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Feeling Revolution: Cinema and the Emancipation of the Soviet Senses

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Karl Marx himself suggested provocatively that the ‘end of private property’ (socialism) would bring about an ‘emancipation of the senses.’ Capitalism creates a rupture between the human body and the world: capitalist senses are impoverished. So Socialist revolution must, and would, create socialist senses: the human subject would be reborn into a heightened sensory appreciation of the material world. Revolution would be felt- and lived – through the body.

This ambition had particular resonance in Soviet Russia during the first decades after 1917. In this lecture, we will examine cinema’s role in an anticipated Soviet sensory revolution. Still a new medium in the early 20th century, film seemed able both to discover the world afresh, and model a new way of inhabiting (or sensing) it. Filmmakers exploited the textures and surfaces of material on screen. They experimented with film’s potent all-body impact on the spectator, seeking to provoke new, and specifically socialist, sensations.

This evening, we will explore some of these ‘socialist’ sensations through the figure of the craftsperson, and consider the ambivalent status of hands and handwork in the emerging Soviet revolutionary aesthetics. Alongside, and even within, those iconic Soviet ‘production’ movies and their ubiquitous machines, we find potters, weavers, shoemakers and carpenters. Why was the traditional ‘maker’ a starting point in the search for a newly sensate model of human subjectivity?

This talk is part of the Slavonic Studies series.

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