Photo–Electric Psychoanalysis

Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein on the set of La Goutte de Sang
Jean Epstein on the set of La Goutte de Sang

Inside as Outside, Everything Is but Poetry


Long before the use of the cinematograph, it was certainly well-known that “everything appears yellow to whomever is jaundiced,” as Lucretius noted, that “the world is but abuse,” as Villon complained, and that “A Thousand and One Nights govern the world,” as Voltaire mused. Still, a few reflections inspired by the cinematograph might better contribute to demonstrating the inconsistency of the last notions still generally held to be quasi-certain truths, the permanent foundations of knowledge. Hence, today, the reality of space and time, determinism and freedom, matter and spirit, or the universe’s continuity and discontinuity loses its contours, its consistency, its necessity, and tends to become a conditional, floating, allegorical, and intermittent reality: all in all, it becomes poetry.

If we are slowly learning, and without too many regrets, that all we can know of the outside world is an arrangement of more or less useful fables, as soon as it is a matter of self-examination, humans—who have always had a high idea of themselves—stubbornly refuse to reconsider who they are. Surely, this impregnable veneration of the self is necessary to endure, that is to say, to mask the vile aspects of living. And the Socratic precept, though unrealizable in full, may be dangerous to follow for the legions who would sink into self-disgust and self-loathing if, in getting to know themselves slightly less poorly, they lacked the courage to accept what they saw. Happy are the weak-minded, the complete extroverts, all muscle, instinct and action, who know not to know themselves! But the rest, the majority among the civilized, are not so obtuse that they don’t suffer from this more or less acute conflict, the sources of all psychoses: needing to imagine themselves, thus to know themselves, at the same time as they refuse to accept themselves as soon as their deeper personality is laid bare.

The Machine for the Confession of Souls


The horror, or at the very least the embarrassment, that a filmed individual feels in front of his animated image, leads us to suspect that it publicized something of the personal secret which the subject forced himself not to know. All the little people, the hunchbacks, the pockmarked, and the obese, long accustomed to their reflection in mirrors inverted right-to-left, see themselves as less ungraceful than nature made them; all humans, in the labor of their imagination, judge themselves to be less cowardly and two-faced—almost as honest, handsome, and intelligent or distinguished as can be. The cinematographic lens displays no such complacency. What viewers notice first in their on screen double is the vulgarity of their attitude, the awkwardness of their gesture, or this shame in their eyes that they had so endeavored, successfully they thought, in concealing. But the ghost speaks as well, in a voice that the living, in all sincerity, do not and cannot recognize, because they have never heard it from the outside before, born by another breath than his or her own. The microphone and the loud-speaker transmit accents of an unbearable immodesty, disclosing the naiveté of false pride, the bitterness of denied failures, the worry underneath assurance and laughter—all the weakness and deceit of a character thinking itself straight, weathered, and victorious over itself. Few are the confessors capable of seeing and listening as deep into the soul as the glassy gaze of the photo-electric ear!

Fortunately for him, very quickly after the third or fourth projection, the viewer and listener of his own distress, regaining his self-control, will be absolved again: he will have corrected himself, renewing the lies of his impressions, healing the most caustic of his flayed wounds.

A Clairvoyance That Can Help Justice


Certainly, the speaking image of a person doesn’t reveal his truth. However, if we gauge the reaction of filmed subjects—who scratch where it itches—we must recognize that the lucidities of the screen present a psychological transect of its characters at the level of the slightest lie as well as purest sincerity. American courts have already taken stock of, and legally used, this inquisitive power of the cinematograph, particularly for ascertaining maternal rights by observing the reactions of infants placed, suddenly and successively, before two women claiming to be their mother.

This process would provide finer and more reliable results if cinematographic slow motion was employed (as long as it was a viable slow motion that would not extinguish expression). Studied in close up, through image and sound, mimicry and voice, an interrogation would reveal many jolts of surprise, defensive clenchings, worries, hesitations, and anxieties of the accused, or, on the contrary, would show the disbelief, the assurance, the faultless indignation of a subject of good faith wrongly suspected. Of course, all this would not go without the possibility of error, and yet, with many more chances to see justice, it also has the advantage of avoiding having to resort to brutality for confession.

From the Sacrament of Penitence to Psychoanalysis


It is not only for justice that psychological scrutiny through the cinematograph might be useful. For a long time now, humans have vaguely felt their anxieties, from a simple scruple to downright psychosis—anxieties they suffer when the pleasing idea they made and want to retain of themselves doesn’t succeed in sufficiently repressing the revelations of a looming stranger self who is contemptible, threatening, and monstrous—are diminished or appeased by the confession of this angst, and of its cause, through its exteriorization in speech, through its rejection, then, outside the inner world. This relief is confirmed by the adage, “an offense admitted is half forgiven,” and it explains why Catholicism instituted the sacrament of penitence as an outlet for the venomous fermentations of the mind. Although with brilliance, Freud did nothing more when perfecting this therapy into psychoanalysis.

In the areas of education and therapy, the cinematograph, especially through slow motion, offers the means of a sound introduction to psychoanalysis, with a useful detection, not so much for the truly disturbed as for the large crowds of paranormals, many of whom are capable of becoming acquainted with their imbalance and understanding their behavioral problems in order to get them in check or correct them to a large extent.

Knowing Ourselves Better, in Order to Better Lie to Ourselves


If typical and irremediable anomalies remain exceptions, nonetheless there exists a quasi-majority, a great number of half-worried subjects, intermittently anxious, grossly ashamed, or very shy, whose slight imbalance might be amended to the extent that the source of their problem may be brought to their consciousness. That is where the slow motion of both the cinematograph and sound should be able to render great services to an attentive and patient observer.

More generally, the cinematographic analysis is usable for what we may call lessons in upkeep that are extremely necessary for many professions and social conditions. Hence, public figures, officials, orators, lawyers, celebrities, even small business owners or individuals concerned with a good appearance—that is to say, everyone— would greatly benefit from seeing themselves on screen over and over, listening to themselves like actors do, progressively correcting their imperfections, perfecting their role, and learning to lie through it in an entirely convincing way. In this case, the cinematograph uncovers disagreeable truths only for the purpose of squashing them: this apparatus of sincerity is just as much a school of lies.




Chapter 7 of The Intelligence of a Machine, trans. Christophe Wall-Romana (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014); originally published as L’Intelligence d’une machine (Paris: éd. Jacques Melot, 1946). Courtesy of Indepencia editions and Univocal Publishing.



Poems #1–24
Vanessa Place

What Persists in Iconoclasm
Brian Price

Photo-Electric Psychoanalysis
Jean Epstein

Mechanical Philosophy
Jean Epstein

Shard Cinema
Evan Calder Williams

How to manage Gas
Sue Tompkins

Claes Oldenburg
Interviewed by
Alex Kitnick

Center Spread
Amelie von Wulffen

Alexandra Pirici
Interviewed by Sandra Teitge

Opacity, Transparency, Monochrome
Jaleh Mansoor

Property and Self Possession
John David Rhodes

Elisabeth Workman, Michael Sikkema

Olfaction and Prey
Katelyn Farstad

Stine Janvin Motland
as told to C. Spencer Yeh

Michel Auder’s Machinic Documents of Bohemia
Justin Lieberman

L’Officiel Hommes
Ben Fama

Roasted Pork Belly with Ponzu, Wasabi Tobiko, and Quick Pickles
Jim Grell

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Issue 1