Coming Attractions: Lamia and Cinematic Sensation

By Wang, Orrin N. C. | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Coming Attractions: Lamia and Cinematic Sensation

Wang, Orrin N. C., Studies in Romanticism

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination.... Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body.

Fredric Jameson, Signature of the Visible

IN THEIR MORDANTLY CLEVER 1991 STEAM PUNK NOVEL, THE DIFFERENCE Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depict an alternative Victorian reality marked by technology--steam computers--and historical events--an independent Manhattan island following the Civil War draft riots--which superimpose the what if of science fiction onto 1855 Great Britain and the world. The book also suggests a different relation between English romantic and Victorian culture in the guise of various romantic personages whose destinies take a skewed turn in this reality, most notably the elderly British prime-minister Lord Byron, infamous for his betrayal of the Radical turned Revolutionary movement, and his daughter Ada, mathematical genius and computer hacker, or "clacker." Appearing for several pages is also John Keats, a "little fellow with clever blue eyes" and "long graying hair" who has quit "versifying" and entered the profession of "kinotropy," entertaining London through shows based on a steam-powered technology of moving images. (1) As small and fanciful as it is, the Keats cameo is also a provocative one, for two reasons. First, Keats's appearance wittily resonates with one of the key ideas motivating film history today, the connection between early and pre-cinema. Second, Gibson and Sterling quite rightly make this point through the person of John Keats, the British romantic poet whose 1819 poem, Lamia, allegorizes the conflicted social and epistemological principles of visuality implicit in pre- and early cinema as historic institutions of modernity.

Keats and his poem occupy this position because of the overlapping meanings in studies of pre-cinema and the poet (and, indeed, romanticism) of the term sensation. As is well known, Tom Gunning and others have argued for a new understanding of cinematic history, in which demonstrations of early film are in continuity with other nineteenth-century American, British, and European forms of mass entertainment and public recreation, the spectacle of carnivals, circuses, exhibitions, peep shows, and urban amusements that have come to characterize the advent of capitalist modernity. Early cinema is thus an extension of pre-cinema, rather than a separate social and artistic formation; in Gunning's famous phrase, the display and viewing of early film constitute a "cinema of attractions" whose power lies more in technological wonderment over this new medium of the visual than in any glimpse of the future movie-going pleasures of narration and character identification associated with classical cinema. (2) Like other forms of pre-cinema entertainment, the cinema of attractions is more properly an appeal to the senses; film is a form of sensation, that, as a part of the mass entertainment of the nineteenth-century public, is sensational, and sensationalized.

Traditional literary criticism, in an aesthetic manner that at first seems quite different from the socio-historic value of pre-cinema studies, has long associated Keats with a poetics of the senses--of sensation as the sensual. (3) If romanticism has long been characterized by the division between the material and the ideal, and if that distinction seems in a romantic work to be tipped in favor of material and phenomenal experience, a discussion of Keats is oftentimes close at hand. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Keats is the best argument for an aesthetics of sensation, both thematic and expressive, in English literature. But, of course, that very same characterization has long been used to dismiss Keats, and romantic poetry, as bad literature--or as something besides literature altogether. …

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