Sunday, 6 February 2011

"An incarnation of the modern": In Memory of Miriam Bratu Hansen, 1949-2011

Last updated: May 13, 2012
The cover of Miriam Hansen's last book. Published posthumously. [Image added on May 13, 2012]
Hollywood cinema was perceived, not just in the United States but in modernizing capitals all over the world, as an incarnation of the modern. [...]
American movies of the classical period offered something like the first global vernacular. If this vernacular had a transnational and translatable resonance it was not just because of its optimal mobilization of biologically hard-wired structures and universal narrative templates, but because this vernacular played a key role in mediating competing cultural discourses on modernity and modernization; because it articulated, brought into optical consciousness (to vary Benjamin), and disseminated a particular historical experience. [Miriam Hansen, “Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Vernacular Modernism,” Film Quarterly 54.1 (Fall 2000): 10-22, 30]
[Miriam] Hansen’s argument [about “vernacular modernisms”] is that early “classical” or studio cinemas are inextricably intertwined with the experience of modernization and modernity. While this argument, as she claims, is in and of itself not incredibly radical, her argument provides significant [additions to] three areas of film scholarship: it enlarges the discussion of modernism to [include] other media affected by the process of modernization, it intervenes in the binary between psychoanalytic and cognitive approaches to classical Hollywood cinema, and it [...] speaks to the question of Hollywood cinema’s early global hegemony during the 1920s-40s. In this last discussion, Hansen speaks of Hollywood’s flexibility in appropriating an amalgamation of diverse domestic interests in its inauguration of mass audience. [Kirsten Strayer, Ruins and Riots: Transnational Currents in Mexican Cinema, PhD Thesis, University of Pittsburgh 2009, p. 49]
Miriam Hansen differentiates between the use of the terms “audience” and “spectator” not just as a theoretical or methodological distinction operative within viewer-oriented studies (as do Kuhn, Mayne, Staiger and others who posit the former as a “real” social collective and the latter as a hypothetical or ideal construct of the text); instead, Hansen argues that the emergence of the “spectator” (and concomitant suppression of the “audience” as such) is historically specific, marking a paradigm shift between early and later cinema (around 1909). [Melanie Nash, 'Introduction', Cinémas : revue d'études cinématographiques / Cinémas: Journal of Film Studies, vol. 14, n° 1, 2003, p. 7-19; citing Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1991 (pp. 23-24), p. 18]
The unprecedented acceleration of technological innovation and circulation have created conditions in which consciousness is more than ever inadequate to the state of technological development, its power to destroy and enslave human bodies, hearts, and minds. At the same time, new media such as video and the digital media have expanded the formal and material arsenal for imaginative practices and have opened up new modes of publicness that already enact a different, and potentially alternative, engagement with technology.
    This antinomic situation eludes the perspective of strictly media theory, especially in its ontological and teleological bent (for example, Paul Virilio, Friedrich Kittler, Norbert Bolz), to say nothing of popular pundits' techno-pessimism. It requires understanding the practices, both productive and receptive, of technology in increasingly overlapping yet fractured, unequal yet unpredictable public spheres. It urges us to resume Benjamin's concern for the conditions of apperception, sensorial affect, and cognition, experience and memory—in short, for a political ecology of the senses.
    For us—teachers, scholars, intellectuals—to engage on both sides of this antinomy, we need theory, and we need aesthetics. The current reinvention of the aesthetic in the humanities would do well to heed Benjamin's lesson. The question of the fate of art in the age of technological reproducibility still maps a heuristic—and historical—horizon that no serious effort to refocus the study of literature and other traditional arts can afford to ignore. At the very least, awareness of that horizon should guard the renewed attention to formal and stylistic questions against illusory attempts to revive artistic autonomy, as an enclave protected against technical mediation and commodification. [Miriam Hansen, 'Why Media Aesthetics', Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2004-5]
When Film Studies For Free posted the above embedded video a week ago, in an entry on online film studies lectures at the University of Chicago, it couldn't have imagined the almost immediate and extremely sad circumstances in which it would be reposted. But word has come, via Tom Gunning and other film scholars, that Miriam Hansen, one of the true paradigm-shifters of our discipline, one of its most gifted historians and theorists, has passed away.

Miriam Hansen was Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she also taught in the Department of English and the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies. Her publications include a book on Ezra Pound’s early poetics (1979) and Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991). She was completing a study entitled The Other Frankfurt School: Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno on Cinema, Mass Culture, and Modernity. Her next project was to be a book on the notion of cinema as vernacular modernism.

Inspired by her lifelong study of the Frankfurt School, Hansen's work rethought cinema as a part of the public and counterpublic spheres, situating it within a larger discourse of popular culture, and thus opening up the essential study of such 'periphery texts' as fan magazines, gossip columns, movie reviews, and so on. But her development of the concept of vernacular modernism also completely set the scene for the field of world or transnational cinema studies; and her historical work on cinematic spectatorship and her highly original addressing of the sensual experiences of film and new media are likewise in the process of revolutionizing their field of study (as W.J. T. Mitchell argues in relation to 'Miriam Hansen’s urging that cinema and other media be regarded as a vernacular modernism in which new theoretical propositions might be articulated while the senses are being reeducated').

It is hard to think, then, of anyone who has made a more significant contribution to Film Studies (and, latterly, new media studies), in the context of the Humanities as a whole, than she did.

Film Studies For Free hopes that Hansen knew just how grateful we are for her research -- how changed we are by it -- as well as for her inspiring work as a teacher. Here is a link to a warm and touching tribute by one of Hansen's former students.

Links to some of Hansen's work, as well as to some of the work it inspired, are given below. Further links, including ones to online tributes to her, will be added here as they come to FSFF's notice.

Online Tributes to Miriam Hansen:

Work by Miriam Hansen online:
Other Scholars on aspects of Hansen's work:

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