Biopolitical Implications of Motion Capture
Zoe Saldana during the making of Avatar, 20th Century Fox, 2009
As Giorgio Agamben has argued, cinema is an art of the gesture, since it is an important part of an age of modernity where gestures are transformed by industrial machines. Nervous illnesses and gestural hiccups abound in early cinema – the emblematic figure of Charlie Chaplin is the most obvious example – and it is hard to discern where cinema merely documents existing gestures and where it starts to produce them. Cinema is an integral part of the technologies of the industrial era that set off intermittent, jerky movements. Agamben notes that whereas nervous illnesses were frequently pointed out in the early years of cinema, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1970s, no observations of gestural deviations of this kind were made. He takes that to mean that they were so common in this period that they did not stand out. They were synchronized with the movements of the surrounding technologies. If they again started to be noted in the 1970s, this probably means that society changed rhythm; that gestural hiccups ceased to be in tune with the movements of society.
If it is true that cinema is an art of the gesture, it might not seem particularly remarkable that many film theoretical projects have investigated the moving image’s capacity to store, file and classify gestures. More interesting is perhaps that it was precisely the 1970s that saw a renewed interest in the representation of motion in film theory. If the film is an “unattainable text”, as Raymond Bellour declared, it is because it cannot be quoted without freezing the image. How could one “quote” and inscribe the gesture while maintaining its motion? If gestural deviations start to be noted again at this time, it is because the rhythm of the image has changed. The emerging question of the “quotability” of moving images in the 1970s could very well be a response to the emergence of a different mode of movement in images in analog and digital video.
The Soviet director Dziga Vertov maps the gestures of the hands in the industrial age in Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with the Movie Camera, 1929). Vertov also offers a database approach to the close-ups of hands in a text that could be seen as the preparation for a film experiment of one single visual topos, not unlike the work by Farocki. This sequence of descriptive “close-ups” is organized serially, with shots of idle and bourgeois hands followed by hands performing crimes and then to hands at work in order to end with hands engaged with the cinema technology. These charting techniques make Vertov’s approach a view of cinema as a method of inscription and classification of movements. The major theoretical principle for the movements and the rhythms of Vertov’s films are the mutually constituting forces of the human and the technological as a feature of the dispositifs of the industrial age. Vertov’s films probe the biopolitical aspects of this assemblage of man and machine.
There have been many attempts in the history of film theory to establish such encyclopaedic collections of semantically meaningful elements in cinema. The early theoretical movements to see cinema as a universal language attempted to define the basic elements in such a language. The US writer Vachel Lindsay’s eccentric chapter on the hieroglyph in his 1915 book The Art of the Moving Picture is such an attempt to ascribe a basic meaning to certain motives. It proceeds through a classification of core motives in films, and what their meaning and role would be. Another example of an advanced language utopia from the year after is the Estonian linguist Jakov Lintsbach’s attempt to define basic icons of human consciousness in order to use them as the base of an iconic, cinematic language through a reduced animation technique. In cinema’s long line of scientific taxonomies and archival practices from Marey up until today, one of the most interesting cases of classification through cinema is to be found in the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica.