Annette Michelson in her famous 1969 essay, Bodies in Space: Film as 'Carnal Knowledge' in which she explored the phenomenal impact of 2001: A Space Odyssey


by Annette Michelson

The text below, originally published in 1969 in Artforum, a journal of which I was then an editor, is here reprinted as a document of possible historical interest. A few contextual considerations should clarify this claim.
It is an enthusiastic, indeed a celebratory response to a film received by the American press during the first year of its release with almost unanimous hostility. The collection of reviews generously supplied by MGM’s New York office had made this abundantly clear. Although written out of admiring delight in Kubrick’s achievement, it was impelled, as well, by a sense of the deep injustice, the lack of generosity that had greeted his offering of the magnum opus that marked, in my view, an important moment in the history of cinema.
The essay is, in several senses, a period piece of the moment of the 1960s that witnessed the initial stages of the new discipline of Cinema Studies. The vast production of its literature was still to come. The writer is consequently reaching for a theoretical framework that does not yet exist; she senses that here is a film that may hold clues to an ontology of cinema. André Bazin’s remarkable work, although partially available by then, could not accommodate a cinema such as this, and the first interesting stirrings of semiological analysis did not appear apt to account for the force, scale, humor and beauty of the Space Odyssey.
The text is almost entirely innocent of the political and military applications and implications of the “space effort” then under way in this country and the Soviet Union. These factors, deeply inscribed in Kubrick’s work, do call for serious consideration. An assessment of the Space Odyssey in relation to Dr. Strangelove would no doubt have strengthened analysis of the later film.
The essay was, as I now, three decades later, see, an opening move in what was to develop as a claim for a cinema of modernism. While I do not renounce that claim, I now view it as overly insistent in this instance; that insistence would now be qualified by other theoretical considerations that orient research and analysis of cinema.
If this text does retain some interest that is not wholly historical, it may lie in its stress on the corporeality of this cinema, the manner in which it implicates the spectator’s body, in its linkage of kinesis and vision, of the aesthetic and the cognitive. The writer is searching for a way—new and different from that of Bazin—of engaging phenomenological method in the service of film analysis. Edmund Husserl, the founder of that method, had declared in his meditations on The Origins of Geometry (1936) that the earth was not an object, but rather the ground of our being, of knowing and sensing, of meaning, and that should we, through flight, reach another planet, we will then have a double, unified earth in relation to which motion and rest are to be conceived. Space travel, promising a radical extension of our horizons, had now found in Kubrick’s film its uniquely poetic expression. This called for celebration.

* * *


by Annette Michelson


All mastery casts a chill.

The indefinable, knowing
fear which is the clearest
intimation of the metaphysical.


In the winter of 1905 the first continuously operated movie theatre opened in Los Angeles. There is an obvious sense in which the history of film is circumscribed by the feature of that theatre’s initial program. George Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is another sense in which its evolution hypostatizes the accelerating dynamics of History. Walking the three blocks between the Museum of Modern Art’s screening room and the Loew’s Capitol, thinking of that evolution, one finds oneself tracing a vector, exploring, in implication, as one goes, a multi-dimensional movement of human consciousness in our century.
In 1961, the year of Méliès’ centenary, the Cinémathèque Française and the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs presented in the Louvre a commemorative exhibition still present to me as one of the finest I have seen. One wandered through the reconstitution of a life-work prodigious in its inventive abundance as through a forest alive with apparitions and metamorphoses, stopping all at once, however, as before a clearing, arrested by a shaft of light, the illumination flaring from a photograph upon the wall.
Greatly enlarged, it showed the Méliès Company in action[1]. The Company had been, of course, a familiar affair, its production something of a “cottage industry,” and one saw it here in operation on one of the artfully designed and fastidiously executed sets which were a point of honor and pride for an indefatigable Master Builder. The photograph gave one pause.
It gives us a behind-the-scene view, shows not the action being filmed, but its reverse side, the flats of its set anchored, here and there, in the manner of theatrical décor, to the ground. Men — gentlemen, formally dressed and hatted — stand about, supporting those flats, ready to catch them should the screws fail and they fall. The image is, of course, “moving” because it restores to us the feeling of the primitive, the home-made and artisanal modesty, the fragile and precarious underpinnings of a grandiose venture. It articulates, as well, the manner in which film first made its entrance, through the stage door (l’entrée des artistes), and something of the homely mechanics, the dialectic at work in the fabrication of illusion itself, its re-invention for us. It illustrates the manner in which the artisan, the bourgeois family man, the bricoleur, prestidigitator and entrepreneur fused in a single figure of genius to engender the art of cinema as we know it.
The 19th century had been dreaming of movies, as all its forms of popular narrative and diversion (photographic album, panoramic view, magic lantern, shadow play, wax museum and the novel itself) conspire to testify, and Méliès’ intrepid talent, a synthesis of the imagination and industry which were subsequently to be reified into the opposing terms of the new form’s dialectic, fused these dreams into something real. If Lumière had been the first cinematographer, Méliès was the first of the réalisateurs, as distinct from the metteurs en scène; he realized the cinema itself.
Seeing Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, we sense, we know, that its ontogeny recapitulates a phylogeny[2]. The very conditions of its making involved the scale of enterprise, the dedicated resolution and intellectual flexibility, the proud marshalling of vast resources brought to bear upon the most sophisticated ambitious ventures of our culture. Its making required, indeed, a length and complexity of preparation, a breadth of conception and detail of organization analogous only to those invested in the launching of a new regime, a new inter-continental missile system, a fresh episode in the exploration of space. And its appearance has, in fact, generated the same sort of apprehension or “cultural shock” which Arthur C. Clarke describes, in his novelistic rendering of the screenplay, as the reaction to the invention of “the highly advanced HAL 9000 Computer, the brain and nervous system” of the narrative’s “vehicle,” the space-ship Discovery.
Like that black monolith whose unheralded materialization propels the evolution of consciousness through the three panels of the movie’s narrative triptych, Kubrick’s film has assumed the disquieting function of Epiphany. It functions as a disturbing structure, emitting, in its intensity of presence and perfection of surface, sets of signals. That intensity and perfection are contingent upon a conspicuous invisibility of facture commanded by the power of a rigorously conceptual imagination, disposing of vast amounts of money. Those signals, received by a bewildered and apprehensive community (tribe? species?) of critics, have propelled them, all unwilling, into a chorus of dismay, a choreography of vacillation, of approach, and recoil, to and from the “object.” We know that song and dance; they are the old, familiar projection of a crisis in criticism. And still the “object” lures us on. Another level or “universe” of discourse awaits us.
We are dealing, then, with a work which is revelatory, a “breakthrough,” one whose substance and function fuse in the synthetic radicalization of its metaphors. It is precisely because form and surface command the most immediate and complex intensity of physical response that they release a wild energy of speculation, confirming, even as they modify, the character and options of the medium. In that oscillating movement between confirmation and transformation, the film as a whole performs the function of a Primary Structure, forcing the spectator back, in a reflexive gesture, upon the analytic rehearsal of his experience, impelling, as it does so, the conviction that here is a film like any other, like all others, only more so — which is to say, a paradigm, unique. (If one were concerned with an “ontology” of cinema, this film would be a place to look for it.) The margin of a difference-in-similarity which contains or defines its “edge” over other films is the locus of poetry.
The play of an inspired primate (“Moonwatcher” is Clarke’s name for him) ending the Prologue of this film, issues in the visionary realization which transforms a bone into a weapon, then flings it in a gesture of apperceptive exultation, high into the vacant air. Méliès’ extraordinary intuition, realizing (inventing) the possibilities of the medium, created out of forms and materials that lay to hand, a new instrument of the Imagination, an agent of power and delight, launching his cinema in confident optimism out into an unsuspecting world.
Kubrick’s transformation of bone into space-craft through the movement of redescent (through that single cut which concludes the Prologue and initiates the Odyssey) inscribes, within the most spectacular ellipsis in cinematic history, nothing less than the entire trajectory of human history, the birth and evolution of Intelligence. Seizing, appropriating the theme of spatial exploration as narrative metaphor and formal principle, he has projected intellectual adventure as spectacle, converting, through still another leap of the imagination, Méliès’ pristine fantasy to the form and uses of a complex and supremely sophisticated structure.
Moving, falling toward us with the steady and purposive elegance of an incomparably powerful “vehicle,” Kubrick’s masterwork is designed, in turn, as an instrument of exploration and discovery. A Space Odyssey is, in fact, in the sustained concreteness and formal refinement which render that design, precisely that which Ortega believed modern poetry to have become: a “higher algebra of metaphors.”


The object of motion moves
neither in the space in
which it is nor in that
in which is not.


The present hath no space.
Where then is the time
which we may call long?

—Saint Augustine

In a letter, undated but probably of 1894, Pierre Louys calls upon Debussy, about to embark upon the career of music critic which produced the brilliant and insolent persona of “Monsieur Croche, Anti-Dilettante,” to “do something” to cure the malady of contemporary criticism. Complaining that “one cannot strike a single chord these days without eliciting a flurry of metaphysical speculation,” he says that Lohengrin, after all is a work “about movements.” “It is about a man who arrives and departs,” and nothing else. Or, as Valéry was shortly to say, “The true connoisseur of this art is necessarily the person to whom it suggests nothing.”
Like all statements of this kind, these strictures suggest a critical strategy rather than an esthetic, a working hypothesis formulated in terms of a particular historical situation, a re-orientation of critical concern in the interests of immediate usefulness and interest. Like Fénéon’s descriptive criticism of painting, like Mallarmé’s assertion, to Degas, that “poetry is made with words rather than with ideas,” like Robbe-Grillet’s attack on Metaphor, Stravinsky’s rejection of musical “content” or “subject,” and Artaud’s indictment of theatrical text, they propose a therapy for an intellectual tradition in which, as in that of our current film criticism, an endemic and debilitating Idealism perpetuates exhausted critical categories. Reductive, double-edged, polemically inflected, they urge a closer, fresher, more innocent and comprehending view of the Object, a respect for form and physicality as the ground of interest and value.
Like Lohengrin, A Space Odyssey is, of course, endlessly suggestive, projects a syncretic heritage of myths, fantasies, cosmologies and aspirations. Everything about it is interesting; it proposes, however, nothing of more radical interest than its own physicality, its “formal statement” on the nature of movement in its space; it “suggests” nothing so urgent and absorbing as an evidence of the senses, its discourse on knowledge through perception as action, and ultimately, on the nature of the medium as “action film,” as mode and model of cognition.
Reading the critical or journalistic reproaches (and defenses) addressed to this film’s supposedly “static quality,” its “plotless” structure in which “nothing happens,” one recalls the myths which dominated a half-century or so of theatrical criticism’s uncomprehending view of Chekhov, as of Wagner. In this Odyssey, incident, surprise, discovery, shock and violence abound. Its plot turns, in fact, upon intrigue, as the French define plot. And, like a “scenario” (the term adopted by contemporary technocrats such as Herman Kahn for their hypothetical projections of our future), its structure is “open.” Like Lohengrin and Uncle Vanya, above all, however, this work is about “arrival and departure,” about movement. Its narrative, a voyage of discovery, a progress towards disembodiment, explores, as through a multi-level tactics of displacement, through a constant and intensive re-invention of the possibilities of cinematic immediacy, the structural potentialities of haptic disorientation as agent of cognition.
Navigation — of a vessel or human body — through a space in which gravitational pull is suspended, introduces heightened pleasures and problems, the intensification of erotic liberation and of the difficulty of purposeful activity. In that floating freedom, all directed and purposive movement becomes work, the simplest task to exploit. The new freedom poses for the mind, in and through the body, the problematic implications of all freedom, forcing the body’s recognition of its suspended coordinates as its necessity. The dialectic of pleasure and performance principles, projected through camera’s radical re-structuring of environment, the creation of ranges of change in light, scale, pace, heighten, to the point of transformation, the very conditions of film experience. Viewing becomes, as always but as never before, the discovery, through the acknowledgment of disorientation, of what it is to see, to learn, to know, and of what it is to be, seeing. Once the theatre seat has been transformed into a vessel, opening out onto and through the curve of a helmet to that of the screen as into the curvature of space, one rediscovers, through the shock of recognition, one’s own body living in its space. One feels suspended, the mind not quite able to “touch ground.” One surveys the familiar ground of experience (as the astronauts have indicated, remarking that a prime reason for space flight lay in the rediscovery and organization of earth’s resources), feeling the full meaning of “suspense” as anticipation, sensing that though things may possibly be the same again, they will, thanks to Kubrick, never be the same in quite the same way.
If, then, Space Odyssey proposes, as in Bergson’s view all works of art do, “the outline of a movement,” it is, as well what Élie Faure claimed all film to be: “an architecture of movement.” As a film which takes for its very subject, theme and dynamics — both narrative and formal — movement itself, it has a radical, triple interest and urgency, a privileged status in the art that is ours, modern.


Form is tinted with meaning.
—Quintilian, after Zeno

The secret of the true
artist consists in the
following: he effaces
nature through form.


There is a moment — that present moment which extends a century back into the past — in which the entire system of presuppositions governing the artist’s view of subject, content and theme is undermined. That moment initiates in the radical questioning of art as mimesis. It produces a shift or displacement of the artist’s aspiration. The movement of displacement is by no means steady or uncontested, as the entirely problematic esthetic implicit in Expressionism (it is, after all, neither school nor style, but the name we give to sixty years of polymorphic contestation) insistently reminds us. In that shift, the culmination of a crisis sustained since the 17th century through philosophy, the authority of the imagination moves to replace that of a transcendence animating the esthetic of transcription or expression. Sustained through the radical art of our century, the shift is pre-figured in Flaubert’s celebrated letter of January, 1852, to Louise Colet: “What I consider fine, what I should like to do is a book about nothing, a book without external attachments of any sort, which would hold of itself, through the inner strength of its style, as the earth sustains itself with no support in air, a book with almost no subject. Or at least an almost invisible subject, if possible.”
This aspiration toward a work of total autonomy, self-referring, self-sustaining and self-justifying, required the invention of a mediating strategy, a transition. The subject could be eliminated only through a process of dissolution initiated by its re-definition. Therefore, Flaubert’s subsequent affirmation, in a letter dated one year later: “Since poetry is purely subjective, there is no such thing as a fine subject. Yvetôt and Constantinople are of equal value. One can write equally well about anything at all. It is the artist who elevates things (through his manner of writing).” (The manner in and degree to which the history of pictorial and sculptural modernism confirms and embodies this position requires no immediate development in this particular journal.)
It is, however, at precisely that moment which instigates the dissolution of the subject, a process crystallized and extended through Mallarmé and Cézanne into the art of our own day, it is when the painter, rendering “seeing rather than things seen,” takes painting as his subject, when the novelist commences the relating of “narrativity” itself, that art’s aspiration shifts, expands, intensifies, tending, as in a movement of compensation, towards the most radical and all-encompassing of possible functions. Poetry, consenting through Mallarmé to be poetry only, proposes, simultaneously, to become “the orphic explanation of the earth,” of a “world meant,” moreover, “to end in a book.” The dissolution of subject or figure, the contestation of art as Mimesis, of Realism itself, is grounded in the problematic consciousness of a reality no longer assumed as pre-defined or pre-existent to the work of the imagination. Art now takes the nature of reality, the nature of consciousness in and through perception, as its subject or domain. As exploration of the conditions and terms of perception, art henceforth converges with philosophy and science upon the problem of reality as known and knowable.
Thus, the very ambiguity of Kandinsky’s title for his esthetic treatise, Towards the Spiritual in Art — translatable, too, from the German as Towards the Intellectual in Art — defines with great precision the nature and locus of the shift. Its ambiguity spells out the problems involved in the relocation, through abstraction, of sources of authority, interest and aspiration, which had been dislodged by the crisis in the Western metaphysical tradition. Text and title re-enact, in their ambivalence and contradictions, that crisis; their celebrated “confusion” has the clarity of a syndrome, a syndrome converted into an esthetics bequeathed to us, somewhat in the manner of an hereditary taint or talent, in the sensibility of “Abstract Expressionism.”
That movement towards abstraction which animates the style and esthetics of modernism posed, for every art form, the problem of what Ortega calls “the incompatibility of the perception of lived reality with the perception of artistic form,” in so far as “they call for different adjustments of our perceptive apparatus.” “An art that requires such a double seeing is a squinting art. The 19th century was cross-eyed…” Ortega, speaking with a certain crudeness symptomatic of ambivalence, spoke far truer than he knew.
Surely that statement is nowhere more significant than in its central omission. It stops just short of the recognition that the 19th century ended in producing the cinema, the art form whose temporality created another space in which “lived reality” could once again be figured, re-structured. Cinema is the temporal instrument working in a direction counter to that of modernist painting’s increasingly shallow space, through which the deep space of illusionism is reinvented. In assuming the burden of illusionism, cinema reintroduces not only “lived reality,” but an entirely new and seemingly limitless range of structural relationships allowing for the reconciliation of “lived reality” with “artistic form.” In order to do so, of course, film not only rehabilitated the “squint,” but elevated it to the status of a dynamics of creation and perception, installed it at the very central principle of an art form, the source of its power and refinement.
Film’s relation to modernism is, consequently, delicate and complex in the extreme, and the demands it makes upon its audience have a strenuousness directly proportionate to that complexity and delicacy, contingent upon its illusionistic immediacy. Its fullest experience demands a kind of critical, apperceptive athleticism.
As all who care more than casually for movies know, the point at which one begins to understand the nature of the medium comes when one sees the image before one, not as a sequence of events evolving past or within the limits of a frame, but rather as a structure organized in depth and in relation to the frame by the camera itself. The heightened experience of film henceforth involves the constant oscillation between the two “points of view,” the constant “adjustment of the perceptive apparatus” in an activity of experience. The trajectory of both narrative and-of camera lens as the extension of the eye and will of the artist begins to describe itself for us when we see, as in the scene of the poisoning of the Czarina in Ivan the Terrible, that the slow and devious passage of a goblet through a room is the propulsion, to its destined victim, by design dissembled as chance, through a camera movement, the movement of History. Film’s narrative now acquires the dimension of style, as the structural and sensuous incarnation of the artist’s will.
One follows, in another celebrated instance, the trolley car ride of Murnau’s Sunrise, moved to pity by the protagonist’s agony of anguish and shame, borne along, from a country to a city landscape, carried away, as they emerge from an extremity of alienation into reconciliation as into the New Jerusalem, and ultimately transported by the movement of the camera, the artist’s agent, his mind’s eye, defining and sustaining the space and dimensions of narrative as form.
Film proposes, then, and most sharply when it is greatest, a dissociative economy of viewing. That is why, although its “dream-like” quality received an immediate and extensive entry into the Dictionary of Received Ideas, it remains to be stressed that cinema is, more than any other art form, that which Plato claimed art in general to be: a dream for waking minds. The paradox testifies to the manner in which film provokes that delicate dissociation, that contraposto of the mind, that constantly renewed tension and readjustment whose symptom is, indeed, Ortega’s “squint.”
If this distance, the alienation of the spectator with respect to his experience, reflecting the elevation of doubt to an esthetic principle, may be said to characterize modernist sensibility as a whole, determining, in fact, the intensity of its very longing for immediacy, then film’s conversion of that principle to the uses of a formal dynamics gives it a privileged place as a medium centrally involved with the cognitive aspiration of modern art. The dissociative economy of film viewing heightens our perception of being physical to the level of apperception: one becomes conscious of the modes of consciousness. The athleticism required of the spectator is contingent on the manner in which film reflects or returns that which is brought to it. Like all esthetic situations, it offers — quite beyond the luxury of identification — the occasion to gain awareness of the inner presuppositions that sustain us, so that pleasure is informed with the shock of recognition.
A Space Odyssey, that film of “special effects” in which “nothing happens,” is simply one which, in its extremity of stylistic formal coherence and richness, its totally reinvented environment, quite dissolves the very notion of the “special effect.” They disappear. Above all, however, it solicits, in its overwhelming immediacy, the relocation of the terrain upon which things happen. And they happen, ultimately, not on the screen but somewhere between screen and spectator. It is the area defined and constantly traversed by our active restructuring and reconstitution, through an experience of “outer” space, of the “inner” space of the body. Kubrick’s film, its action generating a kind of cross-current of perception and cognitive restructuring, visibly reaches, as it were, for another arena, redefining the content of cinema, its “shape of content.” The subject and theme of A Space Odyssey emerge, then, as neither social nor metaphysical; they develop elsewhere, between, in a genetic epistemology.


My mobility is the way in which I counterbalance the mobility of things, thereby understanding and surmounting it. All perception is movement, and the world’s unity, the perceiver’s unity, are the unity of counterbalanced displacements.

All things in the heaven of intelligibility are heavenly… In this kingdom, all is diaphanous. Nothing is opaque or impenetrable, and light encounters light. No traveler wanders as in a foreign land.

This Odyssey traces, then, in its “higher algebra of metaphors,” the movement of bodies in space, voyaging through spheres beyond the pull of terrestrial attraction, in exploration of the Unknown, in and through Discovery.
The Voyage as narrative form acts, in its deformation or suspension of the familiar framework of existence (as in the logic of Alice, the geography of Saint Brendan, the reality of Don Quixote, the sociology of Gulliver), to project us, as in space travel, toward the surface of a distant world, its propulsive force contriving, through a Logistics of the Imagination, to redeliver us in rebound from that surface, into the familiar, the known, the Real.
So, too, the voyage of the astronauts ultimately restores us, through the heightened and complex immediacy of this film, to the space in which we dwell. This navigation of a vessel as instrument of exploration, of the human organism as adventurer, dissolves the opposition of body and mind, bringing home to us the manner in which “objective spatiality” is but the envelope of that “primordial spatiality,” the level on which the body itself effects the synthesis which is a fusion of meaning as experienced, tending toward equilibrium.
By constantly questioning that “objective spatiality,” Kubrick incarnates the grand theme and subject of learning as self-recognition, of growth as the constant disruption and re-establishment of equilibrium in progress towards knowledge. This succession of re-establishments of equilibrium proposes a master metaphor for the mind at grips with reality, and we re-enact its progress through a series of disconcerting shocks which solicit our accommodation.
As soon as the airline hostess starts her movement through the space-craft’s interior, moving up the wall, around and over the ceiling, disappearing upside down into it, we get an intimation — through the shock of surprise instigated by the defiance of our gravity — of the nature of our movement in our space. The delight we take in the absurdity of her progress is the index of our heightened awareness of something fundamental in ourselves. The system of pre-suppositions sustaining our spatial sense, the coordinates of the body itself, are hereby suspended and revised. That revision and its acknowledgment constitute our passport into another space and state of being, from which our own can be observed and known.
The writing pen floating in the space-craft’s cabin and retrieved by the hostess prior to her movement over wall and into ceiling had signaled to us, as it were, the passage into the weightless medium. Since, however, we define and comprehend movement — and repose — in terms of our own bodily positions, through the sense of inner coordinates rather than in terms of what is merely seen, that signal could not fully prepare us for, or inform us of, the suspension of those coordinates, inevitable in the weightless environment. (And indeed, judging from the surprised laughter that has followed that second sequence in each of nine viewings of the film, it does not prepare us.) The difference between the two qualities and intensities of response is the difference between things seen and things felt, between situations visibly observed and those sensed haptically, between a narrative emblem and a radically formal embodiment of, spatial logic.
A weightless world is one in which the basic coordinates of horizontality and verticality are suspended. Through that suspension the framework of our sensed and operational reality is dissolved. The consequent challenge presented to the spectator in the instantaneously perceived suspension and frustration of expectations, forces readjustment. The challenge is met almost instantaneously, and consciousness of our own physical necessity is regenerated. We snap to attention, in a new, immediate sense of our earth-bound state, in repossession of those coordinates, only to be suspended, again, toward other occasions and forms of recognition. These constitute the “subplot” of the Odyssey, plotting its action in us.
The extraordinary repetitive sequence of the woman climbing a staircase in Léger’s Ballet Méchanique erases the possibility of destination or of completion of action, thereby freezing a woman in a perpetual motion of ascent. So, too, this first sequence of the air-hostess’s navigation (and it is only one of an amazing series of variations upon the qualities and modes of movement) suspends us, in its frustration and inversion of our expectations, impelling us to a reflexive or compensatory movement of reversal, clarifying for us something of the essential nature of motion itself.
By distorting or suspending the logic of action as we know it (movement’s completion in time, the operation of the coordinates), each sequence questions, thereby stimulating awareness of, the corporeal a-prioris which compose our sensory motor apparatus. Sensing, after the fifth ascent or so that Léger’s woman will never “arrive,” we re-direct our attention, in a movement of recognition, to the fact and quality of movement as such. The recognition of paradox speaks through our laughter, arguing for that double nature of Comedy as Bergson saw it; its delight in the concrete and its unique capacity for play with ideas.
In their reduction of people moving to bodies in motion, both sequences elicit the laughter which Bergson tells us is the response to that transformation or reduction of the human into the mechanical which underlies all comedy. Solicited, then, through a constantly playful succession of surprises to a re-assessment or re-structuring of the real, we see, in our surprised laughter, that here is a work which employs a very serious form of wit to teach us something of the nature of our experience.
A Space Odyssey, then, proposes, in its epistemology, the illustration of a celebrated theory of Comedy. In a film whose terrain or scene of action is, as we have seen, the spectator, the spectator becomes the hero or butt of comedy. The laugh is on us; we trip on circumstance, recognizing, in a reflex of double-take, that circumstances have changed. Tending, in the moment which precedes this recognition, “to see that which is no longer visible,” assuming the role of absent-minded comic hero, “taken in,” we then adjust in comprehension, taking it in.” Kubrick does make Keatons of us all.
If “any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned,” A Space Odyssey indeed provides, through variation and inversion, a fascinating range of comic situations. (On quite another level, of course HAL, the computer as character, reverses the comic “embarrassment of the soul by the body” in being a mere body embarrassed by possession of a soul. A thing which gives the impression of being a person, rather than — as in silent comedy at its paroxysmic best — a person giving the impression of being a thing, “he acts as though he has feelings,” as one astronaut remarks. Here, God help us, is someone or something who, as R.D. Laing says, “can pretend to be what — or it — really is.”)
As a film whose grand theme is that of learning, whose effect is intimately revelatory, A Space Odyssey is, in the strongest and deepest sense of the word, maieutic. Kubrick’s imagination, exploring the possibilities of scale, movement, direction as synthesized in a style, works towards our understanding. The intensified and progressively intimate consciousness of one’s physicality as the ground of consciousness. The film’s “action” is felt, and we are “where the action is.” Its “meaning” or “sense” is sensed, and its content is the body’s perceptive awaking to itself.
The briefest, most summary comparison with Alphaville shows Godard’s film to be, as I have on another occasion suggested, a film of “dis-location,” as against this new film of “dis-orientation.” Godard installs the future within the landscape of present-day Paris, dislocating the spectator in situ, so to speak. Kubrick’s suspension and distention of the properties of environment transform it into something radically new and revealing. The difference between the two films is also, of course, the difference between the strategies of bricolage or a “do-it-yourself” technique, brilliantly handled, and of technology. Two attitudes toward futurity are inscribed within the conditions of their making.
Alphaville’s superimposition of image upon image, of word upon word, of plot upon plot, creates a complex system of visual, verbal and narrative puns within which past and future alternatively and reciprocally mask and reveal each other. Futurity inhabits things as they look now. It is installed, moreover, as a corruption of the here-and-now, projecting Godard’s essential romanticism in a dislocation that is primarily fictional in its tactics. Figurative, one might say. In this film, Godard, like his Eurydice, looks backwards in nostalgia.
In Space Odyssey, a total formalization imposes futurity through the eye and ear. The look and sense of things is in their movement, scale, sound, pace and intensity. Unlike most other science fiction films, both unflaggingly sustain a coherent visual style. All others (from Metropolis through the Buck Rogers series to Barbarella) relax about halfway through, capitulating in a relaxation of the will, a fatigue of the imagination, to the past. (It is generally a Gothic past, a style of medievalism, and these two films are probably the only ones utterly devoid of billowing capes and Gothic arches.) The manner in which both exemplify film’s pre-empting of the function, the esthetic mode, of Visionary Architecture, begun by Méliès, presents a striking contrast: Godard adopts a policy of abstinence, of invention in austerity, Kubrick a planned and prodigal expenditure of resources. (The manner in which the different economies at work — European as against American — seem to represent opposing sensibilities making fundamentally esthetic decisions, leads one to remember that Godard’s Computer — a Sphinx, speaking with the re-educated voice of a man whose vocal chords have been removed — asks questions, while Hal, that masterpiece of “the third Computer breakthrough,” presumably knows all the answers.)
Kubrick’s prodigality is, however, totalizing, heightens, through the complete re-invention of environment, the terms, the stylistic potential of cinematic discourse. Therefore, one’s thrilled fascination with the majestic movements of the space-craft through the heavens, with the trajectories of arrival (landing) departure (levitation), seeing (sighting) conjunction (synthesis), action (gauging) through which the parameters of movement, scale, direction, intensity are examined, exploited. Suspended, totally absorbed by their momentous navigation, one remembers only days later, the manner in which the slow, repetitive lifting of the bridge in Ten Days That Shook the World shattered action, inventing, in its radically disjunctive force, another kind of cinematic time. The number and kinds of space simultaneously proposed by isometric readings and interior projections — as in the approach toward the space station or in the landing of the Moon — are fused by the spectator who discovers, with a sudden thrill of delight, that she is the meeting place of a multiplicity of spaces, depths and scales, his eye their agent of reconciliation, his body the focal point of a multi-dimensional, poly-spatial cosmos.
In the visionary catapulting through the “Star Gate,” “beyond infinity,” through galactic explosions of forms and sound as landscape, we zoom over a geography photographed in “negative,” passing finally, as through a portal, to a scene which reveals itself to be that of the eye itself. Experience as Vision ends in the exploration of seeing. The film’s reflexive strategy assumes the eye as ultimate agent of consciousness, reminding us, as every phenomenological esthetic, from that of Ortega to that of Merleau-Ponty has, that art develops from the concern with “things seen to that of seeing itself.”
In a series of expansions and contractions, the film pulsates, leading us, in the final sequence following the “trip,” with the astronaut into a suite of rooms, decorated in Regence style. Here, every quality of particularity, every limiting, defining aspect of environment is emphasized. The sudden contraction into these limits, projects us from galactic polymorphism into an extreme formality, insinuating, through the allusion of its décor, the idea of History into Timelessness. It shocks. Everything about the place is defined, clearly “drawn.” In the definition of this room lit from beneath the floor, as in the drainage of color (everything is greenish, a bit milky, translucent, reminding one slightly of video images), we perceive the triumph of disegno over colore. An Idea of Room, it elaborates the notion of Idea and Ideality as Dwelling. (Poincaré, after all, imagined Utopia as illustrating Riemann’s topology.) It is, of course, a temporary dwelling — Man’s last Motel stop on the journey toward disembodiment and renascence. Its very sounds are sharper; the clatter of glass falling to the floor informs us that glass is breaking upon glass, evoking through an excruciation of high-fidelity acoustics, something of the nature of Substance. It is this strange, Platonic intensification-through-reduction of the physical which sustains the stepping-up of time, through the astronaut’s life and death, to rebirth, ejecting us with him once again, through a final contracting movement of parturition, into the heavens.


Structural formation, that reflective process of abstraction which draws its sustenance not from objects, but from actions performed upon them.

However, the fact that knowledge can be used to designate sexual intercourse… points to the fact that for the Hebrews, “to know” does not simply mean to be aware of the existence of nature of a particular object. Knowledge implies also the awareness of the specific relationship in which the individual stands with that object, or of the significance the object has for him.
—The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible

If A Space Odyssey illustrates, through its exercise in genetic epistemology, the manner of our acting, it provides the immediate demonstration that the ability to function in space is neither given nor predetermined, but acquired and developed.
Its re-establishment of the notion of equilibrium as open process is central. In a weightless medium, the body confronts the loss of those coordinates through which it normally functions. The manner in which all directed movement is endowed with the momentousness of the task indicates the reinvention of those coordinates for operational efficiency. Total absorption in their reinvention creates a form of motion of extraordinary unity, that of total concentration, the precondition of Style, a style we normally recognize as the quality of dance movement.
It would be interesting, then, to consider a style of movement created by the exact inversion of that negation of weight (its retrieval, in fact), which animates the Dance of our Western historical tradition. More interesting, perhaps, is the realization that the style created by the astronauts in movement, in the reinvention of necessity, does indeed have a special affinity with that contemporary dance which proceed from the radical questioning of balletic movement, the redefining and rehabilitation of the limits of habitual, operational movement as an esthetic or stylistic mode.
In that questioning, initiated by Cunningham, radicalized through the work of Rainer, Whitman, Paxton, and others, dance is re-thought in terms of another economy, through the systematic negation of the rhetoric and hierarchies imposed by classical balletic conventions and language. That rhetoric is, in fact, reversed, destroyed, in what has been called the “dance of ordinary language” and of “task performance.” This movement of reversal — revolutionary — traversing the forms of most modernist art, works in Dance as well, toward “the dissolution of the (fine) subject.”
The astronauts’ movement — as in the very great sequence of the repair of the presumably malfunctioning parts — is invested with an intensity of interest (sustaining itself through every second of its repetition), a “gravity” which is that of total absorption in operational movement (task performance) as a constant reinvention of equilibrium in the interests of functional efficiency. The stress is on the importance, “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is to say, the simplest operations. They require the negation of a floating freedom. (It should have been the business of Vadim’s recently released Barbarella to explore the erotic possibilities of the body floating free in outer space suggested by that film’s superb opening credits. Unfortunately Barbarella’s progress is entirely earthbound.)
The astronauts’ movements, slowed by weightlessness, reinvent the conditions of their efficiency. This slowness and the majesty with which the space-craft itself moves, are predicated, of course, upon the speed of space travel itself. And the film itself moves ultimately with that momentum, that apparent absence of speed which one experiences only in the fastest of elevators, or jet planes.
The complex maneuvering of tools, craft or the mere navigation of the body involves an adjustment which constitutes an adventure, a stage in the development of the Mind. Seeing films, in general, one gains an intimation of the link between the development of sensory-motor knowledge to that of intelligence itself.
We know, through Piaget’s investigations, that the acquisition of the basic coordinates of our spatial sense is a very gradual process, extending roughly over the first twelve years or our lives. There is, presumably, no difference in kind between the development of verbal logic and the logic inherent in coordination of action. Both involve the progress through successive adjustments to perturbation which re-establish, in an open process and through a succession of states of equilibrium, the passage from a “pre-operational” stage, to that of concrete operations, and finally to abstract operations. “The logic of action is, however, the deepest and most primitive.
And here, of course, lies the explanation of the Space Odyssey’s effect upon its audiences, the manner in which it exposes a “generation gap.” This film has “separated the men from the boys” — with implication by no means flattering for the “men.”
“Human action consists in the continual mechanism of readjustment and equilibration… one can consider the successive mental structures engendered by development as so many forms of equilibrium each representing a progress over the preceding ones. On each successive level the mind fulfills the same function, which is to incorporate the universe, but the structure of assimilation varies. The elaboration of the notion of space is due to the co-ordination of movements, and this development is closely linked to those of sensory-motor awareness and of intelligence itself.”[3]
The structures are to be comprehended in terms of the genetic process linking them. This Piaget calls equilibrium, defined as a process rather than a state, and it is the succession of these stages which defines the evolution of intelligence, each process of equilibrium ending in the creation of a new state of disequilibrium. This is the manner of the development of the child’s intelligence.
“The development of the coordinates of horizontality and verticality are not innate, but are constructed through physical experience, acquired through the ability to read one’s experience and interpret it, and both reading and interpretation always suppose a deductive system capable of assuring the intellectual assimilation of the experience. The construction of the system of coordinates of horizontality and verticality is extremely complex… it is, in effect, not the point of departure of spatial knowledge, but the end point of the entire psychological construction of Euclidean space.”
And Kubrick has proposed, in the Space Odyssey, a re-enactment of the very process of sensory-motor habit formation, soliciting, through the disturbance and re-establishment of equilibrium, the recapitulation of that fundamental educative process which effects “our incorporation of the world.” Space Odyssey makes the experience of learning both plot and sub-plot of an Action or Adventure film. An invitation to a voyage, it proposes the re-enactment of an initiation, sustained rite de passage, “The Passage into Euclidean Space.”
The young are, of course, still closer to that slow development of the body’s wisdom, to the forming of the sensory-motor apparatus. Above all, however, they are more openly disposed to that kind of normal transcription of the fundamental learning process which negates, in and through its form, the notion as equilibrium as a state of definition, of rest in finality.
To be “mature” in our culture is to be “well-balanced,” “centered,” not easily “thrown off balance.” Acceptance of imbalance is, however, the condition of receptivity to this film. Our “maturity” pre-supposes the “establishment” of experience as acquisition, the primacy of wisdom as knowledge over that of intellectual exploration, of achievement over aspiration. “Adventure,” as Simmel observes in an essay of remarkable beauty[4], “is, in its specific nature and charm, a form of experiencing. Not the content but the experiential tension determines the adventure. In youth the accent falls on the process of life, on its rhythms and antinomies; in old age, it falls on life’s substance, compared to which experience… appears relatively incidental. This contrast between youth and age, which makes adventure the prerogative of youth may be expressed in contrast between the romantic and the historical spirit of life. Life in its immediacy counts (for youth)… The fascination is not so much in the substance, but rather the adventurous form of experiencing it, the intensity and excitement with which it lets us feel life. What is called the subjectivity of youth is just this; the material of life in its substantive significance is not as important to youth as is the process which carries it, life itself.”
The critical performance around this film, object, Structure, revolving as it has about the historical, anecdotal, sociological, concerned as it is with the texture of incident is, of course, the clear projection of aging minds and bodies. Its hostile dismissal constitutes, rather like its timid defense, an expression of fatigue. This film of adventure and of action, of action as adventure is an event, an extraordinary occasion for self-recognition, and it offers, of course, the delights and terrors occasions of that sort generally provide. Positing a space which, overflowing screen and field of vision, converts the theatre into a vessel and its viewers into passengers, it impels us, in the movement from departure to arrival, to rediscover the space and dimensions of the body as theatre of consciousness. Youth in us, discarding the spectator’s decorum, responds, in the movement of final descent, as to “the slap of the instant,” quickening in a tremor of rebirth, reveling in a knowledge which is carnal.


[1] That photograph, currently unavailable for reproduction, obviously differs from the one reproduced here.
[2] For a consideration of this question one does well to compare Méliès admirable text, Vues cinématographiques, reprinted in the catalog of the commemorative exhibition (Paris, 1961), which encompasses, within 15 densely printed pages, a basic course of filmmaking and a discussion of the formal and technical problems involved and resolved in his own work, with the information on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey provided by the Journal of the American Cinematographer, June 1968, Vol. 49, no. 6. The parallels on all parameters are striking. In the production of this particular grande machine, the use and invention of metamachines resulted, as one might expect (in a medium, whose history is, more than any, tied to technological development), a number of technical breakthroughs recalling or extending those created by Méliès himself. Here are a very few:
a. Kubrick directed the action in the centrifuge sequences from outside by watching a closed circuit monitor relaying a picture from a small video camera mounted next to the film camera inside the centrifuge itself.
b. In order to attain a slow and “large-scale” movement of doors and other parts, motors were made to drive these mechanisms, then “geared down so far that the actual motion, frame by frame was imperceptible. ‘We shot most of these scenes,’ says Kubrick, ‘using slow exposures of 4 seconds per frame. One couldn’t see the movement. A door moving 5 inches during a scene would take 5 hours to shoot. You could never see any unsteady movement. It was like watching the hand of a clock.’”
c. “For the Stargate sequence, a slit-scan machine was designed, using a technique of image scanning as used in scientific and industrial photography. This device could produce two seemingly infinite planes of exposure while holding depth-of-field from a distance of 15 feet to 1 1/2 inches from the lens to an aperture of F 1/8 with exposures of approximately one minute per frame using a standard 65mm Mitchell camera.”
d. “A huge 10 by 8 foot transparency plate projector for the application of the Alekan-Gerrard method of front-projected transparency” was constructed for the primates sequence. It is expected to open up enormous possibilities for future film production.
[3] For detailed consideration of the notion of equilibrium as open learning process, I refer the reader to Piaget’s La représentation de l’espace chez l’enfant, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1948, and most particularly to the chapter entitled Le passage à l’espace euclidien. Further discussion of this notion and of the development of spatial coordinates is to be found in Volumes 5 and 6 of Études épistémologiques, Presses Universitaires, Paris, as well as in Six études psychologiques, Editions Gonthier, Geneva, 1964.
[4] The Adventure, in George Simmel, Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, Harper and Row, New York, 1965.

Artforum v. 7, nº 6, February 1969, pp. 54-63


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