Mary Ann Doane by Richard Hancox


MARY ANN DOANE. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. 288 pp.



André Bazin wrote of the cinema that the more it advances, the more it returns to its roots, born in the desire to reproduce the world in its own image.[1]    This “myth of total cinema,” as he called it, is reflected today in the relentless evolution of digital image technologies claiming ever greater acuity. Popular opinions about the demise of film in relation to these technologies are reminiscent of earlier prophecies, according to which the cinema was supposed to be dead with the advent of television, and again, with the video ‘revolution’ in the seventies and eighties. These ideas centered initially around the relative ‘democratic’ tendencies of cheaper cost, ease of use, immediacy, etc., and then with digital video, the ability to reproduce reality ‘better than film’ – all of which, of course, are moot points. To what extent do differences in the cinematic and video apparatus matter in the making of meaning? Of what concern could this ontology be to those interested in the study of time? Mary Ann Doane’s recent book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive answers this question, precisely by going back to the roots of cinema in the reconceptualizations of time taking place in the late 1800’s.


Mary Ann Doane, a Professor of Modern Culture, Media and English at Brown University, is a specialist in film theory, feminist theory and semiotics. She

is the author of The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Indiana University Press, 1987) and Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1991). This is not the first time she has written about the cinematic apparatus, having contributed to the study of sound in film before, but this book represents her most interdisciplinary work to date, relating fields as diverse as thermodynamics, physiology, statistics and psychoanalysis. Covering approximately the same period as Stephen Kern’s classic, The Culture of  Space and Time 1880 - 1918,[2]  Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time is an expansive, highly theoretical, detailed and nuanced study of a crucial moment in the evolution of modernism, in which time became “intimately allied with its new technologies of representation (4).”


The increasing fragmentation and rationalization of time by the late nineteenth century had evolved into a problem and a source of anxiety, Doane says, that had to be dealt with. Industrialization and expanding capitalism focused modernity on pressures of temporality – discontinuity versus continuity, standardization versus  local and private time, and issues of speed, compression and efficiency – all of which needed to be better understood and articulated. Emerging technologies of temporal representation such as photography, cinema, and the phonograph, brought with them their own sets of contrary issues, exacerbated by what she calls the “lure and threat” of contingency, chance and the ephemeral. Throughout the book, the author provides examples of these representational struggles, suggesting how they were eventually resolved.  In the case of cinema, Doane describes how it would prove best able to deal with, for example, “the problematic question of the representability of the ephemeral, the archivabiltiy of presence (25).” Emerging as it did with epistemologies of contingency, from evolutionary theory to psychoanalysis to the law of entropy in thermodynamics, the book makes a strong case for cinema as exemplifying the temporality of modernity. The cinema does so in part by offering the lure of contingency and individual resistance to rationalization, while at the same time containing this threat within film’s inherent structure of irreversibility and the editing control afforded by the cut.[3] 


Doane spends the initial chapters of her book analyzing “interdisciplinary epistemologies of contingency” which she suggests paved the way for the emergence of cinematic time. For example, in Chapter 2 she investigates issues of storage and legibility, continuity and discontinuity, in relation to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, and Etienne-Jules Marey’s still photographic studies of physiology in motion. Then in Chapter 3 she relates the concept of the temporal trace as evidenced by the afterimage and the resulting ‘persistence of vision’ originally thought to be the basis for the cinema’s illusion of motion. Almost as  the afterimage’s “semiotic equivalent,” the index in Charles Sanders Pierce’s theory of signs is also discussed in relation to the temporal trace, particularly as evidence of the contingency and discontinuity of the present instant, which had been archived for all to see in the new medium of photography. For Doane the long take in cinema, first made public at the turn of the 20th century in the Lumiere’s and others ‘actualities,’ is always in the present tense and incarnates “the meaninglessness of a lived reality(105).” Quoting Pasolini’s essay on the long take,[4]  she concurs that it is the cut which terminates this contingency and turns the present into a stabilized past. In Chapter 4, in another interdisciplinary flourish, Doane invokes physics to illustrate the deep connection cinematic time had with emerging epistemologies of contingency – in particular thermodynamics, a response to the importance of the engine in modernity. The author shows how its second law, regarding the phenomenon of entropy, mandated temporal irreversibility, and cites the cinematic apparatus as the ultimate model of the irreversibility of time.


The middle section of the book examines how theories dealing with contingencies discussed earlier were reflected in emerging cinematic representational strategies, and how this evolved into both an articulation of contingency and its systemization. Focusing on the filmic construction of the event, in Chapter 5 Doane closely examines two actualities of the period, Electrocuting an Elephant (Edison, 1903) and Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (Porter/Edison, 1901,) which despite their referentiality demonstrate what she considers the instability of film’s proclivity to inscribe raw duration. The problem with contingency in an era of temporal rationalization is that “it everywhere poses the threat of an evacuation of meaning. The concept of the event provides a limit – not everything is equally filmable–and reinvests the contingent with significance (144).” Then in Chapter 6, “Zeno’s Paradox: The Emergence of Cinematic Time,” the ontological focus shifts to debates about continuity and discontinuity in the cinema, referencing the intermittent motion of still frames in the illusion of movement, and outlining corroborations and refutations of Zeno’s claim that movement doesn’t really exist (owing to the infinite divisibility of time’s arrow.) Doane elegantly incorporates the cinematic apparatus into her argument:


The dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, so crucial to theorists like Bergson or Pierce, operates in the cinema on two levels: in the gap between frames, which is effaced in the production of the illusion of movement, and in the cut, which is also often concealed through techniques of continuity editing. (29) In regards to editing, she points out that for cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, the cut was “the incarnation of temporality in film, and it constituted the formal response to the restructuring of time in modernity (184).” This is why, as she claims, “The cinema (became) a Freudian time machine rather than a pure promise of an indexical link to the referent (224).”


In her final chapter, “The Instant and the Archive,” Doane undertakes a thorough recapitulation of the book’s varied and interesting arguments, and then with typical interdisciplinary finesse, updates cinematic time in today’s environment of new technologies and ongoing logics of contingency. She employs the condition of cinephilia­–a love of cinema linked to its photographic indexicality and predilection for contingency – to illuminate similarities between the rethinking of time at the turn of the twentieth century, and representational desires compelling more recent developments in the televisual image and in digital media technologies, both of which seem to threaten cinema as we know it. Usually considered the domain of the film buff, Doane says film theorists are nevertheless becoming interested in cinephilia “as though the aim of theory were to delineate more precisely the contours of an object at the moment of its historical demise (228).” However she goes on to point out that cinephilia and the urges fueled by it “will not die with the cinema as we know it (231).” In fact she argues there is no extreme rift in the desire for representation; what is still at stake is the need to structure and contain contingency. If that is the case, is there anything given up in all this? Is this wave of cinephilia and and the interest in cinematic time premature? Not necessarily–and this is how Doane considers the cinema as archive: not as a phenomenon of museumization, but “first and foremost a ‘lost’ experience of time as presence, time as immersion (222).”


There is much information in this book. I have barely touched on Doane’s ideas about archivabiltiy and storage, and her extensive examination of indexicality in the evolution of cinematic time. She is an economical writer whose theorizations are lucid as they are densely packed. My only criticism is the lack of examples of films which reflexively engage the very issues of cinematic time she delineates–films such as Chris Marker’s classic, La Jetée (France, 1962), or certain  experimental works, especially those of Michael Snow, as well as the collage films of Bruce Conrad, Arthur Lipsett and others who first exposed the lurking contingencies in ‘found footage’ they appropriated from conventional films. But these are only minor criticisms of a book that is rigorously researched and a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Certainly anyone involved with the study of time will find Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time a fascinating read. 


*  Richard Hancox, Concordia University, Montreal



Richard Hancox, MFA is an Associate Professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, where he teaches film production and cinema studies, including a graduate course on issues of film, time and memory. Since 1985 he has been a member of the International Society for the Study of Time, having presented his own experimental film work at several ISST conferences. Hancox was published in Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries, ed. by Jim Leach and Jeanette Sloniowski (University of  Toronto Press, 2003), and has recently completed Disposabilities, a photographic exhibition. He is currently working on All That is Solid, an experimental documentary on time in relation to the death of his father.


[1] André Bazin, What is Cinema? (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).

[2] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).

[3] A startling example of this is the famous short by Chris Marker, La Jetée (France, 1962), in which the protagonist realizes in the end he “cannot escape time,” and the death he witnessed as a child is his own. Another is Chris Nolan’s Memento (USA, 2000), with a plot told in reverse as the film is projected, of course, along the arrow of time. For a close analysis, see Jo Alyson Parker’s article in KronoScope, Volume 4, Number 2, 2004, “Remembering the Future: Memento, the Reverse of Time's Arrow, and the Defects of Memory.”

[4] Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Observations on the Long Take.” October 13 (1980): 3-6.