A train rushes towards you. Do you dodge in fear? Or do you dodge in knowing, performing an act of fear because that is what people do when they watch the film The Arrival of a Train at Le Ciotat Station (1895)? Whether the first film audiences were astonished or in on the act with what they saw is one of the core questions posed in film histories. That we do not have a definitive answer to this question is partly a reflection of the sheer technical difficulty of writing film viewers into history. But it also turns out that the contexts that researchers draw upon to explain film audiences can make a big difference to their judgements of viewer knowing or credulity. As this paper will highlight, the conundrum of whether there was film viewer astonishment reflects a wider conundrum about wonder.
Although it has been scarcely noted by commentators, the perceptual and sensory turn in history has potentially far-reaching implications for the very idea of contemplating universals such as a stable idea of wonder. It is the central claim of this paper that histories of the moving image forefront changes in the idea and experience of perception, while a relatively stable, conservative, metaphysical understanding of wonder seems to persist and even slip our notice. I will step through the claims of Kirby, Gunning, Benjamin, Barthes, Crary and Doane to hone in on that slip, and conclude by noting that their sensory historicisation is therefore one within limits, and that those limits suggest an ongoing role for metaphysics in historiography.
Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at the Australian National University. She is the author or editor of six books in historiography, including History Goes to the Movies (2007); Revisionist Histories (2013) and Fifty Key Thinkers on History, which is now available in four languages across three editions. Her seminar paper is part of her seventh book project History as Wonder, which is under contract with Routledge. Across her career she has been the recipient of $18 million in grant funding, and was in 2008 given the Prime Minister’s Award for University Teacher of the Year.