Afternoon Dust

Reading Notes: Giuliana Bruno

As part of the research for my forthcoming dissertation I’ve been getting stuck in to the work of Italian-born, US-based feminist film theorist Giuliana Bruno. Streetwalking on a Ruined Map (1993), her book about early Neapolitan filmmaker Elvira Notari, was interesting to me on many levels, not least for her convincing argument that in the early history of cinema and the city, Baudelaire and Benjamin’s literary flâneur becomes a cinematic flâneuse. However, it was Atlas of Emotion, her 2002 magnus opus investigating the crossing over of film, architecture, mapping, travel, and the body, that yielded the most fruit in terms of my dissertation research.

Old map

Atlas sets out a prehistory of the cinema, but rather than keeping to the well-trodden path of the camera obscura and diorama, Bruno strays much further. She is able to do so because of the way she understands film as a site to be explored, as a means of travel through locations exotic and familiar. From this point of view, it therefore makes sense to connect the emergence of cinema as a social phenomenon with prior developments such as Victorian women’s travel literature, ‘picturesque’ landscape painting, and the ‘mapping impulse’ previously identified by Svetlana Alpers1. Also intriguing is the way in which Bruno, eschewing the modernist emphasis on the eye and on cinema as a purely optical phenomenon, shows how film can be perceived as a haptic experience that engages the body in the movement of desire, prompting both ongoing voyages of discovery and ceaseless returns home. This “tender mapping” is ultimately identified, or at least correlated with, the scene of writing.

Vivitar Movie Camera - Marilyn Tindall Contest

While Bruno frequently invokes the body, it is clear that when she does so she is referring to a notion of the embodied subject, as shown by her forays into autobiography throughout the text. It appears that for Bruno, cinema is a space created by the movements of an embodied subject as it maps out a history of its own subjective experiences. Bruno’s cinema is centred around the moving apparatus of a camera-body that travels, consumes, and adapts, while remaining self-identical. It is here perhaps that we may begin a critique of her ideas and point to a more de-centred mapping of the cinematic body, making use of a mode of thinking that is implicit all throughout the Atlas by way of its glaring absence — that is, by making use of dance. But that will have to wait for another post.

  1. See Alpers, Svetlana (1983). The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago/London: University of Chicago. ↩︎