NCCR Mediality

Die Nationalen Forschungsschwerpunkte (NFS) sind ein Förderungsmittel des Schweizerischen Nationalfonds.
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X.6. The Nervousness of Film (1895–1918): On the Dynamics of a Medial Peculiarity

During the period of its cultural emergence, cinema was repeatedly considered as a medium reflecting and giving expression to modernity’s “nervous age” (Krafft-Ebbing 1885). With its moving and rapidly changing images but also with its ‘malfunctions’ such as the flicker, it seemed to correspond structurally to cultural tendencies towards stimulus, dynamization, fragmentation, and agitated perception. Furthermore, films depicted dynamic phenomena of modern life, “the vibrant atmosphere of our days, modern man’s nervous, rapid, abbreviatory mode of existence” (Bauemler 1912). “Tottering from one fleeting impression to another” (Kienzl 1911), film reception resembled “the intensification of nervous stimulation” brought about by the conditions of life in the modern metropolis (Simmel 1903). Such conceptions of the new medium modelled upon the conceptual framework of nervousness seized on a number of cultural discourses from the nineteenth century: on psychiatric concepts of ‘neurasthenia’ and theories of perception. After 1880, these concepts inscribed themselves progressively into cultural, aesthetic, and literary debates. A corresponding sensibility also emerged within the stylistics and themes of a number of films from the early “cinema of attraction” (Gunning 1986) exhibiting phenomena that were central for the stimulation and “attraction of the nerves” (Radkau 1998). About a decade later, films like Reinerts’s NERVEN (D 1918/19) contributed in an even more complex way to the contemporary discourses on nervousness.
Relating to previous studies of these scientific, cultural, and aesthetic discourses, the project examines discourses on early cinema (over the period from 1895 to 1918/19) as a medium “of nervousness“. By analysing historical sources – films as well as theories – primarily from the German-speaking world, it describes the dynamics of film’s relation to nervousness as oscillating between phases of peculiarity and usualness, or visibility and fading. The aim is thus to reconstruct – from the wide range of historical comments on cinema – a number of contemporary positions enabling and facilitating the perception of film as a ‘nervous’ medium. Film’s nervousness only became conceivable and discernable against the background of a certain historical sensibility – a sensibility which was on the one hand discursive, on the other also shaped by the sense of a profound difference between cinematic and traditional modes of perception. With the normalization of cinematic perception, this differential awareness progressively decreased. Due to this development and the decline of discourses on nervousness after WWI, film’s former ostensive ‘nervous’ quality then implodes with regard to the historical material. Today, this aspect remains hardly discernible and can only be reconstructed through the analysis of the historical discourses. While this latency poses an analytical challenge, it leads right into the centre of questions on the historical dynamics of medial peculiarities.