Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

David Sorfa

N/M: Misreading the Womand

 


 

 

Patrick McGee

_Cinema, Theory, and Political Responsibility in Contemporary Culture_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997

ISBN: 0 521 58908 8

235 pp.

 

'Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.' (Adorno)

 

In Peter Brunette and David Wills's much under-valued _Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory_ they discuss the form that a deconstructive mode of analysis might take. They write: 'From a deconstructive stand-point, analysis would no longer seek the supposed center of meaning but instead turn its attentions to the margins, where the supports of meaning are disclosed, to reading in and out of the text, examining the other texts onto which it opens itself out or from which it closes itself off' (62).

 

Throughout this review of Patrick McGee's _Cinema, Theory, and Political Responsibility in Contemporary Culture_ the question that will always be lurking behind my (possibly inaccurate) discussion and representation of the book, concerns the possible reason for McGee's odd exclusion of Brunette and Wills's _Screen/Play_ from any of his analyses of Derrida's impact on the culture of interpretation. Odd, since _Screen/Play_ is one of the very few books that has seriously engaged with Derrida and the possibility of deconstruction and cinema. Odd, because both McGee and David Wills work at Louisiana State University. Odd, since Wills is mentioned last in a list of those who McGee acknowledges as having 'read and responded' to his own work. Perhaps it is unfair to begin a review with what may seem to be an arbitrary complaint against the impossibility of discussing *everything* relevant to a particular field, but it strikes me that a serious discussion of Brunette and Wills's book would be essential to any work purporting to discuss cinema and deconstructive politics.

 

McGee's work is divided into four, fairly discrete chapters (or even essays) which I will attempt to discuss in the order in which they appear, and will try to trace some fundamental arguments which seem to run throughout the book. Very simply, McGee sets himself the formidable task of unifying the works of Jacques Derrida, the venerable and frighteningly intelligent philosopher (who some call 'post-structuralist'), Jacques Lacan, the renegade psychoanalyst (who some call 'insane') and Theodor Adorno, the respected cultural critic, in terms of their attitudes towards the politics of interpretation and the way in which their work may be used in a democratic and politically useful way in the practice of teaching interpretation in tertiary education. I think that this phrase, 'teaching interpretation', may need some further explanation. McGee teaches literature in the English Department at Louisiana State University and is concerned with rescuing deconstruction from its critics, who see it as an irresponsible call to sloppy thinking and, crucially, to a lack of political responsibility. He argues throughout the book that to teach deconstruction (or in a deconstructive manner, perhaps) is to involve oneself and one's students in a political engagement with the very idea of democracy. It is in the practice of cultural criticism that McGee openly states the political mission of his work: 'Is it appropriate to say that cultural studies proper is a rigorous intellectual discipline that seeks to promote the development of democratic socialism through cultural analysis?' (21) It seems clear from the work as whole that McGee would answer yes to this largely rhetorical question.

 

McGee's strategy in the book is to explicate, in a fairly abstract way, the theories of the three writers that he has chosen to concentrate on, and then to follow this with an analysis of a film using the concepts that he has excavated from either Adorno, Lacan or Derrida. Although perhaps this gives rather too programmatic an impression of McGee's very subtle style of argument, which ranges very widely and cogently through a terrain of theory in which one might easily lose one's way.

 

In chapter one, 'Redeeming Contradictions: From Critical Theory to Cultural Studies', it is clear that Adorno will form the backbone of McGee's theoretical arsenal (if that is not too militaristic a term). The most liberating notion which McGee finds in Adorno is his insistence that *true* works of art, and philosophy as well, are only true 'insofar as they are able to make visible their fundamental inauthenticity and untruth, insofar as they implicate themselves in the 'guilt of life' by their very insistence that they are separate from the society that produces that guilt' (2). In a way, I feel that McGee might have provided a more complete gloss on this particular insight of Adorno's, but, as I understand it, McGee sees that art is only art if it points clearly to the facts of its own production, of its own ideological underpinnings, of its status as representation and as lie (in the sense that all representations, since they are predicated on the fact of not being the original, are lies). He goes on to point out that this structure of the art object (be it a film, a painting or a book) will be revealed through the use of Adorno's 'immanent criticism' which 'takes seriously the principle that it is not ideology in itself which is untrue but rather its pretension to correspond to reality. Immanent criticism of intellectual and artistic phenomena seeks to grasp, through the analysis of their form and meaning, the contradiction between their objective idea and that pretension'. [1] Unfortunately McGee, again, does not fully explain what immanent criticism might be, apart from defending it against any similarity to the politically conservative literary New Criticism of the 40s and 50s -- a similarity which much deconstructive analysis often courts (84-85).

 

It is also not particularly clear what immanent criticism actually finds within the art work. Can any work of representation at all be subjected to immanent criticism? Or would only some works be amenable to such an operation? How does one judge whether a work is amenable to immanent criticism without already having made a judgement on its status as a work of art? I feel that in this context, Brunette and Wills's following observation is extremely pertinent: 'it is usually forgotten that even to speak of 'textual elements' that can or cannot be readily accommodated to an interpretation or a theory is already to presuppose a great deal, for these elements are not simply lying around in the text waiting to be picked up. In fact, such details often become individuated in the process of looking for evidence to prove a point; what one is looking for often determines what is found'. [2] I would also be very interested in McGee's views on Brunette and Wills's claim that 'we wish to argue that the text is *fundamentally* incoherent. In saying this we do not mean that the text is a nonsense but rather that since it is a structural impossibility for it to have been constituted or even conceived as a fullness, one is forced to treat it as a graft, a series of omissions, an accident'. [3] I am not really sure that McGee would agree with them as he seems to be careful to hold onto the notion that some works of art (if they could be termed that) would *not* be *true* and therefore could not be analysed in a politically progressive way. I could be wrong.

 

McGee then goes on to analyse _It's a Wonderful Life_ as an example of a text which undermines itself in this exemplary Adornian way. He concludes that the film 'virtually negates its own promise as a commodity of the culture industry. Life, it says, is not so wonderful after all' (15). Thus he sees this film as a Trojan Horse -- and he explicitly discusses Monique Wittig's wonderful essay [4] on the subject of art as a war machine (221) -- which undermines its own status as a 'Christmas classic'. But whether this counter-reading of the film is due to some intrinsic 'artistic' feature inherent within the film itself, or to the political situation at the time of its making, or to McGee's own abilities as a reader of culture, is unclear.

 

McGee then goes on to discuss Jacques Lacan's concept of sublimation, applying the idea of thwarted aims (or, rather, aims that find their fulfilment somewhere other than that aim itself) to Scorsese's _Age of Innocence_. He concludes: 'Art changes the world even when it represents it most faithfully because it changes the aim of our desire for the object. Art -- at least, the work of art that is true -- destroys its own illusion and directs the thought of the subject toward that which lies beyond illusion -- not reality in the sense of an absolute interpretation of the world but the Real as the ground of all possible interpretations' (33). Unfortunately (or, possibly, fortunately), I doubt whether I have enough space here to fully engage with McGee's very interesting discussion of Lacan's use of the terms Symbolic, Imaginary, Real, real, Other and other. Still, his reading of the film is interesting, especially as it pays close attention to its relationship with Edith Wharton's novel.

 

McGee concludes, after a discussion of Derrida and dissemination, that cultural studies articulates 'the experience of the undecidable' and its insistence 'on the historical necessity of making a decision in the face of the undecidable. It promotes not the decision itself . . . but the responsibility for the decision as the basis of commitment in intellectual work' (37).

 

In chapter two, 'Art as the Absolute Commodity: The Intersubjectivity of Mimesis in Adorno's _Aesthetic Theory_', McGee concentrates more closely on the Adornian concept which he mentioned earlier on: that the art work is 'the windowless monad of society'. [5] As a monad is that which is single and self-identical (as I understand it), the art work as 'windowless monad' becomes a solipsistic and self-referential object, which is saved from irrelevance by the fact that it is -- and this, I think, is McGee's contention -- intrinsically formed and informed by its cultural milieu, and thus its commentary on itself, on its own failure, becomes a commentary on that culture. Perhaps McGee might have expanded on Adorno's metaphor since it resonates with intimations of architecture and deification, and these are often important to discussions of deconstruction and post-structuralism. Paul de Man's work on blindness and insight might have some relevance here.

 

McGee concentrates more closely on problems within Habermas's critiques of deconstruction. He does however polemicise that interpretation 'that is not just a ritual act of cultural reproduction must explode the boundaries of the art work to reveal its negative force, its negative autonomy. It must reveal the moment of anti-art, or determinate negation, in the work of art' (42). The problem with this is McGee's insistence on the use of the word 'art'. How can one know what 'anti-art' is if that is the very definition of true art (see above)? Although it sounds very exciting for the work of the critic to become a form of social terrorism, with the ability to 'explode' at will, I do not find McGee's formulation that the 'true work of art tries to negate its own status as a work of art or its institutional form' (42). The use of the word 'tries' seems to imply that the work of art must necessarily fail in this attempt -- but McGee never discusses what the impact of this failure might be, especially if this applies to criticism itself, which must, then, also, always necessarily fail in its bombing attacks. In a tone of amused pessimism, he observes: 'Today's art, including popular art, shows that the end of reason is something like an amusement park. The status quo is Disneyland.' (56)

 

McGee's longest chapter, 'Sexual Nations: History and the Division of Hope in _The Crying Game_', is a long discussion which explores the reception of Neil Jordan's 1992 film in the United States, the eagerness of press and public to keep secret it's 'secret', and its relation to the discourse of liberation in Ireland's politics. Oddly enough, McGee seems to think that the film is a Hollywood production (80) -- although it is an almost entirely British production -- and makes almost exclusive reference to its reception in the United States (the film bombed badly in Britain). I would suggest that this chapter be read in tandem with Jane Giles's excellent study _The Crying Game_, since Giles's book provides much of the relevant production information which McGee's chapter conspicuously lacks.

 

McGee begins with Adorno's contention in _Aesthetic Theory_ that the culture industry cheats its consumers 'by seducing the consumer away from any analytical reflection on art's failure to live up to its promise' (81), but argues that _The Crying Game_ 'has internalized the act of reflection on its commodity status that everything in an advertising campaign like the one for _Batman_ tries to block from entering into the product' (82). Not only is it unclear how a film can 'internalize' anything (as if the film were an analysand on some virtual couch) but it is also not clear whether McGee is making any distinction between the text of the film and its advertising. Is it the advertising of the film which invites us to reflect on its commodity status or is it the work of the film itself, if such a distinction can be drawn in the first place? Although it is clear that, for McGee, Tim Burton's _Batman_ is an example of non-art (anti-art?) I would suggest a quick rifle through Robert E. Pearson and William Uricchio's collection of essays: _The Many Lives of the Batman_. McGee does state that 'one can easily imagine spectators of _Batman_ or _The Terminator_ who could experience these films as negative criticisms of contemporary society' (83), but does not go on to explain why, then, he chooses _The Crying Game_ as an example of true art instead of any other film.

 

McGee sees _The Crying Game_ as a 'profoundly political film' (88), although one must recall that at the beginning of chapter two, he says that the 'true work of art is never politically correct' (38). Thus, McGee continues, the film 'resists the neutralizing tendency of reception . . . by refusing to identify itself with any ideology beyond its own self-concept as a work of art, even while it displays and to some extent subverts that concept by insisting that art is ultimately an illusion' (88). It is in this way that he sees the film transcending the debate over whether the film is pro or anti the IRA -- both charges have been levelled against _The Crying Game_. (See Giles's chapter 'United Kingdom and Ireland' for a discussion of these charges as expressed by contemporary film critics and reviewers.) McGee does not, however, point out how the film actually manages this subversion of itself. Once again, the problem of where the subversion is coming from (the text, the audience, the critic, some complex combination of the three) is never addressed.

 

Perhaps this is not completely true. Although McGee develops concepts -- mainly through his discussions of Adorno, of hope, suffering and finally of the individual as sexual nation (a development of some of the work of Homi Bhabha) -- perhaps the central aporia (although I am loathe to use this word as McGee never does) of the film revolves around the figure of misogyny. In a very stimulating discussion of Jude, the IRA woman (Miranda Richardson), as a version of Kathleen Ni Houlihan or Mother Ireland who calls her sons to sacrifice their blood for the freedom of the nation, McGee writes: 'Since Jude is the only *real* woman in the film, it is impossible not to see her as the symptom of misogyny, the object of hatred and ambivalence that would seem to confuse women, in this case, with the national identity herself' (104). And later, after pointing to the historical contradictions within which the film finds itself embroiled: 'These contradictions between freedom and law, sex and gender, desire and demand, are condensed into the figure of misogyny. When the film ends misogyny still dominates the relations between men and women . . . The historical truth of _The Crying Game_ lies in its own failure to overcome this contradiction and thus transcend its own historical context' (159). The strength of the film, McGee seems to be saying, is that its profoundly misogynistic treatment of women is the stumbling block which enables the reader to reflect on the construction of the film as an art historical object. But does this not then assume that the film is, in fact, misogynistic -- that misogyny is somehow written into the text as fact? McGee concludes the chapter by stating that 'as long as there is desire there is hope' (160). I must admit that I do not entirely understand what he means by 'hope' here (or throughout his many discussions of the term in the book). Perhaps, hope here is something of a hopeless hope, or a hope without hope, because there is nothing else. We must hope because if we do not, then there is nothing.

 

I feel that I have presented a caricature of this particular chapter (if not of the entire book so far) as McGee spends much of it discussing various texts, from Conor Cruise O'Brien's _Passion and Cunning: Essays on Nationalism, Terrorism and Revolution_, to William Butler Yeats's poetry, to post-colonial texts on the metaphor of cricket, to various texts on Irish liberation including the writings of the current leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams. This discussion of the discourse of liberation within Irish literature and politics, although quite bewildering at times, provides a very important context for understanding the _The Crying Game_ as a political text. Considering the incredibly tense situation in Northern Ireland at the present moment, with three young boys recently burned to death in sectarian violence, perhaps it is even more desperately important now than ever before to understand the context of the liberation struggle in Ireland, and, in McGee's terms, to take the responsibility for a decision in the face of the undecidable, to somehow move beyond the impasse of 'the impossibility of utopia and the necessity of change' (160). Perhaps it would be worth considering why Neil Jordan's latest film, _The Butcher Boy_, does not explicitly address the question of politics in Ireland.

 

McGee's final chapter, 'Deconstruction and Responsibility: the Question of Freedom in the Place of the Undecidable', turns its attention explicitly to the function of criticism as a political act with the culture of the University system. He writes: 'I realize that reading and interpretation are not necessarily the most important forms of political activity, but the accumulation of these acts in an institution like the university is an important dimension of contemporary culture, not only in the West but throughout the world' (162). His defence of deconstruction as a politically viable form of instruction and interpretation insists that it is the 'undecidable' within 'totalizing concepts and systems' that deconstruction is most adept at winnowing out (163-164). More often, I would suppose, McGee's notion of the 'undecidable' is referred to as the moment of 'aporia' -- the point at which a text begins to unravel itself, turns against itself. In the section, 'Derrida and His Critics', McGee discusses various criticisms of Derrida and quite convincingly argues that these critics have not quite understood the complexity of Derrida's arguments, and, in their haste to protect the bastions of rationality from a perceived threat of total chaos, rush ill-advisedly into refuting theories which are not, in fact, theories or statements or polemics at all. A particular amount of vitriol is reserved for Jurgen Habermas who, McGee claims, is not even 'satisfied with having demonstrated his ignorance of Derrida's text' (191).

 

Perhaps the most disappointing element of this chapter is that McGee ignores the concept of film and cinema almost entirely. The discussion therefore covers fairly well trodden ground in the fields of philosophy and literary theory. In his defence of the, by now well-rehearsed, misconception that Derrida valorises writing over speech, it is a pity that he does not extend this analysis into the realm of the filmic. Brunette and Wills point out that: 'Unconsciously perhaps, the precritical humanist assumption of most conventional film criticism, which sees film as more popular, more universal, and thus presumably connected to what is 'most basic' in all of us, still seems to be at work'. [6] It would be interesting to see how McGee might develop this particular insight -- in this connection see also Laura R. Oswald's 'Cinema-Graphia: Eisenstein, Derrida and the Sign of the Cinema' in Brunette and Wills's _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture_, which has recently been reviewed by Erin Manning here at _Film-Philosophy_. [7] McGee's conclusion is that deconstruction as a critical activity 'assigns freedom as undecidable' (184-185).

 

In the final section of the chapter, 'Deconstructive Politics and the University', McGee examines the role of freedom and deconstruction within the very specific context of teaching within an English Department in an American state university. Again, I had hoped that this critique (which has been going on for some time now) would be extended to cover the emergence of film studies departments within universities over the past 15 years or so. For instance, McGee's insightful critique of canon formation within the English curriculum needs to be applied carefully and rigorously to the emerging canons of film departments. It strikes me that film studies has been involved so deeply in establishing its academic credentials and its right to be included as a field in its own right within the university that canon formation and the process of elevating popular culture into the cultural capital of 'art' have necessitated the occlusion of institutional critiques such as McGee's.

 

Although McGee's discussion of the functioning of the English department within a capitalist system may seem irrelevant to the field of film studies, he does make the important point that the 'product' that university teachers produce is the 'student with a degree', who then becomes more attractive to the job market. This, however, begs the question of which job market McGee is referring to. Clearly he is thinking of students moving away from strictly academic (or even creative) literary enterprises and into the field of commercial business -- although, again, it is not clear whether there would be a difference in becoming involved in some form of commercial publishing or literature retailing (to which, presumably, the English student will have some specialist knowledge to bring) or whether McGee is referring to some form of generalised business world, defined mainly by not being part of the university (213-215). It seems that the skill that English departments see as 'marketable' or 'transferable' in the student would be that of critical thinking. Whether this is actually a desirable trait in most post-university work would, I think, be debatable.

 

McGee ends his book with a utopian vision of a classroom in which we should:

 

'encourage students to try different writing styles . . .[and] introduce them to the kinds of literature that interest us, but we should also make an effort to discover the kinds of writing and cultural expression that interest them and relate both -- that is, traditional literature and more popular literature -- to culture as a total way of life. The classrooms in which we work should not be the panoptical sites of discipline and surveillance in which we teach students to recognize and live with their own inadequacies and failures. The classroom should be a place of discovery and excitement, of symbolic exchange and self-actualization' (219).

 

He sees the university as the exemplary site of the undecidable. A place within which it is possible to doubt and to criticise without fear of losing one's job. In fact, he sees the university itself as a piece of art (in the Adornian sense): 'Like a work of art, the university internalizes its social context without necessarily becoming the instrument of the dominant powers of that context . . . What distinguishes the university from the rest of society as the ground of its negative autonomy is the relatively safe haven it gives to the experience of the undecidable' (220). Perhaps if there were more people like McGee within the university the corporatisation of this venerable structure may not become an absolute inevitability.

 

I would like to make clear that I have merely touched on various aspects of McGee's book, and that I feel that this review (which has already gone on for too long) has not even managed to engage fully with any one of the many ideas and texts that McGee explores in such detail. One is left with the impression of a generous mind and an excellent and dedicated teacher: 'But no matter what anyone says or writes, it is never without the possibility of a response' (p.223). And, as I have no doubt proved, it is also never without the possibility of a misreading.

 

University of Kent at Canterbury, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Adorno, _Prisms_, p.32.

 

2. Brunette and Wills, _Screen/Play_, p. 34.

 

3. Brunette and Wills, _Screen/Play_, p. 62.

 

4. Monique Wittig, 'The Trojan Horse'.

 

5. In an earlier draft of this review I mistook Adorno's 'monad' for 'nomad' which led me to some bizarre conclusions concerning the relevance of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's work on nomadism in contemporary culture.

 

6. Brunette and Wills, _Screen/Play_, pp. 17-18.

 

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

 

 

Bibliography

 

Adorno, Theodor, _Prisms_ (London: Spearman, 1967).

--- _Aesthetic Theory_, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, new trans. and ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997).

 

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

--- eds., _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

 

Giles, Jane, _The Crying Game_ (London: British Film Institute, 1997).

 

Manning, Erin, '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>.

 

O'Brien, Conor Cruise, _Passion and Cunning: Essays on Nationalism, Terrorism and Revolution_ (Paladin, 1990).

 

Pearson, Robert E. and William Uricchio, _The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media_ (New York and London: Routledge and the British Film Institute, 1991).

 

Wittig, Monique, 'The Trojan Horse', in _The Straight Mind and Other Essays_ (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992).

 

*****************

 

David Sorfa, 'N/M: Misreading the Womand',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 23, August 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n23sorfa>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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