Norbert Elias's motion pictures: history, cinema and gestures in the process of civilization

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Abstract

Norbert Elias's project in The process of civilization (1939) involved reconstructing invisible movement-both the slow tempoof long-term historical change and the modification of psychic structures and embodied dispositions. To do this, he resorted to uncommon devices: treating historical texts as constituting a series amenable to a rudimentary discourse analysis, he constructed an imagined 'curve of civilization' serving as an approximation of the hidden process of change. Elias's curve was not supposed to represent single past states, but movement itself, its direction and pace. This novel concept of historical representation was related to the perception of cinema as a new medium making actual movement visible. But beyond making it possible to imagine how one could telescope long-term historical process, cinema also held the promise of serving as a microscope, making the minute movements of the human body, gestures and manners available for close inspection. While anthropologists were devising ways of using the new medium to document fleeting gestures and bodily postures, it was used by popular audiences as a source for remodelling behaviour and acquiring polite manners and body techniques, as noticed by such acute observers as Marcel Mauss and Joseph Roth. Hence, popular appropriation of the cinema gave rise to a heightened awareness of the historicity of gestures and the changing modalities of their transmission. Cinema was itself part of the accelerated motion of history, of a perceived change of pace in the process of civilization, which in its turn shed light on its historical antecedents and played an essential role in rethinking the notion of civilization and culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)444-458
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Volume39
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2008

Keywords

  • Body
  • Cinema
  • Discourse
  • Gestures
  • Historiography
  • Joseph Roth
  • Marcel Mauss
  • Norbert Elias
  • Sociology of culture

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