Elsaesser, Thomas. “Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung: Cinema Experience with Benjamin.” Paragraph, Passage-work: Walter Benjamin between the Disciplines, Paragraph vol. 32, no. 3 (2009): 292–312.

Between Erlebnis and Erfahrung: Cinema Experience with Benjamin

Thomas Elsaesser

from Paragraph 32, no. 3


The 'turn' to emotion and affect in film and media studies may take its distance from earlier ways of understanding spectatorial involvement (modelled on psychoanalytic notions of identification). But such approaches, whether cognitivist in intent, or inspired by phenomenology, also return to an earlier interest in bodily sensations and somatic responses when exposed to sudden motion and moving images (associated with ideas such as innervation, shock and over-stimulation). The essay proposes to bring Walter Benjamin into the debate, with a term central to his idea of modernity, namely 'experience', and to revive his distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis. Noting certain features of excess and liminiality in contemporary cinema, and mapping them across the three distinct domains of body, time and agency, Benjamin's own attempt to locate the emotional core of the technical media is reappraised. Grounded in the peculiar variability but also interdependence of place, narration and perception, the cinema would then appear to provide Erlebnis without Erfahrung, a state formerly associated with trauma, but now the very definition of the media event.

The paradigm shift

This essay takes as its framework the turn to emotions in film studies, a distinct move in the field that implies a turn away from other of looking at the cinema. Thus, the new focus on emotion clearly takes its distance from psychoanalytic film theory, notably from emphasis on the specular drives, on desire and lack. Impatience with the psycho-semiotic approach to spectatorship, however, is itself emotion, probably shared by groups of film scholars - cognitivists, culturalists and Deleuzians - who otherwise do not have much in common, and rarely, if ever, seek to engage in a debate with each other.1 The temptation to initiate a debate between these camps, or at least try and find some common denominators is great.2 Resisting it, I shall instead sketch a different context, which allows me to re-introduce Walter Benjamin into the debate, and with him a term possibly even more contested than that of emotion: 'experience'. My recourse to Benjamin and experience wants to keep an opening for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, without foreclosing either Deleuze or cognitivism.

One specific entry-point can be simply stated: whereas semiotics generally regarded film as a discourse or a narrative, the turn to emotion presupposes film to be above all an event. And while so-called apparatus theory took the cinema to task for pretending to be a window on the world (and not acknowledging its mirroring effects), the presumption now is that the cinema involves neither miscognition nor illusion, but is best understood as a perceptual act like any other, heightened perhaps by its immediacy and immersiveness.3 Insofar as a film engages with the world, it does so in the form of embodied knowledge, of percepts and affects, and insofar as it assigns a role to its spectators, it does so by casting them not as voyeurs or across the imaginary identification of the split subject, but as witnesses or participants. Instead of the Cartesian mind-body split and the Lacanian identity-machine, we now have the cinema as 'emotion machine'.4 Central to this configuration, and a ground that both the old and the new paradigm can indeed share, is the notion of experience, which to me is preliminary to any discussion of emotion in the cinema. But what sort of experience? The term, in German at last, gives rise to a rich and confusing palette of meanings: Erfahrung (between travelling [fahren] and standing still), Erlebnis (between living [leben] and death), Empfindung (between finding [finden] and loss), Gefühl (between feeling [fühlen] and touch). What is cinema if not a configuration of the semantic fields thus circumscribed? The very diversity leads me to limit the possible concepts of experience I am concerned with here to three domains: embodiment - experience as immediate sensory presence and corporeal plenitude; time - experience as retrospectively constructed, temporally or discursively mediated self-possession and self-appropriation; and agency - experience as the exposure to limits, and the recovery from extremes. By making experience a key term, I intend furthermore to highlight the role of the cinema in modernity, and in particular, in two moments or crises of 'modernization'.

It is one particular semantic field-experience as a retrospectively constructed, temporally mediated self-possession and self-appropriation - that resonates with Benjamin's concerns, and especially his well-known discussion of the conditions of experience under capitalist modernity, as elaborated in the essay, 'Some Motifs in Baudelaire'. In line with many German late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists, Benjamin makes a distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, the first associated with moments of sensation and the second with a more sustained texture of experience. As Martin Jay points out, 'The immediate, passive, fragmented, isolated, and unintegrated inner experience of Erlebnis was, Benjamin argued, very different from the cumulative, totalizing accretion of transmittable wisdom, of epic truth, which was Erfahrung.'5 Evidently, in Benjamin's dual scheme, Erfahrung was something no longer available to the individual in the modern world. As Jay puts it, 'The continuum of Erfahrung had already been broken by the unassimilable shocks of urban life, and the replacement of artisanal production by the dull, non-cumulative repetition of the assembly line. Meaningful narrative had been supplanted by haphazard information and raw sensation in the mass media.'6 Yet Benjamin's tragic sense of life, along with his dialectical cast of mind, ensured that the fractured, reactive, transient experiential state of Erlebnis was not viewed nostalgically, from the perspective of some past, fully realized plenitude or 'ethos'. The impoverishment or atrophy of Erfahrung he diagnosed as constitutive for modernity was itself typical of experience per se, so that the 'loss of experience' in the modern world was in actual fact the always already present 'experience of loss' in human existence.

How can Benjamin's distinction be made productive for our view of the cinema, how might it help us understand what is at stake in the paradigm shift alluded to above? An answer might be given through another distinction: the one between classical cinema and modern cinema (in Deleuze 's sense of the word), and between classical and post-classical cinema (in Anglo-American parlance). It is remarkable, for instance, how closely current definitions of classical cinema correspond to Benjamin's notion of Erfahrung: typified by narrative integration and temporal development, whether conceived in a linear fashion, as a life story, a journey (as indicated, the German word Erfahrung has as its root the verb 'fahren', to travel) or whether retrospectively reconstituted as a form of learning, in its character-centred cohesion and biographical closure. Even the structuralist account of 'imaginary resolution of real contradictions' (Lévi-Strauss) or the pragmatic-cognitivist one of 'problem solving' and of 'functional equivalence' point in the same direction.7 Furthermore, the affective structure of classical cinema - as with Erfahrung - is that of a healing, a therapy, a cathartic progress from hamartia (ignorance) and miscognition, to anagnorisis (recognition) and the narrational play of different gradients of knowledge towards their eventual convergence. Classical cinema operates in an integrative fashion, and the function of narrative is to facilitate this process of turning discontinuous Erlebnis into transmissible Erfahrung. Hence Benjamins own emphasis on montage as cinema's specific contribution to modernity.

However, if we take Benjamin's arguments seriously, then under conditions of modernity, only the experiential modality of Erlebnis is possible, not that of Erfahrung. And insofar as the cinema is unthinkable outside the sensory and affective conditions of modernity as specified by Benjamin's theory of perceptual shock and the optical unconscious, then a cinema of Erfahrung, such as the classical, would indeed be an ideological construct, a nostalgic or reactionary shoring up of the fractured nature of modern experience. In other words, 'pathos' rather than 'ethos' defines the affective regime of modernity, if we consider Benjamin's Erfahrung to be retrospectively constructed and integrated, while Erlebnis is self-presence without self-possession, and 'pathos' the affect appropriate to Erlebnis: singular, intermittent, discontinuous, transitory. Such a view gives added significance to those moments (or sub-genres) in the classical period that are typified by excess, dissonance and deviations from the norm. Christine Noll Brinckmann, among others, has written eloquently about the deviant modes of the classical, notably in the musical (Busby Berkeley's Lullaby of Broadway, from Golddiggers of '35).8 Here, the norm-deviancy model will be replaced by the Erfahrung/Erlebnis model and extended to the debate around melodrama.

Melodrama came to prominence in film studies when this previously despised genre began to be theorized within the psychoanalytic paradigm of desire and lack, absence and presence, of gender asymmetry and deferred closure. But if one were to take account of the changed paradigm, and look at cinema as event and experience, it would make of melodrama, belonging to the disruptive genres of excess just highlighted, one of the genuinely modern(ist) types of experience, at the limit of Erfahrung. Its 'deviations' from the classical would become the very index of its more historically appropriate form of 'authenticity'. Or put the other way round: if the cinema - insofar as it is part of modernity and insofar as we regard it as an authentic 'experience' - has, as indicated, to be defined as Erlebnis, and not as Erfahrung, then (the theoretical interest in) melodrama is symptomatic of the recognition that cinematic experience is by necessity disruptive, fractured. Melodrama becomes, as it were, the hidden 'truth' of the classical by highlighting just how far any kind of classical cinema must be a retrospective revision of Erlebnis into Erfahrung. Always bearing in mind that the historical grounds for such a retrospective revision in the American cinema may be more complex than simply ideological obfuscation or nostalgic (self-) deception, this double face of melodrama may well have been one reason why it became crucial in the debates of the 1970s, at the same time as Hollywood cinema's illusion of coherence was deconstructed from positions more radical than Benjamin's distinctions between the two kinds of experience.9

Experience of limits, limits of experience

However, the attempt to resituate classical cinema (and to indicate a possible basis on which to distinguish within its deviant genres, while also identifying a line from classical to post-classical cinema) is not the only reason for invoking once more Benjamin's idea that cinema is Erlebnis, rather than Erfahrung.

By underlining the distinction I also intend to specify in what way I sense myself at odds with the cognitivists on a procedural point, when they use the cinema to define experience normatively. For cognitivists, the skills involved in the processes of perception, sensation, affect and feeling when in the cinema are not merely identical with those deployed in ordinary life-situations. They are evolutionary adaptations, and thus to all intents and purposes hard-wired, so that it makes little sense to speak of a 'modernist' visuality. Nor, accordingly, should we attempt to periodize particular somatic states or changes in the human nervous system, in the hope of correlating the cinema experience with a historical episteme or with social processes and technical innovations, such as - to name a few of the usual suspects - urbanization, the railways, electrification or any of the other cultures of modernity.10

Yet there is certainly something symptomatic (and thus variable and context-dependent) about the cinema. When thinking about film viewing as a mode of experience, both the conditions of spectatorship and the affectivity these conditions generate are part of a historically specific (visual-sensory) culture, subject to change and analysable from an aesthetic as well as anthropological perspective. In particular, the constellation of event, spectatorship and experience suggests issues of cultural memory, and this in turn raises questions about the function of cinema as a prime means of rhetorically organizing, technically storing and culturally transmitting such a memory.

Going to the cinema, however common an event it has become in the last hundred years, is still pursued as an experience which viewers expect to be exceptional, rather than normative. Why we go to the cinema, what we go to the cinema for, and what, time and again, takes us back to the movies is the anticipation of an extreme experience, of a limit experience. It is something larger than life, something out of the ordinary, which may include minimalist states or experiences at the edges of everyday perception and sensation. It involves registers where cinema tests - and contests - the conjunction of affect and agency, so crucial to both phenomenological and cognitivist accounts of emotions, but also central to the (classically defined) aesthetic act, viewed under the double injunction of (passive) receptivity and heightened (active) awareness.11

In order to illustrate this dimension of cinema, it may be useful to introduce my third definition of experience: experience as the exposure to limits, and the recovery from extremes. Avant-garde art in the 20th century is replete with experiments and explorations of limits' and 'extremes', most strikingly after the traumata and horrors of the First World War. But philosophy and critical theory have also had much to say about limits: from Nietzsche's anti-Kantian aesthetics of the Dionysian to Georges Batailles idea of 'expense', and from Maurice Blanchot to Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.12 In this sense, exposure to and recovery from limits is as fundamental to modernity as is the cinema itself. The conjunction suggests a focus on three aspect of experience, already alluded to: 'embodiment', 'time' and 'agency' as those modalities of experience that can be associated with experience as a limit, and its negative correlative, the limits of experience.

Limit experiences are above all limits in our sense of body and embodiment, agency and helplessness, time and its apparent irreversibility. The self-shattering type of experience, as imagined, for instance, by Bataille, exceeds the bounds of both chronos (the linear flow of time) and kairos (the decisive moment, the epiphany). Bataille had a lifelong preoccupation with the intensity of the instant, which he played off against the opacity of duration. His notion of 'inner experience' was fundamentally negative, and in particular, it was 'the opposite of action. Nothing more. "Action" is utterly dependent on project'; and project, according to Bataille, would 'situate true existence in a future state, thus undermining the moment of presence, albeit not a plenitudinal presence, that is essential to inner experience'.13 It is not easy to specify what Bataille meant by 'inner experience' which for him was intense, discontinuous, punctual. While for Ernst Jünger, battle as inner Erlebnis became the new (post-bourgeois) foundation of self, unmediated and authentic, for Bataille, there was no inner experience other than negative, dissociated.

One might say (paraphrasing Marx) that the experience of limits is something that happens to human beings 'behind their backs', and while it may not be 'against their will', it challenges notions of bodily integrity, of agency, as well as of temporality, by keeping the self in a permanent present, which is also a state of tension and suspension. This permanent present, long recognized as the very condition of time in the cinema, has been interpreted both positively and negatively, and occasionally it has even been seen as a positive negativity, while cultural pessimists tend to see such 'now-ness' as the very curse that afflicts our societies of the spectacle.14

Even mainstream cinema, when seeking out the limits of experience, has, whether by default or design, come up against the experience of limits, if not exactly as envisaged by Bataille or Blanchot. However, while the references are different from those either of the post-First World War avant-gardes' experience of limits, or of the post-Second World War reflections on the limits of experience (as in Foucault, Lyotard or Agamben),15 the experiential parameters are remarkably similar. The second half of this essay will therefore specify further these three kinds of 'limits' that are the conditions of possibility of the cinematic experience as Erlebnis always at the edge of Erfahrung: the body as limit, time as limit, and agency as limit.

The body as limit

In recent years, there has been an extensive focus on the body, gendered and sexualized, ethnically marked or set up as norm, fetishized or deviant, in Hollywood cinema. While this debate has been predominantly concerned with issues of representation, the notion of the body as experiential limit has occasionally been raised, most notably perhaps in discussions of the horror film. There, theorists as different as Carol Clover, Murray Smith and Noel Carroll have been careful to make distinctions between psychic, somatic, physiological, and affective states, all involving the body as total perceptual surface, rather than merely metonymically represented through the eye and the look, or metaphorically as the (over-determined) bearer of coded cultural and gendered signs.16

One important essay is Noll Brinckmann's exploration of the somatic responses and bodily reactions that images or sound-image combinations can generate in classical cinema. In her paper 'Somatic Empathy', the examples are mostly drawn from the thrillers of Hitchcock, focusing on the affective, 'motor mimicry' that they elicit from the spectator.17

Among the studies that Brinckmann cites is Linda Williams's very well-known essay 'Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess' from 1991.18 There, Williams probes the interface between the psychic (fantasies), the physiological (somatic, involuntary manifestations) and the affective (emotional states and the range of feelings) of the spectator's body, when watching certain types of movies. She pays particular attention to what she calls the body-genres: melodrama, horror-films and pornography. Williams's thesis has been so influential not least because she identifies three genres in which bodily integrity is in some sense the limit, and where the codes of representation are fractured, even if only momentarily, by somatic responses that are transmitted to the spectator, opening up a kind of circuit of contagion beyond empathy and close to bodily mimesis. Although apparently similar, Williams' findings stand to some extent in contrast to Brinckmann's investigation, which focuses more on the contradictory, negative play of somatic empathy, how it works against the flow of the spectator's sympathy, such as the involuntary salivation that sometimes occurs when watching someone cut a lemon.

Brinckmann's perspective, even on Hitchcock, is informed by the practice of the avant-garde in film and the visual arts. Extending her focus, one could draw on quite a range of artworks, including the films of Valie Export from the 1970s, or the subsequent generation of body artists using film and video, in order to test the spectator's somatic stamina. Such body-based performance art has emerged with special force since the 1970s - coinciding with the rise of video and the women's movement. Apart from the Vienna Actionists (to whom Valie Export belonged), one could name Carolee Schneeman, Vito Acconci, Paul McCarthy, Shigeko Kubota, Marina Abramovic and Orlan. These artists foreground a body often in pain, or seemingly beyond pain, as it submits to repetitive, mechanical intervention or makes itself vulnerable to technological, often medical, invasion. The always implied limit here is death, and as Hal Foster has polemically argued, this art 'oscillates between the obscene vitality of the wound, and the radical nihility of the corpse'.19 We will come back to this distinction, having sketched the second parameter.

Time as limit

One source that Williams quotes is Franco Moretti on the question of why we cry in the face of works of art and literature. Moretti's thesis is that several conditions need to be met before there are tears: one, a situation of powerlessness to intervene, which for Moretti is tied to a perceived asymmetry between the wrong that has been done, and the punishment it receives. Tears result from one's helplessness, as a result of excessive justice, which is to say, injustice; second, a sudden, but carefully prepared switch of narrational perspective and point of view is required, leading to a shift in the regimes of knowledge among the characters and between the characters and the spectator. Finally, there needs to be a moment of recognition (or anagnorisis), but a recognition that comes too late (to prevent death): the rhetoric of 'too late', as he calls it.20 It is an experiential category that might be aligned with the predicament of arriving or knowing too late that delimits the Erfahrung of self in Benjamin's Berlin Childhood (GS VII, 395-6; SW III, 354).

Moretti's hypothesis, which has helped to explain, in film studies, the affective-somatic effects of melodrama's uneven distribution of knowledge, or moments of belated anagnorisis, emphatically relates tears in fiction not to description or depiction, but to story-construction, and in particular, to narration, focalization and point of view. In addition, the ability of melodrama to arouse time-based emotions such as melancholy, regret, nostalgia and a sense of loss - the typical 'pathos' of melodrama - refers us back to the original meaning of pathos already quoted, namely of a feeling that pertains to the fleeting, the transient, the ephemeral in life, in contrast to the permanent and ideal (ethos), which originally referred to the universal.

Williams, in her essay, extends Moretti's 'rhetoric of the too late' to posit several orders of temporality, assigning not only to each of her genres one particular bodily fluid (sweat, tears and semen), but also one particular time-frame: too soon for horror, too late for melodrama, and the 'now' of pornography. This is both witty and ingenious, and these time-frames help to modify the idea of a directly mimetic response that could otherwise be read out of her body-genres, with their specific physiological, involuntary responses. Asking for more work to be done on the historical context, the social parameters and the generic origins, Williams might, however, also have argued that more work should be done on these temporalities, or rather, on the aspect of their failure, in relation to the affect they are supposed to produce.

Were one to think her ideas about time frames and temporality further, one could answer Williams' question about the historical context of these genres with her own argument. When she correlates these time frames with the fantasies underpinning the three genres she discusses (the fantasy of union with the mother in melodrama, the primal scene and the threat of castration and sexual difference in the horror film, and the primary fantasy of parental seduction in pornography), she already holds the key to at least one aspect of their temporality. For as we know, the very nature of fantasies is that they are experiences of failure, which is why they have to be repeated, endlessly; and thus their temporality of repetition joins those secondary elaborations, which at least in melodrama and the horror-film, are characterized by bad timing, missed opportunities or excessively close encounters. All of these, it is true, have to do with a belatedness in the characters' responses to a given situation, but also with an alternative turn, or a course of action that was not taken. Melodrama, for instance, is as much a genre of the 'if-only', of the temporality of regret, as it is of the 'too late'. This contrasts, one might say, with the 'happy' genres of perfect timing, notably comedy and the musical.

The genre that is missing, however, and which under the aspect of its time frame, becomes even more suggestive after reading Williams, is film noir. Admittedly, one would be hard-put to assign to it a similarly clear-cut somatic response or physiological attribute ('cold perspiration', perhaps: sweat having already been assigned to horror), but that is also because the bodily state it suggests, and the temporality it is caught up in, are so extreme, and involve such limit-situations that recovery is almost inconceivable. To put it very briefly, the temporality of film noir is that of empty time, at least by our conventional standards, beyond both chronos (linear time) and kairos (closure, anagnorisis). Perhaps it could be the temporality that the Greeks called aion, and that, according to Deleuze, is the non-pulsed time of a floating, non-directional universe, the simultaneous presence of past and future as pure extension, but also as pure repetition.21

In film studies, film noir is often associated with the temporality that Freud called Nachträglichkeit, deferred action or après coup: it, too, is too late, like melodrama, but whereas melodrama is infused by desire, and thus knows regret, the temporality of film noir is one beyond desire. The disaster, the catastrophe, has already happened, it is definitely too late (for action), but it is also too soon (for closure). In other words, while classical cinema potentially deals with all these temporalities, for film noir the same temporalities constitute an impossible temporal horizon, where there can be no single time frame: in the time of the limit experience it is invariably too soon/too late, it is invariably now and always. Thus, the non-mimetic, and yet somatic side of cinematic experience at the limits is found especially in film noir - a genre long recognized at the margin of classical cinema, and yet sensed to be at the heart of many of our definitions of modern cinema, and very much - in the form of neo-noir - a central genre of so-called post-classical cinema. Why? For the protagonist of film noir, it is too soon, too late and now, because he is someone who has already survived his own death. Film noir asks: what does it feel like when you may be already dead, whether you know it or not? This leads to the third limit.

Agency as limit

Moretti already pointed out that helplessness in a situation that, from the ethical point of view, requires action is one of the conditions provoking an (involuntary) bodily-somatic response. However, his theory of tears was based on the inability to intervene on behalf of an other. What states of body and mind correspond, then, to action in the name of the self, and conversely, what kinds of limit to agency is at stake when acting on behalf of the self is blocked?

Agency in the name of the self is, of course, the very presupposition of the motivational action-schema typical for classical cinema. Its standard definition, as formalized by Bordwell, speaks of a 'character-centred causality', embodied in a protagonist who is goal-oriented, who believes in process-as-progress and whose behaviour is oriented towards solving a problem.22 In the terminology of Torben Grodal, these modes of agency are called 'telic', 'para-telic' and 'pragmatic'.23 If such are the normative formulations, what would constitute the limits of this classical model of agency? Already in the 1980s Steve Neale attempted to define Hollywood genres according to different action-schemata and their blockages, derived partly from Moretti (in his essay 'Melodrama and tears'),24 and partly by adapting concepts from psychoanalysis. Thus, comedy could be characterized by moments where blocked agency in the hero leads to involuntary laughter, a redefinition of the reality status of the action or a switch in context, and the musical would be the genre, where moments of blocked agency in the plot or the emotional entanglements among the characters lead to dance, also redefining the reality status of the image, by designating it as dream or fantasy.25 All three approaches in turn can be contrasted to the classical psychoanalytic-semiotic formulation by Raymond Bellour, for whom Hollywood action and suspense genres, and in particular Hitchcock's films, operate according to the repetition-resolution schema of what he terms 'the symbolic blockage'. Subtending the logic of overt action-adventures is a psychic schema that enacts a set of symbolic relations, in which actions are not so much pragmatic and telic, but parapractic and iterative, based on miscognition and (compulsive) repetition, thereby protecting the protagonist from the knowledge of the 'true' (i.e. incestuous) goal of his unconscious desire.26

In Bellour's version of classical cinema the nexus of cause and effect, the logos of chronos, remains preserved, as is the body-image of the male hero. What holds time, body, and action together in his version of the classical, is that conscious and unconscious motivation inhabit the same narrative space, rendered homogeneous and transparent because linear purposive action is 'doubled' and split across the divide of (unacknowledged) sexual difference. Yet here Gilles Deleuze's revisions of the classical are of special interest, since the same Hitchcock is singled out as the director in whose work the sensory-motor scheme of the body of classical cinema experiences its first critical rupture. Eschewing psychoanalytic or gender-specific terminology, Deleuze notes a crisis of the 'movement-image' (his term for classical Hollywood), for which Vertigo can stand as a prime example, announcing what he calls the 'time image' of modern (European) cinema. In the time image, the prevailing temporality is, as already mentioned, that of aion, the time of an immanent now, into which are folded several pasts, or as Deleuze puts it, 'the unlimited past and future, which gather incorporeal events at the surface, as effects'. Agency, in this model would be that of neither action nor project, to pick up Bataille's terms again, but of intensities, dispersals, and of those perpetual, reversible states that Deleuze calls 'becomings'.27

Nothing at first glance, therefore, would seem further removed from this modern cinema of Deleuze than the kind of action-cinema we have become familiar with from contemporary (blockbuster) Hollywood, also referred to as post-classical cinema. Indeed, in several definitions, the post-classical is a kinetic-mimetic cinema of pure sensation, mechanical energy, violence, acceleration, approximating the roller-coaster ride (Speed), imagining plots of spectacular technological failure or natural disaster (Titanic, Twister) or both (Independence Day), exposing the sensorium to barely conceivable body horror (Silence of the Lambs) and slasher violence (Halloween, Friday the 13th).28 To its detractors, post-classical cinema is a return to the movement-image in its most unsublimated and unsymbolized forms, politically reactionary and aesthetically retrograde.29 For others, it is a cinema of an immersive experience, breaking down that artificial window-on-the-world effect of classical cinema,30 often quite literally: scenes of shattering large sheets of glass are some of the notable effects in works as different as Die Hard and James Bond movies (The World is not Enough), The Hudsucker Proxy and The Matrix. Tactile and haptic sensations compete with ocular events, doing away with that carefully crafted architecture of looks of classical mise-en-scène (based as it was on regulating distance and proximity through inference and 'suture'), but also redrawing the spaces of 'experience'.

From the perspective of the classical, this crashing through the mirror/window metaphor becomes emblematic of breaking out of some sort of limit, most clearly in The Matrix, and its play with ontological boundaries, leaving the protagonist, among others things, not knowing whether he is action hero or acted upon (Neo's dilemma of being or not being the 'chosen one'). More generally, the so-called action-hero genre represents a break with the classical, precisely to the degree that its enacts another limit of agency: extending ad absurdum the character-centred causality of the classical calculus of motive, means and effects, the hero's actions mark a limit (the proverbial 'overkill'), as he takes extravagant risks, exhibits unmodulated extremes of affect or emotion, and deploys his bodily or ballistic means spectacularly in excess of his goals. But while in the classical, excess marked the moments of exception, in post-classical action-cinema, excess has in some sense become the norm, or rather: excess is now the sign of crisis of the norm, not the deviation from the norm. Accordingly, one should read agency in such films not as action in the conventional sense, but as instances of a re-action cinema, in which the causal nexus has broken down. Its barrage of spectacular effects are, properly speaking, a protective shield, to fend off not only an overload of stimuli, as Benjamin had argued for the cinema of montage in the 1920s, but an overload of systemic breakdowns, incalculable risks and invisible threats. As such, the action hero is in a permanent state of hypertension and alertness at the exposed limit of an experience that is no longer narrativized or integrated. Instead of containing threatening events in a perception-affection-action schema, as did the classical hero, the new 'action hero' masters experience in a mode of temporal suspension: he anticipates the omnipresent emergency and catastrophe by perpetually pre-empting their imminence.

Phrased like this, post-classical action-cinema has structural features that make it the inverse of another kind of limit to agency, at the other end of the spectrum so to speak, invoking the classical and also exceeding it. This limit is once more the blockage of action on behalf of the self, to which we earlier assigned a genre but no somatic state. Helplessness in relation to the self generally implies the subject-position of the victim, and although this can occasionally be found in male heroes, it is not the one that holds the key to the genre we are here concerned with. For most directly opposed to the helplessness on behalf of another of melodrama, as well as to the pre-emptive anticipation on behalf of the self just discussed in the action-adventure film, is the protagonist of film noir. Retrospectively, he might now be seen to represent an inversion of both: anticipating an omnipresent emergency, he is nonetheless helpless to help himself, becoming more often than not a spectator and witness of his own doom (cf. The Killers). In this sense, film noir has very distinct parameters not only of action, but also of body and time. Classic noir, for instance, invariably features the male body as damaged: he may have head wounds and suffer from amnesia, as in The Blue Dahlia or The High Wall; he may be stricken by insomnia, as in Woman in the Window, he may be fatally poisoned, as in Dead on Arrival or he may be bleeding to death, as in Double Indemnity. Film noir knows two temporalities that are rarely synchronized: time running out, emptying itself (e.g. The Killers), and the temporality of the flashback, i.e. a time of ambiguous retrieval (e.g. Detour, Criss-Cross). In either timeframe, the noir* hero usually finds himself too late to recover, and too soon to expire, existing in the negative 'now' of suspended animation.

Once again, the post-classical cinema has produced a genre or group of films which has tended to aggravate, amplify or radicalize these states of mind and body: the so-called neo-noir. Neo-noir knows its own time, body and action-schemes, but its starting point are those of noir. Head wounds return in Angel Heart or Memento; hypnagogic states and insomnia return, for instance, in Lost Highway, Fight Club or Insomnia; we find the poisoned body of DoA in the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple or the inexorably dying replicants of Blade Runner, while a visibly maimed body is that of Jake Gittes with his slit nose in Chinatown. Yet there are also intensifications, so that neo-noir’s body schema tends to be that of paralysed in-action alternating with hyperactive violence (Lost Highway, Fight-Club), prosthetic bodies (Blade Runner, Terminator), amnesiacs (Memento). The appropriate temporality is that of the time travel paradox (Total Recall, Terminator II, Twelve Monkeys) and the time loop or Moebius strip (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), while the limit of agency is that of catatonia, or, as already hinted at by Hal Foster, the 'nihility of the corpse'. For what is remarkable about many contemporary films, right across the genres yet all inflected towards neo-noir, is how many of their protagonists are in some sense already dead, even as the action continues: explicitly so in Robocop, Interview with a Vampire, Pulp Fiction (the character of Vince), The Sixth Sense and American Beauty, or symbolically so, in Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys, and arguably, Forrest Gump. Whereas Gump, on the surface at least, is able to tell his story and to make for himself a (fantasmatic) place in it - however scandalous, impertinent or comic this place may appear to the spectator - in a film like Memento, the hero definitely cannot get his story together anymore, not even through flashback, nor by letting time run backwards.

The new limits: trauma and experience

If these protagonists are 'dead men' (rendered explicit in the tide of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man or Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking, but also in Lester Burnham's opening words in American Beauty), they have, psychoanalytically speaking, fallen out of the symbolic order of desire and lack, and have become 'drive creatures', psychic automatons or zombies, whose narrative goal is less aimed at regaining their ability to 'desire' than it is their need to restore their (consciousness of) mortality (in order for there to be closure). Paradoxically, as Freud noted, it is the death-drive that prevents an organism from 'dying', so that, in these films, we can say that the classic noir hero has merged with the vampire figure, but not as the blood-lusty predator, rather as the melancholy un-dead Dracula, haunted as much as haunting. The privileged body of neo-noir is therefore indeed the corpse, reviving the figure of Nosferatu, carrying his own (metaphoric) coffin. What makes the neo-noir hero un-dead (and thus, after all, a companion to the cyborg of the Terminator type action-hero genre) is an excess of 'experience' as limit-Erlebnis, obliging him to 'play dead' to human emotions: they have become 'too much'. As a hypothesis one could say that while the cyborg hero is the drive creature of pure affectivity (the 'obscene vitality of the wound', in Foster's phrase), the neo-noir protagonist experiences emotions so extreme, so irretrievable in terms of temporality, event and body that he is not merely helpless to act. He no longer even feels the impulse to act, however catastrophic the wound. Thus rather than speaking of an experience of failure, as in classical noir, we would have to speak of the very failure of experience: no words, no action, no memory can recreate a coherent sequence of events or restore the cause-and-effect chain of a chrono-logic: 'it hurts so much, I cannot feel a thing' is how Foster aptly summarized a certain body art he is describing.

The name for this 'failure of experience' in contemporary culture is trauma, not only because the traumatized person cannot put his or her experience into discourse, but because the shock of trauma is often said to leave no visible symptoms, no bodily marks.31 While it would be grossly oversimplifying to assert a single concept of trauma, or to suggest that its uses in culture can be defined outside specific political and ideological debates, there are aspects of the trauma discourse that address issues implicit in my question about the limits of experience/the experience of limits.32 The very diffuseness of the term across high and popular culture, and its migration from clinical psychology to literary discourse and critical theory suggests that 'trauma' offers itself as a 'solution' to a problem yet to be specified. In respect to contemporary cinema, the shattering, immersive and at the same time fragmented experience alluded to, and reproducing the breakdown of Erfahrung into Erlebnis also on the side of the viewer, suggests - at the beginning of the 21st century - a set of analogies to the period close to the beginnings of the 20th century, when Walter Benjamin first theorized shock, trauma and dissociation as both cinematic forms and symbolic cultural formations. Thus, just as after 1918, the violent disarticulations of body and time, found in the practices of the avant-gardes, were related to the war neuroses which first gave rise to the discussions about trauma,33 so Gilles Deleuze, for instance, sees the disarticulation of the body schema of perception-sensation-action in the cinema after 1945 as a consequence of the catastrophic events of the Second World War, especially the Holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Deleuze's insights have also been applied to American cinema in the 1970s, relating its 'affection image' to the trauma of Vietnam, and the defeat of the aspirations of the Left.34

Convincing as this may seem, one has to ask oneself: why this return to (the discourse of) trauma, in one case (the Holocaust and Hiroshima) with a fifty-year delay, in the other (Vietnam) after a twenty-year hiatus? If latency is a recognized feature of trauma, and if a generational change may also provide an explanation, a more provocative answer might be that of Hal Foster, whose observation that trauma became in the 1990s the 'lingua franca' of the art world implies that 'trauma' may be the conveniently established label for a sensibility or state of mind only tenuously connected to the historical events we usually associate with the term.35 Foster's answer addresses more the high-culture discourse of the art world than the prevalence of what he calls trauma 'babblings' in popular culture.36 To include the cinema, for instance, might be more complicated, just as it might prove more controversial. Here the return to Benjamin offers a particularly intriguing hypothesis, since he had, in his reflections on the sensory ramifications of modern experience as typified by shock, discontinuity and distraction, paid less attention to war-trauma than many other contemporary commentators. Instead, he highlighted the impact of the technical media as well as of metropolitan modes of existence: in other words, the modernizing aspects of a subjectivity apparently similar to a traumatized state of mind. Following Benjamin, therefore, the question to ask would be: what is so 'modern' about this disarticulation of body, sense, memory and speech that it makes trauma the appropriate term? Or even more pointedly: what is so (post-)modern and modernizing about trauma? In an essay on Christopher Nolan's Memento, I have explored these issues, arguing that the film uses both its generic identity of neo-noir and its modality of experience as trauma in order to put forward a new model of the body as somatic-sensory medium of inscription. Such a conception of the body bypasses perception, affect and cognition by making the protagonist an amnesiac, unable to remember events or recognize his surroundings other than through visual aids, scriptural traces and acts of repetition.37

Perhaps I can conclude by extending this suggestion with a particularly provocative hypothesis. Can we connect the types of 'failure' to integrate perception of place, painful memories, uncertainty about cause and effect, as well as the co-presence of past events in the present and the mixing of temporalities (all usually associated with trauma) to a seemingly quite unrelated or opposed phenomenon, namely the 'themed environments' of tourist cities, shopping malls, 'parks' and entertainment 'worlds'?

The hypothesis would be that the pervasive trauma discourse as diagnosed by Foster does indeed point to a crisis of experience, of the ability to be an agent in and the author of one's own life. Yet rather than this 'trauma trope' relating to particular historical events, or even to a competition for 'authenticity' by each of us claiming victim-hood (as Foster asserts), trauma would represent the 'solution' to a problem located elsewhere: it would be the name for a new mode of Erlebnis without Erfahrung. Not, for sure, that of the Benjamins metropolis or assembly-line factory work, but of a perceptual and somatic environment so saturated with media-experience that its modes of reception, response and action require various kinds of uncoupling and unstitching of the motor-sensory apparatus in order to 'cope'. 'Successful' immersion in this environment would have as its correlative a 'traumatic' mode of spectatorship, by which I mean the kind of flexible attention and selective numbness that absorbs the intermittent intensity of affect, the shallowness of memory, the ennui of repetition, the psychic tracelessness of violence which constant contact with our contemporary mediatized world implies. Trauma would be the solution, because it represents a new 'economy of experience': its shortcuts, blackouts and gaps are what saves the self from an otherwise ruinous psychic investment in the multitude of events observed, of human being encountered, of disasters and injustices witnessed - which no personal memory nor even public history could encompass or contain. Its opposite but also complement would be the new 'experience economy': the themed environments of carefully controlled narratives, where distant pasts are made present and faraway places brought near, where reality takes on the shape of a story, while stories become real and fictional characters come to life. These are the contemporary spaces of Erfahrung devoid of Erlebnis: staged events, simulated dangers and performed identities - all made 'safe', 'familiar' and 'closed', this time by enacting the limits of experience through regulated zones of access and exclusion, at once mediated and transparent, at once therapy and stimulation, in other words: policed in equal measure by force and by fantasy.

Thus, the limits of experience taken from Benjamin, and explored in cinema theory around body, time and action have led, via film noir and neo-noir, back to Benjamin's original distinctions. Thanks to his perspective, however, the experience of limits in post-classical cinema and contemporary media culture now suggests certain limits of (the word) 'experience' as an operative term in this project of modernity - seeing how the new frontiers of the experience economy make personal or national trauma and Disneyland or shopping malls the recto and verso of each other, or make Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park belong together under more than the heading of authorship. It remains to be seen whether this is an impasse or a passage along which either the idea of post-classical cinema or the new turn to emotions can be further discussed.



For Gilles Deleuze, see his Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, translated Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, programmatic statement of the cognitivist approach is Post-Theory, edited David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).


See Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kiešlowski Between Theory and Post-Theory (London: BFI Publishing, 2001).


For apparatus theory, see The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985). A critique of illusionism is provided by, among others, Richard Allen, Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). A strong case for cinema as immersive event is made by Vivian Sobchack in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).


The subtitle of Ed S. Tan’s Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine (Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum, 1996).


Martin Jay, Cultural Semantics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 48-9.


Cultural Semantics, 49.


The terms of definition are taken from David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).


Christine Noll Brinckmann, 'Busby Berkeleys Montageprinzipien', in Handbuch der Filmmontage: Praxis und Prinzipien des Filmschnitts, edited by Hans Beller (Munich: Fink, 1993), 204-20.


Colin MacCabe, 'Realism and the Cinema: Notes on some Brechtian Theses', Screen 15:2 (1974), 7-27; Cahiers du Cinema editors, 'John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln' in Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 493-529.


David Bordwell has polemicized most sharply against what he sees as the fashionable argument around visuality and modernity; see his On the History of Film Style (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). Tom Gunning has responded in 'Early American Film' in Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by J. Hill and P. Church Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 269-71.


For a slightly different formulation of the affectivity shaping the viewing condition of Hollywood films, see Thomas Elsaesser 'Narrative Cinema and Audience-Oriented Aesthetics' in Popular Television and Film, edited by T. Bennett et al. (Milton Keynes: Open University, 1981), 121-36.


See Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).


See Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, translated by Leslie A. Boldt (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 46.


See Roger Kennedy, Psychoanalysis, History and Subjectivity: Now of the Past (New York: Routledge, 2002).


Michel Foucault, ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’ in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-84, edited by Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotexte, 1984); Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998).


Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or; Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990); Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and The Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).


Christine Noll Brinckmann, 'Somatische Empathie bei Hitchcock: Eine Skizze' in Der Körper im Bild: Schauspielen - Darstellen – Erscheinen, edited by Heinz B. Heller et al. (Marburg: Schüren, 1999), 111-20.


Linda Williams, 'Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess', Film Quarterly 44:1 (1991), 2-13.


Hal Foster, 'Obscene, Abject, Traumatic: The aesthetic of abjection and trauma in American art in the 1990s', October 78 (Fall 1996), 106-24.


Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders (London: Verso, 1983).


See Gilles Deleuze: Seminar session, 3 May 1977, 'On Music', translated by Timothy S. Murphy (


David Bordwell, 'Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures', in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Phil Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 17-34.


Torben Grodai, Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 283.


Steve Neale, 'Melodrama and Tears', Screen 27:6 (Nov-Dec 1986), 6-22.


Steve Neale, Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1980).


Raymond Bellour, Symbolic Blockage (on North by Northwest)', in The Analysis of Film, edited by Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 77-192.


Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 2004), 72.


See, for instance, Geoff King, Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (London: I. B. Tauris & Co./New York: St Martin's Press, 2000).


One of the fiercest critics is Jonathan Rosenbaum; see his Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella, 2001). Others regard the notion of the post-classical as misguided and superfluous; see David Bordwell, 'Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film', Film Quarterly 55:3 (2002), 16-28.


See Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).


Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).


See my ‘Trauma: Postmodernism as Mourning Work’, Screen 42:2 (Summer 2001), 191-203.


See Tony Kaes, 'War - Film - Trauma' in Modernität und Trauma, edited by Inka Mulder-Bach (Vienna: Edition Parabasen, 2000), 121-30.


See Christian Keathley, 'Trapped in the Affection-Image: Hollywood's Post- traumatic Cycle', in Screening Disability, edited by Anthony Enns and Christopher R. Smit (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 2001), 99-116.


Hal Foster, 'Obscene', 106-7.


'Obscene', 106.


Thomas Elsaesser, 'Was wäre, wenn du schon tot bist? Vom "postmodernen" zum "post-mortem" Kino', in Zeitsprünge, edited by Christine Rüffert et al. (Berlin: Bertz, 2004), 115-25.