FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 5, February 2000

 


 

Bruce Bennett

Misrecognizing Film Studies

 


 

 

 

 

_Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_

Edited by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll

Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996

ISBN: 0299149447

564 pp.

 

'We've never had no education. That's what's the matter. You see, we're not illiterate enough.' Stan Laurel (_A Chump at Oxford_)

 

The editorial tone of this counterblast against the perceived dominance of academic film study by careless, insubstantial, and indefensible assumptions and practices, is established clearly by the cover illustration: a publicity still for the Laurel and Hardy film, _A Chump at Oxford_ (Alfred Goulding, 1940). The photograph shows the two comedians sporting mortarboards and Eton schoolboy's uniforms, standing in front of a blackboard on which are written such sums as '2+2=7' and '3+3=9'. Stan stares contemplatively into space, chalk in hand, while Ollie frowns in perplexity at the calculation he's trying to do with his fingers. The image has clearly been chosen to imply that film theorists are institutionalized morons, incapable of solving the simplest problems, and it is this theme of the book that I will focus on in this review.

 

It is questionable whether this collection of essays by various authors can or should be summarized by being reduced to a list of points. However, it is tempting to do this, since, despite the editors' insistence that the book does not constitute the drawing of a party line, there is clearly a consistency of approach of the essays within the volume. These are collected together to mount a challenge against a Film Studies shot through with psychoanalysis. It is perhaps also questionable whether it is appropriate to treat the book as a direct critique of film theory (or 'grand theory' or 'Theory' as it is variously referred to in the book) rather than an implied critique which offers a range of alternative critical approaches to film that are more or less indifferent to standard film theory.

 

However, the title may be taken to imply that the book's project is to oppose this standard. The claim of the editors, and some of the contributors, that academic film theory dominates (US) campuses in the same supposedly oppressive, anxious way as political correctness suggests that the title is proscriptive rather than descriptive. The contributors to _Post-Theory_ look forwards hopefully to a period when the dominance of Film Studies by Theory will have been successfully challenged and replaced by historiography, cognitivist theories of perception and interpretation, theories of representation, and empirical research.

 

As outlined in the book, the key objections to Film Studies as taught and practised in academic institutions might be summarized as follows:

 

Film Theory depends uncritically and dogmatically on psychoanalytic theory as an analytical tool, failing to interrogate the problematic areas of this field, choosing instead to disregard/dismiss writers who refrain from employing the vocabulary/discourse;

 

Film Theory is based on the misguided assumption that a theory about film should correspond to a political programme;

 

film theorists naively assume that analysis of a film is equivalent to active political resistance -- as David Bordwell dismissively comments: 'By studying movies and TV shows one could purportedly contribute to political struggles on behalf of the disadvantaged.' (11);

 

film theorists misunderstand 'theory', substituting description, interpretation, and analysis for hypothesis and theorizing;

 

psychoanalytic theory, or even feminist theory, is not necessary to make many of the points/insights made in the name of these fields, although the contributors disagree over whether this means that such theory is fundamentally invalid or that it is simply outmoded.

 

In this review I want to focus on two essays by the editors, David Bordwell and Noel Carroll. In the Introduction to the book, they caution the reader that they are not advocating a single dogmatic approach to studying film: 'The absence of a Party Line is . . . reflected in the fact that a number of essays in the volume proceed to construct their own positions without issuing denunications of theory.' (xv) This claim is then repeated with reference to their own contributions: 'Though these overview essays introduce the present volume, it should be stressed that they do not represent a party line.' (2) For the authority of their critique of psychoanalytic film theory it is crucial that their own approach is seen to be comparatively non-partisan. However, the frequency of references by the other essayists to their work, the fact that they are the only authors to contribute two essays each to the volume, and their decision to place their essays, 'Contemporary Film Studies and The Vicissitudes of Grand Theory' and 'Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment', at the head of the book in a section titled State of The Art, makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that _Post-Theory_ is a manifesto for an 'alternative' model of Film Studies uninflected by psychoanalytic theory. And it is the prominence of these writers' names, both of them famous within this field, that gives this manifesto much of its authority.

 

In his essay, 'Contemporary Film Studies', David Bordwell attempts to sketch a brief history of the discipline or field in order to demonstrate its incoherence, faddishness, and lack of solid intellectual grounding. He suggests that Film Studies has developed from two 'trends' of thought: culturalism and subject-position theory. Both of these are ironically dubbed 'Grand Theories' because their discussions of cinema 'are framed within schemes which seek to describe or explain very broad features of society, history, language and psyche' (3). These Grand Theories are contrasted unfavourably with a 'third, more modest trend which tackles more localized film-based problems without making overarching theoretical commitments' (3). It is this *third* way, 'middle-level theory' or, in Carroll's term, 'piecemeal theory', that is proposed as the exemplary model for Film Studies.

 

Rather than elaborating on what this middle-level approach might comprise, most of Bordwell's essay is given over to discrediting a wide range of writers and positions. It presents a highly selective history of the development of Film Studies from cultural studies, linguistics, and psychoanalytic theory in order to demonstrate the sequence of misunderstandings, inappropriate connections, and intellectual errors on which the discipline is founded.

 

He employs two main strategies: the first is to locate what he sees as damning logical contradictions or flaws which would undermine the soundness of the argument; the second is to deliberately misunderstand an argument by construing it literally or ingenuously in order to emphasize its absurdity. Discussing semiotics, for example, he dismisses out of hand the commonplace idea that language is so naturalized that we will automatically confuse the representation of a cow for the animal itself. 'If this is true', he writes, 'then people react with surprising equanimity when they find tiny cows grazing inside their TV sets' (18). This tone of peevish arrogance quickly makes for tiresome reading.

 

An inevitable drawback to this insistence on the lack of intellectual rigour elsewhere is that it draws attention to the lack of sophistication of his own engagement with other writers' work. For example, in discussing Jacques Lacan's theory that subjective identity is acquired through identification with a mirror-image of oneself, Bordwell points out that Lacan's concept of the formation of self-consciousness in the subject depends upon an initial misrecognition in which an infant mistakenly assumes its reflection is fully representative of itself. For Bordwell this is illogical, since for an infant to misrecognize itself it must have a prior concept (or cognizance) of self-identity which might allow it to recognize itself in a reflection. Thus in one short paragraph Bordwell dismisses Lacanian models of subjectivity as fundamentally flawed and therefore dispensable.

 

However, this objection depends upon a common translation of Lacan's term, 'meconnaisance', as 'misrecognition'. Alan Sheridan, the translator of Lacan's seminar on 'the mirror stage', prefers to leave the word untranslated to retain its dual senses of a 'failure to recognize' and 'misconstruction'. [1] The ambiguity of the term, which is partially lost in its translation into English, means that the logical problem identified by Bordwell is less clear-cut.

 

Following Sheridan's translation, the mirror stage -- the moment at which an infant identifies with its reflection in a mirror (or with the sight of its parents playfully mimicking its gestures) -- is a moment of misconstruction or misinterpretation of this image. Translating the term as 'misconstruction' removes the logical contradiction since it does not imply that the infant has a prior sense of self.

 

The ambiguity noted by Sheridan in the term meconnaissance also indicates a greater sophistication in Lacan's model which Bordwell's essay overlooks or refuses to acknowledge. Using the term meconnaissance with its sense of a 'failure to recognise' or misrecognition, Lacan suggests that the moment of identification at the mirror stage also involves a retrospective construction of a sense of identity which produces the illusion of recognition: a simultaneous mis-construction and fantastic misrecognition of a 'self'. This complicated process produces not the 'psychic unity' referred to by Bordwell, but a fractured sense of self with self-identity never fully achieved.

 

Bordwell's consuming frustration at the immanence of intellectually inadequate writing has the further effect of producing a piece of work that is itself partial and contradictory. His attack on the fetishistic relationship of academics with French writers -- 'The *maitres a penser* bump into one another in the pages of film books far more often than on the Boulevard St.-Michel.' (19) -- seems to betray a distrust or almost isolationist resistance to post-war thought in Europe and especially France. His attempt to narrativize the progressive domination of film studies by advocates of subject-position theory and culturalism begins to smack of paranoia as he refers repeatedly to 'leftists' and 'feminists', and explains the spread of Theory as if it were a religious cult, deviously seeking out followers: 'An intellectual trend that wishes to gain adherents will appeal to common ground -- shared presuppositions and habitual practices.' (13)

 

Despite attacking Theory for being fundamentally equivocal, he also is forced into equivocation by the imperative to discredit Theory taking priority over consistency in his argument. Having referred to Theory as an intellectual trend, he later suggests that it cannot be called a trend because it is not sufficiently rapid in picking up on developments in French thought, coming to structuralism and Lacanianism long after these had been abandoned by French thinkers. Finally these objections are made to hang on an implicitly anti-theory statement: 'What could make people think that they needed a highly elaborated theory of ideology or culture in order to talk enlighteningly about a particular film or historical process?' (21) This question begs in response such questions as: How could the employment of an elaborate theory of ideology or culture *not* be helpful or enlightening in talking about film? How can a theory about the reception and interpretation of a particular aspect of culture *not* inter-relate with or depend on theories concerning more general cultural activity and operation? And perhaps more fundamentally, how can one discuss history without employing concepts of ideology or culture?

 

Noel Carroll's introductory essay is rather more cautious in its advocacy of a rethinking of film theory as an inter-disciplinary field which draws on a range of methods. His criticisms of film theory are similar to Bordwell's: that academic film critics can't distinguish between theory on the one hand, and interpretation or description on the other. He also avers that this equivocal interpretation often resembles free association. However, his critique is weakened by resorting to the complaint that the authority of film theory is maintained by 'a cloak of political correctness' shielding it from any sustained criticism (45). This is an easy way of slurring an area of debate without properly engaging with it. Carroll insists that it is pointless to consider the politics of film theories (although Film Studies is dominated by the opposite assumption) as they are in general politically underdetermined (46). However the question of *why* Bordwell and Carroll should be so eager to dissociate their work from politics remains open and unanswered. One of the ironies of the book, in its refusal of the validity of psychoanalysis, is the way such protestations illustrate the validity of a (resort to) psychoanalysis. Carroll's repeated insistence on the inappropriateness of a politicised Film Studies virtually invites the reader to treat this as a symptomatic disavowal: 'a mode of defence which consists in the subject's refusing to recognise the reality of a traumatic perception'. [2] Thus, Carroll's appeal to a notion of 'common sense' may be read as inherently political.

 

Undoubtedly, one of the seductive/unsatisfactory features of psychoanalytic discourse (especially Lacanian theory) is its complacency. It is a discourse which seems able to pre-empt and account for any critiques or assaults on its validity, producing a secure, hermetically sealed discourse. The appeal of psychoanalytic film theory as a critical discourse is, similarly, that its self-reflexivity/self-critical tendency allows it to outmanoeuvre other positions or critiques. Nevertheless it is the case that this systematic self-critical capacity/capability/tendency is not acknowledged by some of the critiques levelled at psychoanalytic theory within this book. Alex Neill's essay, 'Empathy and (Film) Fiction', suggests that 'empathy' or 'imagination' should be substituted for 'identification'. The criticism is firstly that 'identification' is used imprecisely by film theorists. This may be true of the examples cited and is a point made by various authors, but it fails to consider the potential complexity and precision in its use. Secondly, Neill notes that the process of identification signifies a pathological process indicating anxiety or self-deception. This objection seems motivated by an apparent unease with the employment of psychoanalytic terms: a term such as 'identification' is seen as pathologising the viewer. However, this assumes a clear distinction between (abnormal) pathological and normal cognitive processes, a distinction not recognised by psychoanalytic discourse in which normal behaviour may be characterised by anxiety and self-deception. In this sense normality may be indistinguishable (except in degree) from neurotic or pathological states.

 

In general, the authors and texts cited as illustrative of the poor state of psychoanalytic film theory are some of the less sophisticated and less current examples that could have been cited. Christian Metz's work and Laura Mulvey's famous essay, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' are mentioned, and the only psychoanalytic film theory to be discussed substantially is that of Barbara Creed. There is little evidence in the examples cited of the potential complexity and self-critical aspects of film theory as seen in the work of Stephen Heath, Slavoj Zizek, Mary Anne Doane and Laura Mulvey's later work. Cognitive theory is proposed throughout the book as a desirable and ready substitute for psychoanalytic theory, but a common basis for this proposal is that cognitive theory offers the same insights as psychonalaytic theory but in much less arcane language. While I am sceptical of the usefulness or accuracy of Lacanian readings of films, I am not convinced that cognitivism constitutes the significant challenge to psychoanalytic theory its advocates assume it to be. Jacques Aumont's summary of cognitive theory remains relevant:

 

'There is now, almost exclusively in English, a vast literature of cognitive psychology addressing the image, and particularly the image in art. This literature tends to present itself as 'developments' in the field of cognitive psychology, but it has not yet added anything really new to our understanding of spectatorship.' [3]

 

Although it may not be evident from the limited focus of this review, this is a diverse collection of essays and some interesting and valuable writing has been brought together. Michael Walsh's critique of Fredric Jameson's influential ideas, 'Jameson and Global Aesthetics', Noel Carroll's critique of liberal theories about documentary film, 'Nonfiction Film and Postmodernist Skepticism', and Douglas Gomery's exposure of myths about Hollywood history, 'Towards a New Media Economics', all demonstrate the ways in which the writing of Post-Theorists can be placed productively in a dialectical relationship with other more established strands of theory. However, they also demonstrate the ways in which other essays here are marked either by a failure/refusal to consider the political function of academic research or by a tendency to overstate the hegemony of psychoanalytic theory over film studies.

 

For example, discussing feminist criticism of horror films, Cynthia Freeland writes:

 

'As I have noted, psychoanalytic feminists construct genderized accounts of the tensions in horror between key features of spectacle and plot. But it is entirely possible to construct a theory of horror that emphasizes these same tensions without genderizing them.' (200)

 

It is hardly a revelation to suggest that it is *possible* to construct a non-genderized theory of horror when the explicit premise of feminist film theory is precisely that aesthetic theories have consistently disregarded gender and continue to do so. The purpose of much feminist film theory is not simply to 'reveal' the gendered nature of the text under scrutiny, but to consider what such an analysis can tell us about gender relations in culture. What Freeland's essay does, using a device employed throughout the book by several writers, is treat Theory (represented here by feminist theory) as a homogeneous discourse which can be countered by recourse to a 'common sense' or 'middle level' approach. In actuality, feminist film theory is a diverse field employing a range of historical and theoretical approaches to the study of films and their production and reception contexts.

 

From a British perspective, the notion of a blanket dominance of psychoanalytic film theory seems incorrect/irrelevant. Recent experience of attending conferences in Britain suggests that academics are eager to convey a sceptical relationship with psychoanalysis, so that it is almost a matter of form to qualify any invocation of Lacan or Freud with a declaration of cautious distance. Hence _Post-Theory_ appears to be positioned in anachronistic opposition to a model of Film Studies embodied by _Screen_ in the late '70s and early '80s. This model has since fragmented through the adoption by film theorists of increasingly varied approaches from sociology, continental philosophy, and economics, to produce a much more hybrid field than that represented in this book.

 

Therefore, as a disparate collection of essays, providing detailed and serious discussions of problems concerning film, film theory and film reception, this volume is useful and interesting in parts. As a call to order for Film Studies however, the volume is flawed and unconvincing.

 

To return to the cover, the illustration refers to a film in which Laurel and Hardy enrol at an Oxford College with reward money they receive after inadvertently foiling a bank robbery. They travel to England to get an education and are confronted with spite, condescension, and incomprehension by other college students. These characters are presented in the film as immature, upper-class twits who, secure in their intellectual and cultural superiority, make Laurel and Hardy the butt of a couple of pointlessly cruel pranks. The pranks inevitably backfire when the college Dean discovers who was responsible and a mob forms to punish Stan and Ollie for snitching. Fortunately it transpires that Stan is actually Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete in Oxford's history and in possession of 'a brilliant mind'. A blow to the head motivates the recovery of his true identity, enabling him to fight off the mob single-handedly before entertaining a visit from Einstein who is seeking help to straighten out his new theory.

 

A casual viewing of the film suggests that it would be perverse to regard the two clowns as anything other than *models* for the practice of film theory. They are playful, curious, and creative, unrestricted by gender conventions (the film has Stan cross-dressing to pass as Agnes the maid and the two of them sharing a bed), and more entertaining than any other characters in the film. The film's humour derives less from the positioning of Laurel and Hardy as objects of a joke than from the failure of the other students to dominate and exploit them through misplaced confidence in their own superior intelligence and ability to read character.

 

The irony, then, in this choice of illustration is that the moronic film theorists are established as likeable, gentle, unconventional, and brilliant, and the Post-Theorists (who remain outside the frame) are established as dogmatic, antagonistic, archaic, and laughable. The joke of the book's cover is that this simple joke at the expense of film theorists backfires through, of all things, a misreading of this simple film.

 

Bolton Institute of Higher Education, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Sheridan in J. Lacan, _Ecrits: A Selection_, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. xi.

 

2. J. Laplanche and J-B. Pontalis, _The Language of Psychoanalysis_, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Karnac Books, 1988), p. 118.

 

3. J. Aumont, _The Image_ (London: British Film Institute, 1997), pp. 63-4.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Bruce Bennett, 'Misrecognizing Film Studies', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 5, February 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n5bennett>.

 

  

 

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