Academic journal article New Formations

Contingency's Work: Kracauer's Theory of Film and the Trope of the Accidental

Academic journal article New Formations

Contingency's Work: Kracauer's Theory of Film and the Trope of the Accidental

Article excerpt

Accidents were the very soul of slapstick.

Siegfried Kracauer1

During the coming century, we must expect the accident!

Paul Virilio2

The idea of contingency is arguably the most significant concept in Kracauer's Theory of Film. Rarely cited in the text itself, it rather defines the paradigm within which Kracauer's critical concepts reside, those of indeterminacy, the fortuitous, the endless and the accidental. Contingency gathers to assembly a range of related yet distinct ideas. Indeterminacy signals a lack of causality and an end to the doctrine of teleology. The fortuitous and the accidental cast doubt on intentionality and individual agency. And endlessness casts a look in one direction towards Nietzsche and eternal recurrence, and in the other, toward an excess or residue outside of the frame (of thought or the image). These are Kracauer's preferred terms, not for the description of contingency in film, but rather, for the necessary coming into being of film through modes of contingency. Film we are given to believe, cannot be thought without recourse to this particular term and the constellation of features that it puts into play, 'a flow of chance events, scattered objects, and nameless shapes', creating 'a fringe of indeterminate visible meanings'.3 In the final version of Theory of Film, the generic containment of contingency, for example in the mode of slapstick, is minimised; contingency is fundamental to the 'nature' of film itself, to the camera's capacity to render the world strange and the contingent relations of the perceiving subject and the moving image.

Whilst Kracauer's project remains tightly focused on the elaboration of medium specificity, the contingent appears in other corners of modernist philosophy, and is employed to bind the various components of a modernist sensibility. For some commentators, contingency is a defining feature of modernity, a hinge between the standardisation of an increasingly mechanised life and an excessive energy or force that defies rational forms of control. In other accounts, it is a term that eloquently ties the personal and the historical. Contingency, it is argued, is the seat of irony, paradox and Utopian hope, connecting the inevitable course of European history in the first half of the twentieth century with a lived search for contingent escape routes, trap doors that drop the individual from the final historical act. In these weavings, the contingent is rendered an eloquent compression of modernism. Yet there is a danger in allowing the contingent to act so comprehensively as a trope for this epoch, that whilst the term resonates across different socio-cultural, political and economic domains, such an application loses the particularity of the contingent as an affectual experience most apparent in the corporal-image relation. Further more, the critical centrality of a modernist contingency detracts from an understanding of the term as historically evolving. Since the second World War, contingency has ceased to be the radical force that subverts the rational effects of the system. It mutates in the contemporary moment to re-appear on the 'inside', within the reckoning of capitalist strategy itself, endemic to risk. In the sphere of image-production, contingency is inside of the digital image itself, posing questions of medium ontology that re-write Kracauer's thesis on the photographic foundation of film. The remit of this paper is, by way of Kracauer's Theory of Film, to examine contingency as a historical category, and a conceptual term that prises open the bodily encounter with the image as it undergoes transformation.

In the writings of Kracauer, an understanding of the relation between photography and film is critical to the particular bodily inflection that, in his thesis, extends the practice of viewing beyond the ocular. In the camera's arbitrary framing, the material world is fragmented and rendered strange, enabling the eye to see that which eludes habitual perception. …

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