There’s a long dispute in the philosophy of science about the ontological status of probability.
The dispute goes back to the founder of modern probability theory, Laplace. Laplace – with some help from the man who edited a posthumous paper by Bayes outlining one way of thinking about narrowing down probabilities – came up with equations to help us through the jungle of chance. There’s a good book by Sharon McGregor on the subject. McGregor, in keeping with the current trend, is a Bayesian.
Laplace, famously, had no place in his hypotheses for God. But he did have a place for what one might call a God Point. From the God Point, held, Laplace imagined, by a genius calculator, the universe would be revealed in its certainty. For this viewpoint, there would be no probabilities. Where we see, for instance, a raindrop, which splashes on our nose, the divine calculator would see the entire course of causes from which that raindrop issued. It would see the water evaporating from the surface of the earth, condensing into a cloud, and at some point of critical mass falling, once again to the earth, perhaps crashing into a mingling with other drops, until finally your nose is wet. And it would see all this the way we, for instance, see a tree – all as one thing, all as a certainty.
Underneath this vision is the idea that probability derives from a radical lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge can sound, here, like a very subjective thing, but it isn’t necessarily so. We can model it mechanically. It is not subjective in the way of a state like: what it is like to be a bat.
However, as Mcgregor points out, for the positivists of the 19th century, and for the first generation of physicists who theorized quantum mechanics, there was something sneaky about this way of thinking about probability. Ed Jaynes puts it like this: “are probability statements of quantum mechanics expressions of empirically verifiable laws of physics,[which would mean that they are out there, in the universe the good Lord is looking at] or merely expressions of our incomplete ability to predict, whether due to a defect in the theory or to incomplete initial information [in which case Laplace’s god is in his place and all is right with the world].
I mention this controversy as an analogy to the case for silent films that Fondane wants to make. For, just as the early generation of quantum physicists and Machian positivists like Richard von Mises placed indeterminacy out there as a constraint on frequency, so, too, does Fondane place silence out there as a fundamental construction principle of film. Fondane is saying that sound is not an act of creative destruction, but instead destroys something essential about film.
Fondane builds up to this point by constructing a history of film that situates its beginnings in a sort of popular anarchy, something happening on the margins.
“The silent art is of low birth the child of business men without business, of employee without employment, of ignorant adventureres, of apprentice photographers. At no time would these people have consented to work for any other purpose than to expand the means, nourish the image making capacity, fortify the singular virtues of the power of a machine whose activity was as far as possible from what one might want to call, retrospectively, “art”.
This is an argument not so much from unintended consequences but, rather, from the surrealist principle that Fondane puts at the center of his essay: the ‘malentendu’. The misunderstanding or misprision of things and signs is, in Fondane’s work, a standing for the surrealist fascination with chance juxtaposition, with the principle of association gone wild. It is the surrealist sublime: the famous umbrella encountering a sewing machine on an ironing board. Exactly this kind of thing, on a mass scale, happens when silence and the moving image meet each other.