Today I had the pleasure to attend Elizabeth Bronfen’s lecture “Hollywood Wars: Historical Knowledge of a Different Kind,” held at L’Orientale University of Naples. It was an enlightening talk based on Bronfen’s recently published book Specters of War Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict in which she argues that mainstream movies are filters that re-imagine war for different audiences at different times in history.
As a media scholar who has written on the affective aesthetics of the ‘war on terror’ in contemporary television series, I was enthralled by Bronfen’s investigation of what she called the “effects” of war movies. Showing a selection of scenes from Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) and Sands of Iwo Jima (Dwan, 1949) she examined their formal properties, especially the use of the shot-reversed shot, eye-level shooting, the recycling of actual footage from the warfront and the insertion of an elegiac soundtrack. Through this formalist approach Bronfen articulated a reading of audiovisual montage as a tool of affective mobilisation, something that, in her words, “resuscitates intensity on screen.”
The intensity she referred to was that of the past, something that, as in the case of All Quiet‘s World War I scenario, the contemporary audience has no means to have experienced in the first person. The war movies that Hollywood has been producing for over a century are indeed time machines that help history to come back and beckon us. Only, the historical archive that these films make up does not convey the actual knowledge of what happened on those battlelines, or on the homefront where wives were waiting for their husbands’ return. Bronfen argued that the “authenticity effect” of such narratives is inscribed in the cinematic representation itself. Through formal means, the images re-imagine and re-conceptualise past experiences that we will never fully grasp, if not in their “energetic” power of affection.
I was fascinated. The notion of “second-hand memories” or reel memories, and of Hollywood’s remediation of past events intrigues me. Behind it lays the question of what is being remediated and through what means. Clearly, entertainment formats like the ones Brofen analyses do more than provide documentaristic accounts of actual events. Discussing a scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks uses a pocket mirror to spy his enemies hiding on top of a boulder, Bronfen rightly noted that there was nothing remotely realistic about it. Not only wasn’t that an actual mirror, but a periscope, but the whole idea behind the ordeal was absurd. It is the spectacularity and the theatricality of cinema that Spielberg is foregrounding here — the medium’s ability to zoom in on inconsequential details and maximise their emotive effects.
When mimetic representation is not the aim, then, how do historical movies address the past? And what do they make of this refiguration? According to Bronfen, these narratives provide a “conceptual space where phantoms return to us and affect us.” These revenant presences (the dying and dead soldiers impersonated by John Wayne, Tom Hanks etc.) restore collective energies and give birth to a form of affective commemoration where knowledge is not elaborated, so much as “resuscitated” from what, quoting F. Jameson, she calls the “political unconscious.”
The seminar gave mea lot to chew on, especially since in the past few days I’ve been thinking about affective memory a lot for an abstract submission that I am *still* elaborating. Just yesterday it dawned on me that Brian Massumi too writes about “memory without content” in relation to affective transmission. Memory without content pertains to proprioception, a mechanism of visceral reactivity that the Science Dictionary describes as “the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. In humans, these stimuli are detected by nerves within the body itself, as well as by the semicircular canals of the inner ear.” Massumi, which refers to this also as a “perspective of the flesh,” is here elaborating on the gap between conscious perception and what Patricia Clough calls “the non-intentionality of emotion.”
If, as the latter scholar writes, media technologies are “making it possible to grasp … the imperceptible dynamism of affect,” how do we make sense of this manipulation of the micro-fiber/micro-texture of memory? I believe Bronfen’s focus on “aesthetic refiguration” would be a good starting point to articulate the concept of affective remembrance as something that operates on impressions, more than on expression, on activation, more than reproduction.