Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 14, May 2001



Douglas Hunter

Understanding the American Avant-Garde




James Peterson

_Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order_

Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1994

ISBN 0-8143-2456-8

212 pp.


Far too little ink is spilled in the name of the analysis, history, and criticism of America's most challenging, beautiful, and sophisticated film making. For this reason my sympathies always lie with authors willing to expend their time and effort taking on the challenges of the avant-garde, despite the likelihood that their work will be received by only the smallest of audiences. This being said I think that James Peterson's book is well positioned to be more broadly received due to the fact that he has quite rightly spent a considerable amount of time discussing the relation between avant-garde film and the other visual arts of the time. Peterson's contribution to writings on the avant-garde is often enjoyable and historically enlightening for those of us who are latecomers to the world of avant-garde film, and for this we should be grateful. However, as I will explain further on, Peterson's theoretical work often lacks the rigor necessary for significant aspects of his arguments to be convincing.


In the introduction Peterson lets the reader know that his book has two aims. The first being to offer an explanation of how viewers understand avant-garde cinema. The second being to serve as an introduction to the avant-garde. In Peterson's words he hopes that his book will 'show viewers how to understand the often puzzling films of the American avant-garde cinema' (ix).


To these ends _Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order_ is organized by types of films, or 'strains' of cinematic practice within the avant-garde, with chapters dedicated to the poetic, minimal, and assemblage strains. To anyone familiar with the avant-garde it will be no surprise that film makers such as Brakhage, Frampton, Warhol, and Conner, among others, figure prominently in this book. Their work is treated in significant detail, as is the historical context of the work's initial reception, and even its relation to other visual arts. It is this historical effort and the discussion of the larger context of the visual arts that I found to be the most rewarding aspect of the book.


Peterson's most specific and detailed analyses of cinema and the visual arts are found in his chapters on Brakhage and Warhol. In the case of Brakhage he revisits the link between Brakhage and the abstract expressionists that has become such a large part of the mythology surrounding Brakhage and his films. By doing this he provides an important service. Despite the wide acceptance of the linking of Brakhage with abstract expressionism there are significant shortcomings in this linkage that are frequently overlooked. Peterson examines the claim made by Sitney, in his authoritative work _Visionary Film_, that Brakhage's cinematic space is abstract expressionist. A claim that, while it may serve as a metaphor describing certain aspects of Brakhage's work, ignores profound formal differences not only between the works in question but the mediums as well. Peterson examines an important critical issue when he points out that the flattened picture plane celebrated in Clement Greenberg's analysis of abstract expressionism is completely different from the methods of tinting, painting, and scratching that Brakhage uses to created the impression of a surface, or multiple surfaces, laid over photographic images in films such as in _Thigh Line Lyre Triangular_.


In the case of Andy Warhol Peterson also provides a welcome examination of how the work was received when it was made. Peterson guides the reader through the changes occurring within art critical practice at the time that informed the surprisingly wide range of critical responses to Warhol's work. To this extent Peterson achieves exactly what he set out to do. The reader new to the work of Warhol will come away from this book with a significant understanding of the historical background and the critical work surrounding it. Not only is this informative but it is enjoyable reading that can capture the imagination of the reader, especially younger readers in their twenties or thirties (such as myself) who were not around during this important time in the history of American film.


Where _Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order_ becomes problematic is in its discussions of cognitive theory and of postmodernism. A significant part of the book sets out to offer a theory of spectatorship based on various fields of cognitive research. For those keeping track of critical debates within cinema studies there are many of us who groan when cognitive theory is mentioned. Not because it is an invalid form of research (surely it has much to offer) but because of the hostility and condescension on the part of its most outspoken advocates. The most famous example being the editors of the volume _Post-Theory_ (to which Peterson is a contributor) who play a brash and self righteous David to what they see as psychoanalytic film theory's Goliath. Much to his credit Peterson's approach is far removed from these harsh writings. Frankly, anyone wanting an introduction to cognitive theory should read _Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order_ before reading the better known but more tiresome _Post-Theory_.


This being said I think it is worth taking a critical look at Peterson's cognitive approach. I want to state out right that it is not cognitive theory per se that I object to -- nor is it the research that Peterson draws from to formulate his ideas. Rather, I question this speculative use of cognitive research that Peterson engages in, as well as the intentionally narrow range of questions Peterson addresses in order to keep his theory under control.


If we agree with Peterson that watching an avant-garde film is a challenging undertaking, one would think that the cognitive methods he uses to understand films and the process of watching them would be formed around defining what types of challenges viewers face at all levels of the viewing experience, then analyzing the cognitive process viewers use to engage these challenges. This turns out to only be partly the case. For Peterson states outright that he is not interested in doing new clinical research. This being the case, Peterson's study is limited to speculating about how existing research may be used to describe how viewers engage avant-garde films. What makes this such a disappointment is that Peterson's hypotheses are testable, and so remain unnecessarily speculative. Further, a large part of the excitement surrounding the use of cognitive methods in cinema studies is over its claim to scientific rigor. The argument goes that aesthetic and psychoanalytic methodologies are wildly speculative and so offer very little concrete knowledge about the cinema, or the experience of watching a film. Surely Peterson and many other advocates of the use of cognitive science are unnecessarily repeating the exact error that psychoanalysis is so often accused of.


In truth I suspect that most readers will find Peterson's cognitive work to be little more than an a la carte sampling of existing theories that might apply to the spectatorship of avant-garde films. To make things worse, Peterson is very selective about how he defines the challenge of watching an avant-garde film, and he is willing to ask a stiflingly limited range of questions about the problems posed by an avant-garde film. Here is Peterson at length:


'As a first approximation of the avant-garde film viewer's goal, let us follow theories of normal discourse comprehension and assume that the viewer of the avant-garde film begins with a general goal not unlike that of any other film viewer: To make sense of the film. . . Avant-garde films might also be said to stimulate something other than active sense making with images of great power of beauty that supposedly defy interpretation. I agree completely: the avant-garde cinema is filled with images whose sensuous appeal apparently outstrips what they contribute to the films structure and meaning . . . Nevertheless, it might still be possible to analyze such imagery along the problem solving lines suggested by constructivist theories of perception . . . These studies aim to show how even the comprehension of abstract art can be explained as a search for structures that match the details of the art work . . . Visually stunning images are generally woven into structures that do call for analysis.' (20-21)


What this passage contains is an opposition that places 'sensuous appeal' -- the aesthetic experience of the cinema -- outside the realm of structure and meaning, and therefore beyond the reach of cognitive analysis. Of course we should be suspicious of his claim that 'the avant-garde cinema is filled with images whose sensuous appeal apparently outstrips what they contribute to the films structure and meaning' -- certainly there are other types of film theory that would find it impossible to make such a questionable distinction between a films aesthetic value and its meaning. Peterson's displacement is not only a great disappointment, but it is also strange, in that one would think that a cognitive theory of cinematic spectatorship would find beauty and abstraction (or more generally 'sensuous appeal') a challenging and rich area of investigation on its own terms, without necessitating inclusion within additional structures. Would it not be both rewarding and possible to examine cognitive aspects of aesthetic reception? To me the answer is an obvious yes, for it is not a matter of the unruly sensuous appeal of imagery being contained within a structure that is rational, analyzable. I believe that a more generous viewer of any film will ask what structures do the images create (not what structures are they contained in) on the philosophical, thematic, formal, aesthetic (etc.) levels, and use a variety of methods to attempt to understand them. Without such a method how can we even begin to account for the complexities of those moments in the cinema when we are inspired, taken back, or confused by what we see on the screen. What Peterson provides us with is all the inspiration, beauty, and confusion of the avant-garde cinema reduced to a search for structure. A reduction, it should be pointed out, that is not native to cognitive theory.


The other weakness of the book occurs in the Afterword, 'The Avant-Garde Cinema in the Age of Postmodernism', the most troubling statement of this chapter is when he claims that:


'the Postmodern text offers multiple, sometimes contradictory subject positions, which are often metaphorically described as 'schizophrenic'. Thus, a basic Postmodern interpretive schema might be: interpret any fragmentation, contradiction or disunity as a symbol for, and a manifestation of, the schizophrenia of Postmodern culture.' (180)


Not only is this statement totalizing and reductive, it also grossly misinterprets the critical theory that gave us 'schizophrenia' as a metaphor of one aspect of postmodern narrative art. Fredric Jameson was the first to describe schizophrenia as an aspect of postmodern art in 1982, but what he was attempting to describe was not a fracturing, as in the popular misuse of the term schizophrenia as synonymous with multiple personality disorder. Jameson described the way in which 'the signifier in isolation becomes even more material -- or better still, literal -- even more vivid in sensory ways, whether the new experience is attractive or terrifying'. [1] Jameson warns against exactly the type of diagnostic use of the term that Peterson suggests because he was describing schizo experience, via Lacan, as one in which we no longer experience a link between signifiers and signifieds. An experience in which the material nature of the signifier becomes not only predominant but opaque.


This predominance is not experienced as the fragmentation, contradiction, or disunity that Peterson describes because in fact it is not a symbol or symptom of postmodern culture -- it is a structural element of the art work that, at least in Jameson's view, signals that the unity of postmodern narrative texts is not materially manifest in the same way that the unity of modernist texts is. Unity has not vanished, it is manifest elsewhere and can be difficult to track down due to the opacity of the signifier.


Peterson further misrepresents postmodernism when he states that from a postmodern perspective there are two ways of understanding the modern avant-garde: either as 'a heroic period of courageous experimentation and tireless opposition', or 'the remains of an elitist clique, cut off from the very culture it purported to change' (180). What is interesting is that these two views of the avant-garde are both exactly modernist. The first, being reflected in the critical reception that celebrated the work of the avant-garde, such as Greenberg's writings on abstract expressionism. The second, being symptomatic of a communitarian critique of the avant-garde that believed art was morally bound to serve a public or some form of body political, such as in Bertolt Brecht's communist denouncement of abstraction. Neither of these views is unique to, or constitutive of a postmodern, historical perspective. Postmodernism lacks the political investment in modernism necessary to judge it in such ways. Peterson errs again when he states that both the celebrants and critics of the avant-garde 'appeal to the same view of the avant-garde: it is defined by its rejection of the practices and values of more widely accepted art' (183). This was not the case for Brecht, who was critical of the avant-garde abstractionists for endorsing the values of the ruling classes, and by extension their artistic values. Further, contemporary art history has put significant effort into defining just how works of art that appear to break from tradition structurally rely on aspects of the tradition that they were purportedly breaking from. [2]


The criticisms sketched out above are very real, but, to conclude, they are not presented as a deterrent to reading this book. For despite its lack of theoretical rigor this book does place cognitive theory within a specific context which is valuable, and its historical work will be welcomed by anyone interested in, but not familiar with the American avant-garde. I think that this book should be read but it must be done with an awareness of its significant theoretical short comings.


Los Angeles, USA





1. Fredric Jameson, 'Post Modernism and Consumer Society', in Hal Foster, ed., _The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture_ (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1983), p.120.


2. See, for example, Thomas Crow, 'The Simple Life: Pastorialism and the Persistence of Genre in Recent Art', _October_, no. 63, Winter 1993.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Douglas Hunter, 'Understanding the American Avant-Garde', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 14, May 2001 <>.




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