"Disruptive Energies": Electrotherapy and Early Fiction Films in Europe and America, 1907-1911

By Oakley, Catherine | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, September 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

"Disruptive Energies": Electrotherapy and Early Fiction Films in Europe and America, 1907-1911


Oakley, Catherine, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


This article analyzes a selection of short silent fiction films released by European and American companies between 1907 and 1911 that feature the application of electricity to the body in a variety of contexts. It reads the visual trope of the electrified body in relation to institutional formations of physical ability and social utility implicit in contemporary medico-commercial electrotherapeutic treatments and the practices of scientific management. The argument is that these films depict electrified subjects characterized not by the passivity or incapacity of impairment, but by a vital excess energy that undermines symbolic authority and temporarily disrupts the social order. This cinema constitutes one form of early twentieth-century visual culture that registered, and resisted, the ableist logic underpinning capitalist growth. The commercial expansion of the cinema in both the US and the UK during this transitional period of early film-making made these alternative discursive formations of the human body newly visible to an emerging mass audience.

Introduction

Cinema has reflected and shaped perceptions of impairment and disability in highly visible ways throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and Lennard J. Davis has argued that, historically, it has played a centrally important role in the circulation of ableist cultural values (64-68). In fact, cinema's influence in both respects was experienced very early in the medium's history. For all its significance in this sphere, however, thus far early cinema has been explored very little in relation to histories of disability. This article seeks to address a gap currently existing between early cinema studies and disability studies, and calls for an increase in critical attention to be paid to early cinema's participation in constructing and contesting visual categories of bodily impairment. I analyze one sub-category of this; a number of unstudied short fiction films produced between 1907 and 1911 held at the National Film Archive in London and in the Motion Picture Collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. These films, featuring the electrification of bodies in a range of everyday settings, are considered in relation to the medicalization of fatigue and the systematization of labor across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The study of this material illustrates early cinema's capacity to burlesque and transform medical, commercial, and industrial designs for the human form in new ways.

Disability in Early Cinema: an Ableist Aesthetic?

Martin Norden's 1994 study The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies offers one of the broadest chronological overviews of disability in early cinema. The first two chapters are dedicated to the silent era, and Norden notes that filmmakers drew on disability as subject material almost immediately after the invention of film (14). Norden argues that a number of ableist tropes that were to define representations of disability on screen were established during this initial period, and he assesses a selection of films released between the years 1898 and 1905 in which disabled individuals were revealed to be able-bodied opportunists who had assumed an impairment for the purposes of financial gain (15-17). Elsewhere, he points out that this trope of disability-as-deception coexisted with other shorts that traded on the victimization of deaf and visually impaired subjects for comic effect (18-22), and that a wide range of films from the silent era associated the disabled body with dependency, asexuality, and criminality. Though I do not dispute Norden's claim that many portrayals of disability in early cinema are deeply problematic, I want to suggest here some of the ways in which a number of films from around the turn of the twentieth century participated more subtly in discursive formations of disability, and challenged their audiences to reconsider the prevalent equivalence of impairment and incapacity. …

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