Technology and Aesthetic Adaptation

This week in the film history class I taught, not for the irst time, Paul Ramaeker's essay on diopter shots (“Notes on the Split-Field Diopter” Film History v. 19). In so many ways it's a remarkable essay, both for the quality of its research and writing and for the substantive contribution to cinema history. Plaudits aside, the essay interests me because it happens to be a well-executed example of an evolutionary model of technology and film style dominant now.

Essentially, this is an approach to film technology querying aesthetic adaptation of film technology and giving a somewhat dialectical picture. First, there is a stasis, generally defined by strong aesthetic conventions. Second, an external shock comes in the form of a new technology. Third, while some artists hesitate to embrace the new technology, others experiment with it, often through indiscriminate use. Fourth, artists learn how to reconcile the new technology to existing aesthetic conventions. Fifth, more assertive artists then learn how to tinker with these conventions. Utlimately, of course, the cycle can end as new technologies arrive or older aesthetic conventions fall into disuse.

Not every film historian of technology posits all of these steps (commonly accounts will stop at step 4 or 5), but a number of studies of technology fit it. Not only Ramaeker's essay, but Scott Higgins book on Technicolor, James Lastra's on sound, Patrick Keating's on classical cinematography, and David Bordwell's work on deep focus.

There's a good reason for the success of the adaptation-evolution model. It makes sense of the empirical, especially in reference to commercial film industries in which conventions are both highly internalized and highly enforced. Additionally, it finds an in-between spot between conflict and functionalist social models of the film industry: film technology is not mere science or mere ideology. As such, we find a clear research agenda that weights primary research without falling into the traps of discourse analysis.

For all these reasons I'm drawn to this model in my own research, which is arguing that Hollywood's adoption of social relevance, including a visual “realism,” was actually a give-and-take process rather than an imprint of Depression politics or wartime exigencies.

But a nagging part of me is wondering if there are other ways to conceive of aesthetic adaptation to new technology. Do some technologies proceed without a dialectical trajectory or such strong equilibrium toward the conventional? As usual, I worry about the totalizing danger of conceiving of a “system.”

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