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Constructing Radical Novelty: The Naive Spectator in Early Film Promotion

Presentation at the Humanities Seminar at Muhlenberg College

Wednesday, October 26 at 5pm, Seegers 111, Muhlenberg College

Abstract: In the 1890s, moving images were just one of many popular entertainment forms vying for American consumers' attention. In this talk, I illuminate how early film promoters adapted a trope from colonialist discourse to bolster their claims about the medium’s radical novelty and unprecedented power. Stories about “primitives” in colonial settings panicking when presented with modern technologies had long functioned to render those technologies, and the cultures that produced them, superior and modern. I track this trope, the naive “primitive” spectator, along two interconnected discursive circuits. In the first, tales about naive spectators in colonial contexts were transferred to the American urban scene. In the second, the trope was mapped onto various subject positions including Native Americans, elite white women, country rubes and more. Juxtaposing the new machine with “primitive” behavior not only rendered moving image technology radically new, it also suggested that the medium itself had the power to temporarily render even modern spectators “primitive,” tapping into a widespread though ambivalent desire to access a primal experience.

Image Credit: Still from Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

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