Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


Erin Manning

 

A Critical Ellipsis: Spacing as an Alternative to Criticism

 


 

 

_Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture_

Edited by Peter Brunette and David Wills

Cambridge University Press, 1994

ISBN 0-521-44781-X

 

_Deconstruction and the Visual Arts_ sets itself up as an interesting continuation of the project completed five years previous: Brunette and Wills' _Screen/Play_. While _Screen/Play_ is specifically an alternative film theory based on the writings of Jacques Derrida, _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts_ extends itself beyond film theory to theories of art, architecture and the media. For the purposes of this review, however, I will confine myself to the final papers in the collection that deal specifically with film, as well as with the introduction by Brunette and Wills, and the short interview with Jacques Derrida.

 

_Deconstruction and the Visual Arts_ is not an introductory text, and would not be recommended as such. Rather than explicating Derrida's work, it is a collection that asks complex questions that are raised through a close reading of Derrida's texts, with particular emphasis on the question of spacing (espacement) that is central to Derrida's work.

 

Brunette and Wills begin by stating that the spatial arts are the common ground that deconstruction has opened up between questions of aesthetics and questions of construction, both artistic and architectural. The concept of spacing entails an exploration of the various relations among line, form, and shades of meaning, resulting in a negotiation of space that inevitably highlights an important link between writing, architecture, the visual arts, and cinema.

 

In the interview with Jacques Derrida many of the questions are geared toward painting and architecture, as well as to the applicability of deconstruction to the visual arts in general. In a discussion about deconstruction Derrida states that, with regard to philosophical hegemony, the deconstructive force is a gesture that consists of finding, or seeking, whatever in the work represents a resistance to philosophical authority. This, Derrida claims, is important to any discourse, whether it be filmic or literary, philosophical or architectural. As Derrida says, 'it is within a certain experience of spacing, of space, that resistance to philosophical authority can be produced' (10).

 

Derrida emphasizes the fact that deconstruction is not that which comes *to* the text, but rather that there is text as soon as deconstruction is engaged in fields said to be artistic, visual or spatial: 'There is text because there is always a little discourse somewhere in the visual arts, and also because even if there is no discourse, the effect of spacing already implies a textualization' (15). Derrida emphasizes the fact that, since deconstruction begins with the deconstruction of logocentrism, to confine it to linguistic phenomena would be most suspect. Deconstruction is not that which destroys, but rather that which affirms a certain 'being together' where construction is possible only to the extent that the foundations themselves have been deconstructed. As Derrida notes: 'If the foundations are assured, there is no construction; neither is there any invention . . . Thus deconstruction is the condition of construction, of true invention, of a real affirmation that holds something together, that constructs' (27).

 

Located within the final four chapters of _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts_ are the four articles that deal with film. The first is by Laura S. Oswald, entitled 'Cinema-Graphia: Eisenstein, Derrida, and the Sign of Cinema'. Oswald begins with an exploration of the divergence between the theories of Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc, both of whom are interested in developing a theory of the cinema. Oswald's aim here is to show how Astruc's writings on film theory act as early markers of a Derridean emphasis on writing, whereas Bazin's theories focus much more on a mimesis that is reminiscent of Aristotle. Astruc's contribution to film theory is the notion of 'camera-stylo', which is a type of writing that carries the fluidity and semantic complexity of written speech. Oswald argues that the notion of the camera-as-pen serves to define both the aesthetic priorities of New Wave cinema in France, and to emphasize a theoretical stance toward the ontological status and semiotic specificity of cinema with regard to the other arts. It is here that Oswald locates Derrida in relation to Astruc.

 

With an emphasis on the image as mimesis, Bazin contributes the notion of 'camera obscura', claiming that the origins of cinema are located in photography, which determines *a priori* the subservience of film discourse to the laws of photographic realism. Bazin focuses on the importance of an illusion of unbroken space, as well as on a coherent and complete composition within the frame. Whereas Bazin's position remains that art is a mirror for reflecting transcendent truth or reality, Astruc's work undermines the force of the copy in order to highlight the production of meaning by means of graphic composition. Contrary to Bazin, Astruc argues that writing-in-movement transcends the image as such, because writing occurs across the frame in a flickering alternation between presence and absence, image and text, space and time.

 

Drawing on Astruc and subsequently Derrida, Oswald's contribution to film theory is the notion of 'cinema-graphia', which is both the textual deployment of film writing and the philosophical shift it implies. Cinema-graphia therefore goes beyond cinematography's focus on the image. Whereas cinematography emphasizes the frame and what lies within it, cinema-graphia moves across the frame. Oswald proposes that, by freeing cinema from the question of origins (the focus on mimesis), the idea of cinema-graphia offers a more complex interpretation of the place of film discourse in the history of mimesis, and distances the question of cinema from the politics of dominant film practices.

 

Oswald argues that her contribution to film theory is an effort to go beyond Brunette and Wills' concept of 'screen/play' (a term that marks a significant departure from a tradition of film theory grounded in the photographic image). Cinema-graphia is even more radical, she writes, because it 'questions the very possibility of locating the site of the subject's construction and deconstruction in film space at all' (260). Oswald's critique is clear, well-written, and thought-provoking, especially for those quite familiar with both Derrida's work and Brunette and Wills' _Screen/Play_.

 

The second essay that deals with cinema is written by Tom Conley and John M. Ingham, entitled 'Hermes Goes to Hollywood: Disarticulating the Cops 'n' Robbers Genre'. The focus here is on discovering the means the industry uses to name and frame the unconscious -- in order to see how Hollywood manufactures desire and strives to produce subjectivity. This article would be particularly useful for anyone seeking to explore the links between anthropology and deconstruction. Conley and Ingham engage in a close reading of _Beverley Hills Cop_, which I will not summarize, except to say that it is a good example of a way of deconstructing Hollywood cinema.

 

The next essay is entitled 'The Signature Experiment Finds Andy Hardy', written by Robert B. Ray. Ray suggests that to understand Hollywood it is necessary to begin with the average product, and his choice here are Andy Hardy movies. In order to explore the consequences of reading such 'average' films, Ray suggests Derrida's 'signature experiment'. This refers in particular to the work done by Derrida in 'Signature, Event, Context', _Glas_ and _Signeponge/Signsponge_. Ray argues that Derrida's work is avant-garde since it questions the very structures of the academy, and in particular those of criticism. As an avant-gardist, Ray suggests, Derrida has relentlessly thrown into question the academic essay's conventional forms. The obstacle Derrida faces, Ray notes, is that academic institutions have long accepted radical content, but continue to refuse radical form. Ray compares Derrida's signature experiment to the work of the detective who seeks what is not obvious. Like Dupin, who has learned how to notice precisely what the police ignore, Derrida focuses on the names, the signatures, resting on the writing's surface, hidden in plain view. The challenge, Ray argues, is to find a way to tell stories whose explanations are as exciting as their mysteries!

 

In discussing the 'signature event', Ray points out that American film criticism begins with the emphasis on the signature (in this case Andrew Sarris' 'directorial signature') -- but whereas Sarris uses the signature in an attempt to locate the 'originality' or 'authorship' of the film, Derrida perversely uses the author's name to scatter his effects. A 'signature event' begins everywhere, traveling across the myriad surfaces of the film, entering and exiting like a rhizome. With its rhizomatic structure, the 'signature experiment' offers an alternative to critique, 'a way of achieving a 'hermeneutic effect' without practicing hermeneutics . . . [providing] a method of writing whose mingling of accident and determination exactly mirrors the conditions of filmmaking' (285). Ray's work would especially interest those who are seeking an alternative way of teaching criticism to students, as he outlines a method he uses in the classroom.

 

The last film-related article, written by Richard Dienst and entitled 'Sending Postcards in TV Land', focuses on television rather than film, in an attempt to think through a general theory of the televisual. Dienst argues that television studies has not yet located its object, and he writes in the hope that 'the diffused study of television will confront, as if for the first time, many theoretical issues that seem obscure and obstinate elsewhere' (296). In order to locate a general theory of the televisual, Dienst uses both Godard's and Derrida's metaphors of the postcard. Godard, he reminds us, compares television and film to the sending of 25 postcards per second. Derrida, on the other hand, evokes the postcard as a metaphor for a culture which is 'cast as an immense number of postal transmissions, each stamped by authorities and tradition' (296).

 

The postcard in Derrida's _The Post Card_ is evoked as that which refers to the general economy of texts. The postcard bears many duties at once: it must not only carry its message and image, but also has the obligation of having a sufficient address, a legible signature, and a tax or investment paid to the delivery apparatus. The postcard is therefore always responsible (along with its senders and receivers) to the system that sends it. The postcard is always in danger of having its transmission interrupted, or its message smeared. Insofar as it submits itself to these necessary conditions, the postcard is a technology or telecommunication in Derrida's sense, and televisual in Godard's sense. As Dienst writes: 'Both postcards remind us of the prices we pay (to culture, to the state, to capitalism) for our images and messages' (297).

 

Dienst seeks a reading of Derrida which hinges on the question of television as a general economy of culture: 'If 'differance' is the movement of the text as it tries to pin down -- inscribe -- its signification, then 'telecommunication' involves a movement of transmission, so that the writing machine also becomes the broadcasting device' (299). The 'tele' of 'telecommunication' reminds us that communication is always sent, emitted, diffused, circulated. The temporal gap which results is the movement of reference: 'the sign . . . communicates nothing but an uncertain movement of reference -- we can never be sure where it came from or where it is going' (299). Dienst posits that Derrida's _The Post Card_ is already televisual because it functions on so many registers. The postcard, Dienst argues, figures the process of transmission rather than inscription, sending rather than writing. Here I would suggest that Dienst could take this one step further, in order to show how a Derridean writing is always already a sending in the sense of a telecommunication.

 

According to Dienst, once we acknowledge that culture is sent through circuits, we must also acknowledge that there has been a fundamental shift in our textual ontology, away from the 'text itself' and the hermeneutic tradition, toward a conception of the textual system as a limitless matrix that crosses all cultural, social and political dimensions: any kind of response will require a reinvestment in the process -- another stamp.

 

Dienst's article is an excellent reading of Derrida's _The Post Card_, particularly useful for those already familiar with the essay 'Envois', which can be found in that book. By taking the concept of the postcard into the televisual realm, Dienst continues a project already underway by such scholars as Gregory Ulmer and Avital Ronell, a project that pushes Derrida's work beyond the limits of the literary and into the complex configurations of the virtual, the televisual, and the telecommunicative.

 

As a collection for those already familiar with Derrida's work, seeking an extension of Derrida's texts beyond the literary, _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts_ will not only be helpful, but will also be thought-provoking. I have found it to be an excellent example of where Derrida's work can be transmitted into the realms of cinema, media, architecture, and art.

 

Carleton University, Canada

 

 

Bibliography

 

Brunette, Peter, and David Wills, _Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory_ (Princeton University Press, 1989).

 

Derrida, Jacques, _Glas_ (University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

--- _The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond_, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago University Press, 1987).

--- 'Signature, Event, Context' in _Limited Inc._, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (Northwestern University Press, 1988).

--- _Signeponge/Signsponge_, trans. Richard Rand (Columbia University Press, 1984).

 

Ronell, Avital, _The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech_ (University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

 

Ulmer, Gregory, _Teletheory_ (University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

 

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Erin Manning, 'A Critical Ellipsis: Spacing as an Alternative to Criticism'  

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 17, July 1998

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n17manning

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

  

 

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