The Disappearing Christ (Columbia University Press / under contract) explores the simultaneous evolution of secularism and modern spectatorship in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. To do this, I look to a series of visualizations of the life of Jesus Christ that showcase the intertwined relationship of spirituality and visual media. Indeed, I argue that early cinema—and the literary and visual cultures that anticipated and eventually surrounded it—is a reflection, an index, even a critique of the process of secularization as it occurred in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. Negotiating between the trick and the actuality, the dueling impulses of belief and rationality, early film affords us the unique opportunity to see the emergence and institutionalization of secularism in the West. This book reads the visual and narrative evolution of cinema in this period as indicative of a broader culture coming to terms with the role of religion in modernity. While the project’s key intervention lies in recovering the aesthetics of the early Passion Play films of Edison, Lumière, and others, it is also invested in placing these films in cultural and historical context and tracking the way discourses of the secular intersect with discourses of emerging media. For instance, I juxtapose W.E.B. Du Bois’s multiple stories and illustrations of a “Black Christ” against the spectral white savior that appears at the end of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Du Bois, I argue, mobilizes something like an aesthetic of attractions in order to disrupt the seamless narrative logic of white supremacy Griffith conjures in his film. The project finally considers the way that debates about film’s materiality in the era of early cinema have been resurrected in our digital present. If these early screen practices can help us to imagine turn-of-the-century secularism, how much more can new prophecies of the “death of film” shed light on the state of the secular in the contemporary U.S.? I argue that digital cinema’s ephemerality calls the belief-function of film into question yet again in what I call our “postcinematic, postsecular age.”

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