrow Annette Michelson's felicitous phrase.. 1987)." because seeing is something that a whole living creature does as manifested in its behavior. but rather to enable us to see something that it has recorded. tasks that are the outcome or end product of certain actions and that can be duplicated by a machine. But while the purpose of a computer is to produce calculations and that of a radiator to produce heat. as the comparison with telescopes and microscopes demonstrates. because seeing is not the product of a mechanism. Minds. Appearanceand Reality:A PhilosophicalInvestigationinto Perceptionand Perceptual Qualities (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. For we do not say that a microscope literally sees. it seems as though Vertov's camera-eye language is not equivalent to the 5." in Wittgenstein:Meaning and Mind. its discriminatory.." much like a telescope or microscope. Rather. P. Volume3 of an Analytical Commentaryon the PhilosophicalInvestigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. We do not say that "My eyes are seeing that man. just as a Niagra enables us to hear. we say that "I see that man. the camera is not designed to see or produce sight. 1993). "Men. Thus. such perceptual predicates refer to specific patterns of behavior in certain circumstances: That a creature can perceive is established by observing its behavior. its use of its perceptual organs in discerning objects. See also Hacker. Similarly. M. 19. whether real or fictional. and Machines." except metonymically ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"). brain. we use perceptual predicates such as "seeing" to refer to the behaviorof a living creature. such a purpose does not justify Vertov saying that the camera sees. Indeed. We say that we use a camera to see. mind or soul that perceives. many film theorists and filmmakers have exalted and glorified this purpose. as Wittgenstein made clear. Rather. it refers to certain patterns of behavior of a creature.

Edmund Jephcott. For although the camera certainly serves a purpose-it enables us to see something by recording it-its purpose is not to see. For us to say that a machine such as a camera can see. especially those that bear a morphological resemblance to humans. among others. and the sequence already 6. perhaps. his readers and viewers." in Reflections. is designed to highlight the morphological similarities between the two." the human "gift of seeing resemblances." Benjamin suggested that a "mimetic faculty" was responsible for the "magical correspondences and analogies familiar to ancient peoples" and that it continues to find "its school" in modernity in the play of children. Certainly.' 'stop-go. As Stan Brakhage.' and instrumentally dedicated to communication of the simplest sort. and that such playful mimetic games survive in various ways into adulthood. 334. For one possible answer-perhaps the most obvious answer-to the question of why Vertov ascribes such predicates to his camera in his theory and practice is that he does so metaphorically. a playful visual and verbal metaphor based on morphological similarities between the camera and human beings. Vertov's camera-eye can perhaps be understood as just such a mimetic game. ed. because we use perceptual predicates to refer to patterns of behavior of a living creature rather than a task or purpose that can be duplicated by a machine. that Vertov's camera-eye language violates the logical grammar of perceptual predicates. "On the Mimetic Faculty. "Metaphors on Vision" (excerpt). warns in his Metaphors on Vision (as if suddenly aware that his own visual metaphors are treading a fine line). another progenitor of the camera-eye metaphor. Man with a Movie Camerarepeatedly and deliberately underscores such morphological similarities. Walter Benjamin. however. P. 1987).Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 29 ascription of other action-terms to machines. 333. 1978). 7. Adams Sitney (New York:Anthology Film Archives. 127. both essentially restricted to 'yes-no. a computer is "no more God nor even a 'thinking machine' than the camera eye [is] all-seeing or capable of creative selectivity. at the very least it would have to behave as if it could see. Stan Brakhage.ed. to imaginatively entertain the idea that the camera can see rather than to believe that it literally can see. of understanding such talk is to place it within the family of activities that Walter Benjamin. attributed to the "mimetic faculty.' 'on-off. and that he intends to get us. pp. The famous shot of the human eye superimposed on the camera lens. such as dolls."6 It seems obvious that a camera is merely a mechanical recording device and that Vertov's talk of a camera-eye must be metaphorical.7 We do not have to go as far as Benjamin and postulate the existence of a mysterious faculty to recognize that children often imaginatively attribute human capacities and characteristics to nonhuman objects. p.trans. One way. . in TheAvant-GardeFilm:A Readerof Theoryand Criticism. II This does not mean. for example. Peter Demetz (New York:Schocken Books.

childish. Moreover. an amusing. and he is trying to elicit in us a sense of almost childlike wonder and delight at the magnitude and potential of this power. which is a good indication that we-Vertov's viewers and readers-should take it in the same way. in contrary fashion. The audience members do not take it literally. the camera is so far superior to the human eye that it is as if the camera itself possessed visual powers. to join him in his feeling of awe and reverence at the power of the camera as a new technology. For Vertov. letting itself be drawn or repelled by movement. For by asking us to entertain the idea that the camera can see. thus schematizing processes of long duration inaccessible to the normal eye. gropes its way through the chaos of visual events. they smile and laugh as if it were a playful joke. absorbing time within itself.8 This passage is typical of Vertov's film theory in its argument that the camera is much more powerful than the human eye because it can show and reveal to human beings what the eye cannot see. . dissecting movement. the path of its own movement." p. Also. there are two reasons for the superior power of the camera: it is more mobile than the human eye. morphological similarities and more abstract. if Vertov's camera-eye is a mimetic metaphor. and it can manipulate time. Consider psychoanalytic film theory. Vertov. with its notion of the camera as "voyeuristic"and the shot as a "gaze"that "fetishizes" the bodies of women in film as well as the "body"of the film medium 8. or. I would suggest that it is precisely this reverence for the camera's superiority-a reverence that is the sine qua non of Vertov's film theory. Rather. Furthermore. as it goes. probing. It experiments. nonsensuous ones. Vertov is asking us. it is easy to locate in Vertov's film theory a plausible rationale for such a visual and verbal metaphor: The mechanical eye. distending time.OCTOBER 30 described in which the camera walks around on the stage playfully exploits the similarities between the human form and the camera. Vertov is suggesting that the camera's power is so great that it is as if the camera were itself an independent agent of sight like a human being. the audience in this sequence is shown smiling and laughing at the camera's movements. metaphorical conceit. "The Council of Three. the camera. swallowing years. rejecting the human eye as crib sheet. 19. then it is in venerable company. It is not deceived by the "illusion" that the camera can move around on its own like a human being. By suggesting that the camera can see like a human being. For him. in effect. For film theory in general has been a mimetic undertaking in which human attributes and capacities are metaphorically extended to the cinematic apparatus (or some aspect of it) on the basis of both sensuous. expressed time and time again-that is the most obvious motivation for the camera-eye metaphor.

This challenge to the analogy between cinema and consciousness that has dominated film theory promises to fundamentally change the nature of film theory. perceives more and better. leaves certain problems and questions unanswered. 10.1 9. 11.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 31 itself. however. and it is this gulf that is at the center of his film theory rather than any morphological similarities: The kino-eye lives and moves in time and space. "The Council of Three. It is based on morphological similarities between the camera and the human eye and body. "The Essential Bone Structure: Mimesis in ed. Recently. (b) because we know so little about consciousness." And then there are the numerous analogies between cinema and the human mind that have dominated film theory since its inception. and Pudovkin's 1926 monograph Film Techniqueand the filmmaking manuals from Hollywood's classical period which advocate the use of the camera as an ideal. it gathers and records impressions in a manner wholly different from that of the human eye. philosophers and film theorists informed by analytic philosophy have argued that film theories based upon the analogy between cinema and consciousness should be rejected (a) because they mask profound dissimilarities. However important morphological similarities between human beings and the camera might be for Vertov. one could therefore reasonably conclude. . more recently. The position of our bodies while observing or our perception of a certain number of features of a visual phenomenon in a given instant are by no means obligatory limitations for the camera which. Eisenstein.10 Like Vertov. Ian Christie and Richard Taylor (London: Routledge. these and many other film theorists and film theoretical traditions mimetically ascribe human attributes and capacities to the camera in order to conceptualize its power.9 And. is utterly nonsensical. an analogy that. an immense gulf separates the two. However. "invisible observer." in EisensteinRediscovered. Eisenstein produced volumes of film theory (and a unique filmic style) upon the basis of the analogy between cinematic montage and dialectical thinking. Vertov's camera-eye language. See the essays collected together in InvestigatingPsychology." p. On mimesis in Eisenstein. Christian Metz founded an entire tradition of psychoanalytic film theory upon the analogy between the filmic image and the psychological concept of the Imaginary. Vertov. for many philosophers. the analogy between cinema and consciousness has been replaced in the work of many analytic film theorists by the analogy between mind and computer at the center of the cognitive revolution in psychology and artificial intelligence. is an imaginative metaphor designed to elicit in us a sense of childlike wonder and awe at the power of the camera through the suggestion that it can see. 1993). since it is perfected. ed. To start with-as is obvious from Vertov's argument that the camera is a much more powerful instrument of sight than the human eyeVertov's ascription of human predicates to the camera is premised more on difference and alterity than resemblance. This interpretation of the camera-eye.John Hyman. 15. what is far more important for him-and what he points to again and again in his film theory-is the enormous difference between the camera and the human eye. For him. and it is just one of a number of examples of our so-called mimetic faculty's fondness for the cinema. see Mikhail Iampolski.

" to grow up." in which he invites "the camera to come of age. It is human beings who "experiment" with the camera. magical object? For let's be absolutely clear about this. therefore. Adams Sitney (New York:New York University Press. Ibid. to "render insistently concrete . as if it were an enchanted. according to Vertov. flawed." It is not the camera that does these things. why would Vertov also be asking us to regress. but he is also asking us to forget that the camera. apprehending itself through its constitution of the world's visibility"?13And is not Man with a Movie Camera-the very film in which an audience is shown smiling in delight at a camera walking around on a stage. 14-16. that see. and he constantly emphasizes its "imperfections" and "shortsightedness" in comparison to the infinite perfectibility of the camera.. is invented and used by human beingsin order to augment human powers. and primitive in contrast to the camera. 1975). who use it to "distend" time and "dissect" movement so that they can "perceive more and better. for him.ed. to engage in the childlike game of extending human capacities to the very "tool of enlightenment" itself.It is human beings who use cameras in order to see things that they would not be able to see otherwise. 12. the camera is much more powerful than the human eye. to leave childish tricks and games behind. that he would wish to place us in the "primitive" position of a child engaged in the mimetic game of imaginatively extending human capacities to nonhuman objects. p. "The weakness of the human eye is manifest. By claiming that the camera can itself see. but we can endlessly perfect the camera. through the incorporation of the reversible logical operations characteristic of adults into his assault on illusion?14 If so. not machines or causal mechanisms. in the words of one of its most astute and subtle commentators. which he continually celebrates and exalts. 111. the eye seeing. Ibid. pp. "From Magician to Epistemologist: Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera. 98. At the very least.. like any technology. ."12Thus.. Vertov is not only asking us to momentarily forget that it is whole living creatures. much like the children who smile at the tricks of a magician in an earlier sequence-the same film in which Vertov transforms his camera "from a Magician into an Epistemologist.. Even more strange is the fact that Vertov would ask us to imaginatively entertain the idea that the camera can see in the first place. the camera and human beings are fundamentally dissimilar despite certain morphological parallels. For is not Vertov's project the very instantiation of the Enlightenment on film? Does it not aspire. beneath the morphological parallels that Vertov draws in his film practice between camera and human eye lies a fundamental dissimilarity between the two that takes center stage in his film theory. who move it around and take advantage of its mobility.32 OCTOBER The human eye. that philosophical phantasm of the reflexive consciousness. the film camera. even if only metaphorically. "We cannot improve the making of our eyes. P. Annette Michelson. it seems strange that Vertov would metaphorically extend human attributes to his camera because. is weak."in TheEssentialCinema. p. 13. 14." he declares.

so impressed by its improvement on what he sees as the primitive visual capacities of human beings. For it is they who are forgotten by his camera-eye language and its celebration of the camera's visual power. therefore. It is an object for reverence. It is no longer a tool that augments human powers of sight-a much more properly Marxist conception of technology. Instead. separated by a great gulf from human beings. the camera in Vertov's theory and practice is fetishized. just as. he seems so enthralled with the transformative impact on human life of the camera as a new technology. Vertov's ascription of human perceptual predicates to the camera comes at the expense of human beings. Ironically. Vertov perpetually celebrates and exalts the camera's power of sight in contrast to the primitive visual capacities of human beings. in his.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 33 As Charles Taylor has reminded us. far more powerful . Its power is defined relative to the purposes and interests of human beings. However. for Marx. no machine or technology is powerful in and of itself. one would have thought.rhetoric the camera becomes almost superhuman. as if he wants us to lose sight of the fact that the camera possesses no power independently of us. Like many other modems before and since. a magical or divine instrument possessing its own power of sight. thereby becoming disguised as a magical property of the commodity itself. that he wants us to forget that it is of human origin and is embedded in human purposive contexts and institutions. the "social character of men's labor" is displaced onto the commodity. And indeed.

whether Vertov himself. despite Brakhage's warning about not taking visual metaphors literally." who "fetishize" other human beings with it. One only has to think of psychoanalytic film theory to recognize a very fine line between tenor and vehicle in the tradition of mimetic film theory. I think. producing causal effects on the spectator related to his or her sexual identity. and Brakhage himself all tend to argue that the camera possesses its own visual powers. The dangers and implausibilities of the literalization of such metaphors by psychoanalytic film theorists . which in many respects constitutes one long paean to the camera's power. this claim is no childish game orjoke. film theorists such as Jean Epstein. the camera is voyeuristic. rather than that it augments human powers. For it is this power that. the comparison between camera and human voyeur or fetishist is no mere metaphor. to his very "tool of enlightenment"? Nor is it by any means clear that Vertov's camera-eye is metaphorical. our tool. The shot is a gaze. in his reverence and awe for the camera. blurs the metaphorical boundaries of his camera-eye language and loses sight of the social. a game-Vertov's readers and viewers know just how seriously he takes the claim that the camera possesses a visual power that is greater than the human eye. Is it not strange that Vertov would do this. It is not the camera that does these things. It is as though the camera were not our creation.15 15. For although Vertov's audience in Man with a Movie Cameramay laugh at the morphological parallels between human being and camera-they do not take these parallels literally but rather as a visual joke. who use it to enable human spectators to "gaze"at the human body. For within psychoanalytic film theory. in other words. For him. Bela Balazs. as if enchanted. this tendency to attribute visual powers to the film camera independently of human beings. that the cameraitselfseesmoreand betterthan human beings. according to Vertov. and so on. Instead. Psychoanalytic film theorists seem to forget that it is human beings who use the camera "perversely" or "voyeuristically.34 OCTOBER than we are. it is the very raison d'tre of his film theory. as if possessed of a power independent of us. Nor is he the only film theorist to do so. places the cinema at the very forefront of the "battle for the communist decoding of the world" and the construction of a socialist society. Nor has this technological enchantment. And it is this (many would say reckless) literalization of a metaphor-in which human properties and powers are literally attributed to a mere machinethat sanctions the claim by many psychoanalytic film theorists that the cinematic apparatus is an erotic machine with power over its spectators. One can therefore legitimately wonder. in the way that the visual experience of a 3-D movie is like the experience of three-dimensional seeing (both similar and different). rather than that the camera enableshuman beingsto see more and better. even if only metaphorically. human character of the cinematic apparatus. the experience of cinema is not simply likethe experience of voyeurism. For psychoanalytic film theorists. They all tend to maintain. Rather. The enthrallment with the power of the camera as a machine defines film theory in general (as the enthrallment with the power of machines defines modernity). and it does fetishize. And. been exhausted by such theorists.

16. that Vertov is working in a society that is captivated by the materialist analogy between human beings and machines and.18The human body came to be viewed as identical to machines and natural forces in the sense that all were now considered to be systems of production subject to the same objective and universal laws of energy conversion and conservation measurable by science. See. like a tool or instrument.Fatigue. Why this "surfacing of the 'primitive' within modernity. and of a desire for the fulfillment of this identity through synthesis. the authority of the natural sciences. 333. 20. For an excellent overview of nineteenth-century physics. 1993). Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in ContemporaryFilm Theory (New York: Columbia University Press. a desire that is motivated by the utopian possibilities of such a synthesis. with respect to the very "tool of enlightenment" itself? III Benjamin points to an answer to this question when he suggests that the mimetic "gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. . whether metaphorical or not. Michael Taussig. it seems to violate the Enlightenment trajectory "from Magician to Epistemologist" of Vertov's project as whole by asking us to regress. Benjamin. in particular. for the one to "become and behave" like the other. see P. For we know. more generally. a machine that converts energy into work. 1982).Force."p. 17. Harmon. and there is good reason to suspect that it is more than just a metaphor. The Human Motor:Energy. this mimesis. 1990). and Matter: The ConceptualDevelopmentof Nineteenth-Century Physics(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. of course. But most important of all. See Anson Rabinbach.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 35 All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there is more to Vertov'scameraeye metaphor than meets the eye. Energy. Mimesis and Alterity:A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge."17Viewed with this in mind." to use Michael Taussig's words?16Why this fetishism. In the middle of the nineteenth century. "On the Mimetic Faculty. to view the camera as something that is not subject. It is premised more on alterity than resemblance. to the control and manipulation of human beings but that can see on its own. conceptual revolutions in the physical sciences-in particular the emergence of the law of the conservation of energyhad given rise to a new energeticist conception of the human body as a motor. yet in a way far superior to a human being. It can be seen as an expression of a belief in the fundamental metaphysical identity of human being and machine. Vertov's camera-eye can be seen as an expression of a belief in a much more profound resemblance between human beings and the camera than mere playful morphological similarities. p. M. and the Origins of Modernity(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. This productivistvision have been brilliantly exposed by Noel Carroll in a number of works over a number of years. much like a human being. 1988). 18.

For many Marxist visionaries. . in short. It gave rise to the attempt by F W. human salvation meant most importantly the 19. giving rise after the October Revolution-although not without a great deal of debate and controversy-to the Soviet cult of Ford and the experimentation with and implementation of various Taylorist work practices (such as progressive piece rates) and other forms of scientific management in the effort to industrialize rapidly. nature. just as importantly. And it resulted in a view of society at large as a productive force and a faith in the capacity of science to "measure social energy and perhaps even conserve it. 2 (April 1981). But.. p. 20." SovietStudies33. and human body had a profound impact on the organization of work and on the conception of society in general in the latter half of the nineteenth century. "Soviet Taylorism Revisited. The productivist vision of industrial and social modernity found very fertile ground among Russian and other East European revolutionaries and industrial reformers. Frank Gilbreth. and others to objectively measure and quantify labor power in the development of a science of work. it offered the utopian possibility of the elimination of social conflict and other ills through increased productivity. and even communist and fascist solutions. Beissinger. and machine translated into vastly more efficient and productive working practices in the drive toward industrial modernization."19This productivist vision of the identity of human being.. and the reenchantment of technology.21And the utopian dimension of productivist tenets appealed strongly to Russian and Marxist visionaries.SocialistDiscipline. Ibid. was politically promiscuous. 21. The vision of society in which social conflict was eliminated in favor of technological and scientific imperatives could embrace liberal. See Zenovia A. By the 1920s it had become the common coin of European industrial management and of the proTaylorist technocratic movements across the political landscape. socialist. 1988). 69." the belief that the integration of human beings and technology in the name of the expansion of production would bring about the perfection and ultimate salvation of humankind. Productivism. technological progress. 272.. Taylor. ScientificManagement.p. Rabinbach. machine.36 OCTOBER of the metaphysical identity of nature. the expansion of productivity through science. The Human Motor. On all points of the political spectrum "Taylorism and technocracy" were the watchwordsof a three-pronged idealism: the elimination of economic and social crisis.20 Promiscuous it was. and Soviet Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. especially what Rabinbach in the above passage refers to as "the reenchantment of technology. no. Mark R. the goal of which was to harmonize workers with machines and the industrial workplace to ensure the most efficient deployment of energy and the maximum productivity possible.. authoritarian. Sochor. and the scientific control of society.

Red Star (1908) and EngineerMenni (1913). 1989). . instead working and living in mutual harmony and prolonging their lives through (among other means) mutual blood transfusions. Work has become pleasurable. the enchantment with technology among the Soviets probably found its most extreme expression in the so-called "cult of the machine" of figures such as Platon Kerzhentsev and Alexei Gastev. They also provided the template for Soviet science fiction in the 1920s. as Richard Stites among others has argued. human beings would be free to choose their labor and what they consumed on the rational basis of need alone. "Man the Machine.. a leader of the Bolshevik Party until his break with Lenin in 1908. trans. Charles Rougle (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. The citizens of this society know no social or sexual hierarchy. Alexander Bogdanov. and philosopher. according to the classic Marxist formulation. economist. It seemed altogether natural that the steel monsters should not harm the small. Social conflict of all kinds-class. and it was technological progress and the expansion of production that would allow them to do so." chap. created in his novels an urbanized. See Richard Stites. In the society of the future. theorist of Tectology. whose only expression was one of quiet concentration. 7 of RevolutionaryDreams: Utopian Vision and ExperimentalLife in theRussian Revolution(Oxford: Oxford University Press. which was seen by the mature Marx as a constraint on freedom. ethnic. their footsteps and voices drowned in a sea of sound. big-eyed spectators strolling confidently among them. learned observers who had no real part in all that was going on around them. Bogdanov. pp. Kerzhentsev and 22. Yet. 64-65.. fully automated Martian society on the "red star" in which production and supply are precisely calculated and controlled according to need by advanced protocomputers and data retrieval machines. Here is Bogdanov's delightful description of workers at a Martian factory. gender-have been eliminated by technology and the capacity to produce on the rational basis of need. something Martians choose to do. Graham and Richard Stites. the visitor from Earth: Hundreds of workers moved confidently among the machines. It was as if they simply found it interesting to watch how the enormous chunks of metal glided out beneath the transparent dome on moving platforms and fell into the steely embrace of dark monsters.22 Bogdanov's novels were popular after the Revolution and were reprinted several times. 1984).Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 37 liberation of human beings from the burden of socially necessary labor. ed. They seemed to be inquisitive. Loren R. 23. . There was not a trace of tense anxiety on their faces. Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia. seen through the eyes of Leonid. Perhaps the most famous example of such a vision of the future can be found in the two science-fiction novels of Alexander Bogdanov about a communist society on Mars.23In their thirst for social and industrial modernization.

Quoted in Bailes. these new people would be able to coordinate and control their movements with the precision and efficiency of a machine. Gastev's popular poetry from the 1910s is particularly well known for its "machinism. for example." and may even have suggested the name to him. in which human beings with "nerves of steel" and "muscles like iron rails" have become perfectly harmonized to the movement and tempo of machines. standardization. Gastev's vision had exploitative and dehumanizing dimensions and ramifications. While working. "will impart to proletarian psychology a striking anonymity. held various government positions. their bodies trained to harmonize perfectly with factory machines."26Thus. 1918-24. Nor was this simply a marginal poetic vision." for the way in which it envisages the future as a mechanical paradise in which human being and machine are perfectly synthesized in their grand dominion over Nature. "Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism. 3 (uly 1977). For them. no. He argued. ensuring maximum productivity and eliminating wastage of time and energy. Bailes. Gastev went on to found the Central Institute of Labor (1920) which received the support of Lenin and other leaders and was given the duty of coordinating Soviet research on labor rationalization. Eisenstein. 0'075. certainly an influence on his conception of "biomechanics." more perfect because more machine-like. Such workers would be knowledgeable about advanced technology and adept at thinking and moving in efficient. These features of industrial production. technology might not only emancipate human beings from socially necessary labor. He was an acquaintance of Meyerhold. and the division of labor in modern industry would necessarily eliminate creativity from work. Following the Revolution.C. 378. C.: McFarland & Company.24 The institute was devoted to the scientific study of work and to training a cadre of advanced workers how to perfectly master a series of core movements and actions as well as more complex machinery while eliminating superfluous expenditures of energy. N. or 325. and precise ways. that mechanization. resulting in a uniform. See Alma Law and Mel Gordon. he was a controversial figure in the 1920s and was heavily criticized by those such as Bogdanov who completely rejected Taylorism as exploitative. 0.25 Undoubtedly. permitting the classification of an individual proletarian unit as A. disciplined. "Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism. And their daily lives would be governed by self-discipline and the perpetual quest for the most expedient and efficient use of their time. and Biomechanics: Actor Training in RevolutionaryRussia (Jefferson. 35-36. mechanized proletariat with a new psychology. Gastev edited several major industrial journals. pp. 25."p. and so on. . B. it could also literally transform them into "new people. 1996). 26. he wrote.38 OCTOBER Gastev went much further than Bogdanov in their view of the role that technology was to play in the society of the future by eagerly embracing and extending Taylorism and the analogy between human being and machine. See Kendall E. 39. and was one of the leading Soviet popularizers of Taylorism." SovietStudies29. as simply "a way of extracting 24. Meyerhold. 40-41.

"27And finally. David F. Furthermore. and in the salvation that he imagined would result from such a transformation. 28. as with Bogdanov. other-worldly technological utopias of Soviet and Marxist visionaries such as Bogdanov and Gastev. 1998). and those such as Kerzhentsev who argued that Taylorism. Ibid. and backward work practices. Edenic grace and restored dominion over nature. Soviet visionaries and reformers such as Gastev wanted "equality. For the 27. Yet. it is everywhere evident in the transcendent. 29.p. for the fulfillment of the metaphysical identity of human being and machine. human salvation and access to the "realm of freedom" was to be achieved through the fulfillment of the fundamental resemblance-sanctioned human being by productivism and materialism-between and machine in the creation of Adamic "new people. as a product of capitalism. Noble. We can locate this same desire for Adamic perfection. "the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 39 the last ounce of sweat from the worker. p. 155. Stites.." that it will enable the recovery of "mankind's lost God-likeness. I suggest. ." in Vertov's theory and practice."29 Certainly."to use Lenin's words. should only be critically and selectively appropriated.. Gastev's vision was deeply utopian. TheReligionof Technology:TheDivinity of Man and the Spiritof Invention (New York: Alfred A. it was nevertheless motivated by the genuine and pragmatic desire to liberate the Russian population from abject poverty. In his ambition to perfect human beings and society through technological progress. Noble means the deeply rooted millenarian belief-originating in the early Middle Ages and still very evident in the contemporary euphoria around the Internet and geneticsthat technology is enchanted."28According to Noble. and community. despite the secularization of society since the Enlightenment and the putative conflict between science and religion in modernity. 57. [Gastev] believed that a machine culture would democratize and modernize the work force and lead it into the longed-for world of dignity and strength-for workers and for the nation as a whole. that ultimately motivates Vertov's camera-eye.." By this. Knopf." just as Christian salvation consists of the mimetic restoration of humankind to its original God-likeness. For Gastev. RevolutionaryDreams. that it will return humankind to "Adamic perfection . 5. it was sustained by a legitimate faith in the capacity of science and technology to help deliver such liberation. we can understand Gastev to be the inheritor of the thousand-year-old Western ideology-newly grounded in the broadly productivist tenets of the late nineteenth century and inflected by Marxism-that the historian of technology David Noble has recently called "the religion of technology. while Gastev's vision easily disintegrated into the nightmare of brutal exploitation under Stalin. p. as Stites is keen to point out. decent and effective work habits. for "the one to become like the other. his fetishization and enchantment of the camera through the ascription to it of human predicates and powers. And it is this desire. primitive and often barbaric social conditions.

This is followed by another cut to a point-ofview shot from the camera's position of a bank of flowers moving in and out of focus. And he does so.OCTOBER 40 camera-eye is just one example. As the flaps of the blinds open automatically. as with the camera-eye. Vertov uses strategies of visual rhyming. the camera returns to a close-up of her face as she towels it dry." of creating "new people" free of human imperfection out of the synthesis of human beings and machines. Vertov. 7-8 (my emphasis). albeit the most important." in Kino-Eye. . a soul. As her eyes emerge from behind the towel to stare directly into the camera. in causing the worker to love his workbench. and the flaps closing and opening.30 Here. Man with a Movie Cameracan in some ways be viewed as a mimetic school for workers of the new Soviet state. the peasant his tractor. a physical relation of kinship between human beings and machines. we foster new people. At one point. this time slowly closing. and finally the sequence ends on another close-up of the camera lens. "We:Variant of a Manifesto. In Man with a Movie Camera. echoing Gastev. and superimposition to represent. a representation that is aimed at the bodyof the spectator-worker watching the film." an early attempt at formulating a program for film production: In revealing the machine's soul. washing. The camera starts to cut back from various early morning street activities to a young woman during various stages of sleeping. we cut to what is presumably a point-of-view shot of the blinds in her room which are still shut. This sequence effectively uses parallel editing and a series of loose rhymes between the movements within the frame to produce an extended analogy between camera and human eye via the blind. parallel editing. this time with its aperture opening and closing. we cut again to an extreme close-up of a camera lens adjusting its focus and moving in and out of the body of the camera. of a larger vision of the synthesis of human beings and machines in general. dressing. Vertov grants machines in general a human property. Most obviously. namely. cuts which produce a flicker effect. thus rhyming the movement of the lens. These two shots are repeated. and preparing for the day ahead.we can clearly see Vertov attempting to bring about this "kinship"or harmony between human beings and machines. literally and metaphorically. we bring people into closer kinship with machines. This larger vision of new Adamic people is clearly evident in the following passage from "We:Variant of a Manifesto. much like Gastev in his Central Institute of Labor. There then follows several rapid cuts between the woman's blinking eyes. and then we cut back to a shot of the blinds in the young woman's room. the engineer his engine-we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor. Indeed. An example of a metaphorical representation occurs during the opening sequence of the city awakening in the morning.pp. in the name of bringing "people into closer kinship with machines. This analogy is predicated upon the physical similarity of eye and lens as instruments that focus 30.

This worker is endowed with the mechanical beat of the box sorting machine with which she works by the regular. the parallel between machine and human being is established through repetition and the rhythm of the editing. which endows the woman's work with a strict mechanical beat. Yet. One could mention a host of vastly more elaborate. moving swiftly and with precision. exuberant sequence. We then cut to a close-up of the woman's hands rapidly folding a box on the wooden stand. third beat. Typically. there is a short series of shots of a woman folding small boxes-perhaps match boxes-on a wooden block. The film then cuts back and forth between identical shots of the woman's hands and face about five or six times. and newspaper conveyer belt. and. are 31. followed by a final shot of the woman. . active day ahead. The woman's movements are identical in each shot. and complex examples of the physical harmony between human beings and machines represented through Vertov's expert use of editing and rhyme. in its evocation of the act of flexing and exercising in the early morning. rhythmic kinship is established between the two. Within this fast-paced. writing. much like the repetitious movements of a machine. Here. These highly geometric shots. either from behind the camera or across its path. static shots of trams taken from street level which are dotted throughout the film. and then the shot of her face as she discards it over her shoulder lasts a single. followed by a cut to her face as she stares downward at her work and throws the completed box over her shoulder onto a pile. preparing for a purposeful. one that I do not consider in this paper. Each shot of her hands pauses for roughly two beats as she folds the box.31 An example of a more literal representation of physical kinship between human beings and machines occurs during a frenetic sequence later in the film that interconnects shots of various types of labor. This pattern is repeated five or six times and its pace accelerated. This series of shots begins with a close-up of a machine sorting and processing similar boxes. extended. mechanical 3/4 rhythm of the editing and by cuts back and forth between the woman and the machine. We then return to a shot of the box sorting machine. it suggests a common physical activity shared by both human being and machine-namely. A typical example is the multiple. sewing machine. As Denise McKenna and Richard Allen have pointed out to me. Thus a physical. only the workers' hands are present in these shots. In these shots the trams tend to slide into and out of the frame unexpectedly. And the cuts between her hands and face follow a mechanical 3/4 tempo.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 41 and admit light. which frame the street from its center. with occasional cuts to their faces as they stare intently down at their work. Close-up shots of film celluloid being spliced and edited are interspersed with close-up shots of typing. There may be a gendered dimension to Vertov's vision of a synthesis between human beings and machines. the fact that this sequence depicts a relation between a womanand a machine may be very important. Man with a Movie Cameraalso contains sequences of shots of machines that do not attempt some literal or figurative representation of a physical kinship between worker and machine.

another will suddenly cross its path from left to right. . as if they have become independent of the laws of the physical world. weightless objects. Often. With this technique. as a tram is moving out of the depth of the frame toward the camera. Or. momentarily obscuring it. Vertov introduces superimposition and multiplies the number of the trams in the frame. semi-transparent.42 OCTOBER usually divided in half by a street lamp or post that runs the length of the middle of the frame from top to bottom. another tram will emerge from behind the camera and glide toward the first without slowing or stopping. The overwhelming Manwith a MovieCamera. In later shots of the trams. as if they have become ethereal. as a tram is moving from right to left across the frame. the trams now seem to glide past and through each other effortlessly.

instead of being irregularly and randomly organized and beyond the mind's reach. their ability to coordinate their speed and movement to ensure that they do not have to slow down or wait for each other. practical context of transporting people-the purpose for which they were designed-and the precision and grace of their design. practical purposes that they serve for human beings. these shots are designed to foreground the beauty of the form and motion of the trams. Kant meant that the form of the aesthetic object lends itself to being judged by the mind's cognitive powers. the object is felt to be lawful and regular in its formal organization and therefore within the mind's cognitive grasp. I suggest. and to invoke in the spectatorworker a feeling of pleasure and delight. by attending to their form rather than their function. to highlight the beauty of the trams independently of the quotidian. the trams are elevated out of their banal. and economy of these machines. Immanuel Kant. CritiqueofJudgment. Through frame composition. By harmonize. In this sequence. in other words. How do shots such as these.33 32.32 Why would Vertov have believed that by aestheticizing machines in this way he would induce a sense of kinship and harmony between human beings and machines? In order to understand why. By aestheticizing the trams. the feeling of pleasure aroused by an object such as a flower in an aesthetic judgment is a feeling of pleasure at the basic harmonythat is felt between the subject's mind and the form of the object. Vertov is not violating the utilitarian axiom of Constructivism and Productivism. They are designed. Werner S. indeterminate design or form-a purposiveness-independently of any practical interest in them.trans. 33. form.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 43 effect that is produced by these shots is one of a sense of the grace. in which human beings are clearly absent. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing . This feeling of harmony is a feeling that the regularity and lawfulness of the form of the object-its purposiveness-harmonizes with the cognitive powers (the imagination and the understanding) of the human mind. Kant referred to this "disinterested" way of perceiving objects as an ability to see them as "purposive without a purpose. everyday. to present them to spectator-workers as not just simply useful machines but as beautiful objects in their own right. and movement-their purposiveness or "lawfulness"-is emphasized instead through the aesthetic strategies already enumerated." as possessing a general. camera placement. He is aestheticizing the trams with a clear practical purpose in mind according to my argument in the following paragraphs. that sees aesthetic pleasure as an expression of some kind of mentalharmony. In other words. fit with Vertov's larger goal of "bringing people into closer kinship with machines"? To understand how. For Kant. we must recognize that what this type of shot is clearly doing is aestheticizing machines. Beauty for Kant is nothing more than a feeling of pleasure at this basic harmony between object and mind. formalized by Kant's aesthetics. we need only appeal to the tradition of thought. and superimposition. precision.

Now if in this comparison a given presentation unintentionally brings the imagination (the power of a priori intuitions) into harmony with the understanding (the power of concepts). an attempt that results in two types of human-machine synthesis. It works to give rise to a feeling of pleasure at the formal purposiveness of the trams in the mind of the spectator-worker. pp. Vertov's utopian vision of human-machine synthesis Company. I suggest.a feeling that. such as his belief in the advent of a mechanized proletarian psychology. I suggest. I think. these trams are designed in an indeterminate fashion to harmonize with the worker's mind.. practical purpose that they serve. I would argue that Vertov's vision of human-machine synthesis is not as excessive or obsessive as Gastev's. the exploitative and dehumanizing dimensions of Gastev's almost total endorsement of Taylorism. and insofar as they are." This mimetic compulsion is thoroughly modern in the way that it manifests itself in Vertov's work. I have argued. In Man with a Movie Camera." It is in this way. to be commensurate with it. to be lawful rather than randomly organized and indifferent to the worker's mind." . 29-30: "the pleasure cannot express anything other than the object's being commensurate with the [subject's] cognitive powers that are. one physical. helps us to understand why Vertov would have thought that the tram shots and similar sequences might work to create a kinship between human beings and machines in Man with a Movie Cameraeven though human beings are entirely absent from them. shaped as it is by the scientific worldview of the early twentieth century and the new Soviet society. to the attempt to mimetically train the spectator-worker of the new Soviet society in achieving "kinship" with machines. for example. although it undoubtedly owes a lot to him. brought into play when we judge [aesthetically] . and this harmony arouses a feeling of pleasure. 1987). It gives rise. The aestheticization of the trams that occurs in these shots. as opposed to a physical one. works to bring about a mentalkinship or harmony between the spectator-worker and the trams. It lacks. his ascription of human powers and properties to machines in his film theory and practice. the other mental.this aesthetic feeling of a mental harmony between human beings and machines complements the literal and figurative representation of a physical harmony. beyond any specific..OCTOBER 44 Whether or not Kant's theory is true. And it motivates Vertov's mimetic language and imagery. then the object must thereupon be regarded as purposive for the reflective power ofjudgment. it nevertheless. But it is nevertheless continuous with a thousand-year-old Christian millenarian ideology of technological progress and mimetic salvation." IV The roots of Vertov's camera-eye therefore lie in what Benjamin called the "powerful compulsion" to "become and behave like something else. that the film attempts to get people to "love" their machines and to instantiate Vertov's utopian vision of "new people" set out in "We:Variant of a Manifesto. Together. these two types of harmony work to bring the mind and body of the spectator-worker "into closer kinship with machines.

Thus. that Vertov does not present us with a crude vision of mechanized. in the fundamental act of production. physical synthesis. in the first type of synthesis. one might say. They are instrumentalized and shown as a means to an end. human beings are mechanized in the sense that they are brought into harmony with the tempo. and more precisely with the human mind and the pleasure it derives from its capacity to see Nature as "purposive without a purpose. This becomes evident if we turn our attention to the way in which the two types of synthesis that I have outlined seemingly contradict each other. machines resemble human beings in the humanistic sense. They . and precision of movement of a machine. the act of transforming energy into work through mechanical labor. their capacity to produce. I would suggest. rather than a means to an end. But in the second type. I think. movement. Nor do we need to subscribe to the Kantian theory in order to be able to perceive this apparent contradiction. Through aestheticization. and then leisure and entertainment. of human beings as autonomous and free from Nature. But even from the brief analysis I have undertaken it is clear. work. namely.It is machines that are brought into harmony with human beings. production. through an attention to their form and motion. from their place in Nature as productive machines. They are shown in the traditional humanistic sense as an end in themselves. its capacity to appreciate the way the form of objects harmonize with its cognitive faculties. human beings are part of Nature in the mechanistic. Vertov grants them a humanistic autonomy from production. Through aestheticization. productivist sense. it would take a much more thorough and systematic analysis of his theory and practice than the one offered here to demonstrate this convincingly. waking up. Vertov's camera-eye and all it stands for. In the first type. machines are deliberately represented outside of any productive activity. a respect that manifests itself most clearly in the structure of Man with a Movie Camera. machines are. together with machines.which follows the human cycle of sleep. automated human beings. But in the second. mechanistic vision of human beings as productive machines that are part of Nature." to use the Kantian jargon. They are shown fulfilling the productivist.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 45 is tempered by a deep respect for the "organic" rhythm of human life. They are shown engaged. and productive power of machines either figuratively or literally. They are represented independently of their instrumental value. humanized. is more complex than this. all the more productive because of the fulfillment of their mimetic resemblance to machines. they are shown as beautiful objects in their own right independently of the quotidian. in the first type of synthesis human beings are represented according to productivist. practical purposes that they serve for human beings. Although the materialist analogy between human being and machine lies at its very core-an analogy that places human beings firmly and squarely within Nature and within the province of the natural sciences-Vertov's vision is equally suffused with a thoroughly humanistic conception of human freedom. They transform energy into work with all the discipline. rhythm. To put it another way. materialist tenets. However. But in the second.

that it emerges in Vertov. between the "realm of the concept of nature" and the "concept of freedom". as an end in themselves. And it balances two seemingly contradictory conceptions of human beings. see Paisley Livingston. is only one of the most famous symptoms of this gulf.34 We could further argue that Vertov is forced to disguise his vision of human freedom and displace it onto machines because it violates the fundamental tenets of the dominant materialist and antihumanist worldview within which he is operating. Kant's theory of aesthetic judgment. therefore.. Vertov's camera-eye. is only one of many attempts in the history of humanistic philosophy to bridge the "great gulf. 1988). perhaps. the product of a mimetic relation between human being and machine in which characteristics of each are displaced onto the other. FashionableNonsense:PostmodernPhilosophers'Abuse of Science (New York:Picador. an ambivalence that takes the form of the emergence in his work of a humanistic conception of human freedom and autonomy from Nature. the materialist and humanistic. a philosopher within the hermeneutic tradition who is very much opposed to the materialist (what he calls the naturalist) worldview. For its appeal lies precisely in the promise of human freedom that it seems to offer. This picture is deeply attrac34. It is not surprising. Charles Taylor. and the battle between Eastern and Western Marxists. 1998). to understand Vertov's work in this way would be to misunderstand the materialist worldview itself and its enormous appeal to moderns such as Vertov. It lies at the very core of the materialist worldview and emerges everywhere within modernity. the "critical theory" of Adorno." as Kant puts it in the introduction to the third critique. LiteraryKnowledge:HumanisticInquiryand thePhilosophyof Science(Ithaca: Cornell University Press. But to do so would be to ignore the fact that the contradiction between Nature and Freedom is not specific to Vertov. I would therefore suggest. We could try to argue that such a humanistic conception betrays a partial affinity with the humanist response to materialism since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. for example. stands an attachment to a certain picture of the [human] agent. . and the deep hostility toward and ignorance of the sciences in the humanities. is a very complex figure. [and] the understandable prestige of the natural science model.46 OCTOBER are depicted as autonomous from Nature. a response that insists to varying degrees on the autonomy of humanistic understanding from the natural sciences and that is most familiar to us today in the hermeneutic tradition of thinkers such as Gadamer. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. between materialist and humanist Marxists. go as far as seeing a deep ambivalence in Vertov's work toward the materialist and productivist worldview of which he is a part. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction? We could. More importantly.. is alwaysvery careful to acknowledge this appeal: Behind and supporting the impetus to naturalism . On the hostility toward and ignorance of the sciences in the humanities today. It is a mimetic relation that runs both ways: humans resemble machines and machines resemble humans.

scientists of the seventeenth century already began to set their sights higher than Adamic knowledge. As David Noble has argued. both flattering and inspiring. liquidating the avant-garde as a competitor .Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 47 tive to modems. the Malevich. he would not be able to convince his spectator-workers to "love" their machines and to fulfill their mimetic 35." (Groys. 4-5.. "The Birth of Socialist Realism. this position of a free.the avant-garde artist's self-conception as God-like creator is already under threat in Soviet society: "The avant-garde had . as gods themselves" (p. Human Agencyand Language. 67). for a long time.. closely connected to freedom. power. the great shift in cosmology which occurred in the seventeenth century. "seeking not merely [like Adam] to know creation as it was made but also to make it themselves. which I have sketched in this essay. It shows us as capable of achieving a kind of disengagement from our world by objectifying it. According to Boris Groys in his fascinating but controversial essay "The Birth of Socialist Realism. is the Edenic position of Adam prior to the Fall within millenarian ideology. of the Stalin period. Indeed. "scientists subtly but steadily began to assume the mantle of creator in their own minds. as the ability to act on one's own. according to the formula 'God is dead.. . 65). the source and inspiration for the continuing development of a disengaged consciousness." in Laboratoryof Dreams:The Russian Avant-Gardeand CulturalExperiment.ed. His "new people" are not crude automata. Thus... thereby increasingly eroding the distinction between human and divine knowledge. was the founding objectification. gradually came to be equated with knowing the mind of Nature's creator. is an example of the quintessentially avant-garde project of reconstructing reality. In a sense. without outside interference and subordination to outside authority. nor could they be. .35 It is this promise of human freedom and dignity offered by the materialist and productivist worldview-the paradoxical "disengagement" or liberation of human beings from Nature through the objectification of human beings as part of mechanistic Nature-that suffuses Vertov's work. p.. as Noble points out. The ideal of disengagement defines a certain-typically modemnotion of freedom. the goal of regaining this position through scientific and technological progress was explicitly articulated by scientists as Adamic in aspiration. In the twentieth century." achieved by objectifying Nature and uncovering its laws. avant-garde artists such as Vertov also assumed "the mantle of creator. unperturbability. Taylor. which for all their links with earlier ideals are original with modem culture. And these in turn are linked to ideals of efficacy. for example by Boyle and Newton. Bowlt and Olga Matich [Stanford: Stanford University Press. Vertov's attempt to create "new men" through film art. lost during the Fall. p. It defines its own particular notion of human dignity. as Noble puts it." by the time Vertov is making Man with a Movie Camera. Recovery of Adam's knowledge of the design of Nature." abandoning the role of naturalistic imitators of God's world and conceiving of themselves-God-like-as reconstructing reality from degree zero according to aesthetic principles. since.' it no longer perceived the world as the work of God's art. so to speak. but in fact this place had been filled by political authority. For if they were. pp. and it is in this shared aspiration that the avant-garde's identification with modem science-so deeply problematic as it ismost clearly manifests itself. from a picture of the world-order based on the Ideas to one of the universe as mechanism. Stalin became the only artist. 1996]. John E. actually to participate in creation and hence know it firsthand" (The Religionof Technology. However. "disengaged consciousness. The avant-garde artist laid claim to the vacant place of the total creator. 209). rejected [the demand to 'paint life'].

for his spectator-workers the promise of ultimate human freedom from Nature that will result. If we return momentarily to the scene from Man with a Movie Camerathat we began with. we can clearly recognize this complex . through the attainment of their fundamental resemblance to machine-like Nature. from the fulfillment of the mimetic resemblance between human being and machine. the scene in which a camera behaves like a human being in front of an audience who smile and laugh at it. that will characterize the "new people" of the future. Vertov's camera-eye and his ascription of human predicates and powers to machines in general is not simply the expression of a crude desire to mechanize human beings. of natural mechanism and human autonomy." the realm of autonomy from Nature. It is his means of representing and envisaging the complex and paradoxical synthesis of Nature and Freedom. In his vision. Rather. It is his means of representing Themagicianin Manwith a MovieCamera. and free because they are machine-like. which is quintessentially modern. his "new people" are machine-like but also fully human because free from Nature. It is his way of inducing his spectator-workers into recognizing their mimetic resemblance to machines and the utopian rewards of fulfilling this resemblance. according to him.48 OCTOBER resemblance to machines. human beings accede to the "realm of freedom. because they have recognized and fulfilled their fundamental mimetic resemblance to mechanistic Nature.

and we are being asked to recognize its resemblance to us in its humanistic capacity for ludic freedom. But in this sequence. As in the rest of the film. free from its identity as a productive machine. engaged in the non-productive activity of amusing and entertaining the audience within the film just as the magician in an earlier sequence amused and entertained an audience of children.Vertov bequeathed a complex and enduring legacy to the international avant-garde and the traditions of film theory that followed him. pulse. as a part of Nature. and the rhythm. it represents a horrific. His conception of the camera as a mimetic. As in the sequence with the trams. the camera is now at play. And his mimetic project of a physical and mental harmony between human being and camera is pursued by filmmakers and theorists in numerous ways. his imagination. in this scene the camera is at play. It is. However. and movement of his body. We are shown what it is used for as an instrument. It is only in the period of advanced capitalism-when the absolute indifference of capital to human life enters advanced art with a vengeance-that Warhol will step forward to turn this tradition on its head. and we are asked to recognize our metaphysical resemblance to it in its identity as a productive machine. Vertov's spectator-workers are here being asked to recognize their mimetic resemblance to the camera as a machine. Vertov does this by playing on the morphological similarities between camera and human being and by literally making the camera walk around on a stage like a human being. the logical culmination of Vertov's mimetic project of synthesizing human being and machine. For Warhol's practice constitutes. going beyond harmony and creating a seamless unity between the camera. And it works. For does not the amused delight that we witness on the faces of this audience within the film perfectly manifest "the creative joy" of which Vertov speaks in his early pronouncement from "We:Variant of a Manifesto. fetishized. Throughout Man with a Movie Camerathe camera is depicted for the most part in its productive capacity for work. in other words." indicating that this audience "loves"this machine. a machine that holds out the promise of human salvation and Freedom-surfaces continually. But it is ultimately taken to its logical extreme by Brakhage's momentous practice. dialectical inversion of this project-a perverse mirror image of Brakhage's practice-in which the careful balance between mind. the camera? In Man with a Movie Camera. enchanted machine-a machine that is both human and mechanical. like Brakhage's. its practical purposes. Vertov here endows the camera with Freedom to show his spectator-workers the utopian rewards of mimesis. body. free from work. However. unlike most of the rest of the film in which the camera is at work. For it is Brakhage who finds the creative means to stitch the camera into the veryfabric of his own mind and body.Can the CameraSee?Mimesisin Man with a Movie Camera 49 synthesis of Nature and Freedom at work. and machine that is established by Vertov .

With Warhol.TheChelseaGirls-the minds and bodies of spectators to the very limits of endurance and beyond. our tendency to talk about the camera as an eye that can see. Stephen Koch.revised ed. (NewYork: Marion Boyars Publishers. 36. . absolute indifferenceto the mind and body of the spectator. And it is no accident that it is La Rigion Centrale-a film about visibility-that most seductively invites and violently frustrates our mimetic impulse toward the camera. a machinic narcissism that is developed within the movement known as Structural film and reaches its triumphant climax in Snow's masterpiece La Rigion Centrale(1969). 1985). And it is this indifference-during a period in which artistic practice in general is defined by an "aesthetic of indifference"-that results in a film practice that stretches-in Empire.Sleep. a period of machinicnarcissismis inaugurated in film practice. Stargazer.OCTOBER 50 and perfected by Brakhage is obliterated. While Warhol's project is still suffused with a vision of Freedom-as Stephen Koch was one of the first to suggest36-his camera is nevertheless defined in contradistinction to Brakhage's precisely by its cold.