Faculty Activities: Jeffrey Kirkwood at the German Studies Association

Frank Gilbreth, Motion Study, 1913.

This weekend, Assistant Professor Jeffrey Kirkwood will be attending the annual meeting of the German Studies Association, held this year in Kansas City, MO.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, he will present his paper “Mittel Managers: Psychotechnics, Cinema, and the Narrative of Scientific Management” as part of the panel Technologies of Narrative: Technik in the Machine Age (abstract below). He will also moderate the panel Hidden Violence in Twentieth-Century German-Language Culture at 8:00AM, Sept. 20.

“Thus, technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. There came a day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by film. In a film, perception conditioned by shock [chockförmige Wahrnehmung] was established as a formal principle. What determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the same thing that underlies the rhythm of reception in film.”

—Walter Benjamin, “Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire,” 1939

By the time that Walter Benjamin remarked on film’s close affinity with modes of industrial production in its education of the human sensorium, cinema was already an established tool deployed in the fields of “psychotechnics” and “scientific management.” In Germany, early industrial films and experimental devices for training workers emphasized the sequence and pace of industrial work, dividing tasks along breaks or “cuts” that were edited together as total depictions of optimized efficiency. As but one instance of this historical nexus between cinema and industrial efficiency, Hugo Münsterberg, the founder of psychotechnics and one of the first film theorists, claimed that streetcar accidents could be greatly reduced through scientific testing and education, suggesting “the use of cinematographic images as stimuli to that end” [kinematographische Bilder als Reize dafür zu benutzen] (Münsterberg, 1914). What such experiments and testing methodologies that relied on cinematographic technologies indicate is early film’s profound involvement in the emergence of a scientific and industrial conception of the psyche as an “apparatus”—an apparatus whose operations could be coordinated according to a mechanical protocol. By exploring the historical and media-technological variability of scientific models of the psyche, particularly those accompanying the rise of scientific management, the paper examines the ways in which understandings of the psyche were conditioned by cinematic technologies, but also the degree to which the earliest films were psychological. To this end, the paper argues that rather than a “classical narrativity” associated with the mature editing techniques developed during the Weimar period and formalized in “classical Hollywood narrative,” early cinema instituted what I have termed an “industrial narrativity.” This was a narrativity derived from the protocols of psychotechnical experimentation that accorded with a mode of vision that was already essentially governed by industrial sequence.

The paper intervenes in both histories of cinema and histories of perception that have regarded “actualities” and films prior to 1910 as largely “attractions” (Tom Gunning), which employed a “primitive mode of representation” (Noel Burch). Whereas theorizations of early cinema traditionally emphasize the exteriority of cinematographic presentations, rather than the subjective identification associated with the editing techniques of later long-format, “narrative” films, the paper argues that many early films instituted principles of order, sequence, and mechanical syntax that were both industrial and psychological. By investigating the logic governing the construction of early actualities and returning to German treatises in psychotechnics and scientific management by figures such as Hugo Münsterberg, Karl Marbe, and Narziß Ach, the paper contends that early films did indeed produce subjective identification—even though it was a subject understood as a machine.

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