Dr Maria Poulaki

Lecturer in Film and Digital Media Arts

Phone: Work: 01483 68 3005
Room no: 12 NC 01

Further information


I studied psychology before turning to media psychology, cultural analysis and cinema/media studies. Currently my research interests span moving image and cinematic aesthetics, with a focus on (dis)continuity and ambiguity in images and their perception, using a cognitive-neurological (especially through a '4E' perspective), art-historical and media-philosophical approach. 

My goal is to contribute to a refreshed critical approach to the cognitive analysis of the moving image and the embodied cognitive processes at play in relation to it. 

Since my doctorate research and PhD dissertation completed in 2011 ('Before or Beyond Narrative: Towards a complex systems theory of contemporary films') I have also been interested in complex systems theories, complex dynamic frameworks of neuronal functioning, and the intersection of complexity theory with media and narrative studies.  

With Pepita Hesselberth we have co-edited the just published volume Compact Cinematics: The Moving Image in the Age of Bit-Sized Media (Bloomsbury) with contributions from a number of prominent film and media scholars on the short, brief, small and miniature forms and processes of the new moving image and screen culture. And with Marina Grishakova we are editing the forthcoming collection Cognition and Narrative Complexity (to be published by the University of Nebraska Press, in the Frontiers of Narrative series, in 2017).

My previous publications include various book chapters and articles in journals such as ScreenProjectionsCinema & CieEmpedocles, Film-PhilosophyNew Review of Film and Television Studies, and other


Journal articles

  • Poulaki M. (2015) 'Brain science and film theory: Reassessing the place of cognitive discontinuity in cinema'. Projections (New York): the journal for movies and mind,


    The connection between film elements and brain responses has been suggested by a number of neurocognitive studies. The studies of event segmentation by Zacks et al in particular support that film editing conditions cognitive responses. After discussing the findings of these studies I will draw on Münsterberg’s and Arnheim’s classical cognitive approaches to film as well as from poststructuralist film theory to argue that the event segmentation approach still falls short of accounting for the impact of non-continuous film stimuli on the brain’s event segmentation, while it shares with other neurocognitive film research the tendency to naturalize narrative and continuity editing. Finally, it is suggested that by approaching the findings of event segmentation studies from the perspective of complex systems neuroscience, new hypotheses can be drawn on how non-continuous and complex film stimuli condition our brains by mediating (enabling or disrupting) event segmentation and cognitive patterning.

  • Poulaki M. (2015) 'Featuring shortness in online loop cultures'. Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 5 (1-2), pp. 91-96.


    This article examines the trend of looping videos online. It distinguishes between different types of loops (photography-based and video loops) and their functions (background and foreground). It also argues that the loop through its unit multiplication serves the human need for duration, self-reference and communication.

  • Poulaki M . (2014) 'Network films and complex causality'. Screen (Oxford), 55 (3), pp. 379-395.


    This article addresses the issue of causality in multi-character films that have been characterized as complex, and more particularly, network narratives. In these films, causality, in the classical sense of a logical connection between the depicted events, appears to be rather loose, as certain film theorists have argued. Using the film Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008) as the primary point of reference, and adopting a framework of analysis derived from complex systems theory and network theory instead of film narratology, I suggest that it is possible to gain insight into the particular characteristics of the loose causality of complex films, and to move towards a positive rather than negative definition of it. I will argue that an emergent type of causality is at play in network films, which follow the organizational laws of complex systems, rather than those of narrative organization.

  • Poulaki M. (2014) 'Neurocinematics and the discourse of control: Towards a critical neurofilmology'. Cinema & Cie, 22


    This article offers a close reading and a critique of Hasson et al’s Neurocinematics, focusing on its treatment of the notion of control, meaning a predictable neural and cognitive activation triggered by film stimuli. In the first part of the article I suggest that the use of control in neurocinematics on the one hand relies on a similarly problematic—but still more nuanced—use of the notion in cognitive film theory, and on the other hand reflects a unidirectional model of communication which brackets out noisy cases that diverge from predictable behavior. In the second part, I argue that these “noisy” cases are exactly the ones that pertain the most to a complex and dynamic view of brain activity and film-mind communication. The dialogue between film studies and neuroscience can become more complex too, escaping from a problematic definition of film effectiveness with regards to predictable viewer reactions.

  • Poulaki M. (2012) 'Self-reflexivity, Description, and the Boundaries of Narrative Cinema'. Cinéma&Cie, Italy: (18), pp. 45-55.


    This article proposes a bridge between an early and a late work of Gérard Genette, namely his article Frontières du récit and his collection of essays Fiction et diction. In Frontières du récit, Genette points at two instances of “anti-narrative” intrusion into narrative. The first is what Emile Benveniste called “discourse,” meaning the self-reflexive comments of the nar- rator, and the second is description, a mode of utterance that when found in a narrative, tem- porarily withholds the flow of the story. In the context of the proliferation of these instances in current narrative films and in the light of Genette’s observations in Fiction et diction, I will suggest that these anti-narrative elements provide us with a chance to fundamentally recon- sider the notion of narrative and to configure a paradigm shift in narratology, which Genette had already foreseen in his early work.

  • Poulaki M. (2012) 'The Subject Trapped in Gomorrah: Undecidability and Choice in Network Cinema'. Film-Philosophy, UK: 16 (1), pp. 55-71.


    This paper uses the recent ‘network film’ of Mateo Garrone Gomorrah in order to let Alain Badiou’s theory of subjectivization-in-decision percolate through the immanent networks of contemporary ‘risk societies’ and the narrative structures through which they find expression in cinema. Adumbrating a tension between choices and decisions I seek to create ‘edges’ between two worlds that in the most part of Badiou’s work have been decisively and platonically separated: the world of being and the one of our embodied social experience. Cinema lends its dynamical and ‘tensed’ mediation in order for this new and open topology to be explored.

  • Poulaki M. (2011) 'Implanted time: The final cut and the reflexive loops of complex narratives'. New Review of Film and Television Studies, UK: 9 (4), pp. 415-434.


    In this paper, I attempt to reread the 2004 film The Final Cut (Omar Naim) through its connection with the complex narrative tendency, and especially its puzzle, mind-game and modular aspects. I argue that The Final Cut's complex and reflexive mode of communication - with its roots in cyberpunk sci-fi - transforms its already discussed intense narratological self-reference. Reflexivity in The Final Cut finds expression in the plot's loops and mise-en-abyme structures, which, like the implant of the story, create interplay between narrative and database. Arguing that reflexivity is an important conceptual tool for theoretically approaching such interplay, I suggest an alternative theoretical framework to rethink reflexivity and self-reference in the context of complex narratives, through Niklas Luhmann's account of reflexivity in temporalized systems. Although this systemic framework has been in development since the 1970s, it is only recently that complex systemic views have influenced the humanities. Through this alternative framework, complexity enhances the communication between the film-system and the viewer-system, including the latter in a participatory and dynamic procedure of meaning-making. © 2011 Taylor & Francis.

  • Poulaki M. (2010) 'Japanese science fiction and conceptions of the (human) subject'. CLCWeb - Comparative Literature and Culture, United States: 12 (3)


    In her article "Japanese Science Fiction and Conceptions of the (Human) Subject" Maria Poulaki discusses the crisis that almost all essentialist categorizations have been facing in late modernity, in the context of which science fiction texts offer fertile ground to investigate the transitions brought about with the intensified invasion of the "human self" by its "nonhuman other." The analysis of a Japanese science fiction film draws a seemingly paradoxical connection between the Japanese version of modernity and self-identity with the relevant "Western" articulations found in the work of Bruno Latour and Alain Badiou. This connection points at a broader re-conceptualization of subjectivities beyond "human identity" and towards a collective conception of the self, which circulates in cultural texts and philosophical discourses that challenge the borders between East and West, humans and nonhumans. Japaneseness has been associated with a multiple conception of the self as part of the cosmos; such a conception has also been a core axis of the post-1980s "ontological turn" in French philosophy. Poulaki examines the non-modern origins of both these visions of the relationship between self and other, as well as the way in which they reveal the presence of non-individual dynamics that transgress the geopolitical borders of modernity and create a continuum between cultural anthropology and ontology. ©Purdue University.


  • Hesselberth P, Poulaki M. (2017) Compact Cinematics The Moving Image in the Age of Bit-Sized Media. Bloomsbury Academic


    Compact Cinematics challenges the dominant understanding of cinema to focus on the various compact, short, miniature, pocket-sized forms of cinematics that have existed from even before its standardization in theatrical form, and in recent ...

  • Poulaki M. (2011) Before or beyond narrative? Towards a complex systems theory of contemporary films.


    This book puts into focus the tendency for increasingly complex forms of narration in post-1990s cinema. I argue that, because of the fragmentation and nonlinearity that contemporary complex films display—in all three narrative dimensions of time, causality and space—it is not enough to approach them solely as complex narratives. The notion of narrative holds onto an idea of coherency, wholeness and causal-temporal linearity of the story, against the backdrop of which narrative ‘complexity’ is defined. Instead, this book suggests a radically new framework for the analysis of contemporary narrative films, a framework able to shed light to the processes of organization that nonlinear systems follow. Tools from complexity theory are thus derived in order to address complex films as complex systems, and their dynamic forms of textual and cognitive organization.

Book chapters

  • Poulaki M. (2017) 'Emergent Causality in Complex Films and Complex Systems'. in Walsh R, Stepney S (eds.) Narrating Complexity Springer
  • Poulaki M, Hesselberth P. (2017) 'Compact Cinematics: Screen, Capture, Attention'. in Hesselberth P, Poulaki M (eds.) Compact Cinematics: The Moving Image in the Age of Bit-Sized Media Bloomsbury
  • Poulaki M. (2015) '(In)visibility and (Un)awareness in Complex Cinema'. in Ekman U, Søndergård M, Bolter JD, Diaz L, Engberg M (eds.) Ubiquitous Computing, Complexity and Culture Routledge


    Contemporary techno-cultural conditions bring a qualitative shift in cinematic communication, which arguably becomes increasingly complex in its structure. This chapter suggests a complex systems framework to approach this shift. Using the films Antichrist and Melancholia as a twofold case study, I argue that, in them and other complex or “mind-game” films, film form becomes a machine of multiple observation, expressed through many instances of systemic self-reference that create mise-en-abyme structures, where viewers repeatedly locate and lose themselves. Complex cinema engages film and viewer in a mutual systemic constitution and communication, of which uncertainty is the basic principle.

  • Poulaki M. (2014) 'Puzzled Hollywood and the Return of Complex Films'. in (ed.) Hollywood Puzzle Films Routledge, Taylor & Francis Article number 2


    Complex forms of film narration, almost two decades after their popularization in the mid-1990s, make now a come-back through Hollywood productions. This chapter discusses the return of complex films and studies their storytelling modes from the scope of a broader epistemological paradigm shift towards the complexity of systems. The author suggests that this different perspective lets us address complex films not as deviant and alternative narratives, but as complex systems in their own right. Certain processes of complexity such as self-reference and pattern formation are highlighted as principles of organization of the complex filmic forms, and at the same time as new directions for film analysis and criticism.

  • Poulaki M. (2010) 'When Differences Become Unimportant: Casshern and the true social of cyberpunk'. in Riha D (ed.) Humanity in Cybernetic Environments Oxford : Inter-disciplinary Press , pp. 125-134.


    Through a combination of actor-network theory’s anti-essentialism and Badiou’s ethics, this article seeks to explore what cyberpunk can mean today, using the film Casshern as a case study. For Latour, the path to the social as an event, opens only when no pre-given abstract categories as ‘nature’ and ‘society’ enclave human action. Technological and biological, human and nonhuman actors or actants, both can co-exist and co-work to make the social, as the difference between the natural and the technological is rendered unimportant. Badiou’s universal ethics also begin when differences between self and other become unimportant. In this sense, cuberpunk, rendering the human-nonhuman difference unimportant, can be a truly universal genre, indicating that human identity is still a goal to be reached; and this goal does not recognize the ‘human’ as a solid category.



  • DMA1002 Histories of Media Arts
  • DMA2001 Critical Media Theory
  • MFC2330 Theorising Film

Departmental Duties

Admissions tutor, Digital Media Arts

Conference Presentations


  • ‘Is there a place for ambiguity in the cognitive studies of the moving image?’ Invited talk. Teorie Pro Praxi. FAMU, Prague (6/12/2016).


  • ‘Neurosomatics of ambiguity in film’. XXII International Conference of Film Studies: Contemporary Film and Media Aesthetics: Culture, Nature and Technology in the 21st Century. Rome Tre University, Rome. (24-25/11 2016)


  • ‘Embodied simulation, narrative and disconnection’. NECS 2016: In/between: cultures of connectivity. Potsdam, Germany. (July 28-30 2016)
  • ‘Mind, evolution and film’. Invited talk. Lecture series in Media, Art, Politics (MAP), Leiden University, Netherlands. (11/05/2016)


  • ‘Narrative and complex systems’. Invited talk. Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative studies, University of York (20/01/2016)


  • ‘Revisiting the influence of Gestalt Psychology on Neurocognitive Film Theory’. SCSMI 2015. Organized by the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image and Birkbeck, University of London, London, UK. (June 17-20 2015) 


  •  ‘The blind spots of neurocinema’.SCMS 2015. Organized by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Montreal, Canada. (March 25-29 2015)


  • ‘Film form and systemic knowing’. Narrative Matters 2014. Organized by the American University of Paris and University of Paris Diderot, Paris, France. (June 23-27 2014)

  • ‘Film complexity and cognitive emergence: A causal relationship?’. NECS 2014 Conference. Organized by the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies, Milan, Italy. (June 19-21 2014)

  • ‘Complex texts for complex minds’. 2013 International Conference on Narrative. Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester: UK. (June 27-29 2013)
  • ‘Neurocinematics and the politics of control’. NECS 2013 Conference. Organized by the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies, Prague: Czech Republic. (June 20-22 2013)

  • ‘Complex narratives as complex systems’. Narrative and Complex Systems Workshop. Organized by the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis, York: UK. (July 11-12 2012)

  • ‘(In)visibility and (un)awareness in complex cinema’. Invisibility and Unawareness: Ethico-Political Implications of Embeddedness and the Culture of Surveillance, panel: ‘Complex Cinema’. Organized by the Nordic research network ‘The Culture of Ubiquitous Information’ and the University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen: Denmark. (November 9-11 2011)

  • ‘Complex Narratives as Complex Systems: From sequential reasoning to pattern-making’. NECS 2011 Conference, panel: ‘Of Sum and Parts: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary Film and Television’. Organized by the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies, London: UK. (June 23-26 2011)

  •  ‘Towards a Complex Systems Theory for Complex Film Narratives’. 2nd ENN Conference: Working with Stories: Narrative as a Meeting Place for Theory, Analysis and Practice. Organized by the European Narratology Network and Syddansk University, Kolding: Denmark. (March 9-11 2011)

  • ‘Locating Cinema in Tensed Topologies’. Ubiquitous Digitalization of Urban Life and Auditory Culture. Organized by the Nordic research network ‘The Culture of Ubiquitous Information’ and the University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen: Denmark. (October 20-22 2010)

  • ‘The Subject Trapped in Gomorrah: Undecidability and choice in post-reflexive cinema’. The Film-Philosophy conference 2009. Organized by the University of Dundee and the International Academic Journal ‘Film-Philosophy’, Dundee: Scotland. (July 16-18 2009)

  • ‘The Local is the Universal: Cinematic places for the networked subject’. NECS 2009 Conference: Locating Media. Organized by the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies, Lund: Sweden. (June 25-28 2009)

  • ‘Implanted Resistance: The Final Cut and the contradictions of Liberal Reason’. Film and Science: Fictions, documentaries and beyond, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Film and History, Chicago: USA. (30/10-2/11 2008)

Membership in professional networks


  • NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies)

  • SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies)

  • SCSMI (Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image)

  • the Nordic research network 'The Culture of Ubiquitous Information'

  • ISSN (International Society for the Study of Narrative)

  •  ENN (European Narratology Network)

  •   NARCS (Narrative and Complex Systems)

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