Concentric Behavior or Walking in Circles: Eisenstein, The General Line and Dynamic Psychology

Christopher J. Gilman, University of Southern California

In the late 1920s, Sergei Eisenstein took a broad turn in his approach to cinema. His objective remained consistent with an earlier course: to interpret and apply wisdom from psychology, biology, linguistics, etc. toward an overall theory, the Grundproblem of filmic language. His route to achieve this end, however, had changed.

Eisenstein's "eccentric" theory of montage by metaphorical juxtaposition, developed in the articles "Montage of Attractions" (1923), "Montage 1938" and used in the films The Battleship Potemkin and October, is perhaps the best-known and most influential of his contributions to cinema theory. Less remarked upon in the literature is his transitional theoretical work of the later 1920s and early 1930s. During this time the director was increasingly preoccupied with concentric patterns of filmic communication. Among possible influences were his contemporaries the architects Erich Mendelsohn and Frank Lloyd Wright, the film-maker Fritz Lang, Norwegian meteorologists Wilhelm and Jacob Bjerknes and the German biologist Karl von Frisch, all of whom employed curvilinear, spiral and concentric trajectories of motion in their respective path-breaking discoveries. The most important parallel, however, was to be found in the science of "dynamic psychology," a hybrid of physics and psychology pioneered by the German gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin. Eisenstein received inspiration from this field indirectly, through a psychologist-friend Aleksandr Lurija, until he met Lewin in Berlin in 1929. Until that point the two had been conducting simultaneous and independent experiments on the circular and spiraling trajectories of human and animal subjects within artificially-constructed psychological "fields."

At hand was a broad displacement in the pragmatics of art and its incumbent concern with the psychology of perception. Since the early 1920s many artists took literally the notion of art as experiment and strove to create a scientific basis for their work out of Ivan Pavlov's stimulus-response experiments. The architect Nikolaj Ladovskij, theater director Mejerxol'd and Eisenstein himself had not only contrived actual Pavlovian-style apparatuses to study the "zritel'" or viewer-subject, but in a larger sense had conceptualized art in such manner that it presumed a public restrained or immobilized, to be "stimulated," "shocked," etc. Beginning in the later 1920s both in the experimental setting, but also more broadly in the pragmatics of the period's art-work, artists unleashed their viewer-subjects, as it were, and asked them to navigate the various currents and vortices within given aesthetically-constructed total environments. Far from indicating a move toward freedom, such a change marked the inexorable pull toward more totalitarian art forms. This shift in paradigm is most notable in Eisenstein's theoretical work, his lectures and his notes, and it served as the impetus for his subsequent theory of mis-en-scene. The best realization of the concentric pattern of movement in film is in his The General Line (1929), particularly in scenes shot and edited in 1928-29.

I intend to discuss this film in the context of the described changes, as well as with visual (slide and video-clip) references to the various artists and scientists mentioned above. My approach is thus intertextual, interdisciplinary and cross-cultural. More specifically, it represents an attempt to derive, from 1920s language theory itself, a method of analysis more appropriate than current semiotic theory for understanding art and literature of the Soviet 1920s. The material will be taken from a chapter in my dissertation, and will be based in part on original archival research.