Huxley's Feelies: The Cinema of Sensation in Brave New World

Article excerpt

"I have just been, for the first time, to see and hear a picture talk," Aldous Huxley writes in a 1929 essay called "Silence Is Golden" (Essays 2: 19). "A little late in the day," he imagines his "up-to-date" reader remarking "with a patronizing and contemptuous smile." After all, the film that introduces Huxley to the world of sound cinema, The Jazz Singer, had been released two years earlier. The "gigantically enlarged" (21) images on the screen spouting noise send Huxley into paroxysms of scorn and fury; he is especially horrified by the scene in which Al Jolson sings "Mammy" in blackface:

  My flesh crept as the loud-speaker poured out those sodden words, that
  greasy, sagging melody. I felt ashamed of myself for listening to such
  things, for even being a member of the species to which such things
  are addressed. (23)

While only half feigning his reactionary pose, Huxley condemns the talkies as "the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement" (20).

Huxley's violent response to The Jazz Singer is a window onto a key moment in the history of cinema, when articles such as "Silence Is Golden," "Why 'Talkies' Are Unsound" (Betts), "Ordeal by 'Talkie'" (Betts), and "The Movies Commit Suicide" (Seldes) contended with equally impassioned defenses of sound film. (1) The crisis occasioned by the coming of sound now appears as an overblown objection to a transition that in hindsight seems inevitable. But just as the cinema itself was often perceived as revolutionary--George Bernard Shaw remarked in 1914 that "The cinema is going to form the mind of England.... The cinema is a much more momentous invention than the printing press" (9) (2)--the coming of sound was greeted by many as a watershed moment. Beyond the changes in the industry (the retirement of actors who had unpleasant voices, for example), the talkies raised more philosophical questions about the social, moral, and even physical effects of moving and talking images.

Cinema history would not be accurately represented by a chronicle of technical development from, say, Muybridge to the present. Such a history would miss a crucial component of the story of cinema: spectatorship. Accounts from the period such as Huxley's and Iris Barry's Let's Go to the Pictures emphasize not just what happens on the screen but how the audience responds. Those responses are strikingly different from how we now think of cinema spectatorship, and this is particularly true of the reception of the talkies. Recently critics such as Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Jonathan Crary, and Ben Singer, following the early lead of Walter Benjamin (3) and Siegfried Kracauer, have moved away from the psychoanalytic approach that dominated film criticism in the 1980s to a more historical and sociological model that addresses how visual modernity in general and cinema spectatorship in particular are bodily, visceral experiences. Cinema is not merely a screen for psychic identifications but is experienced by an embodied, somatically affected spectator. While the story of Lumiere's train sending confused audiences screaming from the screen in 1895 has been debunked, (4) writing from the time of "Silence Is Golden" demonstrates Kracauer's assertion that film was thought of as influencing "the spectator's senses, engaging him physiologically before he is in a position to respond intellectually" (Theory 158). Gunning's description of the earliest filmmaking as a "cinema of attractions" (121) striving more for spectacle than telling a story and Singer's examination of early "blood and thunder" melodramas, among other work, suggest that modern technologies of vision were experienced as mobilizing the body and actively producing what Hansen calls "a new sensorium" (70). Different stages of cinematic development produced different modes of spectatorship and perception, and this was especially true of the transition to sound. …