Essays (book reviews)
The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art by Dirk de Bruyn
Dirk de Bruyn’s book, adapted from a 2011 PhD, has yet to receive the attention and discussion it richly deserves. Thanks to a badly, often lazily managed academic book market, too many good film tomes fall into this same oblivion today. Yet here is the case of a bold and original piece of in-depth, sustained research that brings together two areas that have never been brought into relationship in this way, at this length.
On the one hand, there is the lineage of experimental audiovisual work. (I personally dislike the visual-centric term “moving image art” – sound has been around for a while now! – but each person chooses their own label.) The span here goes from avant-garde cinema beginning in the 1920s through to digital media work today.
Then, on the other hand, we have the psychological, neurological, psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic studies of how trauma (or, more accurately, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/PTSD) affects brain functions, memory, sense experience and the general constitution of the human person.
The book is thorough, patiently and brilliantly argued. As the introduction indicates, it brings together the two halves of de Bruyn’s own professional practice: first in the fields of social work or counselling, and second as a renowned avant-garde artist, programmer, historian, scholar and commentator.
The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art makes an important claim within the field of cinema studies: that Peter Wollen’s famous distinction between two avant-gardes (1) – one purist, abstract and removed from social experience, the other engaged in theoretical issues and the machinery of narration/fiction/signification – is largely a myth, even an impediment to our true understanding. It is a claim echoed, in another context, by Henry K. Miller’s work on Stephen Dwoskin. I happen to agree with this critique 100%.
De Bruyn makes the persuasive claim that the perceptual apparatus of the so-called abstract or purist tradition (whether Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer or many others) in fact reflects – whether or not these artists ever knew or claimed it explicitly – the dissociative shocks of traumatised modern experience, both on the social-historical macrocosm and the personal-subjective microcosm. Dissociation is, on many levels, the key, cohering concept here. It is an insight we also find, in embryo, in the collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Claire Parnet and André Scala, “The Interpretation of Utterances” from 1973, which traced the profoundly illuminating social inputs evident in children’s supposedly innocent drawings. (2)
Such an approach, as adopted and expanded by de Bruyn, opens up the entire history of experimental audiovisual production to a totally new interpretation and appreciation.
The book proceeds through a number of well-chosen, extensively researched and deeply explored case studies, including Maya Deren, James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986), and Peter Tscherkassky (aside: it’s best not to trust the likes of Peter Gidal on horror movies such as The Entity !). De Bruyn is sensitive to all the formal, theoretical and political issues involved in the conception, creation and later reception of these experimental works. Each analysis provides a building block in the overall, evolving argument. The understanding and unpacking of the various interlinking psychological theories, and their clear relevance to the film work canvassed, is especially impressive.
De Bruyn’s personal specialty is decidedly not classical, mainstream, narrative cinema in its many varieties. This is not in itself a problem (an individual can only pack so much into a human lifetime!), but at moments becomes so in the book’s argumentative flow. This is because a good many of the film theorists called upon (especially from the semiotic era from the 1960s through to the ‘80s) do indeed either derive their arguments primarily from this more normative type of fiction and documentary cinema (Janet Walker, E. Ann Kaplan), or move easily between classical and avant-garde realms (Wollen, Maureen Turim).
For instance – and to take a key topic for de Bruyn – the flashback, the staging, signalling and performing of it, has a very different status depending on whether we are discussing the codes of narrativisation (where the past is a story element), or the more ungrounded, free-floating spectatorial experience triggered (as de Bruyn persuasively hypothesises) by semi-abstract animation or unfettered montage. There can be a fascinating overlap between these two practices – Raymond Bellour insists on this in his essay “The Pensive Spectator”, and Laura Mulvey takes up the idea again in her Death 24x a Second. (3) But they are not the same thing.
There is something of a gap evident in de Bruyn’s theoretical working-through of his ideas. He appears not to have yet caught up with the advances made by 1990s figural film theory or the “organological” approach to cinema of Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020), which are by nature and temperament very close to experimental artistic processes like de Bruyn’s own. And it would be fruitful, for instance, to bring de Bruyn’s research into a dialogue with Bellour’s 21st century work on the “body of cinema” – the title of his 2009 book, translated into Spanish but yet to appear in English – and the “special memory” of the film spectator, founded as it in shocks and micro-shocks (understood through the psychological theories of Daniel Stern, which are focused on child development). (4) Bellour’s surveys include many examples from the avant-garde and video/digital media art realms.
I learned an enormous amount from de Bruyn’s book – just as I have always done, at various levels, from his film and multi-media performance works. The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art – despite the many bothersome typos and inconsistencies, the result of sloppy book production by ‘Cambridge Scholars’ (what a company name!) – has the potential to change the future of the film studies and digital media field internationally. I hope it will become more widely referenced, distributed and debated. (5)
1. Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes”, reprinted in his Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 92-104. back
2. This text is translated in Paul Foss & Meaghan Morris (eds), Language, Sexuality and Subversion (Sydney: Working Papers, 1978), pp. 141-158. back
3. Raymond Bellour, “The Pensive Spectator” (1984), reprinted in his Between-the-Images (Paris: JRP Ringier, 2011); Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006). back
4. Bellour, Le corps de cinéma. Hypnoses, émotions, animalités (Paris: P.O.L., 2009); and “The Cinema Spectator: A Special Memory” (trans. Adrian Martin), in Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg & Simon Rothöler (eds), Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema (Vienna: Filmmuseum/Synema, 2012), pp. 9-21; reprinted also in Ian Christie (ed.), Audiences (Amsterdam University Press, 2012; now downloadable in Open Access from https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/34451). A useful guide to Bellour’s entire evolution as a thinker of film is provided by Hilary Radner & Alistair Fox (eds), Raymond Bellour: Cinema and the Moving Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). back
5. After revising this review, I discovered a fascinating lengthy, detailed discussion of the book, alongside Davina Quinlivan's Filming the Body in Crisis (Palgrave, 2015), by Maria Walsh in MIRAJ (Moving Image Review & Art Journal), Vol. 6 Nos. 1 & 2 (2017), pp. 274-281. back
© Adrian Martin September 2011 / November 2016 (updated February 2023)