Ana Hedberg Olenina: Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film

Ana Hedberg Olenina: Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film

New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780190051297, 366 p.

Amanda Jane Barbour
William James; Wilhelm Wundt; Viktor Shklovskii; Sofia Vysheslavtseva; Boris Eikhenbaum; Sergei Bernshtein; Lev Kuleshov; Vladimir Bekhterev; Sergei Eisenstein; Alexander Luria; Theodor Lipps; Jean d’Udine; Taylorism; formalism; embodiment; affect; gesture.

Ana Hedberg Olenina’s Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film is a critical historiography of affect and embodiment in late 19th and early 20th century Russia. The book puts the arts and science of the epoch into conversation with one another to consider the role of kinesthesia in aesthetics. Hedberg Olenina reconfigures the historical context to explore how misappropriation and defamiliarisation characterised the intellectual exchange between natural and human sciences. Through interrogating the psychological and neurophysiological treatises cited by futurist poets, formalist critics and avant garde auteurs, Hedberg Olenina posits a holistic picture of the modes of conceptualising affect and embodiment that emerged from specific technological, cultural, and socio-political milieus.

In the interest of transparency, I should note that the author and I know each other. We crossed paths at the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network in Paris last year. Personally, I think that her background is interesting and relevant to the text. Hedberg Olenina’s parents were scientists with a habit of reading contraband literature. When asked to elaborate on the latter, Hedberg Olenina pointed me to Viktor Shklovskii’s view that art should have freedom from the author’s biography. Or, freedom from cherry picking from the author's biography. Indeed, Shklovskii is discussed at length in Psychomotor Aesthetics and divorcing the author from literary artefact was a central tenet of formalism. However, I’m not a formalist critic, so I’ll return to why I think contraband literature is relevant later.

Psychomotor Aesthetics is in dialogue with works discussing the nexus of body cultures and national cinemas. Robert Brain, Michael Cowan, and Miriam Hansen (Brain 2016; Cowan 2012; Hansen 1991) have elaborated on this in the French, German, and American context, while Hedberg Olenina considers how these discursive frameworks emerged in Russia. The book unravels “discursive entanglements” (Hedberg Olenina 2020: xxxviii), highlighting the international and interdisciplinary connections that laid the groundwork for expressive movement in the Soviet state. Pre-existing research on Russian body cultures has largely focused on the political demands of post-revolutionary culture, as evident from the studies by Mikhail Iampolski, Valerii Podoroga and Igor’ Chubarov (Iampolski 1991; Podoroga 2006 and 2011; Chubarov 1971). However, Psychomotor Aesthetics is more closely aligned with the work of Emma Widdis, whose latest book (Widdis 2017) focuses on the haptic dimension of the new Soviet man through biomedical, philosophical, and ideological spheres.

Hedberg Olenina offers a deep dive into the source material of embodied approaches to aesthetics in Russian modernity. The first of five chapters, “Sound-Gesture: Psychological Sources of Russian Futurist Poetry”, is dedicated to exploring the bibliography of Viktor Shklovskii’s “O poezii i zaumnom iazyke” / “On Poetry and the Trans-sense Language”. Here, theoretical precedents for futurist poetic experiments (zaum’), according to Hedberg Olenina, include Dmitrii Konovalov’s rationalisations for speaking in tongues and Vladimir Obraztsov’s study of altered forms of communication exhibited by patients at Kazan Psychiatric Hospital. Hedberg Olenina states that other key influences on Shklovskii were William James and Wilhelm Wundt’s work on gesture (James 1890; Wundt 1904), which stipulated that somatic movement configures and communicates mental processes (not vice-versa).

The intensified convergence of psychophysiology and aesthetics came after the October Revolution, perhaps best exemplified by research conducted at the Institut Zhivogo Slova (Institute of the Living Word), which Hedberg Olenina discusses in the second chapter, “Motor Impulses of Verse: Russian Formalists on Poetry Recitation”. Maintaining her focus on literary forms, Hedberg Olenina describes how new technologies (such as the phonogram) enabled scholars and scientists to record, pause, repeat and render formal characteristics of the spoken word on a graph. This chapter, and the book more broadly, has an impressive compilation of scientific documents. Psychomotor Aesthetics is saturated with images that connect the abstract to their material realities. For example, graphs are shown and then juxtaposed with photographs of the instruments used to materialise them. This pictorial quality illuminates the text and suggests a lot of work has taken place in personal and institutional archives.

The third chapter elaborates on Lev Kuleshov’s approach to film acting, which is informed by, and expands upon, Vladimir Bekhterev’s work in reflexology and labour efficiency studies. Kuleshov directed his actors to use his catalogue of abstract, expressive gestures (termed “axial movement”) in the belief that this would optimise their trajectories for maximum effect. This recalls Hedberg Olenina’s discussions of James in the first chapter. If bodily action could instigate emotion, the need to ‘act’ dissolves as the body is positioned to experience the relevant scenario. Interestingly, the book explains how Bekhterev was of equal status and scientific reputation to Ivan Pavlov (and his dogs), but the latter was canonised during Stalin’s era due to his work fitting more neatly within Marxist dogma. This is a good example of the symbiotic relationship between technology, culture, and socio-political contexts that punctuate the book. Hedberg Olenina returns to the spectre of Stalin in scientific history in chapter five.

Light-marked trajectories of a person loading a truck, before and after the “optimisation” by Gilbreth. Original image source: Reginald D. Townsend, “The Magic of Motion Study,” The World’s Work 32.3 (1916): 321–336, 334. Appears in Hedberg Olenina 2020: 155.

The fourth chapter discusses kinaesthetic empathy in Sergei Eisenstein’s film theory; which Hedberg Olenina grounds in imitation, inhibition, and the intersubjectivity of audiences. Tracing Eisenstein’s understanding of imitation back to Bekhterev, Hedberg Olenina describes the imitative reaction (such as leaning from side to side while watching a car race) as an associative reflex triggered by the visual stimuli of the silver screen. The book’s discussion of inhibition is indebted to Oksana Bulgakowa and Julia Vassilieva’s archival research on Eisenstein’s relationship with Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria’s cultural-historical psychology. Hedberg Olenina postulates that, in line with Vygotsky and Luria, Eisenstein considered inhibition of the associative reflex to be acquired with age and exacerbated by the tyranny of intellect and etiquette. According to Eisenstein, the collision of imitation and inhibition led to a dialectic that laid the foundation for cognitive transformations. However, the effectiveness of this was mediated by the intersubjectivity of audiences. Hedberg Olenina references the sociological variables in audience samples that Eisenstein outlined in a research proposal for the Moscow Polytechnic Museum. Beyond this, Hedberg Olenina references Jean d’Udine’s notion that memory is an archive of rhythmic pulsations in our protoplasm. Therefore, affective artworks gain their potency from resonating with these vibrations within the audience, which vary relative to their lived experience. These vibrations seem to recall the first chapter’s discussions of zaum’, where Hedberg Olenina outlines the theoretical overlap between Shklovskii and Vladimir Mayakovskii, who saw the act of creation as originating in an indeterminate hum. Artistic creation and appreciation is therefore initiated through movement at the molecular level.

Mass solidarity in Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Soviet Union).

The final chapter, “The Pulse of Film: Psychophysiological Studies of Film Audience”, scrutinises the science behind spectator studies, through a cross-examination of the circumstances that gave rise to them in Russia and America in the early 20th century. Soviet and American film industries shared an interest in understanding how to make ideal products for mass consumption, despite growing independently of each other. The physiological data of film-goers was believed to shed light on this, but Hedberg Olenina demonstrates how universalist fallacies negated the datas’ applicability. Pointing to William Moulton Marston as an American example of bad science, the chapter illustrates how the inventor of the polygraph lie detector (who became a psychological consultant at Universal Studios) routinely reduced his test subjects’ emotional universe to blood pressure. Hedberg Olenina states that Marston’s experiments did little more than reflect and reinforce pre-existing stereotypical differences ascribed to men and women, rural and urban audiences.

Dr. Marston measures changes in the blood pressure and respiration of two women, a blonde and a brunette, as they watch love scenes with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Original image source: William M. Marston, “Bodily Symptoms of Elementary Emotions,” Psyche 38 (1929): 70-81, 71. Appears in Hedberg Olenina 2020: 242.

Meanwhile in the East, Hedberg Olenina explains, workers, peasants, and children were seen as key stakeholders in revolutionary politics and thus became platformed in spectator studies. Like their American counterparts, Soviet studies maintained a condescending attitude towards their test subjects, with researchers believing that hidden cameras in a cinema would reveal more about audience experience than these individuals would be able to articulate. Hedberg Olenina notes an exception to these intellectual trends, demonstrated by Abram Gel’mont and Vladimir Pravdoliubov. Their methodology in children’s cinema studies integrated psychophysiological and cognitive testing, as well as verbal feedback from the children. Pravdoliubov was purged in 1929 and executed by firing squad in 1937.

Hedberg Olenina concludes that, in the States, William Moulton Marston’s scientific integrity was overshadowed by proclivity for showmanship and (conscious or unconscious) desire to uphold established social hierarchies. In the Soviet context, Stalinist repression compelled researchers to repeat state-friendly suggestions of what audiences want in lieu of addressing inconvenient data.

The book highlights the fact that scientific ‘truths’ are always mediated by the material realities they arise from. If a scientist is sexist, experiments will probably yield sexist results, as demonstrated by Marston. Likewise, if you are conducting experiments under Stalin, your results will probably align with his opinion and agenda. The text is post-Foucauldian insofar as it uses Foucault’s methodologies relative to power, without this being its singular focus. Hedberg Olenina’s historiography discusses how human freedoms coexist with and are compromised by the technological, cultural, and socio-political context. What emerges is the transformation of knowledge in the act of its transfer. The futurists, formalists, and avant-gardists discussed here applied creative license to scientific concepts. This does not nullify their contributions to science, rather, Hedberg Olenina postulates that retrospect enables us to understand the potential and pitfalls of scientific praxis in cultural and public spheres. Hence the text's emphasis on reconstructing the historical milieu of its case studies.

The epilogue ties the books historiography to the present by discussing modern applications of neuroscience in the humanities, perhaps best encapsulated by neuroaesthetics. Hedberg Olenina’s criticisms of the field stem from a failure to apply established frameworks of understanding (such as historical contextualisation, hermeneutics, gender studies, semiotics, etc.) to cranial data. Far from being an arbitrator of truth, Hedberg Olenina argues that science is not neutral and bias can infiltrate the design of experiments and interpretation of data today. Much as it did 100 years ago. The intervention of the arts into scientific discourse can mediate universalist fallacies arising from the oversimplification of data.

In his review of the book1, Mikhail Iampolski has called it a “new and illuminating constellation of facts, works, and ideas” and I agree with the celestial analogy. Hedberg Olenina maps out the pre-existing research and knows exactly how her work fits into and develops these fields. The text will be a useful resource for scholars working in this space, as it is clear that Hedberg Olenina has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her subjects. However, the details can be disorientating for the uninitiated. While all academics need room to push the boundaries of their discipline, there is a virtue in explaining things in layman’s terms. If the only people who can understand your work are academics working in your field, it creates an ouroboros snake that marginalises other audiences. I am loath to level any criticism against Hedberg Olenina because I am aware that she is an excellent academic, but preaching the virtues of accessibility seems appropriate on an open-access platform. It is because the text is interesting, innovative and widely applicable that I wish it was a bit easier to read. Ideas are important and have the capacity to change the world, that is why certain books became contraband in the USSR.

Amanda Jane Barbour


1 Featured on the official website of Oxford University Press. Online: [16.11.2020].


Amanda Barbour is an award-winning film critic, artistic director of FEM&IST Films and editorial assistant at Senses of Cinema. Her work has been published by Screen Education, The Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues and Zippy Frames, among others. She has moderated post-film discussions in Austria, Australia and Kosovo and translated at Les Inattendus (France). In 2020, she was selected for a Q21 Artist-in-Residence program at the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and gave a lecture on feminism, fascism and fractal mathematics at the Austrian Film Museum. Then joined Senator Lidia Thorpe on the campaign trail because she wanted to see more Indigenous women in Australian politics.


Brain, Robert. 2016. The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. Washington.

Chubarov, Igor. 1971. Kollektivnaya chuvstvennost: Teorii i praktiki levogo avangarda. Moscow.

Cowen, Michael. 2012. Technology’s Pulse: Essays on Rhythm in German Modernism. London.

Hansen, Miriam. 1991. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge.

Hedberg Olenina, Ana. 2020. Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film. Oxford.

Iampolskii, Mikhail. 1991. “Kuleshov and the New Anthropology of the Actor,” in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema, edited by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, 31–50. London.

James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology. New York.

Podoroga, Valerii. 2011. Mimesis: Materials in Analytic Anthropology of Literature. Volume 2, Part 1. Moscow.

Podoroga, Valerii. 2006. Mimesis: Materials in Analytic Anthropology of Literature. Volume 1. Moscow.

Widdis, Emma. 2017. Socialist Senses: Film, Feeling, and the Soviet Subject, 1917–1940. Bloomington.

Wundt, Wilhelm. 1904. Principles of Physiological Psychology. London.

Suggested Citation

Barbour, Amanda. 2020. Review: “Ana Hedberg Olenina: Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film.Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI:


Copyright: The text of this article has been published under This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


uzh_logo 356 145




Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758