Visible Evidence 2021

Nonhuman Knowledge: The Epistemology of the Animal Documentary Image

Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa
Sophia Gräfe
James Leo Cahill
Respondent: Janina Wellmann
Thu, Dec 16
90 Min
Mousonturm (Studio 2), Online
Back to Program
The Nonhuman

Dispassionate Passions: Documenting Animal Sexual Behavior at the Kinsey Institute

In his 1953 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Alfred Kinsey notes that sexual responses in human and nonhuman animals are “exceedingly difficult and usually impossible to observe.” He lists some of the ways these responses evade scientific observation, including the minute size of the movements taking place, their simultaneous occurrence throughout the whole body, and the difficulty for observers to stay objective. This paper analyzes a solution to this problem by focusing on the 91 films made for Kinsey by William Dellenback during the 1940s and 50s, which are archived at The Kinsey Institute.

These films were used as evidence for the controversial and highly influential books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), and, despite an abundance of scholarship dedicated to Kinsey’s work, they have largely been ignored. In this talk I will argue that filmed animal research played a crucial role in defining scientific observation for Kinsey, providing means to navigate the social, cultural, and biological complexities of sex. By focusing on these forgotten films, this presentation traces Kinsey’s framework for using both animals and film to legitimate the act of recording sex as an empirical phenomenon.

Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa

Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa is Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Seattle University. His research focuses on the history of scientific filmmaking, nontheatrical film, and animal representations on film. His recent published works include “Project Pigeon: Rendering the War Animal through Optical Technology,” in JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies and “From Cage to Classroom: Animal Testing and Behaviorist Educational Film” in Film History. His book The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life is due to be published by UC Press in 2022.

5x5 m on 16 mm – Synthesizing Wildlife Behavior in the Lab

In 1957 the East German biologist Günter Tembrock was finally delivering his findings to the scientific world. His 250-page essay on the “Ethology of Red Foxes” presented his take on modern behavioral biology. For 10 years he had been observing tame animals in his laboratory in the center of Berlin, which measured 5×5 m. Next to that facility, Tembrock kept research organisms in a garden, a basement and an attic, which today are part of the Natural History Museum of Berlin. Commentators on the essay were enthusiastic about the extensive information gathered about the upbringing of these wild animals, their mating and fighting behavior, social life, and communication. But mostly they claimed that Tembrock’s findings corresponded with their analogous observations in the wild. How was this possible?

Tembrock’s simulation of a single species’ behavioral program using caged specimens was enabled by a network of analog media which, before the advent of code thinking, shifted the observational paradigm in behavioral research to a datafication of living behaviors which is still relevant today. Here, film was a central analytical tool. Dissected ‘film specimens’ provided spatial and temporal information, which was then ready to be deployed not only in research papers, but also in computer calculations, which would start being used with the rise of bio-cybernetics in the 1960s. This paper presents a hitherto little-known case study. It illustrates the epistemic role of film in the synthesis of behavioral knowledge in comparative behavioral studies in mid-20th century Europe.

Sophia Gräfe

Sophia Gräfe (M.A.) is Research Associate of the project “Transdisciplinary Networks of Media Knowledge” at Philipps-University of Marburg as well as guest researcher at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. Before she has been working in the Department of History and Theory of Culture at Humboldt-University Berlin (2015–2019) She has been a member of the Research Area “Knowledge of Life” at Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in 2019. Her research interests are the media history of behavioral science, research film as well as cultural animals studies. She is co-publisher of the JCMS Online-Dossier “Teaching Nontheatrical and Useful Media.”

Neither Dog nor Master: Stray Thoughts for Documentary Studies

This paper draws upon recent global documentaries about street dogs—Taskafa: Stories of the Street (Zimmerman, Turkey, 2013), Twelve Nights (Reye, Taiwan, 2014), Los Reyes (Perut and Osnovikoff, Chile, 2018), Pariah Dog (Alke, US/India, 2019)—to pose questions concerning some of the basic tenets of documentary theory through an attention to the material practices of filming stray animals.

Through a set of “stray thoughts” that interrogates the relationship between documentary subject and object as organized through the tradition of anarchist thought encompassed by the slogan “neither god nor master”—revised for this work as neither dog nor master—this paper examines a diverse set of emergent documentary techniques for engaging with questions of capture, fidelity, scale, subjectivity, and collaboration. What analytic purchases become available for documentary scholars through these cinematic “investigations of a dog,” which is to say, films that are both about and in some concrete ways like a dog?

James Leo Cahill

James Leo Cahill’s research focuses on French cinema and cultural history, nonfiction and experimental media, critical theory, and historiography. He has a special interest in scientific cinema and animals and moving image media. His first book, Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé (University of Minnesota Press) examines the tangled histories of cinema, Surrealism, and scientific research in the early work of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé and develops an account of cinema’s Copernican vocation, or its capacities as an instrument of scientific discovery and anti-anthropocentric displacement.

Respondent: Janina Wellmann

Janina Wellmann is a cultural historian of science. Her work focuses on the history and epistemology of the life sciences in the modern era. At present she is working at the research institute “Media Cultures of Computer Simulation” at Leuphana University Lüneburg. In 2017/2018, she held the Maury Green Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and was invited to the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2013/14. She has published on the history of embryology, the visual culture of the life sciences and is currently finishing her second book on “Biological Motion.”