ISSN 1466-4615



Tico Romao

The 'High-Water Mark' of Film Theory




_Explorations in Film Theory: Selected Essays from Cine-Tracts_

Edited by Ron Burnett

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991

ISBN 0-253-31282-5

xxvii + 289 pages


One of the more significant points that should be borne in mind when reading _Explorations in Film Theory_ is the original publication dates of the pieces contained in the collection. Although published in 1991, the book consists of a selection of essays that originally appeared in the Canadian journal _Cine-Tracts_ in its short-lived run from 1976 to 1983. Dating from this period, it is not surprising to find that many of the essays in the volume work out from the dominant theoretical framework of the time, what has now come to be known in film studies as subject-positioning theory. For those unfamiliar with the term, 'subject-positioning theory' designates a hybrid of theoretical concerns, amalgamating semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism into one overarching explanatory scheme. In this framework, signification, ideology and subjectivity are held to be inherently linked such that the reproduction of social life and its systems of domination are connected with the signifying properties of discursive practices and their resultant constitution of subjectivity. In her foreword to the volume, Kaja Silverman (a major exponent of this approach) insists upon the continued validity of subject-positioning theory and claims that this kind of endeavour represents the 'highwater mark' of theoretical investigation in the history of the discipline (viii).


There are good reasons to doubt Silverman's claims. Over the past twenty-odd years various criticisms have been raised against some of the core assumptions of subject-positioning theory, and its viability as a research strategy has been seriously questioned. These criticisms, moreover, have come from a variety of quarters. During the late 1970s Stuart Hall and David Morley, both affiliated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, were critical of the theory's unavoidable ahistoricity given its reliance upon Lacanian and Althusserian frameworks. [1] In the same vein, figures within the reception studies camp expanded upon the criticisms initiated by the British cultural studies approach by arguing that the theory's model of film spectatorship was wholly inadequate with its near exclusive emphasis upon textual determinations. [2] Lastly, cognitive film theory has produced several trenchant critiques of subject-positioning theory, perhaps the most influential of those being Noel Carroll's _Mystifying Movies_, an exhaustive demonstration of the framework's often shaky theoretical foundations. [3] It is indicative of the theory's recent standing when one finds film theorists such as Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake conceding that the 'project for a unified theory of signification, ideology and subjectivity was unachievable' even though they are otherwise sympathetic with the overall objectives of the approach. [4]


One can therefore safely conclude that even at the time of the collection's publication subject-positioning theory was no longer commanding widespread assent within film studies. Naturally, when reading _Explorations in Film Theory_, I found it difficult to set aside these criticisms when reflecting upon several of the pieces, many of which have long lost their appearance of being cutting-edge work. In reviewing a volume like this, I was faced with a question that no doubt arises whenever one returns to earlier theoretical efforts that have been superseded by arguably superior accounts: How does one read *old theory*? The question is a good one in that ideally one ought to avoid the tedious repetition of well-known criticisms whilst not lapsing into a pointless apologetics of the theory under question. As I soon discovered, _Explorations in Film Theory_ demanded precisely this strategy. Even though many of the articles reproduced in the volume are based upon deeply problematic and ultimately unproductive assumptions, they nonetheless occasionally exhibit insightful analyses that deserve to be acknowledged and can be incorporated into current theoretical work.


The collection is thematically organised into four sections, with each of the sections intended to represent 'the main ideas which the magazine pursued' (xviii). The first section, 'The Turn of the Subject', is primarily devoted to the explication of subject-positioning theory and its application to the analysis of film. Patricia Mellencamp's opening piece, 'Spectacle and Spectator', is an analysis of the American musical and identifies the ideologically motivated techniques that the genre employed to contain and delimit proper spectatorial response. Other pieces in the section depart from the traditional emphasis upon Hollywood films by applying subject-positioning theory to other forms of filmmaking. Linda Williams's 'Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions' traces the roots of the cinema's representation of sexual difference back to the work of Eadweard Muybridge and Georges Melies. Thomas Elsaesser's essay, 'Primary Identification and the Historical Subject', takes the theory in another direction by reworking the psychoanalytical model such that it is capable of capturing the forms of spectatorial engagement solicited by Fassbinder's films in the context of post-war Germany.


The first section assumes pride of place in the volume through its demonstration of the utility of subject-positioning theory as a critical enterprise. Although the remaining sections of the collection pursue other issues that are less directly related to subject-positioning theory, there is a loose attempt to tie together the themes of the collection into an integrated whole. Several of the essays in the second section, 'The Documentary Cinema', are informed by the semiotic critique of the concept of verisimilitude and attempt to make evident the social (and hence arbitrary) conventions that underlie the purported 'realism' of the traditional documentary. Jeane Allen's and Judith Mayne's contributions, for instance, privilege the 'self-reflexive documentary', particularly as instantiated in the work of Chris Marker and Dziga Vertov due to their contravention of traditional documentary practice. The third section, 'Signs of Meaning', explores a range of different methodologies that can be used to link the analysis of meaning in films to the wider historical context. In her piece, 'Paradoxes of Realism', Margaret Morse claims that Ian Watt's _The Rise of the Novel_ presents a method by which the textual structures of films can be connected to an investigation of their social conditions of existence. In like manner, John Fekete's essay, 'Culture, History, and Ambivalence', contends that Walter Benjamin's work provides a model for contemporary cultural analysis in that Benjamin purposively avoided any problematic conception of culture as a cohesive and integrated unity. The last section of the volume consists of a mixed bag of essays that are awkwardly lumped under the themes of the section heading, 'Film Form/ Film History'. These essays are the least related to the interests of previous chapters, with some pieces not even appearing to be strictly aligned with subject-positioning theory.


Aside from these last pieces tucked in at the end of the volume, much of the collection manifests what is perhaps the typifying feature of subject-positioning theory: a commitment to explain a wide range of phenomena on the basis of a few core (usually psychoanalytic) assumptions that are embedded in either a Marxist or feminist perspective. Yet, whatever gains the theory has achieved in terms of explanatory breadth, they are nonetheless offset by its ill-founded assumptions and a tendency to rely upon questionable modes of reasoning. These problematic areas have been succinctly itemised in a recent essay by David Bordwell that is directly applicable to my appraisal of _Explorations in Film Theory_. [5] Several of the liabilities that Bordwell identifies with the subject-positioning approach as a whole are in evidence with respect to many of the pieces in the collection. Modifying Bordwell's list somewhat, I shall highlight the four principal problems that I feel vitiate the arguments of several of the pieces in the volume: 1) an inadequate conception of the human agent; 2) an insufficient concern for proper historical investigation; 3) a reliance upon 'grand theories'; and 4) associative reasoning. Although I shall restrict my comments to specific articles, their applicability extends to other essays in the collection which rely upon similar theoretical assumptions.


1. Heath on the Individual/Subject Distinction


Stephen Heath's essay, 'The Turn of the Subject', from which the title of the opening section derives, attempts to rectify some of the attendant conceptual problems associated with the post-structuralist notion of *the subject*. Although Heath does not explicitly refer to the Stuart Hall and David Morley articles mentioned previously, it soon becomes apparent that he is directly responding to the criticisms they raise. One charge that Hall directs at the post-structuralist notion of the subject is that it effectively eliminates any possibility of theorising resistance. [6] Heath is alive to this charge and tries to circumvent it by maintaining that the concept of the individual and the subject are distinct notions and are not be conflated (26). While Heath acknowledges that Althusser's account of the subject in 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' is the primary source of this conflation, he claims that Lacan himself avoids the problem by keeping the concepts distinct, and it is to his work that subject-positioning theory should turn (27-28).


The significance of the individual/subject distinction for Heath is that it provides a gap between the ideological constitution of subjectivity through discursive practices and the individual, a space from which 'real and effective action and transformation' can arise (29). Heath is unclear on the precise relationship that holds between the subject and the individual, but given that in his account the discursive constitution of subjectivity is the site of ideological determinations, one must assume that the initiative for transformative action can only come from the individual side of the equation. To seek the source for the initiative of transformative action one must necessarily turn to Heath's conceptualisation of the individual. This is the definition that he supplies:


'What one confronts is 'a precise constituted materiality' and there is no single opposition of the type individual/subject adequate to that constitution which then demands every time a multiple analysis of instances, articulations, determinations that intersect, cut different ways, open into contradictions one with another. To say that the subject is not equivalent to the individual is one moment of a stress on such multiplicity, of a necessary attempt to pull away from the reductionism of Althusser's essay so as to refind something of the difficulty of his given -- 'abstract', 'concrete' -- individual' (30).


Among the instances that go to make up the individual, Heath cites such things as genetic inheritance and social environmental effects, hardly groundbreaking claims in that such factors are widely acknowledged in developmental psychology. But what is specifically problematic with this account is that the interrelations between these factors are left entirely in the open when it is obviously the business of theory to specify these relations. Heath's term -- 'precise constituted materiality' -- is then simply a misnomer. There is no precision in his account, only a space provided for endless speculation on the part of the reader. [7] Although Heath avoids the crass reductionism of the Althusserian framework, his attempted resolution of the subject/individual distinction nonetheless fails to provide an informed account of the human agent. Despite supplying a few psychological truisms as to the nature of the individual, Heath's account in no way illuminates the possible sources of transformative action.


2. The Historicization of Subject-Positioning Theory


Thomas Elsaesser's essay, 'Primary Identification and the Historical Subject', can also be seen as an attempt to resolve some of the more evident problems with the theory. The Lacanian account of the formation of the subject, upon which much of subject-positioning theory rested, had been criticised for being a 'trans-historical and trans-social' account of human development. [8] Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz inherited this ahistoricism in their psychoanalytical formulations of the systems of identification by which the cinematic apparatus positioned the spectator. Dissatisfied with the lack of historical specificity of these accounts, Elsaesser's solution is to treat the cinematic apparatus as a historically mutable institution whose psychic economy varies with respect to social context. As his test case, Elsaesser points to the New German Cinema and claims that Fassbinder's films are better understood in terms of exhibitionism as opposed to voyeurism, and are ultimately symptomatic of a different psychic economy operating within German social life (94-96). To support these broad historical claims, Elsaesser refers to Alexander Mitscherlich's metapsychological reading of Germany during the Nazi and post-war periods as providing a confirmation of his analysis (96-98).


How successful is Elsaesser's attempt to historicize subject-positioning theory? Not very. Although Elsaesser's rejects the postulation of universal psychic mechanisms by favouring the identification of processes that are more historically localisable, his account is still much too abstract to capture the undeniable heterogeneity of spectatorial response within a concrete national context. Elided from Elsaesser's account are questions pertaining to the ways in which gender, ethnicity, sexuality and generational differences (to cite just some of the more favoured categories of reception studies) may impact upon spectatorship. To speak, therefore, of a 'historical subject' in the singular is to engage in a thoroughly problematic mode of historical investigation.


To be fair, Elsaesser is aware that his account may be criticised for falling into a certain form of psychologism by employing psychoanalytical concepts in the investigation of a given historical period (97). Yet, in the end, these reservations do not lead him to doubt the adequacy of his own psychoanalytical framework, and his attempt to ward off these potential criticisms is, frankly, confusing. He writes:


'What is different between the Freud of Riesman, Erikson, Klein on the one hand and that of Lacan, Metz, or Baudry on the other, is that the latter emphasize . . . the specularity of relations which for the former are somehow substantial, physical, like the symptoms displayed by Freud's hysterical patients. Lacan's insistence on the image, the eye, in the deformation of the self . . . shows the extent to which he has in fact read Freud in the light of concrete historical and social changes' (98).


As should be apparent, the reasoning behind this response is patently circular. Elsaesser believes that his psychoanalytical reading of Fassbinder's films avoids the charge of ahistoricism in that he bases it upon a Lacanian understanding of the social determinations of the regimes of specularity, determinations not sufficiently acknowledged by certain ego psychologists. But this is simply to assume what is precisely in question, that is, the adequacy of analysing from a historical perspective the social relations of post-war Germany in terms of notions of specularity and exhibitionism. To make matters worse, this response is also incompatible with the general thrust of his argument. It is odd that Elsaesser invokes the names of Metz and Baudry as the guarantors of the historical soundness of his analysis when the initial section of his essay is devoted to a critique of the inflexibility of their very frameworks.


In many ways, Elsaesser's essay is indicative of the problems subject-positioning theory faced when it began to address historical questions. At least in this essay, Elsaesser's conclusions on the dynamics of post-war Germany are primarily based upon a textual analysis of Fassbinder's films and a reliance upon a few secondary sources. This was the typical manner in which subject-positioning theory attempted to historicize its framework. Instead of rolling up one's sleeves and engaging in empirical research, subject-positioning theorists remained content to engage in a mode that restricted itself to pure conjecture. It would be fair to say that what was truly inimical to subject-positioning theory was not so much the idea of history itself, but the proper mode of its investigation through empirical research.


3. The Search for Grand Theory


Given the broad theoretical aspirations of subject-positioning theory, it is not surprising that it was criticised for indulging in 'Grand Theory', the construction of a theoretical system that, crudely put, attempted to explain virtually every aspect of cultural production. [9] Despite talk of rejecting 'totalizing' schemes, subject-positioning theorists were for the most part untroubled by the ambitiousness of their project.


Margaret Morse's essay 'Paradoxes of Realism' represents a rather clear instance of grand theory in operation. Her essay begins by lamenting the fact that film studies lacks an approach that 'makes the link between a history of changing social relations and cultural institutions, the mode of production and reception of film texts and the analysis of the texts themselves in their historical context' (155). In other words, Morse wants nothing less than a single theoretical system that exhaustively incorporates just about every angle through which the cinema has been studied. She finds such an approach at work in Ian Watt's _The Rise of the Novel_, and attempts to update Watt's methodological procedures by translating them into the concepts privileged by subject-positioning theory (157-158). For instance, we are told that Watt's distinction between 'formal realism' and 'realism of assessment' corresponds to the history/discourse distinction as used by Metz and other film theorists (160-162). More importantly, Morse finds in Watt's work a means to connect a film's textual features with its social conditions of existence. As cultural forms, both the novel and film serve the same socialising function by providing in fictionalised form an imaginary identity of coherence as a relief from the unremitting fragmentation of the social realm through the forces of capitalism and technological development (162-164). Films bear the traces of such fragmentation not only in terms of their physical construction, as an assemblage of shots, but also in respect to story material. Morse provides the example of how the social division of labour between men and women inflects the diegesis of Griffith's _The Lonedale Operator_ in which the social division is manifested in the form of the female protagonist's unfamiliarity with tools, (in this case, a wrench) (163-164). In the future, with the ever increasing fragmentation of the social realm, Morse concludes that realism as an aesthetic strategy will no longer be capable of offering effective images of imaginary coherence.


Generally speaking, Morse's essay manifests all of the hallmarks of grand theory, particularly its shortcomings. As a result of the scale of Morse's theoretical ambitions, her analyses of particular films (and these are rare) are remarkably unilluminating. Take, for example, her analysis of _The Lonedale Operator_. We are told that the social division of labour between men and women is somehow a causative factor in the manner in which the female protagonist is represented. But the reader is nonetheless left in the dark as to the concrete mechanisms by which this social division of labour had produced this specific representation of femininity. It is dubious to assume that the social conditions from which _The Lonedale Operator_ was produced necessarily mandated that all women were to be represented as mechanically inept. The causes of this particular representation must be sought elsewhere, more plausibly, I would suggest, in the immediate production practices of the filmmaking institution in which Griffith and Co. worked. As Henry Jenkins has correctly observed, 'historical explanations must start with the work itself and move gradually towards its most immediate context rather than adopt global or transhistorical theories'. [10] Morse, however, works from the opposition direction. In typical grand theory style, Morse begins with large-scale social processes, such as the fragmentation of social life, to explain a particular textual feature. What is primarily missing from her account is a recognition of what mediates these two levels of analysis, that is, the historical specificity of the filmmaking system itself.


4. Associative Reasoning


Subject-positioning theory has not only been taken to task with respect to the theoretical assumptions upon which it was based and the level of generality at which it operated. It has also been criticised for the very manner in which it made its arguments. [11] Loose metaphorical connections made between phenomena are often taken to be indicative of deeper, more substantial relations. Since these criticisms are widely known, I shall only briefly indicate the most glaring occasion in which such associative reasoning appears within the essays of _Explorations in Film Theory_.


Mary Ann Doane's essay 'Misrecognition and Identity' consists of an attempt to clarify the many senses associated with the concept of identification. To accomplish this, Doane isolates three specific types of identification that are the most relevant to the analysis of film spectatorship: a) identification with character; b) the identification of objects, people, etc. on screen; and c) identification with the camera and the field of vision that it provides. Although these three types of identification are 'drawn from entirely different and alien problematics' she sees them as being 'inextricably linked' (16). The remainder of her essay is devoted to the demonstration of how these three forms of identification are analysable and made compatible once viewed from a Lacanian framework.


My concern here is with the viability of running together these three different senses of identification. What I find the most problematic is Doane's attempt to analyse type b) identification from a psychoanalytical perspective. Doane claims that object recognition stems from a drive to 'trace back to something already known . . . what Freud isolated as the compulsion to repeat' (17). While this explanation may account for some of the pleasure derived from recognising objects, it certainly does not explain how we, in the first place, are able to identify the objects represented on screen. To understand this ability, one must turn to perceptual psychology and not to psychoanalysis.


This recourse to an alternate explanatory framework outside of psychoanalysis undermines the apparent identity of the three types of identification postulated by Doane. Where Doane sees a deeper affinity underlying these types, I see distinct processes that require their own specific forms of explanation. [12] In the end, one wonders if Doane's motivation to connect the process of the identification of objects with the process of the identification of characters is based upon a purely verbal similarity between the two expressions. Such associative reasoning was by no means alien to subject-positioning theory. But it seems to me that if film theory is to progress it will rest upon its ability to make clear conceptual distinctions rather than generating the obfuscation arising from an associative leap.


It would be false to suggest that nothing worthwhile can be found in _Explorations in Film Theory_. Just as not all film theorists during the 1970s and 80s worked out of subject-positioning theory, not all of the writings in the collection are aligned to that theoretical position. Here, one immediately recalls David Bordwell's piece 'Camera Movement and Cinematic Space' which gives a compelling account of the narrative functions served by camera movement. Also falling outside of the remit of the general theoretical position of the collection is Raymond Williams's essay 'Realism, Naturalism and their Alternatives'. Williams carefully distinguishes between the associated aesthetic strategies of realism and naturalism, and provides an informed account of their historical development.


In addition to these exceptions, one should also acknowledge the moments of illumination that subject-positioning theory was capable of producing, despite its theoretical commitments. Even bankrupt theoretical principles do not completely stultify one's work. With its close attention to textual detail, subject-positioning theory has frequently produced many pieces that are models of textual analysis and _Explorations in Film Theory_ is not without such moments. Patricia Mellencamp's essay 'Spectacle and Spectator' offers a sophisticated analysis of the formal strategies employed in _Showboat_ by which spectatorial attention is focused upon the protagonist. In a similar fashion, Linda Williams's 'Film Body' offers a convincing discussion of the representation of sexual difference in Muybridge's imagery through her attentiveness to the details of his photographs. These kind of analyses have not lost their relevance for film studies and can be profitably returned to. But, as for the status of subject-positioning theory as a whole, one can only be highly sceptical of Silverman's remarks pertaining to its continued viability as a productive avenue of research.


University of East Anglia, England





1. Stuart Hall, 'Recent Developments in Theories of Language and Ideology: A Critical Note', and David Morley, 'Texts, Readers, Subjects', both reprinted in _Culture, Media, Language_ (Hutchinson, 1980), pp. 157-162 and 163-173.


2. Barbara Klinger, 'Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture', _Cinema Journal_, vol. 28 no. 4, 1989, pp. 3-6. Lisa Taylor, 'From Psychoanalytic Feminism to Popular Feminism', in Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich, eds., _Approaches to Popular Film_ (Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 152-171.


3. Noel Carroll, _Mystifying Movies_ (Columbia University Press, 1988).


4. Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, _Film Theory: An Introduction_ (Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 12.


5. David Bordwell, 'Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory', in David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds., _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 12-26.


6. Hall, 'Recent Developments in Theories of Language and Ideology', pp. 161-162.


7. My criticisms here parallel those that Noel Carroll makes with regard to Heath's recommendations for the analysis of film history. Carroll correctly points out that Heath's enumeration of the (countless) variables that are in play in any historical conjuncture is explanatorially useless in that what is left unspecified are the interrelations that hold between them. Be it the analysis of the individual or the investigation of historical conjunctures, Heath appears to have the uncanny habit of stopping theoretical effort precisely at the point at which such efforts would be most productive. See: Noel Carroll, 'Address to the Heathen', _October_, no. 23, Winter 1982, pp. 157-163.


8. Hall, 'Recent Developments in Theories of Language and Ideology', p. 160.


9. For detailed critiques of the explanatory problems associated with grand theory, see: Noel Carroll, 'Prospects for Film Theory', in _Post-Theory_, pp. 38-41; David Bordwell, 'Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory', pp. 18-21.


10. Henry Jenkins, 'Historical Poetics', in _Approaches to Popular Film_, p. 100.


11. Carroll, 'Address to the Heathen', pp. 153-157; Bordwell, 'Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory', pp. 22-24.


12. Here I am following Murray Smith's lucid unpacking of the concept of identification into three distinct processes of recognition, alignment and allegiance. See: _Engaging Characters_ (Clarendon Press, 1995).




Tico Romao, 'The 'High-Water Mark' of Film Theory',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 38, December 1998 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998




Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage