Date of Award

August 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Tasha Oren

Committee Members

Gilberto Blasini, Elena Gorfinkel, Peter Paik, Patrice Petro


Comedy Films, Deleuze, Gilles, Digital Media, Early Cinema, Luhmann, Niklas, Systems Theory


Film theory is replete with references to systems, yet no theory has emerged to provide a cohesive explanation of how cinema, as both technology and institution, operates as a relay system. Interdisciplinary in nature, my dissertation proposes a systems theory of cinema deriving largely from the work of social scientist Niklas Luhmann. Systems theory is especially productive for the ways that it intervenes at crucial sites of conflict and irresolution within film studies. With its emphasis on nonhuman agencies, systems theory calls for reappraisal of the significance of the human to the cinema apparatus--a significance long assumed to be simply a given. With its claim that the reasoning adduced by an "observer" is never in fact the logic of the "observed," systems theory has major implications for thinking about the role of narrative in film and film theory. And with its stress on contingency, systems theory can be seen to upset the terms of debates within the field about cultural and technological determinism, and to provide further grounding for recent work on contingency and cinematic time.

Chapter one examines a defining staple of early cinema, the chase film, as a quintessential example of the construction of movement, in the evolution of film editing, via a chain of interlinked segments that relay--and tend to abrogate--human figures. Chapter two focuses on a film conceived by Rube Goldberg at the transition from silent to sound cinema, with particular attention to how the coming of sound complicates the visual relays characteristic of silent slapstick's gag structures. Chapter three examines the dynamism of the long take in classical and post-classical cinema, emphasizing the gradual and incremental disclosure of elements by the camera and revealing the cinema recording process itself as a type of Goldbergian contraption. The last chapter reflects on the "computerization" of film and media, showing that systems theory provides a useful avenue to thinking about the continuity between analog and digital cinema due in part to an unusual but rich and suggestive conception of the notion of "medium."