SCSMI2017 Helsinki has ended
The annual conference of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) welcomes you to the Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland, June 11th – 14th, 2017

SCSMI2017 Helsinki program is under construction and changes are to occur. Meanwhile you may complete your personal information with a photo and some tags, so the other attendees and speakers will get to know more of you and your interests, and vice versa.

Go to registration or check practical information about accommodation etc. at http://scsmi2017.aalto.fi/
Back To Schedule
Wednesday, June 14 • 09:30 - 10:30
LP Steffen Hven. Following Our Senses in the Dark: On Leviathan (2012) and the Embodied Fabula

Sign up or log in to save this to your schedule, view media, leave feedback and see who's attending!

Limited Capacity seats available

Following Our Senses in the Dark: On Leviathan (2012) and the Embodied Fabula


A product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor & Paravel 2012) presents a fascinating new take on the documentary that leaves us ‘with only our senses to follow in the dark’ (Coldiron 2012, par. 2). Despite Leviathan’s lack of mainstream appeal it would be possible to perceive the film in relation to Tim Recuber’s (2007) concept of the ‘immersion cinema’, as representing a ‘new set of technological and aesthetic criteria in which sensory experience and the physical immersion of the spectator within the medium are of paramount importance’ (p. 321). Following Recuber, immersion cinema contains an ‘overemphasis on physical experience [that] creates passive consumers who pay to plug in to visceral thrills without, necessarily, any meaningful interaction with the film’ (p. 325). Eventually, such spectacles, following Recuber, ‘do effectively grab our attention, but their immediacy and sensationalism tend to divert that attention away from contemplation or discussion’ (p. 327).

Given that Leviathan does not invite the spectator to engage in neither inference-making nor schematic categorization, it would be tempting to perceive the film as not only affective but also non-cognitive. Yet, quite contrary to the argument raised by Recuber, I maintain that Leviathan through its bodily-sensorial appeal, Ernst Karel’s cacophonous sound mix, its extended use of GoPro-cameras to destabilize quotidian perception, and its lack of linear narrative sequencing or discursive clarity engages its spectators with a specific affect-laden mode of cognitive reflection. Assigning meanings to the estranged audiovisual imagery of Leviathan requires considerable cognition, yet this cognitive activity is intimately connected to how the film agitates corporal-visceral thrills. The film’s ‘cognitive-affectivity’ thus challenges a tendency to antagonize cognition and affect, which can be found in both classical cognitive narratology through the idealization of cognition as sufficient condition for narrative comprehension (e.g., Bordwell, 1985, 2008), but also in the categorization of affect as immediate, non-cognitive, and bodily autonomous responses to the images thus detached from their representational and narrative dimensions (e.g., Massumi, 2002; Shaviro, 2010).

Granted, Leviathan might not invite for cognitive reflection in the ‘cold’, ‘computational’, or cognitive-analytical sense that has dominated cognitive science until recently, yet the film’s strong focus on (destabilizing) bodily, perceptual, and spatial orientation, does not mean that it escapes cognition entirely. Instead, by subverting habitual perceptual orientation the film demonstrates how intimately cognition is connected to factors such as proprioception, sensorimotor integration, visual scanning, and affect modulations (cf. Antunes, 2016; Gallese & Guerra, 2012). To better capture the cognitive-affective dimension of Leviathan and cinema more generally, this paper suggests the concept of the ‘embodied fabula’.

As a description of the mental construction of the cinematic world, we might differentiate between a ‘computational’/analytical (i.e., based on logical inferences, information-processing, schemata application, hypotheses-testing, etc.) and an embodied (affective, emotional, proprioceptive, empathetic, sensorial, etc.) fabula. Whereas the former structures our perception of the ongoing events with the aim of (re)constructing causal-linear narrative sense, the latter engages with the cinematic events in an online, enactive, affective, cognitive, and embodied manner. Although both are fundamentally cognitive only the embodied fabula encompasses corporal-affective, emotional, sensorial, activities as central for a basic cognitive comprehension of the cinematic events.

Thus, unlike its cognitive-analytical counterpart, the embodied fabula does not limit narrative comprehension to the restricted sphere of ‘cold’, ‘computational’ cognitive activities such as inference-making, the testing of various hypotheses, schemata application, and a causal-linear reconstruction of events. Building upon embodied, enactive, and situated approaches within the cognitive sciences and neuroscience, the embodied fabula is an analytical tool, which attempts to understand how narrative comprehension rely upon the whole arsenal of cognitive, emotional, motor-active, and corporal-affective responses. While the analytical fabula is apt for discussions of textual, discursive, investigative aspects of narration, the embodied fabula has been designed to examine how the events are felt, sensed, or experienced.

The embodied fabula therefore marks a film-analytical attempt to incorporate into our conceptual toolbox the current trend within the cognitive sciences and neuroscience to bring perception and action together and to think cognition in embodied, enactive, affective, and situated terms. The embodied fabula broadens the scope of the fabula such that it chimes with our current understanding of cognition as emerging out of its nonlinear, dynamic, and complex interrelations with – rather than operating in isolation from – affective, emotional, perceptual, proprioceptive, and motor-active processes. Trying to understand Leviathan in purely affective terms would clearly be a mistake, yet the film evidences the necessity to rethink the cinematic spectator as embodied and situated in the cinematic universe or ‘world’ crafted by the film (cf. Yacavone, 2015) rather than as a cognitive, analytical, and computational processing of information about this world.

avatar for Steffen Hven

Steffen Hven

Bauhaus-Universität Weimar
Steffen Hven is a postdoc researcher at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, where he also obtained his doctoral degree in 2015. He is the author of “Cinema and Narrative Complexity: Embodying the Fabula” (Amsterdam UP, 2017). He is currently working on a research project provisionally... Read More →

Wednesday June 14, 2017 09:30 - 10:30 EEST
A-305 Room, Töölö Campus, Aalto University (3rd floor) Runeberginkatu 14-16, Helsinki

Attendees (9)