The Vault and the Fall

Working hard on a paper on the querelle between Theodor Lipps and Edith Stein on the relationship between the acrobat and the spectator…

Suddenly, in the core of Edith Stein’s Zum Problem der Einfühlung (1917), the figures of both the acrobat and the spectator crop out. The young phenomenologist is discussing Theodor Lipps’s notion of Einfühlung and “internal imitation” [Nachahmungtheorie] in her doctoral dissertation: Einfühlung is a kind of act in which one “gets” the Other’s Erlebniss on the basis of psycho-physical and spiritual analogy. In his Grundlegung der Aesthetik, Lipps states that when the spectator is watching an acrobat walking on a suspended wire, he or she feels him/herself so inside the acrobat [ich fühle mich so in ihm] (1903), that his/her conscious self has sunk itself completely into that of the acrobat. On the contrary, Stein argues that Einfühlung is far from being a mere projective (an absorption or a sinking) act in which the observer transfers his own subjectivity into that of the observed object/subject. The spectator subjectivity is not “one with” the acrobat subjectivity – it is only “with”: «Ich bin nicht eins mit dem Akrobaten, sondern nu „bei“ ihm, ich führe seine Bewegung nicht wirklich aus, sondern nur – quasi –». Such an “empathic spectatorship” is a “going through” of the acrobat motion internally. Just as the two bodies remain separated, so the two subjectivities involved do not or fuse with each other, they do not merge into a single entity and the relationship does not tend towards pure identification, assimilation, or even mutual annihilation. In the relationship between the acrobat and the spectator – in that quasi – lies the core of Edith Stein’s theory of Einfühlung and its relevance for film theory.

As a case in point, in the prologue of Trapeze (Carol Reed, USA 1956) the spectator follows the trapeze artist Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) performing a triple somersault. My ideas is that a three-step strategy (establishing, emotion-focusing, accomplishment) is used for the spectator sensorial and emotional involvement. A similar “classic” strategy is use also in the opening sequence of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958):


The analysis of the two cases will be published on the oncoming issue of the German journal montage a-v.