Jump directly to the page contents

Each edition of Forum Expanded is given a title which creates a possible space for perception and association whose starting point is the questions the curatorial team were exploring during the selection process. This year’s title is taken from a note in the margin made by Maya Deren. In 1947, she writes: “Marxism – only theory of politics which designed a mechanism capable of changing itself”.

The pioneer of avant-garde film transposes this idea to cinema, which is not only capable of change, but also political through and through due to its capacity to create new forms of perception. By drawing on the self-referential gesture contained in the title, Forum Expanded isn’t just referring to the works selected which explore the language of cinema, but also to the institutional framework within which they are being shown. Media scholar Ute Holl explores the writings of Maya Deren as well as her films, for both of them together form her theory of cinema. The text which we are printing certain excerpts from below originally appeared in the magazine Frauen und Film in 2002. (Stefanie Schulte Strathaus)


“A Mechanism Capable of Changing Itself”. On the Film Theory of Maya Deren

by Ute Holl

“Marxism – only theory of politics which designed a mechanism capable of changing itself – as in the concept of the withering away of the state,” is what Maya Deren wrote down somewhat offhandedly in her notebook on 3 February, 1947. Seldom had the systemic aspects of Marxist theory been singled out for emphasis, not least during the 1940s. While the political discourse of that time was permeated by linear concepts such as front, process, direction or even line, Maya Deren, one-time leader of a league of Trotskyist students, was interested in the recursive movements over the course of which, according to Marx, a social system itself changes, both due to its own logic and as a consequence of its own rules of transformation. Back then, Deren was perhaps even more interested in the allure of creating an actual theory, one in which a self-referential system would be grasped as the origin of social transformations. Shortly beforehand, she had written her two central texts on cinema: “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Film and Form”, which was penned during her summer holidays on Long Island, followed by “Cinema as an Art Form” in the autumn. In both texts, film is conceptualised as a structure that not only changes the fundamental parameters of perception far beyond the moments of distraction in the dark auditorium, but also makes a sustained intervention into the sensory and social circumstances of all those who participate in this form of ongoing communication. The mechanism of a social system that changes itself which Deren rediscovered in Marxist theory also forms part of her own film theory.
The human mind is powerless against the spell of the film projection, and the human machine that consists of camera, light and the bodies of the actors becomes attached. To complement its “indisputable real-life impact”, Deren’s writings on film develop the concept of experience. At first glance, the term merely bridges the epistemological gap between the technical-physiological, that is, the production of a film image on the one hand, and the psychological impact of how it is received on the other – a form of reception that leaves traces, however, and thus changes how space and time are perceived in fundamental fashion. According to this view, experience is thus a first circular-causal mechanism: watching a film in the cinematographic space alters perception, which requires that a film be watched differently, which shifts perception in turn, and so on. It was precisely this concept of experience that Deren used to differentiate between independent or experimental filmmakers who wanted to achieve a genuine visual effect with their work and the reality and effect of Hollywood films.
Objectivity is created in the expanded context of cinema, all the more so when the historicity and relativity of the techniques for reproduction are exposed in ever more uncompromising manner and the conditions of subjectivity enter the image. To make films means to allow experience to keep circulating and to let knowledge and sensibility accumulate: “After the first film was completed, when someone asked me to define the principle it embodied, I answered that the function of film, like that of other art forms, was to create experience”.
It is not fixed arrangements of optic machines and human bodies that would be the correct model for Deren’s film theory, but rather vectors of permanently shifting force fields, the sort of feedback mechanisms and circular-causal processes being explored in the U.S. in the 1940s by anthropologists, psychiatrists, computer specialists and engineers at the Macy Conference for Cybernetics. Cinema could be thought of as an apparatus that represents the missing link between individual perception and sensibility on the one hand and the material conditions relating to social and emotional feedback on the other. As Maya Deren’s trance-like home movies show, “emotional ramifications” develop within the movement of the material which are in no way reversible, but rather form irreversible emotions and emotional relations on a permanent basis. Whatever is “recorded subjectively as emotion” is, according to a supposition from Norbert Wiener, not “merely a useless epiphenomenon of nervous action, but may control some essential stage in learning, and in other similar processes.” As Maya Deren assumed that every form of reception in the movie theatre also transformed the receptors at the same time, her concept of cinema characterised a cybernetic aggregate whose technical, sensory, social and aesthetic elements were permanently changing in reciprocal fashion: “A mechanism capable of changing itself.”
Cinema as a dream and wish machine, which nonetheless maintains a constant connection to material and historical reality: “[Cinema] emerges in a period marked by the development of radio in communication, the airplane and the rocket-ship in transportation and the theory of relativity in physics. To ignore the implications of this simultaneity, or to consider it a historical coincidence, would constitute not only failure to understand the basic nature of these contributions to our civilization; it would also make us guilty of an even more profound failure, that of recognizing the relationships of human ideology to material development”.
It was Maya Deren’s wish that cinema should place us in relationship with the unknown rather than subjugate us to a norm. Fortunately, she was also aware that this mechanism cannot simply be initiated via conscious manipulation but rather requires a collective becoming, such as in trance and possession: “Everything I have said in criticism of film may create an image of severe austerity and asceticism. On the contrary, you may find me many evenings in the motion-picture theatre, sharing with the other sleepers (for nothing so resembles sleep), the selected dream without responsibilities”.

(Translation of: “A Mechanism Capable of Changing Itself”. Zu Maya Derens Kinotheorie. In: Frauen und Film, Nr. 63, 2002. p. 55–70.)

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur