The transition from a culture that considers leisure a "problem" to a culture that demands leisure as a prerequisite of civilized behavior is a metamorphosis of the first magnitude. And it has begun. - Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 1970.The intuition that I am trying to articulate here is different than Gene Youngblood's in "Cybernetic Cinema and Computer Films," Chapter Four of his 1970 book, Expanded Cinema. Youngblood was exploring the technical possibilities for computers producing movies. Looking back, much of his conjecture has been surpassed and overwhelmed by sheer processing power. His assumptions about "the problem of leisure" also appear quaint from the standpoint of a widely-anticipated leisure society that never came to be.
What I am thinking about involves cybernetics in the generic sense of a governor or automatic regulatory mechanism, not just computers. The example that Norbert Wiener gave in his book was a centrifugal valve for regulating the speed of a Watt steam engine.
|Conical Pendulum Governor|
The need for some kind of automatic regulator arises particularly in machines whose speed, power, size, precision and other potentially hazardous operating characteristics -- such as heat or radioactivity -- take them beyond the unaided capabilities of human perception and response. The impulse to develop implements for the arrest, recording, analysis and playback of moving images can be viewed in this light as motivated by a regulatory imperative. To accurately see and thereby 'make sense of' machines in motion, people needed the help of a machine: the cinema.
The cinematic revolution, which took place in the 1820s and 1830s, coincides with a formative period in British trade unionism. I would suggest that it was no mere coincidence. In 1826, Joseph Nicephore Niepce captured the first photograph of a scene from nature. In 1832, Joseph Plateau invented the phenakistiscope, which was the first device to produce the illusion of motion from a series of still images. Meanwhile, the anti-combination laws were repealed in England in 1824 and by 1834 the haunting specter of trade unionism loomed ominously in the imagination of vulgar political economy.
I'm not the first to perceive some connection between the emergence of (and reaction to) trade unionism and the cinematic urge. In his 1986 movie, Comrades, Bill Douglas used the character of an itinerant magic lantern showman as a narrative device for telling the history of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I haven't had the opportunity to see that film yet, so I can't comment on how far Douglas took the association. For my part, I would refer again to the notion of the governor or regulator.
Classical political economy was heavily invested in the notion of self-adjusting markets in which the interaction of supply and demand tended toward equilibrium. This view may have had some plausibility in the case of a slowly evolving economy but it was precisely the rapid introduction of machinery and its drastic immediate effects on employment and wages that were at issue in much of the labor strife of the early 19th century. Workers sought to regulate, not prohibit, the introduction of machinery and its effects. Ironically, Peter Ewart (whose testimony before the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Factories was evidently the source for Edward Tufnell's polemic against trade union motives for the Ten-hour day) was an engineer for Boulton and Watt and thus would have been intimately familiar with the principle of the governor for regulating the speed of a steam engine.
Leisure may now be described as not merely the "prerequisite for civilized behavior" but as the regulatory principle required to keep the economic machine from running amok.