Colloquium | Rebecca Sheehan

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 12:00pm


Rebecca Sheehan

Glimpsing the Unseen in the Surprising Films of Jerome Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky

This paper examines how the works of two American avant-garde filmmakers, Jerome Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky, question the limits of perception and perception-based knowledge, focusing on how, in Hiler's words, they offer the spectator (and filmmaker) "glimpses" of what lay beyond perception. I will focus on how the works of Hiler and Dorsky draw constant attention to light itself, an often-overlooked means of visual perception (and cinema's processes), to pose fundamental questions about the relationship between what we know and how we see. For example, Hiler's films frequently make the spectator uncertain as to whether she is perceiving transmitted or reflected light and color as his interest in stained glass informs a play upon the binary of reflection and transmission, light emanating through an object verses being reflected off of it. Placing emphasis on how we see the world by denaturing light's source, Hiler explores epistemological questions, extending the mutability of how one sees to how one knows. Similarly, Dorsky's signature aperture adjustments radically transform what we see in various images of the same object pictured with differing exposures of light. Dorsky shows us how what we (think we) see can be radically altered through the means of sight (light), the same object (a cracked pot) revealing itself as something completely other (the silhouette of trees) depending upon how we see it. Embracing their skepticism about perception by delving into the limits of visual certainty, Hiler's and Dorsky's films generate a belief in and curiosity about the unseen, generating such a belief as an ethical practice that reserves space for what may lay beyond our visual and conceptual perception and comprehension, an ethics of open-mindedness devoted to the possibility of re-seeing and seeing anew. By focusing on experiments such as these, I will examine the radical philosophical problems posed and the ethics of re-evaluation advanced by Dorsky's and Hiler's abstract cinema.

This talk stems from my forthcoming book, American Avant-Garde Cinema and the Ethics of the In-Between where I argue for the unique value of American avant-garde cinema to our understanding of how cinema philosophizes. Investigating how American avant-garde cinema advances an ethics of thought concerned with re-evaluation and re-encounter through its conceptual, dimensional, and material figures of the in-between, the book examines the American avant-garde's kinship with the film-philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell and delineates an intellectual provenance for the American avant-garde's philosophizing through the thinking of Emerson, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Wittgenstein.

Rebecca A. Sheehan is Associate Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and has been a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Haverford College, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She has co-edited a book entitled Border Cinema: Reimagining Identity Through Aesthetics (Rutgers University Press, 2019) and has recently finished a manuscript entitled American Avant-Garde Cinema and the Ethics of the In-between forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Her work on topics ranging from experimental cinema, sculpture and cinema, epistolary cinema, the biopic and border cinema has appeared in edited book collections and various journals including Discourse, Screen, and Screening the Past.

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