Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Ben Goldsmith

To Be Outside and In-Between

 


 

  

Paul Willemen

_Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory_

Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press;

London: British Film Institute, 1994

ISBN 0-85170-398-4

263 pp.

 

'The engagement with other cultural practices can (and in my view must) . . . be geared towards the unblocking, or the transformation, of aspects of the analyst's own cultural situation' (216).

 

The first thing I should do is apologise at the outset for the personal nature of the first couple of paragraphs of this review, which to some might seem out of place in such a forum as this. I believe that such an introduction is necessary as a way to introduce my own uncertainty both about Willemen's work and about my own cultural situation. Given Willemen's own preoccupations and priorities in which the positioning of the critic in relation to the object of criticism is always bound to social and cultural context, and is always foreshadowed, such an approach would seem an appropriate way to engage with what is a challenging and provocative series of essays.

 

Framed by interactions with his work by two Australian academics (Meaghan Morris's introduction and the concluding conversation/interview with Noel King) and through his interest in the 'outsideness' of critical cultural interactions, the work of Paul Willemen is of particular interest to me as a Brit currently working in Australia. Questions of identity -- personal, local, regional, national -- of how the self is constructed and placed in the social, and questions of representation, negotiation, interaction, of inclusion and exclusion lie at the heart of much public and private debate here, as they do in Willemen's work. This is especially true in Queensland, where I live and work, and where, following a State election last month, a previously informal movement based around one maverick federal parliamentarian has become a major political force by drawing on the well of mistrust of politicians and the political process, and the growing sense of disenfranchisement felt in regional and rural Australia. As a result, we are engaged in a vigorous (though not necessarily invigorating) process of argument (as opposed to dialogue) over who is 'inside' and who is 'outside' Australian culture, and over what exactly that culture might constitute. The One Nation party, through the mediated public persona and statements of its leader, Pauline Hanson, desires a return to a simpler, less diverse, more homogenous, essentially monocultural Australia which they regard as having existed some time in the 1950s. This they would achieve through the ending of welfare benefits to Australia's indigenous peoples (among the most disadvantaged and exploited groups in any western democratic society), a reversal of gun control laws introduced in the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy, an end to subsidy for the arts, drastic reductions in the levels of foreign investment, and the imposition of a zero net increase in immigration policy (whereby immigrant numbers match those leaving the country permanently). This latter plank is directed particularly against refugees and migrants from Australia's Asian neighbours, since as Hanson claimed in her maiden speech to Parliament in 1996, One Nation believes Australia is in danger of being 'swamped' by Asians. One Nation nostalgically yearns for the days of the White Australia Policy, an immigration policy which hierarchised immigrant intakes, preferring first white northern Europeans, then Mediterraneans (Italians, Greeks, Lebanese), with Asians, particularly Chinese, lowest on the list. The policy, which was not fully dismantled until the 1970s, enforced exclusion through a dictation test, whereby would-be immigrants were questioned in a European language of the immigration officers' choosing. Failure to understand was grounds for refusal of entry.

 

What you might be asking, has all this to do with a book of essays on film theory and cultural studies written between 1971 and 1990, and published in 1994? My answer, based on my educational and critical trajectories (I came to Australia in 1993 to work on a PhD examining institutional, industrial and critical determinants of literary production of the 1930s, and film production of the 1970s in Australia), and my geographical and cultural locations, is everything. I was first asked to review this book for _Film-Philosophy_ in February 1998. I read the first couple of chapters, became annoyed at what I saw as their impenetrability (which really was my own unfamiliarity and rustiness with the critical debates Willemen set up and attacked), reread his essays 'The Nation' and 'Questions of Third Cinema', through which I had encountered Willemen previously, and put the book away reasoning that I would return to it when other demands on my time were less pressing. Over the intervening six months or so, I found myself returning to the book at regular intervals to help verbalise and tame the contrary sensations of simultaneously being in place and of being placeless that confound me daily. My periodic joust with the department of immigration and multicultural affairs is imminently to recommence, and in a month I am to return to England for the first time since I lost a parent, my stepfather, Mike, in 1995.

 

**

 

'Looks and frictions' is an apposite title for a work of cultural studies and film studies scholarship, emphasising the latter's visual preoccupation, the interest of both in observation, and the former's fondness for frottage, placing theoretical frameworks over objects of study and tracing the indentations left. Significantly, both terms connote both closeness and distance, and implicitly acknowledge the outsideness of the critic or viewer in their engagement with the object of study.

 

A notion of 'outsideness' lies at the core of Willemen's scholarship and theoretical framework. It is for Willemen, as the quotation which begins this review attests, not a distanced but a dynamic position. It provides the critic with a perspective not only on the particular object, text or process in question, but on their practice and relation to their own culture. As Willemen notes (following Bakhtin) in his discussion of the Latin American Third Cinema manifestos of Julio Garcia Espinosa, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, 'Outsideness' is a precondition for 'the most intense and productive aspects of cultural life' (201).

 

The term, and its use and resonances, might also be seen to be informed by Willemen's personal history. He emigrated from Belgium to Britain in 1968 after working for two years for the Belgian Cinematheque. In the 1970s he organised a series of special screenings and retrospectives for the Edinburgh Film Festival with Claire Johnston, and was an editorial board member of _Screen_ between 1972 and 1980. But while Willemen embraced the productivity of the consideration of film as language, as process, his Marxist insistence on the grounding of the theorisation of subject-formation in cinema in the real set him outside the dominant channels of film theory. Willemen's concern was that the privileging of language in Metzian semiotics downplayed the place of social and historical specificities, while feminist appropriations of psychoanalysis in particular were seen to sharpen focus on sexual difference while marginalising issues of race, class and the legacies of colonialism. Willemen was critical of the esoteric, isolationist and ultimately ethnocentrist impulse of much theoretical writing which, he felt, cut such work off from the lived and ignored the ideological implication of exterior institutional forces in the construction of self, and of interaction in the social. Willemen believed, as Meaghan Morris notes in her introduction, that,

 

'a cultural politics needs something that a radical rhetoric does not; namely, a realistic way of negotiating differences between *overlapping* social spaces, combined with a willingness to work in contact (however chafing) with 'the main institutions and forces shaping film culture' at any given time' (8-9).

 

A similar motivation, as Morris goes on to observe, lay behind the turn in cultural studies towards cultural policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and provides a further connection for me to Willemen's work and thought. I now work at the Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy which was formed largely through the energies of two of the key figures in the turn to cultural policy, Colin Mercer and Tony Bennett.

 

As Morris cogently observes, Willemen's great legacy and example is his putting of 'how?' questions -- 'political questions about particular social aims' (3) -- in to cultural studies. Willemen's preferred mode of critical address is similar to that which Raymond Williams describes as 'diagnostic understanding', and Bakhtin describes as 'creative understanding'. His work, particularly in his use of the concepts of inner speech, (double-)outsideness, and the in-between, draws heavily on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a manoeuvre which again, until recently, placed Willemen on the margins of cultural and film studies. Willemen views the relationship between cultures, like that between cultural product and viewer/critic/consumer as essentially dialectical, a notion again drawn from Bakhtin and one which underpins the four key concepts postulated and interrogated here, those of 'inner speech', 'the fourth look', 'double outsideness' and 'the in-between'.

 

In the essays in this volume, arranged chronologically but often with substantial subsequent revision, Willemen dwells on the absences and inadequacies of semiotics and psychoanalysis in film theory, but also tries to bring them together; teasing out and problematising the question of specificity, both in terms of production and consumption/reception. Central to his work is the triad of producer, text, and viewer, considered in such a way that the socio-historical context of the production and the act of viewing (and criticism) are always privileged and foregrounded. His use of 'inner speech' and the concept of 'the fourth look' (perhaps his most significant contribution to film studies) work to elucidate the ways in which the interplay of the textual and the social involve and interpolate the viewer. The concepts of 'double-outsideness' and the 'in-between' work to interrogate the viewer's (and critic's) understanding of and positioning in relation to, both their own and another culture. They also serve to emphasise Willemen's belief (following Bakhtin) that 'the most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity' (199).

 

Willemen's initial understanding and application of the concept of inner speech in film theory is introduced in the first essay of the collection, 'Cinematic Discourse: The Problem of Inner Speech'. Here Willemen uses Russian formalism, particularly Eikenbaum and Vygotsky's understandings of inner speech, to connect Metzian semiotics to psychoanalysis and to extend them both. Arguing that 'meaning, an inevitable by-product of any 'mark' in whatever material of expression, is itself a verbal phenomenon' (29), Willemen points to cinematic techniques of condensation such as literalisms -- the low angle shot representing looking up to or deference -- as marks of enunciation and as verbal metaphors. Inner speech, 'the discourse of attention' (40), produces these marks as meaning *in language*, but is not confined simply to the registers of phonetic signifiers in which Metz identifies the presence of language in cinema -- recorded phonetic sound and writing in the image. Inner speech can work with 'images, phonemes, fragments of images, fragments or blocks of writing, schemata, mathematical symbols, and so on' (43), and thus can work across all five 'matters of expression' or 'codes of content' (34) which collectively constitute the specificity of cinematic language -- the remaining three being recorded noise, recorded musical sound, and the moving photographic image.

 

Willemen also modifies Barthes's arguments regarding photographic captions, their capacity to 'fix levels of reading' and their work to contain 'the unlimited polysemy of images' (which implies that images are less socially and ideologically determined than words). He argues that such a notion

 

'ignores the full extent of the role of language in helping to determine firstly, what image shall be produced; secondly, the material(s) organised in/by it; thirdly, the social function and placing of imaged discourse in a given discursive formation; and fourthly, the reading produced in relation to it' (50).

 

In acknowledging the linguistic base of meaning production in cinema, Willemen surmises that filmic images may be grounded in language-specific tropes. This permits him to re-emphasise the need for consideration of the particular contexts of both image production and consumption in theorisation of subject-formation in cinema, and to adjust critical frameworks accordingly. Following Eikenbaum, inner speech for Willemen allows the introduction of 'an extra discourse into the dialectic of text and subject', acting as 'the cement between text, subject and the social', and working to open up 'a different way of thinking about subject production' (43). Inner speech 'constitutes the activity associated with an agency which holds sets of contradictions in socially as well as unconsciously determined balances of forces', working to bind the subject and the text in sociality and to stabilise the signifying process, and 'providing the conditions of existence for any social discourse' (40). Consequently, Willemen posits,

 

'the production of subject positions via discourses is necessarily always doubled . . . Inner speech lines (as the lining of a jacket helps prevent it coming apart at the seams) any process of meaning production, both at the stage of text manufacturing and of reading' (40).

 

Willemen concludes that theoretical discourses on film,

 

'must be seen in terms of the same dialectical relations that govern the production of all texts. Such theories of discourse are 'produced' in specific places of the discursive formations, with specific functions in relation to other discourses, the whole caught up in the struggle that constitutes the 'motor of history' (51).

 

In the essay entitled 'The Fourth Look' Willemen relates similar concerns in his criticism of both Metz and Mulvey's characterisations of 'the look' in cinema. Metz's notion of film as a one way mirror ('I look at it but it doesn't look at me looking at it [t]he visible is entirely on the side of the screen' [1]) is too limited in its failure to account for or even consider 'the complex interactions of looks at play in the filmic process' (99). But while Willemen allows that the spectator in Hollywood narrative cinema is inscribed as invisible, this does not preclude the image's look back at the spectator. This invisibility 'does not mean that he or she is not also subjected to a look, merely that the look at the viewing subject is effaced through a series of aesthetic strategies' (100). The Wisconsin formalists' studies of point of view structures which similarly rely on spectatorial identification with the camera are equally deficient in their oversimplification of the interplay of looks, as Willemen's deconstruction of Edward Branigan's study of point of view in Fellini's _8 1/2_ and Oshima's _The Story of a Man Who Left His Will on Film_ in his essay 'Notes on Subjectivity' attests.

 

The existence of three different looks in/at cinema is exposed in Laura Mulvey's work on the gaze: the camera as it records the pro-filmic event; the audience's look at the image; and the intra-diegetic look of characters -- where the first two are subordinated to the third in order to prevent a 'distanciating awareness' in the audience which would destroy willing suspension of disbelief. Using as examples the films of Anthony Mann, which he sees as parables of the (male) quest for identity requiring damage to the male body before identity or death is found, Willemen undercuts the rigid, gendered hierarchy of male (active) gaze and woman (passive) 'to-be-looked-at' in Mulvey's formulation, arguing that 'even the classic American cinema can mobilise both the sadistic and the fetishistic modes of looking in relation to figures other than images of women' (102). The anxiety of the repressed homosexual look is 'marked in the images themselves' which,

 

'always draw attention to themselves, arresting the look and being narratively focused on the pleasures of seeing the male body in motion, a pleasure paid for, in the diegesis, by the mutilation or damaging of that body' (103).

 

Mulvey is wrong to call for the expulsion of the scopophilic and narcissistic drives 'since such a move would simply abolish cinema itself' (104). Instead, focus should fall back on the viewing subject and its positioning in relation to the drives. The potential of this look is explored in Steve Dwoskin's films, a still from one of which, _Dyn Amo_ (1972), adorns the cover of _Looks and Frictions_. It is a troubling and complex black and white image of a woman in full face close up, blindfolded but looking out at the reader, her glossy lipstick reflecting light cast on her face at the moment of the camera's look at her. Willemen reads her look back at the viewer as a call for help across the screen boundary 'summoning [the viewer] to come to her assistance in the diegesis' (108). A different look back is identified in Dwoskin's film _Girl_ (1975), a single take of a naked woman standing on a bath mat, in which the woman's increasing discomfort with her enforced position of 'to-be-looked-at-ness' rebounds the sadistic, voyeuristic look back on to the viewer. The viewer is forced to confront 'the considerable sadistic components present in his or her act of looking and, by implication, confront the castration anxieties provoked by the investigation of the naked female form in the diegesis' (107). Thus is made present the fourth look, the look at the viewer. This look, as Willemen argues following Lacan, does not have to be overtly or superficially present in the film, it is 'not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other' which 'surprises [me] in the function of voyeur, disturbs [me] and reduces [me] to a feeling of shame' [2] The fourth look is the look which marks itself in the light from the projection reflected back on to the faces of the audience and 'constitutes the viewer as visible subject' (107). Dwoskin's films overtly expose the viewer's fantasy 'of being unseen' (109), but it is evident in all filmic experiences, Willemen claims. It is just that in 'the overwhelming majority of films, as well as the other aspects of the cinematic institution, such as theatres, projection conditions and so on, conspire to minimise its effects, with the aim of trying to erase it altogether' (108).

 

In an essay written in response to John Ellis's article 'On Pornography' [3] Willemen dismisses the manipulation of the viewer's look 'caught in the fetishistic process of disavowal' by the art film's overt marks of enunciation. The simultaneous demand for and denial of the 'to-be-looked-at-ness' of the image overinvests the addresser's stake in the dialogue, valorises the voyeur's gaze, but denies its autonomy; in binding the viewer so tightly into the spectacle, the fourth look is 'diverted and left dormant' (115). By contrast, the direct address of the porn film, in offering itself to be looked at, invigorates the fourth look to the point where the position and activity of the viewer are threatened, and the viewer risks becoming the object of the look, 'of being overlooked in the act of looking' (114). The risk is increased when the viewer is 'looking at something he or she is not supposed to look at, either according to an internalised censorship (superego) or an external, legal one (as in clandestine viewings) or, as in most cases, according to both censorships combined' (114), a process which Willemen sees as working to problematise the social dimension of viewing, reintroducing it as a determining influence on the relationships between filmer, filmed and viewer.

 

In a later essay, 'Bangkok-Bahrain-Berlin-Jerusalem: Amos Gitai's Editing', Willemen locates in Gitai's films a generosity in the dialogue between filmer and viewer; Gitai does not attempt to corral the look at the screen as the imbricated framing evident in many art-films, but rather 'tries to mobilise meanings rather than impose them . . . the film-maker proposes a way of making sense, but simultaneously invites critical attention to the way this is done, regularly pausing to allow the reader/viewer to check the proceedings' (166). In his discussion of a sequence in Gitai's _Bangkok-Bahrain_, a film about the exploitation of male Thai labour in the Middle East construction industry and Thai women in the Bangkok sex-tourism industry, Willemen elaborates on what he sees as Gitai's acute awareness of the relationship between filmed, filmer, viewer and the social. Filming an interview with a trafficker in his office, Gitai, to the surprise of the trafficker, asks a question about a previous conversation which was not filmed. But instead of focusing on his reaction, the camera pans across to the trafficker's wife sitting in the corner of the room, unlit, in what is clearly a 'no-film' area. The camera's relentless gaze forces the woman to answer the question, mobilising the fourth look and prompting the viewer to rethink what has been seen and said:

 

'The camera movement marks a shift from the dialogue between the film-maker and filmed people, which is the standard contract we see in operation in nearly all television, to a three-way relationship between the filmed, the filmers and the viewers, inserting that relationship in its turn into the whole problem of 'filming social relations' . . . The pan also stresses something few films and virtually no television programme ever acknowledge: the relation of otherness *vis-a-vis* the filmed which a film-maker experiences, but usually hides in the finished product. . . . Gitai shows us a way of making sense of an unfamiliar situation while participating in it, and he takes the viewer into his confidence, provided we are prepared to pay attention to the modes of enunciation and their implications' (169).

 

Gitai does not use point-of-view shots to position the viewer in relation to the filmed. Rather he engages in dialogue with the viewer, encouraging meaning to be made from the differences and interplay between marks of enunciation in the text including different points of view, even in the same shot.

 

For Willemen, it is in the work of film-makers like Gitai or those of the Brazilian Cinema Novo outside the 'white European sphere' that the possibilities for rethinking the 'dialectical relationship between social existence and cultural practice' (175) and for reframing cinema as a particular political practice have been most actively taken up. The common thread in the work of such geographically, culturally, and linguistically diverse film-makers like Gitai, Angelopoulos, Souleyman Cisse, Haile Gerima, Ousmane Sembene, Yussif Chahine, Chen Kaige, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, is their shared sense of a 'historically analytic, yet culturally specific, mode of cinematic discourse'. They are marked, so Teshome Gabriel argues, [4] by their difference from Hollywood, and by definition, so Willemen suggests, by a form of national address. Fernando Solanas, who with Octavio Getino published the polemic 'Towards a Third Cinema' in 1969, [5] clarified the local specificity of Latin American Third Cinema manifestos in an article written ten years later, but also points to its applicability in other geographical and historical spaces. Third Cinema was differentiated technologically, economically, aesthetically, and cognitively from First and Second Cinemas, Solanas argued. Where First Cinema is '[a]ny cinematographic expression [l]ikely to respond to the aspirations of big capital', and Second Cinema operates to articulate desires of rising bourgeoisie, Third Cinema 'gives an account of reality and history . . . It is a democratic, national, popular cinema' (182). Outside the industrial and stylistic systems of Hollywood, and, because of its grass-roots ethos, responsive to social change (but always outside and often in direct opposition to official nationalisms) Third Cinema film-makers are, in Bakhtin's sense, engaged in the most intense and productive life of culture.

 

The political motive of Third Cinema, emphasised by Gabriel, operates in opposition to the industrial and aesthetic forms of organisation characteristic of Euro-American cinema, but is limited in its homogenising view of the chronotopes or 'historical time condensed in space' (to borrow another term from Bakhtin) articulated in First and Second Cinemas. While Gabriel's argument that a different chronotope determines the narrative images and rhythms of non-Euro-American cinema is accepted by Willemen, Gabriel does not allow for the heterogeneity of Euro-American film which Willemen locates, for example, in the work of Chantal Akerman, Bette Gordon or Mario Bava.

 

Third Cinema in the Latin American context has both an epistemological and pedagogical impetus, as Solanas acknowledged in his 1979 article 'L'Influence du troisieme cinema dans le monde'. [6] 'It is,' he wrote, 'a research category . . . open . . . unfinished, incomplete' (182). Such an evaluation opens a space for cinema and its theorising to become an intellectual exercise, something which the overarching emphasis on social determinants works to contain and rein in the possibility of an overly self-reflexive practice developing in isolation from the audience and environment it seeks to engage. The heavy emphasis placed on the relations with the viewer as 'the productive site of cinematic signification' (185), and its grounding of the film-maker in the events surrounding him and in which he takes part and which, as Walter Benjamin argues of the historian, 'underlie his presentation like a text written in invisible ink', [7] evokes Benjamin's theory of dialectical images. Willemen identifies an additional direct parallelism with the aspirations of Latin American cineastes in Benjamin's vision of his work as educating 'the image-creating medium within us to see dimensionally, stereoscopically, into the depths of the historical shade'. [8]

 

Such a motivation might be seen to inform, albeit in a more rigid, regulated fashion, the calls for a cinema rooted in a nationally specific culture which appeared throughout the world at various times in response to the challenge posed by the colonising 'other', Hollywood, in its supersession and negotiation of previous colonial cultural formations. But despite being by definition oppositional, the discourse of national-cultural identity does not imply progressive positions; Willemen locates three responses 'to this reciprocal but antagonistic formation of identities' (192) which, without denying the particular local sets of circumstances which impinge upon their appearance in specific national contexts, are enlightening for thinking not only of the positioning of national cinemas in Latin America, or Africa and so on, but also about any current articulation of the discourse of national-cultural identity as part of a broader political program. The three responses are first, identification with the dominant or dominating culture (the strategy most suited to the metropolitan intelligentsia, but somewhat discomfiting for the colonised intelligentsia 'who may aspire to the hegemonic culture, but can never really belong to it' (192), Willemen argues). This, in terms of Australian cinema, has been the motivation for what is often derisively referred to as 'the mid-Pacific cinema', whereby Australian film-makers attempt to utilise the generic and stylistic conventions of Hollywood narrative cinema, effacing many of the marks of national specificity in an attempt to appeal to the 'international' (meaning domestic US) audience since the local market alone cannot sustain a successful production industry. At present this is manifested in the use of Australia (like Mexico) as simply a (cheaper) alternative to the Hollywood production base.

 

The second response involves a particular kind of relationship with an imagined past, either seeking to 'reconnect with traditions that have been lost, or have been displaced or distorted by colonial rule or by the impact of Western industrial-military power', or selecting and elevating particular aspects of the culture 'into essentialised symbols of the national identity: the local answer to imperialism's stereotypes' (192). The result may be a nostalgia for a non-existent pre-colonial society, or a straightforward reproduction of previous relations of domination and subordination which appears as 'the natural state of things'. The recourse to an essentialised past is itself an othering gesture, and can function to create a pool of scapegoats who may be blamed for the continual, inevitable failure to fully achieve the desired 'original idyllic existence'.

 

The third response presupposes a more complex view of social formations and their dynamics, and posits a different set or plane of relations with the West. It is structured by a 'rhetoric of becoming' in which the national culture 'would emerge from a struggle waged by the existing people, not by the idealised figment of a ruralist fantasy' (193). The specific national circumstances, the individual experience of colonialism coupled with pre-colonial history, work to determine the 'particular shape and dynamics of the culture once it has been freed to evolve according to its own needs and aspirations' (193). In this way the primary focus would not be on an abstract sense of the national as represented in culture, but on particular social processes which themselves mark and shape national, cultural, and personal identity. Addressing the existing situation explicitly allows '[n]ationalist solidarity [to give] way to the need for critical lucidity, which becomes the intellectual's special task' (194).

 

Willemen uses the Bakhtinian concepts of dialogue, otherness and the chronotope to undergird the emphasis on socio-historical specificity, but also to point to the uncontainability of culture as a means to critique the 'community-oriented populist tendencies currently dominant among left cultural practitioners in the UK as well as in the US' which try to 'enclose cultural practices within class or ethnic or gender specificities' (198). Bakhtin by contrast sees every utterance as an arena of 'intense conflict between one's own and another's word', and characterises individual utterances 'as corridors in which echo a multiplicity of voices, a corridor shaped by the interaction, whether direct or indirect, delayed or anticipated, between interlocutors, so that what is actively unspoken or what is simply, silently assumed exerts as effective a determining force upon the discourse as the speaker's project' (197). As Bakhtin goes on to argue, '[c]ulture cannot be enclosed within itself as something ready made. The unity of a particular culture is an open unity [in which] lie immense semantic possibilities that have remained undisclosed, unrecognised, and unutilised' (198). Bakhtin argues the interconnectedness and interdependence of various areas of culture which defies the temporary and sometimes arbitrary drawing of borders and boundaries. As Willemen surmises, the meanings of boundaries and sense of the productivity of border excursions are enhanced by the experience of otherness, of being outside, and this outsideness -- a sense of non-belonging or non-identity with the culture one inhabits -- is the precondition for the 'creative understanding' of culture. Indeed, Willemen argues, relating the debate back to his own circumstance, 'outsideness-otherness' or double outsideness 'is the only vantage point from which a viable cultural politics may be conducted in the UK' (201). This is so because the negotiation of 'the problems involved in otherness as a positional necessity is the precondition for a critical-cultural practice in Britain' (201).

 

Thinking some of these arguments through in the contemporary Australian context, how do they work towards explaining the formation of a solid rump of popular opinion which represents itself as outside the culture it inhabits (viewing multiculturalism and a diverse immigration program as threats) and therefore well placed to conduct and construct a critical cultural politics, and simultaneously be at the core of the nostalgically desired 'monoculture'? The first collective act of the 11 newly elected One Nation Members of Parliament was to oppose the new government's removal of the Union Jack, the British flag, from a flagpole atop Parliament House. The flag is a potent and contested symbol in Australia, but usually it is the Australian flag which is at issue, albeit primarily because of the appearance of the Union Jack in the top left hand corner. For One Nation, the British flag flying above Queensland's State Parliament is recognition of the British influence not only in the political process, but it is also, importantly, the expression of a desire for the past to be lived in the present. The flag is held up as a proud symbol of Australia's historic 'monoculture' despite the fact that it would be impossible to locate a time since white settlement when one voice has spoken uncontested. The investment in the flag as a symbol of reconnection with tradition and as a monocultural symbol is an attempt to deny multiculturalism as official government policy and as lived social reality. (Hearing the news of the formation of the multicultural, multiracial Unity Party by an Australian of Chinese descent, a One Nation activist lamented that this was not the 1940s, when such people would have been 'put up against a wall and shot'.) It also serves, deliberately, to erase any role or place for Australia's indigenous population in Australian cultural expression or national identity.

 

Significantly, Willemen shares One Nation's concerns about multiculturalism, although his criticisms are intended to open up rather than contain debate about cultural identity and diversity in nations with large immigrant populations. In the essay 'The National', Willemen characterises multiculturalism as a conservative force which works to compartmentalise and ossify ethnic identities. 'The term . . . suggests that cultural zones continue to exist within a given country as small, self-contained pockets or islands, miniature replications of an alleged community's allegedly original national culture, as repositories of some cultural authenticity to be found elsewhere in time, in space or both' (207). Recognised community spokespeople are often representative of conservative and nostalgically traditionalist sectors of the community, bound by a spurious ideal of 'authenticity' and complicit in the fetishisation of the separateness of traditional culture by its removal from the social conditions by and for which cultural forms are shaped. The alternative to such cultural determinism, Willemen suggests, is that offered by Eric Michaels in his work on Aboriginal art [9] which claims the 'critical postmodernity' of much Aboriginal art (encompassing a predetermined body of work and an ideology of reproduction rather than creative authority), in opposition to attempts to lock it into 'some ethnographic notion of authenticity and irremediable otherness' (207).

 

Willemen cites the examples of the differences evident in comparative analysis of British independent cinema of the 1930s and 1970s as indications of the ways in which the 'specificity of a cultural formation' may change over time while geographic boundaries remain unaltered. The examples provide a way of questioning the tendency of national histories (and by extension, nationalist discourses) to assume the synchronicity of geographical and temporal periods in the shaping of 'the national'; such historical long views as the celebration of the Australian bicentenary in 1988 (a time of mourning for indigenous peoples who viewed the celebrations as commemorating the invasion of Australia), or the dating of England back to 1066 risk a 'loss of perspective on the very forces that construct the vicissitudes of 'the national' in the era of international dependency' (209). Additionally, the interest in specificity in film studies which is primarily 'a territorial-institutional matter, and coincides with the boundaries of the nation-state', does not consider the 'effectiveness with which national socio-cultural formations, that is to say, state-bound unities, determine particular signifying practices and regimes' (209). This creates confusion between the discourses of nationalism as a political project and the issue of national specificity; the example of black British films is given: while strikingly different from American black films, and while clearly marked as British in origin, they can hardly be seen as 'nationalistic'.

 

A similar lack of consideration of 'the determining effects of the geographically bounded state unity' opens a space for 'a kind of promiscuous or random form of alleged internationalism' (210) in film (and cultural) studies which, Willemen argues, actively hinders the development of a genuinely comparative film studies by 'trying to impose the paradigms of Euro-American film and aesthetic theories upon non-European cultural practices', and marginalising or ignoring questions around the production of specific socio-cultural formations. The assumption of the universality of film language is equally disabling and misleading, since it can work to erase 'the specific knowledges that may be at work in a text, such as shorthand references to particular, historically accrued modes of making sense (often referred to as cultural traditions)' (211).

 

As a means of analysing and interpreting the 'different ways of framing relations with other socio-cultural networks' (212), Willemen utilises Bakhtin's work on cultural specificity which identifies three modes of interpretation. First, what Willemen terms 'projective appropriation' in which, for example, 'a theoretical or interpretative framework elaborated for and within one cultural sphere is projected on to the signifying practices of another cultural sphere' (212). Such a practice effaces and marginalises the specificities of the context of production, and works to 'internationalise a restrictive regime of making sense' (212-3). Second, what Willemen terms 'ventriloquist identification' occurs 'when someone presents him or herself as the mouthpiece for others' (213). The third and most productive practice insists on a necessary alterity and revolves around Bakhtin's concept of 'creative understanding' which 'does not renounce itself, its own place and time, its own culture; it forgets nothing' (quoted 214). This approach 'concentrates on the need to understand the dynamics of a particular cultural practice within its own social formation', and to see that formation as an historical construct, 'and thus as an object of transformation rather than a given essence hiding deep within the national soul' (216). Such an approach forces the analyst to consider their own socio-cultural formation as an historical construct. This is, effectively, what Willemen terms 'double outsideness', where the analyst must come to terms with their position as other, but resist over-identification with group identities elsewhere, 'since the object of study is precisely the intricate, dynamic interconnections of processes which combine to form a social formation' (217).

 

This is the dilemma I find myself in when trying to understand and come to terms with a nationalist discourse which relies for much of its force on idealised British models and modes. But these are not models and modes with which I can identify or which I can recognise in my memories of growing up in Britain. I hope, though I consider it unlikely, that my imminent return to Britain may clarify some things for me, and make developments here a little easier to understand. I expect the reality will be that which Willemen hints at in his celebration of necessary alterity, that as an itinerant academic I may be geographically or temporally located 'inside' a 'socio-cultural formation', but I renounce the right ever completely to be 'inside' a culture.

 

Similar tensions illuminate and invigorate the other essays in this collection which I have glossed over in my focus on particular linking concepts in Willemen's work. The concept of 'double outsideness' in the work of a displaced film-maker is articulated in essays on Sirk and Ophuls, while the essay 'An Avant-Garde for the 90s' usefully connects Willemen's early work in film studies to his later preoccupation with non-Euro-American cinema. Overall his work challenges dominant preconceptions about cinema and its attendant critical discourses, and makes itself available for broader application. _Looks and Frictions_ is by no means an easy or comfortable read, but in its reminder to the critic to consider their own position in relation to the objects of criticism, and of the need to ground criticism in the real, to fit social and historical circumstances and determinants into even the most esoteric flights of theoretical fancy, it is both productive and provocative and deserves to be widely read.

 

Griffith University, Australia

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Christina Metz, 'Histoire/discours', in Julia Kristeva, Jean-Claude Milner and Nicolas Ruwet, eds., _Langue, discours, societe -- Pour Emile Benveniste_ (Paris: Le Seuil, 1975), pp. 304ff. Cited in Willemen p.99.

 

2. Jacques Lacan, _The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis_ (London: Hogarth Press, 1977), p.84.

 

3. John Ellis, 'On Pornography', _Screen_, vol. 21 no. 1, 1980.

 

4. Teshome Gabriel, _Third Cinema in the Third World_ (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Umi Research Press, 1982).

 

5. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, 'Towards a Third Cinema', _Tricontinental_, no.13, 1969.

 

6. Fernando Solanas, 'L'Influence du troisieme cinema dans le monde', _CinemAction_, 1979.

 

7. Walter Benjamin, _Passagenwerk_, cited in Susan Buck-Morss, 'The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering', _New German Critique_, vol. 39, 1986, p. 100.

 

8. Cited in Buck Morss, p.109.

 

9. Eric Michaels, 'Postmodernism, Appropriation and Western Desert Acrylics', in Sue Cramer, ed., _Postmodernism: A Consideration of the Appropriation of Aboriginal Imagery_ (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1989).

 

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Ben Goldsmith, 'To Be Outside and In-Between',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 29, October 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n29goldsmith>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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