by Tim Lilburn
75 pages,
ISBN: 0771053215

Post Your Opinion
Post-Driven Developments
by Jerry White

One of the best pieces of general-interest film criticism that I recall reading in the last few years appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 7 February 2003. Murray Smith's "Darwin and the Directors" was a carefully considered, accessibly written examination of the relationship between cinematic aesthetics and Darwinian theory, focussing particularly on film acting, facial expression, and the role of the emotions on intellectual discourse. And although old masters like Hitchcock and Robert Bresson featured prominently, Smith indulged in none of the cinema-is-dead crap that cinephiles are so often subjected to by America's army of provincial, baby boomer critics. Indeed, he holds forth eloquently on Japan's Takeshi Kitano and Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai, both recent additions to the Pantheon of world cinema. At one point he distinguishes between a Hitchcock-type of director, as opposed to a Kitano/Bresson sort, writing that:

"The fact that Hitchcock's approach is more "naturalistic," however, in the sense that his performers adopt expressions which are manifestly similar to those we encounter in life, while in the cases of Bresson and Kitano we find an attenuation of emotional expression which we would find disturbing or even pathological in life, does not render the evolutionary perspective on emotional expression irrelevant. The latter kind of directors provide a more culture-specific form of "negative evidence" for its relevance; understanding how facial expression ordinarily functions sharpens our appreciation of the aesthetic sculpting of expression by particular artists."

If someone were to ask "why should we care about Darwinian theory" at the beginning of the 21st century, I think you could do worse than to point to that passage. This is a period in history when arguments about supra-cultural elements of human behaviour, or about the claims of scientific rationalism and such rationalism's role in cultural (and sometimes religious debates), are inescapable parts of intellectual life. What film criticism stands to gain from Darwin's contributions to these sorts of arguments is important (hence my dwelling on Smith), but it's a small part of the picture; anyone interested in broad cultural arguments would do well to familiarise him- or herself with Darwin's struggles to make sense of the world around him. Janet Browne's two-volume biography of the man would be an excellent place to start; volume 2, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, is what I'm looking at here.
While Browne surely focuses on the elements of Darwin's work which dealt with transcendent elements of human existence and development, she also places him squarely in the context of 19th century England. His relationship to the colonial project is not much dealt with here, although Browne mentions it briefly when talking about how easy it was for him to support the North in the American Civil War from the comfort produced by his investments in colonial enterprises. The overall absence of the colonial, though, is not entirely a surprise; the work of Darwin's most indebted to this English institution, Voyage of the Beagle (originally published as Journal of Researches in 1845) has been out for some while as The Power of Place opens in 1858. What we do discover, though, is a distinctly literary Darwin, a man genuinely passionate about reading and writing. Of Darwin's influences, Browne writes that "[t]he language he knew best was the language of Milton and Shakespeare, steeped in teleology and purpose, not the objective, value-free terminology sought (although rarely found) in science" (p59). This literary connection is important; Browne clearly wants to place Darwin in a line of great English visionaries, figures whose subjective, polemical passion meshed with an uncompromising insight into human nature. And she also sees science in terms that are very similar to the institution of literary criticism as practised in late-18th and early-19th century England, so vividly described and thoroughly analysed in Terry Eagleton's book The Function of Criticism. Writing about the public presence of Darwin's close friend Thomas Huxley, she writes that "he told his patrons at the Royal Institution that they were indisputably related to apes He continued the line in lectures to working men delivered not far away on the other side of Piccadilly. This second batch of lectures was part of a regular series delivered by several old hands at the School of Mines in Jermyn Street, where Huxley taught natural history and purveyed cheap public instruction at sixpence a time The lectures were lively and informative, attracting a large clientele" (p138). While the University, and especially Cambridge, was an important part of the institutional structure that formed Darwin, Browne's visualisation of 19th century English science has very healthy doses indeed of lay-scholars, of men (yep, almost entirely men) anxious to get deeply lost in their gardens and their studies and their evening lectures, in an attempt, paradoxically, to better understand the world around them.
Another crucially important part of this world of reading and writing was the post; Darwin emerges here as a consummate correspondent, someone heavily invested in letter-writing. Browne explains it thus: "Such a life obviously depended on the postal system, the preeminent collective enterprise of the Victorian period, and Darwin sensed the splendour of this organisation as readily as Anthony Trollope, who, after novelising the nation before breakfast, would (p13). This is a particularly elegant formulation on Browne's part; she collapses a little cultural history (collective enterprises in the Victorian period), a little biographical detail (Darwin and the odd things he found splendid) and a little semi-narratological, semi-institutional literary analysis (novelising the nation before breakfast) all into a deliciously efficient sentence. It's typical of Browne's style, which is both densely packed but also resistant to simple grandeur. I don't say much about her style here not because it's unimpressive but because it's so clearly integrated into the project as a whole. To bring it back to film criticism, like a movie by a really solid Hollywood craftsman or craftswoman (Curtis Harrington, say, or Katherine Bigelow), you really want to say more about the form, but you inevitably find yourself talking about other stuff instead-for instance, the post. Darwin wrote to and received letters from all manner of distinguished scientists and (no doubt deeply eccentric) amateur naturalists, and Browne tells us that he was meticulous about responding. As a result there in an enormous record of some of Darwin's most intimate thoughts; all of the negotiations, the uncertainty, the polyphony of scientific progress, is available in a way that it wouldn't be if we had only published material to rely on. The subjective elements become part of this narrative, mostly as a result of the reach and scale of the 19th century English post.
Letter-writing became less of a passion and more of a chore for Darwin when he started to become famous and was, as a result, deluged with often very frivolous correspondence; Browne's positioning of him as part of early, photography-driven celebrity is one way that she shows him, and his cultural moment to be a kind of predictor of the 20th- and 21st-century: "In the nineteenth century, pilgrimages to literary figures began in earnest," Browne writes. "Wordsworth was pestered in the Lake District, and snoopers became such a nuisance to Tennyson on the Isle of Wight that he fled to the closely wooded hills of Surrey. I can't be anonymous by reason of your confounded photographs,' he complained to Mrs. [Julia Margaret] Cameron in August 1868. Darwin discovered his position was little different" (p382). Darwin had quite a close relationship with Cameron, that most ambitious (and in some ways most pretentious) of early photographers, and was photographed by her on many occasions. But Darwin's eventual real fame' is quite different from his status as a publicly engaged intellectual, with his well-attended lectures and well-informed laymen correspondents, that is presented earlier in the book. "Rafts of amateur naturalists supplied snippets of information that must have stopped even Darwin in his tracks-a frog inside a lump of coal, a hen that laid eggs with clock faces on them, a hybrid cat-rabbit, beans that grew on the wrong side of the pod in leap years, an avowal that the human soul was really only magnetism" (388). Fame is presented here as a harbinger of the banal; the tide had turned, and the 20th century was not far behind.
But the other part of contemporary life that Browne's Darwin seems to predict is globalisation. Browne spends some time discussing the international circulation of Darwin's books, writing that "[a]s a translated volume, Darwin's Origin of Species was plainly dropping into a range of social contexts bursting with their own continuing trends of thought, several of which already included evolutionary ideas. The story was generally the same in Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America, and Canada-each nation divided from Britain by a common language. The Origin's author plugged away at them all. Whether for him or against him, or willing to meet him at some point halfway, men and women across the globe began participating in one of the first international scientific debates" (p262). Here is an intellectual committed to the truth of his position at the same time as being passionate about polemics and debate. Furthermore, this Darwin is intensely internationalist and yet completely formed by the landscape of the English countryside (which made his endless, garden-based tinkering possible, to say nothing of the time he spent aboard the naval vessel HMS Beagle). Think of how this negotiation between the global and the local synchs up so nicely with that consummately international-yet-rooted art form the cinema; think also of how both Darwin and the cinema are perpetually torn between realist and philosophical impulses. This is the face of reasonable globalisation. To steal a phrase from Canadian film critic and philosopher Bruce Elder, this is the Darwin we need.

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