The Cine-Files speaks with Lesley Stern about her work’s abiding interest in cinematic affect


Tracy Cox-Stanton: Long ago, when I had the idea of focusing an issue of The Cine-Files on cinematic affect, I thought immediately of your work on cinematic things, bodies, and their sensory reverberations. And yet, I don’t think your writing is necessarily associated with what has been called “the turn to affect,” perhaps because your writing never announced such a “turn.” Rather, questions of film’s sensory, material foundation have always been in your view. Can you talk about your early interests in cinema, going back to the heyday of Screen theory?

Lesley Stern: When I first started writing about film the excitement and energy was around theory, “theory” in inverted commas. Intellectually I had been formed most strongly by a Leavisite training, but this did not jibe too well with the political environment in which I grew up, with the day-to-day intensities of political life as a student in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it then was. When I got to Britain as a graduate student I experienced terrible culture shock. It was as though all intensity was drained out of the world. Britain seemed like a universe leached of affect. Finding my way into feminism and into worlds opening up through Screen and the outreach of the BFI—well it was like a cartoon, light bulbs exploding, connections buzzing. Theory of course is concerned with the general, with a mode of generalizing. And I think my thinking then was very abstract actually. Energised by the theoretical milieu, but not really engaged with the body. Mostly because of trepidation about equating woman with body.

The first questions that propelled me into writing were to do with subjectivity and point of view, with feminine voice and desire. The body wasn’t there center stage, center screen. But there was a problem that motivated me to write, and that was the big black hole into which the body fell, fell down down and away, a big black hole between psychoanalytic theory (predominantly Lacanian) and Marxist accounts of ideology (largely Althusserian). It seemed odd to me (though perhaps this is a retrospective understanding) that if so much of what we might have learnt from Freud, from Klein and others, is the intricate and devious connection between the somatic and the psychic, that this was somehow smudged in film theory. Of course the unconscious was there and embedded in it, in that great big “it” was the somatic, but very much as symptom, rather than experience. We were horrified by any invocation of the experiential. A bit like inviting witches to dance and sing in the library. Models of cause and effect were being produced left right and center, accounts of how films work, how they produce subjectivity. Well I loved the puzzle, the mapping impulse if you like. But it seemed to me that the question of voice, of address and the experience of being addressed, couldn’t really be accounted for by some of these models. The models didn’t really work, precisely because they were embedded in the “problematic” of the ontology of cinema. Wedged in to the marriage of The Look and The Lack.

TC:  Was there a particular turning point, or was there some precedent you encountered that helped you think about ways to merge abstract “theory” with the sensory experience of film-viewing?

LS:  When I went to Australia I read Julia Kristeva’s About Chinese Women and it had a huge effect on me, although I can’t remember if it made it in an explicit way into what I wrote. But it made me grapple with the somatic and suggested that clues might be found in the workings of more experimental and independent films, clues to many things but not least to connections between what we might now call political affect and other registers of affect. Certain films, certain film viewing experiences, catapulted me into thinking about film language as less structural and more somatically elastic. They nudged me, in early articles like “Point of View: the Blind Spot”[1] and “Independent Feminist Film Making in Australia”[2] towards an analytic mode that might be less prescriptive. I don’t imagine those articles read that way today, they probably seem horribly wannabe-big-time-theory. Moreover, it’s easy and cheap to talk contemptuously of theory (or indeed of any old enemy) as being hopelessly prescriptive. But I guess I was (although not doing it very well) part of a more general murmuring and ruffling at the edges of the structural paradigm.

TC:  Your first essays are deeply invested in psychoanalytic and semiotic theory, but they also convey an interest in the visceral, sensory qualities of films that exceed the grasp of those somewhat rigid theoretical models. Looking back at your essay “The Body as Evidence” (1982), [3] I’m struck by its interest in fantasy/phantasy, as opposed to “the look” and “the lack,” the two terms you mentioned earlier.   Do you think that “fantasy/phantasy” offered a more constructive way to talk about the connections between the somatic and the psychic, escaping the constrictive binaries of the look and the lack?

LS:  Yes! Your question Tracy has oh so sweetly cajoled me into reading that old article again. I approached the task in full cringe mode, dreading the prospect of encountering my soapbox self. But I’m so glad you did cajole me, for although it was a chore to plough through much of “The Body as Evidence,” it was also quite intriguing because, at least for the bulk of that article, the writing persona I encountered was not recognizably me. Rather, I was catapulted into an historical and cultural space where the writing appeared to me as caught in a more general tussling and rustling.

For me, now, the article really gets interesting when it engages with the question of phantasy/fantasy. This indeed is an issue which I’ve pursued and still it is what motivates me to think and argue and write and go back to look again at films. This intersects or indeed is entangled with the question of affect, the workings of affect if you like. Although in “The Body” I was not attempting to elaborate a theory as such it was certainly an intervention into a theoretical terrain. At the time it seemed to me that contemporary theories of cinema were “overdetermined” as we might then have said, by the twin evils of Narrative and Realism, and an incantatory belief in the twin pillars of the Look and the Lack. This is where psychoanalytic and Marxist (or really Althusserian) tendencies slipped into bed together. My questioning was partly about sensation and the bodily (why should even some feminists adhere to the obviousness of a male model of arousal?), about the affective power of cinema that could not be nailed by the current terms of discourse, and partly but just as importantly it was about fiction and phantasy. While my argument was not just with film theory but also with many feminist tendencies, I also knew, from on the ground political experience (around rape and pornography particularly), that it was important to take very seriously so-called empirical accounts of the bodily. I had cut my baby teeth (while thinking about experimental feminist cinema) on Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, a story about story telling, romance, femininity, melodrama and the everyday. And before “The Body” (in unknowing preparation?) I had also been writing about a peculiarly ludic variant of Australian soap opera to which I was addicted. What seemed to me really obvious and yet occluded in much of the discourse is that viewers do not necessarily believe what they see, do not naively suspend disbelief, but on the contrary may enter knowingly into unbelievable worlds, into the fictionality of worlds conjured by the filmic experience. And although they (we) may enter knowingly, clearly there is an element of the unknown involved and this is the great pleasure of cinematic engagement. I had become wary (as had others of course) about attempts to determine how films make meanings through demonstrating the mechanisms of the filmic apparatus, point of view shots, suturing mechanisms. In such accounts the affective was occluded—the question of how cinema moves as a potentiality not just from from shot to shot, but also through a range of colors and sounds and rhythms and how in the process it moves us emotionally, psychically, bodily, intellectually. What you Tracy refer to as the visceral and sensory, what Gertrud Koch in this issue refers to as the aesthetic.

TC:  Let’s talk about your writing persona. Is it fair to generalize that your publications tended toward the traditional scholarly essay form until about 1990, at which point you began to publish fiction, and that perhaps represented a turning point in your writing persona? How did you move into fiction writing?  

 LS:  Actually the turning point came a bit earlier. In 1982 I left the academy and for three years tried to make a go of it by freelancing. I had started working on Japanese cinema and learning Japanese so I started travelling to Japan, and living there for short spells. That really shook me up. I simply didn’t have the language to write about the films and the film scene I was exploring, so I had to learn a new language. Back in Melbourne I learnt a bit more about making films mostly by hanging around on the sets of film-making friends, some of whom were colleagues in the independent film activist scene. I had always written poetry and published as a student, but that had dried up along with my film writing. Escape from the university opened up new opportunities. What changed everything was writing a modest script that was produced in an experimental video workshop: Finishing Touches.[4] The challenge for me was to see how much could be done very quickly within strict constraints: 30 minutes, two characters, one location. The drama unfolded over several acts but in one place: an office. There was a woman who might have been an analyst or maybe a detective, and a man who might have been an analysand or perhaps he had committed a crime. Writing that piece and going through the production process was an exhilarating and liberating experience. Although I didn’t myself direct it, I was involved in the production and working with the actors. Having your words and ideas literally embodied—that kind of joy is routine for film writers and directors, but for me it was new (previously I had just made video essays) and revelatory. All the passion I had previously had for film theory, for psychoanalysis, for Marxism (and also for novels in general and detective novels in particular), all that passion now dampened and dwindling, was reawoken. It literally felt like waking up.

I seem to be using the term “literally” rather a lot. Of course there is something very literal about the word made flesh, about seeing your words performed by actors. But what really interested me was the obverse of literality; it was the play of fiction, the space of tension that opens up between representation and fantasy in the process of performance. The two characters in Finishing Touches tell each other stories, perform, aim to affect one another through what they say and how they say it. Just as I aimed to produce in the viewer not simply recognition (“Oh I see how it all adds up”) but also surprise and a somatic registering (provoked by jokes as much as by mystery). Finishing Touches is a very slight experiment but the experience opened up for me glimpses of how writing is and can be performative and how one might begin to think and write about performance in ways that invoke the mimetic, how one might begin to think about embodiment not as a solidifying process but as a fictional strategy. What the experience elucidated is that for me (I wasn’t really going to become a director or film writer) there was not a line distinguishing academic and theoretical writing on the one hand from fiction on the other.

TC:  And yet, within the academy, those lines between theoretical writing and fiction writing are pretty substantial. Would you agree that academia tends to reward and maybe even coerce compartmentalization? Was there something about the Australian intellectual scene during those years that made it different? What were the hubs around which intellectual communities formed?

LS:  Generally speaking yes—the lines are rigid—but it is not inevitably or invariably so. I personally found the Australian scene to be invigoratingly diverse. It was smaller and less professionalized then (in terms of cinema studies anyway) and I encountered a more heterogeneous cultural left scene, manifested in a proliferation of small often eccentric journals and magazines, often—although not always—with a relatively short life span. For twenty five years in Australia (from 1976) I published a fair bit in these journals and magazines (when I suppose I should have been writing books), writing different sorts of pieces for different audiences about different topics: performance, photography, the media, feminism, film, Zimbabwe, cultural policy. So without planning to do so I was nurtured if you like into a dispersal of personae.

What I loved about Australia (though it could also sometimes be harrowing) was the cross over, the to-and-froing between the academy and other locations. Artists, performers, grass roots political activists, femocrats, cinephiles, journalists: you could be enmeshed in conversations with a strange variety of people, conversations that occurred in pubs, over cards, at demonstrations, at conferences, and for someone like Adrian Martin, in the music scene as well as film. Sometimes the scene felt small and parochial but it was enlivening in a very fortuitous way.

TC:  It makes sense that The Scorsese Connection (1995) would emerge within such a context. How did The Scorsese Connection come about? Did you ever envision it as a traditional auteurist study, or did you always know it would be something wilder than conventional scholarship?

LS:  When the British Film Institute approached me to write a study of Scorsese I was flabbergasted and thought they might have made a mistake, sent the invitation to the wrong person. I was not interested in writing any kind of auteurist study and I was not a fan of Scorsese. But they persisted and I became intrigued. Having no idea of how to approach such an assignment I tried out some ideas in teaching. I was then working at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, in a film, theater and dance department, and designed a course that juxtaposed Scorsese films with a range of other films. Some of the films arose out of Scorsese’s own interest in film history and some were wilder juxtapositions, enabling a deflection from what you might call the Scorsese agenda, yet providing an opportunity to meander into areas that seemed to me at the time to be of concern more generally to cinema studies. There was some stuff in the air that I couldn’t grasp theoretically, such as the invocation of “intensity,” and the adjectival delirium that his films provoked in critical discourse, a delirium around affect, really.

Then, as I began writing, a mosaic-like structure began to emerge, in which I could explore questions of film history and theoretical questions but via a method closer to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others have called “weak theory.” “Method” is too strong a term, but in general what is implied here is an eschewal of “theory” as a driving force, as a polemic to which exegesis is hitched. So my interest/practice was in a mode of writing that embodies, rhymes with, the kind of thinking that is going on. In approaching Scorsese I didn’t aim to be comprehensive and nor did I necessarily choose what I considered to be his best films, sometimes it was only a scene, a fragment that would initiate a chapter. And then as the book grew, what became important, fun and challenging was working with tropes of repetition, rhyming, and juxtaposition, thinking about sequencing and dissonance and rhythm. Memory—cinematic memory, personal memory, political memory—became the thematic around which a web could be spun. And the question of how films generate affect, how they work, how they might, for instance, make your skin crawl, or force you to close your eyes. In focusing on the kinds of exchanges that occur between the screen and the viewer (in asking, as Anne Rutherford puts it: What Makes a Film Tick?), in exploring somatic knowing, I was particularly curious about performance, not just the performance of actors, but the performativity of cinema.

TC:  Can you say more about Sedgwick’s notion of “weak theory” and how that was influential?

LS:  It wasn’t a direct influence, I rather cite her because she has given a name to a certain practice, and was a wonderful exponent. And what I mean may not exactly correlate with her usage (she was elaborating a kind of counter-theory, or queer writing). By the time I came to write The Scorsese Connection [henceforth TSC] I had no interest in or commitment to elaborating a theoretical account of affect or fiction or fantasy or anything else. That remains the case. I am very grateful that other people are doing this and that I can benefit from their work and of course my work is informed by theoretical reading, by the writers and thinkers I love (and hate), but I’m not “doing” theory. Needless to say, theoretical ideas and political perspectives surface, but they hopefully arise out of the writing, in the process, rather than the writing expressing pre-existing ideas and political positions. That’s anyway how I understand “weak theory.” There are actually some large chunks of TSC that are theory driven. Later there is perhaps less, particularly as I was writing more under the spell of ficto-criticism.

TC:  I am not a huge fan of Scorsese either, but I am a fan of your book—it is really a treasure-trove that far exceeds its humble title. It could aptly be called “The Cinema Connection,” as its scope encompasses film history, feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, Deleuzian theory, close analysis, not to mention references to 146 films in addition to the Scorsese films under consideration. The connecting thread, I think, is what you refer to in the first chapter as “embodied knowing.” In some ways, the book is a brilliant take-down of auteurism. Scorsese is always there, abiding through it all, but in my reading, he’s not the most important thread. Do you agree?

LS:  Well, as you start working on an area about which you really don’t know much, you discover all kinds of things. I learnt a lot about cinema in writing that book, but I also learnt to appreciate what a great filmmaker Scorsese often is. So I would say that the name Scorsese is more than a thread, more than merely a pretext. I am all for pretexts, for finding rhetorical devices for initiating curiosity, and simultaneously for undermining the idea of a master text. But I would not really be interested in using some film maker or some film that did not excite in some way, merely as a pretext, as a hook to hang a book on. While I did not become a Scorsese expert or scholar, I did continue to develop other interests that the writing process (it took a long time!) had nurtured, such as the interest in performance and in embodied knowing. As for what you refer to as the “auteurist take-down,” I guess I simply wanted to unpack the idea of originality, and to do this through the idea of remaking. You don’t have to think of a film as a literal remake of another film (Taxi Driver as a remake of The Searchers, say), but consciously and unconsciously film makers quote images, scenes, plot details, generic tropes from other films. What is interesting is how they unravel and remake these references or quotes or allusions. What changes are rendered, and what difference do the changes make? How might these borrowings and changes alert us to processes of film history, cultural shifts?[5] The book opens with an invocation (an attempt at mimetic description) of the scene from silent cinema, from The Great Train Robbery in which a gun is pointed at the audience. I compared this to a very similar scene from Goodfellas. It is quite likely that Scorsese was paying homage to Porter but not necessarily so. In any case it was a way to begin talking about the address of film, and the affect. Also, to introduce the notion that narrative and screening conventions are not fixed but change radically (this scene, on a separate film reel, was sometimes played at the beginning of the film and sometimes at the end, and the affective force would vary presumably).

TC:  You mentioned that in your earliest writings about cinema you were interested in the body, but trepidatious about equating woman with the body. Would you say you worked through that in writing The Scorsese Connection where “embodied knowing” takes center stage?

LS:  Yes and No. I would say that it’s an alignment that has always intrigued and troubled me. The experience of being in a female body is central to my experience of being in the world, but I don’t want to have everything reduced to or explained by that equation. It intersects with the question of voice, of the “I” persona, of the writing of bodily affect. But also with fiction: the body is not an index of truth. Before TSC I kept circling around this, for instance in a piece on two quite different films by Australian women experimental filmmakers, In this Life’s Body by Corinne Cantrill and Song of Ceylon by Laleen Jayamanne.[6]

In TSC I did not want to put the body per se center stage; but I was interested in how the cinema engages the senses, and in figuring out how this happens, and how sensory engagement produces a kind of knowing. How is it that the cinema moves us? Does it have anything to do with the technology? How can we start thinking beyond the dichotomy of empathy and alienation in film viewing? Can we find ways to understand and describe the circulation of a more extensive range of emotions and feelings experienced in the viewing situation? To begin to deal with such questions meant first of all acknowledging that it is not just about the sense of sight. What other senses are mobilized? I wanted to start from a base position: that we watch movies for a range of reasons and/or to experience a range of unreasonable affects. How does this happen? How can we experience horripilation, nausea, soaring delight, faintness, vertigo, freedom from gravity? And how do these somatic responses connect us to an apprehension of the world in which we breathe and walk and make love and vote (very much on my mind as I write this in the apparently surreal and frightening election period we are immersed in here in the U.S.)?

The particular challenge was to do with description, and analysis. To describe what you are seeing and to describe how you feel, in the body. To grab the attention of the reader, to engage the reader. A question of rhetoric. Maybe we don’t have to do this any more now that we (well, not me, but you and others) can make essays that are videographic criticism. Nevertheless, I think that this issue of ekphrasis persists in the new medium, as described so well by Corey Creekmur in his essay in this Cine-Files issue on Affect.[7]

You ask whether I worked through something in TSC. I have to say that although the book revolves around questions of embodied knowing and affect, it was in a series of essays that came later, on how movies move, that I really developed what began there. And I am still perplexed by the relation of woman and body.

TC:  The Scorsese Connection really does both describe and simulate what you earlier referred to as “the performativity of cinema.” Did you have any precedents in mind when you were figuring out how to structure The Scorsese Connection?

LS:  Roland Barthes changed the way I saw everything, he opened vistas of possibility, previously unimagined. In particular: A Lover’s Discourse. It was so moving and also managed to incorporate quotation and allusion in a brilliant manner. Apart from Barthes I can’t point to a single overwhelming precedent, although there were a great many influences in the air. In terms of film, it was more movies themselves than writers about film that inspired the shaping of the book. In particular, the notion of montage (of course this was not a new idea for avant-garde writers, but not so common, I guess, in criticism): how disparate things and incommensurate things can be bumped up against one another (Raging Bull and the Red Shoes for instance), and you (the writer and the reader) can wait and see what happens when they collide. How you don’t have to balance all the chapters or aim for symmetry. You can pause and reflect on a detail, you can chew at a bone like a dog. So it might turn out that a whole chapter is provoked by a detail—redness, say, and this detail opens out into a lengthy detour on color. Or you can skim over a series of images and ideas, scarcely brushing against them. And in the process of writing you discover a series of after-images, they themselves will brush the surface of your writing, return like feathery ghosts. And this is a clue, as a writer, to develop the echoes—the itch, what gets under your skin—to give the reader an opening to make their own connections. You give your attention to what matters and you give as much attention as is needed.

I was pretty infatuated with Raul Ruiz, his filmmaking and his writing, Maya Deren likewise, and Eisenstein, particularly his diaries and memoirs. Generally speaking, I was more attracted to essayistic and aphoristic ways of writing, to ways in which the “I” voice can be incorporated without drowning in a personal swill. Walter Benjamin, of course, and many feminist writers like the practitioners of écriture feminine. And at the other end of the spectrum, Nietzsche: I tried to use Nietzsche in a Nietzschean spirit, i.e. not to explain him or use him as the hinge for a logical argument, but rather to unhinge certainty, or to lace in a taste of black humor. Quotations are simply inserted into the body of the text.

Nowadays I would be more inclined or careful to situate his “unhinging of certainties” as a mode of “skeptical” intelligence. I think of scepticism as an ethical philosophical practice more than an epistemology. It has a long lineage and is a way of linking Nietzsche to certain ancient philosophers and to a Renaissance figure like Michel de Montaigne, the great essayist. Montaigne figures in this Cine-Files essay in a similar way perhaps to Nietzsche in TSC, introducing an aphoristic tendency that hopefully provokes, but also works as something more than a provocative gesture, building—bit by jagged bit—a skeptical disposition towards theoretical and philosophical dogmatism.

You rightly identify Deleuze as a primary influence. He is the figure most cited I would think by affect theorists who situate him within a particular philosophical lineage. But there are other ways of thinking through affect or the affective power of cinema, most notably in a tradition that includes Benjamin, Kracauer, Balazs, Adorno, and contemporary thinkers like Miriam Hansen and Gertrud Koch. In TSC I was probably most focused on putting into play a concept of the mimetic that draws on psychoanalytic understandings of energy and its transfer. But there is a different line of thinking that comes via anthropology. In The Golden Bough mimesis means the direct assimilation of an essential force or attribute. It has a shamanic resonance evoking the transfer of energy from one inanimate “thing” or animate body to another. It lured me down the path of things.[8] I have returned to this realm more recently, in encountering what is called “the new animism” and in thinking about the animistic and magical capacities of cinema, but at the time I was influenced by Mick Taussig who brought Benjamin into an encounter with anthropology and from whom I got the term “embodied knowing.”

TC:  Before we discuss your series of essays about how movies move, let me bring up The Smoking Book (1999). What is the relationship between The Smoking Book and The Scorsese Connection? Were you working on them at the same time? I am imagining that Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse similarly served as inspiration for The Smoking Book’s experimental form?

LS:  I actually began what was to become The Smoking Book well before TSC though much of the research and the shaping happened after TSC was finished. For many years, however, I was writing the two books in tandem, seeing them as quite different projects, but feeding one another.

I began The Smoking Book when I was trying to give up smoking, which made it very hard to write, the habit of writing was so enmeshed with the habit of smoking. So I just scribbled whatever raw sensation made its way through my fingers onto the page. I was able to workshop these rough fragments in a women’s writing group and later they began to cohere and develop into The Smoking Book. The fragments were rough, but I didn’t want to clean things up too much, I wanted to retain the feeling both of smoking and not-smoking, of desperately-wanting-to-smoke, the intensity of sensation. But it couldn’t be just that or it would simply become intensely boring. Among the fragments were stories and memories of my childhood, of growing up on a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe, and I decided to pursue these strands. So I began spending time in the archives in Harare, researching pre-colonial as well as colonial and contemporary everyday uses of tobacco. Oddly enough, this turn towards the ethnographic happened along with the impulse to fictionalize, and this juggling act became a form of fascination. How to preserve, if you like, the integrity of things, and simultaneously how to provoke, how to lure into existence the imminent dramatic potential of every scenario. How to let history, the political, surface into and permeate fictional sketches.

A great contemporary proponent of this impulse, and of course of so much more, is Hilary Mantel. I’m currently immersed in her monumental novel A Place of Greater Safety about the French revolution. It is huge, but not an epic. There are no heroes though we come to know the players intimately. And it isn’t just that at the end there is a Committee of Public Safety (this we know) arising out of a milieu in which every place and every person is rendered unsafe, but that there is no safety in knowledge, familiarity, confidence in character. So as you read you are rendered endlessly curious, surprised, the ground shifts beneath your feet, or the bed beneath your body if you read in bed, and the guillotine hovers overhead. You think about the world we live in, now in the twenty first century, here where we are (I am) in the USA, which is not, after all, the world.

TC:  You said earlier that you began to develop, in a series of essays after The Scorsese Connection, your ideas about embodied knowing and affect. What was the first of those essays, and were there particular “aha” moments that seemed to lead you out of that “black hole into which the body fell” within earlier psychoanalytic models?

Actually there’s a lot more stuckness and deferral than sparks or aha moments in the way I work. And I find it very hard to travel in straight lines. There are early essays, focused more on performance in general (drawing on theater history) and on performance of the everyday.[9] But let’s go back to Zimbabwe. During the nineties, while in the archives in Harare, I also spent a lot of time with a theater group called Amakhosi in Bulawayo, in the south of the country. Initially I made a small film that I planned to use as a fundraiser for a big film. But my friend Sekai Holland, a brave and inveterate activist chided me, insisting that I learn more about the region, Matabeleland, and she made some crucial contacts for me. So everything slowed down. In the end I didn’t make a film or write a book, but I did eventually write an article, “How Movies Move (Between Hong Kong and Bulawayo, Between Screen and Stage….)”[10] in which many of the ideas on affect that I’d been working with are distilled. During the (long) time that I wasn’t making a film or writing the book I was working on performance, performance in and of the everyday as well as more formal instantiations in dance, performance art, theater and of course film (and some of the Bulawayo material makes it into The Smoking Book).

Amakhosi were stage performers but very influenced by kung fu movies. The question of how the energy of a stage or screen somersault might be transferred to and experienced by an immobile audience member was something I had been fascinated by earlier, in “I Think Sebastian, Therefore I … Somersault: Film and the Uncanny.”[11] There was a very arresting moment—a somersault—in Blade Runner that provoked that article. Although I didn’t manage to figure out all the temporal and spatial intricacies in that piece you could say that it set in motion a process whereby a momentary image spawns an “aha” project. Not so much,“aha, now I get it,” but rather “aha, here’s a nugget of shimmering intensity, and so what? What’s next?”

I suppose you could say that the body picked itself up and somersaulted out of the black hole.

Now you’ve got me thinking about aha moments I guess I’d have to say that reading Aby Warburg on the pathos formula was another, though really the moment stretched over many years. Through his wonderful device of the Mnemosyne and through essays Warburg explored the question of how affective force accrues to certain images, certain gestures to be more precise, of how this affective power can be transferred (independently of the content of the images), how it mutates. The intensity prevails even though the meaning can vary according to juxtaposition. What might this mean in terms of cinema? I guess that question preoccupied me across a range of cinematic “things” and movies (including Powell and Pressburger, Killer of Sheep, Godard’s History of Cinema).[12] I was most interested in trying to understand how cinema—in the extreme modalities of the histrionic and the quotidian—performs to elicit bodily knowing, and in this project to combine psychoanalytic notions of cathexis with the idea of pathos.

TC:  In Ordinary Affects (2007), Kathleen Stewart cites The Smoking Book as a key precedent for the fragmented, affect-driven, ficto-critical style of her work. I love Stewart’s description of The Smoking Book: “It leaves the reader with an embodied sense of the world as a dense network of mostly unknown links.” I think that statement also accurately describes The Scorsese Connection, as well as your more recent works on cinematic bodies and things. I have noticed that you often reference ghosts in your discussions of cinema, and that makes sense to me because I see you as a kind of scholarly conjuror, bringing to light this complex network of relations that is not evident to everyone. In your essay about cinematic animals in this issue of The Cine-Files, for example, there’s a great moment when you move from a discussion of Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady to Buster Keaton’s Go West—and the connection (which proves fruitful, of course) is enabled by a lick! So psychoanalytic theory is still at work here—you’re crafting meaning through associative links that typically remain unconscious—but we’re far, far away from the Look and the Lack that were bent on demystification. I’m wondering whether you see yourself as a conjuror?

LS:  I wouldn’t have thought to put it like this but I love the idea of conjuring. Thank you for that image. Writing is indeed a way of entering into a magical space. For me, the “magical” space of writing is a space where one is constantly encountering swarms of hungry ghosts. They make their presence felt. Isabelle Stengers has talked about the experience of writing as an animist experience, and this resonates for me, but so too her caution. It’s all very well to think of writing—particularly the writing of ideas—as a rhizomatic practice, indebted to and arising out of a milieu, an assemblage, but saying this can become an easy invocation. “Whatever lures us or animates,” she says, “may also enslave, and all the more so if taken for granted.”[13] I’d add that magic is many-faceted, transformative in many respects and dimensions. Sleight of hand is a pretty good skill and can get you quite far, just think of the Lady Eve. You will surely try not to dupe the reader by sleight of hand but at the same time why resist the bag of tricks that dangles in front of you as you face a blank page?

And thank you also for those lovely words from Katie Stewart, which I had clean forgotten about. Although we met long ago it was only after she had published Ordinary Affects that Katie and I became friends, and have been part of a loose and dispersed writing group. A few years ago we took a road trip in Texas and the pieces we wrote in tandem have just appeared in a book titled Sensitive Objects.

TC:  Your most recent work, published in this issue of The Cine-Files takes as its focus cinematic animals. How did you turn to animals after writing about objects and then dead bodies in cinema?

LS:  Dead and Alive, a short book or long essay in the marvelous Caboose series came out of my work on Things, which is laced through and integral to thinking about the performativity of cinema.[14] “Dead” and “alive” are not so far apart for me, and ghosts wander everywhere. Things, plants, chickens, whales … In recent years I have been writing more about gardening and gardens and chickens and cancer and other things, in general about the larger-than-human world. In my current project Diary of a Detour—a book of essays and musings I began when I was unwell and could only write in very short bursts—the challenge has been to impart the powerful affect of these everyday and extreme crisis-ridden experiences, but without resorting to sentimentality or special pleading.[15] Not always achieved. I see “Once I’ve Devoured Your Soul We Are Neither Animal nor Human” as part of an on-going experimentation with modes of writing arising out of, feeding in to, varieties of embodied knowing. It seems that the body does not go away so easily, but neither does cinema.

TC:  I very much appreciate that in your work—the way it builds knowledge and certainly offers insights, but in a way that prompts more questions rather than shuts down inquiry, more like an essay film than a traditional scholarly essay.  I think you’ve given us a scholarly method for following “things that quicken the heart,” which is, I would like to think, our goal as cinephiles after all!

LS:  I’ve enjoyed talking with you Tracy, you’ve urged me to reconsider and find new ways to think about old ideas. I so look forward to more conversations and exchanges with you about all sorts of things.

TC:  I thank you immensely for your generosity with this interview. It has been such a pleasure, and I’m honored to share it with readers of The Cine-Files.


[1] Lesley Stern, “Point of View: The Blind Spot,” Film Reader 4 (1979): 214–236.

[2] Lesley Stern, “Independent Feminist Film Making in Australia,” Australian Journal of Screen Theory 5-6 (1979): 105–121. Reprinted in An Australian Film Reader, ed. A. Moran, et al. (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985), 314–326.

[3] Lesley Stern, “The Body as Evidence,” Screen 24.3 (September 1982): 39–60. Reprinted in Mandy Merck and Barbara Creed, Eds. The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader (London: Routledge, 1992), 197–220.

[4] Lesley Stern, “Finishing Touches,” Australian Journal of Screen Theory 17-18 (1986): 49–75.

[5] See also, Lesley Stern, “Emma in Los Angeles: Remaking the Book and the City,” in Film Adaptation, ed. James Naremore (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 221–238.

[6] Lesley Stern, “As Long as This Life Lasts,” Photofile (Winter 1987): 15–19.

[7] On ekphrasis, see Lesley Stern, “Descriptive Acts,” introductory essay in Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, eds. Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros (Sydney: Power Publications, 1999).

[8] Lesley Stern, “Paths that Wind Through the Thicket of Things,” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Fall 2001): 317–354. Reprinted in Things, ed. Bill Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 393–430.

[9] Lesley Stern, “Ghosting the Body,” Agenda 17 (May 1991): 21-22. And “Engendering the Body,” Spectator Burns no.2 (April 1988): 41–47.

[10] Lesley Stern, “How Movies Move (between Hong Kong and Bulawayo, between Screen and Stage…)” in Natasa Durovica and Kathleen Newman, Eds. World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (NewYork: Routledge, 2010): 186–216.

[11] Lesley Stern, “I Think Sebastian, Therefore I … Somersault: Film and the Uncanny,” Paradoxa 3.3-4 (1998): 348–366.

[12] See for instance the 2002 essay “Putting on a Show, or The Ghostliness of Gesture,” Lola issue 5 (November 2014); “Ghosting: the Performance and Migration of Cinematic Gesture, focusing on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Good Men Good Women,” in Migrations of Gesture: Film, Art, Dance, eds. Carrie Nolan and Sallie Ann Ness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 185–215; “The Tales of Hoffman: An Instance of Operality,” in Between Opera and Cinema, eds. J. Joe and R. Theresa (New York: Routledge, 2001), 39–57; “From the Other side of Time,” in The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Filmmaker, ed. Ian Christie and Andrew Moore (London: BFI, 2005), 36–55; “Memories that Don’t Seem Mine,” in The Language and Style of Film Criticism, eds. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (New York: Routledge, 2011), 36–55; “’Always Too Small Or Too Tall’: Rescaling Film Performance,” in Acting and Performance in Moving Image Culture. Bodies, Screens, Renderings. With a Foreword by Lesley Stern, eds. Jörg Sternagel, Deborah Levitt and Dieter Mersch (Bielefeld: transcript Metabasis, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1–41.

[13] Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” E-Flux no. 36 (July 2012),

[14] Lesley Stern, Dead and Alive: the Body as Cinematic Thing, Kino-Agora Book 2 (Montreal: caboose, 2012).

[15] See web site,


The Cine-Files, issue 10 (spring 2016)