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Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung: Cinema Experience with Benjamin THOMAS ELSAESSER

Abstract: The ‘turn’ to emotion and affect in film and media studies may take its distance from earlier ways of understanding spectatorial involvement (modelled on psychoanalytic notions of identification). But such approaches, whether cognitivist in intent, or inspired by phenomenology, also return to an earlier interest in bodily sensations and somatic responses when exposed to sudden motion and moving images (associated with ideas such as innervation, shock and over-stimulation). The essay proposes to bring Walter Benjamin into the debate, with a term central to his idea of modernity, namely ‘experience’, and to revive his distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis. Noting certain features of excess and liminiality in contemporary cinema, and mapping them across the three distinct domains of body, time and agency, Benjamin’s own attempt to locate the emotional core of the technical media is reappraised. Grounded in the peculiar variability but also interdependence of place, narration and perception, the cinema would then appear to provide Erlebnis without Erfahrung, a state formerly associated with trauma, but now the very definition of the media event. Keywords: cinema, experience, limits, embodiment, time, agency, trauma, event

The paradigm shift

This essay takes as its framework the turn to emotions in film studies, a distinct move in the field that implies a turn away from other ways of looking at the cinema. Thus, the new focus on emotion clearly takes its distance from psychoanalytic film theory, notably from an emphasis on the specular drives, on desire and lack. Impatience with the psycho-semiotic approach to spectatorship, however, is itself an emotion, probably shared by groups of film scholars — cognitivists, culturalists and Deleuzians — who otherwise do not have much in common, and rarely, if ever, seek to engage in a debate with each other.1 The temptation to initiate a debate between these camps, or
Paragraph 32:3 (2009) 292–312 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833409000625

Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 293

at least try and find some common denominators is great.2 Resisting it, I shall instead sketch a different context, which allows me to reintroduce Walter Benjamin into the debate, and with him a term possibly even more contested than that of emotion: ‘experience’. My recourse to Benjamin and experience wants to keep an opening for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, without foreclosing either Deleuze or cognitivism. One specific entry-point can be simply stated: whereas semiotics generally regarded film as a discourse or a narrative, the turn to emotion presupposes film to be above all an event. And while socalled apparatus theory took the cinema to task for pretending to be a window on the world (and not acknowledging its mirroring effects), the presumption now is that the cinema involves neither miscognition nor illusion, but is best understood as a perceptual act like any other, heightened perhaps by its immediacy and immersiveness.3 Insofar as a film engages with the world, it does so in the form of embodied knowledge, of percepts and affects, and insofar as it assigns a role to its spectators, it does so by casting them not as voyeurs or across the imaginary identification of the split subject, but as witnesses or participants. Instead of the Cartesian mind–body split and the Lacanian identity-machine, we now have the cinema as ‘emotion machine’.4 Central to this configuration, and a ground that both the old and the new paradigm can indeed share, is the notion of experience, which to me is preliminary to any discussion of emotion in the cinema. But what sort of experience? The term, in German at last, gives rise to a rich and confusing palette of meanings: Erfahrung (between travelling [fahren] and standing still), Erlebnis (between living [leben] and death), Empfindung (between finding [finden] and loss), Gefühl (between feeling [fühlen] and touch). What is cinema if not a configuration of the semantic fields thus circumscribed? The very diversity leads me to limit the possible concepts of experience I am concerned with here to three domains: embodiment — experience as immediate sensory presence and corporeal plenitude; time — experience as retrospectively constructed, temporally or discursively mediated self-possession and self-appropriation; and agency — experience as the exposure to limits, and the recovery from extremes. By making experience a key term, I intend furthermore to highlight the role of the cinema in modernity, and in particular, in two moments or crises of ‘modernization’. It is one particular semantic field — experience as a retrospectively constructed, temporally mediated self-possession and selfappropriation — that resonates with Benjamin’s concerns, and

along with his dialectical cast of mind. for instance. How can Benjamin’s distinction be made productive for our view of the cinema. which was Erfahrung. the affective structure of classical cinema — as with Erfahrung — is that of a . of epic truth. reactive. very different from the cumulative. fully realized plenitude or ‘ethos’. Benjamin makes a distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung. from the perspective of some past. As Jay puts it. to travel) or whether retrospectively reconstituted as a form of learning.’5 Evidently. and between classical and post-classical cinema (in Anglo-American parlance). how closely current definitions of classical cinema correspond to Benjamin’s notion of Erfahrung: typified by narrative integration and temporal development. how might it help us understand what is at stake in the paradigm shift alluded to above? An answer might be given through another distinction: the one between classical cinema and modern cinema (in Deleuze’s sense of the word). non-cumulative repetition of the assembly line. The impoverishment or atrophy of Erfahrung he diagnosed as constitutive for modernity was itself typical of experience per se. whether conceived in a linear fashion. Erfahrung was something no longer available to the individual in the modern world. in Benjamin’s dual scheme. as elaborated in the essay.’6 Yet Benjamin’s tragic sense of life. as a life story.294 Paragraph especially his well-known discussion of the conditions of experience under capitalist modernity. Meaningful narrative had been supplanted by haphazard information and raw sensation in the mass media. ensured that the fractured. Even the structuralist account of ‘imaginary resolution of real contradictions’ (Lévi-Strauss) or the pragmatic-cognitivist one of ‘problem solving’ and of ‘functional equivalence’ point in the same direction.7 Furthermore. As Martin Jay points out.and early twentieth-century theorists. the German word Erfahrung has as its root the verb ‘fahren’. a journey (as indicated. and the replacement of artisanal production by the dull. ‘Some Motifs in Baudelaire’. Benjamin argued. ‘The continuum of Erfahrung had already been broken by the unassimilable shocks of urban life. and unintegrated inner experience of Erlebnis was. in its charactercentred cohesion and biographical closure. ‘The immediate. so that the ‘loss of experience’ in the modern world was in actual fact the always already present ‘experience of loss’ in human existence. In line with many German late nineteenth. the first associated with moments of sensation and the second with a more sustained texture of experience. transient experiential state of Erlebnis was not viewed nostalgically. passive. fragmented. totalizing accretion of transmittable wisdom. isolated. It is remarkable.

8 Here. dissonance and deviations from the norm. a cathartic progress from hamartia (ignorance) and miscognition. as indicated. to be defined as Erlebnis. discontinuous. However. . and the function of narrative is to facilitate this process of turning discontinuous Erlebnis into transmissible Erfahrung. Hence Benjamin’s own emphasis on montage as cinema’s specific contribution to modernity. intermittent. from Golddiggers of ‘35). belonging to the disruptive genres of excess just highlighted. and look at cinema as event and experience. then a cinema of Erfahrung. while Erlebnis is self-presence without self-possession. Or put the other way round: if the cinema — insofar as it is part of modernity and insofar as we regard it as an authentic ‘experience’ — has. then (the theoretical interest in) melodrama is symptomatic of the recognition that cinematic experience is by necessity disruptive. then under conditions of modernity. ‘pathos’ rather than ‘ethos’ defines the affective regime of modernity. Its ‘deviations’ from the classical would become the very index of its more historically appropriate form of ‘authenticity’. would indeed be an ideological construct. the norm-deviancy model will be replaced by the Erfahrung/Erlebnis model and extended to the debate around melodrama. Classical cinema operates in an integrative fashion. and not as Erfahrung. and ‘pathos’ the affect appropriate to Erlebnis: singular. among others. if we take Benjamin’s arguments seriously. such as the classical. a nostalgic or reactionary shoring up of the fractured nature of modern experience. Christine Noll Brinckmann. transitory. notably in the musical (Busby Berkeley’s Lullaby of Broadway. Melodrama came to prominence in film studies when this previously despised genre began to be theorized within the psychoanalytic paradigm of desire and lack. But if one were to take account of the changed paradigm. absence and presence. has written eloquently about the deviant modes of the classical. a therapy. to anagnorisis (recognition) and the narrational play of different gradients of knowledge towards their eventual convergence. Such a view gives added significance to those moments (or sub-genres) in the classical period that are typified by excess. only the experiential modality of Erlebnis is possible. if we consider Benjamin’s Erfahrung to be retrospectively constructed and integrated. at the limit of Erfahrung. of gender asymmetry and deferred closure. one of the genuinely modern(ist) types of experience. In other words. not that of Erfahrung. And insofar as the cinema is unthinkable outside the sensory and affective conditions of modernity as specified by Benjamin’s theory of perceptual shock and the optical unconscious.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 295 healing. it would make of melodrama.

such as — to name a few of the usual suspects — urbanization. the constellation of event. in the hope of correlating the cinema experience with a historical episteme or with social processes and technical innovations. rather than Erfahrung. For cognitivists. the attempt to resituate classical cinema (and to indicate a possible basis on which to distinguish within its deviant genres. while also identifying a line from classical to post-classical cinema) is not the only reason for invoking once more Benjamin’s idea that cinema is Erlebnis. should we attempt to periodize particular somatic states or changes in the human nervous system.296 Paragraph fractured. and this in turn raises questions about the function of cinema as a prime means of rhetorically organizing. technically storing and culturally transmitting such a memory. this double face of melodrama may well have been one reason why it became crucial in the debates of the 1970s. the railways. Always bearing in mind that the historical grounds for such a retrospective revision in the American cinema may be more complex than simply ideological obfuscation or nostalgic (self-)deception. limits of experience However. spectatorship and experience suggests issues of cultural memory. Melodrama becomes. sensation. In particular. When thinking about film viewing as a mode of experience. both the conditions of spectatorship and the affectivity these conditions generate are part of a historically specific (visual-sensory) culture. accordingly. affect and feeling when in the cinema are not merely identical with those deployed in ordinary life-situations. They are evolutionary adaptations.10 Yet there is certainly something symptomatic (and thus variable and context-dependent) about the cinema. and thus to all intents and purposes hard-wired. when they use the cinema to define experience normatively. .9 Experience of limits. the hidden ‘truth’ of the classical by highlighting just how far any kind of classical cinema must be a retrospective revision of Erlebnis into Erfahrung. electrification or any of the other cultures of modernity. so that it makes little sense to speak of a ‘modernist’ visuality. subject to change and analysable from an aesthetic as well as anthropological perspective. the skills involved in the processes of perception. By underlining the distinction I also intend to specify in what way I sense myself at odds with the cognitivists on a procedural point. Nor. as it were. at the same time as Hollywood cinema’s illusion of coherence was deconstructed from positions more radical than Benjamin’s distinctions between the two kinds of experience.

agency and helplessness. ‘time’ and ‘agency’ as those modalities of experience that can be associated with experience as a limit. exceeds the bounds of both chronos (the linear flow of time) and kairos (the decisive moment. viewed under the double injunction of (passive) receptivity and heightened (active) awareness. it was ‘the opposite of action. so crucial to both phenomenological and cognitivist accounts of emotions. however common an event it has become in the last hundred years. Why we go to the cinema. time and again. by Bataille. of a limit experience. something out of the ordinary. Bataille had a lifelong preoccupation with the intensity of the instant. rather than normative. according to Bataille. The self-shattering type of experience. It is something larger than life. Nothing more. which may include minimalist states or experiences at the edges of everyday perception and sensation. as imagined. But philosophy and critical theory have also had much to say about limits: from Nietzsche’s anti-Kantian aesthetics of the Dionysian to Georges Bataille’s idea of ‘expense’. most strikingly after the traumata and horrors of the First World War.13 It is not easy to specify what Bataille meant . thus undermining the moment of presence. and its negative correlative. and the recovery from extremes. It involves registers where cinema tests — and contests — the conjunction of affect and agency. it may be useful to introduce my third definition of experience: experience as the exposure to limits. is still pursued as an experience which viewers expect to be exceptional. Avant-garde art in the 20th century is replete with experiments and explorations of ‘limits’ and ‘extremes’. would ‘situate true existence in a future state. time and its apparent irreversibility. the limits of experience. but also central to the (classically defined) aesthetic act. and project. “Action” is utterly dependent on project’. exposure to and recovery from limits is as fundamental to modernity as is the cinema itself. and in particular. what we go to the cinema for. Limit experiences are above all limits in our sense of body and embodiment. for instance. takes us back to the movies is the anticipation of an extreme experience.12 In this sense. that is essential to inner experience’. the epiphany). already alluded to: ‘embodiment’.11 In order to illustrate this dimension of cinema.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 297 Going to the cinema. albeit not a plenitudinal presence. The conjunction suggests a focus on three aspect of experience. and what. and from Maurice Blanchot to Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. His notion of ‘inner experience’ was fundamentally negative. which he played off against the opacity of duration.

as well as of temporality. whether by default or design. it challenges notions of bodily integrity. theorists as different as Carol Clover. while cultural pessimists tend to see such ‘now-ness’ as the very curse that afflicts our societies of the spectacle. discontinuous. unmediated and authentic.14 Even mainstream cinema. ethnically marked or set up as norm. fetishized or deviant. for Bataille. punctual. However. Lyotard or Agamben). Murray Smith and Noel Carroll have been careful to make distinctions between psychic. time as limit. has. long recognized as the very condition of time in the cinema. when seeking out the limits of experience. most notably perhaps in discussions of the horror film. battle as inner Erlebnis became the new (post-bourgeois) foundation of self.298 Paragraph by ‘inner experience’ which for him was intense. there has been an extensive focus on the body. There. dissociated. of agency. This permanent present. physiological. which is also a state of tension and suspension.15 the experiential parameters are remarkably similar. While this debate has been predominantly concerned with issues of representation. and agency as limit. One might say (paraphrasing Marx) that the experience of limits is something that happens to human beings ‘behind their backs’. if not exactly as envisaged by Bataille or Blanchot. come up against the experience of limits. in Hollywood cinema. gendered and sexualized. while the references are different from those either of the post-First World War avant-gardes’ experience of limits. the notion of the body as experiential limit has occasionally been raised. and while it may not be ‘against their will’. While for Ernst Jünger. and affective states. somatic. The body as limit In recent years. or metaphorically as the (over-determined) bearer of coded cultural and gendered signs.16 . by keeping the self in a permanent present. The second half of this essay will therefore specify further these three kinds of ‘limits’ that are the conditions of possibility of the cinematic experience as Erlebnis always at the edge of Erfahrung: the body as limit. and occasionally it has even been seen as a positive negativity. there was no inner experience other than negative. has been interpreted both positively and negatively. all involving the body as total perceptual surface. or of the post-Second World War reflections on the limits of experience (as in Foucault. rather than merely metonymically represented through the eye and the look.

Brinckmann’s perspective. focusing on the affective. as it submits to repetitive. In her paper ‘Somatic Empathy’. the physiological (somatic. negative play of somatic empathy. Although apparently similar. Vito Acconci. by somatic responses that are transmitted to the spectator. even on Hitchcock. how it works against the flow of the spectator’s sympathy. Genre and Excess’ from 1991. Williams probes the interface between the psychic (fantasies). in order to test the spectator’s somatic stamina. this art ‘oscillates between the obscene vitality of the wound.19 We will come back to this distinction. and the radical nihility of the corpse’.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 299 One important essay is Noll Brinckmann’s exploration of the somatic responses and bodily reactions that images or sound–image combinations can generate in classical cinema.17 Among the studies that Brinckmann cites is Linda Williams’s very well-known essay ‘Film Bodies: Gender. These artists foreground a body often in pain. Paul McCarthy. Williams’s thesis has been so influential not least because she identifies three genres in which bodily integrity is in some sense the limit. horror-films and pornography. The always implied limit here is death. often medical. opening up a kind of circuit of contagion beyond empathy and close to bodily mimesis. Such body-based performance art has emerged with special force since the 1970s — coinciding with the rise of video and the women’s movement. including the films of Valie Export from the 1970s. and where the codes of representation are fractured. mechanical intervention or makes itself vulnerable to technological. having sketched the second parameter. one could name Carolee Schneeman. involuntary manifestations) and the affective (emotional states and the range of feelings) of the spectator’s body. or the subsequent generation of body artists using film and video. which focuses more on the contradictory. one could draw on quite a range of artworks. Marina Abramovic and Orlan. Apart from the Vienna Actionists (to whom Valie Export belonged). Shigeko Kubota. is informed by the practice of the avant-garde in film and the visual arts. the examples are mostly drawn from the thrillers of Hitchcock. even if only momentarily.18 There. and as Hal Foster has polemically argued. She pays particular attention to what she calls the body-genres: melodrama. . when watching certain types of movies. invasion. or seemingly beyond pain. Williams’ findings stand to some extent in contrast to Brinckmann’s investigation. Extending her focus. ‘motor mimicry’ that they elicit from the spectator. such as the involuntary salivation that sometimes occurs when watching someone cut a lemon.

which originally referred to the universal. or rather. in her essay. but also one particular time-frame: too soon for horror. SW III. a situation of powerlessness to intervene. injustice. and these time-frames help to modify the idea of a directly mimetic response that could otherwise be read out of her body-genres.20 It is an experiential category that might be aligned with the predicament of arriving or knowing too late that delimits the Erfahrung of self in Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood (GS VII. tears and semen). the transient. or moments of belated anagnorisis. in relation to the affect they are supposed to produce. namely of a feeling that pertains to the fleeting. in film studies. nostalgia and a sense of loss — the typical ‘pathos’ of melodrama — refers us back to the original meaning of pathos already quoted. there needs to be a moment of recognition (or anagnorisis). 354). 395–6. Moretti’s hypothesis. the ephemeral in life. . to narration. the social parameters and the generic origins. second. on the aspect of their failure. Finally. Moretti’s thesis is that several conditions need to be met before there are tears: one. with their specific physiological. and in particular. a sudden. emphatically relates tears in fiction not to description or depiction. but to storyconstruction.300 Paragraph Time as limit One source that Williams quotes is Franco Moretti on the question of why we cry in the face of works of art and literature. which for Moretti is tied to a perceived asymmetry between the wrong that has been done. focalization and point of view. as a result of excessive justice. which is to say. too late for melodrama. and the punishment it receives. but carefully prepared switch of narrational perspective and point of view is required. This is both witty and ingenious. which has helped to explain. assigning not only to each of her genres one particular bodily fluid (sweat. also have argued that more work should be done on these temporalities. the ability of melodrama to arouse time-based emotions such as melancholy. and the ‘now’ of pornography. involuntary responses. Tears result from one’s helplessness. however. Williams might. regret. Asking for more work to be done on the historical context. In addition. in contrast to the permanent and ideal (ethos). leading to a shift in the regimes of knowledge among the characters and between the characters and the spectator. the affective-somatic effects of melodrama’s uneven distribution of knowledge. but a recognition that comes too late (to prevent death): the rhetoric of ‘too late’. Williams. extends Moretti’s ‘rhetoric of the too late’ to posit several orders of temporality. as he calls it.

is as much a genre of the ‘if-only’. the catastrophe. notably comedy and the musical. and which under the aspect of its time frame. but also as pure repetition. This contrasts. Melodrama. are characterized by bad timing. In other words. at least by our conventional standards. the temporality of film noir is one beyond desire. beyond both chronos (linear time) and kairos (closure. is too late. the very nature of fantasies is that they are experiences of failure. have to do with a belatedness in the characters’ responses to a given situation. but also with an alternative turn. however. but that is also because the bodily state it suggests. it is definitely too late (for action).21 In film studies. anagnorisis). When she correlates these time frames with the fantasies underpinning the three genres she discusses (the fantasy of union with the mother in melodrama. perhaps: sweat having already been assigned to horror). like melodrama. Perhaps it could be the temporality that the Greeks called aion. The genre that is missing. and the temporality it is caught up in. the simultaneous presence of past and future as pure extension. one might say. deferred action or après coup: it. missed opportunities or excessively close encounters. has already happened. according to Deleuze. it is true. the temporality of film noir is that of empty time. and the primary fantasy of parental seduction in pornography). but whereas melodrama is infused by desire. Admittedly. are so extreme. for instance. or a course of action that was not taken. with the ‘happy’ genres of perfect timing. and that. which at least in melodrama and the horror-film. the primal scene and the threat of castration and sexual difference in the horror film. and involve such limit-situations that recovery is almost inconceivable. she already holds the key to at least one aspect of their temporality. All of these. for film noir the same temporalities constitute an impossible temporal . but it is also too soon (for closure). The disaster. too. and thus knows regret. nondirectional universe. becomes even more suggestive after reading Williams. is film noir. as it is of the ‘too late’. of the temporality of regret. To put it very briefly. For as we know. which is why they have to be repeated. is the non-pulsed time of a floating. one could answer Williams’ question about the historical context of these genres with her own argument.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 301 Were one to think her ideas about time frames and temporality further. endlessly. film noir is often associated with the temporality that Freud called Nachträglichkeit. one would be hard-put to assign to it a similarly clear-cut somatic response or physiological attribute (‘cold perspiration’. and thus their temporality of repetition joins those secondary elaborations. while classical cinema potentially deals with all these temporalities.

Why? For the protagonist of film noir. a redefinition of the reality status of the action or a switch in context. by designating it as dream or fantasy. who believes in process-as-progress and whose behaviour is oriented towards solving a problem.24 and partly by adapting concepts from psychoanalysis. the non-mimetic. also redefining the reality status of the image.25 All three approaches . What states of body and mind correspond. to action in the name of the self. what would constitute the limits of this classical model of agency? Already in the 1980s Steve Neale attempted to define Hollywood genres according to different actionschemata and their blockages. ‘para-telic’ and ‘pragmatic’. and conversely. whether you know it or not? This leads to the third limit. Thus. his theory of tears was based on the inability to intervene on behalf of an other. Its standard definition. Agency as limit Moretti already pointed out that helplessness in a situation that. embodied in a protagonist who is goal-oriented.302 Paragraph horizon. then. Film noir asks: what does it feel like when you may be already dead. and yet sensed to be at the heart of many of our definitions of modern cinema. the very presupposition of the motivational action-schema typical for classical cinema. comedy could be characterized by moments where blocked agency in the hero leads to involuntary laughter. Thus.23 If such are the normative formulations. because he is someone who has already survived his own death. and yet somatic side of cinematic experience at the limits is found especially in film noir — a genre long recognized at the margin of classical cinema. too late and now.22 In the terminology of Torben Grodal. However. and very much — in the form of neo-noir — a central genre of so-called postclassical cinema. speaks of a ‘charactercentred causality’. and the musical would be the genre. these modes of agency are called ‘telic’. derived partly from Moretti (in his essay ‘Melodrama and tears’). of course. where there can be no single time frame: in the time of the limit experience it is invariably too soon/too late. from the ethical point of view. requires action is one of the conditions provoking an (involuntary) bodily-somatic response. it is too soon. what kinds of limit to agency is at stake when acting on behalf of the self is blocked? Agency in the name of the self is. as formalized by Bordwell. it is invariably now and always. where moments of blocked agency in the plot or the emotional entanglements among the characters lead to dance.

for which Vertigo can stand as a prime example. therefore.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 303 in turn can be contrasted to the classical psychoanalytic-semiotic formulation by Raymond Bellour. to pick up Bataille’s terms again. that of aion. as effects’. mechanical energy. is that conscious and unconscious motivation inhabit the same narrative space. and in particular Hitchcock’s films. would seem further removed from this modern cinema of Deleuze than the kind of action-cinema we have become familiar with from contemporary (blockbuster) Hollywood. Indeed. rendered homogeneous and transparent because linear purposive action is ‘doubled’ and split across the divide of (unacknowledged) sexual difference. Friday . also referred to as post-classical cinema. and of those perpetual. incestuous) goal of his unconscious desire. and action together in his version of the classical. Deleuze notes a crisis of the ‘movement-image’ (his term for classical Hollywood). since the same Hitchcock is singled out as the director in whose work the sensory-motor scheme of the body of classical cinema experiences its first critical rupture. the prevailing temporality is. for whom Hollywood action and suspense genres. ‘the unlimited past and future. the post-classical is a kinetic-mimetic cinema of pure sensation. acceleration. as already mentioned. based on miscognition and (compulsive) repetition. the logos of chronos. imagining plots of spectacular technological failure or natural disaster (Titanic. Subtending the logic of overt action-adventures is a psychic schema that enacts a set of symbolic relations. into which are folded several pasts. the time of an immanent now. but of intensities. Twister) or both (Independence Day). approximating the roller-coaster ride (Speed). exposing the sensorium to barely conceivable body horror (Silence of the Lambs) and slasher violence (Halloween. in which actions are not so much pragmatic and telic. operate according to the repetition-resolution schema of what he terms ‘the symbolic blockage’. body. Eschewing psychoanalytic or gender-specific terminology. which gather incorporeal events at the surface. remains preserved. Agency. thereby protecting the protagonist from the knowledge of the ‘true’ (i. but parapractic and iterative. In the time image. What holds time.26 In Bellour’s version of classical cinema the nexus of cause and effect. in this model would be that of neither action nor project. announcing what he calls the ‘time image’ of modern (European) cinema. Yet here Gilles Deleuze’s revisions of the classical are of special interest. dispersals. as is the bodyimage of the male hero.e.27 Nothing at first glance. violence. or as Deleuze puts it. in several definitions. reversible states that Deleuze calls ‘becomings’.

in post-classical action-cinema. excess has in some sense become the norm. most clearly in The Matrix. as he takes extravagant risks. but as instances of a re-action cinema.304 Paragraph the 13th). means and effects. in which the causal nexus has broken down. as Benjamin had argued for the cinema of montage in the 1920s. this crashing through the mirror/window metaphor becomes emblematic of breaking out of some sort of limit. Accordingly. doing away with that carefully crafted architecture of looks of classical mise-en-scène (based as it was on regulating distance and proximity through inference and ‘suture’). properly speaking. From the perspective of the classical. More generally. the action hero is in a permanent state of hypertension and alertness at the exposed limit of an experience that is no longer narrativized or integrated. breaking down that artificial window-on-the-world effect of classical cinema. the so-called action-hero genre represents a break with the classical. . it is a cinema of an immersive experience. Tactile and haptic sensations compete with ocular events. Its barrage of spectacular effects are. excess marked the moments of exception. incalculable risks and invisible threats. as did the classical hero. but also redrawing the spaces of ‘experience’. the hero’s actions mark a limit (the proverbial ‘overkill’). But while in the classical.30 often quite literally: scenes of shattering large sheets of glass are some of the notable effects in works as different as Die Hard and James Bond movies (The World is not Enough). exhibits unmodulated extremes of affect or emotion. leaving the protagonist. but an overload of systemic breakdowns.28 To its detractors. As such. precisely to the degree that its enacts another limit of agency: extending ad absurdum the character-centred causality of the classical calculus of motive. or rather: excess is now the sign of crisis of the norm. the new ‘action hero’ masters experience in a mode of temporal suspension: he anticipates the omnipresent emergency and catastrophe by perpetually pre-empting their imminence. post-classical cinema is a return to the movement-image in its most unsublimated and unsymbolized forms. not knowing whether he is action hero or acted upon (Neo’s dilemma of being or not being the ‘chosen one’). Instead of containing threatening events in a perception-affection-action schema.29 For others. and its play with ontological boundaries. not the deviation from the norm. among others things. politically reactionary and aesthetically retrograde. one should read agency in such films not as action in the conventional sense. to fend off not only an overload of stimuli. and deploys his bodily or ballistic means spectacularly in excess of his goals. The Hudsucker Proxy and The Matrix. a protective shield.

film noir has very distinct parameters not only of action. Retrospectively. The Killers). Fight Club or Insomnia. Classic noir. is the protagonist of film noir. and too soon to expire. Terminator II. at the other end of the spectrum so to speak.e. for instance. Once again. and although this can occasionally be found in male heroes. as in The Blue Dahlia or The High Wall. prosthetic bodies (Blade Runner. but also of body and time. body and action-schemes. In this sense. invariably features the male body as damaged: he may have head wounds and suffer from amnesia. as in Woman in the Window. For most directly opposed to the helplessness on behalf of another of melodrama. a time of ambiguous retrieval (e. post-classical action-cinema has structural features that make it the inverse of another kind of limit to agency.g. Film noir knows two temporalities that are rarely synchronized: time running out.g. becoming more often than not a spectator and witness of his own doom (cf. while a visibly maimed body is that of Jake Gittes with his slit nose in Chinatown. the noir hero usually finds himself too late to recover. but its starting point are those of noir: Head wounds return in Angel Heart or Memento. the post-classical cinema has produced a genre or group of films which has tended to aggravate. emptying itself (e. it is not the one that holds the key to the genre we are here concerned with. Neo-noir knows its own time. he may be stricken by insomnia. as well as to the pre-emptive anticipation on behalf of the self just discussed in the action-adventure film. as in Double Indemnity. to which we earlier assigned a genre but no somatic state. as in Dead on Arrival or he may be bleeding to death. Fight-Club). Twelve Monkeys) and the time . CrissCross). In either timeframe. amnesiacs (Memento). hypnagogic states and insomnia return. for instance.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 305 Phrased like this. he may be fatally poisoned. Terminator). Helplessness in relation to the self generally implies the subjectposition of the victim. amplify or radicalize these states of mind and body: the so-called neo-noir. so that neo-noir’s body schema tends to be that of paralysed in-action alternating with hyperactive violence (Lost Highway. This limit is once more the blockage of action on behalf of the self. invoking the classical and also exceeding it. we find the poisoned body of DoA in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple or the inexorably dying replicants of Blade Runner. in Lost Highway. he is nonetheless helpless to help himself. and the temporality of the flashback. Yet there are also intensifications. existing in the negative ‘now’ of suspended animation. Detour. he might now be seen to represent an inversion of both: anticipating an omnipresent emergency. The Killers). i. The appropriate temporality is that of the time travel paradox (Total Recall.

however catastrophic the wound. in Fight Club. the ‘nihility of the corpse’. is how many of their protagonists are in some sense already dead. obliging him to ‘play dead’ to human emotions: they have become ‘too much’. as already hinted at by Hal Foster. as Freud noted. right across the genres yet all inflected towards neo-noir. impertinent or comic this place may appear to the spectator — in a film like Memento. The Sixth Sense and American Beauty. Interview with a Vampire. Pulp Fiction (the character of Vince). they have. and arguably. but not as the blood-lusty predator. carrying his own (metaphoric) coffin. He no longer even feels the impulse to act. Paradoxically. Thus rather than speaking of an experience of failure. As a hypothesis one could say that while the cyborg hero is the drive creature of pure affectivity (the ‘obscene vitality of the wound’. in these films. psychoanalytically speaking. the neo-noir protagonist experiences emotions so extreme. is able to tell his story and to make for himself a (fantasmatic) place in it — however scandalous. so that. on the surface at least. while the limit of agency is that of catatonia. in Foster’s phrase). The privileged body of neo-noir is therefore indeed the corpse. rather as the melancholy un-dead Dracula. event and body that he is not merely helpless to act. fallen out of the symbolic order of desire and lack. and have become ‘drive creatures’. or. Whereas Gump. Mulholland Drive). not even through flashback. the hero definitely cannot get his story together anymore. haunted as much as haunting. whose narrative goal is less aimed at regaining their ability to ‘desire’ than it is their need to restore their (consciousness of) mortality (in order for there to be closure). even as the action continues: explicitly so in Robocop. but also in Lester Burnham’s opening words in American Beauty). What makes the neo-noir hero un-dead (and thus. or symbolically so. Twelve Monkeys. Forrest Gump. reviving the figure of Nosferatu. nor by letting time run backwards. as in . it is the death-drive that prevents an organism from ‘dying’. we can say that the classic noir hero has merged with the vampire figure. The new limits: trauma and experience If these protagonists are ‘dead men’ (rendered explicit in the title of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking.306 Paragraph loop or Moebius strip (Lost Highway. so irretrievable in terms of temporality. after all. psychic automatons or zombies. a companion to the cyborg of the Terminator type action-hero genre) is an excess of ‘experience’ as limit-Erlebnis. For what is remarkable about many contemporary films.

whose observation that trauma became in the 1990s the ‘lingua franca’ of the art world . suggests — at the beginning of the 21st century — a set of analogies to the period close to the beginnings of the 20th century. and reproducing the breakdown of Erfahrung into Erlebnis also on the side of the viewer. no action. not only because the traumatized person cannot put his or her experience into discourse. no bodily marks. the violent disarticulations of body and time. or to suggest that its uses in culture can be defined outside specific political and ideological debates. and if a generational change may also provide an explanation.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 307 classical noir.31 While it would be grossly oversimplifying to assert a single concept of trauma. relating its ‘affection image’ to the trauma of Vietnam. immersive and at the same time fragmented experience alluded to. we would have to speak of the very failure of experience: no words. there are aspects of the trauma discourse that address issues implicit in my question about the limits of experience/the experience of limits. I cannot feel a thing’ is how Foster aptly summarized a certain body art he is describing. Deleuze’s insights have also been applied to American cinema in the 1970s. just as after 1918. and its migration from clinical psychology to literary discourse and critical theory suggests that ‘trauma’ offers itself as a ‘solution’ to a problem yet to be specified. a more provocative answer might be that of Hal Foster. but because the shock of trauma is often said to leave no visible symptoms. were related to the war neuroses which first gave rise to the discussions about trauma. Thus. In respect to contemporary cinema. and the defeat of the aspirations of the Left. when Walter Benjamin first theorized shock. in one case (the Holocaust and Hiroshima) with a fifty-year delay.32 The very diffuseness of the term across high and popular culture. The name for this ‘failure of experience’ in contemporary culture is trauma. especially the Holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. for instance. in the other (Vietnam) after a twenty-year hiatus? If latency is a recognized feature of trauma. no memory can recreate a coherent sequence of events or restore the cause-and-effect chain of a chrono-logic: ‘it hurts so much. the shattering.33 so Gilles Deleuze. sees the disarticulation of the body schema of perception-sensation-action in the cinema after 1945 as a consequence of the catastrophic events of the Second World War. found in the practices of the avant-gardes. trauma and dissociation as both cinematic forms and symbolic cultural formations. one has to ask oneself: why this return to (the discourse of) trauma.34 Convincing as this may seem.

paid less attention to war-trauma than many other contemporary commentators. arguing that the film uses both its generic identity of neo-noir and its modality of experience as trauma in order to put forward a new model of the body as somatic-sensory medium of inscription. or even to a competition for ‘authenticity’ by each of us claiming victim-hood (as Foster asserts). therefore. of the ability to be an agent in and the author of one’s own life.36 To include the cinema.37 Perhaps I can conclude by extending this suggestion with a particularly provocative hypothesis.308 Paragraph implies that ‘trauma’ may be the conveniently established label for a sensibility or state of mind only tenuously connected to the historical events we usually associate with the term. might be more complicated. scriptural traces and acts of repetition. for instance. since he had. the question to ask would be: what is so ‘modern’ about this disarticulation of body. the modernizing aspects of a subjectivity apparently similar to a traumatized state of mind. in his reflections on the sensory ramifications of modern experience as typified by shock. affect and cognition by making the protagonist an amnesiac. Instead. sense. unable to remember events or recognize his surroundings other than through visual aids. Such a conception of the body bypasses perception. Can we connect the types of ‘failure’ to integrate perception of place. Following Benjamin.35 Foster’s answer addresses more the high-culture discourse of the art world than the prevalence of what he calls trauma ‘babblings’ in popular culture. discontinuity and distraction. as well as the co-presence of past events in the present and the mixing of temporalities (all usually associated with trauma) to a seemingly quite unrelated or opposed phenomenon. Yet rather than this ‘trauma trope’ relating to particular historical events. uncertainty about cause and effect. he highlighted the impact of the technical media as well as of metropolitan modes of existence: in other words. memory and speech that it makes trauma the appropriate term? Or even more pointedly: what is so (post-)modern and modernizing about trauma? In an essay on Christopher Nolan’s Memento. painful memories. trauma would represent the ‘solution’ to a problem located elsewhere: it would be the name for a new mode . namely the ‘themed environments’ of tourist cities. I have explored these issues. ‘parks’ and entertainment ‘worlds’? The hypothesis would be that the pervasive trauma discourse as diagnosed by Foster does indeed point to a crisis of experience. shopping malls. just as it might prove more controversial. Here the return to Benjamin offers a particularly intriguing hypothesis.

These are the contemporary spaces of Erfahrung devoid of Erlebnis: staged events. Its opposite but also complement would be the new ‘experience economy’: the themed environments of carefully controlled narratives.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 309 of Erlebnis without Erfahrung. ‘Successful’ immersion in this environment would have as its correlative a ‘traumatic’ mode of spectatorship. at once therapy and stimulation. where reality takes on the shape of a story. the experience of limits in post-classical cinema and contemporary media culture now suggests certain limits of (the word) ‘experience’ as an operative term in this project of modernity — seeing how the new frontiers of the experience economy make personal or national trauma and Disneyland or shopping malls the recto and verso of each other. It remains to be seen whether this is an impasse or a passage along which either the idea of post-classical cinema or the new turn to emotions can be further discussed. while stories become real and fictional characters come to life. at once mediated and transparent. back to Benjamin’s original distinctions. however. Not. but of a perceptual and somatic environment so saturated with media-experience that its modes of reception. this time by enacting the limits of experience through regulated zones of access and exclusion. simulated dangers and performed identities — all made ‘safe’. or make Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park belong together under more than the heading of authorship. the limits of experience taken from Benjamin. because it represents a new ‘economy of experience’: its shortcuts. ‘familiar’ and ‘closed’. of disasters and injustices witnessed — which no personal memory nor even public history could encompass or contain. the shallowness of memory. response and action require various kinds of uncoupling and unstitching of the motor-sensory apparatus in order to ‘cope’. by which I mean the kind of flexible attention and selective numbness that absorbs the intermittent intensity of affect. Trauma would be the solution. the psychic tracelessness of violence which constant contact with our contemporary mediatized world implies. Thanks to his perspective. via film noir and neo-noir. the ennui of repetition. and explored in cinema theory around body. blackouts and gaps are what saves the self from an otherwise ruinous psychic investment in the multitude of events observed. in other words: policed in equal measure by force and by fantasy. Thus. time and action have led. of human being encountered. . that of the Benjamin’s metropolis or assembly-line factory work. for sure. where distant pasts are made present and faraway places brought near.

The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kie´lowski Between Theory s and Post-Theory (London: BFI Publishing. 1998). (Milton Keynes: Open University. ‘Realism and the Cinema: Notes on some Brechtian Theses’. A strong case for cinema as immersive event is made by Vivian Sobchack in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press. edited by Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2001). Hill and P. and Janet Staiger’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production (New York: Columbia University Press. 48–9. 4 The subtitle of Ed S. Church Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3 For apparatus theory. Lincoln’ in Movies and Methods. see his On the History of Film Style (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 11 For a slightly different formulation of the affectivity shaping the viewing condition of Hollywood films. Kristin Thompson.310 Paragraph NOTES 1 For Gilles Deleuze. ‘John Ford’s Young Mr. edited by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. among others. 1985). 5 Martin Jay. 10 David Bordwell has polemicized most sharply against what he sees as the fashionable argument around visuality and modernity. 49. 2 See Slavoj Žižek. edited by T. Tan’s Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum. 1989). 7–27. 6 Cultural Semantics. 493–529. see his Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. 1981). in Handbuch der Filmmontage: Praxis und Prinzipien des Filmschnitts. 9 Colin MacCabe. 7 The terms of definition are taken from David Bordwell. ‘Busby Berkeley’s Montageprinzipien’. 1998). translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 204–20. 1998). see The Cinematic Apparatus. Screen 15:2 (1974). A critique of illusionism is provided by. 1985). Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. 1993). 121–36. edited by Hans Beller (Munich: Fink. edited by J. A programmatic statement of the cognitivist approach is Post-Theory. edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St Martin’s Press. 1996). 1992). translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. . 269–71. see Thomas Elsaesser ‘Narrative Cinema and Audience-Oriented Aesthetics’ in Popular Television and Film. 1976). Cahiers du Cinema editors. 1997). 8 Christine Noll Brinckmann. Richard Allen. Tom Gunning has responded in ‘Early American Film’ in Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Cultural Semantics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1996). Bennett et al.

edited by Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotexte. The Coming Community. translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press. in Narrative. Film Quarterly 44:1 (1991). Jean-François Lyotard. Engaging Characters: Fiction. 1984). 2– 14 See Roger Kennedy. 1995). ‘Somatische Empathie bei Hitchcock: Eine Skizze’ in Der Körper im Bild: Schauspielen — Darstellen — Erscheinen. 72. 15 Michel Foucault. Inner Experience. Traumatic: The aesthetic of abjection and trauma in American art in the 1990s’. October 78 (Fall 1996). . ‘Symbolic Blockage (on North by Northwest)’. in The Analysis of Film. 3 May 1977. Women and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 13 See Georges Bataille. Genre. Signs Taken for Wonders (London: Verso. 19 Hal Foster. and Excess’. 1985). edited and translated by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Murphy (http://nml. 26 Raymond Bellour. ‘Obscene. 1990). ‘On Music’. 283. translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998). The Writing of the Disaster.Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung 311 12 See Georges Bataille. 1985). Carol Clover. Giorgio Agamben. 24 Steve Neale. The Philosophy of Horror. 1997). 106–24. Men. 20 Franco Moretti. 23 Torben Grodal. Maurice Blanchot. 27 Gilles Deleuze. 77–192. ‘Melodrama and Tears’. 1993). Boldt (Albany NY: State University of New York Press. Genre (London: BFI Publishing. translated by Timothy S. 1927–1939. 1995). ‘Film Bodies: Gender. Giorgio Agamben. 46. 2002). translated by Leslie A. Murray Smith. (Marburg: Schüren. 1961–84. Screen 27:6 (Nov–Dec 1986). Abject. translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Emotion and The Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press. Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres. Psychoanalysis. edited by Heinz B. 1999). Apparatus. Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge. 2002). The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum. 17–34. 17 Christine Noll Brinckmann. edited by Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1988). 111–20. 21 See Gilles Deleuze: Seminar session. 18 Linda Williams. 25 Steve Neale.cult. 1984). 1980). Visions of Excess: Selected Writings. ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures’. Ideology. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 16 Noel Carroll. 2004). History and Subjectivity: Now of the Past (New York: Routledge. or. 1983). Heller et al. 1993). ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’ in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews. Feelings and Cognition (Oxford: Clarendon Press. edited by Phil Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press. 6–22. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life. 22 David Bordwell.

edited by Inka Mulder-Bach (Vienna: Edition Parabasen. 16–28. Film Quarterly 55:3 (2002). 2001). 2004). Narrative. edited by Christine Rüffert et al. 37 Thomas Elsaesser. 2001). 106–7. Matters of Gravity (Durham: Duke University Press. B. ‘Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film’. for instance. Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (London: I. ‘Was wäre. Screen 42:2 (Summer 2001). 34 See Christian Keathley. 2003). edited by Anthony Enns and Christopher R. wenn du schon tot bist? Vom “postmodernen” zum “post-mortem” Kino’. 106./New York: St Martin’s Press. ‘War — Film — Trauma’ in Modernität und Trauma. 29 One of the fiercest critics is Jonathan Rosenbaum. 2000).312 Paragraph 28 See. 36 ‘Obscene’. 2000). 115–25. . ‘Trapped in the Affection-Image: Hollywood’s Posttraumatic Cycle’. in Screening Disability. 191–203. Smit (Lanham MD: University Press of America. in Zeitsprünge. and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 33 See Tony Kaes. 1996). ‘Obscene’. see his Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella. 31 Cathy Caruth. see David Bordwell. Geoff King. Tauris & Co. 32 See my ‘Trauma: Postmodernism as Mourning Work’. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma. 99–116. 35 Hal Foster. 121–30. Others regard the notion of the post-classical as misguided and superfluous. 30 See Scott Bukatman. (Berlin: Bertz.