Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Glen Norton

Is There Personality in a Textbook?

 


 

 

 

Jacques Aumont

_The Image_

London: British Film Institute, 1997

ISBN: 0851704093

249 pages

 

With _The Image_, Jacques Aumont has undertaken a task which, quite possibly, cannot be accomplished: to outline all theoretical discourse concerning the image. This is no small feat, yet Aumont does a diligent, comprehensive job -- perhaps too comprehensive, for while _The Image_ covers a wide spectrum of thought, it lacks any real in-depth analysis or consistent point-of-view.

 

In his introduction Aumont states the objective of his project: 'a simple exposition of the current state of thinking on various aspects of visual culture across a range of discourses' (3). This simple exposition is divided into five chapters, or 'roles': the role of the eye, the spectator, the apparatus, the image, and, finally, the role of art. Breaking down the content into these five sections does cause some overlap within the book, and such an inclusive project cannot help but suffer from a lack of truly innovative thought. Yet what *is* unique about this book is Aumont's eschewal of canonical headings in an attempt to cover the widest possible range of discourse concerning the image. Philosophy, film theory, aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, reception theory, feminist theory, laws of visual perception -- all these disciplines, usually dealt with as separate entities, are subsumed by Aumont into the whole of image theory. The inclusive nature of the project, therefore, deals with all forms of image as well, whether they be film, television, photography, painting, drawing, etc. Aumont is to be congratulated on his ability to review this vast territory so comprehensively in such a small volume, and for having the determination to take on such an overwhelming task in the first place. However, any encyclopaedic text, even the most objective, has its own point of view, and Aumont's is no exception -- whether this is a hindrance or a blessing is ours to debate.

 

Aumont's rigorous attempt at objectively mapping out the terrain of discourse concerning the image lacks any lasting insight or sustained depth -- in other words, it does its job quite nicely. Perhaps this judgement (not meant to be an overly harsh one, but a judgement nonetheless) is based on what I would *like* the book to be rather than what it actually is -- a textbook, plain and simple. If one wishes to remind oneself of the salient points in Bazin's 'Ontology of the Photographic Image', or to look up the difference between photopic and scotopic sight, then _The Image_ is an excellent reference tool. I found the bibliographies that end each section to be fairly detailed and also quite useful in my own research. If the objective was simply to pack as many facts into _The Image_ as one could, then I really do not have any critical response. Yet, is this all we should demand from a reference text? Perhaps to ask it (a book which is, after all, called _The Image_) to inspire the imagination, or better still, to present a radical critique of image culture, is more than its generalities can handle. One must be careful to present all sides of current debate, and Aumont does this in commensurable fashion. For example, in visual perception there is the analytical approach and the synthetic approach: 'Each of the two theories has its advantages and usefulness, and we will refer to one or the other whenever it seems appropriate' (37). What approach could be more democratic than this? Such a comfortable fence for a reference text to sit upon. Those who look for explication, brevity, and just plain old-fashioned information in a cultural theory text need look no further.

 

Rationale and clarity, then, are Aumont's strong suits. _The Image_ takes care to deliver a definitive account of thought surrounding the image, and also does well to rectify long-held yet erroneous beliefs, such as the theory of retinal persistence to explain the impression of motion in the cinema (32). Yet sound reasoning like this is mixed with a bias that is painfully obvious and at times somewhat disconcerting. Here, I am thinking primarily of Aumont's repeated reference to, and praise of Christian Metz (to whom he dedicates the book), whose work is cited no less than eleven times. I myself have problems with many of Metz's ideas (not the least of which being 'La Grande Syntagmatique') yet Aumont's attendance at his seminars alone seems to be enough to elevate him in terms of an authority figure. Also, the failure to mention the work of Jean Baudrillard in a section entitled 'Illusion, Copy, Simulacrum' (or at all, for that matter) seems highly suspect; perhaps it is not an oversight but a calculated slight on Aumont's part. Also significant is that, while Roland Barthes's _Camera Lucida_, _Writing Degree Zero_, and the essay 'Rhetoric of the Image' are generously cited, perhaps his most famous essay, 'The Death of the Author', is ignored. Still, these prejudices are what make Aumont's work so frustratingly interesting at times -- just when you think you've choked on enough factual clarity, Aumont throws in a thought or two of his own.

 

For me, it is the occasional slip into the personal which keeps _The Image_ from being the dry academic text it could have been. It retains the personal bias (might one go so far as to say artistic licence?) of a man who, after all, is regarded by myself and many others as one of the finest academics in film studies today. I, for one, am a great fan of his other work, especially his essays on the films of Jean-Luc Godard. [1] In these essays, Aumont reveals his curiosity for, and at times quite brilliant insight into, one of the leading theoretical image-makers around. I don't believe, then, that Aumont is naive about his supposed 'objectivity' -- he simply realises the dangers of conjecture in such a broad-based undertaking as _The Image_. Still, it is disappointing that what little passionate argument there is he saves for the conclusion of each chapter, rather than sustaining it within the body of the text. The most striking example comes at the end of the book: here Aumont reveals the underlying romanticism of his project, stating that 'the pleasure of images, the viewer's pleasure, must be linked to the pleasure assumed to have been enjoyed by the artist' (240). Perhaps this confession comes too late for me to take it to heart; still, it is one of the more interesting points made in this volume, not because it reveals some 'objective truth' pertaining to image theory, but because it reveals something of the author of the text. Ironic that, in a book where Aumont strives to efface himself, the most striking point comes in defence of the romantic notion of the author. It is here where the book moves beyond simple exposition and actually solicits a critical response. Too bad, then, that it had to come on the second-to-last page. I could go on all day arguing against Aumont's romanticism, and indeed I would love to do so -- isn't that what an author's best work deserves from its reader? As I plodded my way through _The Image_, nuggets like these stood out not because they somehow contaminated the 'objective' aim of the book, but because they seemed to be its only life-blood.

 

The pictures, too, are interesting -- I particularly appreciate the way they add to the discussion rather than simply illustrate it, for indeed most of them are never mentioned within the text itself. They exist on their own, specimens to be examined rather than mere illustrations of ideas. Aumont's examples of 'cineplasticity', for instance, are frame stills from Berkeley's _Gold Diggers of 1935_ and Murnau's _Faust_. Cineplasticity here is tenuously defined as a cinema 'based on a more or less free play of visual forms' rather than one where images are 'subordinated to narrative and of essentially limited scope' (200). To most, this connotes an 'experimental' or 'abstract' cinema, which makes Aumont's choice of stills all the more interesting. Is this a personal choice or, more likely, a result of availability? A meta-textual question perhaps, but one which I find much more interesting than the discussion of the term itself.

 

_The Image_, then, is not so much about 'delivering the goods' as it is about delivering selected goods along a predetermined path. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it be used as a solitary or principal teaching text. It will get student's feet wet, but its waters are too shallow to dive in anywhere. It also covers such a wide spectrum of thought that one would be hard-pressed to address all of it properly in, say, one full-term university course alone. In fact, it is hard to say just *who* this book is geared toward. Aumont himself offers no real help, stating the book was written with 'the students I have known over the twenty years in which I have been teaching' in mind, adding that, 'for this book to be at all successful, it must also address those who are particularly knowledgeable about some aspect of imagery' (3). That pretty much covers everyone, wouldn't you agree?

 

_The Image_ tries to be a book for everyone, but in the process alienates its reader. Certainly it has utilitarian value, but it lacks the creative spark needed to hold together a continuous, engaging argument. In the final analysis, it is up to the individual to decide if he or she desires personality in their reading. I, for one, do. What little there is in _The Image_ stands out, distracting the reader from its instructional intent. Yet perhaps this is not so bad a thing in a book as dry as this one -- Aumont's suppositional asides bring _The Image_ back from the edge of boredom. Save for these infrequent moments of inspiration, it falls, unfortunately, under the unexceptional heading of 'textbook'.

 

York University, Ontario, Canada

 

Footnote

 

1. Two that spring to mind are: 'Godard: The View and the Voice', _Discourse_ no. 7, Spring 1985: 42-65; and 'The Medium', in _Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991_, eds, Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992): 205-213.

 

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Glen Norton, 'Is There Personality in a Textbook?',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 22, August 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n22norton>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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