Virtually Present, Physically Invisible

The freezing cement stings my heels while, in total solitude, I find myself looking at a pair of sneakers, abandoned beneath a shiny metal bench. The bench sits against the wall of a tight and low space, almost like a container, which is illuminated by a cold, hissing neon light. They are a child’s shoes, thrown in a messy heap of other old shoes, covered with dust and abandoned in this space of suspension and waiting, the first direct reference to the hopeful yet desperate journey undertaken by many migrants across the border between Mexico and the United States, which I too, in a way, am experiencing. I too wait barefoot, in the reconstruction of a hielera in which the police have kept the migrants cramped up for days, for a red light and a siren that will tell me to go through a door. Once I pass the threshold, I am swallowed up by the blackness of a large dark space, cut in two by a horizontal band of dim red light. I take a few steps towards two shadows that ask me to move closer. Now there is an expanse of fine, cold sand beneath my feet, like at the seaside on a summer night, but mixed with sharp, cutting gravel. With tentative steps, almost limping, I reach the shadows: I make out two female faces, which speak to me and ask me for the sake of safety not to run or throw myself on the floor during “the experience” (as they call it). They place a backpack on my shoulders, a VR headset on my head, and earphones over my ears. For a moment, everything goes dark.

Thus begins the experience of Carne y Arena by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, an installation that allows the visitor, through virtual reality (VR), to take part in the dramatic adventure of a group of migrants intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol while trying to cross the border at night. Read my essay on Senses of Cinema No. 87 »

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Virtualmente presente, fisicamente invisibile

A piedi nudi sulla sabbia, indosso un visore per la realtà virtuale e comincio a muovermi nello spazio. Scorgo alcune luci all’orizzonte, tutt’attorno una scarna vegetazione, sono nel deserto. Tra i cespugli un gruppo di persone – migranti che cercano di varcare il confine tra Messico e Stati Uniti – si avvicina risalendo un dosso. La polizia piomba sul posto e un elicottero volteggia minaccioso sopra la scena. Vengo investito da un fascio di luce accecante, dal rumore assordante del motore e da folate d’aria fredda smossa dalle pale del velivolo. È il caos, i militari con i fucili spianati gridano ordini. Un uomo tenta di fuggire, ma viene colpito. Ci sono delle donne, un ragazzino, un neonato tra le braccia del padre. Sui loro volti la stanchezza e la disperazione. Dopo un secondo passaggio dell’elicottero, d’improvviso tutto tace. Ora i migranti siedono attorno a un tavolo; minuscole figure umane e una sorta di nave sembrano affondare nel piano liquido del tavolo. Poi si torna alle perquisizioni e agli arresti. Mi avvicino ad alcuni migranti, mi chino per vederli meglio in volto, resto al centro dei due fronti. Ora provo a distanziarmi per vedere la scena nel suo insieme, ma qualcuno mi strattona alle spalle: mi sono avvicinato troppo alle pareti della sala e un assistente mi ferma. Torno al centro e a un tratto, per una frazione di secondo, l’immagine quasi subliminale di un cuore ripulsa di fronte ai miei occhi. Uno dei militari mi urla contro, sembra ce l’abbia proprio con me, mi punta il fucile al petto, mi fissa dritto negli occhi, il suo sguardo mi segue anche se mi scosto verso destra. Quasi alzo le mani, sto per gettarmi a terra, ma infine tutto è inghiottito dal buio.

Ecco un’approssimativa e personale descrizione della sezione centrale di Carne y Arena, installazione multimediale creata dal regista Alejandro G. Iñárritu in collaborazione con il direttore della fotografia Emmanuel Lubetzki, il compositore Alva Noto e gli ILMxLAB (alla Fondazione Prada di Milano da giugno 2017 a gennaio 2018). Ne parlo – con atteggiamento entusiasta ma anche molto critico – in questo articolo pubblicato su Fata Morgana web.

La vertigine e il volo. L’esperienza filmica fra estetica e neuroscienze cognitive

vertigine volo

Dalla camminata in precario equilibrio di un funambolo alla passeggiata spaziale di un astronauta sospeso nello spazio siderale, questo libro offre un vertiginoso percorso nelle forme con cui il cinema contemporaneo continua a coinvolgere lo spettatore intensificando le sue percezioni e le sue emozioni. Per la prima volta nell’ambito degli studi sull’esperienza filmica, il paradigma della cognizione incorporata e il concetto di simulazione incarnata vengono adottati per descrivere la relazione dello spettatore con i personaggi e con i mondi della finzione cinematografica, in un serrato dialogo fra teorie del cinema, estetica e neuroscienze cognitive. Acrobazia, caduta, impatto, capovolgimento, deriva sono le cinque tappe di questa esplorazione, quasi un unico movimento che si origina nella capacità del film di stimolare la corporeità dello spettatore e precipita verso il senso più profondo e umano dell’atto di partecipare empaticamente alle vicende del personaggio.

La vertigine e il volo. L’esperienza filmica fra estetica e neuroscienze cognitive
Fondazione Ente dello Spettacolo (Collana “Frames”), Roma 2013
43 immagini in b/n, pp. 396 | € 11,90
ISBN 978-88-85095-72-4

Scheda del libroAcquista online

Neurofilmology

brain_eaters

Neurofilmology
Film studies and the challenge of neuroscience

Cinéma&Cie. International Film Studies Journal
Special Issue no. 22/23
Edited by Adriano D’Aloia and Ruggero Eugeni

Call for Essays [pdf]

Over the last two decades, discoveries made in the field of cognitive neuroscience have begun to permeate the humanities and social sciences. In particular, the philosophical and psychological implications of the function of so-called ‘visuomotor neurons’ have caused a breakthrough in the understanding of the mind-body relation and of phenomena such as human consciousness, empathy, intersubjectivity, affect, and aesthetic response to works of art. This special issue of Cinéma&Cie aims to evaluate, from a multidisciplinary and critical perspective, both the relevance of the neurological approach for the psychology and the aesthetics of the film experience and, more generally, the epistemological consequences of this approach in the humanities.

The fundamental (and controversial) insight behind neuroscientific findings is that the complex processes of the human mind find in the brain’s architecture and functioning their neural correlates. This correlation is based on a functional link between observation of goal-directed actions or emotions and sensorimotor activation of the observer (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia, Iacoboni). Unity of action and perception is allowed by an embodied simulation, a basic functional mechanism by means of which our brain-body system models its interactions with the world (Gallese). This proposal falls fully within the paradigm of embodied cognition, according to which cognition depends upon those experiences that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities that are embedded in a biological, psychological and cultural context (Varela, Thompson and Rosch). In turn, this paradigm is based on both a phenomenological account of the body and human experience (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty) and on the ecological approach to visual perception (Gibson).

Although at an intuitive level the activity of visuomotor neurons and the mirroring mechanism appear to constitute the ground for a new and empirically-based study of film participation, to date a few steps have already been taken in the direction of a neuroembodied theory of the film experience. Indeed, some neuroscientists not only consider cinema as a metaphor for the human mind (Damasio), but also carry out neuroimaging tests on audiences, aiming to outline a ‘neurocinematics’ (Hasson et al.). Since neuroscientific methods and procedures seem not suited to point out aesthetic, cultural or ethical implications, this proposal has been received with scepticism, as problematic and potentially subject to reductionism. Yet philosophical reflections drawn on neuroimaging experiments provide new tools of analysis and interpretation for film theory. For example, tests showing that human beings learn and relate with each other (and with fictional worlds) on the basis of an immediate pre-reflexive and empathetic kind of comprehension would give empirical consistency to the intuitions of the first aesthetic film theories (Epstein, Balázs, Eisenstein) and would revitalised classical filmology (Cohen-Séat, Souriau, Michotte).

In fact, the project of a new multidisciplinary approach to the film experience – Neurofilmology – would remain unproductive if not concretely applied to film aesthetics and viewer participation. More than metaphorically conceivable as an experimental laboratory setting, the film experience offers a space for testing formal solutions (in terms of point-of-view, editing, camera angles, camera movements, colour, lightning, etc.) that provide, control and regulate sensorimotor activation and emotional involvement. While neuroimaging methods cannot provide an aesthetic judgment on the cinematic style, they may serve as ‘an objective scientific measurement for assessing the effect of distinctive styles of filmmaking upon the brain, and therefore substantiate theoretical claims made in relation to them’ (Hasson et al.).

In contemporary film theory, the development of neuroscientific-based models for the study of spectatorship is part of the project of ‘psychocinematics’ (Shimamura) as a natural evolution of the centrality attributed to emotions by cognitivist film scholars (Grodal). Conversely, phenomenological film theory (Casebier, Shaviro, Sobchack) still seems to harbour some resistance to neurophenomenology (Varela), although the search for a post-dualistic neurological foundation of the film experience could allow it to overcome continental philosophy’s rejection of natural science. The study of the neural substratum of the film experience arises as a terrain of encounter and dialogue between cognitive and phenomenological film studies.

This special issue of Cinéma&Cie aims to investigate the possible (or impossible) relationship between cognitive neuroscience and film theories with particular reference to film spectatorship. Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

— Neurophilia/neuromania: critical approaches to the neurological account of the film experience
— Beyond the mirror: toward a phenomenological neuroscience in humanities
— Embodied mind/’Emminded’ body: possible convergence of phenomenological and cognitive film studies
— Enactivism vs. interactivism: simulation, narration, virtual reality and the convergence of the real and the fictional
— History of ‘Neurofilmology’: the mind/brain problem in the history of film theories
— Psychocinematics and Neurocinematics: experiments on the spectator between cognitive psychology and neurocognitive science
— Neurophenomenology of the film experience: the film-body revisited
— Film neuroaesthetics: neural substrates of film style
— Camera movements and sensorimotor simulation
— Cinematic empathy: the role of visuomotor neurons in the spectator’s emotional involvement and ethical implications
— Audiomotor neurons: the role of sound in embodied simulation 

Submission details

Please send your abstract (300-500 words in English + bibliographical references) and a short biographical note to both adriano.daloia@unicatt.it and submissions.cinemaetcie@gmail.com by September 15, 2013. All notifications of acceptance will be emailed no later than September 30, 2013. If accepted, 4,000-word essays will then be required for peer review by January 31, 2014.

Cinematic Empathies

I wrote one of the chapter (‘Cinematic Empathies. Spectator involvement in the film experience’) of the book Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices, edited by Dee Reynolds (The University of Manchester) and Matthew Reason (The University of York). The aim of my chapter is to bring to light the central role of empathy in spectators’ involvement in narrative fiction film. I recall some of the main contributions of film theorists of the 1920s and 1930s (Freeburg, Epstein, Balázs, Arnheim, Eisenstein), with the aim of demonstrating that empathy is inherent in the nature of narrative cinema itself and is pivotal to describing the variety and complexity of film spectatorship as an intensified experience involving the film’s body and the spectator’s body.


Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices
edited by Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason
Publisher: Intellect
Paperback 224 pages
ISBN 9781841504919
Click here to order the book.

A key interdisciplinary concept in our understanding of social interaction across creative and cultural practices, kinesthetic empathy describes the ability to experience empathy merely by observing the movements of another human being. Encouraging readers to sidestep the methodological and disciplinary boundaries associated with the arts and sciences, Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices offers innovative and critical perspectives on topics ranging from art to sport, film to physical therapy.

The Semiotics of Video Games

My essay Adamant Bodies. The Avatar-Body and the Problem of Autoempathy has ispired one of the themes of Chistophe Bruchansky and Mathias Jansson online exibition The Semiotics of Video Games, realized starting from some suggestions of E|C, No. 5, “Computer Games between Text and Practice” (edited in 2009 by Dario Compagno and Patrick J. Coppock). The Semiotics of Video Games is a miscellany that investigates the production of meaning in videogames and “wants to uncover the ambiguous interdependence that exist between our everyday cultural reality and the rhetoric manifesting itself in video games”. In Theme 1: Avatars and Empathy in video games, Kei Houraku’s Gomba’s lifetime (2007) and Brody Condon’s KarmaPhysics < Elvis (2004) videos are cited as examples in order to discuss the role of empathy in video gaming practice.

Edith Stein Geht ins Kino

My paper on Edith Stein’s theory on empathy and its pertinence in both film theory and film experience has been published in the montage AV issue on “Erfahrung”.

Adriano D’Aloia beschäftigt sich in seinem Artikel «Edith Stein geht ins Kino. Empathie als Filmtheorie» mit der Frage, wie Andersheit im besonderen Fall der filmischen Erfahrung funktioniert. Als Grundlage seiner Überlegungen nimmt er Edith Steins Theorie der Einfühlung aus dem Jahre 1917 und zeigt die Relevanz dieser phänomenologischen Gedanken für die Erklärung von Empathie auf. So erklärt, besitze das Kino die Fähigkeit, den Zuschauer Teil einer «lebendigen/ körperlichen Beziehung» werden zu lassen, die ihn auf ein Terrain der intersubjektiven Vermittlung führt. (Vinzenz Hediger)

Kinæsthetic Empathy

In the last weeks I am working on an essay on Cinematic Empathies, in which I try to trace the theoretical roots of kinaesthetic empathy in the film experience (reading Freeburg, Epstein, Balázs, Arnheim, Eisenstein, and Michotte). This essays will be published as a chapter of refereed book Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices, edited by Matthew Reason and Dee Reynolds. The book is related to the Kinesthetic Empathy: Concepts and Contexts, organized by The Watching Dance Project team and held at University of Manchester on 22-23 April 2010. The conference aimed to “bring together researchers and practitioners in fields including neuroscience, dance, film, music, and contemporary embodied practices, to explore the nature and role of kinesthetic empathy. The conference provided a focus for “the growing body of research and the increasing number of scholars and practitioners who are engaging with kinesthesia, empathy and kinesthetic empathy as pivotal concepts across different disciplines and media. This impetus  is connected with current concern with ‘affect’ as an object of enquiry, interrogation of notions of presence, embodiment and the senses, re-examination of phenomenology, and widespread interest in neuroscientific investigation (notably in the ‘mirror neuron’ system).” Videos of keynote speeches and delegate contributions can be watched at this web page.

Ph.D.!

I have defended my dissertation on “Empathy in the Film Experience” and completed my Ph.D. in Culture della Comunicazione at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan on May 3rd 2010. Thanks to everyone who supported me through these three intense years!

The Vault and the Fall

Working hard on a paper on the querelle between Theodor Lipps and Edith Stein on the relationship between the acrobat and the spectator…

Trapeze
Trapeze
(Carol Reed, 1956)

Suddenly, in the core of Edith Stein’s Zum Problem der Einfühlung (1917), the figures of both the acrobat and the spectator crop out. The young phenomenologist is discussing Theodor Lipps’s notion of Einfühlung and “internal imitation” [Nachahmungtheorie] in her doctoral dissertation: Einfühlung is a kind of act in which one “gets” the Other’s Erlebniss on the basis of psycho-physical and spiritual analogy. In his Grundlegung der Aesthetik, Lipps states that when the spectator is watching an acrobat walking on a suspended wire, he or she feels him/herself so inside the acrobat [ich fühle mich so in ihm] (1903), that his/her conscious self has sunk itself completely into that of the acrobat. On the contrary, Stein argues that Einfühlung is far from being a mere projective (an absorption or a sinking) act in which the observer transfers his own subjectivity into that of the observed object/subject. The spectator subjectivity is not “one with” the acrobat subjectivity – it is only “with”: «Ich bin nicht eins mit dem Akrobaten, sondern nu „bei“ ihm, ich führe seine Bewegung nicht wirklich aus, sondern nur – quasi –». Such an “empathic spectatorship” is a “going through” of the acrobat motion internally. Just as the two bodies remain separated, so the two subjectivities involved do not or fuse with each other, they do not merge into a single entity and the relationship does not tend towards pure identification, assimilation, or even mutual annihilation. In the relationship between the acrobat and the spectator – in that quasi – lies the core of Edith Stein’s theory of Einfühlung and its relevance for film theory.

As a case in point, in the prologue of Trapeze (Carol Reed, USA 1956) the spectator follows the trapeze artist Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) performing a triple somersault. My ideas is that a three-step strategy (establishing, emotion-focusing, accomplishment) is used for the spectator sensorial and emotional involvement. A similar “classic” strategy is use also in the opening sequence of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958):

2-vertigo
Vertigo
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

The analysis of the two cases will be published on the oncoming issue of the German journal montage a-v.