Book Review: Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film

6 December 2021

Alex Braslavsky, Harvard University

Ana Hedberg Olenina, Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

In her recent book Psychomotor Aesthetics, Ana Hedberg Olenina asks a critical question: what role does physical experience take in the appreciation of art? Throughout her impeccably researched book, Olenina pores over the relevance of psychomotor aesthetics in the realms of literary composition, oral performance, cinema acting, and the experience of film viewing at a time when, in her words, “Art forms were now viewed as matrix, or blueprints for eliciting sensations” (xiv). 

In her introduction, Olenina alerts us to the intertwining of cinema and psychology as they emerged co-terminously in the early twentieth century (xii). Kinesthetic empathy, as mediated through artforms like film and music and poetic declamation, emerged embedded in the framework of psychologism during the modernist period (xvi-xvii). For avant-garde artists, psychologists and film industrialists, the relevance between inner states of being and corporeal movement could not be overlooked, hence Olenina’s coining of the term “psychomotor aesthetics” for the phenomena they heralded.

In her first chapter, Olenina shows how the notion of articulation as rooted in physiology is discussed by myriad thinkers from the turn of the century onwards. Olenina acknowledges the flaws of these thinkers. By way of one example, she points out that founder of modern psychology Wilhelm Wundt was not attuned enough to cultural differences and assumed a kind of “psychological regularity” across all subjects of humankind (35). Throughout her book, Olenina problematizes this kind of universalism in biologically oriented psychological study.

Next, Olenina explores the oral performance of poetry, discussing the qualms that Russian scholars of performance had about biological determinism. The Russian Formalists were attuned to the “experience of form” as Olenina puts it and their intellectual movement becomes the hallmark of Olenina’s case for humanities-informed neuropsychological study (47). She points in particular to the contributions of Sofia Vysheslavtseva, a woman who worked in Formalist circles and would virtually be lost to history, but for Olenina’s recovery of her work. Inspired by her experiences as a stage performer of poetry, Vysheslatseva studied the gestures poets made as they recited their poems and the way the poetic text itself provided a blueprint for gesture. Much engagement with Vysheslavtseva’s work remains to be had. 

Olenina does not merely lionize the Formalists. One of the key Russian Formalist contributions with regards to scientific study of aesthetics came from Boris Eikhenbaum, who argued that formal emotionality transcended the personal, and “formal emotions” were constructed, arising from the architectonics of the text. Olenina engages with Carol Any’s criticism of Eikhenbaum: in attempting to universalize the addressee of the literary text, Eikhenbaum denied literature the possibility of carrying a social component (93). Eikhenbaum’s theory therefore has its limitations for Olenina’s project.

Olenina next introduces us to the overlooked work of filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, and performs an interesting reading of one of his decisions in making the film By the Law (1926). Kuleshov has actress Aleksandra Kokhlova take up the camera and film herself as she is spinning upside down. Olenina calls this a moment of “physiological realism.” While in theory Kuleshov implicated himself in stylized gesticulation, in practice he seized upon involuntary gestures, like the face of Khokhlova mid-spin (163). Olenina departs from Kuleshov’s critics, arguing that he was far from rejecting the emotional aspects of an actor’s work, but that he posited an alternative to natural artistic inspiration by rooting emotion, à la Vsevolod Meyerhold, in the body. Today film scholars have dismissed Kuleshov’s acting techniques, but Olenina argues that he did pioneering work to promote the Shklovskian “defamiliarized” gesture in film.

Olenina looks at the physiological impact film had upon the bodies of early cinema-goers, in particular how these effects were studied, in her fifth chapter. She discusses the research of William Marston, a pop psychologist appointed to work in Hollywood (241). Marston doubled as scientist and showman and he was willing to abide by popular stereotypes. He also lacked the foresight to garner information from his subjects about how they felt about what they saw and why they partook in his experiments in the first place.

Figures like Marston were hired by Hollywood to enforce a standard consumption of films by orchestrating a series of physiological reactions in its audiences (278). Soviet cinema too became a realm for shared instinct but in a different way, as the Soviet film industry had to attract a mass viewership without indulging petit-bourgeois tastes (279). Here Olenina discusses the cinefication of rural communities and how, in counterpoint to the methods of Hollywood psychologists, Soviet cinemas disseminated questionnaires to gauge audience reactions. 

According to Olenina, Marston’s categorization of four fundamental affective spectator responses toward film (compliance, dominance, inducement, submission) can be useful, but for the fact that Marston himself often mis-categorized responses. He expected “submission” in female spectators who instead showcased “inducement” at the sight of seductive women on the screen, for example. While his research acknowledges lesbian desire in women spectators, for Olenina, Marston’s study is still framed in male voyeurism because of his assumption that the women viewers would identify with the femme fatale’s captors (273). 

Olenina’s critique of Marston slides into her conclusion that the scientific method can be attributed with more sensitivity were it to take methodologies of the humanities into deeper consideration. As she documents the way twentieth-century researchers studied physical reactions to art, she eschews universalism, questioning certain tendencies in biologically-oriented spectatorship study to reduce idiosyncratic responses to typified ones, or to conflate affect with bodily reflex. Meanwhile, Russian Formalism could maintain a balanced subtlety because of its humanistic rigor. 

Olenina asks us to reconsider figures who thought powerfully about embodied artistry and were dismissed in part because of how seriously they took physiological responses to art (313-314). Although her text is more often than not a factually-inclined historical account, rather than argumentative in its own right, her subtle fascination is with figures often overlooked, who refused to Socratically place the mind on high at the body’s expense in their studies, and with the way the arts provided the affective occasions for engaging their studies.

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