News has come through of the death of Professor Miriam Hansen (1949-2011) of the University of Chicago. Hansen was one of the outstanding scholars investigating the silent film period, whose book Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) bids fair to be the most influential and most cited work in the field. Hansen’s subject was spectatorship and the public sphere: she investigated early film in pursuit of that mysterious point at which film becomes aware of its viewers. Her book introduces the challenge involved by reference to the Corbett-Fitzimmons boxing film of 1897 and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik three decades later. Both had strong appeal for women audiences, but while the latter consciously anticipated the gaze of a female spectator, the former only encouraged such viewers by accident. At what point did the change come?
When, how, and to what effect does the cinema conceive of the spectator as a textual term, as the hypothetical point of address of filmic discourse? And once such strategies have been codified, what happens to the viewer as a member of a plural, social audience?
These questions go to the heart of what makes early cinema such a fascinating subject, because in attempting to answer them we see how central cinema was to a change in consciousness – specificially change in the balance between what scholars like to refer to as the private and the public sphere.
Illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanies an article by Mary Heaton Vorse, ‘Some Moving Picture Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911
Miriam Hansen was a great deal more than a one-book woman. Her first book was on Ezra Pound, and she wrote variously on German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese cinema, on popular culture, film theory, and social theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. However it was Babel and Babylon that established her huge reputation, and it has to be the academic dream, to write the one book that changes the way people think.
It’s not a book for the general film enthusiast; indeed there has been many a general enthusiast who has been quite alarmed by it. But read it closely and you’ll find a book of great humanity underneath the dense argument. Hansen’s great achievement was to take the subject of spectatorship, and to show that behind that abstract notion of an idealised viewer, seemingly at the mercy of the ideological predilections of the cinema, there were far more complex forces at work. She showed how important it was to have an understanding of the social history of the early cinema period, allowing for a richer, more various understanding characterised by gender, class, ethnicity and locality. It was her great knowledge of early American cinema in all its forms that made her work so persuasive, and so lasting. She has died too young, and the loss felt will be great. But her ideas have helped ensure that early cinema remains a vital subject for intellectual discovery for many years to come.