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Harmony and Dissent

Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

By R. Bruce Elder
Subjects Art, Film & Media
Series Film and Media Studies Hide Details
Paperback : 9781554582266, 540 pages, April 2010
Ebook (PDF) : 9781554580866, 540 pages, April 2010

Table of contents

Table of Contents for Harmony and Dissent: Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century by R. Bruce Elder
PART 1: Modernism and the Absolute Film The Overcoming of Representation
1. The Philosophical and Occult Background to the Absolute Film
Photography, Modernity, and the Crisis of Vision
The Analogy to Music
Absolute Film and Visibility: The Theories of Conrad Fiedler
Bergson and Intuition
Abstraction and the Occult
The Extraordinary Influence of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s Thought Forms
Vibratory Modernism: Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy, and Synaesthesia
2. Modernism and the Absolute Film
The Absolute Film: Precursors and Parallels
Precursors of the Absolute Cinema: Light Sculpture
Precursors of the Absolute Film: The Scroll
Precursors of the Absolute Cinema: The Colour Organ and the Lichtspiel
More on Vibratory Modernism: The Esoteric Background to the Absolute Film
Abstract Film and Its Earlier Occult Predecessors
A Possible Egyptian Connection for Kircher’s Steganographic Mirror
Huygens, Robertson, and Their Colleagues: Popular Magic
Spiritualism and the New Technology
Léopold Survage and the Origins of the Absolute Film
Walther Ruttmann and the Origins of the Absolute Film
Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling: The Absolute Film as the Fulfillment of Modern Art Movements
The Language of Art: Constructivism, Reason, and Magic
Eggeling’s Integrity
Towards a Generalbaß der Malerei
Goethe as Precursor
Kandinsky, Eggeling, and Richter: Colour as Feeling, Rhythm as Form
Rhythmus 21 and the Generalbaß der Malerei
The End of the Absolute Film
PART 2: Modernism and Revolution Constructivism Between Marxism and Theology
3. Spiritual Interests in Late-Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Russia
Symbolism, Theology, and Occultism
Solovyov’s Influence
4. Symbolism and Its Legacies
Symbolism, the Spiritual Ideal, and the Avant-garde
Symbolism: The Crucible of the Russian Avant-garde
Malevich, or the Persistence of the Symbolist Ideal
Symbolism and Its Descendents: Suprematism
Zaum and Perlocutionary Poetics
Malevich and Higher Reality
Malevich, Suprematism, and Schopenhauer
Symbolism and Its Descendants: Cubo-Futurism
Vitebsk and Symbolism
Symbolism and its Descendents: FEKS
5. Constructivism: Between Productivism and Suprematism
Symbolism and Its Descendents: Constructivism
6. Eisenstein, Constructivism and the Dialectic
The Fact: Nature and Its Transformation
The Theory of the Dialectic and the Concept of Transformation
The Concept of Transformation in Earlier and Later Eisenstein
Eisenstein, Bely, Russia, and the Magic of Language
Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy and the Avant-garde
Rosicrucianism and the Theory of Transformation
What Would Eisenstein Have Heard in a Rosicrucian Lodge?
Rosicrucianism and Eisenstein’s Aesthetic Theory
Constructivism and Counterscience
The Engineer of Human Souls
Fechner and the Science of Effects
The Cinema and Spiritual Technology
The Cinema and X-rays
Nikolai Fedorov’s Cosmicism
The New Body
Mexico and Mallarmé
Eisenstein, the Monistic Ensemble, and Symbolism
Eisenstein, Symbolism, and the Fourth Dimension
Eisenstein’s Pangraphism and the Theory of Imitation
Mimesis, Pangraphism, and Language of Adam
Eisensten and Symbolist Colour Theory
Concluding Unscientific Postscript
Appendix: Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal-Symphonie: An Analysis
Shot Description/Analysis


R. Bruce Elder argues that the authors of many of the manifestoes that announced in such lively ways the appearance of yet another artistic movement shared a common aspiration: they proposed to reformulate the visual, literary, and performing arts so that they might take on attributes of the cinema. The cinema, Elder argues, became, in the early decades of the twentieth century, a pivotal artistic force around which a remarkable variety and number of aesthetic forms took shape.
To demonstrate this, Elder begins with a wide-ranging discussion that opens up some broad topics concerning modernity’s cognitive (and perceptual) regime, with a view to establishing that a crisis within that regime engendered some peculiar, and highly questionable, epistemological beliefs and enthusiasms. Through this discussion, Elder advances the startling claim that a crisis of cognition precipitated by modernity engendered, by way of response, a peculiar sort of “pneumatic (spiritual) epistemology.” Elder then shows that early ideas of the cinema were strongly influenced by this pneumatic epistemology and uses this conception of the cinema to explain its pivotal role in shaping two key moments in early-twentieth-century art: the quest to bring forth a pure, “objectless” (non-representational) art and Russian Suprematism, Constructivism, and Productivism.


  • Commended, Outstanding Academic Title, Choice 2009
  • Short-listed, Raymond Klibansky Prize for Best Book in the Humanities 2009
  • Winner, Robert Motherwell Book Award for outstanding publication in the history and criticism of modernism in the arts 2009


With a distinguished career as a filmmaker and critic, Elder (Ryerson Univ.) comes qualified to discuss this subject. In this rich, complex book, he sets out to explore both the 'absolute film tradition' as it developed principally in Germany and France (particularly in the work of Walther Ruttman, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling) and the development of constructivism in the Russian tradition (especially in the work of Sergei Eisenstein).... Elder's masterful book is a must for everyone interested in cinematic modernism, particularly the early-20th-century European avant-gardes. Summing Up: Essential.

- K.S. Nolley, Williamette University, Choice, 2009 June

Elder's research is staggering; form Platonic thought, Leonardo's Trattato dell pittura, analytical Newtonian principles governing the relationship between acoustics and optics, and Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical treatises, to Jean-Philippe Rameau's notions on harmony and Viking Eggeling's film Diagonal-Symphonie.... Elder presents a radically altered perspective on the origins and influences that helped propel the artistic sensibilities of the early twentieth-century avant-garde in this absorbing text. Harmony and Dissent is highly recommended, in general, for those interested in pneumatic epistemology, film and visual arts in Russia and Europe and, more specifically, for academics and advanced students of Russian and Soviet cultural and cinema studies.

- Ilana Sharp, Subiaco, Western Australia, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, 3.3, November 2009, 2010 February

To his credit, Elder brings self-assured skepticism to the movements and manifestos he probes, stating at the outset that the spiritual interests of the early film and photography avant-gardes ‘were largely of a peculiar, woolly character’ and that he is scrutinizing these notions ‘in order to expose the stain that marks them’ (xi). Having said this, however, he pays them the respect of sustained and serious examination; he comes to illuminate them, not to bury them, and he provides us with more than enough information to arrive at our own conclusions while pondering his. He explicates, you decide. Working out his thesis in almost 500 scrupulously researched pages, complete with hundreds of endnotes and quotations in Greek and Cyrillic script, Elder visits some historical areas that others have charted in the past, but which take on new significances in this distinctive context, especially when analyzed in such meticulous detail. At other times he sets forth facts, hypotheses, and speculations that I've encountered nowhere else.... Harmony and Dissent is as expansive, imaginative, fact-filled, and action-packed as any film-related book I've come upon in ages. Like most of the artists, theorists, inventors, mystics, and visionaries he writes about, Elder is blessed with a sense of mission that rules out shortcuts and compromises. The result of his labour is intensely challenging at times, but its insights are copious and its scholarship is a wonder to behold.

- David Sterritt, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28:5, 2012 April