Currently in preparation

Bodies and Things: Selected Writings by Lesley Stern

With commentary by Tracy Cox-Stanton (Savannah College of Art and Design) and Bill Brown (University of Chicago)

Forthcoming Fall 2024.

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In 2012 Lesley Stern, who passed away in 2021, published with caboose the essay Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing, developing her interest in ‘thing theory’, introduced by Bill Brown in a collective publication a decade earlier to which Stern contributed another long-form essay, ‘Paths that Wind through the Thicket of Things’. A few years after the publication of Dead and Alive Stern, exploring affect and cinema as part of a loose community of scholars including Kathleen Stewart and Donna Haraway, returned to the theme of bodies and animism in the cinema in an essay for the on-line film journal The Cine-Files, ‘“Once I’ve Devoured Your Soul We Are Neither Animal nor Human”: The Cinema as an Animist Universe’, and in an extensive interview with Cine-Files editor Tracy Cox-Stanton. Each of these four texts is reproduced here, bringing together Stern’s groundbreaking work on cinematic affect with an Introduction by Tracy Cox-Stanton, a Preface by Kathleen Stewart and a Coda by Bill Brown. Lesley Stern’s writing style—briefly sampled below—is as innovative as her ideas, conveying her commitment to a sense of scholarship that is as rich and lively as its object.

In Dead and Alive, for example, Stern’s elegant and cosmopolitan exploration of the seemingly macabre topic of cinematic representations of dead bodies serves her as a springboard to creating a critical smorgasbord of contemporary topics in feminist film criticism and theory, narrative theory, topics in contemporary philosophy, acting in the cinema and much more. Bringing into her analysis films and filmmakers ranging from John Ford to Jean-Luc Godard by way of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and everything in between, she settles on more extended discussion of three films: Max Ophüls’ final Hollywood film, The Reckless Moment, starring Joan Bennett; the Australian film Japanese Story; and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond. At every step she brings to the work a unique voice and writing style, personal and poetic, informed by a close understanding of modern philosophy, including Heidegger and Latour, and a deep love for all things cinematic, whether dead or alive.

In the cinema many were living and many kept on living, and many became dead, as Gertrude Stein might say. Some kept on living and some kept on being dead and some became things. Bodies proliferate in cinema. Living bodies to be sure, but also dead bodies, and transitional bodies, suspended between the being of a subject and objecthood. We tend to use the same word to designate both a living and a dead body. The body is constant, qualified only by an adjective—‘living’ or ‘dead’. We also, of course, use the word ‘corpse’. Dead is dead, no doubt, but if there are degrees of deadness then a corpse is probably deader than a dead body.

Because I am more interested in things than in death, it follows that it is the liveliness of corpses that lures my attention. Not dead bodies that act as though they were alive, nor live bodies that may really be dead, nor bodies that may in fact be composited, or even digitally constructed bodies. No, what lures my attention are ordinary, run-of-the-mill, old-fashioned bodies, bodies once living and now dead which somehow, in their corporeal materiality, exhibit a performative potential for conjuring a quality of cinematic thingness. They are bodies that are physically present in the films, bodies that insist on existing after they are dead. In some films in which dead bodies persist, time is concentrated in the body. And dispersed. When life leaves the body, time—or a particular quality of time—enters into the body, and into the film. The body, then, becomes an index of cinematic temporality.

— Lesley Stern, Dead and Alive.
Forthcoming fall 2024.

Until her death in 2021, Lesley Stern was a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection (British Film Institute and Indiana University Press, 1995) and The Smoking Book (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and co-editor of Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance. Her work moves between a number of disciplinary locations, and spans both theory and production. She published extensively in the areas of film, performance, photography, cultural history and feminism, and her essays have appeared in journals such as Screen, M/F, Camera Obscura, Film Reader, Image Forum (in Japanese), Trafic (in French), Emergences and Critical Inquiry.

Tracy Cox-Stanton is a film scholar, video essayist and professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the founder and editor of the online journal The Cine-Files. Her video essays have been published in [in]Transition and NECSUS, and featured in film festival and museum exhibitions including the Alchemy Film Festival in Scotland and the MSU Broad Museum in Lansing, Michigan.

Bill Brown is Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture at the University of Chicago. He works at the intersection of literary, visual and material cultures, with an emphasis on ‘object relations in an expanded field’. His publications include The Material Unconscious (Harvard, 1996); Things (Chicago, 2001/2004); A Sense of Things (Chicago, 2003); and Other Things (Chicago, 2015). He is currently working on a project called ‘Re-Assemblage’, which asks how assemblage practices across the literary, visual and plastic arts might contribute to assemblage theory in the social sciences.