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Short and Concise: Narration and Knowledge in Film, 1900/2000

Ruth Mayer, University of Hannover

This project investigates the cultural significance of the short form in the history of narrative meaning-­making and knowledge formation. It starts from the observation that long before a digital culture of tweets, micro-­blogs, status reports, and texting attributed an essential quality of up-­to-­dateness to short forms of expression, micro-­formats such as dispatches, aphorisms, anecdotes or apostils signaled a particularly pointed or comprehensible narrative reference to reality and knowledge. Since the 17th century, the imperative to keep it short and concise has generated central and still underresearched modes of representing knowledge.

The impact of the short form is particularly pertinent in the history of film. In the early days of film, before the cinema emerged as a venue and apparatus, all films were short. Due to technical constraints the filmic narrative potential seemed limited (especially when compared to the narrative scopes and techniques of literature). The same requirement to keep it short and concise determines large parts of filmic expression in the digital age, in a period of time that has been called the “golden age of the shorts” (shortfilm.de, 2002). In my presentation I will investigate the correspondences between early film and short narrative formats in the current digital culture; thus tracing, in a manner of speaking, the reciprocities and resonances between a ‘pre-cinematic’ and a ‘post-cinematic’ world from the vantage point of brevity. In both cases, temporal compression and narrative condensation in filmic narration need not mean a lowered standard in narrative complexity, but call for particular techniques and modes of narration. The ‘rules of attraction’ which Tom Gunning formulated for cinema at its outset thus seem to be also applicable to the digital short. ‘Reloaded,’ they may help us gain a grip particularly on formats which foreground their mediality and novelty (see Strauven 2007). However, the focus on the short format will also allow for readings that go beyond the spectacular marvels of filmic effects then and now, and pay close attention to the films’ ‘narratives of possibilities’ – their mapping of medial, social, and cultural futures and genealogies, and their role in a larger framework of cultural knowledge production. 

John F. Kennedy Institute