Shudder - Shutter - Shatter by Esther Leslie


'Shudder: the moment of uncanny recognition – that stick there, perhaps it has a world for itself too, as it climbs that ladder.'


Shudder: the shutter snaps up and down in the camera. Shudder: the filmstrip snags its way through sprockets of the projector. Shudder: the frame and the frame rate are misaligned. Shudder: the figure who moved too quickly for the frame-rate appears to judder. Shudder: the handheld camera nears its object, jittering as it zooms. Shudder: the high shutter speed matched with a low frame rate generates a strobing effect. Shudder: the pixels drop out micro-momentarily on the LCD screen. Shudder: the backgrounds in the HD film tingle in the deep field of focus as if animated.

Shudder is intimate to film, in many ways. Shudder is the usually unwanted by-product of technical failure. In a digital world, shudder’s appearance as jitter, weave, flicker, image instability, scratches, noise and grain is the stuff to be cleared away in pursuit of the pristine digital image.

In his day, Adorno embraced it as sorely needed, consolatory, evidence of the machinery’s lack of omnipotence, despite all appearances to the contrary. He held out, for example, for the moment when the gramophone’s mechanical spring wears out and the music droops. And his essay on the young German filmmakers of the 1960s, Transparencies on Film, opened with a defence of the ‘incompetence’ of those works that ‘have not completely mastered their technique, conveying as a result something consolingly uncontrolled and accidental’.[1] In breakdown and blunders there is a chance of escape from mechanistic and other life-limiting logics.

But the machinery is more often than not victorious, and ever more insinuated into our lives, especially at those moments when we think ourselves most relaxed, most at leisure. The ‘grating, whirring sound’ of the cinema projector is a sign of our enthrallment to the technical, notes Adorno, but we cannot hear it above the film’s soundtrack, which ‘attempts to interpose a human coating between the reeled-off pictures and the spectators’.[2]

If we could discern it, we would shudder at the unmediated exposure to the abyss of emptiness that those filmic shadows, those ‘living and non-living’ effigies, impersonating us and ours, in the guise of humans, represent. We would be chilled by the horrible truth they display, which is the actuality of cinema’s efforts to mechanize even us, as it conspires to make all of life a matter of industry, a technical lethality. Were the shudder to come, occasioned by the music’s fall out or the stuttering of the filmstrip in the projector, it would itself be a hopeful sign, standing in for the very principle of life itself.

For Adorno, the shudder is a primal component of experience, emerging just as humans began to conceptualise the world and differentiate themselves from amorphous nature (they shudder to think…). The shudder indexes terror, a register of the uneasiness induced by strangeness (and, as such, it is the Enlightenment impulse for mastery over nature, its subjugation into the schemata of instrumental rationality).

At the same time, though, the shudder is a manifestation of wonder and a recognition of the possibility of anti-egoistic human interrelationships with other or non-beings. Its twitching indicates a capacity for mimesis, for a connection between self and otherness.[3] The shudder, then, is on the cusp. It inaugurates the attempt to master nature, to overcome all that is different. But it also marks the point of an afterwards that might still – if only bodily, unconsciously, involuntarily - remember what it was like to once be touched by something different, unassimilated.

The effort to subjugate (or tame) nature eventually threatens to eradicate the shudder. All that is different, nature’s otherness, is subsumed in rationality, in industry, in synthetics, in banality. The shudder threatens to dissipate and with it any possibility of true experience.[4]

At moments in our ‘damaged lives’,[5] particularly moments of true aesthetic encounter, genuine experience still occurs, and when it does, it does so with a shudder, which is, simultaneously, a recognition of the deadening nature of universal fungability and a self-liquidating encounter with the non-identical, the radically different. The self, for a few moments, recognises itself as semblance. The ‘I, ‘that internal agent of repression’ is shattered by art, which is, at that moment, ‘the historical voice of repressed nature’.[6]

Curiously, the German word used by Walter Benjamin to describe the transfiguring impact of film and cinema on aesthetics – Erschütterung – which means quake, shake up, vibration, trepidation, shock, labefaction – compounds, if slippage is allowed across languages, three terms: shudder, shutter, and shatter.

‘Ultimately’, notes Adorno, aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image’.[7] The goose bump, Adorno observes, is a sign of being touched by an other, an opening outwards from pure objectivity. Shudder: My skin is pitted – am I becoming an anima? Shudder: the moment of uncanny recognition – that stick there, perhaps it has a world for itself too, as it climbs that ladder. That squiggly line moves like a man, but is not one. Those sausages are having sex...

Shudder registers in a marking on the body, horripilation, result of the contraction of many little muscles, which thrust the hair follicles above the rest of the skin. Quite literally the skin begins to crawl, upwards. Such twitching is the result of electrical activity conducted by the nervous system. Our bodies process bio-electricity, and it makes even the dead jolt, as Luigi Galvani found, in the 1780s. The stories differ: perhaps the frog’s leg jerked as Galvani watched his wife slice it up with a metal knife for soup (ugh!), or, perhaps the spasm occurred as his scalpel touched the frog and a brass hook at one and the same time, and perhaps this was carried out during a thunderstorm.

In any case, this frog’s shudder – after death - became a celebrated event, indeed it appeared as a new type of magic, a reanimation, even as it was also a scientific sensation. If the body is electric, perhaps electricity could properly, or improperly, shock the inanimate into life, as Mary Shelley proposed in 1818 – to terrible effect – in Frankenstein, the monster re-animated by the sparks of electricity.

Cinemas have long been a place where people go to reproduce the shudder synthetically. Film, from its earliest days, and no type more so than animation, used a technological pre-disposition (the shutter) to play with the shudder – the shudder – or animation - of its object as well as its viewing subjects. (Adorno wrote of the shudder and enlightenment – the shudder is the frisson that comes from humans letting in the light of reason. Analogously, the shutter and light – the shutter is the jerk in the camera mechanism that lets in the light of the world).

Most animations are made in some way or another out of a combination of incremental moves and abrupt moves: the shifts from frame to frame that produce the illusion of mobility. The shudder is just such a smallest gesture, a flicker, a hint of life. (Was that a glimmer of a smile on the barely formed face? Is that stick a man breathing his last breath?)

J. Stuart Blackton developed stop motion in The Haunted Hotel (1907), which shows a wobbling building (actually a quivering camera) and then a lunch preparing itself as a knife slices bread on the table, a teapot tips its contents and sugar cubes hop into a cup. In Segundo de Chomón’s Electric Hotel (1908) suitcases unpack themselves and hair styles itself. Whether haunting or electricity motivates such object possession, the result is the same. In both strips, at the end, there is a loss of control, an excess of spirit (animation) and everything spins into oblivion.

Just after this, Ladislas Starewicz adopted these and other techniques to re-animate dead nature another way. He made articulated puppets out of the corpses of beetles, grasshoppers and frogs and moved them by unseen wires before an open shutter. Two decades later, a more benign version of the shudder that brings the dead to life, the immobile into mobility, appeared in cel cartoons. Frisky footstools, cheeky umbrellas, gloves that dance: Mickey Mouse finds these ‘thru the mirror’ in 1936. Disney’s spirited furniture and humanised technology struck Walter Benjamin as elements of a miraculous existence promoted in cartoons, which − consolingly, redemptively − suffuses with magical impulses all those alienated existences that are set adrift within nature and second nature alike.[8] (What are these animated entities? – at one and the same time, they morph from and into humans, animals, things – and also they are nothing but… animations.)

Seen through Adorno’s eyes, the elimination of subjectivity, by the ‘culture industry’, is premised on subjectivity’s migration into the object (the very mechanism of Marx’s fetishism of commodities). But if we manage to regard this with a shudder, a frisson of fear mingled with anticipation (shudder always contains an element of anticipation…. I shudder at the very thought…), then the mirrorworld might yet be an upset world, a world that could be shattered, for us.



[1] T.W.Adorno, ‘Transparencies on Film’, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 1991), p.154.

[2] Adorno/Eisler, Composing for the Films, p.59.

[3] This argument is voiced in Dialectic of Enlightenment [1947], co-authored by T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

[4] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, The Athlone Press, London 1997, p.80.

[5] Adorno subtitled his 1951 book Minima Moralia ‘Reflections from Damaged Life’.

[6] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, The Athlone Press, London 1997, p.246.

[7] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, The Athlone Press, London 1997, p.331.

[8] Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften vol.II.2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1991, p218-9.


Esther Leslie is Professor in Political Aesthetics, Birkbeck, University of London and author of ‘Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde’, (2002), ‘Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry’, (2005), ‘Walter Benjamin’ (2007).