Screen saver: How people have used media for shelter through history

In a new book, Yale’s Francesco Casetti illustrates how people have used media for protection in tumultuous times, from the French Revolution to COVID-19.
Robertson's phantasmagoria, Paris, 1797, black-and-white etching of ghouls scaring a hall of people

Robertson’s phantasmagoria,” Paris, 1797. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

You’re staring at your officemates from the comfort of your home. They’re lined up on the Zoom screen, each against their preferred backdrops, each exposing only as much of their surroundings as they like.

You’re in your own space, but partly in theirs as well. You’re present with them in this meeting, even though they’re physically absent.

You’re in a screen-based bubble, a safe zone that allows you to stay tuned into the outside world without actually exposing yourself fully.

“Screening Fears” book cover

This interpretation of screen-based media as protective for its users is at the heart of a new book, “Screening Fears: On Protective Media” (Zone Books), by Francesco Casetti, the Sterling Professor of Humanities and Film and Media Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In the book, Casetti challenges long-standing theories of screen-based media as being “expansive” for users — what the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously termed “an extension of man” — and instead argues that they effectively shelter and protect us from exposure to the world. In so doing, they allow us to reconnect with reality in a more confident and effective way.

He calls this hypothesis the “projection/protection complex.”

There is a category of media that performs this double operation,” Casetti said. “First, they protect individuals against the possible threats of the milieu, the environment. And then they safely project them toward the reality again, enabling them to understand and manage the world better.”

Screening Fears” examines the ways in which that theory applies throughout time with a focus on three specific forms of media: the Phantasmagoria theater, a popular form of entertainment that emerged in France during the late 18th century, which used projectors known as “magic lanterns” and other technologies to immerse viewers in a transcendent, ghostly experience; the lavish cinema palaces of the early-to-mid-20th century; and the electronic bubbles of the modern world.

Casetti spoke to Yale News about what Phantasmagoria was all about, how people today use cell phones as shields, and where his work is headed next.

You say that each of the three forms of protective media featured in the book emerged at times of particularly stressful social change. Would you summarize those?

Francesco Casetti: Phantasmagoria came during the French Revolution, which was a sort of total transformation, not only politically but also culturally. The world was literally turned upside down. The Phantasmagoria provided a safe spectacle, as emphasized in the advertisements, where spectators were connected to the dead heroes of the Revolution and were entertained by then-mysterious natural forces, exemplified by early electrostatic machines. So it was a protected space that enabled viewers to better manage a world that otherwise appeared too strange.

With the modern theaters of the 1920s and ‘30s, reality was also problematic. It was the age of “the crowd,” of technological progress, and of upheaval of traditional habits. In the theater, people were relieved from the distress of modern life, and at the same time they were able to follow characters who fought against infinite difficulties. Again, an enclosure and a new way to stay connected with reality.

And the bubbles — my gosh. Pandemic. Exposure to the world is risky; and yet we can stay in contact with others in a safe way.

I could have chosen other media. Ultimately, I chose these because they were very representative of three moments in which relations with the world were not easy.

The Phantasmagoria used a projector on wheels to project images from behind a screen, giving the audience the impression that they were seeing ghost-like figures float by. But your interpretation of what was going on with these productions goes much deeper.

Casetti: It’s completely redefining the Phantasmagoria with the idea that it was not simply a medium for watching ghosts. On the contrary, it was the first modern restraint to capture three worlds: the transcendental world of the spirts, the intimate world of the spectators, and the natural worlds around us.

Your chapter about the cinema palaces emphasizes that these theaters promoted the comfortable surroundings above all — cooled air, relaxing seats, elaborate lobbies, attentive ushers. How does the comfort factor play into your hypothesis?

Casetti: My hypothesis is that the comfort was not the final goal. It was the instrument to relax spectators, to let them let go of the reality around, and to find a sort of shelter in the film theater. And then to reconnect with reality. It was a sort of secular strategy to put people in relaxation in order to let them go beyond their usual experience.

Of course, the media changed. Film is no longer that. We do not need the traditional comforts. Even though when we watch a movie in our home we try to find some kind of comfort, to be relaxed, to be exonerated. You create a sort of isolation from the external in order to project yourself into this compensating reality.

We can project ourselves into so many worlds now via our cellphones and laptops. How is it still a protective effect when we can perhaps put ourselves into too many scary realities?

Casetti: You are right, the cyberspace of the internet could be dangerous. It is the paradox of protection: the more protected you are, the more you want to project yourself in new realities, and the further you project yourself, the more you need new protection.

I’m completely shocked that my students, they do not call people on the phone. They write asking permission to call. A call now is something that puts you in distress. You need a shield of a text in order to have the call. That nevertheless provides new forms of intimacy that were completely unknown to my generation in which people really feel together.

You’re saying the cell phone functions as a protective device?

Casetti: Yes, of course, it is perceived as such. Next semester I’m teaching a class on media and fear. One of the prerequisites for taking the class is that students accept putting down their cell phone for 12 hours, except for a real emergency. How can you live without your cell phone during the day? I’m going to ask the students to make a diary of their own feelings and what happens to them.

Where is your work headed next?

Casetti: I’m still working on projection and protection. In this moment, I’m working on the idea that the protection and the exposure — what is the balance between the two? This is my problem now, where to find the balance.

There’s the idea that only when you are exposed to reality you understand reality. You need to know the earth — to go there and explore it. And there’s the idea that only when we are one step back, we can best capture the reality. These are two philosophical traditions that try to understand. Do we belong to the protective media or do we belong to the idea of “going there”?

My scope is not to determine the right point, but to study the paradox of this overlapping. I give you an example. Our students do not want to receive a call when they do not know who is calling. At the same time, they go fast with their car and risk their lives. And they are hungry for strong experiences. There are two different aspects: we need the risk, and we do not want it. Everybody finds the right compromise. It’s not to me to give the universal recipe for that. What I’m studying is what does it mean when these two kinds of things are confronting each other.

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