In 1937, the young American author Delmore Schwartz published the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a terrifying scenario of existential eradication. In it, an unnamed protagonist recounts a dream where he finds himself in a cinema watching a film that depicts his youthful parents coming together as a couple. Owing to his foreknowledge of this union’s disastrous results, he hollers at the screen to protest the film’s unfolding and thus forestall the traumas to be, a disquieting act of self-annihilation. “What are you doing? Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do?” castigates the theater usher as he drags the dreamer into the “cold light” of wakefulness on a “bleak winter morning.” For Irving Howe, the protagonist’s objections evince not a critique of the mistakes inevitable in any life, but “a protest against life itself.” With its dizzying shifts in perspective and schizophrenic collapse of the real and the fantastic, the cinema, Schwartz’s story suggests, profoundly mediates such “life.” It provides a structure of vision that not only conditions how we perceive external reality, but also fundamentally transforms the experience of our most intimate unconscious fears and desires. In dreams begin responsibilities, because the machinery of modernity—not just the cinema, but also the radio, telephone, television, and other technological accouterments of the era—penetrates the individual in body and mind.
I begin with a recitation of Schwartz’s story because it condenses in a single character the wonder and terror at the heart of modern technological development, a theme explored at length by Dreams Rewired, a new film-essay narrated by Tilda Swinton and directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, and Thomas Tode. Witty, engaging, and often exhilarating, Dreams Rewired edits together footage from over 200 films produced between the 1880s and 1930s to claim that today’s hyper-connected media ecologies were anticipated more than a century ago when the telephone, radio, cinema, and television propelled the modern world into electronic existence. At this time, such technologies were invested with utopian aspirations of total connectivity capable of eradicating borders and promoting world peace. Alongside such idealism were the well-founded fears that these very technologies were to be used to increase the efficiency of a market economy, regulate the laboring body, invade privacy, and make the war machine more effective. Add to this connectivity’s inescapability and you are left with one of the film’s more profound claims: “To be is to be connected. The network will seek out everyone.”
Swinton’s voiceover narration carries Dreams Rewired’s most thought-provoking arguments. The film’s motor, in fact, is its intricate montage, which weaves together well-known classics like Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) with rarely seen entries from the cinema’s history as well as digital recreations of long-lost spectacles, such as the Cinéorama, which synchronized ten 70mm film projectors in order to produce a 360-degree simulation of a hot-air balloon ride over Paris. Hardly any of this footage is identified (though one can read through a list of sources published online), such that the filmmakers assemble it to create a seamless unity across cinematic space, time, and history. As the film opens, for example, audiences are shown the masses descending a ferry in Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921), the perspective of a train hurtling past telephone poles in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), newsreel footage of cables being laid below ground and underwater, maps demonstrating the “electric intimacy” that binds people together across Europe, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, and an assortment of images from sources as different as Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921) and Filmstudie (1926), Harold Lloyd’s Number, Please? (1920) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
The montage in Dreams Rewired serves two functions. On the one hand, it demonstrates how fascination with urban modernity links the historic avant-garde as part of a transnational axis from Moscow to Manhattan. One notes, for example, how the seemingly chaotic yet strangely synchronized movement of the masses rhymes with Richter’s animated grids, which likewise mime the lattice-network of Berlin’s telephone polls. On the other hand, the footage is judiciously chosen to show how cinema mediated the very technologies that were transforming social life. Richter’s emphasis on eyes in Filmstudie paves the way for technologies’ probing of privacy. Meanwhile, how the telephone functioned as a crucial narrative device in films by Griffith, such as An Unseen Enemy (1912) and The Lonely Villa (1909), as well as Lois Weber’s underseen though aesthetically fascinating Suspense (1913), which it features a telephone call rendered as a triangular, three-way split-screen, is another compelling coming together of different films by different filmmakers operating in different parts of the world to produce a global vision of technological change. Coupled with Swinton’s commentary, which often parodies in contemporary argot what may be heard over the phone, these old films are thus wrenched from their archival (and often academic) destinies and thrust into the present the better to make us consider how our own technological sophistication participates in the same fantasies and fears that characterized modernity.
More playful than polemical, Dreams Rewired nonetheless has a politics. And it is upon this question of politics that film’s chief aesthetic device—montage and elision of filmic difference—crashes. Montage, as is well known, was pioneered by many of the filmmakers on display here, above all by Vertov and Eisenstein, both of whom connected it to an outright political imperative (the establishment of Soviet communism and critique of capitalist ideology). At the risk of excessive historicization, it bears mentioning that there exists an ideological abyss between, for example, Ruttmann and Vertov’s cinematic visions of urban modernity. No one should ever mistake the pseudo-morphological likeness Berlin: Symphony of a City shares with Man with a Movie Camera as evidence of equivalence, which Dreams Rewired unwittingly solicits in its refusal to identify its sources. Vertov’s totalizing vision of man remade through cinematic revolution is as radically out of step with his German counterpart as it is with Sheeler and Strand’s cinematic ode to New York City. But the elision of differences between the source films carries over the shape of Dreams Rewired more broadly—namely, the desire to overcome the distance between then and now, to make the dubious historiographical claim that the past prefigures the future and thus points to its inevitability.
In an interview that accompanies the film’s press materials, Luksch does not shy from claiming film as a tool for fomenting social awareness about technology’s political significance. “The ultimate ambition of this film is to revitalize […] debates about the ubiquitous computing and media by providing the missing historical context—particularly, early electric utopias in the public imagination, and ongoing struggles for openness. Today, the media—and the data landscape—is ‘up for grabs’ just as it was in the late 19th century. But if we don’t safeguard this landscape for the larger community, it will be grabbed up and divided up as entire continents once were.”
Just as Dreams Rewired elides differences between the materials it marshals for its montage, so too does it omit the profound differences separating then from now. One can quibble with Luksch’s claim that media ecologies were ever “up for grabs,” as if the development of the radio, the telephone, the cinema, or television could be divorced from economic and political imperatives, as thinkers such as Paul Virilio and Mary Ann Doane have stressed and Dreams Rewired itself demonstrates. Moreover, social media’s political virtues, which are venerated by so-called cyberactivists, repeat many of the same ideologies of democracy and openness that greeted the Internet upon its arrival. They seem as dubious as ever given not only the commercialism that defines the web, but also the “failure” of movements such as Occupy or the Arab Spring.
The important point, and it goes against the core of Dreams Rewired’s thesis, is that our contemporary life-world has fundamentally changed and does not constitute a continuous development of the past. However much our hyper-connected realities resemble a globalization dreamt of at the dawn of the twentieth–century, today’s intensified colonization of everyday life is enough to make Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno blush. Such an order asks whether an outside, an escape, can ever truly exist. As such, it brings me back to the question of dreams.
Dreams allow the imaginary to process desire; they are subjective visual phenomena that evade empirical measure, obviate rational thought, and open the mind’s eye to contemplate seemingly unrealizable visions for new collective experience. As Jonathan Crary writes, “[dreams] may well be the vehicles of wishes, but the wishes at stake are the insatiable human desires to exceed the isolating and privatizing confines of the self.” Modernity may have struggled to reduce people to numbers, but it also drew with it the 19th–century dream of emancipation from exploitive labor, colonial subjugation, racial oppression, and gender disparity. These were the very struggles that animated the 20th–century through the 1970s until the information economy’s counter-revolution depoliticized such hopes in favor of the alienated narcissism that digital connectivity promises, a poor substitute for the face-to-face collective real, existing social movements achieved, however fleetingly. Dreams Rewired beautifully notes, “[we] ride, on electric pavements, into the future” only to ask “[but] if we could see what is in store for us, could we refuse it?” In fact, technologies do not map their own destinies; social practice does. If dreams are responsibility’s host, then, the real question is: in a global culture that strives to transform individuals into statistics, political actants into inventive consumers, and sleepers into potential workers, where, in the end, do we dream?
DAVID FRESKO teaches in the New School's Department of Culture and Media.