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Phenomenal Screens: Thinking Crisis Through Film and Literature


Through comparative readings of Émile Zola, James Joyce, and Krzysztof Kieślowski, this dissertation theorizes crisis as a specifically aesthetic phenomenon. Crisis is understood as the product of the constitutive failure of representational regimes to exhaustively render phenomena. More specifically, the dissertation examines the ways in which the failures of literary and cinematic paradigms, genres, and movements regimented by what philosophers call “natural perception”--or perception grounded in pragmatic human activity--generate novel modes of perceiving, affecting, and thinking. This inquiry draws on philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s conception of the “crisis of the action-image,” arguing that the crisis of action is not strictly limited to cinema (as Deleuze suggests), but is in fact an ongoing and generalizable condition of aesthetic forms. In particular, the dissertation works to push at the edges of modernism, reading Zola’s 19th-century Rougon-Macquart and Kieślowski’s transition from documentary to fiction on either side of Joyce’s Ulysses. It asserts, by way of Zola and philosopher Jacques Rancière, that the works in question constitute “phenomenal screens,” or mediating forms that determine conditions of intelligibility. Throughout, the arguments rest on understanding texts in their capacity as phenomenological mediators. Finally, the dissertation concludes that it is precisely this capacity that constitutes the locus of crisis, and thus, crisis as an aesthetic occurrence is always a crisis of the screen. Arguing against dialectical and neoliberal conceptions of crisis, chapter one analyzes the relationship between the crisis of the action-image and the screen. Chapter two asserts that Zola concretizes a crisis of the French realist novel. Zola, the chapter shows, understood works as phenomenologically mediating screens that transform the material they render visible. Chapter three reads Joyce’s Ulysses in light of Henri Bergson’s views on consciousness, arguing that the crisis of the screen in the “Proteus” episode disrupts a detached rationalism that gives way to the phenomenality of the body. Chapter 4 revisits Kieślowski’s oeuvre in light of Deleuze’s comments on exhaustion or l’épuisé. It examines crisis in Kieślowski’s as the generalized inefficacy of volitional acts in the post-war context of Stalinist Poland and its subsequent dissolution.

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